Archive for the ‘Basics’ Category
There’s something about having a not so sober conversation with the old school, neighborhood lush about the quality and freshness of your local seafood that’s both amusing and troubling. On the one hand you’re thinking maybe this guy knows a thing or two and I should heed his advice; on the other (and this is coming from years of bartending experience) you want to just write the guy off and chalk it up to drunk banter. “No, I get it, check the eyes, yes I understood the first 37 times you mentioned it.”
Either way, it did get me thinking, there’s a few ingredients out there you do really need to be careful about when purchasing and storing. Fish: clean eyes and fresh smell = good. Crustaceans: moving around and smell fresh = good. Other major meats are fairly obvious as well, but clams and mussels. That’s a bit trickier. Freshness with those guys is very much necessary simply because a dead one can lead to a horrible world of pain and the red flags aren’t as obvious.
But have no fear mussel lovers! A little prep when coming home with fresh mussels means you can eat well and safe all week long. Top things you need to know about buying and storing mussels:
- Check your mussels, they should be tightly closed! If cracked or stay open after tapping them, that’s a deal breaker ladies.
- Mussels need to breath, so if wrapped in a plastic bag they will suffocate. The good stuff is in a mesh bag, rinsed with water and ideally displayed up front and not in a back room out of eye shot.
- If you’re not cooking your mussels immediately, place them in a bowl with a layer of aluminum foil and wet paper towel or newspaper on the bottom, as well as another paper towel on top and they’ll keep in your fridge for about 5 days. ALWAYS check them again before using to discard the opened, dead ones.
I must say I do enjoy starting the week with a breakfast post. Typing up a lazy sunday’s brunch for Monday helps take the edge off of the stinging reminder of the impending hours spent in front of my computer in my office. Nothing like a few hours on the couch on my laptop to offset that sentiment. But while I was dreding the work week, I got to thinking. What could I make on Sunday that would be good left overs for Monday? Or even Tuesday. Yeah sure, lots of dinner leftovers would work fine, but I’d like to have something a bit more versatile, something I could tweek to suite what ever mood I was in the next day. What could possibly be so easy, versatile, and preserve well in the fridge? Oh right, crepes!
The recipes for crepe batter vary depending on what you’re reading, but the general recipe is pretty standard: flour, milk, eggs, salt, rest, pour, serve. The only trick I’ve ever discovered was shown to me by a roommate born and raised in Paris (I only had to bug her 37 times to teach me something “French”). Maybe it’s more obvious to some, but her “trick” of melting a little butter and whiping the pan with a paper towel to coat was brilliant to me. Doing this seasons your pan so the crepe won’t stick, no butter clumps up or burns and the crepe cooks quickly and evenly.
So who’s recipe did i end up going with? Home French cooking simply equals Julia. Period. And not surprisingly, it’s the most common sense way to mix the batter in my opinion. Plus this is a master recipe, adding a little vanilla extract or sugar can sweeten up the mix for dessert crepes easily.
I really shouldn’t call anything Jacque Pepin recommends a cheat. I mean, if he does something in the kitchen, it may as well be a law because you know there’s a sound rationale behind it and he’s going to do it right. Lately I’ve been reading his autobiography, The Apprentice, and I stumbled upon the souffle recipe that his mother used to make. I’ve been getting into making souffles lately partially because I enjoy the challenge and partially because a well made souffle is fucking delicious. What really attracted me to the recipe was that Pepin’s mother didn’t actually make her souffle the traditional way. Instead of separating the yolks and whites and recombining after changing the composition of both, she just mixed everything together with a white sauce and popped it in the oven. WTF?
And there I was, scratching my head wondering if this was a real thing or not. Had my cookbooks been lying to me? Is it really possible to make a tasty, delicate souffle without the multiple, messy steps I had become accustomed? Well, turns out Pepin wins yet again (no surprise). Not only was the souffle a great meal, but it rose beautifully. Simple, relatively fast, and much less sensitive to the normal restraints of throwing a souffle together. Future Top Chef contestants, you are welcome.
Ok, today lets talk upkeep. Sure you have a $1,000 su vide machine, sure you shop only at Whole Foods and farmers markets and order special ingredients online, sure you have every one-use toy the local kitchen supply shop sells, but is that gonna make delicious food? Well.. probably, yeah, but you’re still far better served focusing on your two best tools in a kitchen: your pan and your knife. So like your ingredients, treat them with respect! I bang my gear all around the kitchen enough to scare my roommate from coming within 10 feet of the stove, but after the foray of tossing ingredients around, making messes and hurting myself, I always debrief and make sure my knives and main tools are properly maintained.
If you’re lucky enough to find a untreated/unseasoned skillet in your local supply stores buy it immediately. These guys will last FOREVER if taken care of properly. I plan on passing my skillet to any future spawn I may have or leave it to someone in my will. I’m not even kidding about this. House burns down, I’m digging through the rubble for my skillet then calling friends and family to say I’m alright.
The concept is simple: Cast iron is porous. When heated metal pores open more. When heated and rubbed with oil, oil seeps into pores treating the metal. It takes a few applications to break-in the skillet, but by seasoning it, you distribute heat more evenly, prevent any rust from forming and basically help cook anything and everything perfectly.
There’s a lot of dishes out there, and it’s hard for your average home cook to become familiar with the basic or master recipe of such a wide variety of cuisine. So I try to make a point of learning at least one basic recipe for as many different dishes as possible, just to familiarize myself with the process and technique. Hence the realization that I really had no idea how to make guacamole. Sure you peel the avocado and add some lime juice and salt/pepper, but it’s just not something that really attracted my attention. Maybe it’s because I grew up loving cheesy nachos with only salsa or maybe it’s because [gasp] I’m not that huge of a fan of avocado. So once I got a few requests to do a good guacamole recipe I figured it was time to get this dip down pat.
Starting with a little research, I settled on an America’s Test Kitchen recipe that included some bacon, spices, and a few veggies. Nothing fancy, but definitely worth a try. What I was really intrigued by was not so much how the various ingredients worked together, but how important the seasoning and lime juice played in making the guac really tasty. I think I get it now, guacamole really is kinda brilliant in it’s simplicity. And with a few little techniques on how to remove the avocado flesh, it was an easy and enjoyable little dip to throw together.
I’m a bipolar cook. When I’m putting something together in the kitchen I either want it to be something that’s is really challenging and involves multiple steps and stages or I want something earth shatteringly easy and beautifully simplistic. Now I say easy, but not Rachel Dogfood Ray easy. I mean learning how to cook things efficiently and perfectly easily. Eggs, pasta dough, soup, these are all things that tend to be pretty easy and really difficult at the same time. For me, the omelet has always been a sticking point. Sure I could bust out a pan of properly cooked eggs and drop in a few ingredients, fold the eggs over and serve. Problem was, the bottom would always be overcooked and leathery, or the insides wouldn’t be cooked enough, or the whole thing would taste like styrofoam. Any number of issues would arise to make a intuitively simple breakfast into a god damn lackluster meal.
So deciding that I had had enough of trying to figure out this egg dish on my own, I turned to who everyone should turn to when they can’t figure something out in the kitchen, Ms. Childs. Within a minute of opening Julia Childs’ The Way to Cook I found the technique for 20 second omelets. Brilliant. About 5 minutes after reading the method I was on my way to pick up fresh eggs despite the fact it was almost 10:00 at night.
Oh my fucking God. Just look at it! The glorious, glorious chasm that is the crack in a freshly baked loaf of bread. Can you hear the crackling!? That snap crackle and pop sound that is a deflating load of bread? Ahhhh.. Hallelujah.
So I’m not much of a baker. There’s something about the science of measuring every goddamn ingredient perfectly, slowly but surely mixing and mixing and waiting that drives me mad. But my buddy Robin, being the exceptional world traveler he is, has taken the art of bread making to heart, even making a point to bake his own sandwich bread every couple of weeks. Maybe it was growing up in San Francisco and one of the more progressive food movements in the country. Maybe it was his years of grad school in Paris surrounded by some of the best bakeries in the world. Or maybe it’s just that he loves the systematic, slow process of baking, but Robin knows his bread.
That being said, when the subject peaked my interest, Robin was the guy to talk to. He gave me some insight on a recipe he came across that even a baking hater like myself couldn’t fuck up. I wasn’t around for the first 18 hours of mixing and rising, but the no knead bread recipe Robin found made a lot of sense to me.
Ok, you’ve made your gnocchi now you need something to complement your fresh potato dumplings. If you have the right tools and a few key ingredients, a pesto is brilliantly quick and pretty versatile as far as what it can complement when you get it right. My favorite thing about pesto is there aren’t really and rules. You need a herb, some nuts and some oil. The rest is really up to you. Basil is the most popular, as are walnuts and pine nuts, basic ingredients. And to me, the dish isn’t complete without chopped, roasted garlic. Toss it with pasta, gnocchi, or use it as a spread to slather on a sandwich or in a salad.
Also, you don’t need a food processor to make pesto. It’s great if you have one handy, but a mortar and pestle work great as well. If nothing else, chopping and mashing the ingredients together with a knife and spoon can get the job done. Just follow the steps accordingly and put some elbow grease in there (not literally, that’s gross.. what’s wrong with you?).
Gnocchi is one of those great ingredients that you make yourself a few times and you’ll never go back to the store bought stuff. In fact the store bought stuff is fucking gross. It says chewy and never cooks properly like the cookbooks will tell you. Aside from using in a casserole I wouldn’t mess with the prepackaged stuff at all. The homemade variety, especially when fresh, is beautifully soft and light. They blend with any ingredients you toss with them and the dough melts on your tongue like any good dumpling should. Like pasta dough, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, but with the right tools and a little time it’s one of those ingredients you guests will immediately recognize as something special.
It’s worth noting that in my experience, even the homemade variety lacks that amazing delicate texture after a few days in the freezer, so try to use what you can the same day they’re made. If not, toss into a freezer bag and they should keep for 3-5 days no problem.
Who ever said that making a hollandaise sauce was easy is full of shit. I don’t know anyone that actually said that, but if anyone ever does, I want to be there to tell them to fuck off. I’m exaggerating obviously, but I will caution that rolling out of bed one Saturday morning and deciding to surprise the BF/GF with the genuine article hollandaise, you may be be biting off more than you can chew. I’m not saying don’t learn this sauce. It’s one of the five mother sauces after all, but I’m just saying be prepared and if possible practice getting the yolks the right consistency. It took me three attempts to get this sauce right and I’ve learned there are a few things you really, really need.