Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of bacon and prehistory

The test (OK, my test) of a decent cookbook is if you can browse through it looking for a dinner idea and come up with something for which you have most of the ingredients.
That’s the premise behind this exercise/slash/blog (which I need to spell it out every so often): Does a cookbook have that go-to durability, or is it just serving to insulate my walls against the coming winter?
So, I’m flipping through A-16 before the weekend, wanting to make something substantial, but also unfamiliar, which brought me to the spareribs. I never make spareribs, or ribs of most any description. But there they were, seemingly simple in their preparation and – key finding - I had the ingredients (all but the ribs, anyway) on hand. They’re patted with a spice rub of fennel seeds, cardamom seeds and red pepper ground together, then slathered with plain yogurt and left to marinate. Braise them in the oven, finish on the grill or broiler, then finish with a squeeze of lemon. I could do this.
And thanks be that I didn’t have the ribs, because then I got to Clancey’s Meat & Fish, the little butcher shop in the Linden Hills neighborhood, and that’s when I got to witness owner Kristin Tombers gently, oh so gently, lure a lost lamb back into the fold.
An earnest young man was placing his order – a pork roast and some bacon. Then he asked, how do you prepare your bacon? Tombers described the smoking, the wood used. Mmm-hmm, he said, but do you use nitrites? And informed that she did, he hesitated, as if fearing to appear rude, then said to never mind the bacon. Who cancels an order of bacon? “We’re trying to avoid nitrites.” He said it apologetically. After all, Clancey’s is one of the meat counters that dotes on organic and grass-fed and every other “love your body, love the Earth” way of raising flesh.
Tombers went about wrapping his roast and then, in the spirit of “I’m just sayin,’” told him in so many words that he’d have to eat a side of bacon the size of Balloon Boy Dad’s ego to have any ill effects. He thanked her, said he’d look into it, and vamoosed with his pork roast.
So I looked into it.
Folks at the University of Minnesota Extension Service, who look even deeper, have reported that people normally consume more nitrites from vegetables than from the cured meats they eat. And lending some science to my crack about Balloon Dad, for a regular size guy to get a lethal dose of sodium nitrite, he’d have to eat almost 19 pounds of bacon at one sitting. And even then, the researchers added, it’s the salt that would probably kill you.
So much for my defense of bacon, which has nothing to do with A-16, but more with the experiences you run across when you shop at places where customer and owner actually can have that sort of exchange.
You can tell how I feel about bacon because I digressed even while knowing it would keep from talking about one of the best sauces I’ve had in ages. It was a soffrito, more of a condiment, actually. This “concentrated flavor enhancer” infuses steamed vegetables with a slow-cooked flavor, as did the Tomato Anchovy Soffrito into which I stirred some braised kale.
The soffrito was deeply rust-colored – it does bear watching on the burner as it simmers – and was another piece of evidence in the case for how anchovies have this way of melting away in the midst of tomatoes, onions and olive oil into this flavor that goes right to the brain stem. It’s almost prehistoric in its depth.
I had never made one, and now, as with the cheese brodo, a soffrito will become a part of my kitchen work. Besides, eating all the kale made me feel really healthy. Bring on the bacon.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Finding an ally, a technique and a meal

A-16 came very close, very close to being put in the “nice but not a keeper” pile. It was facing its classic test: Being thumbed through as I’m finishing my second cup of coffee, looking for what to make that night for dinner. Ideally, I find a meal that won’t require a trip to the store; next best case, a quick stop on the way home.
So, thumb, thumb, thumb, and all I see are the recipes for a Rabbit Mixed Grill: Loins, Ribs, Legs and Belly Marinated with Black Olives, Preserved Lemon, Parsley and Chilies. For Braised Goat with Tomatoes, Rosemary, Cinnamon and White Wine. For Short Ribs all Genovese.
It’s a Friday. I want a good meal, indeed have been fantasizing about unwinding by making a great meal, but time is time and short ribs aren’t going to make it. Nor rabbit belly.
Mmm-hmm – A-16 was turning into one of those cookbooks, after all. A few recipes, but ultimately impractical on a daily basis.
But I said I’d give the book a month, and I’m a cook of my word, even if it’s to an inanimate object.
I kept coming back to a recipe that had a great photo – Braised Halibut with Pistachios, Preserved Meyer Lemon and Capers. Then there was the gnocchi dish, Ricotta Gnocchi in Brodo with Peas and Spicy Pork Meatballs. This recipe especially intrigued me because the Brodo was a broth made by simmering leftover ends of hard cheese – the parmesans, romanos or pecorinos – that you keep stashed in the freezer. Long ago, I learned that a cheese rind thrown into a soup was subtly transformational, if that’s not a contradiction. The flavor gets deeper. It’s really good.
I’d also vowed to try making ricotta gnocchi ever since I had them at Lucia’s restaurant in Uptown. One of my top 10 dishes, seriously.
So things were shaping up: A quick pass through the store would get me the fish and ricotta. I remembered I had a bag of those little sweet multicolored papers from Costco that were on the verge of going south, so why not make a batch of pepperonata to have on bread? I had everything but the fennel. Add that to the list.
And then things changed.
What ended up on the table later that night was not quite the meal I’d imagined making. But the experience of what started in the book and landed on the plates actually ended up making A-16 seem like more of an ally in the kitchen. Here’s why:
I wanted the gnocchi, but not the peas or pork meatballs, and I had some leftover fresh tomato sauce from the garden, so sauced gnocchi would be fine. Except, I couldn’t let go of that brodo idea. So I ended up dropping a cheese rind into the water in which the gnocchi cooked and, while perhaps not Lucia-like transformational, it lent these little bits of ricotta, flour and eggs a cheesy undertone. Delicious. Adding a cheese rind to cooking liquid is a terrific technique. So noted.
Grocery lists also are a terrific technique. Had I made one, I would have known I had no capers on hand, which ended up being needed for both the halibut and the pepperonata. So I exchanged briny for spicy in the pepper dish, adding a squirt from that tube of Italian chilies (see previous post.) I opted out of the capers for the fish, combining toasted chopped pistachios with chopped parsley and grating in fresh lemon rind instead of buying preserved lemons. Maybe added a pinch more salt.
In his head notes for the recipe, Nate Appleman says that one of his favorite simple ways to prepare firm-fleshed fish is with a mixture of nuts and herbs. To which I say, one of my favorite simple ways to prepare firm-fleshed fish is with a mixture of nuts and herbs. Or, ditto. Seriously, the salmon/almond/basil and now the halibut/pistachio/parsley. Two for two. Great stuff.
Anyway, here’s the deal. I didn’t follow the recipes religiously, but still felt led by them. Appleman didn’t so much inspire, as fall in step with me as I marched through his ideas. I got to spend a Friday night unwinding by cooking, and ended up eating food I’d never made before, and will again.
Oh, and I roasted some Brussels sprouts, just because one can never walk past really good looking Brussels sprouts in October without buying some.
If you hate them, that’s more for me.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Exploring "A16 Food + Wine"

As I was saying…
It’s taken me a while to pull myself from the pages of October’s chosen cookbook, A16 Food + Wine, and remember to write. This comes as some surprise because A16 is one of those restaurant books, which made me first flip through its pages with the same attitude I bring to perusing Shape magazine in the grocery checkout: Mmm-hmm, impressive -- commendable, even. Must be nice to have four hours a day to dilly-dally about the gym.
A16 is a San Francisco restaurant – it’s no doubt been called an eatery by one critic or another – that supposed to be very good and very famous. Chef Nate Appleman is a protein guy, curing his own salumi and slow-cooking his meats. The book’s co-author is the wine director, Shelley Lindgren, whom, I’m sure, has all sort of valuable advice to pass along about pairings and varietals and terroir. But so do those little tags that hang off the shelves at the wine store, so…
Anyway, my point is that I didn’t expect to get sucked into this book, but, well, Roasted Butternut Squash with Pancetta and Chiles, Ricotta Gnocchi in Brodo with Peas and Spicy Pork Meatballs, Rib Roast of Beef with Rosemary and Mosto – this is my kind of cooking.
Granted, I’m fresh out of mosto, wouldn’t you know, but I’ll bet it’s available locally.
So I dove in, making the butternut squash dish and Roasted Asparagus with Walnut Crema and Pecorino Tartufo. In the squash recipe, Appleman raves about Calabrian chilies, even as he adds that they’re not readily available. I’ll check the specialty stores here someday, and there’s always – sigh -- ordering online. But he also said I could substitute ¼ to ½ tsp, dried chile flakes. I like a chef who acknowledges the need to make substitutions.
As it was, I happened on a tube of pureed chiles in the store, next to the tubes of garlic and pesto. I’ve always shied away from them, thinking they’re leftovers from NASA getting out ahead of itself and envisioning what to serve in first-class moon flight. But the tube read “Made in Italy,” and they were chiles, so in the cart it went. And – not bad. I could have used more in the finished dish, but the resulting flavor had more warmth than heat, in a good way. I’ll keep experimenting with it.
At any rate, the combo of bacony, chile-ey roasted squash was terrific – and came together in the half –hour it took to peel, slice and roast the squash.
The asparagus recipe caught my eye because I’d bought a stalk of Brussels sprouts at the farmers market and was trying to finish it up. There are more sprouts than you might think on a two-foot bludgeon. So I thought sprouts could stand in for asparagus. I’d always wanted to try a walnut cream sauce – OK, not always, but ever since I’d heard of one.
Again, a quick dish to assemble – the sauce is blanched walnuts thrown in the blender with some sautĂ©ed red onions and olive oil. Very rich and earthy-tasting, which was great with the sweetly bitter (you know what I mean) roasted sprouts. I’d even sought out the recommended pecorino tartufo – pecorino with bits of black truffle – to shave over each serving. I’d bought the smallest wedge I could, and glad I did because I just am not a truffle person. Its aroma always seems to be written up as erotic, but it smells to me, like a farm. And I know farms. Hog farms.
So I wrapped the remaining wedge in aluminum foil, sealed it in a freezer bag, so as to have it handy for … well, I couldn’t just throw it out.
Oh! Almost forgot the Braised Salmon with Basil, Almonds and Lemon. Again, a simple preparation, but the dish was unexpectedly elevated by the sprinkling of correctly-toasted almonds. Appleman actually spends a few paragraphs talking about toasting nuts, the goal being to achieve an even caramel color throughout the almond. The key is a low temp, 300 degrees, and plenty of time, 15-20 minutes.
So, was this book opener’s luck? More meals ahead.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In conclusion...

So this is how it’s going to be – we’re four days into October and I haven’t started a new cookbook, because I haven’t closed the loop on the last cookbook because – and I do have a reason – because I was trying to give “A Platter of Figs” one more time to shine before moving on.
Surely, I thought, this will be the night I’ll make grilled halibut with Indian spices or even the soufflĂ©-y spinach cake. But no. I was always trying to use the last of the garden's vegetables and David Tanis wasn’t giving me much help there. I could give him a pass and chalk to up to bad timing. But here’s the deal: Scanning the index for potential entrees, I kept running up against the fact that I did not have, waiting in my freezer – or even readily available – quail, rabbit, pigs’ ears, shoulder of spring lamb, or veal loin.
Great recipes, I’m sure, and worth trying for a special dinner. But in the end, the book didn’t meet the day-in, day-out standard I’d set for this exercise.
Having said that, it also ended up providing some corroborating evidence for how I cook right now. His Parsnips, Epiphany-Style, are my spears of parsnips roasted in olive oil. One of the side dishes if I end up on Death Row, for sure. Same with roasted beets, roasted eggplant, spiced olives, salted tomatoes. In many ways, David Tanis and I think along the same lines, which is cool. We all need a vote of confidence. But I'm not looking for my own routines in a new cookbook.
I’m making it sound like "A Platter of Figs" held no insights, and that's not so. I will remain forever grateful for its humble tip about garlic. Tanis wrote that he never understands why people think peeling garlic is such a big deal. “It’s so easy to do it right. Hold a firm, fresh garlic clove top to bottom between your thumb and forefinger and quickly squeeze the clove until the skin pops. Then the clove is easily peeled.”
Honest to Pete, I had never heard of this technique. And it works, better than smashing the clove with a knife. And it’s rather satisfying to feel, and sometimes even hear, that soft “snap” that means a clove’s surprisingly sturdy back has been broken. Call it Garlic, Epiphany-Style.
So thank you, Chef Tanis, for the tip, and the encouragement, and that recipe for jalapeno butter with the vegetables.
But bottom line: This book is destined for the bottom shelf. If the economy doesn’t pick up, it may end up at Half-Price Books. For now, though, I’ll keep it under my roof -- as a vote of confidence.