Tuesday, December 06, 2005

News from a butcher

Sometimes I read something so interesting, informative and generally thought-provoking that I don't feel like writing anything myself. Today became one of those days when I read Jace's post over at Accidental Hedonist. Go check it out.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Swiss chard

I've been getting really into swiss chard recently. Here's why.

It's tasty. I find the taste to be something like a cross between lettuce and (cooked) spinach, with a bit of Belgian endive thrown in. There's a hint of bitterness, but just enough to offset the very green-vegetable-ish taste of the chard. The bitterness adds character and sharpness to a taste that would otherwise be relatively unremarkable. It's also a taste that combines magically with other things (unlike, say, brussels sprouts—I love them, but they can hardly be used, as chard can, as a vehicle for other flavors). And the texture of swiss chard, when cooked right, is fantastic—a good dose of sloppy leafishness, but held together with a palate-pleasing soft crunch. It's sort of like the texture of cooked asparagus with leaves, if you can imagine that.

It's nutritious. Swiss chard is extraordinarily high in vitamins K, A and C, has loads of iron, and a fair bit of calcium thrown in. Check out this graph if you want to feel good about yourself while you're eating it (and if you're the kind of person who needs an excuse to indulge in the pleasures of bacon fat, as in my recipe for swiss chard below).

It's fun and easy to cook. I always blanch and schock my chard before doing anything else to it. This expels gases from the vegetable, removing an overpowering edge of bitterness; and it fixes the color a bright, bright green. And it can be done well in advance of the final heating-and-serving, a matter of just a couple of minutes in some butter with salt and pepper, if need be.

I made swiss chard as an accompaniment to a pair of roasted chickens for a small dinner party the other night, and it went perfectly. Here's what I did to the chard.

Step 1: Blanch and shock. Fill a large pot with water and plenty of salt ("It should taste like the sea," says Thomas Keller, and I believe him), and bring to the boil. Add the chard in small doses and boil for a minute or two; as soon as the color is a bright green and the leaves have just started to wilt, remove and plunge into a bowl of ice-water. Repeat this process until all your chard is done. Dry with paper towels, and proceed to the next step some time in the next few hours.

Step 2: Heat through in bacon fat. Cut some good quality smoked bacon or fatty ham into small cubes, and cook in a sauté pan until the fat is rendered. Add the chard, toss quickly until well-coated and warmed through, season with salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt—the blanching will already have salted the chard), and serve.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Boiled carrots

I've been eating quite a lot of boiled carrots recently, mainly because they're one of the only vegetables my daughter will eat. Until a couple of months ago, I don't think I'd had a boiled carrot in years, and I certainly hadn't made them myself before. And by boiled I mean really boiled: fork-tender all the way through, close to mushy.

I never thought this would happen to me...but I'm starting to like them! They're sweet and savory at the same time; they feel healthy and nutritious, and warming and comforting when you eat them. Give them a try, you'll be surprised.

Here's my method, which works well for me. Peel a few carrots, and cut them into large chunks, about the size of your thumb. (Why peel them? Mainy to get rid of most of the poisons that carrots suck up from the ground in which they're grown. If you think this isn't an issue for organic carrots, think again.) Put them into a pan with enough water to barely cover them, and—this is the crucial part—add a tablespoon of butter and a healthy amount of salt. Bring to the boil, and cook with the lid off, over medium heat, until the carrots are done, about 20 or 25 minutes. Serve, or keep warm in their liquid with the lid on until you're ready.

The great thing about this method is that as the water evaporates while the carrots are cooking, they get more and more buttery. By the time the carrots are done, they'll be coated with a very thin buttery film. Delicious.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Michael Ruhlman

I've just started reading Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef. Released a few years ago, it's a kind of sequel to his The Making of a Chef, in which he goes to the famed Culinary Institute of America for a year and writes about his experience. In The Soul of a Chef, Ruhlman returns to the CIA, this time to trail seven chefs as they compete for the CIA's elusive title of "Certified Master Chef".

Man this guy can write. I don't know what it is exactly: his language isn't particularly poetic, his vocabulary isn't evocative or interestingly esoteric, his plots don't have elaborate twists and turns—it's a documentary, after all. But Ruhlman manages to capture the excitement, the frenzy, the tension, the mood-swings in the CIA's kitchens in a way that grips the reader by the throat. I couldn't put the first book down, and I'm equally riveted by the second.

The best thing about the books, for me at least, is that they make you want to cook. And not just cook, but try your utter best to cook well. No home cook should pretend that they can achieve anything like the levels of perfection required of students at the CIA, unless they dedicate themselves full-time to the task. But Ruhlman really makes you want to try, he makes you care about not just cooking things but cooking them right, or at least cooking them as well as you can. I've dipped into my Escoffier a number of times over the years, but it's only while I'm reading Ruhlman's books that I eagerly grab for it and really think about what Escoffier is asking us to do.

If you're looking for inspiration in the kitchen, but not about any particular ingredient or technique, I've read nothing better for the job than Ruhlman's two books. Check them out, if you haven't already.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Stewed Savoy cabbage

Last night's meal was a winner. I had buckets of post-Thanksgiving turkey stock, and I wanted to use some of it sooner rather than later (the rest is in the freezer). I remembered that I'd once braised some cabbage in chicken stock and it had tasted delicious, so I thought I'd try that again, but with turkey stock this time.

What to have with it? Braised cabbage suggests pork to me, so I went for some spicy pork sausages (store-bought, but very tasty), and to complete my emerging Austrian theme I added some boiled potatoes. (I found some purple potatoes, which looked great sliced on the plate next to the bright green cabbage.) I finished it all with a sauce made of reduced vermouth and turkey stock, with some Dijon mustard mixed in. It was outstanding, if I say so myself.

The centerpiece was definitely the cabbage. I'd wanted to braise the cabbage in the oven, like I had done before with the chicken stock, but I found I only had an hour in which to cook, so I simmered it fairly actively on the stove instead. I'm guessing that braising would have allowed the cabbage to develop more depth of flavor, but it was so tasty as it was that I'm going to share my recipe just the way I made it last night.

One last point: the cabbage was Savoy cabbage, and this matters. Savoy cabbage is smaller, curlier, less tough, and milder in taste than regular green cabbage. When cooked through it kind of dissolves in your mouth in deliciously cabbagey chunks, instead of remaining in chewy sheets like regular cabbage. Give it a try if you've never had it.
2 Savoy cabbages, cut lengthwise into quarters
1½ small onions, thinly sliced
1 quart turkey stock
1½ tbsp butter
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
6 peppercorns
1 bay leaf
salt to taste

Heat the butter in a large dutch oven over medium heat, then add the onions and cook until softened, a few minutes.

Add the nutmeg and the cabbage quarters, and turn everything so all the cabbage is well coated.

Add the stock, the peppercorns and the bay leaf, cover the pan, and cook at a slow simmer until the cabbage is fork-tender, about an hour.

Season well with salt, and serve.

Monday, November 28, 2005

How to cook an egg

Eggs are among the most versatile and indispensable ingredients in any kitchen. They're used in sauces, breads, pastries, flans, and pancakes savory and sweet. And, of course, they're great on their own.

Eggs are also easy to cook, in the sense that it's child's play to turn a raw egg into something edible and reasonably tasty. Indeed, I was a young child when I learned to cook my first ever meal: scrambled eggs on toast. But eggs aren't all that easy to cook well. A reasonably cooked egg can make a reasonably tasty snack, or even a meal. But a perfectly cooked egg goes well beyond that. A perfectly cooked egg is wondrous.

I don't claim to be able to make a perfectly cooked egg. But over the years I've come to be able to make what I think of as a very good egg, by picking up tidbits of technique here and there, and, of course, practicing a lot.

Here's how I cook an egg. The techiniques aren't foolproof, and they certainly aren't original to me, but I'm pretty happy with them. Maybe you will be too.

Boiled. Soft-boiled eggs are tricky, since the time needed to cook them varies depending on altitude, water quality, and egg variety and freshness. The following is a guide, and will need to be adjusted to suit your own conditions. Place eggs in a pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water is boiling, start your timer and reduce the heat to a slow, steady boil (above a simmer but below a rolling boil). After 2 minutes and 40 seconds, remove the eggs from the pot and tap them on the head to crack the shells and let steam escape. Serve. (If making hard-boiled eggs, cook them for about 8 minutes.)

Fried. Heat 1 tbsp butter in a large cast-iron or non-stick frying pan. Crack the eggs into the pan from as close to the pan as you can get, to avoid them breaking in the fall. Cook until the whites are just opaque. For sunny-side up, keep cooking until all the white is cooked. For over easy, turn off the heat and flip the eggs in the pan; as soon as you've flipped the last egg, remove the first one, then the next, then the next—over-easy eggs need only a few seconds on the yolk-side, any more and the yolk will overcook.

Scrambled. Low heat and plenty of butter are the keys here. Melt 2 tbsp butter over low heat in a heavy-bottomed pot or pan. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a bowl until they're blended. Pour the eggs into the pan, and immediately start stirring with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring the eggs, scraping any that start to harden along the bottom of the pan. If they start to cook too quickly, remove the pan from the heat until it cools a bit, all the while stirring. (Scrambled eggs should take quite a while to cook, ten minutes or so.) When the eggs are cooked to your liking (some like them runny, some like them hard), season them with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Poached. To poach is to cook in liquid below the boiling point, often significantly below it. I like to poach eggs at a relatively high temperature, though. Bring a large pot of water, with a couple of tablespoons of vinegar in it, to a boil. While the water is boiling, crack the eggs into the water. Immediately turn off the heat. Once all the bubbles have subsided, turn the heat on very low. Cook for about three minutes, and either serve or add cold water to stop the cooking. The eggs can be held in warm water for up to about twenty minutes if need be.

Omelet. Melt 1.5 tbsp butter in an omelet pan, preferably non-stick, over medium-high heat. Whisk the eggs until they're fully blended. When the pan is nice and hot, pour the eggs in, immediately stirring vigorously with a wooden fork or spoon. Keep stirring until the eggs begin to set—lumps will start to form, and the stirring action will start to disrupt the shape of the fledgling omelet. Keep cooking over high heat until the surface of the eggs are gelatenous but immobile when the pan is tilted. Season with salt and pepper (and add any filling to the omelet now). Using a spatula, fold one side of the omelet over the other, so that about a third of the omelet remains uncovered. Tilt the pan over the serving-plate, with the exposed part of the omelet resting on the plate, and flip the rest of the omelet over the exposed part, sliding it onto the plate. Serve.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Turkey stock

Yesterday was a day of recovery for me, as I imagine it was for many people across the United States. After as long a lie-in as our fourteen-month-old would let us have, my wife and I spent most of the morning just sitting around the house staring at the huge piles of dirty plates, the charred and greasy pots, the empty wine bottles, and the shreds of turkey shrapnel which covered every available surface in our kitchen.

Then we struck a deal. The wife would watch the kid while I cleaned everything up. Right on.

So a couple of hours later I'm standing in my now-gleaming kitchen, feeling pretty proud of myself. I'm still way too full to eat, but there's a fair amount of the day left. And we'd decided, early on, that no-one was leaving the house. So what to do?

Turkey stock, of course.

I grabbed the largest pot I own, and shoved it on the stove with some coarsely-chopped mirepoix and seasonings, half-filling it with water. While it started to warm up, I hoisted the turkey-carcass onto the counter, and began the tedious task of picking through it, searching for the scraps of meat that would feed us for the next several days. Once I'd amassed a mounding plateful, I gave it up and grabbed the cleaver. A few minutes later, after some ear-splitting sounds of splintering bone (and the occasional cursing from me as a turkey leg went spinning across the kitchen floor), the carcass was in pieces and happily in the stock-pot.

The rest of the day was as pleasant as could be. Me, my wife, and my kid, all playing around and generally doing nothing. But it was doing nothing with a purpose: every twenty minutes or so I just had to pop into the kitchen and give the stock a quick skim, adjust the heat so it was just barely simmering, and generally futz around with the thing. What a glorious day.