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September 15th, 2010
08:29 pm


Pureed chickpeas with carrot salad

A few weeks ago, I got some time off from work and used it to have an excellent meal at Seattle's Sitka & Spruce. One plate contained braised romano beans with tahini and another contained a carrot salad. Duplicating the romano beans doesn't seem that difficult (braise in stock or equivalent, put on a plate smeared with tahini), but duplicating the carrot salad does require a bit of trial and error.

The specific concept is approximately as follows:

1 carrot, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons golden raisins (or other varietal, since my local Whole Foods doesn't sell bulk golden raisins for some reason)
1/3 can garbanzo beans (I'm too lazy to cook my own)
1 tablespoon harissa
Oil, acid, spices, as desired

The garbanzo beans get some quality time in the food processor. I probably shouldn't add so much liquid next time, since they taste better firm. I also suspect that I should get them from a source other than Trader Joe's, since those aren't as good as I'd hoped. A bit of salt and olive oil also help here. I put a glob of beans on a plate and topped them with the harissa. Yum.

Meanwhile, I boiled the carrot pieces for about ten minutes, let them cool, and then tossed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a tiny bit of ground cloves or allspice or whatever it was I found in the pantry. All of this was added to the beans and harissa. For a good time, I sprinkled sesame seeds atop the whole thing (the original used black sesame seeds, but I only have the white oens)

Even if you don't get the proportions or texture right, it's a really spectacular combination. The carrots and raisins are sweet in different ways, and the combination is a great foil for the lemon juice. Combined with the spicy-bitter harissa and the savory-beany garbanzos, this is a surprisingly complex "salad".

This is the best thing about restaurants that specialize in simple, delicious food: it's delicious at the restaurant and I can create a reasonable facsimile at home. You are all invited tomorrow, when I try to turn the rest of the beans into a better approximation of the original.

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August 3rd, 2010
11:16 pm


Mexican fusion cuisine in my kitchen

The refried beans recipe on the back of the Goya pinto beans can: heat lard or oil, mash beans, combine, stir until the liquid mostly evaporates (i.e. the mixture goes from soupy to creamy), simmer. Maybe add garlic and/or onion if desired.

I did not have lard ("so use vegetable oil"? surely you're joking), so I did the next worst thing: two strips of bacon that conveniently gave me just as much delicious rendered bacon fat as I would have needed lard. You can probably see where this is going: make the beans as otherwise directed and eat the crispy bacon as an appetizer. Fuck yes.

As a bonus, I didn't have to add any salt (though I did add cotija, which is salty on its own).

Recommended for all situations in which bacon is available but rendered lard is not. Not recommended when entertaining guests who keep kosher, especially when cheese is sprinkled atop the beans.

Most importantly, this is a really good, easy way to make refried beans. Probably not as creamy as if I'd cooked dried beans for hours and hours, but vastly superior to any canned refried beans I've eaten. Too bad it took me all this time to realize it.

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April 23rd, 2010
11:59 pm


Duck, duck, duck

While in Las Vegas on the company dime*, I experienced a DUCK BONANZA at one of the many restaurants to which Michael Mina has lent his association. Strip Steak is ostensibly a steak house (on The Strip, even), but there's also a bar menu containing many things that aren't beef. One of those things is a plate of duck fat fries. Another is a plate containing a crispy duck thigh and a chicory salad. This was probably the most satisfying meal of my trip.

Meanwhile, there have been two duck legs in the freezer since February. Finally finding the inspiration to cook them (and remembering to be inspired far enough in advance), I decided to try my own hand at pairing a crispy hunk of duck with a substantial salad. Duck fat fries were a bit beyond me, owing to my lack of a deep-fryer or sufficient duck fat.

Although Strip Steak's duck thigh was probably brined and then poached in butter, I was happy just to roast the duck legs in a 300-degree oven for 90 minutes. In exchange for two or three minutes of active prep time, I got crispy skin, juicy meat, and a whole lot of rendered duck fat.

The salad was not quite as simple. Strip Steak's salad included endives, frisee, bacon, a poached egg, and some faintly-detectable vinegar. Finding frisée was beyond my abilities as a non-restaurateur, and I'd forgotten to replace the bacon that had died the night before. I did pick up a Belgian endive, which I chopped, and some arugula, so I was at least close. To replace the bacon, I decided to make garlic chips. Although I burned the garlic chips beyond culinary repair (they taste charred well in advance of turning black), I did manage to transfer a nice garlic flavor to the egg I fried in the same oil. After adding a few dashes of rice vinegar and a pinch of salt to the greens, I topped the salad with a fried egg and called it done.

My dish was not as exciting as the professional kitchen version, but it did come together well considering the circumstances — for a relatively simple meal, this one tastes quite fancy. It can be a lot of fun to try to duplicate a restaurant dish from memory.

For the duck, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. I used a cast-iron grill pan, which I heated on the stove first. The duck legs go into the oven skin-side up and require little further attention beyond setting a timer for 90 minutes and checking once or twice to make sure they're cooking properly.
For the salad, toss your favorite members of the chicory family with your favorite vinegar and a pinch of salt (or crispy bacon, if available). Top with a poached or fried egg and a few grinds of pepper. Shavings of parmigiano-reggiano would probably help both the flavor and the presentation, but I did not think of that in time.

Make duck at home tends to lead me to feel like I'm doing Serious Cooking, but it's really no more complicated than cooking chicken. Getting fresh duck without a hunting license is not easy, but plenty of stores stock frozen duck. Next up: roasting fingerling potatoes in the leftover duck fat.

*Company dime pending approval of expense report

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January 31st, 2010
06:19 pm


Two oh oh nine

A belated best-of list:

Braised lamb shank wrapped in puff pastry at Txori: It's hard to fault rich, flavorful lamb packaged in a way to emphasize both of those traits.

Rillettes at Cafe Presse: I don't know why it took me so long. It's spreadable meat like paté, but with a much more interesting texture. Given that spreadable meat is already a culinary wonder, anything that improves upon that should be held in even higher esteem (the funny part is that I think rillettes actually predates smoother paté.

Ham steak at Spring Hill: The most decadent pork chop there ever was. To make a good thing even better, it was served with the ideal sides: polenta and braised greens.

Goat cheese and caramelized onion sandwich at Olive & Gourmando in Montreal: This was an excellent sandwich in its own right, and it became an all-time highlight thanks to the homemade ketchup served with it.

Tapas at Masa in Boston: My last meal in Boston was a plate with ten different Southwestern tapas. The best were a bacon-wrapped date and an arepa with chicharron.

Baguette with blue brie, prosciutto, and sliced pear at Finch's in Vancouver: Everything I ate in Vancouver was great, but this meal was probably my favorite. It's like somebody said, "what are the three best things to put on a baguette?" and proceeded to figure out the correct answer.

Lechon at Va de Vi in Walnut Creek: Perhaps the best pork belly dish I've ever eaten - crispy pork belly served atop rice like nigiri and dressed with a sweet chile sauce.

Lamb: First I roasted a lamb shank. Then I braised a lamb shoulder in white wine for Easter supper. Then I started buying shoulder arm chops and covering them in chimichurri. At one point, I even made lamb neck stew. My new favorite meat.

Parsnip puree: If Hegel is right, parsnip puree is the synthesis of mashed potatoes and candy. In a good way.

Cider and ESB: A pub in Halifax really did this, and it was even better than it sounds. The best part is that they gave me a whole imperial pint of the stuff. People in Halifax really know how to drink.

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January 15th, 2010
10:09 pm


Red wine risotto

Risotto can be made with red wine, but it does take a bit more care than making risotto with white wine. The challenge is balance. White wine mostly disappears into the other flavors, while red wine is just as assertive after twenty minutes of simmering as it is straight out of the bottle. Taming the beast requires a flavor into which the red wine can blend, like bitter vegetables or rich cheese. For example...

My recipe was borrowed from Urban Italian. In a pot, make a standard risotto using red wine in place of white wine. I've gotten great results from bold Italian and Spanish reds (and lousy results from a watery $4 Trader Joe's special). In a skillet, sauté chopped greens (Carmellini told me to use radicchio; you definitely want something bitter for this dish) in oil until wilted and then braise in either Port or, in a pinch, sweetened red wine. The greens only take about 10 minutes to braise, at which point they are set aside. Sweet wine is used here to counteract the bitterness of the greens without otherwise impairing their flavor.

The flavors really take shape when a large helping of smoked mozzarella (alongside thyme and the standard hit of parmigiano-reggiano) is melted into the risotto. The richness of the cheese balances the astringency of the wine and the smokiness rounds out the flavors. The greens go in last, and are mixed just long enough to bring them up to temperature.

Risotto already says "winter!" no matter what is in it, and this risotto says "wow, it must be really shitty outside".

To make a three-pot affair even more complicated, I decided to try the recipe with a mixture of root vegetables after eating something similar at Orso in Anchorage (that recipe was served alongside elk scaloppine, something not carried at Metropolitan Market). Slices of turnip and rutabega got 25 minutes at 350 degrees to make them tender but maintain a bit of resistance. I then added them to the risotto when I threw in the kale I used in place of radicchio. Between the rice, dense vegetables and kale, I was able to get a surprising amount of textural contrast out of a bowl of risotto. The kale maintains a bit of bite even after 10 minutes of braising, and the soft vegetables are distinct in what would otherwise be a homogeneous mass.

I should put together a risotto cookbook. If nothing else, it will give me an excuse to try even more crazy combinations. The chorizo isn't going to eat itself...

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December 26th, 2009
10:32 am


Christmas dinner

I cooked. Whereas Easter dinner was fairly simple (not one-pot, but close), Christmas dinner was perhaps a bit too ambitious.

The first part of the cooking was very laid-back, while the final touches were made wild and crazy by my mother's general lack of counter space. Not only does she have less counter space than I do to begin with, she also has a lot more stuff on her counters. This makes it very difficult to chop a lot of things and then find places to put them. Fortunately, carnage did not result.

Prime rib:
We went to Costco on Sunday morning (a trip only recommended for the brave or those particularly skilled at combat shopping) and I got a big hunk of meat. I let it age uncovered in the fridge for a week. It got a bit of a sear in the roasting pan and then sat in an oven set to 200 degrees (and, later, even cooler still) until the magic number of 130 was reached. Closer to serving time, I threw it back in the oven at 450 to get nice and brown on the outside.

(My mother's kitchen is as poorly-ventilated as it is cramped, so the smoke accompanying the blast of 450-degree heat was quite impressive. We managed not to set off the fire alarm.)

Carving prime rib with bones is a challenge, since carving involved both making proper long slices and figuring out how to free them from the bone without making a mess. The results, however, were well worth the effort. I don't know if I'd go to the expense of cooking prime rib again, but I certainly recommend cooking at 200 degrees to anyone who wants to impress. This is the sort of meat that someone would pay about as much per person to eat at a restaurant as I did for the whole thing.

Alongside the prime rib, I served horseradish sauce made with the Alton Brown recipe. I couldn't find fresh horseradish, but the prepared stuff I used worked well. As my uncle commented, the recipe is perfectly balanced.

While my mother was making turkey tetrazzini with the Cook's Illustrated recipe (verdict: it's a lot drier than the slower but cream-enriched family version), I made two vegetable dishes just before dinnertime from my Urban Italian cookbook.

Artichokes alla contadino:
I was going to get six whole artichokes and trim like the recipe told me to, but they were $5 each. Instead, I got two cans of hearts for a total of $4.69. To make the, I browned pancetta, tossed artichokes hearts in the oil, and then stewed them with tomatoes and white wine. To finish the dish, I threw in olives and a lot of herbs. This was delicious, and our guests gobbled up almost every last bite. When making this with canned artichoke hearts, I would recommend omitting the extra water and cutting the simmering time down to compensate for the fact that the canned hearts are already soft.

Fennel with sambuca and orange:
This was also a big hit. I made a mess of some fennel bulbs and threw them in a pan with most of an onion. After a brief sauté, I deglazed with sambuca, let the vegetables absorb it, and then added garlic, red pepper, chicken stock, orange juice, and some golden raisins. After most of the liquid was gone, I threw in orange zest. The recipe suggested another tablespoon of fresh sambuca at the end, but I was not interested in measuring out additional ingredients by that point. The combination of orange and fennel is surprisingly tasty.

We also had mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. I don't know why my relatives volunteered to bring mashed potatoes, but I guess I won't complain that they did.

For Christmas, I got a 5 qt dutch oven. Time for chili.

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December 13th, 2009
03:19 pm


Happy Birthday Jesus

I'm doing the dirty work for Christmas this year. It's going to be delicious:

  • Prime rib, roasted at 200° for 3 and a half hours per Cook's Illustrated
  • Fennel with Sambuca and orange
  • Artichokes with tomatoes and herbs (unless we can't get good artichokes, in which case my aunt and uncle are bringing salad)
  • Either spiced walnuts or creamy ricotta

In addition, my mother is making turkey tetrazzini to satisfy the carnaphobes at the table. The new "vegetarian" is claiming to be a vegetarian but happily eating turkey. It doesn't make sense to me, but so long as it means that I get to try the Cook's Illustrated turkey tetrazzini, I will not complain.

I plugged all of the ingredients for each recipe into Excel and made a fancy pivot table to get a shopping list. The mealrequire a total of four onions (though I think we're going to halve the tetrazzini recipe), 10 tablespoons of butter, and about half a cup of olive oil. As Emeril Legasse would say "what the heck, it serves 16 people". Okay, 6 people plus leftovers. We're all going to get fat. On the other hand, the meal is relatively low in refined carbohydrates, so perhaps I should consider this a form of crypto-health food.

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November 14th, 2009
05:12 pm


Apple jacks

Today I bought a bottle of applejack. I like hard cider, and applejack is made from hard cider. It seemed like such a good idea, right? History turns out not to have kept up with the present. Applejack is no longer made from hard cider because the traditional way of making applejack from hard cider (freezing it and filtering out the ice) produces a liquid best not consumed by anyone wishing to stay alive. Today's applejack is just apple brandy with more apple flavor added. I think I'd rather have gone blind.

Any suggestions as to what I can do with most of a bottle applejack that don't involve pouring it out, giving it away, or poisoning children by convincing them to use it in place of milk over the similarly-named breakfast cereal?

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October 31st, 2009
06:34 pm



Chow had a feature on oatmeal a while back. The inspiration caught up with me during a stop at PCC on the way home from a beer festival, and I ended up with half a pound of steel-cut oats.

Stealing the soaking idea but not bothering to grind my own groats, I like this process (for 1-2 servings, depending on the toppings):

Soak 1/2 cup of steel-cut oats overnight in 1 cup of water. Pour in a pot and add another cup or so of water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. It should be bubbling like a tar pit. Add a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of butter, and a half tablespoon of milk. This will produce fabulously creamy outmeal. When it thickens to your liking, stir in toppings.

Once I tried pancetta and a fried egg. This sort of works, but I think I should have mixed more of the pancetta drippings into the oatmeal (instead of using butter) rather than re-using them to fry the egg. Oatmeal doesn't have enough of its own flavor to subsist solely on the things sprinkled on top of it.

Maple syrup and walnuts is an easier combination of oatmeal toppings. The maple syrup is a more complex sweetener than honey or sugar, and the walnuts nicely complement the creaminess of the oatmeal. It helps that I have a lot of walnuts leftover from my former life as someone who gets up early enough to eat a bowl of yogurt at home before leaving for work.

Any more ideas for oatmeal toppings? I would not mind trying honey, tahini, and miso, but like hell I'm spending $10 on miso and tahini just to make fancy oatmeal.

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August 1st, 2009
08:39 pm


There's no ho like coho

I don't cook fish very often, mostly because it is more expensive than meat and I'm always afraid I'm going to screw it up (see: my failed attempt at breaded halibut). However, my favorite source of new recipes featured a salmon recipe that corresponded nicely with a sale on the same at Whole Foods and I decided that it was time to conquer my fear of fish.

The recipe is one of the simplest I've gotten from the Chronicle: sauté salmon and shallots for five minutes over medium-high heat, flip the salmon, cover with sorrel, and let steam off the heat for a few more minutes.Although the recipe was written for a non-stick skillet, I do not own a non-stick skillet and decided I would just fill my stainless steel skillet with butter instead. This does have the effect of encouraging browning in the fish and the shallots. I welcomed the Maillard reaction's effects on the salmon, but the thinly-sliced shallots should be added a minute or two after the salmon if the pan is gong to be filled with fat or they will cook too quickly. As much sorrel should be used as possible, as the contrast between sour-tart sorrel and sweet-savory salmon is well worth the trouble of actually finding a store that sells sorrel.

While cooking the fish, I boiled some potatoes and poured a glass of dry cider. Salmon doesn't have the umami of, say, a good steak, but the meal did manage to pull off the other four flavors quite well. This is quite a feat given that it only really involved four ingredients.

I don't know if I've conquered my fear of cooking fish in general, but at least I now know a good way to cook a salmon steak. I also know a good way to keep fish from sticking to the pan: add more fat. Hooray for fat!

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