Up To Speed

I read recently about cooking vegetables sous-vide; evidently 83˚ C is perfect for breaking down starch but leaving the pectin intact for the ideal combination of creamy yet firm. So I sliced some sweet potatoes and vacuum-sealed them with a little salt and dried sudachi zest and dropped them in the bath. Milo likes to grab eggplants and grapefruits when we shop (because they’re big and beautiful) so I split and roasted the former and supremed the latter.

I puréed the roasted eggplants with some cashews, salt, olive oil, and grapefruit juice to make a sort of mutant baba ghanoush, then pushed it through a tamis to make it super-velvety. Christine made more mash from endive thinnings, and I sliced some wild Alaskan salmon into sashimi; once plated, I gave it the hot garlic-infused sesame-olive oil treatment and then squeezed a little lime juice on top.

The flavors collided in all kinds of interesting ways, and it was good fun to try all the various combinations. The sweet potato could have used more time; I had to pull it out because dinner was running late, so it hadn’t completely cooked. Next time I’ll try to get them going in the afternoon so they can fully soften. But all in all, this was pretty successful improv. A few days off let the creative urge rebuild, and good ingredients plus- since I finally got the crates built and packed- the time to play with them made for a meal that found a sweet spot near the intersection of lightness and complexity.

Special Guest Chef!

I spent all day in the woodshop building crates for a couple of pieces destined for Chicago, so my lovely wife obligingly made a perfect dinner for us. It was pretty incredibly great to have dinner ready when I came down from showering. Honestly, I have to say that she roasts a better chicken than I do; she does the thing where she stuffs garlic and herbs under the skin- as well as in the cavity- so the flavors suffuse the whole bird. (I usually do the thing where I don’t.)

With brown rice and steamed broccoli, plus her version of green mash (which is much heavier on the lemon than mine) and some gravy which I whipped up at the last minute, this was pretty much as good as home cooking gets. The mash takes the other flavors to a magical place; the bitter-tangy-green just throws everything else into such sharp relief. There is nothing it doesn’t make better. Run, don’t walk, to buy a suribachi and some bitter green seeds.

Clean & Simple

Chick peas soaked and simmered with coconut milk and spices. Roasted potatoes with thyme and garlic. Fresh-picked kale wilted with shallots and lemon juice. Cucumber salad with baby shiso.

Humble, cleansing food that encourages reflection. I enjoy these meals as much as I do the decadent ones; it’s important to pare down sometimes and appreciate the basics. As fun as it is to get complicated and fancy, I need to be reminded sometimes that this blog is not the boss of me.

Oh, The Umamity

The family picked me up on Friday and we went to Vermont- only an hour away- for the weekend. On the way up, and for much of the preceding week, we had been excitedly talking about Pascal’s sausages: the trademark culinary treat of all recent Vermont trips. Our favorites include his merguez, cabbage and bacon, chicken and blueberry, and his crepinettes of duck with green peppercorn and rabbit with figs. These sausages are so good that calm, temperate people become crazed, wild eyed hyenas after trying them. There are never any left over, no matter how many were bought. They are pupil-dilatingly awesome.

Saturday morning, we bounded down to the farmers’ market to load up- some for dinner, some more to take home with us. We got the really good donuts, looked at some excellent stoneware, and wandered around, suddenly and simultaneously realizing that Pascal wasn’t there. We asked pottery guy, and he said, clearly bereft, that Pascal has shut down due to some regulatory and/or financial issues. A little piece of me died inside when I heard. Christine almost wept. The sausages are no more.

I have now taken it upon myself to duplicate a few- at least the duck and rabbit (I have already made good merguez) since we have an excellent source for them. I will not let these superlative sausages go gently into that good night. They will rise from the ashes to be grilled again. There will be more sausage parties (the good kind.) Oh yes. But they will also have to wait until later on this summer, after all this business tapers off a little.

Also, his terrines were pretty good.

Whew

I spent the second half of last week doing the first part of a residency at a sculpture park upstate. It’s a great, big, funky old farm just gearing up for the fourth season in its new incarnation, so there are lots of appealingly rough edges to the many buildings and facilities. The people are great, and everyone takes turns cooking a big communal dinner. Despite the serious physical exertion of getting my piece made, I nonetheless made dinner on two of the nights.

The first night, there were just three of us, since it was absurdly late and the others had gone to bed. My first day was easy, measuring and drawing on the field with one of those athletic paint striper things. This was pretty fun to play with, and it engendered all sorts of lawn graffiti ideas, not to mention the desire to invent several new sports.

I poked around the kitchen to try to locate the basics and see what might be interesting. There were nice fresh ocean perch, so I planned the meal around that; I spun a pretty good salsa out of tomatoes, red bell peppers, red onion, cilantro, and lime juice in the food processor (I was so glad they have one there.) I made some garlic mashed potatoes, and a salad of greens I had brought from our garden. Maria picked some of the monstrous rhubarb in front of the house and cooked it down with a little sugar.

Then the gas went out.

Nobody knew how to switch it over, and I had just arrived (turns out it’s ridiculously easy, but I had no clue it was even on a propane bottle) so we scrambled, lit a fire in the big grill outside, and cooked up some hot Italian sausages instead. Pretty good, even if we did end up eating at around 11:00.

The next day I spent pushing a heavy-ass rototiller around in the rain for the better part of ten hours. The best part about it- there were three, actually, apart from the rain which made what would have been pretty nice, crumbly soil into a dense black mud- was the fact that the engage lever didn’t turn off when released, so I had to lunge at the throttle if I wanted to stop, then manually flip the (way too close to the still-rotating tines for comfort) switch into the off position. In addition, the exhaust pipe was thoughtfully pointed right into my face, especially when I was bending forward both to relieve stress on my back and also act as a sort of anchor on the beast so that it actually dug into the wet turf rather than just sliding along on top of it.

And last, it had ergonomically diabolical handlebars- like it was a Schwinn with a banana seat and tennis balls in the spokes for cruising around your neighborhood when you’re ten- instead of a brutal, semi-controllable earth churning monster that you might actually need to operate with precision over a prolonged period in sub-optimal conditions, and thus a device for which one might desire a more secure, comprehensive, and comfortable hand-machine interface. It was at these moments, reading the “Made with pride in the USA” sticker on the handle (beyond which, the engine clearly said Honda) that I entertained myself, so desperate as I was for a massage, with fantasies of massaging the ass-clown who designed this machine with the selfsame machine to really emphasize the importance of good design. Remember how you really, really wished that the people who designed those butterfly ballots in Florida had choked to death on hanging chads? It was like that.

But I digress.

Insane though it may seem, after a shower I did in fact make dinner again. The gas had been sorted out (and explained to the others) so I made the fish: dredged in a mix of cornmeal and spices and crisped up in a little oil. The mashed potatoes plus an egg (they have chickens and ducks) a little flour, and some corn made little frittery-hush puppyesque starch cakes, and I sautéed spinach. Maria roasted beets, and blanched then cooked a big bag of fiddleheads in garlic butter. I do not love fiddleheads, but this method is as good as they get. Better late than never, we fell upon it like ravenous rototillers on hapless exhaust-loving middle managers who took a correspondence course in industrial design that one time. After dinner I even made a pie out of the rest of the rhubarb from the night before, using a wine bottle as a rolling pin.

And, just so you can see what this is all about, a picture post-tilling. It doesn’t look like much now, but just wait until the pretty flowers grow.

Land Sushi

One of the advantages of cooking meat sous-vide is the ability to get a bunch of other things done without risking overcooking- especially since I like my meat on the rare side. So I took a NY strip steak of Piemonte beef, seasoned it very simply with salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic, sealed it, dropped it in the bath at 54˚ C and forgot about it until it was time to serve dinner. While it was doing its thing, I was able to get some 10-grain mix into the rice cooker, make a quick wine reduction with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and a little agave syrup, and prepare some garnishes. I also sautéed some chard, since we had to dig up the last of the winter chard to make room for the rest of this year’s nightshades: peppers (hot and sweet) and eggplants.

And that was about it; we also picked some parsley and galia endive from the doomed bed and I made a little green mash out of those, plus garlic, an ume plum, and copious olive oil. There is nothing that goes with red meat quite like green mash. And kids love to help make it in the suribachi. Since there was time to do things like brown chard stems and wild garlic in a bit of butter, and then wilt chives in same, I assembled it all into sushi- but in a pinch, it could have easily been served as meat, grains, greens and sauce on a plate. I just get off on the refined presentation, because then each bite has the requisite proportion of all the flavors, and it’s delicious before you even have the first bite.

To accompany, a 2003 Jaboulet Vaqueyras, which for $20 is one of our go-to wines; it’s leathery, substantial yet light on its feet, and has plenty of tannin for meat. There’s enough fruit in there to handle wine reductions, and it evolves really nicely over the course of an evening. Having bought out the local store, I’m now officially sad that there may be no more for us to enjoy.

Proliferation

Sometimes a simple jumping-off point can become pretty complicated. Especially if you’re hungry, and have a lot of interesting leftovers in the fridge. So what began as an idea for an easy chicken and veggie curry quickly spiraled out of control and ended up as four dishes. It really came down to my desire to let certain things retain more of their individual identities, and my love for having lots of plates of Indian food on the table- whether at home, or in a restaurant.

All the various orphaned root veggies from the drawer in the fridge (carrot, turnip, sweet potato, onion) became the base for a lovely coconut curry that also included cauliflower and peas. Chicken thighs got their own pan, and simmered with yogurt, nettle purée, ginger, garlic, many other spices, and water. I cooked more of our tuscan kale with fresh mint, plus fenugreek and fennel seeds, and then blended it smooth. I also made a cucumber salad with dill from the garden like my Grandmother used to. (Milo grabbed the cucumber the other day so we’ve been enjoying another of his random out-of-season choices.)

It’s a tough time of year; despite the warm(ish) weather, we’re at a low ebb as the garden gets up to speed. Not so much of this was home-grown. It makes me a little nuts to buy vegetables when we have so many that will be ready soon, and next year I will make an extra effort to get certain things in the ground (with protection) even earlier so we can avoid this frustration. But nonetheless it all looked great on the beautiful Turkish plates, and it tasted really good over brown rice with a delicious 2006 Max Richter Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett. (Take that, Google spell-checker.)

Sunday, May 18

Yesterday would have been my Mom’s 63rd birthday, and coming as it does on the heels of Mother’s day, it makes this time of the year hard to deal with. But I’ve got her Grandson to distract me, and watching him help me dig in the garden is as fitting a tribute as I can imagine. Our lilacs are out in full force, and the wet breeze yesterday was intensely perfumed with memory-inducing smells of earlier rainy Mays. I moved our blueberries, and planted a variety of raspberries in their place, and generally kept myself busy in the garden and woodshop.

For dinner I made ma po tofu, but using the rest of the seasoned lamb mixture instead of pork. I also don’t make it spicy, but we compensate after the fact with lots of hot sauce. To go with it, quinoa and some of our Tuscan kale which is finally starting to bolt. Considering that I planted it in October, it easily wins the award for the most successful overwintering crop, and it’s sweet and beautiful to eat as it takes its final bow and makes room for the next generation.

I read somewhere recently about lilacs being edible, and a lilac ice cream, so I decided I’d try making it to accompany a strawberry-rhubarb pie; the flowers and the pie are both things that I associate very strongly with my Mother. I simmered the flowers in cream, a little soymilk, sugar, and a splash of rum, figuring that some of the perfume in the flowers might be more soluble in alcohol. I also added some honey, since that seemed like a nice secondary flavor for the ice cream. The kitchen smelled incredible while I separated eggs and beat them.

The pie was very simple: my Grandmother’s perfect crust (which, amusingly, my Mom could never make; we called it the “generation-skipping crust” which should amuse all you probate lawyers out there no end.) The filling cooked down a bit and I thickened it with a little flour since we had no cornstarch. And I made lattices with the extra dough, again for reasons of tradition, and also because my wife likes lattices on her pies.

Once frozen, the ice cream had a lovely smooth curl to it, and it did in fact taste very strongly of lilacs. Have you ever used some hand lotion or other product and it smelled so heavenly that you wished you could eat it? That’s exactly what this was like. And since I always under-sweeten my tarts just a bit, the sweet ice cream did a wonderful job of highlighting the tangy filling and flaky crust. Milo was so excited by the ice cream that he also took a couple of bites of the flower I used to garnish it with. Happy birthday, Claire.

Short Stack

We came back from Boston pretty tired and glad to be home. I planted the potatoes that had arrived on Friday and thinned a salad of galia endive. There was some ground lamb in the fridge, and some big sweet potatoes that needed eating, so I stood in the kitchen for a while staring at everything like a dummy and eventually figured out what I wanted to make. Sometimes it’s hard, but eventually the wheels do turn.

First I seasoned the lamb with lots of garlic, cumin, herbs, 5-spice, sudachi zest, and a splash of wine. The potatoes par-baked in the oven while I accidentally invented one of the best things ever- nettle purée mixed with Greek yogurt and a little truffle oil. The nettle and the yogurt flavors overlap in the most amazing way, complementing each other and amplifying the overall effect; it’s perfectly balanced between creamy and green, and the truffle oil (and a little salt) make it sublime.

I pulled the not-quite-soft spuds from out the oven and sliced them, then browned them gently in some of the fat rendered off the little lamb burgers I formed with the ring from a mason jar lid. They all made nice little stacks, and got topped with sautéed Swiss chard and lardo that Christine had made for Milo since he got hungry before we did. In a perfect world, I would have done two things differently: made a nice red winey fruit reduction to dribble like maple syrup on the stacks, and prepared the chard stems separately from the leaves- say by giving them a quick pickle or vacuum-sealing them with salt for a bit- to scatter around for color and textural contrast.

But the nature of home cooking is working within the constraints of life, including long drives, fatigue, residual jitters from an awful cup of Whole Foods coffee, a hungry child, and a hundred other things. I plan on revisiting this dish later with a few refinements. At the end of the day, though, it’s more fun to invent and improvise; sometimes things don’t quite work, but sometimes there’s a thick green Perfection Sauce to enjoy. It’s also fun, and satisfying, and makes for a more interesting blog, but for me the main reason I like to cook this way is the knowledge that when I make something like this, I can be pretty sure that the lavishly beautiful woman across the table is totally going to give it up later on.

Green On Green

Today I had to keep it simple; it’s getting into crazy time with the number of projects looming on the near horizon. Today was rainy, but warm- another sign that we’re into the next season- and the temptation is always to rush into the summer flavors even though they’re not actually here yet. So I tried to focus on what is here, and make it as good as possible. I find it frustrating, though, since it’s a tough time for getting certain things locally, especially fruit. I was in a market that I don’t usually shop at the other day, and the smell of all the incredible fruit from all over the world sent me into a tizzy. But I didn’t buy any, not that time.

Instead, I cut a bunch of stinging nettles from the patch between the ramps (done) and the blackberries (far, far away) and brought them in to process. Steamed up in their own rinsing water, then spun in the food processor, they became that unbelievable dark green that looks more like paint than food:

Nettlesome.

and then I evaporated off more of the liquid in our new post-teflon nonstick pan, and stirred the thick green goop into the pasta dough.

Nettle-icious.

And then I ran it through the pasta machine. (No pictures, since it takes two hands to do that part.) Meanwhile, I cut some of our very own salt pork into little cubes and browned it in a pat of butter. Yes, butter is the magic ingredient that makes salt pork become carnal perfection, adding a sweetness to the rich, clean herbal tang of the pork fat. To this, some flour to make a little roux, then a splash of white wine followed by milk, dried porcini mushrooms soaked in some of the nettle cooking liquid, more of the nettle purée, and then a little more butter to adjust the consistency for a proper balance between the two conflicting sauce coefficients of pasta adhesion and lubrication.

For lack of any other herbs (I was rushed) it got garnished with a few radishes for snap and color, a dribble of truffle oil, and was accompanied by a salad of our penultimate little heads of bibb and butter lettuces that regrew in the winter bed. It worked very well; the pasta had a nice green flavor balanced by the eggy bite, and the sauce was pretty insane, but restrained due to the relatively small amount- it was just enough to coat the noodles and provide porky surprises in every other bite. We had the luxury of eating this with a glass of the Savennières from last night, followed by a Mas de Gourgonnier rosé that really got along with this dish- with fraises des bois positively leaping out of the glass in counterpoint to the mushroom and nettle earthiness. And then, for dessert, a last glass of the Carver Sutro petite sirah from last night, since the rosé will keep just fine in the fridge.

Nettle-cine.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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