Monday, December 22, 2008

Polenta Jacket

It's bone-chilling, paw-freezing, no-messin' around cold outside. Combined with my usual winter blues, it's hard to want to get out of bed in the morning. Especially when your apartment is drafty and you have no control over the heat.

That being said, the thought of polenta with a lacy fried egg and applewood smoked bacon did the trick this morning. Damn good. Nap inducing, which wasn't entirely helpful, but it thickened my blubber and prepared me for the world outside my door.

I don't have a proper recipe for polenta. I use the coarse ground variety that we carry at Zingerman's and cook it with chicken stock. The ratio I prefer is usually 3 parts stock to 1 part polenta- less stock for a thicker body, more if I want it to be loose. Whisk the polenta into hot stock over medium heat and whisk it for 15 minutes or so on low heat. Easy, straight forward. This morning I added a few tablespoons of demi glace (which is making a rare appearance in my fridge), and it added to the richness.

I fried up a thick strip of bacon with a few leaves of sage, and then added some butter and fried an egg sunny side up over med-high heat. I particularly love the lacy edges that come from cooking an egg in a hot cast iron pan, especially when juxtaposed with a runny yolk. Salt. Pepper. Parmesan. In temperatures like these, blubber building meals like this are a survival technique.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snowed in w/ coffee and a chorizo tortilla

We've had a fairly major snow storm, and work just called to tell me that I don't need to be in until 2pm. I hadn't planned on having so much time today, but I'm not complaining. Last week's broadcast of This American Life, "20 acts in 60 minutes," is keeping me in good spirits, and I'm midway through putting together lemon scones, but stopped to take a breakfast break. I reheated some of the recipe below, and brewed a press pot of Intelligentsia's 'El Gallo Breakfast Blend,' which is a blend of Latin American beans. It's getting better as it cools, which is my favorite thing about drinking coffee- the way the flavor evolves as the temperature cools.

Yesterday my friend Marshall and I cooked from Michael Roux's 'Eggs'- a beautiful book dedicated to all things eggs. We chose this book because Marshall has a brood of chickens (affectionately known as 'his girls') who produce some exceptionally delicious eggs. We chose a recipe for a Spanish tortilla with chorizo.

(adapted from Michael Roux)

1/3 cup olive oil
1 russet potato, peeled & cubed
1 medium red onion, roughly chopped
salt & pepper
about a 1/2 pound of hot chorizo
1/2 garlic clove, crushed
2 T flat Italian parsley, chopped
6 eggs

In an 8-inch non-stick skillet, heat the oil. Add the diced potatoes and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add the onions, salt lightly, and cook for another 10 minutes.

In the meantime, chop the chorizo into thin slices (about 2mm). Add them to the skillet with the garlic and parsley. Mix them up well, without crushing the potatoes, and cook for another 2 minutes or so. Tip everything onto a plate and allow it to cool slightly. Wipe clean the skillet with a paper towel.

Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet. Delicately stir the slightly cooled potato mixture into the eggs, and then pour all of it into the pan. Start cooking over medium heat, stirring gently every few minutes with the side of a fork, as if making an omelet.

As soon as the eggs are half cooked, stop stirring, and cook over very low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the underside of the tortilla is almost cooked. Slide it onto a lightly oiled platter, then invert it back into the pan and cook for another 2 minutes, until both sides are cooked the same and the middle of the tortilla is still soft.

Slide the tortilla onto a plate and serve it whole or cut into wedges. it is equally good served hot, warm, or at room temperature, but not chilled.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tomato Tarte Tatin

My roommate came home with a 5" cast iron skillet a few weeks ago. He was geeked about tarte tatins, French upside-down caramelized apple tarts, and variations on that theme. He bought apples. He bought pears. He bought tomatoes and thyme. The following recipe was what we put together this morning, taken from a NY Times article from last September.

So, this is our election day. Sleeping in, a leisurely breakfast, catching up with the news, and playing around with a new recipe. There were no lines at the polls, despite all the news reports that said otherwise. The weather is oddly warm for November 4th- no jacket required, and everything is warm toned from the sun falling through the yellow leaves that are still hanging from the trees. This caramelized tomato tart, in all it's flavor complexity, was fitting for today.

Caramelized Tarte Tatin
from 9/17/08 NY Times, Melissa Clark

1 sheet of Puff pastry dough, either home made or store bought.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 red onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus a pinch of sugar
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/4 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 1/2 pints (about 1 pound) cherry or grape tomatoes; a mix of colors is nice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Unfold puff pastry sheet and cut into a 10-inch round; chill, covered, until ready to use.
2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of sugar and cook, stirring, until onions are golden and caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water and let cook off, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan. Transfer onions to a bowl.
3. In a clean, ovenproof 9-inch skillet, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons water. Cook over medium heat, swirling pan gently (do not stir) until sugar melts and turns amber, 5 to 10 minutes. Add vinegar and swirl gently.
4. Sprinkle olives over caramel. Scatter tomatoes over olives, then sprinkle onions on. Season with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Top with puff pastry round, tucking edges into pan. Cut several long vents in top of pastry.
Bake tart until crust is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then run a knife around pastry to loosen it from pan, and flip tart out onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

New Books

There are a lot of books out there that I'm dying to have the time to read.

Of new note, I've read great things about 'Bakewise' by Shirley O. Corriher. It's a baking related addendum to her older publication, 'Cookwise', which I've not read either but have heard great reviews on.

And then there's my renewed interest in Christine Ferber. She's got two books out that I'm particularly interested in- the first is for her preserves, the second is a book on tarts.

In the case of Christine Ferber and her magnificent preserves, I've cooked from other peoples copies of them, but need to get my own and get busy experimenting with them again.
I'm probably less inclined to make preserves at home, since I've had standing plans with someone at work to make them for the past two summers and haven't done it yet. My kitchen is too small, and I've never canned before (which, to the uninitiated, is quite daunting). But tarts are a thing of glory to me- I dream about making them, I love their complicated, multi-step processes, and would be lying if I said I didn't love how impressive they look when done correctly.

Then there is also 'A Platter of Figs' by David Tanis. Just hearing his biography makes me want to jump into reading this book, in hopes that via osmosis my life will become vastly more interesting (part time head chef at Chez Panisse, part time resident of Paris who runs an occasional supper club). He's got a good bit of recipes for duck in there, which is always a good thing.

I'm still looking for a good, comprehensive book on olives....

Monday, October 20, 2008

Darjeeling- Steeped in Tradition

A link to an article I wrote for our summer newsletter:

schnitzel kick

I'm on a schnitzel bender.

It all started with the arugula at the farmers market- so gorgeous and full of flavor that I kept buying it and buying it until I ran out of things to do with it. I could only eat so many arugula, country ham and hazelnut sandwiches (though they're quite sustainable), or saute it and lay it over fried eggs with hot sauce (again, delicious). So, I branched out to my sturdy 'Gourmet Magazine' cookbook- a thick yellow tome of collected recipes from over the years. It hasn't let me down yet, and there are a lot of hidden gems in it. Under arugula in the index was schnitzel with a salad, and I envisioned a greasy cutlet in some dark German bar, but as I read the recipe I became intrigued. Since then I've made it more times than I can count. I clean the plate, and I love that it leaves me feeling full and satisfied without wanting more.

It's pretty simple and efficient. The butcher (Bob Sparrow) does all the hard work of trimming and pounding so that the veal is ready to be seasoned and dipped in flour, than egg and finally bread crumbs. It gets lightly fried in olive oil- for this I've been using a rich, fruity French olive oil, which doesn't have the bitterness that something like a Tuscan might. The arugula gets tossed with shredded carrots and cherry tomatoes in a dijon vinaigrette, and topped with the veal. The piece de resistance is squeezing a lemon over top. It ties everything together beautifully.

Two things that I've found to be important are 1)seasoning the meat before dredging it in flour and 2)being careful to not over-fry the veal- if it's a thin cutlet it should only cook for about 2-3 minutes on each side, turning only once. It is beef, afterall, so medium rare is a good temp to shoot for.

If I had a photo (I usually intend to and then forget until after I've finished), you'd see the beautiful green from the arugula, the orange flecks of carrot, and the yellow cherry tomatoes nesting a thin, golden to dark brown cutlet with a lemon wedge on the side.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

El Corregidor

When I was in Spain this past May, arguably the best meal I ate was at El Corregidor in a small town called Almagro, a half hours drive from Cuidad Real, in La Mancha. The following are a gentler version of the notes I tried to scribble down during the meal:

We started off the eveninng with a bottle of Muga ‘reserva especial’ from '03, a Rioja, and according to Frank '03 was and exceptional year'. It had a big black cherry nose with a full flavor and clean finish. We enjoyed it over a plate blanketed with bellota Iberico ham.

We had brought two small bottles of olive oil that we had picked up at the food expo, in case the house oil was not-so-good. The head waiter saw us and came over to our table- he poured himself a bit of each into separate wine glasses, tasted them, and declaired 'no!' and walked away. A moment later he came back with a bottle of Aceites Oro Balien, a 100% picual olive oil from Jaen, which we had just tasted for the first time at the expo. He declared that it was the best, set it on the table, and walked off. I was really impressed that they take their oil so seriously.

We then ordered a bottle of Mauro Ribera del duero ’05, from Castillo y Leon. Interesting bit with this wine is that the producers did not adhere to the rules of Ribera DOP, so by law it has to be labeled as ‘table wine of Castillo y Leon’. Instead of making a DOP approved Ribera, they altered the percentages of grapes (‘temperinillo and hotras' (others) on the label) to create a slightly different flavor profile. From my notes: Tempranillo grapes differ from region to region- the flavor reflects the terroir incredibly. If it’s grown in 20 regions, you’ll get 20 wines.

Although both wines came bottled with a traditional cork, somehow we got on the topic of advancements in the wine industry- specifically screwcaps. The advantage of screwcaps is that you get a 100% seal, whereas with corks you’ll get an 80% seal at best. They’ve only been in use for 12 years, so it’s arguable how well they would allow wines to age over long periods of time.

Food, as it arrived on the table:

Crema de Guisantes con tallarines de sepia y verduras (12e)
-foie gras (sadly, badly trimmed) with local mushrooms in sauce. The flavor of the foie was good but the veins were distracting. The mushrooms were the local variety, somewhat similar to shittake but not as distinctive. The sauce was nice in that they had mounted in butter for richness, but it would have better had they reduced it beforehand and added more salt.

Pochas saltenades con colas de cangrejo de rio y crujiente de jambon (14e)
- white beans stewed with either shrimp or crayfish (couldn’t tell) and deep fried bacon strips. This was the dish that lingered most in everyone’s head, and I was really sad that I couldn’t eat it on account of my allergy to shellfish.

Papada crujiente de cerdo con gambon y caramelo de vinagre (15e)
- Somehow I missed the notes on this, but would be remiss if I didn't mention it.

Merluza con sopa de mejillones (22e)
-hake, which was bland- needed salt and oil, which made it taste much better. Frank noted that it tasted better when cool- he enjoyed the saffron notes although it's presence wasn’t evident in the color.

Carrillada de cerdo iberico en su jugo (18e)
-Matthew said ‘oh my god’ three times and declared it a ‘pork epiphany’. Fantastic young pig with the most amazingly impressive crispy crust. Not sure how they managed that, because the layers of fat and meat between the crust and the little rib bones were perfectly cooked and moist. The fat layer added a creaminess to the dish- we made sure not to leave any meat on the ribs. The skin was amazing. There was an apple pure (consistency implied that it was passed through a food mill) and a reduced vinegar sauce that added a fantastic acidity. A perfectly balanced dish in both texture and flavor.

(Kitty, holding up the pork)

Magret de Pato con higos agridulces (20e)
-duck seared with apple pure, a poached fig and black and rasp berries. The fig must have been poached in a bit of vinegar and spices and paired awesomely with the duck, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare.

Conchinillo crujiente con pure de manzana (22e)
-pork cheeks that were sadly overcooked and undersalted. The apple pure was the same as on the crispy pork, but the overwhelming impression was that the cheeks were like jerky.

We had a few desserts, none of which were terribly memorable, though it was the first time I had seen a quinelle (an egg shaped portion of ice cream or mousse that is created by rolling a spoon across the surface) since I left Vegas, which brought back a lot of memories. Food just doesn't get that fancy here in Ann Arbor.

We were the first to arrive at the beautiful old restaurant, and to our surprise, when we looked up after finishing our meal, we were the last to still be seated. The waiter was standing by patiently waiting for us to depart. We asked him to call a taxi for us- he came back a moment later and said that there were none available. The 3 taxi drivers in town had gone home for the night. Had I not been tipsy from wine and crispy pork, I would have been more concerned, but in that state of mind I would have been happy to take a nap in their kitchen. We wandered down to a hotel that had a front desk attendant and after 15 minutes or so, he found us a taxi that took us home.

The Beauty of Pork captured in the book Pork & Sons by French chef Stephane Reynaud from Phiadon press. I first came across this book in Spain, in a specialty food shop called Maison Blanche. Despite the fact that it was in Spanish, I almost bought it on the spot because of it's beautiful photos & illustrations- fortunately I found an English version online.

I've just re-read the book for the second or third time and it's a joy to drift through. His antidotes of his family, of which he's the third generation of butchers, and friends, whom he's photographed with love, and illustrations of pigs makes this compendium of all things French relating to pork a great book. And the recipes!

The last one I earmarked is 'tenderloins with maple syrup', which involves rhubarb and tenderloins basted with port and maple syrup, finished off with hazelnuts and black pepper. The 'rack of pork with ginger cooked in a salt crust' and multiple different terrines made my stomach grumble. And there isn't a single recipe in the chapter on ham that doesn't sound fantastic.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Lentil Soup

I recently made a soup with French green lentils, which are slate colored with dark specks on them (they look like flattened capers). They hold there shape when cooked, unlike brown or red lentils and taste like, well, lentils, which taste like whatever you cook them in. They have their merrits- fine lentils indeed. But what I really love are Castelluccio lentils from Umbria, Italy. They grow on the Castelluccio plain, south of the Sibillini mountains, and ever since I cooked with some over a year ago, I haven't been able to find another type of lentil that's better, or even close to better. It's hard to explain. Yeah, they're really healthy (protein, fiber, etc) and they don't require any pre-soaking and cook in about 30 minutes- all good things. But the flavor of them is what sets them apart- delicate, nutty and slightly earthy.

I'm not versed on what's involved in growing lentils, but Castelluccio's have always been grown in an organic manner, even before the distinction of organic was around. They have a 'protected geographical indication' certification from the Italian Govt. and are worth searching out if you can find them. Specialty foods stores will carry them, but in the states you'll pay a pretty penny for them.

Whichever lentil you choose, this soup recipe is a good one. It's a blend of several different ones I've come across and can be vegetarian if you omit the pancetta (though, as usual, pork makes everything taste better). It also contains a spice called 'grains of paradise', which is from West Africa- it's similar to a peppercorn but with a floral quality. At one point in history they were a cheaper alternative to black peppercorns, but have since become somewhat of a rarity.

Lentil Soup

2 T olive oil
1 thick slick of pancetta, cut into chunks
1 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped carrot
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
2 t salt
1 pound lentils, picked and rinsed
1 cup peeled, chopped tomatoes
2 quarts of chickenstock (do yourself a favor and use homemade)
1/2 t freshly ground coriander
1/2 t freshly ground toasted cumin
1/2 t freshly ground grains of paradise
1/4 t freshly ground black peppercorns
fresh squeezed juice from half of a lemon

It's good to have the following on hand for garnishing:
a flavorful olive oil
some hot sauce (such as Piri Piri)

- heat a 6qt cast iron pot to medium
- add the oil, then the pancetta, onion, carrot, celery and salt. Sweat them until translucent
- add the lentils, tomatoes, broth and spices.
- allow it to come to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low and cook, mostly covered, until the lentils are tender (about 35-40 minutes).
- add the lemon juice and puree in batches to your desired consistency.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of hot sauce, or some chopped cilantro and sour cream.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

4 pints of frozen goodness

Some friends were down in Columbus recently and brought back ice creams from Jeni's Ice Cream shop. More accurately, my friends went to Columbus specifically to go to Jeni's and bring back a cooler filled with pints of ice cream and dry ice. I was fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a few of those pints.

I've made a few ice creams in my day, and am rather particular about flavor and texture. I'm rarely impressed. But tonight I just dipped my spoon into four different pints and all were beautiful examples of how good it can be.

I started with the lime cardamom yoghurt sorbet. A ton of flavor- sweet lime up front, balanced by the tang of yoghurt and the cardamom like a silver lining, tying it all together. I had to stop myself. Most impressive was the fact that it had a smooth texture straight out of the freezer- a balance that can be precarious with yoghurt as a base.

Next was the cherry lambic, their featured flavor of the month. The cherry flavor was a bit sweeter than I had hoped (I think they may be using Boiron fruit puree, but I can't be certain) but there was a nice lingering sourness, which I attribute to the lambic. It had a great intensity to it- a little bite had a lot of flavor. Again, the texture was spot on- no iciness at all. It was almost fluffy, which again makes me think that they're using Boiron as a base because it tends to take on more air than other fruit puree flavors while it's spinning.

The butterscotch & coconib ice cream was arguably my second favorite- rich & smooth studded with crunchy bits of nib. This, scooped into a cocoanib nougatine cone, would be fantastic.

I was really excited to see that they had a salty caramel and it is just that- verging right on the edge of savory. Good balances of sweet and salty are so satisfying. I'm curious to know what kind of salt they used. I'm afraid it might be iodized, but I can't say for sure. It's definitely a salty salt. This ice cream would be fantastic on with a dense, dark chocolate cake.

Jeni's is the second place in Columbus that I know of that is worth the 2+ hour drive just to eat. It's also the home of Zen Cha, one of the best tea shops I've seen in the midwest.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cuidad Real Grocery

A trip to the local grocery store here in Cuidad Real has provided me with a bag of Lay's 'Grandes Sabores Ibericos Jamon'. Crunchy, meaty, slightly sweet and not oversalted. I'm suprised I like them as much as I do. We also got a little tin of tuna pate, which we ate with olive oil potato chips. And I got some tortas de aceite- olive oil tortas with anise seed, dusted with sugar, which only cost 1.5 euros.

The photo below is from inside the grocery- it's awesome to see their passion for ham here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Madrid, oh Madrid

I've been swept up by the tide of Madrid for the past 24 hours and I've been loving every minute of it. I truely mean swept because between the jetlag, an allergy induced sinus headache, wine, and orientating myself in a city whose language I barely speak, it's been a very 'come what may' experience.

I met up with some people that I knew through work- we wandered around city central and had tapas at a place called Vinoteca Barbechera. In the photo above, from left to right: duck foie gras with candied apple; a variety of forest mushrooms with ham; and blood sausage with candied apple. The mushrooms were the stand out favorite- sauteed with ham and glistening with sauce- fantastic! We also ate croquettas (the spinach, with raisins and pine nuts were great) and a plate of Iberico ham and sheeps milk cheeses. I don't know why the rest of the world doesn't do food this way- each tapas ranges from 2-7 euros (with the iberico platter being more like 20 euros) and everyone shares. It's a very social eating experience.

Down the street from my hotel was the newly inaugurated CaixaForum Madrid museum. The architecture of the building was beautiful- an old brick structure (formerly Central Electric) with a rusted metal addition on top that has a pattern cut into it, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The adjacent wall was a living sculptural instilation (aka 'green wall') by Patrick Blanc, whose work I've always wanted to see.
The pairing of the metal, brick and verdant wall was fantastic.

There's a couple of stores called Museo de Jambon around town- each contained more cured ham than I've ever seen. The decor is cured ham, hanging in tight rows. It's a sight to behold. I didn't have time to fully explore their cases but plan on doing so when I pass back through Madrid on my way home. Currently I'm in Cuidad Real, the capitol of La Mancha, about an hour South of my starting point. Tomorrow marks the begining of Espana Original, a food expo of Spanish producers.

Friday, May 9, 2008

addendum to yesterday's post

Cornman farms in the news today...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cornman Farms

Tuesday morning I headed out to Cornman Farms, Chef Alex Young's ever-growing farming operation out in Dexter, Michigan. During producing months it supplies the Roadhouse Restaurant with mouthwatering heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and a whole host of other bounty. It was a year ago this month that I first went out there, to help plant tomatoes and peppers with a few friends. He's expanded his farming area this year (his fourth in operation), and built a hoop garden to get a head start.

The 'hoop' is a metal frame with a plastic covering that can be raised or lowered on each side. It keeps plants a bit warmer and protects them from the wind, so you can put your young plants in the ground a few weeks earlier and not have to worry about them being damaged from early spring frosts. It also means that he'll have tomatoes ready to eat about 2-4 weeks earlier this year.

My friend Jess Piskor from the Deli has been working with Alex on the farm on a part time basis- he helped install the hoop structure (which wasn't as easy as it seems), and by the end of the day on Tuesday helped get several hundred tomato plants in the ground.

Talking with Mark and Alex is always facinating in that they're so knowledgable about how it all ties together. For example, they started the season by putting down a 'green manure' which has several different plant seeds mixed in. Two of which are legumes (but no the bean producing type), which draw nitrogen up from the soil. The nitrogen stays attached to the plants root structure, and after tilling and preping the lot for planting, provides essential nutrients that the plants will need. In most commercial farming operations, nitrogen and other nutrients are applied topically, since the soil is so stripped from lack of plant diversity.

The Oprah Effect

Tomorrow will be the first airing of the Oprah episode in which Zingerman's will be featured. We're all bracing for the "Oprah Effect"- our site has been upgraded to a larger server and we'll be 'all-hands-on-deck' for the next couple of days, most likely tackling a ton of phone calls and questions about a certain sandwich that has never received much attention before.

The whole ordeal ititally sprung from an article about great sandwiches in America in Esquire Magazine. Not long after, we got a call from Oprah's offices and her best friend Gayle came (with camera crew) to film a segment in the Deli, featuring the #97 Lisa C's Boisterous Brisket. The story behind the sandwich is totally in line with the sense of humor that prevails at the deli.

"Lisa C = Lisa Cyrocki (pronounced 'sir-rock-y), worked in the Sales & Service department at Zingerman's Deli for a few years, and even put in a couple of years with Zingerman's Mail Order. Lisa is actually a vegetarian, so when the sandwich was invented by former Deli Chef Thad Gillis, it was sort of a joke to name it after Lisa...not only did she not eat the sandwich, she is rather quiet and reserved and not exactly "boisterous."

It's beef brisket that has been dry rubbed with a bunch of spices and then marinated in a red wine vinegar & water mix for 24 hours, then braised and slathered with BBQ sauce. It's served (1/2# per order) on a challah bun with a side of baked beans. As of today I've never tried one, since bbq on challah in the middle of the day=food coma, which is not condusive to getting much done.

I'm very curious to see how it affects business. There have been a few articles about what happens to businesses after being mentioned on her show:

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Kentucky Derby

The famous horse races in Kentucky occured yesterday afternoon, and once again Mr. Ferrel's yearly party featuring big hats and mint juleps filled his small apartment to it's maximum capacity. The mint juleps were great but dangerous- muddled mint with sugar and copious amounts of Jim Beam, poured over ice. Thomas commented that 'the more you drink, the less strong they seem' and he was dead on, but what put me over the edge was the champagne that followed. The photos say it all...

And who knew that cured ham rolled around peanuts could be so delicious!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Pad Thai dinner (and recipe!)

Last night I had some friends over for dinner. We had-

Vietnamese vegetable rolls, which we made at the table
Pad Thai
Magic Hat #9, an 'almost pale ale'
Ciao Bella's Blood Orange Sorbet.

Peanuts have been my muse lately. I thought of pad thai and how it's the one dish that tells me more than any other in a new thai restaurant- it's always a good gague of how good the kitchen is. I also have been craving fresh Vietnamese-style vegetable rolls, since we're just approaching warmer weather and better produce. Stewing season is offically over until November!

I found several You-Tube videos showing the process of making the rolls, the best of which is here:
We ended up using thinly shaved carrots, purple basil, spinach, cilantro, thin rice noodles, shrimp (well, everyone but me), hoisin sauce and peanuts. I think I may have a new obession with those rolls- so fresh and simple, and the flavor lingers nicely on the palate.

For the Pad Thai, several months ago I stumbled upon a really solid recipe and the results were quite satisfying. I love the tangy flavor of tamarind so I increased it a bit, and used a bit less garlic than the recipe called for but you wouldn't have known it was missing. The beer had a nice fruity-ness that worked well with the heat of the noodles. I suspect there could be a better pairing out there, but this one was unique and delicious.

And of course, Ciao Bella's blood orange sorbet is the best I've come across- not too sweet, not too acidic and a perfectly refreshing close to the night.

Pad Thai (vegetarian)
Y: 4-6 servings

12oz dried flat rice noodles, 1/4" wide, called 'pad thai' or 'banh pho'
3T tamarind from a pliable block
1c boiling hot water
1/2c soy sauce
1/4c brown sugar (packed)
2T Sriracha (southeast asian chili sauce)
1t garam marsala (anchovy oil)
4 lg. shallots, cut crosswise into very thin slices
1 pkg firm tofu (14-16 oz), cut into cubes and rest on paper towels to remove excess moisture.
1 1/2c peanut or vegetable oil
6 eggs, lightly beaten with a 1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 bunch scallions, cut into 2" piecces and halved
1 garlic clove finely chopped (or more, if you'd like- the original recipe called for 4)
2c thick bean sprouts (1/4 lb)

For the garnish:
-1/2 cup or more of roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped- if you can find 'em, spanish peanuts are the best, but be sure to remove the skins after roasting
-lime wedges

Soak the noodles in a large bowl of warm water until softened, about 25-30 minutes. Drain them well and leave them in the colander and cover them up with a dampened paper towel.

Meanwhile, make your saucce by soaking the tamarind pulp in the boiling-hot water in a small bowl. Stir it occasionally until softened, which should take about 5 minutes.

Force the tamarind pulp and water through a sieve and discard the seeds and fibers. To this, add your soy sauce, brown sugar and Sriracha and stir until the sugar is disolved.

Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat until hot- be sure to have a plate with a papertowel on it nearby. Fry half of the shallots over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until golden brown. This will take about 8-12 minutes, with most of the browning occuring in the last minute or two. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them onto the paper towel and allow them to cool- they will get nice and crispy as they cool.

Carefully strain the hot oil to remove any extra bits and set it aside. Give your wok a good wipe with a paper towel, and pour the shallot-infused oil back in. Return the heat to medium.

The next step is frying the tofu, which should be done in two batches to ensure even browning. When the oil is hot- test it with a stray cube of tofu- if it rises back to the surface within 5 seconds, then you're ready- add half of the tofu and fry it, occasionally turning it gently, until golden, which should take about 5-8 minutes. Transfer the fried tofu to paper towels using a slotted spoon, and repeat the process until it's all done.

Carefull strain the hot oil again, and give the wok a good wipe.

To fry the eggs, add 2T of the shallot-infused oil back to the wok and heat it over high heat until it shimmers. Carefully pour in the eggs and swirl to coat the sides of the wok. Then allow them to cook, stirring gently with a spatula, until cooked through. Break them into chunks with a spatula and transfer them to a plate.

Again, give your wok a good wipe, and set the heat to high. When it's hot enough to instantly evaporate a drop of water, add 6T of the shallot-infused oil and swirl it around to coat the sides of the wok. Stir-fry the scallions, garlic, and remaning uncooked shallots until softened, which should take about 1 minute.

Add the noodles and stir-fry, lowering the heat to medium. It helps to use two spatulas at this point to move the noodles around. After 3 minutes, add the tofu, bean sprouts and 1 1/2cups of the sauce. Redue the heat to a simmer and turn the noodles over to absorb the sauce evenly. After about 2 minutes they should be tender and ready. Stir in additional sauce if desired. Add the eggs. Transfer the whole lot to a large, shallow serving dish.

Sprinkle with peanuts and fried shallots, and serve it with lime wedges, cilantro sprigs and Sriracha.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Everything in a rosy hue

It's hard to believe that just over a week ago I was leaving Darjeeling and flying back to Calcutta for my remaining few days in India. I'm working on writing about my trip. I'm also taking stock of things, having just turned 30, and developing an outline of things that I hope to accomplish in the coming years. Overall, I feel very fortunate.

My dog and I went on a walk through Miller Park this morning. It was sunny but the ground was still frozen from the snowstorm the other day. When I feel doubtful about being in Ann Arbor, walking through my neighborhood reminds me of why I chose to come back when I did.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

air gap dimple

Good eggs are amazing.

Harnois farm, from nearby Webster Township, produces some really great ones. The yolks are rich and solid, with a brilliant golden hue. You can tell the freshness an egg by trying to separate the yolk from the white- if it separates cleanly without bursting you've got a relatively fresh egg on your hands. Aubrey, who’s family has been on the forefront of trying to make it legal to raise chickens in Ypsilanti city township, also told me that the amount of the air-gap dimple at the bottom of a hardboiled egg is also evidence of freshness- the bigger the gap, the older the egg.

It's exceptionally cold in Ann Arbor of late, so I've been roasting vegetables in efforts to warm my apartment. This morning I roasted fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and shallots with rosemary and dried pepper flakes. The piece de resistance was an over easy fried egg on top. The yolk served as a rich sauce (better than any hollandaise I've ever had), which is the simplest, most elemental way of tying it all together.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

My chef & mentor Kriss was always very particular about the difference between standard 'cinnamon' and 'true cinnamon', aka 'Ceylon cinnamon'. I'm afraid that if I don't make this clarification in conjunction with my last post, he'll channel up an evil spirit to come and yell at me in Michigan.

Technically, Cassia cinnamons, or Chinese cinnamons, come from the aromatic bark of an evergreen tree that is native to China and Vietnam. It has a higher oil content and produces a dark brown, thick rolled bark with a strong flavor and scent, with a bit of a harshness to it in large quantities. Most mass produced cinnamon sold in the US is of the Cassia variety, and is what most people in the states are familiar with. If you've ever walked passed a 'Cinnabon' store in an airport, you've passed through a cloud of cassia cinnamon-scented air.

'True cinnamon', on the other hand grows on shorter evergreen trees native to Sri Lanka and South India. It's paler in color and has a smoother, thinner bark that breaks easily in your hands. Distinguishable from Cassia in that it's flavor is more subtle, and the smell is much less sharp in your nose.

Although the trees are related to one another, they are quite different. It's worth tasting them side by side and considering them for different applications. I probably wouldn't use the cassia cinnamon for a delicate pastry, but my food memory of (and occasional longing for) cinnamon rolls wouldn't be saited with the delicate touch of 'true cinnamon'.
For our Chinese New Year-themed dinner this evening I've made a cinnamon beef noodle soup. My inital inspiration was from a small bag of 'China Tunghing Cassia Cinnamon' that a friend picked up from the Spice House in Chicago- it's got a spiciness to it that stands out from other cinnamons. I needed a savory application, and this soup seemed like a good fit. It's a very aromatic concoction- cinnamon, anise, garlic, ginger, chicken stock & beef- which will flavor the air of your kitchen (or if your place is set up like mine, the entire 2 bedroom apartment). I particularly like the vinegar in the broth- it reminds me of steeming bowls of nameless soups I ate in China years ago. And don't forget about the cilantro- it adds a delicious component to the flavor.

This is the second time I've made it and the minor adjustments of using Shanxi vinegar (as opposed to rice wine vinegar) and two different sizes of noodles were definate improvements.

Cinnamon Beef-Noodle Soup

1T veg oil
2t cinnamon
6 scallions, sliced on the bias every 1/2 inch
1 clove crushed garlic
2T minced ginger
1 1/2 t anise seed
1 1/2t thai chili paste (I use Sriracha)
2t hot chili flakes- more or less depending on desired level of heat

7c water
4c chickent stock
1/2 c soy sauce
1/4 c Shanxi vinegar (made from fermented sorghum, barley and other grains...rice wine vinegar can substitute)

2# beef, cut into bitesized chunks
3 oz soba noodles
3 oz thin asian noodles (sorry for the vagueness- I used 'tomoshiraga somen' Japanese noodles this time)
1 bunch of bok choy cut into bite-sized pieces
cilantro for garnishing each bowl

-When your large stockpot is hot, add the oil and then the cinnamon, scallions, garlic, ginger, anise seed, chili paste and hot chilis.
-Stir them around constantly for about a minute and then add the water, stock, soy sauce & vinegar.
-When it comes to a boil, add the beef and reduce the heat to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and stir it occasionally for an hour and a half.
-As that hour and a half comes to a close, separately, boil the noodles according to their packages' instrution. I first added the larger noodles and three minutes later added the smaller ones to the same pot, since their cooking times are different.
-While the noodles are cooking, add the bok choy to the beef broth- it will cook in about 8 minutes.
-Drain the noodles and give them a rinse to remove the extra starch, and then add them to the beef broth.
-Taste to check the seasonings and add salt & pepper as needed.
-Serve in bowls garnished with cilantro.