Monday, August 25, 2008

Those hands, those eyes...

Doing some recipe testing this evening (Spicy Peanut Chicken and Caponata, for those of you keeping score...not together, mind you) and something occurred to me, after watching my lovely wife sweat the math prep portion of her GRE. Granted - this doesn't involve quadratic equations, but I've assisted on enough cooking classes now to observe many fine people earnestly scouring the kitchen for measuring spoons and panicking when there are none to be found.

For those of you who want to, or already like to, cook at home - don't be so hasty to yank that lovely measuring spoon set out of your cluttered gadget drawer. (Use the Force, Luke...)

Baking is, for the most part, pure when you are baking, hells yes pull out the measuring cups, the scale and spoons and have at it. But savory cooking, dear ones, is much more art than science. I don't suppose Jackson Pollack was carefully measuring out a 1/4 cup of burnt umbre to whip out across his canvas and you shouldn't either. Think more of recipes as guidelines, rather than paint by the numbers, and get yourselves more accustomed to eyeballing amounts. It'll save you some dishes to wash and make you feel way more cool while you're cooking.

I'm not suggesting you take a wild stab at guessing amounts, but start to use your eyes and your hands to get an idea of what is what. Next time you measure out a tablespoon or a teaspoon of the spice or ingredient called for, dump it in the cupped palm of your hand. Look at it. (Don't you have such lovely hands? No, not your HANDS!) Look at what that little mound of spice is size-wise and remember it. After a while, you're going to know what a tablespoon or a teaspoon of something roughly looks like - and the next time you're fixing up something nice, forego the measuring spoons and just eyeball it.

The same goes for a cup of diced veggies or even liquids (although I am not promoting dumping said cup of liquid in your hand). When you're measuring out these things, start paying attention to how much they look or feel like. What does a pound of something feel like, weight-wise, when you're lifting it. Next time, try and go from memory. I promise you, where savory cooking is concerned, a little more or a little less of anything is not going to be insurmountable BECAUSE I know you are using your eyes to see how your intended dish LOOKS and tasting as you go along to make sure the seasoning is to your liking. ('Cause you promise me you're doing this...right? Some recipes, you'll find, are just plain wrong...or wrong for YOU...and the people at Bon Appetit or wherever are going to say 'cry me a river' if you complain that you added the called for 1/4 teaspoon of salt and found the dish to be bland if you didn't TASTE it before you served it.)

Get comfortable with the big ones...a tablespoon, a teaspoon, a cup, and from there you can eyeball a half, a quarter or an eighth of one of those. Leave the exacting science to those preparing a wedding cake or finding a cure for cancer.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pita Pahty

My wife went to Greece earlier this year - some fellowship where they get to study ancient Greek drama then GO to Greece and tour the ancient Greek theaters and places she and her fellow educators were studying. (My brother-in-law took his family to Hawaii earlier this year for some kitchen design convention. I am noticing a disturbing trend in me feeling job perk envy…) Anyway, Miss Kate fell hard (again) for Greece and Greek food. The breakfasts of that thick, strained yogurt topped with honey, nuts and raisins. Feta on anything and everything. Trahana, a tiny couscous-like pasta, in soup and porridge. And, since she doesn’t eat meat (yes…THAT’S how much I love her), she dined almost regularly on vegetable souvlaki while over there.

Last night for our first vacation dinner, Miss Kate requested something along those lines. Eager for a vacation food ‘project,’ I decided to try making my own pita breads for the souvlaki.
Found a great recipe for pitas in the 75th Anniversary Edition of The Joy of Cooking. Let me pause for a minute to pass on the growing respect and admiration I have for this cookbook. I have never really been fond of it since owning an earlier edition back in the 80’s. It’s lack of illustrations and plain vanilla layout make it quite dull to look at. My in-laws have a copy of the 75th Anniversary Edition of Joy down at their Cape house, and I find myself referring to it almost every time I’m down there for something. It’s a phenomenally inclusive reference with simple recipes and great information about cooking and food to boot. I’m still not crazy about how they present their recipes – integrating the ingredients list into the instructions, but I’ve turned to this book so many times I think it’s time to get my own copy.

Anyway, I love making bread and the pitas were really fun. Very simple bread dough of flour, yeast, water, butter, sugar and salt kneaded until elastic, allowed to rise until doubled in bulk, then punched down. The dough is then divided into balls, benched (allowed to rest before final shaping) and then rolled into flat circles. You drop these circles onto a preheated baking stone in your oven and they cook for about 3-4 minutes total.

The fun part is watching them blow up in the oven like balloons (creating the pita “pocket”).

After you remove each dough to a rack to cool, it deflates into that flat disc of pita. This is one of those cooking events that always makes you sit back in awe and admiration at both the science of it all and the wonder of ‘who the !@#*! figured out it'd do THAT??’

Going on Kate’s description of her Greek entrees, I chopped up some bell pepper, red onion, zucchini, and eggplant. Made a marinade of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a tablespoon or so of a fabulous Greek seasoning blend from Atlantic Spice Company. Now…I generally frown upon using these pre-blended spices, but I’ve tried a few that have been recommended personally or in a recipe and I confess to keeping some Goya Adobo and Saizon on hand, along with the classic Old Bay seasoning blend, some Emeril’s Original Essence and now this Greek blend. (Besides, this Atlantic Spice blend was a groomsman’s gift from my friend Jeff, who IS Greek and a great cook…so that’s a pretty strong recommendation!) Tossed the veggies in the marinade for about fifteen minutes, then transferred them with a slotted spoon to a grill rack on the Weber on low heat and covered the grill. Grilled/roasted them until tender, stirring them and drizzling with the reserved marinade every now and then. (If you don’t wind up getting that seasoning blend, I’d go with adding some of the following to the oil and vinegar: honey, lemon zest/juice, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper.)

To serve, again based on Kate’s description, I reheated the pitas on the grill for about a minute per side, put them on a plate and topped them with a mound of the vegetables, some tzatziki – a Greek condiment of yogurt, cucumber and dill or mint (Joy of Cooking again!), and some chopped fresh tomato from our brother-in-law’s garden. (If you’re using out-of-season tomatoes…and you SHOULDN’T be…then I’d grill them with the rest of the vegetables.)

The results got high marks from Miss Kate and I was pretty happy with it myself. It’ll be a keeper in our house and I’d like to try some traditional (meat) souvlaki soon...all by myself, I guess...unless you want to come over.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Learning to Share

So our friends Deana and Nick moved to Vermont (sniff...) and we have taken over their CSA share. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and this share allows us to pick up a bunch of locally grown produce from Parker Farm each week. For about fifteen bucks a week we get an assortment of whatever crops have come in. This is something I've wanted to get involved with for a while but put off because I was afraid - given our often unpredictable schedules - we wouldn't be able to make use of all the produce. (Chef B. HATES to let food go bad...) With Deana passing their torch on to us, it means we get to try it out for the last thirteen weeks of the growing season and see how it goes.

Last night I pulled into the Cambridge parking lot, where the farmers park their truck to make their drop off each week, and came home with the following: 2 bunches of sweet onions (which look like giant, bulbous scallions/spring onions), 2 bunches of arugula, 12 ears of corn, 1 bunch of yellow carrot, 1 bunch of radish, 3 cukes, 1 pound of green beans, 1 bunch of Asian turnips and 2 pounds of red potatoes. Not bad for fifteen bucks! In fact, ballparking, I think that's cheaper than it would be if I purchased that stuff at a local farmstand or supermarket. And it was all picked THAT MORNING.

Really...c'mon now...I don't know that I've ever eaten a carrot that hadn't been sitting in a bag in someone's fridge for who knows how long. These yellow carrots are tender, tasty, asparagus-thin...beautiful.

I also love that you get in what you get in...whatever is ready to be picked each week, so you have to figure out what to cook and eat based on what is REALLY in season. (You know...I'm sure there were pilgrims who didn't like green beans just like me, but if that's what was growing on the farm that week, pilgrim, you're eating green beans. Oh my this how the Thanksgiving green bean casserole was invented?!)

Last night I rushed home with my bounty, figuring out what to cook for dinner and how to store everything. Do I keep the giant bunch of carrot tops? Can you eat them? Apparently you can and they're very nutritious - but I need to find out how to prepare them. And, hey, I found this interesting tidbit on the web:
"Carrot tops were considered a fashion statement when worn by the ladies of the English court. The lacy green foliage provided an attractive hair ornament or an adornment on their hats."
So screw cooking 'em...I'm gonna wear mine! Another storage tip I found is to twist or cut the carrot tops off and store them separately as they can pull moisture from the carrots themselves.

So what did I make? Based on a Deborah Madison recipe, I boiled some of the potatoes and the gorgeous little Asian turnips (snipping off the tops and reserving the greens). Sliced up a bunch of the green onions and sauteed them over low heat until they carmelized. Once the potatoes and turnips were cooked I fished out the turnips, sliced them in half length-wise and set them in the pan with the onions to also get some carmelization going. Drained and mashed the potatoes with some goat cheese and a little butter and milk. While all that was going on I boiled the turnip greens separately and drained them. Served the greens, turnips and onions over the mashed potatoes and it was a terrific (super fresh) vegetarian meal.

Ready for another 'genius' observation? Fresh-picked vegetables and greens are DIRTY, man. This is not the scrubbed up, waxed up produce from your local grocery store. Farmer Steve in his weekly email has said how muddy everything is from the copious amounts of rain we've been getting - so much that it's inhibiting their harvesting. Maybe the stuff is muddier than usual or maybe not...hey, it grows in the GROUND and they just picked it and threw it on the truck to bring to us! Maybe a little more washing, rinsing and scrubbing than usual - but well worth it.

If you're interested, I recommend looking into a CSA near you. I think we're hooked. Here's a little blurb from the USDA on it:

"Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "share-holders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing."

Can't wait to see what we get in next week's pick up!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Roman Holiday

Following up on the last post, another beautifully simple Roman style dish: Pizza Bianca. It's not what we tend to think of here in the northeast as pizza. Almost more like a focaccia , just the dough topped with salt , olive oil and some rosemary.

Latest issue of Cooks Illustrated contains a great recipe/technique for making Pizza Bianca. Like many of their recipes, it takes some time, but the results are well worth it. It's got to be a great gig there in America's Test Kitchen: perfecting recipes for optimum results. Imagine going to work some day knowing you're going to make and taste twenty...thirty...sixty(?) variations of chocolate chip cookies until you find one that is juuuust right. There's a lot of science to food and cooking (hello, Harold McGee!) and the good folks at Cooks Illustrated are dedicated researchers studying reactions and perfecting each approach in their 'lab.' Often I find their methods require a lot of steps, but - to be fair - they're not a magazine geared towards 30 minute meals or the like. I don't think I've ever tried one of their recipes where following each detailed step hasn't resulted in exactly what they promise.

Their Pizza Bianca uses a very 'wet' dough unlike any kind of pizza dough I've ever worked with. Unlike the normal dough one sees tossed in the air and/or spread with a rolling pin at the local pizzeria, this one almost resembles what breadmakers call a sponge; it's poured into an oiled sheet pan and stretched. The results are a high, airy crust with a crisp, colorful exterior - more in line with what we (growing up in Belmont, Massachusetts at least) referred to as 'Greek' style pizza. (Actually, in Belmont, you called it 'Brothers' style opposed to Dom's or Belmont Pizza...the three de facto 'types' of pizza we knew...)

Tried their more substantial version which added a topping of strained crushed tomatoes and shredded mozzarella and we were quite happy with the resulting pie. Pizza at home (and, sorry, I don't even consider those Boboli things much more than a step above frozen pizza) can be so good, but it can be tricky to get it as good as one you pick up from your local brick oven place. (Um...'cause we tend not to have brick ovens in our homes...) A pizza stone - also recommended for the Cooks Illustrated recipe definitely helps. (But, yeah, they require some extra forethought - preheating for an hour.)

You absolutely need a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook to try this. The dough has so much water in it in proportion to the dry ingredients that it takes a lot of mechanical action to get the gluten to develop. (Heed the recipe's warning to babysit your mixer as it has a tendency to wobble and wander the counter while kneading the dough on high speed.)

So, a lot of work? Not really, but you'll need time...a few hours for the dough to mix and rise. The pizza itself takes about a half hour to assemble and bake. Makes me want to go back to Rome and try the real thing. In the meantime, though...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Under the weather this weekend and what better way to lay in than watching a Lidia Matticchio Bastianich cooking show marathon on some PBS fundraiser. I confess, I have got a pretty big (but, you know, in a non-stalkery kind of way) thing for Miss Lidia. She's stylish, successful and cordial, makes beautiful food and, by all appearances, has a great family and life. Pity, for a moment, poor Joe and Tanya Bastianich growing up with their mother bringing them regularly back to her childhood home in Istria (now, I believe, a part of Croatia). The sight of their present-day family gatherings there made me...ok, with envy. While they clinked their classes (filled, no doubt, with wine from their own vineyard) and shared beautiful dishes of foods harvested just next door, I harkened back to my own childhood family celebrations with we wee Adamsons and our cousins the 'Bob Whites' giving thanks and slicing up the 'traditional' lime green jello, cream cheese and pineapple mold that reared its head each Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mm? Yeah...

Don't cry for me. I bet the Bastianich kids didn't get to play Pong after dinner on some Istrian Magnavox.

So one of the episodes featured Lidia and her daughter Tanya wandering around Rome where they stopped at a sidewalk trattoria for some pasta. Lidia had an old Roman dish called Pasta Cacio E Pepe. Just pasta with pecorino romano cheese and coarsely ground pepper. It doesn't get much simpler than that. I'm pretty sure her version of the recipe would be in the companion book to her Lidia's Italy series, so do check that out. We had to try it. Immediately.

Based on watching the divine L, we threw a couple tablespoons of peppercorns in a ziploc bag and crushed them on the counter (to coarse chunks, not fine) using the bottom of a skillet. Cooked a pound of spaghetti in salted water until al dente then removed the pasta to a bowl with tongs (don't drain it in a colander) , tossed it with a cup or so of freshly grated pecorino and the pepper. Ladle in a bit of the pasta cooking water as you go to get a nice consistency. The cheese will melt and the pasta will be nicely flecked with the pepper. Add the pepper in increments so you can control how spicy it is, but we liked it very peppery. Also, don't think this is traditional, but gave it a drizzle of some nice olive oil just before serving.

I'd like to say it cured the summer flu thing I had, but I can't. However, it was a giant bowlful of comfort and will become a 'regular.' Sometimes the more ingredients a dish calls for does not necessarily mean the mo' better it is. Sure, the better quality your pasta, cheese and pepper are, the better your dish is going to be, but...pasta, water, pepper and cheese. That's it. Try it!