Thursday, January 27, 2011

Simple Pleasures

Skirt Steak with Spinach and Pumpkinseed Pesto Pasta Shards

Skirt Steak, until recently, a poverty food

What I most want to do with this blog is to show people the joy that can be had in one of the most basic human activities, preparing and eating our food. We must have air, water, food, and love, those are the essentials of life. And since we have to cook and eat, every day, anyway, why not make it a joy, rather than a dull routine? Why not approach it with reverent abandon, aware and thankful appreciation for one of the greatest sensual gifts of life? Go for it with gusto, but also with appreciation and awareness!

I want to share my love of cooking, and of making the most with the least, I want to show that the most everyday, economical, simple meal, can be as enjoyable as a gourmet dinner in the finest restaurant, and I want to show that creating something special from the simplest things is something that anyone can do. We have to prepare our meals and eat them, and we have a choice, open a can of Ravioli-Os, plop it in a bowl, and microwave it, then shovel in the calories we need, as a mindless act of simply fueling our body, or we can make it an act of loving creativity in the preparation, and an act of reverential appreciation in the consumption. It costs no more to make preparing and eating a meal an act of loving creativity and sincere appreciation, and very little more effort, and that extra effort itself can be a joy, and an act of love.

I have made many allusions comparing cooking and eating with sex, my favorite being the observation that with both activities (and they can overlap), you get out if it what you put into it,or as Paul McCartney said, in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. I hope these comparisons are not off-putting, because I think the comparison is perfect. The difference between appreciating the act of creating a meal, and mindfully and thankfully taking joy in its consumption,and simply scarfing down some awful fast-food, is exactly the same as the difference between making love, and a cheap one-night hookup (followed by the dreaded "walk of shame.") The basic, animal appetite may have been sated, but the soul and the spirit are left unfed.

The walk of shame, cab to door version. Do you think he paid for the cab fare?

Savoire Vivre

George W. Bush may or may not have said "the problem with the French is they don't even have a word for 'entrepeneur'" (if he didn't, he should have, its such a perfect W thing to say). But the French do have a phrase that perfectly defines the theme of this blog, which is,to paraphrase the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, "making the mostest with the leastest." The French phrase is "savoir vivre;" literally it translates as "knowing how to live," but there is a strong element of "living well without waste," of knowing the secrets to finding the greatest pleasure with the least expenditure (this is not to be confused with "Savoire Faire," who is an omnipresent Canadian cartoon mouse).

I promise there will be a post soon devoted to the joy of canalboating in France!

Savoir Faire is everywhere!

This meal is a modest example of living well, creating and taking extra joy, from the most mundane, taking the most ordinary, simple Wednesday night dinner, made from the most economical ingredents, and making something simple but delightful. Putting in the extra effort, putting in the love, that comes back in love of life, appreciation and mindfulness for the everyday gifts that too often go unnoticed.

Its just skirt steak, seared in a very hot antique cast-iron skillet (it was given to my mother when she married my father in 1945, 66 years ago). Coooking meat this way is not frying, its not sauteeing, this is "pan-broiling," and it cooks a steak better than the so-called "broiler" in most home ovens.

One important note: you cannot do this with a non-stick pan! Nonstick pans are evil (I think I might get sued if I say Teflon; its a good thing it doesn't count if its in parentheses) and I won't have one in the house. You simply cannot cook properly with these pans, because they cannot stand the heat required. This is most true if you want to pan-broil anything. And there is this ugly ugly secret about That Substance Which Must Not Be Named, that the Major Corporation that owns the State of Delaware and rhymes with "Dumont" works very hard to suppress: the stuff emits a noxious gas when subjected to high temperature, which can make you sick as a dog. This is absolutely true, you can Ask Cecil if you don't believe me.* In fact, its probably happened to you, but you just thought you had a 24-hour bug or something. The gasses produce flu-like symptoms in humans, mostly extreme headaches and vomiting, and can kill small birds (the proverbial canary in a cold mine effect).

So anyway, there is nothing simpler than pan-broiling a steak; start with meat at room temperature, and take it out of the package some time before you are going to cook it, too, and wrap it in a towel, or paper towels, to let it dry out. Most beef has too much moisture, and will always cook better if you let it dry out a bit, you can even squeeze it and wipe it with a towel to get some of the excess moisture out. This is important with pan-broiling, because there is noplace for any seeping liquid to go, it stays in the pan and all of a sudden, you are poaching the steak, rather than broiling it, and you do not want that.

I seasoned the meat (meat is murder, tasty, delicious murder) with salt and pepper, and coated it with just enough oil to make it glisten. I heated the pan over my biggest burner at the highest heat, for several minutes, (this is where your bird would keel over dead, if you were using a Teflon pan) and threw the meat on the smoking hot iron. You know its working right if there is a lot of smoke. After the initial searing on both sides, you can turn down the heat a bit, but never let it get cool enough that moisture puddles in it, of you see anything bubbling, you're doing it wrong. The whole process takes 5 minutes.

Now to the spinach-pumpkinseed pesto pasta shards. You aren't often served pasta with meat, and I think its a matter of texture, a skinny noodle, like spaghetti, just doesn't seem right with a chewy, rich, piece of steak. But I think that a thick, chewy pasta works great with grilled meats, fettucini alfredo, for example, the Italian version of mac and cheese, can work. The only problem was I had no fettucini, and this is the Wednesday, mid-week after work, I am gonna make do with what I have meal, so I looked on the pasta shelf, and I had some lasagna, the thickest, chewiest pasta of all. And its not just for making lasagna anymore. I hesitate to say I got this idea from Martha Stewart, the famous ex-con (she was railroaded) and my fellow New Jersey-ite, but yup, one of her cookbooks is among my favorites, "Good Food Fast," and in it, she had a recipe for "pasta shards," lasagna broken up into random pieces, not too small, thusly:

So, what would I make for a sauce? Alfredo, nah, I'm trying to lose some pounds lately. Tomato sauce would not complement the steak very well, so again, I went to the refrigerator to see what I had on hand. I was low on fresh vegetables, but, there in the freezer, a bag of spinach! And some lima beans, which would thicken the spinach sauce, (once pureed) so this became my plan.

First, I finely diced a half an onion and several cloves of garlic, and slowly sauteed these in olive oil until they were soft and translucent. Then in went the spinach and lima beans, along with a hocky puck of veal stock (this will be the subject of a future post; I make veal stock, which is a magical all-purpose elixir, and freeze it in a muffin pan, then take the frozen hocky-pucks of stock and store them in a bag in the freezer, so I can just grab a half-cup at a time, when needed, which is almost always).

I had also thrown in some parsely, to intensify the green color, and the fresh parsely livens up the flavor of any herb or vegetable, it perked up the frozen spinach. When it was well-cooked, I added salt and pepper, a tiny bit of cayenne, about a half-cup of grated parmesan, and a handful of those roasted pumpkinseeds I have been going on about for a week now, they are great in so many things, again, here, they replaced the pine nuts that are more common in a pesto, and now I prefer them, they are lighter, more delicate. Then it all went into the venerable cuisinart, and in the end, I added about two tablespoons of cream, and it was divine.

So then, it was simply tossing the pasta shards with the spinach-pumpkin pesto, and serving it forth. I should have made a gremolata as a garnish, that would have been the final little "something special," it does look a little bare, next time, gremolata, in this case, I would have coarsely chopped some of the pumpkinseeds, and mixed it with some grated parmesan, along with perhaps some scallions, or finely diced shallot, and some lemon zest, then sprinkle it on top of the meat and the pasta.

I can't wait to make this same pasta sauce, with squash substituted for the spinach, next time. Or maybe cannellini substituted for the spinach, look at that, three different sauces, one recipe, damn I love this cooking thing.

* Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope, the wonderfully funny advice column published for years now in The Chicago Reader:
Cecil has a helpful and humble FAQ which explains why you can trust his advice on any and all topics:
1.Who is Cecil Adams?
Cecil Adams is the world's most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong.

2.How do we know that Cecil knows everything and is never wrong?
Because he said so, and he would never lie to us.

3.No, really.
Listen, read the columns. Soon you will agree this is no ordinary man.

4.What do you mean, "columns"? You're telling me the world's smartest human being works for the newspapers?
We all gotta eat. Yes, Cecil works for the newspapers. His syndicated weekly column, the Straight Dope, presently appears in more than 30 newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. Ballantine has published five collections of his work, a Straight Dope TV show aired on the Arts & Entertainment cable network, and we'll be starting on the biopic as soon as we can line up Sly Stallone.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yet another snowstorm!

I think I know what is happening now. This incredible spell of awful weather, clearly, this is karmic payback, the Jersey Shore is being made to suffer, for foisting Snookie and The Situation on the world . . .

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yearning for a Taste of Summer!

Thai Chicken Salad

This winter has been so hard, with the unrelenting cold and storm after storm as Nor-easters barrel up the coast as if they are on a regular weekly schedule. My cabin-fever is running about 103° and comfort food isn’t comforting me any more. Right now I need a taste of summer, to help me hold on till winter breaks its grip and I can walk on the sand along the beach again and bask in the warmth of the sun. Damn, it hurts to even think of it, while another storm is brewing up outside as I write.

So, to provide this taste of summer I have never needed so badly, I decided to make one of my favorite dishes, one of the few that I make consistently, the same way every time, and make often, because it is, quite simply, one of my favorite foods ever and it is perfect as it is.* The dish is Thai Chicken Salad, and it is the perfect summer food, the only things that rival it, for a picnic on the beach or on my boat on a hot sunny summer day, are Tabouleh, and Bahamian Conch Salad (really a conch ceviche’). I will be getting to those recipes soon, but I think I may have to save them, for when I need a reminder of summer again, June is still far off, and April is the cruelest month, as Prufrock said, because it tortures with the promise of summer, but then relapses into the harshness of winter.

Thai chicken salad is simply the perfect summer food; it is cold, crisp, light, spicy, tart, tingly, as refreshing as a crisp cold pilsner on a hot afternoon (and a crisp cold tart pilsner, say a Bitburger, would be perfect with this). Much of Thai cuisine is based on balancing five essential flavor components; sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and hot (spicy). In this dish, the balancing results in a tingling, refreshing piquancy, a startlingly lively taste, and a perfect crunchy-chewy texture that cools you down if you are out in the sun. This dish brings to mind the taste of sea-salt and sweat on your skin, the texture of the beach sand, the heat of the sun, and the sweetness of coconut oil, the smells and flavors and sensations of the beach. It is light, low in calories (always welcome, to help preserve our beach-bodies, as much as can reasonably be achieved, anyway, while still enjoying life) and it doesn’t leave you full or torpid from the effort of digestion. Trust me, taste this, and you will see, it’s the perfect summer-beach-bonfire-boating-picnic food, this chicken salad, served on lettuce leaves, with some kind of a crisp to crunch on, and ice-cold beer, nothing more is needed.

The first step is to grind boneless skinless chicken breasts. There is no way around this, the ground chicken you can get in a grocery store is ground to a pulp, its yucky. I use the grinder attachment on my “immortal beloved” Kitchenaid, with the coarse cutting plate. This results, strangely enough, in a coarsely ground texture, with noticeable, identifiable chunks of chicken. If you don’t have a grinder, you could mince the chicken breasts with a knife, you can get the perfect texture this way, too, but, if you are making a lot, you will also get blisters. I have never tried with a food processor, it might work, I find that if you go for a coarse-ground texture in the food processor, you won’t get uniformity, you will get some very large chunks, and some tiny shreds, along with the perfect coarse-ground pieces. Whatever you do, don’t chop up cooked chicken breast, it will be nothing like its supposed to be. Grind the chicken raw.

(I even cleaned up the Kitchenaid for this picture!)

The next step is to cook the chicken, I use a wok, and a little oil, its not too critical, I prefer to be able to say I stir-fried it, but in the end a lot of liquid comes out, and the chicken is half-poached anyway. Just don’t scorch it and don’t boil it or overcook it, the texture of the dish is a result of the coarse grind, more than the cooking method.

This is a crunchy , savory salad with just so many flavors, its like a party in your mouth (I’m not gonna say it, its taking all my willpower, but I’m just not gonna say it, this is a family blog; there may be double, triple, and quadruple entendres in every other sentence, but I am not gonna go overt on this one). All the ingredients are chopped to about the same size as the ground chicken pieces, about 1/3 to ¼ inch squares or parallelograms (see, there is a use for geometry in real life). There is celery, carrots, sweet red peppers, sweet yellow peppers, if you have them, mildly spicy green santa fe peppers, and spicy fresh jalapenos (diced much much finer). These components add the crisp in the texture, and some of the the sweet and some of the hot. This dish has so many flavors, combined in such complex ways, it’s a wonder it somehow fuses them all into one incredible, enjoyable sensation.

Finally, you chiffonade scallions and cilantro, and add two tablespoons of chopped fresh lemongrass, and a teaspoon of chopped fresh Thai hot chili. At this point, I am going to tell you the greatest little tip, this alone will make reading this worthehile: in Asian markets, they sell frozen blocks of chopped fresh lemongrass, with or without chili. Is this not the greatest?

These ingredients give a good part of the sour and bitter components to the dish.

Now comes the “dressing,” and this dish is a perfect example of one of the ways Asian cuisine is so different from classic European and American cooking, in its reliance on a vast array of condiments. This is over-simplifying, but western haute-cuisine tends to rely on building up complex flavors from scratch ingredients. We have all seen the old cliché’ of the French chef who is infuriated that the oafish customer wants to put ketchup on his creation, we view condiments as lowbrow, something for the ballpark, not the high table. But Asian cooking tends to make much more use of condiments, prepared sauces, of which there are an incredible array, and the art is in combining the right condiments, in the right amounts, to get the flavor you are seeking.

In this dish, I use fresh lime juice (you didn’t see nothing in no jar up there, capiche?), fish sauce, toasted sesame oil, and “cock sauce,” the only proper name for Srirache sauce.

The lime juice is bitter and tart, the fish sauce is “umame” (basically, this means “meaty”) and salty, the toasted sesame oil, which really isn’t a traditional Thai ingredient, but I love it in this, is just lovely, its just beautiful, and the cock sauce is both sweet and spicy. Finally, the last thing I add is usually toasted pine nuts, for just another kind of crunchy chewiness, but they recently went up to $22 a pound, and suddenly, I find I like these $2.99 a pound toasted pumpkin seeds just as much.

There it is, summer on a plate, a summer day at the beach, swimming in the water, baking in the sun, sweating breathing salt air and getting sand between your toes, all on a plate, right there. Here is the deal, make this dish one day in the summer, and take it to the beach and have a picnic lunch, eat this with a cold crisp German Pilsener. Then, the next winter, when the dark and the cold have you down, and you need a taste of the joy of summer, make this again, and you will find that Proust and his madeleines have nothing, compared to the evocative power of this amazing food.

* I have so many “favoritest ever” things, I have dozens and dozens of “favorite things in the world,” and so many things are “the best thing ever in the history of the universe.” On any given day, any one of about 200 songs might be my favorite song of all time, and that’s before I start breaking the universe of my most favorite songs ever into the hundreds of different categories of favorite song (for example, the category “favorite song about skinny-dipping that is so beautiful it could make you cry when it talks about the photo on the dashboard that reflects in the window whenever he drives under a streetlight and he sees her face again,” the winner in this category, of course, is Nightswimming, by REM). I get yelled at for having so many favorites, but I fail to see the harm, in loving so many things, in finding just sheer joy in so much in life. Fun is, after all, the best thing to have, what the French call “joie de vivre.” In the end, that’s what this blog, and life, is all about.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Comfort Food Kama Sutra

Its amazing how the same ingredients, in different combinations, can create an adventure out of the most familiar. . . . . food.

Its been the worst six weeks in memory here in the fancy-scarf wearing, Amtrak-riding Northeast, as far as the winter weather. Winters aren’t all that harsh here on the Jersey Shore, as a general rule. Its common to go for a year or two without any snow, and its rare for the ponds and lakes to freeze solid enough for skating. This is the Mid-Atlantic, not New England (if they extended the Mason-Dixon line due East, it would cut right through southern New Jersey), but the last 6 weeks have been downright Vermont-y, with over 40 inches of snow, temperatures rarely rising above freezing, and Barnegat Bay nearly frozen over.

So, of course, this is the kind of weather when you long for the proverbial "comfort food," soups and stews and warming, soothing dishes. “Comfort food” has been something of a food fad the last several years, first there was French Bistro, then the rediscovery of the American cultural parallel,“Diner Cuisine,” which has in turn led to this year’s new black, the mac and cheese and bacon-with-everything craze, and I can’t help thinking the cupcake thing is related.

Comfort food is, of course, first and foremost, comforting. But you don't usually think of it as exciting or adventurous, but there is no reason it can't be. As soothing and enjoyable as a warm bowl of something substantial, like beef stew, lentil soup, chili, or a chicken pot-pie may be, it can still be improved with some extra attention and inventiveness. As with most things in life, and perhaps food and sex most of all, you get out of it what you put in, you can sleepwalk through the same old routine, and put together what will still be a satisfying, if mundane, missionary-position meal, or you can bring some enthusiasm and creativity to the fore, incorporate an unexpected spice, dress your dish in something more provocative, consult the culinary kama-sutra for some inspiration, a new way of combining those familiar ingredients. And as always, its about making daily life your art and your love, and through making the everyday special, appreciating life and its beauties and joys all the more, being more mindful of the blessings of life.

Today’s dish was inspired by a rare trip to Whole Foods. My home town is located out in the boonies, surrounded by the Pine Barrens of south Jersey, and does not have much in the way of sophisticated purveyors; “not much” as in “none.” So, whenever my travels take me past a place where I can find the rarities unavailable at home, I tend to stop, and yesterday I stopped at a Whole Foods. To my surprise, nothing in the seafood section looked very tempting (where have all the fishes gone?), so I decided to stock up on some of the hard-to-find bulk items they offer. I wound up buying a few pounds each of green DePuy lentils, toasted pumpkin seeds (to throw on salads for the crunch), bulgher wheat, and on a whim, some falafel mix (I was hearing Jonathan Richman’s “Dancing Late At Night” in my head, when he sings “you can smell the late night falafel stand, dancing dancing late at night”).

As Du Falafel, a fixture of the Marais district in Paris

At home, I already had a boneless chuck roast I planned to put in the pressure cooker, and the falafel mix gave me an idea. Over in the produce section of Whole Foods there were bags of mixed winter greens, colorful cabbages (the leaves from the ornamental cabbages, purple, green, and white) mixed with green, red, and yellow swiss chard, all chopped and washed and ready to cook, I have bought these mixes before, and they are so easy to cook, quickly saute, and they come out so colorful, so I bought one of those, and for just an extra dash of color and flavor, I bought some yellow beets, which, if you glaze them, cook to an amazing golden color. I had no plans to infuse a great deal of beet flavor, just add that beautiful golden color to contrast with the greens and the red of the pot-roasting sauce (I had decided to pot-roast the chuck with tomatoes).

First, however, I must digress, and offer my praise for pressure-cookers. I got into pressure cookers years ago, all part of my planned career as a pirate, a voyaging sailor. People who go on long sailing voyages like pressure-cookers for two reasons; first, they cook foods fast, so you use less of your precious fuel, and second, long-distance voyagers tend to eat a lot of dried legumes, which would take hours of cooking, without a pressure cooker, but only 40 minutes, using these magical devices. I have owned several over the years, but this electric model is
the best pressure cooker I ever used; its computerized controls keep the pressure perfect without the constant “hissing” from the steam-release valve that usually accompanies pressure-cooking.

Pressure cookers take advantage of one of the physical (as in "Physics") properties of water, which is that the boiling point of water is proportional to the ambient pressure. This is why recipes have to be adjusted for a longer cooking time at high altitudes, because water boils at a lower temperature under the lower atmospheric pressure present at high altitude. Pressure cookers only work with simmered or braised dishes, because they rely on water, but they allow you to, for example, braise a pot-roast in 45 minutes that would take 3 hours in the oven or on a stove-top. The pressure cooker traps the steam with its air-tight lid, and this makes the pressure go up, and under high pressure, the liquids in the cooker can reach much higher temperatures than the normal boiling point of 212° ƒ.

Of course the first step in braising anything is browning. This cooker has a setting for that, it makes it so easy.

This dish was pot-and-pan-intensive, but what the heck, you have to suffer for art:

So, in the end, I am braising the chuck roast with red wine and whole Italian plum tomatoes, crushed by hand, with garlic, onions, celery, parsley, carrots and bay leaves, everything will be strained out after cooking to make a smooth sauce that I will reduce and thicken. I am sautéing the greens with garlic, just a bit of red pepper, and olive oil, I am making flat falafel pancakes, I am caramelizing one diced yellow beet, for that golden color, and I am also sautéing some shiitake mushrooms as a garnish.

The final presentation: a bed of the greens, a falafel pancake jauntily tilted across one side like a frenchman’s beret, some torn chunks of the fork-tender braised chuck on top of the falafel, with the shiitakes and golden caramelized beets on top for color.

Only I forgot the beets, I cooked them early on, and put them in a bowl in the microwave to re-heat when everything was done, and I totally forgot them.

Next time, I will do this with a white corn polenta cake. The falafel made this dish very different, very rich, and full of flavor, and maybe just a bit too “busy.” And a meat-substitute and a meat in the same dish, that’s a bit much. A fried cake of white corn polenta, that would be a gentle, creamy counterpart to the lovely tomato-red wine braising sauce, so next time, or when I get to put this on the menu of my someday dream restaurant, it will be made with a white corn polenta cake. Or maybe one of those Swiss potato-cakes. . . There is so much to look forward to, so many positions in the culinary Kama Sutra.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The first meal from the almost-finished kitchen

So, this is what I made tonight, after spending a day installing trim and various finish detail work for 8 hours. We have had 40 inches of snow here since Christmas, which is more than we usually get in 3 years combined, since December 26, the yard has been covered with snow, getting dingier and nastier every day, but its not going away, and I refuse to do the sawing and sanding inside, so all day I was running outside to cut and sand pieces of trim and countertop in the 30 degree air outside, then sweating inside installing it.

A day like this begs for soup, and one of my favorite comnfort-food soups is beef-barley soup, braised bits of beef, kale, and pearled barley. But I didn't want soup for dinner, so it occurred to me to deconstruct beef-barley soup and reconstruct it as a meal.

I went to Wegmons, the greatest grocery store in the world, on Friday, and I bought some boneless short ribs, and I also bought a bag of the most beautiful greens I ever saw, it was a mixture of red and yellow chard, with some purple kale, it was so pretty, deep green and yellow and red and purple, all chopped and washed and bagged and ready to cook.

And I had the barley on hand, because I make beef barley soup frequently.

So, I was thinking, make beef bourguignon with the short ribs, make barley rissotto, and saute' the chard and kale mix, like you would make brocolirabe, with olive oil, hot pepper, and garlic, I also added some red onions for more color and flavor.

I have no pictures of the process this time, but this was the finished product, it was just what I imagined, perfect for a snowy hard day of sweating and working.

Kitchen Renovations, Conitnued

So this has been the third weekend of aggravating my sciatica, and there has been a major improvement.


Home Depot off-the-shelf cabinets. Yeah, they are as cheap and chintzy as what was here, but they are NEW, and I am not planning to keep this house for long, they look good.

Oak butcherblock countertops from Ikea. Once again, CHEAP, but the warmth of the wood, it looks great against the white cabinets.

Six days of sweat, aggravation, dirt, sawdust, sciatica, aggravation, and 1,000 round trips to Home Depot getting that thing I forgot, returning that thing that didn't fit, buying something else that didn't fit, repeat ad nauseum.

But its almost done now, really came together, it ties the room together, man!

Nobody better pee on it, because I would not let that aggression stand.

Kitchen Renovations

So, I have not posted any recipes in more than two weeks, all my available time has been taken up with my kitchen renovation project, 3 weekends so far, and I have made great progress. When we bought this house, the kitchen was abysmal, it was a tiny, dark, dingy "galley," with nasty cheap cabinets that were old, beat up, and nasty, not to mention ugly.