OK, Then

An inauguration, of sorts, for the new kitchen, in that I actually took a few minutes to plan and think through a whole meal for the first time in a month. I had been to the store to get a few things, and as I always do at this time of year I grabbed winter veggies: leeks, fennel, turnips, and kale. I knew we had a duck breast in the freezer, and there were some kumquats in the fridge that needed using. So it sort of took shape around those two ingredients. Like the Wonder Twins, only it was just dinner–as opposed, say, to an orca riding an ice surfboard.

I shredded the fennel fine, caramelized it with some shaved onion, and then deglazed the pan with sake. I let it simmer covered until soft, then added in a bit of pure mustard oil and minced fennel fronds to make a sort of mostarda. Pure mustard oil isn’t exactly legal for sale in this country, at least for culinary use, so it has to be marked “for external use only.” But as all good parents know, that’s just an invitation to open it up and see how it tastes. And it tastes good. Plus, it’s like having your very own chemical weapon in the pantry!

I sliced and simmered the kumquats with blackcurrant brandy, honey, cinnamon, and star anise until marmaladey. The duck I just scored, seared, flipped, and rested on low heat for a few minutes to heat through without cooking past rare. I found some leftover enoki mushrooms, so I threw them into the still-hot duck fat to brown and crisp into little fries, and I’m so very glad I did. The silky, sweet-hot fennel, rich, tender duck, and sweet, sour, complex marmalade were pretty great by themselves, but enoki fries? In duck fat? If there were a Nobel prize for crispy, umamilicious garnishes, I would be a lock.

Tell me that you do not wish this had been your dinner:

To plus the perfect, a 2007 Domaine des Vallettes Borgueil–I first mentioned it here, about the last time I cooked something interesting–and it’s a new favorite in the $20 and under category (which, let’s be honest, is pretty much the only category we’re buying these days). Light, elegant, and delicately perfumed with strawberries, it nonetheless has enough structure to handle fat meat. And you look for that in a wine.

Now I Need A Wide-Angle Lens

Before:

After:

All told, it came in at just about two weeks of work, though spread out over three. There’s a bit more to do, but it’s all minor aesthetic stuff like trim and paint and doors for over the hood. I’ll get to all that much later–probably after the garden is planted. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go fondle my butcher block.

Filler

On my way back from Newark airport after dropping the family off, I accidentally bought this beautiful Le Creuset dish. Then, once the kitchen was functional and said family had been fetched and reinstalled here at home, it sort of seemed important that I take it for a spin on our new 101,000 BTU stove (not counting the oven, of course).

I dusted chicken legs with a mixture of flour, salt, and spices (all in the Indian flavor spectrum) and then browned them in their own rendered fat and removed them. Into the redolent schmaltz I then dumped carrot, onion, sweet potato, kale, and red cabbage, and let it all caramelize a bit (a bit being about a minute on the new stove). I added coconut milk, vindaloo paste, and water, returned the legs to the fray, and covered it to simmer. At the very end, I shook in some frozen peas. We had it on quinoa, with mango chutney.

Apologies to those of you waiting for renovation porn; I’ll have those pics up soon, I promise.

Shabu Chic

The induction burner that I bought to cook on while I waited (with less and less patience) for the new stove has now transitioned from being the bootleg bachelor construction kitchen to being a useful appliance that now allows us to enjoy something I’ve been hankering to have for quite some time: shabu-shabu. Cooking at the table is fun, and customizing the doneness of every morsel makes for an excellent eating experience.

Good broth is a prerequisite, so I made dashi. But since we were going to be swishing some lovely Washugyu tri-tip therein, I added phở flavors as well because beef loves those flavors, and I figured the dashi wouldn’t object. I charred half an onion and some ginger, and added them in with a star anise pod, half a cinnamon stick, and two cloves to simmer for a bit while I prepped the rest. After a while, I strained them out and added sliced burdock to soften.

Said rest consisted of enoki mushrooms, thin spirals of turnip, carrot slivers, and scallion slices. I used the saladacco for the turnip and a vegetable peeler for the carrot.

Predictably, it was a hit, and we have a new addition to the rotation. The broth picks up notes from all the various things that go into it and makes for superb slurping when all the goodies are gone. And all the fragrant steam fogs up the cold windows, pushing winter ever farther towards its impending end.

Nueva Cocina

The kitchen is almost done. As I write this, I have one more day of serious work before it’s going to be fully operational, wanting only a day or two of cosmetic finish work (molding, trim, and paint). The new stove is like a Lamborghini; everything that used to take meaningful portions of an hour now takes mere minutes, countable on the hand without the spoon. It came in on time, and within acceptable budgetary parameters–meaning that various material/hardware expenses (and I went to the hardware store and/or lumber yard every day) didn’t exceed 5% of the total.

To celebrate, even though the island is still just covered in 3/4″ A/C plywood, we made a feast from some of the bounty acquired at Mitsuwa, where we stopped for lunch and a big shop on our way home from Newark airport. We got lots of Washugyu beef and Berkshire pork for future meals (see tomorrow) and tons of staples in the form of bottled and dried ingredients. And sake.

Last night’s dinner was in three courses, because I was energized by both the sight of the finish line and the quality of the new goodies. To begin, some luscious, artisanal tofu that I would tell you all about but for the fact that every single thing written on the label was in Japanese. Fresh, silken circles of delicate deliciousness, it was. I made a sauce using fresh sea urchin puréed with usukuchi (light soy sauce), rice vinegar, a tiny dab of smooth peanut butter (since I find that uni have a slightly peanutty flavor) and sake with the alcohol burned off. It made for a very pudding-like, seductive dish, especially for those members of the family (everyone but me) who do not love sea urchin. It’s funny, but “slimy orange invertebrate gonads” aren’t that much of a selling point. Go figure.

Keep reading Nueva Cocina…

Radio Silence

I’m neck-deep in renovations, the family is in Florida, and I’ve gone Full Caveman; I’m cooking with one portable induction burner until the new range arrives, skipping meals and working 10 or more hours a day to get this into some kind of shape before the family returns.

Thanks for checking in; I really appreciate all of you taking a few minutes out of your busy lives to read about what I made for dinner. Regular programming will resume next week after an ungodly amount of mopping.

Lest you feel enraged at this complete lack of content, I offer the following picture of roast beef, twice-baked duck fat/garlic potatoes, endive mash, and sautéed kale from months ago. Rest assured it’s several orders of magnitude better than what I’m living on these days.

Sweet Sweetness

Fresh on the heels of another fish delivery, and despite being pretty thoroughly covered in grout, I got giddy with the potential in our box of seafood and tried to make it into something befitting its freshness and quality. To begin, a dozen more oysters. I didn’t photograph them, because they disappeared too quickly. John stopped by to pick up his order, and had a couple, and I polished off the rest.

Next up, a gorgeous hunk of yellowfin. Translucent fuchsia, it really needed nothing at all done to it, so I sliced it fairly thick and made sushi of a sort using the rest of the brown rice risotto from the night before. The consistency of the rice was a little wet, so after taking this picture I actually gathered the fish into rolls with the rice inside for easier eating.

I used the rest of the chicken stock to make simple miso soup, and caramelized some king oyster mushrooms and deglazed them with soy, mirin, and ume vinegar. Extra mushroom sauce made an extraordinary dipping sauce for the tuna rolls.

I took the triangular end of the steak that couldn’t be sliced for sushi and minced it fine with scallion, sesame and olive oils, Espelette pepper, and ume vinegar to make a tartare, formed it into balls, and gave a hard sear in the mushroom pan to one side of them. I deglazed with a bit of the miso soup and soy sauce, and poured it over. You can’t see because of the dark sauce–which, in retrospect, I should have poured on the plate first–but the underside is completely raw while the top has a nice brown burgeriffic crust.

To drink, as a celebration of this perfect seafood that we are so lucky to have access to (and the fact that the tile is grouted) I opened a 2003 Domaine Cheze Condrieu cuvée de Breze that is a deep yellow, dessert-looking wine, with some of the slightly oxidized, unctuous qualities of a great sweet wine but all in the service of a magnificent, dry late-middle-aged Viognier. Not a perfect match–a simple Muscadet would have been perfect with the oysters, and carried over just fine–but it more than sorta took care of business, elevating the whole meal like a movie star dropping in on your picnic.

All Truism

Another showcase for scraps and remnants, and another meal where the pressure cooker has lived up to its reputation as a most useful contraption, this dinner was exceedingly simple and extremely satisfying. We had leftover brown rice and a pot of chicken stock from a night or two earlier, so I combined them into a faux risotto of sorts that featured shredded kale, peas, and parsley. I pressure-cooked some navy beans with minced morsels of lardo and duck prosciutto, burdock, turnip, garlic, a small container of the lusciously soft veggies from the last post, and then stirred in tomato paste and fresh herbs from the pots in the dining room and seasoned it all with salt and pepper.

That was it, really–rice and beans. But there was enough going on in each half that they didn’t really seem like settling for less than luxury. The next day, they made for superlative burritos with avocado, more kale, and a couple of homemade hot sauces. It’s nice to eat clean and simple food like this a couple of times a week; it’s good for the body and the planet, and it makes the more decadent meals into special occasions to be gratefully savored. And it uses up the detritus in the fridge before it grows hair.

Rub One Out

Shichimi Togarashi means “seven flavor chili pepper” in Japanese. Besides ground chili, it has nori, sesame seeds, citrus peel, sansho pepper, and poppy and hemp seeds in varying proportions. Many in the West like to call it “togarashi” because it’s easier and sounds cool, though sticklers point out that that basically just means “chili” and thus is not accurate. Those people also tend not to get invited over for dinner very often, but that’s sort of beside the point. (And I have an Alinea menu that just says “togarashi” on it, so there). It’s a complex and useful seasoning, imparting a bright yet earthy heat to everything it touches. I like it on soup especially, where it can really embellish the transparent flavors.

A jar of particularly fine shichimi that John brought me from Japan. Also note the brand new, boner-inducing countertop that I totally put in all by myself.

But since I’m kind of a Mediterranean guy at heart, I’ve been inspired to invent a sort of European alternative that’s better suited to certain preparations. After much tinkering, I’ve arrived at a blend that works very well for the purposes I had in mind. The iodine notes of nori are not present, and there’s no citrus–though I have added sumac on a couple of occasions, since it’s local, and ironically enough I just got a bag of Iranian sumac from a friend–but the beauty of hacks like this is that they’re infinitely malleable. Every time I make it, it’s different, and that’s appropriate to how I make pretty much everything.

Look–I say just LOOK–at that counter.

This mise is not complete; I left out some tiny little dried hot pepperoncini from Siena that I keep in a not very attractive vessel. Sue me. The basic ingredient list is as follows:

Maldon salt or similar
Cracked black pepper
Pink peppercorns
Piment d’Espelette
Pimentón (sweet, hot, bitter, or a custom mix)
Dried hot pepper (chile de arbol or pepperoncini)
Herbes de Provence (homegrown if possible; this blend is rosemary, thyme, lavender, savory, oregano, fennel seed, and basil)

I bust everything up in my little suribachi until it’s fairly fine. Everything plays a part, and of course it can be adjusted every which way. Sumac makes it wicked with duck or lamb. A pinch of sugar would not be out of place for certain applications. Pink peppercorns really do something special with the Basque and Spanish peppers, adding a horsey note that’s not as strong as that of white pepper, and with that floral character that makes pink pepper so lovely and entwines so well with lavender. (I have a grinder for black, and another with a mix of pink and white in it for dainty things).

If you look down there at the bottom right, you can see a little sliver of my new counter.

I’ve used this blend on seafood, chicken, meat, grilled buttered flatbread, beans, pasta, and more. It works. Above all, though, it owes its invention to one pressing need that haunted–nay, tortured–me for weeks: what the hell was I going to use to cure this ham?

Sadly, that’s not the counter; it’s just our giant speckleware canning tub.

Prosciutto is sometimes rubbed with hot pepper during the curing process and/or coated with black pepper afterward while it hangs. The great hams of Bayonne often, but not always, get rubbed with Espelette pepper as part of their long journey towards total awesomeness. Lacking any sort of a tradition to draw from, I built this blend, mixed into copious quantities of salt and brown sugar, and slathered it all over this here big hunk of pig leg. I’ve been turning it every few days, and soon–it’s not a whole ham, so I’m curing it for a bit less time than recipes call for–I’ll rinse it and hang it to dry until next fall. If the smell at this stage is any indication of the final flavor, it will not suck.

Not Especially Swedish

This was one of those one-off, never to be duplicated sort of dinners, based as it was on leftovers and randomness. Now that I think of it, though, isn’t that true for all of our efforts? So this meal had universal significance, and spoke to the very core of the Human Condition.

Also, it had meatballs in it.

I took some ground turkey and seasoned it with garlic, spices, and herbs (minced fennel fronds featured prominently, on account of I hate to throw them away but there are always so damn many on each bulb) and set them to brown in a skillet with some ghee. I had turned all the leftover chicken bones into a simple stock earlier in the day, so that was ready to go, and I ladled some of it into a saucepan with the leftover kabocha chunks and blasted it all smooth. Meanwhile, I sweated diced fennel, turnip, burdock, carrot, and onion, then added a bit of stock and let it all soften. And I made a pot of brown rice, because we’re filthy, filthy hippies.

Once the meat was cooked, I poured in some blackcurrant brandy and flamed off the alcohol, then removed the meat. I sprinkled flour on the hot fat and stirred it into a roux. I added stock to gravify it, then stirred the result into the squash mixture. It all came together nicely; the meatballs were plenty flavorful, but, being turkey, needed some sauce to fill in for the near-total lack of fat. And the silky, glistening vegetables jumped right into this sweet purée with reckless abandon. It all made for excellent leftovers the next day, stirred together with more stock to make a thick, wonderful soup.

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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