Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Spotted Dick Meme

In case there was any doubt that I did the right thing in changing the name of my blog, this is from a Eater.com, dated last July:

Third time the charm for restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow in the shuttered Rocco's and Caviar & Banana space? Reports Braden Keil, "This fall, he plans to open an authentic British gastropub at 12 E. 22nd St., which he wants to name The Spotted Dick, after a steamed pudding served with currants or raisins in Great Britain. His savvy publicist, Karine Bakhoum, says she fears the moniker could be something of a sticky wicket here in the States. 'I'm practically on my knees begging him to name it anything else,' she says." [PLYWOOD/Keil/NYPost]

Monday, February 26, 2007

Three Knives


Back in 1991 or so, when I first started getting serious about learning to cook, I bought a set of Henckels knives. A ten-inch slicer, an eight-inch chef, and a three-inch parer. I never used the slicer enough even to have to steel it, and I replaced the parer soon afterwards with a cute little one-and-a-quarter-inch one. If I'd known then what I know now, I would have spent what the set cost on one really good chef's knife. But the one that came with the set is pretty good, and it has served me well. I'd say I've had it in my hand for just about everything I've cooked for the last fifteen years, up till a month or so ago.

At which time I bought an eight-inch Global. Oh my ears and whiskers, what a knife. It's got this really slender bevel, which means it can attain unearthly levels of sharpness. It's actually a little heavier than the Henckels, but it's so perfectly balanced that it feels light as a feather in my hand. With it, I can reduce a bunch of parsley to a little heap of green dust in seconds or scream through a pound of onions before I've had time to cry. It's a serious machine for making single things into multiple things.

The day after I bought it, I had a little Ruhlmanesque epiphany: I'd laid it on my cutting board, and as I was reaching across to grab something, my thumb met the edge of the blade. The knife didn't move. The blade just slid smoothly into my thumb. A lesson.

Then last weekend, Sara gave me that really cool Chinese kitchen knife on the right in the picture up there. And I've got to say I love it. I've only used it a few times so far, but it's fun! Split eggplants and butternut squashes and cantelopes with a single stroke. Loosen the skins on a few garlic cloves by bashing the bejeezus out of them with the flat of the blade or the butt end of the handle, whack the garlic up into a fine mince, scoop it up on that nice broad blade, and dump it in the pot, all in the time it takes to sing "Because I Would Not Stop for Death" to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Which one do I like better? The one that's in my hand. One's a Maserati, the other's a Jeep. I do think if I had the Chinese knife first, I probably wouldn't have bought the Global. But I'm glad I've got it. We'll see which one I end up bonding with. The Henckels will stay on in an emeritus position; it's been too constant a companion to simply throw in a drawer and forget.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bonus Kitty Pix: Ishi

Dogs are pack animals, and the personality of any one dog is likely to have quite a bit in common with most others. Cats, being loners, vary quite a bit more from individual to individual. Take, for instance, Ishi.



At some point early in her life, Ishi decided that tucking her head upside down and reaching around her hind legs was a more effective method of tail-chasing than the traditional running-in-circles maneuver.



Further research is necessary to determine whether this is a great strategic innovation for cats everywhere, or merely a freakish abberation.



As much as it pains me to say it, I'd probably have to bet on the latter.

More Adventures in Yeast-Wrangling


Ok, this is what I'm talking about. The initial rise was 24 hours -- it looked ready to go after 15, but I held off till this morning, figuring baking bread would be a pleasant thing to do with snow falling -- and I upped the salt to 2 tsp. I can safely say that I've now acheived greatness. Oh my, this is good. Cup of tea, hunk of cheese, slab of butter. Everything I need, right here.

The snow, though, is just ridiculously excessive. Three days ago I was in California, eating lunch outside, enjoying the sunshine and the cool gentle breezes. Bad enough to come home to freezing temperatures and my yard still covered with a sheet of ice, but more snow? That's just silly.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Mighty Restorative

The very best thing to eat when you've been driving in a whiteout on I-66: potato and leek pie. Slice 4-5 little red potatoes thinly, rinse a couple of leeks thoroughly and slice them thinly too; blanch the spuds and leeks in salted water for a few minutes, then layer them in a small casserole with a couple of handfuls of grated sharp cheddar, being sure to save some cheese out for sprinkling over the top. Salt and pepper, a couple of tablespoons of cream poured over, and into a 350-degree oven for about half an hour or until it's nice and browned and bubbly. Eat it right out of the casserole with a glass of wine, while sitting at a window and watching the snow fall and thinking about spring.

I'm off to sunny California tomorrow. They've got highs in the 60s out there now. Maybe a little chilly for swimming, but perfect for a walk on the beach.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Second Loaf



With less water, the correct amount of yeast, and a 19-hour initial rise, my bread turned out almost exactly the same. It smells a little less yeasty, and it's harder and crustier because I didn't hear my kitchen timer go off and the bread stayed in the oven about 15 minutes too long. Other than that, it's identical to the first loaf. It still tastes better than just about any bread I've gotten in a store.

I still want a lighter texture and bigger holes though. I just read a post on eGullet saying the looser the dough, the bigger the holes, as long as you don't overleaven. So next I'll try using 1/4 tsp. yeast and 1 5/8 cups of water. I can see I could spend years fiddling all the little details of this recipe. I haven't even begun to think about trying a sourdough version yet.

Speaking of that, I haven't mentioned my other revelation in recent days, namely that a container that formerly held yogurt is probably the worst one to use for starting a sourdough culture. The stench... oh, dear god, the stench...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wintery mix

There's a great big ice storm coming in tonight, and I've got one of the most comforting cold-weather dishes I know simmering away on my stove right now: carbonnades à la flamande. Which I always translate in my mind as "flaming hunks of carbon," but never mind. It's a Flemish beef stew with beer and onions. It's a mighty restorative: fearlessness in a bowl.

My recipe is mostly from Julia Child. Cut 3 1/2 pounds of chuck roast into reasonable-sized hunks, thinly slice two big onions, and mince 5 garlic cloves. Cover the bottom of a big heavy stockpot to about 1/16" with the fat of your choice (bacon or pork fat is best, peanut oil works ok) and heat till almost-but-not-quite smoking. Brown the beef in small batches, then set aside. Turn the heat down to medium-high and brown the onions in the fat for ten minutes or so. Stir in the garlic. Add the beef, 1 cup of beef stock, 2 tbsp. brown sugar, six springs of parsley, two big fresh bay leaves, 1/2 tsp. thyme, and enough beer to cover everything (Belgian ale is of course the most authentic, but I just don't have it in me to pour a bottle of Corsendonk out anywhere other than into my mouth. I used Yuengling lager.) Bring just to a boil, turn heat down to low, cover, and simmer 2 1/2 hours, by which time the meat should be fork-tender. Taste for salt -- if you use canned stock like I do, it probably won't need any. Combine 1 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch with 2 tbsp. wine vinegar, add to the pot, and simmer for a few minutes more to let the sauce thicken. Or do the same with a tablespoon or two of beurre manié (equal parts butter and flour smooshed together) instead of the cornstarch/vineger mixture. Give the stew a few healthy grinds of pepper and remove the parsley and bay leaves. Serve with boiled new potatoes, noodles, rice, or (again for maximum authenticity) slices of rye bread slathered with mustard. Serves 4-6.

I've also got my second loaf of bread undergoing its second rise right now. I followed Jim Lahey's original recipe this time. As John pointed out in the comments, Mark Bittman upped the amount of water from 1 3/4 to 1 5/8 cups when he did his New York Times article. The slightly drier version is worlds easier to handle and forms a ball easily. I'm curious to see how it comes out.

And I've got two cats looking very comfortable on the sofa, and I think I'll pour a glass of wine and go join them there now. I can hear sleet pattering the metal awning on my front porch.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Look what I did!

My friends, please allow me to present to you my first-ever successful loaf of bread.



I made it using Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman's revolutionary no-knead process. It was absurdly, ridiculously easy. I feel a little guilty.

You can see a video of the basic process here. At around 10:00 last night, I mixed together three cups of flour, 1 1/4 tsp. salt, and what should have been 1/4 tsp. yeast but because I wasn't concentrating ended up being an entire 7-gram package. By the time I discovered my mistake, it was too late, but I figured it would probably be ok. When you're making beer, you want to be able to pitch a good healthy colony of bugs in there, and making beer is just like making bread, except for the actual thing you're making. And a few other details. Anyway. I mixed in 1 5/8 cup of water and left the dough in its bowl, intending, after its prescribed 12- to 18-hour rise, to be able to bake this afternoon or tonight.

When I went to bed, it looked like this:



And when I woke up this morning at 6, all those yeasts had had a hell of a party, and my dough looked like this.



Bubbly. Glutenous. Yeah. As a result of my overpitching my yeast a little (well, ok, by a factor of 7), what should have taken 18 hours actually took 8. Thunderbirds were go. Per the recipe I turned it out on a floured surface and folded it over on itself, then let it rest for 15 minutes, attempted to "form it into a ball," failed (the dough was still a sticky, wobbly mass), and plonked it into a greased bowl for its second rise.

An hour and a half later, I started heating my oven to 450 degrees, with my 4-quart Corningware souffle dish inside. A half hour after that, I plopped my dough into the dish and put the lid on. A half hour after that, I took the lid off. And a half hour after that, I had the golden-brown, steamy-hot thing of beauty you see in the first pic.

I let it cool for a few hours on my improvised chopsticks-on-a-salad-plate cooling rack before opening the sucker up.



Beautiful, isn't it? I mean, it's not perfect; I wanted bigger holes and an airier texture. Presumably pitching the correct amount of yeast and allowing the long, slow first rise will make that happen. I'll do my next loaf the right way and report back. But still, this is some delicious stuff. I'm eating a hunk of it now, under a big slice of sharp cheddar, and it's the best thing I've tasted, at least as far as I can remember right now.

So as a neophyte baker, I'm wondering what I lose by making bread this way. I feel like a sculptor discovering all I have to do is leave a block of marble alone for a while and eventually it turns into the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Certainly this method has little of the homey sensuality you usually associate with making bread. There's none of the finicky issues with room temperature and humidity. The dough, when it's ready, feels nothing like a breast, which alone speaks for the superiority of the traditional method. I suppose if I wanted to make a refined pullman loaf or some other kind of bread I like less than the good crusty artisanal country stuff, I'd need to get more hands-on. But what I've got here is so good. And if I can delegate my work to a legion of hungry microscopic critters, what's not to like?

Anyway. I'm already planning my next loaf, which I'll make the right way. And for loaf #3, I may take a stab at a sourdough version.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Statement on Music as Torture

This is important. Go read this post on The Book I'm Not Reading, follow the links, and add your rage to the pile.

Short Subjects


  • Anthony Bourdain, guest-blogging on ruhlman.com, has written a scathing and hilarious rant critiquing the Food Network. "Oh, Mario! Oh great one! They shut down Molto Mario--only the smartest and best of the stand-up cooking shows. Is there any more egregiously under-used, criminally mishandled, dismissively treated chef on television? Relegated to the circus of Iron Chef America, where--like a great, toothless lion, fouling his cage, he hangs on..." I hope Bourdain never starts his own blog, because if he does, well, to paraphrase Robert Christgau, I'll just have to fold up my penis and go home.

  • How have I gone this long as a business traveler without this website?

  • Speaking of business travel, I'm heading to Irvine, California in a couple of weeks. Anybody have any restaurant recommendations? Last time I was there I had a good dinner at Las Brisas in Laguna Beach. I also had lunch at a place there I can't remember the name of, nor can I remember what I had because my waitress was the first person I'd been able to peg as a botox user, and I couldn't stop staring at her immobile, disturbingly youthful forehead. I think I enjoyed whatever it was I ate, though. I came back from that trip convinced that there is no decent coffee to be had in the whole of Orange County. This trip I'll be packing a bag of beans, a grinder, and my small coffee press. Yes, I'm an addict. And a dork. You didn't know this already?

  • Julie/Julia is done. Now there's French Laundry at Home.

  • Chicken Fried Bacon. Man, the things I'd miss if not for eGullet.



  • Speaking of eGullet, between the discussion going on there and John's pizza adventures, I've gotten excited to try Mark Bittman's method for no-knead bread, as reported in the New York Times and discussed here. I'm going to throw my first loaf together tonight, let it rise overnight and tomorrow, and bake it tomorrow evening. Stay tuned.

  • Late-Breaking Update! Mike has just emailed me a link to a live webcam feed of a cheddar cheese aging. I think this may be the most important use of the internet to date.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Friday, February 2, 2007

Friday

I've got a simplified version of Tes' Life-Changing Salmon (sounds kind of like something out of Lady Gregory, doesn't it?) in the oven now. Nice fresh wild Alaskan salmon filet, salt, pepper, dot with butter, slather on about a quarter-cup of persillade (equal parts fresh parsley and garlic, chopped fine), seal in foil, bake 15 minutes at 500 degrees. I get a real lizard-brain kind of pleasure out of smelling parsley and garlic while I'm chopping them; I even love the odor clinging to my hands for a few hours afterward. It's almost better than eating the final product. Almost, mind you. I'm very hungry. My stomach growls are making my cats glare at me.

I'm heading down to North Carolina tomorrow for a very belated Christmas with my mother. It's going to be a nice trip, even the ten-hour drive. I'm all about that Kerouacian American road trip thing. I'm going to try to leave early enough that it will still be daylight when I hit the mountains, and I'll probably stop by the Old Mill of Guilford on my way down and renew my supply of grits. I'll of course fill you all in on the high points when I get back Tuesday. There probably won't be much in the way of blogginess till then.

(Later) My salmon wasn't quite life-changing, but it was day-changing, and that's enough. Too many dark flavors. I should have squeezed a lemon over it, that would have helped. Still, it's hard to screw up fresh wild salmon, and this stuff was mighty good.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Miscellany


  • Required reading: Unhappy Meals, an excellent piece by Michael Pollan in the NYT magazine this past Sunday about eating food vs. eating nutrients, and how in our culture we've come to depend too much on the latter. At the risk of giving the whole thing away, I have to quote his rules of thumb for a healthy diet that come at the end of the piece:
    1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

    2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

    3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

    4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

    5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

    "Eat less" is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we currently do is compelling. "Calorie restriction" has repeatedly been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers (including Walter Willett, the Harvard epidemiologist) believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention. Food abundance is a problem, but culture has helped here, too, by promoting the idea of moderation. Once one of the longest-lived people on earth, the Okinawans practiced a principle they called "Hara Hachi Bu": eat until you are 80 percent full. To make the "eat less" message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

    6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants — the antioxidants? Fiber? Omega-3s? — but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you and certainly can’t hurt. Also, by eating a plant-based diet, you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods (except seeds) are typically less "energy dense" than the other things you might eat. Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians ("flexitarians") are as healthy as vegetarians. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he advised treating meat more as a flavoring than a food.

    7. Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do: if it weren’t a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around. True, food cultures are embedded in societies and economies and ecologies, and some of them travel better than others: Inuit not so well as Italian. In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats. In the case of the French paradox, it may not be the dietary nutrients that keep the French healthy (lots of saturated fat and alcohol?!) so much as the dietary habits: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.) Let culture be your guide, not science.

    8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion. The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism. Plus, the food you grow yourself contributes to your health long before you sit down to eat it. So you might want to think about putting down this article now and picking up a spatula or hoe.

    9. Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases. That of course is an argument from nutritionism, but there is a better one, one that takes a broader view of "health." Biodiversity in the diet means less monoculture in the fields. What does that have to do with your health? Everything. The vast monocultures that now feed us require tremendous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep from collapsing. Diversifying those fields will mean fewer chemicals, healthier soils, healthier plants and animals and, in turn, healthier people. It’s all connected, which is another way of saying that your health isn’t bordered by your body and that what’s good for the soil is probably good for you, too.
    But seriously, go read the whole thing.

  • Top Chef: I missed the final episode, but I see that Ilan won, despite the fact that most of his dishes are straight off the menu of the restaurant he works at, despite his complicity in the attempted shaving of Marcel, despite the fact that he seems to be a whiny little bastard all the way down. Even if his food was more happening than Marcel's (and of course you can't taste things through tv, so it's impossible to have a truly informed opinion) -- what a tool. On the other hand, as Anthony Bourdain observes, being a manipulative, conspiratorial, vindictive, weasely little shit is hardly an impediment to a career as a chef, and Ilan's ability to get others to do his dirty work is a useful skill in the profession. So -- sigh. Ok. I guess it's a sign of the show's integrity that two of the least likeable contestants were the ones that made it to the finals. (Bourdain also muses that while Marcel has a long way to go to be a chef, he might have a promising future as a food blogger. Ouch!)

    (My god. I'm blogging about a TV show. Excuse me; I have to go take a long, searching look in the mirror.)