Sunday, November 30, 2008
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
I will boldly predict what I think is going to come of this; something like Coq-Au-Miso-Lemongrass, a braised chicken dish, possibly with some vegetables, similar to coq-au-vin, but in place of the wine, a spicy miso-lemongrass sauce, but the sauce will not just be a combination of asian condiments, it will be a slow-cooked rich sauce, with a base flavor of sweet, deeply caramalized shallots.
How did this come about? Its very very complicated, and thats why I want to record this, the story of how a recipe comes to me.
This all started last Thurday, when I stopped at Wegmons on the way to my psychiatrists office (a 50 mile drive, its the only time I am ever near a Wegmons) and among other impulses, grabbed a big package of red miso, something I have never eaten or cooked with, just because I like the crappy miso soup they throw at you before the sushi at my favorite sushi place.
Then this past Saturday, once again as a side trip, I stopped at a large asian market in Pleasantville to stock up on asian basics that are unavailable where I live, thai curries, a big block of frozen, minced lemongrass (this is worth a post on its own; lemongrass is sparse and wicked expensive where I live, this product I found was a frozen block of minced lemongrass and chilis, in plastic, you can open it up and chip off a chunk, and when it defrosts, it is as fresh and pungent and wonderful as if you just chopped a fresh stalk, and I now have a years supply of lemongrass that will not go stale or get old, for $2.99, about what I would pay for 2 stalks fresh), bean thread noodles, sririhuacha sauce, fish sauce (smiling baby, of course), and some cool things like baby bok-choy and tofu and kimchee. All ultra-cheap.
So thats how it began, as of last Saturday, I had lemongrass, and I had miso, both random, impulse purchases. But of course I know they are there and they nag at me, they call to me, "use me, use me, Prommie" I hear them begging from the pantry and the freezer.
But I have been busy, because I have been working on another major culinary project, I have been making sausage, something new for me, and completely fascinating once you get into it. I got the meat grinder and sausage maker attachments for my Kitchenaid mixer 2 weeks ago, and have spent the last two weekends making lamb sausage with varying degrees of success. The details of that are another story, but the sausage making definitely played a role here.
Over the weekend, while looking for ways to use up all the surplus of sausage I had made, I started looking through some of my huge food porn books, the really big, stupid "Culinaria" books, not really much good food information, but great photos, and I get almost all my ideas from photos, and I saw this stuffed chicken wing dish, you take the outer two segments of a chicken wing, arduously remove the two bones from the bigger segment, without breaking the skin, then stuff that segment with some kind of stuffing. This had me thinking I would use up some of my lamb sausage stuffing some chicken wings. Last night I bought the wings, and I also bought some skinless boneless chicken thighs, thinking I would stuff those too.
Well, when I got home, I found out that when they bone thighs, they filet them, they can't be stuffed unless you sew them back up again, and I was not in the mood for post-mortem chicken surgery, so I set the thighs aside and stuffed the wings.
Now there is a method of cooking I like to do with chicken, I suppose it is a kind of braising, but it involves adding very very little liquid, and it can make the skin-outside of the meat a very dark brown and though not "crisp," nevertheless something I will call "snappy." You start out browning the chicken in a pan over high heat in a small amount of fat, as you would at the start of, for example, coq au vin. Doesn't matter really if its big or small pieces of chicken, skin on or off, just season, flour is optional, and brown in a hot pan with a small amount of oil. When the chicken pieces are browned all over, you lower the heat, add aromatics, and cover, but add no liquid. The only moisture in the pan will be that given off by the chicken.
Cook very very slowly for an hour or so, turning the chicken pieces occasionally, and the aromatics (in the case of my wings, I just added shallots and garlic cloves) will caramalize to a dark brown and meld with the tiny bit of chicken essence, and this will cause the chicken to turn an even darker brown and infuse its concentrated flavor into the chicken.
So thats what I was doing to the wings, but they were wings, and by now I have an instinctive, unthinking urge to always make wings hot, so I also added some dried red chilis. And then I thought of the lemongrass, how it lightens and brightens everything, so before you could say "bam," there went some lemongrass into the pan. And then I thought, OK, some fish sauce, and just a bit of vinegar, because now I am thinking "hot and sour lemongrass braised stuffed chickenwings," which is what it turned out, though just so I don't forget, it was not hot enough and was not sour enough, so next time, more chilis, and right at the end, a better jolt of vinegar, and some black pepper, I want that hot and sour next time, I think it will be epic if I can make it come out tasting like what I am imagining tasting right now.
But okay, thats where I was in the evolution of the "Coq-au-miso-lemongrass" as of last night, I had these skinless boneless thighs, and I had already thought I must make coq-au-vin, thighs are really good for that, better than breasts.
But this morning, the miso was calling to me again. I am sitting at my desk, where I ostensibly work, and I started googling for miso recipes, and I quickly discover that red miso is often used in stews. And that its not unheard of to combine miso and lemongrass.
Thats all I needed to hear. My vision of tonight's creation hit me suddenly and all at once just before I began to write this.
I am going to use the same cooking method as last night, and produce that same rich base of deeply browned, caramalized shallot and garlic (it was fantastic with the lemongrass and chili, on the wings last night) and then, at the end, fortify it with the red miso, and add some stock, to make a rich, brown sauce. The accent will again be lemongrass, which I was suprised to learn can be very subtle and unobtrusive in a braise. And there will be mushrooms, baby bok choy, and maybe parsnips, that yellow would be beautiful with this, so would the sweetness. And some chilis, always the chilis.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
I am bored, I have lost my enthusiasm, nothing interests or excites me. It always happens to me this time of year, right about when the days get so short that its dark when I get home from my commute. Is is Seasonal Affect Disorder?
Or is it fear, fear and uncertainty over what is happening with the economy? Grocery prices seem to be rising daily, its not in the news, but its alarming, everything costs $4.00 now, a dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread (OK, good bread). A can of Italian tomatoes costs $3.79, a pound of butter, $3.69, a single fucking lemon, 99 cents. Since when is a fucking lemon a dollar? The stock market is in a meltdown, my industry has just driven off a cliff, people are being laid off, my association is looking at a tough year. The value of my house, bought at the top of the market, is falling, my equity is disappearing. There is plenty to fear, even without the usual fears this time of year, of ghosts and witches and zombies and Palins.
Is it the election? The never-ending election that began in 2006 and now has only five days left, five days for Obama to lose his 5-point lead, thats only one point a day, it could happen, and there is Diebold and voter purging and intimidation and maybe still a November surprise. I am so obsessed, so keyed up, so twisted and expectant and dreading and hopeful, This time, this time for real, this one is critical, this one determines the future, will my son grow up and live in a totalitarian christian theocracy, in a climate of racist anti-intellectual paranoia and suspicion, or will he live in a prosperous free society that celebrates differences, values knowledge and allows opportunity for everyone? Sorry to sound so melodramatic, I am supposed to be the great Cynic, but this one, this election, this is the Big One, I am convinced.
I have filled the time the last two weeks with a few tentative steps towards a realistic, attainable goal, a way to make food my living. A Delicatessen. A european style, high end, gourmet deli and cafe and catering operation. Is it possible? Who knows. But instead of making up recipes, lately I have been making up menus.
Here is one:
Ray’s Place Deli (Provisional Working Name)
Barbecued baby back ribs
Smoked Entrée du Jour (Turkey, Chicken, Duck, Beef Brisket, Pork Shoulder)
Roasted, Stuffed Poulet
Buffalo Game Hen
Stuffed Veal Breast Gallotine
Braised short ribs
Roast Pork, Chipotle Bourbon Sauce
Satay of the Day (Chicken, pork, or shrimp)
Stir fry of the day
Curry of the day
Rissotto of the Day (saffron, mushroom, whatever is left over from the cooked meats the day before)
Lasagna of the Day
Sautéed Broccoli rabe
Asparagus with vinaigrette
Mixed Roasted Seasonal Vegetables
Roasted red peppers
Cous Cous (variations)
Pasta du Jour
Crab and Corn Chowder
Portuguese Sausage and Greens soup (I forgot the recipe)
Beef Barley and Kale
Cream of Mushroom
Dubliner Cheese and Asparagus
Smoked Turkey and Rice Gumbo
Larp – Thai Chicken Salad
Individual Antipasto Platter
Pasta Salad of the Day
Isreali Cous Cous Pesto Salad
Dips, Spreads, Dressings
Pureed White Bean Dip
Dubliner Cheese-Horseradish Dip
Cream Cheese and Smoked Salmon
North African Bruschetta (pita, peppers, cumin)
Crab & artichoke Dip
Cinco de Mayo
Blue Cheese Dressing
Roasted Tomato Puttanesca
White Bean and Sausage
White Clam Sauce
Lamb Sausage Gyro
Thai chicken salad in Rice Flour Spring Roll Wrappers
Roast Pork and Broccoli rabe
Hummus and Bean Sprout Pita, Feta, tomatoes, scallions
Prosciutto, Mozzarella, and Roasted Peppers
Roasted Vegetable Burger with Chipotle Mayo
Lamb Sausage and Peppers
Chicken Pesto Wrap
BLT with Chipotle Mayo
Vietnamese French Bread Sandwiches
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Monday, October 13, 2008
Isreali couscous is nothing like cous cous, the grains are pure white and much larger. Its more like pastina or acini de pepe, but its different in texture and not as apt to get gluey. It stays a little chewy on the inside after the outside gets quite soft, and for some reason the resulting texture reminds me of tapioca. Anyway, it makes a good risotto-like dish, and I needed a side with enough oomph to withstand a main dish of smoked pork chops fricasseed in a chipotle-lemon-date sauce. And I didn't want to make a seperate vegetable dish, and god knows, its not a meal without a meat, a starch, and two veggies, but I didn't want to get three pans dirty. So thats what inspired this faux-risotto in which the flavorings outweighed the cous cous which substituted for the rice and which was really neither cous cous nor rice.
So, everything I make is always driven by what I have around, and what looked good at the store. I have a supply of acorn squash picked up at the same front-yard market stand where I bought the home-grown tomatoes (they are sadly all gone now), and I had some shitake mushrooms, I almost always do, because they are the best tasting commonly available mushroom and I use them all the time. And there were onions and carrots, and I just bought some beautiful large white raisins, for just the sort of use.
So, for two, I used a third of a cup of cous cous, a third of a cup of butternut squash, diced to the same size as the cous cous, a third of a cup of shitake mushrooms, diced to the same size as the cous cous, and maybe 2 tablespoons each of carrots and onions, likewise diced. And a tablespoon of toasted pine nuts and a tablespoon or so of the golden raisins.
Also, a chicken boullion cube, a package of this cool Sazon Goya, its a picante mix with chipotle and works with absolutely everything under the sun, and some cumin, and salt and pepper.
You cook the Iraeli cous cous the same way you would any pasta, in salted boiling water, strain in a wire strainer, stop the cooking a little early, and let them go ahead and clump together, you want the starch to bind it all up like a risotto.
Heat a saute pan, add a teaspoon of olive oil, saute the squash first for a litttle while, then add the onions and carrots, then the shitake mushrooms. When they all just right, add a half cup of water, half a boullion cube, a sprinkle or so of the sazon Goya, a half teaspoon or so of ground cumin, and the raisins and nuts, once its boiling-simmering, add the cous cous, and stir thoroughly. Reduce the heat and just keep stirring until you like the consistency. I may have added some grated parmesan, but then again, I may not have, so you can do likewise.
In my area of Joisey, for example, its easy to get into an hour-long debate (argument, screaming match, fistfight, this is important stuff) over pizza, which will go into amazing detail as to different styles and within styles, different effects and characteristics, and the relative merits and demerits which should be accorded these variations. Thick or thin crust? Thats not even a debate, thin crust; and the bottom should be just slightly scorched and crispy. Sauce is of course vital, not too much, and the quality of the cheese is of utmost importance; most strip-mall garbage pizzas use horrid, oily, industrial mozzarella, and too-much of it, creating a leaden, grainy mass of disgusting smegma, covered with pools of oil. Dreck pizza. Real pizza has a thin crust, just a smear of an aromatic, herby sauce, and just enough cheese, not too much, not too little, cooked till not just melted, but slightly browned with some crsipy areas, and a generous crust around the outside edge with giant bubbles in the dough there which turn dark brown and crispy. The product sold in Pizza Hut, everyone around here would agree, simply isn't pizza. Its "Pizza"(tm). That foodstuff which is consumed in Chicago under the name "pizza" is a mystery, something closer to lasagna than pizza. Pineapple does not belong on pizza, acceptable toppings are sausage, pepperoni, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and anchovies. Period. If you disagree on any of these points, I pity your benighted ignorance.
Clearly, the closer you examine something, the more you know about it, the more you become a connoisseur, the more lines you will draw, and the more divisions and definitions you will employ. Humans seem to love distinguishing, making distinctions, it seems to come naturally, and to produce a satisfaction somewhere within. Stepping back and trying to see hidden relations among superficially different things seems harder to do, less natural. People look at me like I am insane when I insist that chili, good old chili con carne, is the same as coq au vin, is the same as tahini, is the same as osso buco, is the same as thai green curry, is the same as beef stew, is the same as pot roast. But they are, they are in their most important characteristics the same recipe, they just vary proportions or substitute ingredients. Here is the recipe: take meat, brown it in oil, add liquid and vegetables or legumes, and spices, cook for a long time over low heat. The meat might be beef, pork, chicken, lamb, veal; it might be ground, it might be cut up, it might consist of whole chops or whole cuts. The liquid might be tomatoes, it might be stock, it might be wine, it might be coconut milk. The vegetables and legumes could be anything under the sun, likewise the spices. Its all one recipe. Meat slow-cooked in liquid, with more or less vegetables, herbs, and spices. I call it "stew."
Here is a rough, preliminary listing of the fundamental recipes, the deep roots of cuisine, the Ur-recipes common to every culinary language:
Meats subjected to dry heat. Barbecued, grilled, broiled, pan-broiled, saute'd, and roasted meats (flesh, fish, or fowl). This includes roast beef, grilled steaks or chops, scallopini, stir-fries, meatloaf, some of the simplest of the simple things, but also some surprises. This category can overlap with the stews, depending on how you look at it, my distinction is the difference between a meat cooked dry and then sauced (a stir fry) and a meat cook inn the liquid (a curry). A subcategory would be vegetables subjected to dry heat.
Grains subjected to dry heat. Breads, leavened or unleavened, tortillas, pitas, pizzas, cakes, pastries, baked potatoes (I don't care, its the same as bread, imagine the potato is a single, giant wheat berry), popcorn, pancakes.
Grains boiled. Rice, pasta, cream-o-wheat, oatmeal, risotto, polenta, mashed potatoes.
Stew (see above).
Soup. Foodstuff floating in water. Or pureed into and thickening the water.
Is there anything out there that doesn't fall into these categories?
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Having acted out and given voice to my petty rebellion, I will now address the valid criticism by offering an in-depth, opinionated, guide and master recipe for the making of risotto.
Risotto is wonderful, and once you have made one risotto, you can make them all. You can make them dry-ish, you can make them wet and soupy, its a wonderful comfort food, a main course or a luxurious side dish, its great leftover for lunch the next day, its simple, but sophisticated, its just cool. If you aren't much of a cook and can only make 3 or 4 dishes, risotto must be one of them. For the bachelors out there, trust me, invite her to your place for a dinner of ceaser salad, a risotto, and one of those oozey little chocolate cakes, and you will be in there, guaranteed.
I am going to describe what I call "plain" risotto, I really don't know what it is properly called, but its risotto with cream and parmesan cheese. Its mac and cheese, really; whats the difference? A starch, milk, cheese, same texture, essentially identical. Thats a theme I will be returning to over and over, there are only about a dozen dishes in the world, 99% of the recipes out there that claim to be unique and different dishes are just minor variations on a very few basics. Spotting the relations is fun, like discovering the cognates in the languages descended from Indo-European.
Step One: Assemble the Ingredients
Anthony Bourdain, whom I worship, worships the mis en place. Literally, he does. It is a chef's expression which means "everything in its place," more or less, and it refers to the process of gathering all necessary ingredients, measuring the appropriate amounts, and arranging them in reach. It is more than half the work of cooking.
1 cup arborio rice (fat round rice)
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock (no purist here, canned, boullion cubes, homemade, whatever)
The stock must be in a pan, on the stove, simmering.
1 whole large shallot, minced fine
2 tablespoons of butter (Or olive oil, or your fat of choice, I could imagine using toasted sesame oil or rendered beef fat, for some really interesting flavor nuances)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated parmesan (I do care about this, this is the main flavor of this dish, and the difference between Kraft and real imported Reggiano is the difference between Applebees and Lutece.)
Step Two: Saute the Shallot
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the shallots and gently sweat until soft and translucent, its not really sauteeing here, I just liked the alliteration.
Step Three: Fry the Rice
Now add the rice to the pan, raise the heat a little, and stir constantly for a while, you will be familiar with this step if you have ever made Rice-A-Roni. What you are doing is partially cooking the outer layer of starch, so that the rice grains, as they cook, will retain their independence and not clump into a glutinous mass, an essential characteristic of Risotto, so this is an important step. The rice is ready when all the grains have become slightly translucent; NO BROWNING ALLOWED, its a soft process, low heat. The butter should not turn brown.
Step Four: Add the Stock and Stir
Now you are going to spend about a half hour pouring in the stock, a little at a time, and stirring almost constantly, let it alone for no more than a minute or two at a time. Add the hot, simmering stock about a half a ladleful at a time, and stir until its almost all absorbed by the rice, then repeat. Over and over.
Now comes the tricky part: deciding when its done. Its tricky, because you have to make your determination before its done; you have to decide when to stop adding stock before the rice is completely cooked, because you are going to add more liquid, the cream, in a minute. Well, its not that hard, really, because you can always add more, but you know, if you want to do it with panache, you don't want to mess around like you never made it before.
You have a broad range of discretion, and you have options with regard to two completely different attributes; one is the toothiness of the rice, and the other is the soupiness of the risotto. Some like their rice to be quite toothy, chewy, distinctly hard on the inside. Others like their rice to be nice and soft, and somewhere in between is always a safe choice. You determine this by testing, chewing on samples until you like what you feel in your mouth, but not quite, because you also have to compensate for the fact the rice is going to continue to cook for some time after you stop cooking it. As to soupiness, this really is a distinct thing, you can, within limits, serve hard little al dente rice either soupy or dry, and likewise with the well done rice. Of course, the rice in all soupy risottos will tend with time to get soft. Soupiness is determined by how much liquid you add, and when.
Step Five: Cheese and Cream
Stir in the cheese, stir in the cream. Serve. Accept the slavish compliments of those fortunate enough to be witness to your performance art, to the transient beauty of your work.
The variations of this are endless. You can add lots of thin sliced mushrooms, the more flavory, the better, and hey, add a dash of truffle oil, why not!. Or add a cup or two of fresh grated pumpkin. Its October, steal one off your neighbors porch, or use up the pieces after your kids carve yours. Delete the cheese and add pumpkin spice so it tastes like pumpkin pie; I never did this, but it sounds good to me. Use different cheeses. How about a Humboldt Fog and Sensimilla Risotto, anyone?
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
So, today I am going to talk about my poverty food discoveries and inventions. Its getting harder and harder to economize, this much is for sure, as the Emeril-watching foodie masses (fucking johnny-come-lately bastards, I was here first, you fucks) have started snapping up all the veal shanks and skirt steaks and hangar steaks and who knows what else has been a bistro-comfort food fad lately. But there are still some neglected meats out there.
Lamb shanks. I can still get big old lamb shanks for $3 or $4 each, and one feeds two people, at least two people whose new years resolution was smaller portions. These are tough and ugly, filled with connective tissue and sinew, but when slow cooked, in a sorta mediterranean-morrocan style with beef stock, maybe some cumin, some tomatoes, garlic, onion, anise, beans, and something sweet, dried apricots, currants, even just raisins, and served with plain couscous, they are just to die.
Lamb ribs. These are a very odd item my grocery store throws out there every now and then, almost the entire rib section of a lamb, they look like a whole slab of pork spareribs, just smaller. These sell for about $0.99 a pound. They are very very fatty and rich and artery-clogging, but its possible to render them into a real treat, again it calls for long, slow cooking to coax out all the fat and leave only meltingly tender lamb. Genuine barbecue-smoking is best, but that would take hours and cost more in charcoal and hardwood chunks than a years supply of these things, so instead, a long, slow braise in the oven, in a tightly sealed pan with some kind of liquid, I am fond of oriental sweet-hot things on ribs, some thai sweet and hot sauce, some Soy Vey teriyaki, one of my favorite things on earth, some pineapple juice, even orange juice, for just a bit of acid. Then when the fat is almost gone, a short time on the gas grill, basting with your sauce of choice, again, I prefer homemade, clear, zingy asian tasting barbecue sauces for lamb, and the result is something unique, the texture and feel of eating pork ribs, except its lamb, smoky, tender, falling-off-the bone-lamb, and its so rich that 2 or 3 ribs is a whole serving, s a rack could feed 4 or 5, for $3.00.
Veal Breasts. A veal breast is a big chunk of the veal's rib section, I am not sure where it comes from, but I think its forward and up high, and its about the size of a laptop computer. These also sell for $0.99 a pound, but they are big so a whole one can be $5. There will be 4 or 5 very large rib bones, and on one side of the ribs, one or two inches of meat, I believe this is what would be the brisket, but when its veal, they don't bother to cut it out and sell it as veal brisket, they leave it attached to the bone. Most recipes suggest taking this big hunk of meat, slicing under that slab of meat, and stuffing it with something, and then braising it forever in a huge braising pan. I don't like this, its a crude, ugly dish, and there are massive amounts of fat in with the meat, it actually looks like a slab of bacon with strips of meat running through the fat. So instead, I get out the filet knife and go to work, first remove the whole slab of meat and fat from the bones, then trim the fat, as much as possible, from the meat, until you have a square, flat slab of meat, say 3/4 inch thick and still the size of a laptop. You can take this, lay it flat, season it, throw chopped garlic and fresh herbs on it, maybe even some proscuitto or a piece of bacon, then roll it up like a joint and wrap securely with kitchen twine. Season the exterior, and then sear it all over in a good pan. Hmmmm. Then you get out your pressure cooker. You chop up all those huge rib bones, because just as a side benefit making this dish, you are going to wind up with a quart and a half or so of real veal stock, which you feeze and use a tablespoon at a time in every single thing you cook because it adds richness and gelatin to everything. Throw the bones in the pressure cooker with bay leaf and onions and celery and carrots, then add water, a few chicken boullion cubes, season, and place the rolled up veal breast in there, and pressure cook for an hour. When its done, you have many options, you can make a nice, white stew of some kind, even a pasta sauce, with some of the stock, shitake mushrooms and onions, thats good, lots of herbs; or you can put the roast back in the oven for just a bit and serve more as a roast, with whatever on the side you wish. Lots of variations on this I will take up later. Save that stock.
Prosciutto de Parma for $3.99 a pound. Yup, available almost everywhere, if there is a large enough Italian-American population that your local deli stocks and goes through prosciutto, and if yhour local deli is dumb. The deli stops slicing the prosciutto once it gets down to about the size of your hand, nobody wants to pay $15 a pound for little pieces of prosciutto. So these ends get sold in the "ends" bin, usually for $3.99 a pound. You're chances of coming across one in the bin, however, are low (or if you live in elite environs, your store might be the kind that would never do such a thing as put the deli "ends" out for sale), so you've just got to ask. Nothing like carrying home your own little miniature whole prosciutto. I love the stuff and put it on salads all the time, and use it to flavor or stuff other dishes. Its good to have your own little slicer, by the way, that and the pressure cooker are instruments I could not live without.
So thats it for poverty food for today. I know, I know, it was all baby animals, I can't figure this out, I suppose I have PETA to thank for the fact that the cheapest cuts of meat anymore are the off-cuts of veal and lamb, they are just too politically incorrect to become a fad, unlike the hangar steak and such. Oh, for something from a grown-up animal, there is chuck eye steak. Chuck eyes look a little like a filet mignon, taste much better, are quite tender, are the perfect size for a sensible portion, and usually sell for only $3.00 a pound or so. Great, great buy.
If the economy continues to melt down at this rate, I will soon do more on the topic, maybe something on where to find poke sally, and how to remove the anal glands from a muskrat.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Thats a veal chop, a thick, beautiful veal chop, yes, product of misery, but sooooo good, I cannot stay away, at least I honor the veal, I treat it reverently and with respect, worshipfully, even, honoring the soul of the animal whose death allows me to live. Thats my line of bullshit and I am sticking with it, sometimes I even believe it.
Its a pan-seared veal chop cooked to medium rare, then set aside, while olive oil and butter were added to the pan with chopped garlic and diced shallots, followed by sliced shitake mushrooms, canellini beans, and a cut-up potato. After sauteeing, browning, sweating and all that mysterious stuff has gone on among these ingredients, I added a cup of veal stock, a large pinch of saffron, and a diced tomato of the orange variety. Then the waiting veal chop went back into the barely simmering stew for just a few minutes, not to cook further, just to heat to a proper serving temperature. Its a flavorful comfort-food stew with lots of provencale influence, italian influence, the broth drenched with flavors and herbs, caramelised pan searing residue and browned garlic and shallots, basil and thyme (did I mention the thyme?) and black pepper and a tiny touch of cayenne (everything has some cayenne in it) and garlic and the smoky woodsiness of shitake mushrooms and the lovely texture of the beans and the smooth creaminess of potatos, and the saffron, the mysterious saffron flavor gently suffusing all. Yum. But its also got this sinful, enormous, beautiful, sybaritic, self-indulgently rich, ethically repugnant and amazing veal chop sitting there in it as well and each bite of the tender veal is bathed in that same broth and you just don't care, you don't, because you really are reverently, respectfully, worshipping it as you eat it. At least thats how I eat it.
New Jersey is actually known for its truck farms, fresh vegetable farms, and especially, tomatoes, and sweet corn. There is a reason Campbells soup is headquartered here, and their biggest seller since time imemorial is tomatoe soup. My brother’s in laws have a farm in south jersey, and they have their entire tomato crop under contract to a high end salsa company, Green Mountain Gringo. Jersey tomatoes are the best. And at the farmstands you can get sweet corn picked that morning, you stand in the field when you buy it, the only way to have sweet corn.
Another product for which we are rightly famed is Blue claw crabs from the Barnegat Bay. I catch them in my backyard. They are a nuisance, I prefer to go to the bayman’s shack across the highway and buy picked backfin crabmeat. Heaven.
So I wanted to combine all these Jersey summer treats. I made a pure New Jersey salsa, diced fresh jersey tomatoes, put them in a bowl with a little salt and that beautiful nectar, clear liquid tomatoe essence seeps out, its the most heavenly liquid on earth. Sometimes I take a few tablespoons of that essence, which takes a couple of pounds of tomatoes to produce, and strain it out, and put it in a cocktail shaker with black pepper and just a few slivers of scotch bonnet pepper, and a few sprigs of cilantro, and muddle it, then add good vodka and shake with ice, and make tomatoe essence bloody mary martinis.
But, to get back to the recipe, so far I have diced tomatoes. I take a couple of ears of sweet corn, shuck them, and put them on the grill to roast, just a bit, gently, just browned. Then cut the corn from the ears and add to the tomatoes. Then I dice some jalapenos very fine, throw that in. Then a good garlic clove, lay it on the cuting board, and smash it with the blade of my chef’s knife. Then sprinkle a bit of kosher salt on it, and turn the knife upside down, and using the back of the knife, crush the grains of salt into the garlic, carefully, over and over, until it is paste. Scrape that up and throw it in. Dice a little bit of fresh sweet green peppers and put that in, and the chiffonade some scallions, and chop a big handful of cilantro. Add some kind of acid, I am not yet sure whether it is best with lime or lemon or vinegar, vinegar makes it more genuinely a northeast thing, lime makes it more south of the border. Splash some olive oil on it, oil can extract some flavors the tomato essence cant, and chill it in the fridge.
When its cold, add jumbo lump crabmeat. As much as your budget allows. Serve it over a good lettuce, with some avocado slices. I have invented Jersey-Mex. You can serve steamed, chilled shrimp or lobster this way, too. Avocados would be a nice addition.
Know what’s the best thing on earth on top of a sliced home-grown sweet, tart, juicy, beautiful beefsteak tomato? It just may be basil pesto. Sure, its old hat, it was one of the first food fads back before the Food Network, and everyone OD’ed on it in the 80s, but enough time has passed for it to become retro-chic, I think. And really, what is better on top of tomatoes than a little olive oil, basil, anchovy, and parmesan?
It’s August in New Jersey and I am overrun with one of the greatest joys of summer, home-grown tomatoes. I don’t grow them, but I have discovered several of the best of all vegetable stands, not the farm stand, but the front-yard picnic table with an honor box at which some hobbyist sells his home-grown tomatoes that were raised in the backyard stand You get the true, genuine home-grown tomato experience without ever touching dirt, and you know they’re genuine because you can see the tomato plants off in the distance. Its nirvana to me. My kitchen is bursting with them; I have an infestation of fruit flies, they rise in clouds from the bowl of tomatoes on my counter and dive-bomb my wine glass as soon as I pour. Makes for an interesting texture to my wine. But I digress, the only downside is, what to do with this surfeit of riches, you see, I cannot stop myself from stopping at these stands, I can’t control the urge. So I have to eat them.
As I was making my usual salad, with beautiful sliced beefsteak tomatoes, which I usually top with various sizes and textures of things like basil and anchovies and some cheese, usually mozzarella, the hard crumbly version of ricotta is great, too, and olive oil.
And as I was about to start, I realized, that’s just a deconstructed pesto, so why not go all the way and make a pesto?
So I made a pesto designed just for the purpose of complementing home-grown August in New Jersey tomatoes, a little spicier and more rich than a typical pesto. I made it with olive oil, crushed, smashed garlic, lots of fresh basil, freshly grated real parmesan cheese, pine nuts, a little bit of hot red pepper, a few anchovies, and a teaspoon of the oil from the anchovy can, and lemon juice, all just pureed in a food processor. Make an insalata caprese, sliced tomatoes topped with sliced fresh mozzarella, just a bit of salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, and its your choice whether to use an acid at all, and whether it should be lemon, wine vinegar, or balsamic. And then, as the last ingredient, the climax of the dish, speckle it all over with this pesto. The brilliant green pesto looks nice sprinkled, dotted, and drizzled from a squeeze bottle.
Its actually harder to think of things which wouldn’t benefit from a spurt of this pesto, than things that would. You can drizzle it all over a grilled steak, or a grilled or pan seared filet of grouper or halibut. It’s a pasta sauce, it can add richness and flavor to other pasta sauces, spread it on a sandwich, add it to plain vinaigrette for a great salad dressing, what the hell, put it on an omelette.
And as long as you have this pesto hanging around, you can try this amazing, rich, complex, but still fresh and simple pasta sauce: In a medium saute’ pan, do a gentle, slight browning thing with a tablespoon of olive oil, two minced or finely sliced garlic cloves, one finely sliced fresh tabasco or similar small thin hot red pepper. Then add one large tomato, diced fine, and two or three tablespoons of the pesto sauce. Take from the heat, there’s no need to cook it, just soften the tomato, then mash it with a fork. Add black pepper to your liking. Then add two tablespoons of grated hard ricotta (ricotta salata), and a bunch of chifffonaded basil. Cook two portions of plain old thick spaghetti, preferably DeCecco, and when its done, drain and throw it in the saucepan with the sauce. Turn on the heat just to medium and toss the pasta and sauce for a couple of minutes. The sauce is so complex and rich, despite being composed of all fresh ingredients and hardly cooked at all. It tastes almost like a meat sauce, somehow, its got umami. I think its the pesto. Pesto is Italian soy sauce.