Thursday, November 29, 2007

Slow Food from Spain

I went to a Slow Food dinner at Ideas restaurant last night. The chef, Jose Ignacio Castrodeza, was in flown in from Spain for the event. There, his restaurant Villa Paramesa specializes in medieval Castillian cuisine, as far as I can gather from the Spanish brochures we found at our place settings. The actual dinner he prepared used modern tweaks on traditional recipes and ingredients, possibly due to the regular Ideas chef, Alvaro Beadex, who collaborated.

The event announcement said there were sixty spots and I think fifty-nine people attended as the only empty seat I saw was the one by me. This is not an unusual occurrence, but I think this time it was due less to unfriendly vibes I may emit and more to the fact that I sat right by a big window looking into the kitchen as that was the only place with enough light for me to photograph my plates without using a flash. It was gauche enough to be pulling out my phone at regular intervals for snapping pics without drawing the whole room's attention with a flash of light. Amongst the other 58 attendees was Kyra White, the proprietress of Theine, my local tea shop, where I also pick up my weekly farm subscription vegetables. At the first subscription pick up she asked if I had joined the co-op due to her and I had to say no. She asked the same thing at the Slow Food dinner and I had to disappoint her again. Frankly, I don't remember her ever mentioning either one to me when I was buying tea, but next time I bump into her I'll tell her, yes, I am in fact stalking her just to make her feel better. As she saw me sitting alone, she offered me seat by her, but I declined saying that the empty seats near me would soon be filled with possibly-interesting strangers while I can talk to her every Saturday. She wasn't sure if that was a compliment or an insult. I'm not certain either as It was intended as a statement of fact. Anyway, I wanted to keep my seat for the light, and at least one of the people who sat at my table said something interesting before the crowd noise drowned everything out (which happened before the soup. With my hearing problems I'm essentially eating alone even at a full table so there would have been no real point in going with her, anyway.)

The first course was Serrano ham and castillian cheeses, both very nice. Serrano ham is rather similar to prosciutto and considered by many, including me, to be a bit superior. Like prosciutto, it's salted and aged up to a year. According to McGee's On Food and Cooking, the difference is that Serrano ham is cured with saltpeter to provide nitrite. To get a sense of what it's like, think of good quality prosciutto that you've kept in the refrigerator a bit too long and its started to dry out a little and it's started to go from soft and silken on its way to crispily dried out (and thrown out). In between, there's a stage where the ham's firmed up a bit and has a bit more tooth to it and the flavor is a bit more intense. Serrano ham is like that but much much better since it's not half gone off. The cheese, which the menu leaves nameless, was similar to an aged Parmesan in flavor, but the texture was a bit creamier so it could still be sliced into nice wedges instead of chiseled into uneven chunks. The crystals meant that it was aged too, around a year if I'm any judge, and I'm not. It was served warm but not quite hot, which really brought out the flavors. That's not something I've done with Parmesan, but I'll have to try it, even if I don't usually have the patience to let it get up to room temperature.

There was also Manzanilla sherry which had a lot of young green and vanilla notes. I asked the hostess for a bit more information (it's the sea breeze on the vineyard slopes that gives it its distinctive flavor, she said) and she poured me a glass of an older bottle from the same region. It was more refined (her words; I was thinking that, but I wasn't going to say.), and to more to my taste, but not nearly as good a match for the ham and cheese.

That course was followed up with some bread that didn't appear on the menu at all. (nor in my photographs. Either it's vampire bread or I need to actually wait when my phone says to wait.) The bread left at each table setting was a batard with a thick crunchy crust and a light fluffy inside. Over-baked if you ask me, but maybe that's what they were going for. Waiters also doled out wedges of another bread that was pretty much a Philadelphia-style soft pretzel in loaf form. It needed salt.

The meal proper began with creamy lentil soup with quail and foie gras. Also yummy. I liked how the lentil soup itself was under-seasoned and only really shone when a spoonful also included some fat from the quail or a bit of the oil that was drizzled on top. Unless that was some liquid form of foie gras I'm unfamiliar with (which is quite possible), I didn't notice the foie gras at all. I mentioned the fat from the quail, but not the meat. The meat was dark poultry meat (I had a leg) somewhere between chicken and duck. Not at all bad, and well prepared certainly, but nothing too special.

The wine for this course was Pares Balta Cuvee de Carol small bath Cava. That's a sparkling white wine if your oenology failed you. It was very flinty, which along with the bubbles, made it a bit harsh, really. But nothing wimpy would stand up to lentil soup, and the soup toned down the wine's excesses which a good food/wine pairing is supposed to do, so no complaints to the match.

The main course was a choice of anisette duck with a chestnut puree stuffed pear or a confit of Spanish cod on creamy garlic sauce with fried garbanzos. I'm not a huge fan of either anise or chestnut so despite my concern about confit of cod, that's the one I went with. Now, if you're familiar with north Atlantic cod (or the scrod you find in Boston) this wasn't that. If you're familiar with bacalao, the Spanish preserved salt-cod, it wasn't quite that either. I was quite surprised to learn (from questioning the hostess again) that the very firm texture that I had always attributed to the drying and salting procedure is actually what fresh Spanish cod is like. I'm sure if I read the blockbuster natural history book Cod I would know this. The undistinguished small tender whitefish I had in Boston must be the young over-fished version. This, according to the hostess, was a chunk from a very large adult fish. It certainly explains why cod and not some other whitefish was the one that ended up salted and stored; it's halfway to hardtack already. So, the upshot is that, while this was the best piece of cod I've ever had, that's not saying much. It's used today because it's traditional, not because it's good. The garlic sauce perked it up a bit, but I really was impressed by the fried garbanzos. I'll have to do that myself the next time I make the garbanzo, pasta, chorizo dish I discussed a few posts back.

The wine was a 2005 Martinsancho Verdejo, Rueda a very soft understated white wine. I had trouble putting my finger on a description, and I don't usually go for the fancy professional wine-talk, but the menu talked about this wine's "lanolin-and-melon textural richness" which really nails it, I think.

Unlike the last Slow Food dinner I attended, I was the only single at the table so there was nobody for me to share with to try the other entre. Ah well. Hmm, that's a lousy picture. The duck is the brown lump to the right; I think it was a boneless breast. The pear is the yellow disc on the left. Nice presentation, anyway.

Finally was dessert, Castillian cheese with quince foam and raspberries. Well, the menu says raspberries, but we got raspberry sorbet. I was not entirely thrilled with it. The quince foam was, I thought, a little too stabilized. It was kind of like the semi-solid Whip'n'Chill the University of Delaware dining halls used to serve back in the day. And raspberries in general and raspberry sorbet in particular are getting pretty tired in fine dining circles. At least it wasn't polluting perfectly good chocolate this time around. The cheese was soft and creamy but ripe. Eaten with the quince or raspberry, the sweet and tart flavors would overwhelm the cheesiness leaving only the creamy mouthfeel until the aftertaste. It was an interesting added element, but I think it would have been nice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, too. There was also a crispbread with anise seed in it, but, as you may recall from a couple paragraphs up, I don't really care for anise so I don't think it added anything.

To finish things off was a glass of Williams and Humbert Dry Sack 15 year Oloroso Sherry 'Solera Especial'. You really shouldn't serve me anything especial when I've had four glasses already; I'm in no fit state to tell the difference. It seemed nice enough as far as I could tell. So I threw that back and headed home. And that was that.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The rest of the farm subscription

I got through a bit more of the farm subscription vegetables today with a green bean stir fry. I don't suppose what I did was really innovative enough to talk about on its own merits, but since it's part of the farm subscription series I guess I'll lower my standards a bit. Or maybe that's the wrong move; I'm new to this blogging thing and I'm not sure what's worth posting.

My top-of-the-head thought for the green beans was a black bean sauce, but a literature review revealed that I was mis-remembering a large number of Szechuan green beans in hoisin sauce recipes out there. I wasn't really in the mood for hoisin sauce, though. I've always thought that it acts more as a condiment than an ingredient; every recipe that uses even a little bit ends up tasting like a bowl full of hoisin sauce with some supporting vegetables.

Instead I started off with this recipe. It's a good, fairly generic, starting point. I added some Szechuan peppercorns to the sauce, replaced the pepper flakes and sesame oil with chui chow chili and tossed in the last of the garlic chives and some sliced cremini mushrooms.

I also used ground turkey instead of ground pork since that's what I happened to have in the freezer. It's relatively bland so I marinated it in a couple tablespoons of the sauce, the garlic and ginger and some cornstarch.

One thing you'll notice, if it comes through with my phone's low resolution camera, is the wrinkly texture of the green beans. It's something I'd always noticed in restaurant Chinese dishes, but I figured it was just old beans from crummy cheap Chinese takeout places. Actually, it comes from giving the green beans a quick dip in hot oil. A couple minutes of deep frying dries them out so they can absorb the sauce. It also cooks them half-way so a couple minutes of stir frying is enough to finish them up. Definitely worth the little extra trouble it took.

Unfortunately, the end result was a bit blah. I blame the turkey partially, but mainly I was let down by the lack of the organic vegetable flavor explosion I was led to expect. Cooked or raw, those beans barely had any flavor. Nice crisp texture, but bland.

The komatsuna, on the other hand, had some lovely flavor. Trying it raw, I thought that the peppery taste would work best with Asian flavors, but I second guessed myself and decided I only thought that because I knew beforehand that komatsuna's an Asian vegetable. So I paired it with pancetta, olive oil and pasta instead in a variation on the turnip greens and cavatelli recipe I wrote about earlier. (By the way, the photo I took of it mysteriously resurfaced in my phone's memory so I've added it to that post. I think it looks more appetizing that the image I found on the web.)

The turnips were lovely just boiled and buttered. That's half the point of quality fresh produce-- it doesn't need fancy preparation to be tasty.

You can't just sit down and eat an avocado, though. One went into a fairly successful scallop ceviche. For the other, I found an interesting recipe that uses mashed avocado and cheddar cheese to top a roasted yam. [It's now several days later and I made the avocado-topped yam recipe. It was surprisingly good. Usually I can look at a recipe and see how the flavors fit together, and it really doesn't seem like sweet potato, avocado and sharp cheddar should work, but it did. I think it helped that the avocado was half-way to guacamole mixed, as it was, with plenty of lime juice, cilantro and olive oil. That strengthened that component while the yam remained a mild base which contributed a just a bit of sweetness to the whole. Just a theory off the top of my head, there. I'd have to make it again, maybe with a regular baking potato or with a different cheese to really figure it out.]

The squash I steamed with some shrimp. I used a carolina spice mix that was heavy on the garlic. Maybe I was supposed to put the spices in the water instead of over the shrimp, but the dried garlic flavor was overwhelming. I think it might have been better with Old Bay.

All that leaves me with is the dill. I've had some trouble finding kirby cucumbers here in Miami so I might not go the pickling route there. Maybe with some salmon?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Better than you'd expect

What you see to the left is an olive, peanut-butter, mayonnaise sandwich. And it's really good. Honestly.

I know, I was skeptical too and it took me weeks to work up the courage to try it. There's some odd background before I get to the odd sandwich. Last year, Gourmet Magazine was involved in a 20-part documentary series called Diary of a Foodie. Each episode focused on a foodie topic--eating locally, the transformative power of mold, the blossoming food culture in Brazil, etc. The episodes were mainly stories in the field, but each would come back to a kitchen studio once or twice where Gourmet's editorial staff would prepare quick recipes exemplifying the episode's theme.

The episode about under-valued ingredients included a recipe for caramel corn that, personally, I consider oversimplified to be any good and a recipe for this sandwich. Don't bother going to the show's website to find it, though, the whole episode has fallen down the memory hole. The caramel corn recipe is now attached to the Anatomy of a Meal episode along with a caramelized pork rinds recipe that I'm sure I would have tried by now if it had actually aired.

I'm half convinced the sandwich was a cruel hoax. After demonstrating the preparation, Ruth Reichl, Gourmet's Editor in Chief, took a bite and laughed "That's some sandwich!" which is not the strong endorsement one would like. Frankly, I'd suspect I confabulated the whole thing if Google didn't turn up one (count'em) reference to it on the Web. I'm still not entirely convinced that it wasn't a trick that I (and the person who posted the recipe to recipezaar) have fallen for.

So, the sandwich itself. The vinegary brine of the olives are up front, of course, but they're framed by the creaminess of the mayo and grounded in the earthiness of the peanut butter. It's complex and surprisingly well balanced. (although today's version is thrown off a bit by strong flavors of the multigrain bread. It works better with a country white that serves more as a canvas than an ingredient.) If you do try it, use the large good quality green olives from the gourmet grocery's olive bar and smooth natural peanut butter without the added sugar of the big brands. Not a lot to say about the choice of mayo. I'd avoid Miracle Whip, but that's more of a general rule of thumb.

Finally, I'd like to again emphasize that I'm not making this up.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Turnip tops with cavatelli

Well, radish tops, actually. They look like turnips, I got confused and I ended up with a better recipe so I suppose it ended up for the best. I've done the recipe before with genuine turnip tops and, as far as I can recall, the radish tops worked just about the same.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I made the turnip [radish] tops with cavatelli last night. I could have sworn I took a picture, but it's not in my phone so I guess I did something wrong. Here's a picture of someone else's version I stole from

This is typical traditional Italian peasant fare and is very simple, really. Bring a big pot of heavily salted water to a boil, add the greens, cook 8 minutes or so, remove, add the pasta, cook until not quite al dente. Meanwhile, lightly fry garlic or anchovies or capers or red pepper in olive oil just enough to release the flavors. I used all four which would be a bit of a splurge for a peasant, I suppose; I found it to be a little too much for the relatively mild turnip [radish] greens. Optionally, you can add some bread crumbs, too. Next time I think I'd go with just garlic and bread crumbs. That's another traditional Italian preparation without the greens.

Of course all this frugality is lost if you use fancy store-bought pasta like I did. I had the cavatelli on hand due to one of my periodic whims to purchase the extra-fancy version of some ingredient to see if it's really worth the exorbitant price. Usually it isn't, but the hand-rolled cavatelli has a nice chewy texture unmatched by anything Ronzoni offers. On the other hand, Ronzoni is a pretty good choice for your extruded pasta needs. A lot of the more expensive Italian brands are using semolina flour imported from the US anyway so all you're paying for is a couple of sea cruises for the wheat.

Anyway, add the greens and the pasta to the frying pan, making sure just a little bit of the cooking water is included, cook over high heat for a few minutes so the pasta finishes cooking and absorbs some of the flavor from the sauce, and you're done. Easy and pretty tasty.

Edit: the photo I took belatedly showed up in my camera's memory. Here's what it my version looked like. Despite the bad lighting, I think you can see that, compared to my preparation, the photo from the website overcooked both the greens and pasta. Cavatelli shouldn't be unrolling like that and the greens shouldn't have that light-green boiled-out color.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

CSA subscription - week 1

I picked up my first box from the farm subscription this week. Let's take a look at what we've got:

First up are a couple of radishes and a bag of mizuna and tatsoi, asian salad greens. I'm not sure what to do with the turnips yet, but the radish tops are going into a traditional Southern Italian recipe that pairs them with cavatelli pasta with garlic, anchovies and capers. Not much to do with salad greens but make salad. I'll probably leave them out of the blog post in the future.

Next up are a bunch of komatsuna and a bag of green beans. Komatsuna is, according to the newsletter, a not-too-tough Asian green. I'll probably toss it into a fried rice since I've got enough leftover rice for one. The green beans I could use as a side dish, but I'm more likely to stir fry them with some ground pork in a black bean sauce. Chinese long beans work better, but green beans are fine for that sort of thing.

Next are a couple of avocados and two yellow squashes. I understand avocado works well in ceviche so I might try that. As far as I can tell, ceviche consists of whatever seafood you've got handy soaked in whatever citrus juice you've got with onions, peppers, corn and other new world vegetables you've got and maybe some hot sauce. I'm sure there's some logic, but there are so many variations that anything seems to go. The squash might go into the fried rice or just baked as a side dish.

Finally, there's garlic chives, basil and dill. I should make some pickles with the dill, garlic chives I think will go with the green beans. I'll have to think about the basil. I'm out of tomato sauce so I might make a batch.

More interminably dull details as I start cooking all this stuff.

Something Suitably Seasonal

I wanted to do something Thanksgivingy this week, but turkey ice cream was a bit too far. That left me with cranberry sherbet or candied sweet potato ice cream. There are plenty of recipes for both out there. Too many for cranberries, I thought, for it to be worth making (for any other reason that I really like cranberries. And I don't). So I went with sweet potatoes. It was hard finding a recipe that was what I really wanted; the traditional Thanksgiving side-dish in ice cream form. Most used sweet potatoes from a can so those were out. Others were Caribbean with coconut and rum flavors I wasn't looking for. A lot of others were just sweet potato ice cream without the candying aspect I wanted. Specifically, none had marshmallows. That was important to me for the effect I was going for.

Now keep in mind that, as an east coast Jewish boy, I find the concept of marshmallows in a side dish not quite right. I consider candied sweet potatoes, green bean casserole and any sort of hot dish to be intimidatingly exotic foreign food. I don't think I've ever had either of the latter two. I've had the down south version of sweet potatoes, but not the full-on stick-of-butter, quart-of-sugar, bag-of-marshmallows Midwestern version.

So that's what I wanted to make, then stick in a blender, mix with some cream and throw in a churn. Lots of recipes out there for that, too, but I wimped out on the most traditional versions and went with this one from Whole Foods' website. I think it is approximating the Midwestern version I wanted without focusing so strongly on the sugar as some of the other recipes did. It also doesn't include any maple syrup which I hesitate to use in a recipe that's going to freeze.

If I were just going to make sweet potatoes for myself, I'd probably go with this New Orleans recipe which looks pretty close to the great sweet potato pone I had at Gullah Cuisine.

I didn't make a lot of adjustments to the Whole Foods recipe other than dividing it by four to get a reasonable amount of it for my purposes. I did want to add a bit of citrus as a lot of other recipes used orange juice or zest. I didn't have either on hand, but I did have a tangerine to zest and some orange-pineapple juice. I just used a pinch of one and a splash of the other; I didn't want those to be major aspects of the final flavor. I also punched up the spices (the, now getting a bit tired, trio of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger) to compensate for the flavor-dampening of cold temperatures.

The final result looked like this. I guess that's what it's supposed to look like. There wasn't a picture. I let it cool, picked off whatever marshmallows hadn't fully melted (for re-adding later), and poured it into the blender. My plan was to blend it smooth and then add it to this recipe. That was the most straightforward recipe I could fine. Really, I could have just made some of my standard ice cream base without a recipe, but I guess I'd rather gamble that Oprah hired a good food editor than on my own ability to guestimate the right ratios. You'll notice that Oprah's recipe is called "Candied Sweet Potato Ice Cream," but it isn't candied at all; They just add brown sugar to ice cream base. Not good enough for me, so I substituted in a pound of real candied sweet potatoes (with the spices Oprah was missing), reversed the 2:1 milk to cream ratio, and added some marshmallows.

I probably should have used a food processor instead of a blender for the sweet potatoes, because they just wouldn't blend. I kept adding more of the cream until I didn't have enough left to make a custard base with. It was thick enough that I think the eggs won't be missed. It's not like the recipe needed the extra fat, anyway.

Most of the marshmallows melted into the potatoes so I baked up a bunch more. These got crispy instead of gooey so I'm curious how they'll be in the final ice cream.

In the churn, the mix didn't freeze in the usual way. Usually, a layer freezes onto the inside of the bucket that needs to be scraped off to mix in and thicken the rest of the mix. This time, the whole mass thickened up pretty quickly and the outside layer was thicker and gooier, but not really solid. All that starch, I suppose. The flavor ended up hard to distinguish from pumpkin pie, but I got hints that it would change a bit when it ripened.

Those disturbing-looking things at the bottom of the picture there are toasted marshmallows not severed fingertips, by the way.

The final result has a lovely presentation with the pastel orange dotted with blobs of white delineated in dark brown. The texture is a little gritty, but that can't be helped. The marshmallows retained their foamy gooey texture even frozen, at least in my non-industrial strength freezer. The freezer at work may do a more thorough job. However, it is important not to let it melt as it turns into a fairly nasty mush instead of the puddle normal ice cream turns into. The flavor is milder than I'd like, but the sweet potatoes are distinct and clearly not pumpkin. And the marshallows are notably toasty. On the whole, I think I'll call this a success. Next time, I'll do it more Southern with molasses and pecans.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rehabilitating bad ice cream

Yesterday, I decided that the icy texture of my most recent ice cream would not do (despite half the batch already being eaten). The problem, as you may recall, was that the coffee swirls froze in big ice crystals despite my chemical attempt to control their texture. (I'll have to check the ingredient list on commercial ice creams with swirls to see what they use. My guess is guar gum.)

The solution was to melt the ice cream down and then gently heat it just a bit more to melt the gelatin. That didn't quite get all of it so I ran it through the blender to mechanically reduce the remaining globs.

Then I chilled it and churned it and there you go. I also boosted the cardamom as its flavor was getting lost. With the gelatin distributed throughout, the mix thickened very quickly. Not much air got churned in so I lost a lot of volume, but the texture right out of the churn was lovely. Ripening has made it lump of particularly tasty concrete, but a few minutes at room temperature should solve that easily enough.

There isn't a whole lot to go around so I'm not making an e-mail announcement that the revised version is now available. Only the coworkers who promptly read new blog posts will have a chance to try it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thai iced coffee ice cream - take 2

This is my second attempt at a Thai iced coffee ice cream. If you haven't wandered here from out on the web you'll have read about the previous, not entirely successful, attempt using sweetened condensed milk. Eliminating that should help with the texture problems, but it also eliminates one characteristic aspect of Thai iced coffee. To keep it from just being coffee ice cream I added back in another aspect, the swirled unevenly mixed presentation. I suppose you could just as easily call this coffee-swirl ice cream, but that's kind of interesting too.

With coffee-swirl I had the choice of whether to keep trying at Thai iced coffee or to do cafe' con leche instead. That is, I could put the sugar in the milk (Thai) or the coffee (cafe'). I decided to stick with Thai because coffee without sugar is a fairly common thing and ice cream without sugar isn't. Just in case this didn't turn out to the sublime experience I'm hoping for, I still wanted it to be palatable. On the other hand, I did make the ice cream just plain cream flavored without the usual base of vanilla. Also, I'm going to brew the coffee with cardamom, which is traditional in Thai iced coffee (as opposed to coriander which I accidentally used last time. Whoopsie. Also, as opposed to last time, I'll use enough to actually notice.)

Looking around a whatever-swirl ice cream recipes, the technique tends to be either folding it in after the base is done churning or adding it to the churn for the last 15 seconds. I'm going to try the latter. The swirl also has to be a fairly thick syrup. If I was adding the sugar to the coffee that would be a great help to that end, but since I'm not, I'll have to thicken it up artificially. This would be a great time for one of those molecular gastronomy ingredients--carrageen, agar agar or xanthan gum--but I haven't got any of those, or the gallon of coffee and days of lab time to figure out the correct ratios to get the texture I'm looking for, so I'll muddle through with some gelatin. That does mean that this ice cream is not going to be vegetarian, though (nor strictly kosher).

For the coffee, I'll use a few shots of the faux-espresso my new coffee maker turns out. More about the coffee maker and that faux in another post soon.
Enough of the future tense, the ice cream is now ripening in the freezer. I used too much gelatin and the coffee solidified. I thinned it out with another shot but it wasn't quite enough to let it stay liquid. However, some brisk whisking gave me this slushy goop which will have to do. I was hoping for swirly, but chunky works too, at least for giving me the uneven contrast of bitter coffee with sweet milk I'm looking for.

I was pleasantly surprised that the sweet blank ice cream tasted quite like condensed milk. In retrospect, I don't know why that would be surprising. Without any additions to thicken it up, the ice cream base threatened to overflow the churn with all the churned in air before it got quite as solid as I would have liked, but in went spoonfuls of the coffee goop. It looked like it was dispersing a little too well so I stopped the churn after around 10 seconds.

Scooping the results into a container revealed a nice swathe of coffee down in the bucket that I tried to keep fairly intact. In all of the excitement, I neglected to get a shot of the dasher, but you can see a bit of the swirling in the container. I've got a quarter cup or so of coffee glop left. I'm still considering mixing it in after the ice cream has set for a couple hours. A couple hours later, I did, making the final ice cream nicely swirlier (as the gelatin had melted at room temperature).

Unfortunately, the final ripened ice cream ended up kind of crunchy. I think that's the coffee ice crystals to blame. The flavor ended up the way I wanted, though, with a strong Thai iced coffee feel to it and with separate bursts of milk and coffee. The gelatin melts at a higher temperature than the cream so it holds on to the coffee flavor for a little extra while. I'll bet one of those fancy molecular gastronomy thickeners would have done the same without the texture problem.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pasta with Chickpeas, Chorizo and Bread Crumbs

Here's another modification of a New York Times recipe. This one comes from Mark Bittman's Oct. 17, 2007, Minimalist column where he recommends forgetting all the advice you've heard about adding just enough sauce to pasta to coat it and quadrupling the amount of sauce instead. "What do you wind up with? Pasta more or less overwhelmed by sauce, which you can view as a cardinal sin or as a moist, flavorful one-dish meal of vegetables with the distinctive, lovable chewiness of pasta." Or, in words he doesn't use, a casserole. Fine by me. I never get that light saucing to work out right anyway.

When his column came out I saved the chorizo and chickpea example and I've just now had the chance to try it out. Bittman's schtick is very simple recipes so I usually end up adding a few ingredients and steps. Usually adding them back into a recipe he simplified, I figure. This time I halved the recipe, doubled the sausage back to where it was, added onion and tomato and some spice. I strongly considered adding some smoked paprika, but this is a Bittman recipe: if there was pimenton, he would have left it in. He can't get enough of that stuff and I can't say I blame him at all.

Here's what I came up with:

Bill's variation on Bittman's Pasta With Chickpeas, Chorizo and Bread Crumbs

Extra virgin olive oil, as needed

1 teaspoon butter

1/4 pound cooked Spanish chorizo or kielbasa, chopped
(really, since this supplies the only cuisine-specific spices in the dish, you could use any sort of cooked sausage you like, but you'd probably want to make further changes if you go far afield. I could see a version with Chinese sausage and rice stick pasta. I used a Portuguese chourico this time, but it wasn't as spicy as advertised. Next time I'm likely to switch to a linguica or andouille.)

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1/4 cup onion, finely minced

1 small tomato, chopped (The tomato doesn't get cooked so use a nicely ripe flavorful one. I like Campari for this sort of application.)

1/2 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs or one thick slice of hearty bread chopped to 1/4" cubes or smaller

2 cups cooked chickpeas, with their liquid

1/4 pound cut pasta, like ziti or penne (Use the small bore versions of these. Shells would work, too. Nothing too much larger around than the chickpeas.)

copious amounts of Vulcan salt
(This spice blend from Spice House includes Salt, Louisiana Chile Mash, Garlic, Habanero Chile, Shallots, Tellicherry Pepper, Lime Peel, Pimenton de La Vera, Picane, Cumin, allspice and Vinegar. Regular salt and a good bit of Tabasco would probably be a fine substitute. If you go that route, go light on the chickpea liquid to compensate for the extra water.)

1. Set a pot of water to boil and salt it. When it comes to a boil add pasta and cook until not quite tender.

2. Meanwhile, put 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and add chorizo; heat, stirring occasionally, until chorizo is lightly browned, add onion and garlic (and some Vulcan salt), cook until onion has softened then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add tomato to bowl with chorizo and onion.

3. Lower heat to medium. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter. When the butter has stopped fizzing add bread crumbs and sprinkle with Vulcan salt. Toast, shaking skillet frequently, until bread crumbs turn golden brown and crisp, 10 minutes maximum. If necessary, add a little more olive oil. Remove to a bowl.

2. Add 1 more tablespoons olive oil to skillet (or, as I did, drain pasta and add the oil to the pot. I was using a pretty small skillet for the previous steps) and, over medium heat, chickpeas and their liquid. Bring to boil, then add pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender; stir in chorizo mix, heat through, and taste and adjust seasoning.

3. Serve chickpea-pasta mixture in bowls, garnished with crisp bread crumbs and, if you've got any handy, a sprinkling of parsley. A salad and a glass of red wine wouldn't go amiss either.

Yield: 2 large servings.

So, how did it turn out? Pretty tasty, I think. I'm glad I used whole wheat pasta (according to reviews, Ronzoni is the best brand) because it kept a firmer texture to contrast with creaminess chickpeas. The added onion and tomato added nicely to the body of the sauce so I think they were good additions. Without them, you'd be completely dependent on whatever flavors leaked out of the chorizo to add interest to the sauce. Despite having a fair number of ingredients, it was a quick and simple recipe to make so I could see keeping chickpeas around to make this a regular weekday option.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Condiment out of Carolina

or possibly Midnight in the Kitchen of Good and Evil.

Either way, I passed through the Carolinas on my drive back to Miami and picked up a few things along the way. One stop was for lunch at a restaurant called Gullah Cuisine. Gullah cuisine, the cuisine, developed from West African cooking with less European influence than most southern cuisine. It survived in the Carolina low country because area was so miserable and disease-ridden that the white plantation owners left their slaves there unmolested for half of each year. Or something like that, anyway. Gullah Cuisine, the restaurant, is as much a cultural center devoted to that culinary heritage as it is a place to have lunch.

I normally stay away from buffets, but I wanted to try a lot of different things. That may have been a mistake as, by the time I got there, most of the signature dishes were cleaned out. As you can see from the photos here that's a real shame. Here's my poor plate for comparison.

I'm not going to say that I didn't enjoy what I had. Those are some very nice sweet potatoes there, and that's an interesting gumbo-esque chicken dish on top of jambalaya-esque rice (both simpler versions of the fancy dishes the place is known for). The greens were surprisingly lightly cooked considering they came from a steam table and had plenty of ham in them, and the mashed potatoes had plenty of cheese and bacon involved. There was also some quite respectable fried chicken and a nice banana pudding I didn't photograph. I really do need to get back there at some point to order off the menu, though.

On my way out I picked up bottles of their signature spice mixes.

I tried the fried chicken mix tonight.
It seemed like a fairly typical southern fried chicken seasoning blend. I used too much this first time so the salt overwhelmed the subtleties and I can't really give any details.

Later, I stopped at one of the roadside tourist-trap groceries that dot Rt. 17 every couple miles. I was stuck between two big slow-moving trucks on a road with no passing lanes so I had to stop somewhere. I picked up this:
which isn't really cider of any sort. The clerk admitted that South Carolina law requires pasteurization and, while there is no legal definition of cider, it is traditionally unfiltered and unpasteurized. This is really just peach and apple juice. Not bad for what it is, though.

. The green tomato pickles are in a standard sweet-pickle brine. The firm texture is a nice change, but a familiar flavor. The Jerusalem artichoke pickle is a little more unusual. It's as much a vinegar-based coleslaw as it is a pickle. I think it would go pretty well with barbecue, but that's not any great surprise.

I also got some boiled peanuts. I had tried boiled peanuts once before and found them a revelation. A very different flavor and texture than the roasted version. My previous experience had been with a package from the supermarket so I expected the fresh stuff to be another step above, but it was about the same, really. Shows what I know, I suppose. Unfortunately, now that I've developed a taste for it, Publix stopped carrying it. I may have to boil my own.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Oolong-crusted scallops

While visiting my mother recently I came up with a dish that nicely fulfills my original idea for this blog of creating variations on existing recipes.

I saw some giant scallops while walking through Trader Joes and I half remembered a recipe from the New York Times magazine for oolong-crusted scallops with a citrus sauce I wanted to try. I had made once before, but with bay scallops too small for the tea to make a good crust on and the big scallops seemed like they'd work much better. I also wanted to add some vegetables to it to make it more of a full dinner dish. I didn't have any loose tea on hand, but Trader Joes had some oolong tea bags that didn't turn out too badly. Here's the recipe I ended up with:

8 extra large sea scallops
leaves from 3 oolong tea bags rubbed or ground to a powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 slabs of frozen roasted red and yellow peppers, sliced into quarter-inch strips
(Each piece looked to be about half a pepper. Frozen is important as the released juices form the bulk of the sauce. Fresh would work but bottled would be a poor choice.)
1/2 large lemon
(the original recipe uses lemon, lime and orange juices but with the addition of the peppers just lemon is a better match)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper

Mix oolong tea with salt in a shallow bowl or small plate.

Defrost scallops if necessary and pat dry.

Heat olive oil in non-stick pan on medium high heat.
(the original recipe uses a cast iron pan for the scallops and a separate saucepan for the sauce. Non-stick still gives a good sear, and it allows me to capture the stray tea, the scallop juices and the leftover olive oil into the sauce. It's not the light and elegant sauce of the original, but with the addition of the peppers, that wasn't what I was going for. It also allows me to eliminate the butter from the sauce and make the recipe arguably healthy.)

Press both sides of the scallops into the tea mixture and add them to the pan.
Sear for two to three minutes on each side until a good caramelized crust forms.

Remove scallops to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

Add peppers to the pan and reduce heat to medium low. Cook until the released juices begin to thicken.
Squeeze lemon into pan, stir to mix and cook until the sauce thickens again. Season to taste.
Add sauce to scallops and serve.
(I served this with a brown rice/wild rice mix which worked pretty well. Hearty grains of some sort seemed required.)

Were the results better than the original recipe? I don't know if I could say that. I do think it takes better advantage of the earthy flavor the oolong tea imparts to scallops.

I suppose I should have taken photos, but I'm still new to this blogging thing and I'm resisting the urge to document every on-topic activity I do. Also, I wasn't happy with my plating.