Archive for July, 2010

When late summer rolls around, one can never have enough recipes for corn, tomatoes or zucchini.  This is a nice versatile recipe:  Either make the dish ahead so you can serve it later as a room temperature (or chilled) salad, or serve it warm as a side dish.  While this vegetable medley is phenomenal with produce fresh from the farm, the sauteing and the herbs guarantee that it will be delicious even when made in the middle of winter with lackluster vegetables.

  • a couple of sage leaves, or a sprig of rosemary or thyme
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • 2 medium zucchini, ends removed, cut into 1/2 inch dice
  • 2 ears of corn, shucked, silk removed
  • 4 Roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 lime
  • 2 avocados

In a large skillet, heat a couple glugs of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the sage leaves and the garlic.  When the oil is hot, add the zucchini and a generous pinch of salt.  Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Holding the corn upright over a bowl, cut the kernels off the cobs (reserve the cobs for vegetable stock).  When the zucchini starts to brown, add the corn kernels to the skillet.  Saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 more minutes.

Chop the tomatoes into 1/2-inch dice.  Add half of the tomato to the skillet and saute over medium heat until the tomatoes are juicy, about 3-4 minutes.  Squeeze the lime juice into the skillet, stir to combine, and remove from the heat.

Transfer the vegetables to a large mixing bowl.  Add the reserved tomato.  Dice the avocado and add to the bowl.  Mix to combine and check for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Serve warm, or refrigerate until later.  (You can also chop and add some fresh herbs to the salad:  basil, tarragon, dill, fennel fronds…)


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My mother-in-law recently gave me Seven Fires, an encomium to grilling over live fire by the Argentine chef, Francis Mallmann.  Seven Fires passes the crucial test of any cookbook:  It makes me want to cook.  Particularly, this book makes me want to cook an entire cow over a bonfire by a secluded lake in Patagonia, but, barring that, it makes me want to grill anything, anywhere.

So, the recent World Cup match between Argentina and Germany seemed like the perfect pretext for starting a fire at 7:00 AM and testing Mallmann’s infectiously presented philosophy that everything tastes better when grilled.

Since we don’t happen to own a grill (or a TV, for that matter), and since we are already in the habit of exploiting the generosity of our good friends, The Bearded Quaker and Nurse Lanois, we decided to host the game at their place.  They seemed a little taken aback when I showed up at their house the night before for the pre-game slumber party armed with clarified butter, crêpe batter and a dozen sausages, but, good friends that they are, they have learned to roll with my various eccentricities.

I figured that if I could grill panqueques, savory crêpes to be filled with dulce de leche, I could grill anything.  While I was out there, I might as well throw some sausages on the fire; there was no Argentine chorizo to be found, but some German bratwurst seemed like a noble and diplomatic concession to the opponent.  (My Lovely Vegetarian Wife is also of Polish heritage, so some kielbasa had to find its way on to the menu as well.  She would have been bitterly disappointed without it, I am sure.)  To round out this menu, I had been dying to try Mallmann’s recipe for burnt oranges with rosemary, a dish that he strongly urged should only be prepared outside due to the prodigious amounts of smoke it was sure to create.

Cooking, like all crafts, can be an act of self-discovery when it calls upon our resources and ingenuity to their fullest extent.  There were many uncertainties about my plans for an asado para desayuno (including whether my in-laws would disown me for coining absurd Spanish phrases like that):  Would I be able to fire up a grill at 6:30 in the morning?  For that matter, could I even wake up at 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday?  Would I be able to adjust the coals sufficiently under a cast-iron skillet to control its heat?  Could I do this while also grilling sausages?  And would anybody else be awake to make me a cup of coffee??

The answer to all of those questions was “Yes”.  The crêpes cooked almost instantly and got gorgeous crispy edges; the oranges were sweet, jammy, nicely charred and herbal from the rosemary; the sausage was sausage (i.e., the single greatest food known to humanity).

The game, alas, did not go nearly as well as the breakfast.  According to my wife, we have banished this game from our collective memory.  It is not to be spoken of.

We drowned our sorrows with mimosas.

Panqueques con Dulce de Leche

serves a dozen hungry soccer fans

  • 1 1/2 c butter (Don’t worry—you’re not going to eat all of it.)
  • 3 c flour
  • 8 eggs
  • 2 c water
  • 2 c milk

Make the panqueque batter and the clarified butter the night before, or at least 1 hour in advance:  Melt all of the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat.  Combine 1/2 c of the melted butter, the flour, eggs, water, milk and a hefty pinch of salt in a blender; blend on high speed until thoroughly mixed.  Refrigerate.

Finish clarifying the butter:  Skim off and discard any foam from the top of the butter.  Carefully pour off and reserve the melted butterfat, leaving the milk solids in the bottom of the pan behind.  Discard the milk solids.  Refrigerate the clarified butter; it will solidify in the fridge.  If you want to melt it before using it, simply microwave for about 20 seconds.

Using charcoal (or, even better, hardwood), build a hot fire.  Pile the coals to one side of the grill so that they reach up almost all the way to the grill rack.  Place a flat cast-iron griddle on the grill rack directly over the coals.  Cover the grill and allow the griddle to preheat for about 10 minutes.  (Alternately, simply heat up the griddle indoors over medium-high heat.)  When a drop of water evaporates instantly on the griddle, it is ready.

Stir up the pancake batter in case it has separated.  Put a tablespoon of the clarified butter on the griddle, spreading it around to coat the griddle evenly.  Ladle about 1/4 c of the batter onto the griddle, spreading it around with the ladle to form a thin layer over the whole griddle.   The panqueque will cook very quickly:  When the edges are brown and firm, flip the crêpe.  Cook for about 15 seconds more on the second side until the pancake is cooked through.

Transfer to a plate.  Put a heaping spoonful of dulce de leche on the panqueque and spread it around.  Roll up the pancake like a jelly roll.  Repeat with the remaining panqueques, adding more clarified butter to the griddle before each one.  Serve with…

Naranjas Quemadas con Romero (Burnt Oranges with Rosemary)

  • 6 oranges
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 sprig of rosemary

Preheat a cast-iron griddle for ten minutes over a hot wood or charcoal fire (or, if you have a stove with a powerful exhaust fan, heat the skillet over high heat).  Meanwhile, peel the oranges and slice them in half through their “equator”.   Place the sugar on a plate.  Strip the rosemary leaves from the sprig and add them to the sugar.  Press the oranges, cut side down, into the sugar.

When the griddle is hot (a drop of water will evaporate instantly), put four of the orange halves, cut side down, onto the griddle.  Add a little more of the rosemary-sugar mixture to the griddle between the oranges.  Cook the oranges over high heat without moving them until the edges brown and start to blacken.  Carefully flip the oranges and cook on the second side for 1-2 minutes more.  Serve along side panqueques con dulce de leche and grilled sausages for brunch, or with a little sweetened yogurt for dessert.

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I better put this up while it’s still fava bean season.

Fava beans are almost next to artichokes in my book of things which are such a pain in the ass to cook that I almost never make them.  (I love artichokes, but I feel about them the way I feel about sushi:  I’d rather pay somebody else to prepare them for me.)  Fava beans are so delicious, though, and so suggestive of late spring and early summer that I don’t mind a little hassle once or twice a season.

I learned this technique for prepping favas from Saveur, which used to be one of my favorite cooking magazines, before a series of editorial changes took all the fun and flavor out of it.  Essentially, three things must be done to favas before you can eat them:

1)  Remove the beans from the pods.  (The pods are strangely fuzzy on the inside.  Budget a couple of minutes for playing with the pods into your prep time.)

2)  Blanching the beans for about 30 seconds in boiling water.

3)  Slipping the beans out of their skins.  (I generally tear an edge of the skin with one hand and pop the bean out with the other.)

The picture below shows a blanched bean on the left, a blanched bean removed from its skin on the right, and the discarded skin in the middle.

As I said, it’s kind of a pain.  But it’s not rocket science, and once the beans are prepped, the recipe itself is easy:

  • 1 c prepped fava beans, removed from pods, blanched, skins discarded (from about 1 lb. whole fava beans)
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • as much olive oil as needed
  • 1 baguette, sliced on the bias into 1/2-inch thick slices
  • handful of mint leaves
  • 1 oz. Pecorino Romano (preferred) or Parmigiano-Reggiano, optional

Put the fava beans, garlic, lemon juice, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper in a food processor.

Pulse a few times to grind up the beans.  Scrape down the sides, then process on high for 15 seconds.  The goal is to really puree the beans before adding the olive oil in order to form a nice creamy emulsion.

With the food processor running on high, slowly drizzle in the olive oil.  You’ll probably need at least half a cup.  When the mixture is nice and creamy, taste it for seasoning.

Meanwhile, make the crostini (which, like bruschetta, is Italian for “toast”):  Toast as many slices as can fit in your toaster (or spread them on a baking sheet and broil them, or bake them at 350 degrees, or fry them in olive oil…).  Spread a generous spoonful of fava bean purée onto each toast.  Roughly chop the mint leaves, then sprinkle them over the crostini.  If using the cheese, shave thin slices with a vegetable peeler and put enough cheese on each, um, crostino to cover it.  (If not using the cheese, drizzle a little more olive oil—the best you have—on top and add a little coarse sea salt, preferably Maldon.)

Eat these outside on a nice day.  Wash them down with a glass or two of chilled rosé.

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If you ever have the great fortune to receive a piece of your friend’s homemade guanciale (cured hog jowls), this is what to do with it.

  • 4 oz. guanciale, pancetta or slab bacon, in one piece
  • 8 oz. penne rigate or other dried pasta (A confession:  I love mixing different types of pasta, a fondness born out of the reality that I always have a couple of ounces of one kind of pasta, a few ounces of another, but not enough of any one kind to make a meal.)
  • 1 c Tomato Sauce
  • pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating (optional)
  • handful of basil or parsley for garnish (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.  Meanwhile, heat up a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add a glug of olive oil.  Cut the guanciale into 1/4-inch-thick pieces, then cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips.  (If the spirit moves you, rotate the strips and cut crosswise into perfect 1/4-inch dice.)  Add the guanciale to the olive oil and heat slowly over medium heat (turn down to medium-low if the guanciale browns too quickly).  The goal is to render the fat and then to brown the guanciale.

Meanwhile, when the pasta water comes to a boil, salt it liberally and then add the pasta.  Cook according to package directions.

Once the guanciale looks brown, slightly crispy and delicious, drain off most of the fat.  (I suppose one should reserve the rendered fat and use it for various other applications, but I never do:  Cooking potatoes in pork fat is not really conducive to the whole “cooking for one’s vegetarian wife” thing.  Plus, it’s hard for me to rationalize the gratuitous saturated fat.)  Add the tomato sauce and stir in with the guanciale. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is hot.  Stir in the red pepper flakes, if desired, and a liberal amount of black pepper.

When the pasta is done (or even a shade underdone), drain thoroughly and add to the saucepan.  Turn off the heat and stir the pasta to coat with the sauce.

Serve immediately (if you’ve planned ahead to pre-warm the pasta bowls, all the better) with grated cheese and/or chopped herbs, if desired.

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Through the miracle of the Internet and social networking, I recently reconnected with an old high school friend and was pleasantly surprised to discover that our mutual nascent interest in cooking had, if anything, taken even stronger root in his life than it had in mine over the past decades.  I like to think that I’m a pretty ambitious cook, but I quickly realized that I was small potatoes compared to him.  He regularly cooked with spices that I had never even heard of; he liked to make his own ice cream; he corned his own beef.  When I found out that he had cured his own guanciale (a wonderful Italian bacon made from hog jowls), I decided that I needed to swing through Minneapolis and learn from the master himself.

When I arrived, he had already prepared the crème anglaise that would serve as the base for homemade strawberry ice cream.  Since it was a beautiful summer day, he was intending to fire up the grill; in addition, he was planning a menu of broccoli with garlic and anchovies, new potatoes with brown butter and sage, and salad with a homemade vinaigrette which included, among other things, aniseed.

Have I mentioned that I love the Upper Midwest?  Minneapolis is a fantastic city, and not the least reason why is the presence of great co-op grocery stores.  The Guru and I went out to procure some meat for the grill; I had to remind myself that we were making a casual dinner for four, not a full-blown Argentine style asado.  Even so, we got way more than we needed (but leftover grilled meat makes great road trip food).  After careful consideration, we got some flatiron steak, which is a fantastic cut of beef that is rather hard to find, and some bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.  The beef was grass-fed and the chickens were free range (as if you had to ask).

Back in his kitchen, the Guru multi-tasked with much more grace and confidence than I can ever muster while cooking:  steaming broccoli, chopping vegetables, whisking vinaigrette, sauteing potatoes.  I was given charge of the grill, which I considered a high honor.  And also a profound challenge:  Steak and chicken are both wonderful when grilled, but they must be treated in completely different ways.  Steak needs to be briefly seared over high heat and served medium-rare; chicken needs to have its fat carefully rendered (but not right over the coals, lest it cause flare-ups), and then needs to be slowly browned to crisp its skin and cook it through—but not overcook it.  Add in the fact that I was making bruschette on the grill as well, and that I hadn’t grilled anything in over a year, and I felt a little in over my head.

I am happy to say, “In that extremity I bore me well,/A true gentleman, valorous in arms.”  The meat came out perfectly.

Which is only fitting, or else the meat would have fallen far below the caliber of the Guru’s dishes.  With a bottle of chilled rosé, and an icy-cold bowl of strawberry ice cream for dessert, it was undoubtedly one of the finest summer meals that I have ever had.

More importantly, it was a fantastic experience, talking with an old friend, meeting his Lovely Omnivorous Wife (as well as his father-in-law and brother-in-law, both of whom happened to be in town).  It was fun to catch up on each other’s lives, and to talk cooking with a fellow enthusiast.

When I had to leave, all too soon, the Guru sent me away with a guest-gift, more valuable than all the wealth that Ulysses would have taken home from Troy:  a slab of his own homemade guanciale.   I have no idea how I will reciprocate when it is my turn to host my friend, the Guru of Guanciale.

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A few years ago, my dad asked me if I had a good recipe for a tomato sauce to complement the pizza he was making.  He seemed a little nonplussed when I said, “Saute some onions and garlic; stir in some canned tomatoes.”  Apparently, he had been expecting something more elaborate.

I’ve had several conversations like this, where people seem surprised that I don’t include dried oregano, red wine vinegar, carrots, cayenne pepper and who knows what else in my tomato sauce.  I decided at some point that I like the purity of flavor of just tomato, onion and garlic, and everything else proved sort of distracing.  Carrots and celery seemed like too much fuss for little payoff; dried herbs always made the sauce taste like high school cafeteria pizza to me.  I’m not adverse to adding a little sugar or vinegar to balance the sweet/tart profile of the sauce, but too much of either starts to push it into ketchup territory.

So, here it is:  basic tomato sauce.  It’s great for saucing pasta as is; you can also keep batches of this in your freezer and thaw it out to use as an ingredient in building lasagna, braising meatballs or creating more elaborate sauces with mushrooms or cured meat.  With a few small additions, it can be turned into the sauce for the Spanish potato dish patatas bravas, which features a spicy tomato sauce with bay leaf, pimenton and sherry vinegar.

  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 can of whole tomatoes in juice (avoid crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomatoes in puree or any of that other tomfoolery)

Heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  Add the garlic; when it starts to color, add the onion and a generous pinch of salt.  Turn heat to medium low and sweat the onions for about 5 minutes, until they start to become golden in color.

Place a colander over a bowl.  Strain out the tomatoes, reserving the juice.  Add the tomatoes (but not the juice) to the skillet, breaking them up with your hand as you go (watch out for flying tomato seeds).  Turn the heat back up to medium.  Crush the tomato into the onion, and saute vigorously for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The tomato flesh should break down and start to caramelize.

Deglaze the skillet with the reserved tomato juice.  Turn the heat to medium high and reduce the sauce, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.  By now, the tomatoes should be fairly broken down and the mixture should seem “saucy”.   If you like the sauce on the chunky side, leave it as is; otherwise, transfer the sauce to a food mill or food processor.

Pass the sauce through the food mill.  Use the sauce as is, or reserve for later use.  Mangia!

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Spending twelve hours on the road makes you hungry.  Unfortunately, if you drive twelve hours from wherever you are now, odds are that you’ll end up some place where the dining options are not as refined and diverse as you’re accustomed to.  When driving across the country, it’s all too easy to fall into the McDonald’s or, perhaps even worse, gas station junk food trap.  The thrill of the Quarter Pounder fades, alas, even before the first bite is taken:  Like movie theater popcorn, the smell is irresistible, but the taste makes you wonder, almost instantly, “Why in the hell did I buy this?”

When you’re traveling for several days, these concerns take on added urgency.  I don’t know if anybody has ever died of scurvy on the Interstate Highway System, but I’m not ruling it out as a possibility.  Perhaps I’m imagining things, but a gas station repast of, say, Doritos and Coca-Cola only seems to compound my dehydration and fatigue as I’m slogging down the road.  It’s not only bad for me, but it makes me feel awful.

So, road food is an important issue.  Having criss-crossed the country a few times, I feel like I’ve picked up a few pointers about eating and snacking on the road:

1)  Drink lots of water. Obviously, this is always good advice, but you don’t realize how dehydrated you become as you drive, because you’re just… sitting there.  But you’re sitting there perspiring, of course, losing the hydration that helps you stay alert, keep a comfortable body temperature, etc.

2)  Plan ahead. With a good cooler and a few ice packs, you can bring 3-4 days of fresh foods along with you before they start to get a little wonky.  Since fresh produce is difficult to come by on the open road, bringing fruits and vegetables is imperative.  Some of my favorite road trip snacks:

  • apples (Last forever, don’t make a mess.)
  • oranges (It helps if you have somebody riding shotgun to peel for you.)
  • sugar snap peas (Extremely convenient, and very refreshing.)
  • Belgian endives (Ditto.)
  • cheddar cheese (You want something savory and with a little fat, but this is obviously not the place for that overripe Epoisses.  Something that you can rip chunks off of is good.)
  • spiced pecans
  • granola
  • oatmeal cookies
  • dried fruit (Cranberries are good, cherries are better; mango is fantastic, if you can find it.)
  • soppressata (For any Militant Carnivorous urges.  This does require the use of a knife, though, which can get a little dicey at 80 mph.)

3)  Balance sugar and salt. Your body wants both.  If you plan ahead, you can moderate the doses of sweet and salty foods; making oatmeal cookies with whole wheat flour and dried fruit, for example, satisfies your sweet tooth while providing some important nutrients as well.  Moreover, it keeps you from eating too much sugar too quickly, which leaves you (OK, me) feeling rather, well, “sugared out” for lack of a better term.  Similarly, you can bring hard pretzels and salted nuts along (pistachios are great, because the shelling necessitates a moderate pace of consumption—provided you have somebody in the passenger seat to shell pistachios for you), or you can succumb to your cravings and get a bag of gas-station Doritos.  You know which choice will let you respect yourself more.

4)  Embrace the generosity of friends. They want to see you well-fed.  If they want to send you on your way with a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels (Sweet and salty!  Score!) and a few slices of leftover (Vegetable Deluxe!  Double Score!) pizza, as our Guardian Angel of the Rockies did, let them.

5)  When you see a produce stand, go there. You can never be sure where the next one is coming from.  A personal favorite:  On I-90 in eastern Washington, after you’ve been driving through hours and hours of fairly desolate desert and industrial farm country, you round a bend in the highway, smack your head against Mount Rainier which, somehow, has materialized out of thin air, and then notice a big sign that says “Cherries”.  Follow the sign to the produce stand and buy a five-pound bag of Rainier cherries in the shadow of Mount Rainier.  It will make you happy.

At this point, I can almost hear my loyal readers cry, “What about cooking?  Did you cook anything on the road?”

Truth be told, we brought so many tasty snacks in the car (and stopped at so many delicious places to eat) that we rarely brought out the Coleman stove and whipped up a campsite meal.  One dinner that I did enjoy:

Black Beans with Orange

  • 1 can of black beans
  • 1 orange

Heat up black beans in pot on Coleman stove.  When the beans are hot, halve the orange and squeeze its juice into the beans.  Stir.  Serve.

Not really much of a recipe, but I think it was a definite improvement on plain black beans, and a reminder that cooking is just being creative with whatever you have on hand.  But the real cooking adventure—the culinary telos of this whole expedition—was a day spent cooking with an old friend whom I will call, simply, The Guru of Guanciale.

That is a story, however, for another post.  Stay tuned.

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