Friday, December 30, 2011

More on mixed-nut risotto, and on risotto in general

In response to the mixed-nut risotto I described in today’s “Cooking Off the Cuff”, a member of the Washington Post cohort asked, “do you really add the rice after the wine [rather than] adding the rice to the oil and letting it toast/get coated before adding other liquids?”

Yep. I don’t always add and reduce the wine before stirring in the rice, but I have taken to doing this sometimes and certainly did it in this case. The received wisdom, of course, is that you add the rice to the sweated onions and coat it in butter or oil before adding any liquid. But the ever-reliable British chef/writer Simon Hopkinson reports in his book and TV series “The Good Cook” that he gets better flavor by letting the wine cook and reduce before adding the rice (he has been known to use vermouth, by the way). That way, no taste of raw wine gets into the rice, and I can see where that can be an improvement. Here’s his recipe for a simple risotto using that approach.

And for my dairy-free nut risotto, I depended in part on grated butternut squash to melt into a “creamy” sauce.

By adding the wine to the grated squash, I gave the squash a little time to start cooking before the rice went in.

As best I could tell without setting up an A-B taste test, the outcome was easily as good as the traditional method, both in flavor and in consistency. But it might be interesting to cook a few risottos using the same ingredients but differing techniques and see what does and what does not make a difference for good or for ill.

For the record, this is a photo of a main-course portion of the original squash-walnut risotto that failed its taste test, but that, to my eye, looks pretty alluring.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time

If this had worked out, I’d have posted it on The Washington Post’s All We Can Eat blog. But, as you’ll see, it didn’t.

I love turnips: their juiciness; their slight mustardy sharpness combined with sweetness; their crunch if you don’t overcook them, or their yielding texture if you do. I often glaze little ones in a covered pan with butter, a little water and a very little sugar (and salt of course): this cooks them in steam, then slicks them with a sweet, buttery coating, a bit of which penetrates into the flesh, especially if I take the trouble to peel them.

On a seemingly unrelated subject, I’ve developed a crush on Italian red vermouth, specifically Carpano Antica Formula. I was originally attracted – or, more accurately, suckered in – by the beautiful label, but soon came to love this complex wine-based drink, either on its own or in cocktails. Then one day I added some to an orange sauce for duck. It turned out to be a quick way of getting lots of bittersweet herbal, citric flavor into a dish (as long as the sweetness wasn’t an issue, which it wouldn’t have been in an fruit based sauce).

Sweetness, a great set of flavors and, indeed, a lovely color: how about using vermouth to cook turnips? If I were careful not to burn it, it would probably reduce down to a delicious glaze on its own, and if it were a little too intense I could most likely smooth it by finishing the dish with a pat of butter. There were many ways to go about this: two that came to mind were, first, precooking the turnips and then “sautéing” them in vermouth to reheat them; and, second, partially cooking them in my usual way, with butter and a drop of water (but no sugar, because there’s some in the vermouth), then finishing them with a glazing in Carpano Antica Formula.

But then the simplest method of all dawned on me: put the turnips in a small pan into which they’d fit tightly, add vermouth to just about cover, put the lid on and simply simmer them with no other ingredient but salt. When ready to serve, I’d reheat them, reducing the vermouth to a glaze, and finish with a teaspoon more butter.

So that’s what I did, over medium heat, stirring every now and then…...

SCREEEEECH!! (Sound of brakes being applied, or of a stylus scratching across a vinyl record.)

Except that, as Jackie observed when she walked into the kitchen, it smelled like burning rubber. The turnips didn’t taste as bad, presumably, as an automobile tire (even a Michelin one), but they weren’t very good. Guests left some on their plates; Jackie and I left some on ours. Clearly the mistake was to cook the vermouth longer than it likes to be cooked.

In an attempt to avoid this, I went back at the next opportunity to Plan A (2): cook the turnips in the usual way, then finish briefly with vermouth, which I hoped would capture the interesting flavors but not distort them to ugliness. Except it was still no good. This time, the juice itself (like a vermouth-butter emulsion) wasn't half bad, but it tasted lousy with the turnips. Maybe I'll try it as a standalone sauce some day. But not any time soon.

By the way, an old Carpano vermouth factory in Turin, Italy, is the site of the original Eataly gastro-hall, the model for the one in New York.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

More on quick-salting cod

A few more words and pictures on salting cod for a while before cooking it (see my recent “Cooking Off the Cuff” at The Washington Post, here).

I think you can see from this picture how firm the fish appears after 35 or 40 minutes of salting, rinsing and drying.

And here is how nicely it flaked after brief cooking on its bed of vegetables.

I say in the story that it is worth salting your cod in that way however you plan to cook it. I’ve served it steamed, and I’ve served it egg-and-breadcrumbed on one side only, cooked in clarified butter until crisp then turned to finish cooking. Salting yielded excellent results in both cases. Next time, the plan is to use quick-salted cod for fish and chips. I think it will be delicious, and I’ll let you know one way or the other.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Another culinary myth shattered

Generally, I leave it to food scientists - or at least cooks of a scientific bent - to debunk received cooking wisdom that isn't actually all that wise. For instance, it turns out that searing meat doesn't seal in the juices at all, and merely (merely!?) makes the meat taste better. But sometimes, observant cooks can figure out for themselves that, for example, the green core of a germinating garlic clove does not taste bitter, as so many cookbook writers say it does, presumably not having tasted before they wrote.

And other times, it takes a lazy cook, like me, to amble down the easier path and thereby discover that what he'd been taught just isn't so. Beets, I was always told, will bleed like stuck pigs if peeled before being cooked, losing much of their flavorful juice in the process. But it is easier to peel them raw than cooked (again, not what we're told), so I did that today before arranging them on a glass dish, covering them with plastic wrap (pierced) and microwaving them until they were done. No, I won't give a timing: it depends on the beets, on how many you're cooking and on how tender you want them. Check them every three minutes, then when they get close to doneness every minute.

Here is what my beets looked like when they were done.

The amount of juice they emitted was about the same as unpeeled beets cooked the same way. So much for that myth - at least when microwaving is the method of choice: oven-roasting wrapped in foil might yield a completely different result for all I know. I'll try it next time the oven is on.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Getting over that childhood thing about anchovies

I love anchovies. I love them fresh, I love them packed in oil and I love them packed in salt. Oh, and I love them smoked (try those if you can find them: they come from Spain in cans).

But I’ve never much liked them on pizza. Or so I thought. When we were having pizza the other night and Jackie requested anchovies, I thought about my aversion and realized that it was based on a bad experience as a teenager, so I topped one of the two little pies with anchovies. Generously. Half with mozzarella, half without. These were salt-packed anchovies, which I soaked in water for a while, then boned, dried and dressed with olive oil before arranging them on the pizza.

I loved it, of course. Who wouldn’t? If you’re now grown up, at least chronologically, but harbor bad feelings toward anchovies because of the enormities committed by some grim slice-shop around the corner from where you lived as a kid, give them another whirl.

The other pizza was made with ’nduja, pinched off into pea-sized globs and sprinkled all over the pie before the mozzarella went on. Yes, my pathetic oven gets up to a mere 500 degrees F – 260 C – so I need to bake pizzas for a while before the mozzarella goes on to make sure the crust is crisp before the cheese burns. ’Nduja pizza is a stunner.

Try both.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lancashire hotpot via Momofuku - with and without the lamb

In today’s “Cooking Off the Cuff” ( I recall the Lancashire hotpot I made on our last trip to Newcastle. I used lovely local lamb, hyper-local potatoes (from the back garden, harvested mere hours before dinner) and – here’s the surprise – a quick onion-bacon broth the idea for which came from an unlikely source: the inaugural issue of “Lucky Peach” magazine, which I’d read on the plane ride over to the UK. There, it is a bacon dashi with definite Asian overtones, but in my hotpot it tasted purely Western.

Just the other night, we served a roast shoulder of lamb from 3-Corner Field Farm, simply rubbed with salt, pepper, piment d’Espelette, rosemary, garlic and olive oil, set on a bed of vegetables and left for around three hours in a 325-degree oven. Here it is, just before it went into the oven:

As an accompaniment, I made that same Lancashire hotpot, but without the meat: just onions on the bottom and potatoes on the top, cooked in a similar onion-bacon broth. It amounted to a sort of pommes de terre boulangère, I suppose, but with a nice smoky back-flavor. So if you want the hotpot experience, but without the lamb, give that a try.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Goat: nothing gruff about it

At least in the US and the UK, people still make jokes about eating goat. Or they make faces. Both reactions are based on a fact and on a fallacy: it is true that goat meat has fallen out of favor in most parts of both countries - or was never part of the traditional diet. But it is absolutely untrue that goat flesh is odd-tasting, gamy, stringy and dry compared with lamb. If anything, goat is milder than sheep, and young goat (kid) is certainly far more delicate - far more elegant - than equivalently young lamb. Indeed, some people, once they actually taste it, find it lacking in flavor compared with their usual lamb chops.

Anyway, take a look at this picture, from early summer 2011, and judge for yourself whether this rib-rack of goat (simply cooked in a frying pan, with a sauce made from the bones) looks scarier than any other plate of meat.

Unfortunately, lovely young goat like this is not easy to find unless you have access to a farmers' market vendor that keeps a herd. But what you will be able to find, in ethnic markets of various kinds, is meat from somewhat older beasts. Buy some shoulder, for instance, and substitute goat for lamb in your next stew or curry. If you're planning to feed it to guests, yes, there will be some shock value - but that can be kind of fun, don't you think?

Hanging the laundry - and the pasta - out to dry

The little pasta drying gizmo I have is perfect for a Manhattan apartment. It is made of wooden dowels, breaks down into something that will slide into a narrow cupboard and is big enough for most purposes.

But once in a while I need more fresh pasta than it will hold comfortably, and I've improvised various stopgaps over the years. Then our friend Barbara gave Jackie a most useful birthday present: a Leifheit drying rack that holds quite a lot of laundry but folds pretty flat. Also perfect for a Manhattan apartment. At some point it dawned on me that what’s good for socks and tee-shirts is probably good for lasagne too. It is. When fully unfolded, the rack can hold vast quantities of rolled-out noodles. And the plastic-coated wire rods are easy to clean: we wouldn’t want to get flour onto our navy blue sweaters, would we?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Leftover pizza dough? There's always breadsticks.

A month or so ago, I wrote (here: about little buns made out of pizza dough rolled into a spiral with 'nduja - that wonderful spicy spreadable sausage from Calabria. One evening, I needed only a small batch of these but neglected to make less dough. I could have saved the extra for a little pizza (or some little fried pizzas / calzones), but instead rolled it out to a scant quarter inch (6mm, say) in thickness and cut it into strips. These I stretched and rolled into breadsticks (with a little grated parmesan on the work surface, which was thus worked into the dough). I let them rise, covered, for about 20 minutes, then baked them in the same 425-degree F (220 C) oven that the 'nduja buns were in. I suppose they took a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes to get brown and - crucially - crisp throughout with no bready center.

Because of the olive oil kneaded into the dough, they had great flavor (the cheese on the outside was nice, but not really all that important). And, to answer the obvious question, yes: they were as good as any store-bought grissini / breadsticks, and far better than most. Unless it is miserably humid in your house, these will keep for a few days arranged in a vase, like odd-looking blossom-less plant stems.

I now make a little extra whenever I'm putting together a pizza-type dough.

Friday, November 25, 2011

More on leafy greens and tomatoes

Expanding a little on today’s Washington Post “Cooking Off the Cuff” - - I should say that until a couple of years ago I was strangely repelled by the idea of adding tomatoes to leafy green vegetables of any kind. It just seemed creepy. Even the sauces for my favorite versions of stuffed cabbage were sauerkraut-based and tomato-free; tomato with stuffed cabbage, perhaps, was a reminder of too many dreadful bar mitzvah receptions.

            But then, during an e-mail exchange, a friend assured me that greens like Swiss chard and the various kales are perfectly happy to coexist with tomatoes and that I should do as millions of other people do and give it a whirl. So I did, and of course the outcome was delicious. What you need to pay attention to (as ever) is the salt: you must make sure that there’s enough to balance the acidity added by the tomatoes. Once you’ve taken care of that, you’re fine.

            On balance, I still prefer the less complicated flavors of my old standby greens: a little garlic and chili, perhaps some guanciale or pancetta, and plenty of olive oil, both as a cooking fat and, uncooked, as a last-minute finishing touch. But, as I found by combining Tuscan kale / cavolo nero with a fairly classic sauce for pasta all’amatriciana, a well balanced dish of greens with tomatoes is a grand thing.