Thursday, April 30, 2009

Achieving fame at Food & Wine

No, not really. But today I was able to make my first significant contribution to the magazine's website with this blog post. Entries on F&W's blog Mouthing Off have to be VERY short--the original version of my post was perhaps three times the length of what you see online. I'm supposed to be getting some professional photos of the food from the event's publicist soon, and in that event I will post a full version of my blog entry here. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Five ingredients or less

It's amazing how much you can coax out of only a few ingredients. There are certain staples in cooking that bring so much to recipes with only the barest minimum of effort--especially when used in conjunction with each other. For me, some of the first few that come to mind are as follows: olive oil, canned tomatoes, chicken stock, and wine. Looking back over the recipes that I've posted on this site, it's remarkable just how many of them call for those very ingredients. It makes sense. For one, they're super convenient: canned tomatoes are cheap and available everywhere; the same goes for canned chicken stock (yes, I do like to make my own, but because I freeze it in large quantities I like to use canned stock when I don't want to have to plan ahead by thawing my homemade broth). Olive oil and wine, while not always cheap, are constants in my kitchen regardless: for both, a little goes a long way. And, after all, what is life without olive oil and wine? Those two ingredients all but gave rise to empires in certain parts of the world. Additionally, these four staples pack so much in the way of good flavor that it's nearly impossible not to be a good cook when utilizing them.

I was recently struck by the perfect alchemy that olive oil, canned tomatoes, chicken stock and wine create in the pot when I prepared a dead-simple lamb dish that didn't call for much else. Those five ingredients--plus, OK, some chopped garlic, a scant bit of flour, a pinch of dried herbs and salt and pepper--simmered together to produce a rich, smooth, nuanced final dish that wouldn't find itself out of place on a restaurant table. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here--it's just that I am definitively a home cook, someone who employs relatively simple ingredients and cooking techniques and favors intuitive, low-stress recipes. I'm not often one to slave over a hot stove, chopping this and blanching that and transferring things to ice baths. What I'm trying to express is that somehow, almost magically, even a no-fuss, get-to-the-point cook like me can create luscious, distinctive, noteworthy dishes just by choosing the right ingredient combinations.

The ingredients that I listed above do particularly well by long, slow cooking preparations. Olive oil provides the opportunity to infuse your whole dish with the taste of whatever you choose to cook in that first slick of fat on the pan; wine gives up its alcoholic and acidic bite in a puff of steam; tomatoes soften, sweeten and start to break down; stock concentrates and becomes richer and fuller-tasting. When all of these processes occur in one pan, the result is hard to argue with: big, powerful, noticeable. And what did you have to do, really, besides open a few cans?

The dish I created recently was designed to showcase a somewhat unusual and not highly desired cut of lamb, the shoulder. What makes it undesirable? It's somewhat inconvenient. It has a bone. It has gristle. It has fat. You can't just cube it up, shove it on a skewer and onto a hot grill, like you can with a leg of lamb, and expect it to taste good. No. Instead, you have to gently encourage it to give up it succulence. You have to coddle it, in a warm bath of flavored liquid, until it relaxes. You have to braise it. This way, the connective tissue in this part of the lamb will break down, becoming meltingly soft and also releasing gelatin, which will the thicken the sauce that surrounds it with that sticky, cling-to-your-lips goodness that meat has (sorry, vegetarians: a bell pepper just doesn't have the same effect). What's the virtue of the lamb shoulder? It's cheap. Really cheap. The particular lamb shoulder chops I cooked were given to me for free at work, so I don't know the exact price, but I've often purchased them at my local grocery store for a pittance. Also, lamb shoulder has a lot of flavor. Like other tough cuts of meat, it's packed full of it. Think of a filet mignon: soft as butter, yet with almost less flavor. Then think of, say, a shank bone, like the kind you use in osso bucco: it's tough and you have to braise it for hours, but when you do, you'll enjoy a robust, full-pitch piece of meat as your reward.

This recipe started with two bone-in lamb shoulder chops. Taking a cue from osso bucco, I seasoned them and then dredged them in flour before I browned them in olive oil. This step ensures uniform browning on the meat, and the starch from the flour will help thicken the sauce that is later created in the pan. After I removed the lamb from the pan, I sauteed a generous amount of chopped garlic in its residual fat, then deglazed the pan with red wine. After the alcohol cooked off I added some hand-crushed canned plum tomatoes and some of their juices, transferred the lamb chops back to the pan, and then added enough chicken stock to almost cover the lamb. Simmered together for about an hour (the chops are thin and don't need much more time than that), the five ingredients in the pan united in a common cause of savory richness that found its home atop a mound of sweet, fluffy potatoes mashed with celery root.

Lamb Shoulder Chops Braised in Tomatoes and Red Wine
Serves 2

1. Set a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add 2 tbsp. of olive oil.
2. While waiting for the oil to heat, season both sides of two bone-in lamb shoulder chops with salt and freshly ground black pepper. On a large plate, dredge the chops in all-purpose flour, shaking off the excess.
3. Add the lamb chops to the pan and cook for about 4 minutes per side, until the lamb is nicely browned. Remove to a plate and set aside.
4. Add 3 - 4 cloves of chopped garlic to the pan, along with about 1 tsp. dried herbs de provence or similar dried herbs (such as rosemary or thyme). Cook, stirring, until garlic just starts to brown, then deglaze pan with about 1/2 cup of dry red wine.
5. After alcohol has evaporated, add about 5 - 6 canned peeled plum tomatoes, crushing them by hand as you add them to the pan. Add about 1/2 cup of the tomato juices to the pan, stirring to incorporate. Place the chops back in the pan, then add enough canned low-sodium chicken broth (or homemade) to almost cover the chops.
6. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow chops to simmer, covered, for 1 to 1-1/2 hours. When the meat is done, it will be tender enough to pull from the bone with a fork, and the liquid in the pan will have reduced to a thick sauce. Check sauce for seasoning and adjust to taste.
7. Serve warm, one lamb chop per person, over mashed potatoes, orzo, or a grain such as couscous, farro or bulgur. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and some grated lemon zest, if desired.

Celery Root Mashed Potatoes
Serves 4

1. Peel 1.5 lbs of baking potatoes, such as Idaho or Russets, and cut into a large dice. Place in a medium saucepan filled with cold water.
2. Peel a .5 lb celery root (also known as celeriac) and cut it into a small dice. Add to the pan.
3. Cover the pan and set it over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, uncover the pan, drop the heat to medium-low, and cook at a low boil until potatoes and celery root are tender, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and celery root and then return to the pot.
4. Add a few tablespoons of milk (preferably not nonfat) to the pot, along with 2 tbsp. of butter. Cover pot briefly to heat milk and melt butter. Uncover and mash the mixture until it is mostly smooth with some chunks remaining. Add a generous amount of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Starch on starch, and some musings on pesto

Last week my friends Patrick and Willy paid me a visit. Patrick supplied the tonic, and Willy contributed the gin (and ice cream sandwiches). That meant that the task of feeding us dinner fell to me. I considered a number of factors while deciding what to cook. The first was Patrick's vegetarianism. Easy enough. Secondly, I would be getting home from work at around 7 p.m. and therefore wanted to make something that would both cook quickly and also require little effort on my part. Lastly, I was low on cash but still wanted to fill my friends' bellies. You might already know which food fit the bill on all three accounts: say it with me now, pasta. Predictable enough, right? But to stretch that pasta even further (and because I had some lying around that I needed to use up), I decided to mix in another cheap and filling staple: potatoes. Pasta and potatoes?!, you might be thinking, that's a lot of starch! Indeed it is, my friends, and the combination happens to be delicious. Especially when you stir in some sweet, snappy green beans for color and crunch. Particularly when you liberally coat the whole mélange with a thick slick of nutty, herbaceous, unctuous pesto.

Like sundried tomatoes, chipotle peppers and, most recently, bacon, pesto has suffered from overexposure. Emblematic of the "California cuisine" craze that swept the nation beginning in the 1980s--thanks in large part to a man named Wolfgang Puck--the classic Italian formula soon seemed to show up in everything from scrambled eggs from the diner to Domino's pizza. Having reached its zenith in the 90s, this trend has subsided a bit, whether breathmint manufacturers like it or not. And though our palates may have experienced pesto fatigue for a while there, it's easy to understand why pesto achieved such notoriety. It's in the taste: that bright combination of spicy garlic, lemony fresh basil, earthy pine nuts and fruity olive oil is hard to argue with. Another thing that pesto has going for it is its ease of preparation. If you have a food processor or blender, you're there in about 60 seconds; armed with a mortar and pestle, it's a matter of mere minutes. Lastly, pesto's versatility is nearly unparalleled in the world of condiments: it's as at home slathered on a sandwich as it is dolloped on a piece of simply broiled fish. It's for these reasons that I'm still a fan of pesto in spite of its ubiquity.

An easy way to keep your pestomaking exciting and new is to swap out two of its essential components--the basil and the pine nuts--for different, but no less delicious, ingredients. In basil's stead, you might try using a fresh herb such as parsley or cilantro or even a peppery green like arugula, and in place of the pine nuts, try grinding in some walnuts or almonds. That's what I did when I prepared my starch-on-starch pasta dinner for my friends. I had plenty of basil on hand, but no pine nuts, and so to save myself a trip the store (and a bit of cash--pine nuts are expensive) I used walnuts instead. The resulting pesto was a little earthier-tasting and somewhat more bitter than traditional pesto, and provided a nice foil to the bland comfort of pasta and potatoes:

Basil-Walnut Pesto

Makes about 1 cup

1. Thoroughly rinse and dry one large bunch of basil.
2. Pluck basil leaves, discarding stems, and add to the bowl of a food processor. Add 2 -3 garlic cloves, 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (not toasted), and salt and pepper to taste. Pulse mixture until nuts are finely chopped and a paste begins to form. Scrape down bowl and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and puree until oil is incorporated.
3. Scrape mixture into a bowl and add 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan (or similar cheese). Stir to combine. Taste pesto and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.

Spaghetti with Green Beans, Potatoes and Pesto
Serves 4

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 1 lb. (about 4 - 5) small new potatoes and cook until tender, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove to cool.
2. Add 3/4 lb. trimmed and halved green beans to the water and cook until cooked through but still crisp and bright green, about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the beans to a large bowl of icewater to stop their cooking. Drain beans and set aside.
3. Cook 3/4 lb. spaghetti in the water until al dente, about 10 - 12 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking process, reserve about 1 cup pasta water. Drain pasta and return it to the pot.
4. Cut potatoes into bite-size pieces and add them to the pasta along with the green beans. Add about 1/2 to 3/4 cup basil pesto to the pot, along with a small amount of the pasta cooking water, and toss gently until the pasta, potatoes and beans are evenly coated with pesto. If pesto remains too thick, add more pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, until it has thinned. Taste pasta and add more salt and pepper as needed.
5. Divide pasta between bowls, garnishing with extra grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper, if desired.

Monday, April 6, 2009

More Chinese food

A few months ago, I read the excellent food memoir by British author Fuchsia Dunlop entitled Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper. In the book, Dunlop, who by now has made a career of eating her way through China and writing about what she finds, goes back to the beginning of her story, relating how she first landed in the country and how--by ducking into noodle shops, flagging down street food vendors and inviting herself into the kitchens of local restaurants--she discovered her true calling. Dunlop has traveled all over China and has written magazine articles and cookbooks describing the cuisines of many of the country's diverse regions, yet the one location that she considers her true home abroad is the Sichuan (or Szechuan) province. It is while living in its capital, Chengdu, that she truly falls for Chinese food, characterized, in that region, by prodigious use of spicy, warming ingredients such as Szechuan peppercorns and chiles of all varieties. Though I had some prior knowledge and appreciation of Sichuan cuisine (a restaurant called Szechuan Gourmet is one of my favorites in New York), reading Dunlop's impassioned and evocative descriptions of the local fare left me completely tantalized--and wanting more. I didn't just want to eat Sichuan food; I wanted to cook it myself. Luckily, Dunlop is also the author of an incredibly comprehensive, highly regarded and easy-to-follow compendium of Sichuan cuisine entitled Land of Plenty. Minutes after finishing Dunlop's memoir, I was online ordering her cookbook.

While I waited for it to arrive, I set out to obtain all the sauces, seasonings and ingredients I would need to prepare the recipes. Though Sichuan cuisine is best known for its numbing peppercorns, fiery chiles and hot, deep red oils, the style of cooking relies on several more key ingredients in order to achieve the incredible fullness and depth of flavor that characterizes true Sichuan food. In order to stock my pantry, I ventured into Brooklyn Chinatown (one of my favorite places in the city to explore) and picked up Szechuan peppercorns, dried red "Heaven-facing" chiles, fermented black beans, light and dark soy sauces, toasted sesame oil, Chinese sesame paste, Chinkiang vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine, Sichuan chili bean paste, pickled chili paste, Tianjin preserved vegetables, potato starch and dried star anise. All cited by Dunlop as key ingredients in Sichuan cuisine, the items in this haul cost me about $17 total. Now I was ready to cook.

So far I've tried two recipes from Land of Plenty, and both have been extremely quick and easy, with delicious results. The first was Dry-Fried Green Beans. In this dish, trimmed green beans are fried in hot oil until slightly browned and softened, then removed from the pan and set aside. In the same pan, you then stir-fry ground pork with a small amount of garlicky, gingery preserved vegetables and a bit of soy sauce. Once the pork is cooked through, the beans are added back to the pan, and the whole dish is finished with a drizzle of sesame oil. That's it. The whole thing takes about 10 minutes to prepare, and is lip-smackingly good. I first prepared this for dinner with Gideon while he was in town, and a few days later made the same dish for lunch for myself, using broccolini in place of the green beans and eating it over white rice--authentic, no, but delicious, yes. Here are the green beans from that first go-around:

The second dish I made from the cookbook was Gong Bao, aka Kung Pao, Chicken. An iconic Sichuan dish that combines a thick, sweet and sour sauce with spicy Szechuan peppercorns and dried chiles and adds the salty crunch of peanuts for good measure, Gong Bao chicken is a Chinese takeout staple but is very simple (and cheap!) to prepare at home. You start by marinating cubed chicken breasts in soy sauce, rice wine and potato starch, thereby "velveting" the chicken, a technique that ensures tender, juicy meat and also aids in thickening the final dish due to the inclusion of starch. As the chicken marinates, you stir together a sauce of sugar, more potato starch, soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil and set it aside. When you're ready to cook, you heat the peppercorns and chiles in oil, toss in the chicken and its marinade, add chopped garlic, ginger and scallions and stir-fry until the chicken is cooked through. Finally, you pour in the sauce, which, as it hits the heat, turns beautifully glossy and thick. Toss in a handful of peanuts, serve over hot, sticky white rice, and you've got a meal that's bound to impress your friends as much as it did mine--in this case my roommate and her boyfriend:

Because I think it's only fair to adhere to copyright law, and because I really think Land of Plenty is a book worth purchasing, I can't include Dunlop's exact recipes here on the blog. However, I urge you to buy the cookbook--or at least check it out from your local library. If you like Chinese food even a little bit, you won't be disappointed--and, moreover, you'll probably learn a lot.