God, I’m really terrible at getting posts out on time lately. My work load is rather large this semester, and I don’t expect it to let up. I will try to be more punctual about my posts, but when it comes right down to it, my grades take precedence. But I digress.
I’ve been in a particularly veggie mood lately, and decided to play around with making some Ratatouille. Everybody knows about Ratatouille from the Pixar movie by the same name, but in fact, that version of Ratatouille is a fancier version though up by Thomas Keller called Confit Byaldi. The truth is, Ratatouille has much humbler origins. Like many of the great comfort foods, Ratatouille came into being out of the kitchens of Provence. The question “what can I do with these random vegetables?” has been an important question for many impoverished cultures for centuries, and strangely enough, it has produced some of the best food known to man.
This dish is usually made by stewing eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic together in a pot for a while with some herbs (basil or marjoram usually). While this method develops great flavor, the texture leaves something to be desired. By making a sauce with the tomatoes, onions, and garlic, we can develop all the great, savory flavor. But if we saute the other vegetables separately they will retain their freshness and texture. This allows for a dish with a wide range of flavor and textures. Ratatouille is great with anything from grilled lamb to fish. I highly recommend serving it alongside a starch of some sort, bread being the first choice.
-1 medium eggplant, finely diced -2 zucchini, finely diced -1 green bell pepper, finely diced -1 red bell pepper, finely diced -1 onion, finely diced -5 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced -1 28 oz can of tomatoes (San Marzano if possible) -handful of basil leaves, chiffonaded -Kosher salt -black pepper -olive oil -herbs de provence
In a medium pot over medium heat, add a bit of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, sweat the onions until translucent. Then add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and break the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
In a large skillet over medium high heat, add some olive oil. Once hot, add the zucchini and eggplant. Season with salt, pepper, and herbs de provence. Cook until tender. Set aside. Repeat the process with the bell peppers.
Add the sauteed vegetables to the sauce along with the basil and stir to incorporate and heat through. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
A few months ago, one of my friends built a chicken coop in his yard. ”Hey Kevin, do you want to buy a chicken?” he said one day as we passed on our way to class. At first, I had no idea what he meant. It took me a second to process that I was actually going to be putting money down for a live chicken whose primary role would be providing eggs. Needless to say, I was excited.
As soon as I got home that day, I researched as many techniques as I could find for cooking eggs. Of course, I’m already fairly experience with frying eggs, making omelettes, and using them for emulsions. But for some reason, I had never really ventured into the area of hard boiling them. ”Why,” I asked myself, “has it been years since I’ve had a really good boiled egg? And why haven’t I gotten off my lazy ass and done something about it?” Seriously, boiled eggs are some of the easiest things you can possibly do in the kitchen. It requires minimal equipment and barely any washing up. Ingredients are equally simple: eggs and salt.
I discovered in my research the reason why I haven’t had a good boiled egg in a long time: boiled eggs are terrible when overcooked, which is a very common problem. The name “boiled eggs” is a bit of a misnomer. A boiled egg shouldn’t really actually be boiled. This cooks it too fast and unevenly. Instead, what you want to do is put the eggs in cold water that you bring to a boil, then take the water off the heat and leave the eggs to finish cooking in the hot water. Of course you could do this on a stove with a pot, but why even bother? I’ve been using my electric kettle, which is much easier. It comes to a boil quickly, shuts itself off once at a boil, and there’s barely any cleaning involved. Make sure to salt the water just a little bit; this helps to strengthen the enamel of the shells so the eggs don’t crack during cooking. And forget all that stuff you’ve heard about adding vinegar. It just makes the eggs taste funky and stinks up the kitchen. But if you’re one of those people who actually likes the smell of vinegar (myself included), I’ll compromise for you: add 2 tablespoons of vinegar…straight into the sink! Do not pass go, do not cook eggs in vinegar. You’ll have to play around with timing with your own electric kettle. I’ve found that setting the timer for 12 1/2 minutes works best. Start the timer as soon as the kettle turns off. Once the timer runs out, drain the eggs and but them in an ice bath for no more than a minute. This will stop the cooking from continuing, but if you leave them in there for too long, everything contracts and solidifies back up; the membrane may be easier to deal with, but you’ll get a pasty yolk and a slightly cold egg. Take them out after a minute.
Another common problem is the freshness of the eggs. If you have older eggs, the yolk may not stay in place as well, and the white will turn grey as it cooks. The shell will also be easier to crack, and may end up cracking during the cooking process. With fresh eggs, the shell will stay intact and all the internal parts will cook evenly. The yolk is most important with fresh eggs. As eggs age, connective tissues break down and they become less solid, especially in the yolk. If an egg is old, the yolk is more prone to lose its shape and not hold together as easily. This is also why the whites of older eggs are more watery. The key to a good egg is the freshness. So if you don’t have access to really fresh eggs from a chicken, find a store that does organic eggs and check the label. There will be a number on the side that tells you when it was packaged. Get the freshest eggs you can find.
Oh, and just a small tip about peeling your eggs: tap directly on a hard surface all over the egg and roll it around in your hands to loosen the shell. Once you have removed a small piece of shell, you’ll find a thin, translucent membrane that goes around the whole egg. Show no mercy—rip the membrane off the egg. It’s easier to peel by using the membrane to wrench the shell up from underneath. So what if you egg looks a little dented here and there? It’s still a boiled egg, and it will still be delicious. I suggest serving with a little bit of kosher salt to dip the egg in.
I’m still learning new ways to deal with eggs, and they continue to fascinate me, but I will always come back to boiled eggs as a staple of my childhood and as one of the easiest things I can make in 20 minutes.
This is a recipe I’ve been meaning to try for ages. Cacio e Pepe translates to “Cheese and Pepper”, which is prettymuch all this pasta is. It’s a beautifully simple dish that requires very little in the way of ingredients, time, or skill. For me, it’s a great lazy feel-good meal.
Originating in Rome, this pasta has become a staple of Italians everywhere. And like all things Italian, the ingredients are paramount. Cheese, the first part of Cacio e Pepe, is the heart of the dish; without good cheese, you will not have good Cacio e Pepe. So please, for the love of gastronomy, don’t buy the pre-grated stuff. It’s not as good, devoid of complex flavor, and seriously, how hard is it to grate cheese? On a bad day, it takes me two minutes to grate a whole chunk of parmesan. A traditional Cacio e Pepe uses two cheeses, although there is a fair amount of argument about the ratio of the cheeses. Parmigiano Reggiano, a nutty, salty cheese made from cow’s milk, is the first cheese that is always used. The second cheese is usually Pecorino Romano, another hard salty cheese, but this one is lighter, more fruity and herbal, and made from goat’s milk. Sometimes people use other regional variations, or just forgo the Pecorino and do the recipe just with Parmigiano Reggiano. Personally, I really like the contrast between the Pecorino and the Parmigiano, so I use both. As far as ratios go, I have my preferences: namely 1/2 Pecorino and 1/2 Parmigiano. That’s just me though, as I like a robust, salty end product with enough lightness and creaminess to pull it out at the end. If you’re looking for something lighter, add more Pecorino. If you hate lightness and wish to live on the dark side of the Cacio e Pepe, go all out Parmigiano. It’s totally up to you: you’re the bossta of your pasta. See what I did there? Yeah, my jokes are beginning to sound like my mothers’.
The amount of cheese is something to say attention to as well, since the cheese itself is going to be your sauce. You should have equal amounts of pasta and cheese. Too much cheese and you overwhelm the pasta, too much pasta and you don’t get enough sauce. Speaking of sauce, you’re probably wondering how the hell you’re going to make a sauce with just cheese. But don’t fear: I would never be so cruel as to make you try and make a sauce using just cheese. There will be a few ladles of pasta water involved to slowly melt the cheese and thin it out a bit, as well as the butter and oil the pepper was sauteed in to help develop a bit of flavor and give the sauce some nice cohesion. Again, the amount of pasta water is up to you, depending on how tight or thin you like your sauce. A good rule of thumb is to keep a ratio of 4:3. So if I use a cup of cheese, I should use 3/4 cups of water.
Finally, about the pepper. It’s really the same deal as the cheese: don’t use preground pepper unless you want to resign yourself to a fiery pit of woe. People who use preground pepper are like people who use boneless skinless chicken breasts—evil. Besides, it’s just as cheap and easy to buy peppercorns and a decent pepper grinder. The pepper is more fragrant if you grind it just before use, just like nutmeg. Idealy, you would use a mortar and pestle (it releases more of the fragrances and leaves a nice unevenness to the pepper), but grinders are fine. To get even more flavor out of the pepper, you’ll want to sautee it very quickly in a pan with some butter and oil. I can’t really give you a time, because everyone’s pepper and everyone’s stove is different. It shouldn’t take more than a minute though. Your nose will be your best friend at this point, as you want to cook the pepper until its fragrant. Any more and it will burn.
That takes care of the essentials. And of course, like we’ve talked about before, you’re going to salt your pasta water, and you’re going to use a good brand of pasta, and you’re going to cook it not even until it’s aldente because the pasta will finish cooking in the pan with the sauce. But you already knew all that.
This dish is a fantasticly simple and delicious take on mac and cheese. Light, creamy, multi-layered, and a delight to all the senses. It’s amazing how complex such a simple dish can be. I made this a few nights ago for my girlfriend, who was also surprised at how good it was, seeing as it took only 15 minutes and barely any work.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt and add the spaghetti, cooking about 6 minutes, before it’s aldente.
When the pasta is 1 minute from being done, add the butter and olive oil into a skillet over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add the pepper and saute until fragrant. Add 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water and the drained pasta. Slowly incorporate the cheese, stirring and tossing constantly. Once half the cheese is incorporated, add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of pasta water and continue incorporating the cheese. If the sauce is too thin, add more cheese, if the sauce is too thick, add more water.
Serve immediately on hot plates. Garnish with some extra black pepper and Pecorino Romano.
I’ve always loved ginger, in almost everything. Now that it’s getting into fall, I figured it would be the perfect time to experiment with more ginger concoctions. I have a recipe for ginger ale that works fairly well, but I’ve always wanted to embellish it and try making ginger beer. Ginger beer is the badass older brother of Ginger ale: drier, darker, spicier, more complex, and very pleasing. Ginger beer doesn’t take shit from anyone, especially hapless home cooks who don’t know what they’re doing. I embarked on a mission to find as much as I could about ginger beer and make my own batch.
First, and most important, a bit of history. The word “ginger” comes from Sanskrit, and means “horn root”, although it is actually not a root. Ginger is a rhizome, which acts like a root, but is different. Trust me, I’ve scoured plenty of articles and sources to figure out that it’s prettymuch a root with a different name because of a few arbitrary reasons. But I digress. Ginger is originally an Asian product and has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for a long time. Scientists still aren’t quite sure how ginger does what it does medically speaking, but they can say that ginger helps settle the stomach, especially in the case of motion sickness. It has been used as very effective folk medicine to combat most common illnesses for ages. I’ve certainly had good luck using ginger in my times of sickness. There have been more and more studies conducted over the years to try and figure out what ginger is actually capable of, and it seems to live up to some of the folklore hype for being a cure all, being able to stave off coughs, colds, and even help with joint and muscle pain.
But how did Ginger Beer come into the picture? In 1800’s England, beer was a fairly common beverage to have with food, more common than water. But there were quite a few beers that were not made from grains but aromatics, like ginger. The problem is that ginger beer was originally too high in alcohol content, so brewers diluted it by adding more ginger and shortening the fermentation process. It is arguable that ginger beer was the first soft drink, with the production of commercial soft drinks dating back to 1880 in America with Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Ginger beer was wildly popular with the British, as it was refreshing and warming. At the time, India was one of the biggest producers of ginger in the world (and it still is today), so the British were especially happy to keep oppressing an entire subcontinent to get their ginger fix, among other reasons.
That brings us to the process of making ginger beer: the best, and probably most authentic ginger beer, is made with relatively few ingredients. Like ginger ale, a simple syrup with ginger is made, steeped, then added to some water, usually pre-carbonated. But in the process of making ginger beer, we’re going to carbonate the water ourselves instead of using already carbonated water. What carbonates beer is responsible for turning sugars into alcohol? That’s right, our good old friend yeast. And since our ginger syrup is swimming with sugar already, the only thing left to do is add acidity to balance the pH so the yeast won’t die. Lemon or lime juice is the usual route, so that’s what we’ll stick with. The ginger syrup is added to some citrus juice, a lot of water, and a little yeast. We then leave it to ferment and carbonate for a while. The fermentation process is much like that of Kombucha, so anyone who has home brewed a batch of Kombucha should be right at home here. The yeast traditionally came from the ginger beer plant a combination of fungus, yeast, and bacteria that is used over and over again, much like a starter loaf when making bread. But you don’t have to use ginger beer plant to brew ginger beer. Mostly any yeast will work, from baker’s yeast to champagne yeast. I’ll be using dry active yeast, mostly because it’s easy to find and works with everything. I also have a few packs of it still lying around. If you’re wondering what yeast actually does, sit tight: there will be a post about that coming soon.
For my experiment, I made two batches, one using brown sugar and lime juice, the other using white sugar and lemon juice. After a two day fermentation period, during which I continually released the pressure from the bottles several times every day, I chilled the bottles and had a taste test with my friends. My first batch, the brown sugar and lime juice, was too acidic and a bit flat, but the second batch was much better, with only a little acidity and a perfect amount of carbonation. Dark, refreshing, gingery, sweet, with just a little kick of lemon. Apart from spewing some ginger beer on my carpet, my homework, and myself, the experiment went quite well. I have my bottles of ginger beer in the fridge and a big glass of ginger beer next to me as I write. Here is how I did it:
-1/4 cup grated ginger -3/4 cup sugar -2 tablespoons lime juice -1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast -8 cups clean water
Add the ginger, sugar, and 1 cup of water to a small saucepan over high heat. Stir occasionally and bring the syrup to a boil. Once at a boil, remove from the heat and cover. Let the syrup steep for one hour.
When the syrup is done steeping and at room temperature, strain it into a clean, empty 2-liter bottle, pressing the remains of the ginger to get all the syrup out. Add the lemon juice and yeast. Fill the bottle until two inches from the top with room temperature water. Shake well to activate the yeast.
Store at room temperature for 48 hours exactly. Carefully unscrew the cap partway every 6 to 8 hours to release pressure. After 48 hours, depressurize the bottle slowly over a sink. Store in a fridge, and continue releasing the pressure once each day.
I really don’t know what to call this dish. It’s a modification of a dish my mother makes from time to time. I love how simple it is: honestly, it’s just the ingredients in the picture above (the lime is hiding behind the squash). This is a perfect side dish for the fall, especially if you are tired of squash. ”Tired of squash?” you might say, “I fucking hate the stuff!” Yeah, that’s how I felt for a long time. Mushy, flavorless, and just plain weird. But this dish counteracts all the normal problems most people have with squash: it’s not mushy, it has tons of flavor, and although it seems strange, its distinctively less weird than that mound of unidentified orange stuff that was always pushed onto your plate as a kid.
This dish works best with a Kabocha squash, but a Delicata or Acorn squash will work just fine too. Serve this alongside some grilled skirt steak or a nice piece of salmon and your taste buds will thank you.
In a somewhat untimely digression, I would like to apologize for how not wordy this article is, at least compared to most of my other articles where I cover every aspect of the food I’m talking about. My brain is currently being fried by two essays, an impending economics test, and revising a short story. It’s the busy part of the school year for me. Have no fear though, for I have some articles in the works, one of which is on vegetarianism *gasp*.
-1 1/2 pounds squash, 1/2 inch cubes -1 cup chopped cilantro -1/2 chopped crystallized (candied) ginger -1 lime -olive oil -Kosher salt -ground black pepper
Preheat an oven to 400.
Cut the squash equatorially, then scoop out the guts with a metal spoon. Save the seeds for baking and eating later, or throw them away if you are like me and can’t be bothered. Take the skin off and cube.
Line a baking tray with foil and lightly brush it with olive oil. Throw the squash on and drizzle with more olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 20-25 minutes, just until tender.
Let the pumpkin rest for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a bowl with the cilantro and ginger. Squeeze the juice of the lime over it, then toss gently. Serve warm.
It finally feels like fall. The rain is falling as plentifully as the leaves, and people are starting to get slightly grumpier. I’m able to wear sweaters all the time now, and I’m also able to eat apples almost all the time. Apples really are one of my favorite fruits (I guess it comes with the territory, growing up in Washington). There is no better way to celebrate the coming of fall than with a baked apple dish of some sort. I would try doing a classic American apple pie, but I just know that it would end terribly. There is no way my pies will ever turn out like my mother’s. But this doesn’t mean defeat. The French have invented a way to make a baked apple treat that even an idiot like me can do.
Tarte Tatin has to be one of the closest things to apple pie in existence. This dish has been a classic for nearly 100 years. The idea of making upside down tartes has been around in French cooking for a long time, but this specific recipe/method is said to be developed around the late 19th century by the Tatin sisters. It is almost always made with apples, although it can be made with other fruits like pears, plums, peaches, and even tomatoes. A caramel is made, apples are sliced and placed in the caramel to cook on the stove, and then a crust is put over the whole tarte and it is baked until the crust is golden brown. After this, it is inverted on a plate and made to look as pretty as possible.
When choosing apples for a tarte tatin, there are a few things to be aware of. Ripeness, as always, is a paramount concern. As we have discussed in previous posts, the best way to ascertain ripeness is by smell. If the fruit smells fruity, then its ripe. Firmness is also important, as we want the apples to hold their shape as they cook. The traditional apple for this application is Granny Smith, so that’s what I’m using. If you want to be a blasphemer and deviate from a well-documented and widely practiced tradition, you can use other apples that have a robust flavor and hold their shape well. What kind of apples are those? There are tons, but you’ll just have to experiment yourself, you unholy apple user. Granny Smith is really the best way to go; it’s never failed in making apples pies or tarte tatins. Okay, maybe it’s failed every once in a great while, but that’s just user error. To recap: for a tarte tatin, you need fragrant, firm Granny Smith apples.
But what have apples ever done for us? Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, apples can provide a lot of good for us. The principle health benefit is the high levels of antioxidants that apples have. Apples also have a fair amount of fiber and have been shown to lower the chance of heart disease and possibly prevent deterioration of cognitive function. Other than the core and seeds being slightly poisonous, there is nothing about eating apples that is not beneficial. Even more reason to make this tarte tatin.
-1 cup sugar -3 tablespoons butter -4 granny smith apples -1 lemon -1 12 inch sheet of pastry dough (make it yourself or use puff pastry) -1 egg
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peel, core, and quarter the apples. Place in a bowl and toss with the juice of half the lemon. This prevents them from browning as you cook your caramel.
In an oven safe skillet on medium low heat, add 3/4 cup of sugar. It will melt and become a nutty brown after about 5 minutes. The brown should be about as dark as a dark brown roux. At this point, take the pan off the heat and add the butter in chunks, stirring constantly. Once the butter is incorporated, arrange the apples in the skillet in a nice pattern. Put the skillet back on the heat to cook the apples in the caramel for another 10 minutes. They should be done when the apples are tender and the caramel is bubbling over the apples.
While the apples are cooking, roll out your pastry dough on a well floured cutting board. The dough should be quite thin. Beat an egg to use as eggwash later.
After the apples are done cooking in the caramel, take the skillet off the heat and lay the crust over the top, tucking the sides in. Cut a few slits in the top to allow steam to come out. Brush the crust lightly with eggwash.
Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the juices are bubbling on the sides of the pan. Invert on a plate and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut and serve.
I am shamelessly jacking this recipe from Scott Conant at Scarpetta because it is seriously that good. Spaghetti Pomodoro (Pasta with tomato sauce) is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and it can be a near-godly experience if done correctly. That’s why it pains me physically and mentally to walk by the “pasta” aisle in the grocery store and see Prego, Ragu, Newman’s Own, and all the other canned tomato sauces that many people are perfectly content to heat up and slop over their mushy plate of spaghetti. Those are not real tomato sauces; they are packed with perservatives, sugar, and extra stuff that probably doesn’t need to be in a tomato sauce. Don’t get me wrong, I like meat with my pasta as much as the next guy, but meat does not belong in a tomato sauce. There, I said it: good tomato sauce has no meat in it.
As a side note to my meat loving readers, this does not mean in any way that I dislike meat. I love meat and thoroughly endorse its liberal use in many dishes. This is one where I take exception to my usual stance.
Back on track: tomato sauce should contain the following qualities: big tomato flavor, slightly velvety, hint of herbs, hint of spice, roasted garlic undertone, small chunks of actual tomato, deep flavor, soul-warming. This recipe has all of these elements. Not only does it have all of these elements, it perfects the balance of all of these elements, refining a good tomato sauce into an orgasmic tomato sauce. And don’t worry, this isn’t a fussy “simmer for 5 hours, skimming every ten minutes, then pass through a fine sieve” Escoffier-style sauce. This is a traditional Italian tomato sauce that can be made in about 45 minutes. Yes, it still takes some time, but the ratio of time and effort put into this dish to deliciousness is disproportionate enough that my terrible math skills are not able to express it.
The key to this sauce is having good tomatoes. Fortunately, it is tomato season, and there are plenty of delicious, ripe tomatoes for sale at farmers markets across the nation. No, you shouldn’t buy them at the grocery store. Tomatoes at the grocery store are picked when they are yellow and are artificially ripened so they look red. Don’t let the color deceive you though, for they are only ripe in color, not flavor. As with all other fruits, the best way to tell if a tomato is ripe is by smelling it. Seeing as the olfactory sense is the closest to our sense of taste, it makes sense that smell is a good way to discern flavor. If the tomato smells fragrant, it is probably ripe. The tomato should also be firm but have a little give if you press on it.
I would normally say that any tomatoes will do for this recipe, but that is simply not true. There are probably some people out there who make tomato sauce with grape or cherry tomatoes, and that’s great for them. The problem with those tomatoes is two-fold: you can’t get the seeds and acidic gel out, and they’re too sweet. For our tomato sauce, we want bigger tomatoes where we can easily get into the cavities and remove the seeds. We also don’t want tomatoes that are too naturally sweet, for these would make our tomato sauce too sweet, and as I may have mentioned before, sweetness is not in our list of ideal qualities. While a little sweetness is good, it should not be present at the forefront of the sauce. Ideally, a bag of fresh, ripe plum tomatoes will be at hand. If not, you can go for globe tomatoes. Bigger heirloom tomatoes are great, so long as you make sure they’re not too sweet.
Also, we should talk about storage methods. As much as you may want to brag about how superior you are for buying ripe tomatoes from a local market (and trust me, you are completely justified in doing so), keeping your tomatoes on display in the sun will make them sad tomatoes. They will go soft and turn sweet, which is not what we want. Keep those tomatoes out of the sun. But please, for the love of all that is delicious, don’t put them in your fucking refrigerator. I know, its tempting, but we’ve had this talk before on my blog: fresh fruit does not belong in the fridge. It makes it firm and the flavor is nearly gone. Coldness does not a good tomato make. Ideally, they will be consumed within a three days of purchasing, in which case they’ll be fine at room temperature. For prolonged shelf life (i.e. a week) they can be kept in someplace cool, as long as its above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
One final note: fresh pasta is preferable for this recipe. It will have a better texture (smooth yet aldente) and will stand up very well to the sauce. Here is a method for making fresh pasta. I highly suggest using only all-purpose flour for this recipe. If you find yourself without the time or equipment, boxed spaghetti works just fine. Although I encourage you to try making fresh pasta: it’s worth it.
- 1 1/2 lb ripe tomatoes - 1 head garlic (about 12 cloves) - 2 stalks basil (about 10 leaves per stalk) - 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes - 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil - 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt - 4 tablespoons butter - 1/4 cup parmesan cheese - 1 batch of pasta dough, cut into spaghetti and dried or 1 box of spaghetti
In a medium pot, add 2 quarts of water and bring to a good simmer. Score the tomatoes on the bottom in the shape of an X, breaking only the skin, not the flesh. Drop the tomatoes into the water for 20 seconds, removing to a bowl to cool. Once cool, peel the skin off and discard it. Cut the tops off and remove all the seeds and acidic gel, reserving so that you can add it to the sauce if needed. Transfer the tomatoes into a medium pot over medium heat. Mash the tomatoes with a potato masher until you are left with small chunks. Cook over medium heat for about 40 minutes, turning the heat down if the tomatoes bubble too violently.
In a small pot, add the peeled garlic cloves, red pepper flakes, 1 stalk of basil, and the olive oil. Put the pan on low heat.
Bring a pot with 6 quarts of water to a boil. If using boxed pasta: when the sauce is about 5 minutes from being completed, salt the water and add the pasta. Cook until it is just aldente. If using fresh pasta: when the sauce is done, salt the water and add the pasta. Cook until it is just aldente.
Once the tomatoes have reduced and cooked for about 40 minutes, add the salt, then strain the oil from the small pot into the tomatoes. Chiffonade the remaining stalk of basil and add to the sauce. Add the butter and the cheese, stirring well.
Add a few ladles of sauce to a pan with the pasta over medium heat, stirring and tossing constantly. The pasta will finish cooking and the sauce will tighten up a little bit. This will take only 30 seconds.
Serve garnished with some extra parmesan on top.
Recipe adapted from Scott Conant’s “Spaghetti” at Scarpetta.
There’s a lot of pretension surrounding a dish of risotto. Most people are afraid to make it because they see it at fancy restaurants, or because they’ve never tried making it, or even because they don’t know what it is. There tend to be hushed whispers of “oh, that place does a very good risotto”, or “this risotto is divine”. Risotto has become a landmark of culinary achievement for many, and most restaurants will happily charge you $50 for a very nice bowl of truffle risotto. Since its only ever experienced in fancy restaurants at high prices, its hard to imagine making it at home for very cheap. But in fact, the tradition of risotto is a very humble one. Like most starch based dishes, it began its life as a peasant dish, made by people who only had a little vegetation and meat, so they had to use a starchy filler to supplement their vegetables and meat. This starch, for northern Italians, is typically rice. Rice has always been, and still is, one of the ultimate fillers, and it is used the world over to supplement an otherwise meager meal. Risotto is simply the working class Italian version of a hearty, cheap meal. And that’s the sad part: it’s very cheap to make, yet most people see it as an expensive dish. It’s an Italian soul food, yet most urban diners today see it as an Italian luxury.
Of course, rice is not a typically European crop. So where did those crazy Italians get a hold of it and decide to make risotto? Well, rice originated in somewhere in East Asia, around modern day China, Korea, and Japan. It slowly made its way south and west until it reached India, where Persians carried it to the Middle East, and Arabs took it from there to the Nile Delta. In the 8th century, the Islamic Caliphates expanded and eventually reached Spain, where rice was introduced by the invading muslims. Through more Islamic conquests, the introduction of rice became fairly standard for any country on the Mediterranean coast. Ibrahim al-Awwam’s Kitab al-Filaha (Book of Agriculture) mentions rice production in great detail, as well as the author’s suggestion for preparing rice in a mixture of butter, oil, fat, and milk, a combination strikingly similar to what later became risotto. Written in the 12th century, this is one of the earliest traceable recipes for risotto we have today. Although this recipe may bear resemblance to Arabic pilav, Risotto is quite different, being much creamier and more pasta like than a pilav; regardless, this may give us some insight as to risotto’s origin. Rice was introduced into Sicily by Arab invaders, where rice then migrated north through Italy to the Po river valley, which now claims the majority of European rice production. The Po river valley is a perfect environment for growing rice, and it caught on quickly there with many farmers, as rice has a higher nutritional value than most other European starches like barley and wheat. It turned out that it was beneficial for the poorer farmers to be involved in rice production for a number of reasons, nutritional value being a big one.
Almost all rice grown in the Po river valley is short grain. Short grain rice is particularly good for risotto, in the same way that it is good for sushi. Short grain rice has a higher amount of amylopectin than medium and long grain rice, which essentially means that it extrudes starch into its cooking liquid, making it very creamy (or sticky, depending on how it is cooked). This is exactly what we need for risotto, as the starch extruded from the rice is the base of the sauce its cooked in. There are lots of types of short grain rice that are all good for risotto. The most well known is Arborio, which was the first short grain rice to be exported to the United States from Italy. Other types include Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, and Vialone Nano, to name a few. As long as the rice can extrude starch into the surrounding sauce, cook to aldente (like pasta), and not fall apart, you can use it to make risotto. Arborio is probably the easiest to find at your grocery store, but if you see other Italian short grain rices, it’s certainly worth trying them as well.
Now we come to the fun part: making the risotto. It’s actually a lot easier than people think it is. The first step in the process is heating the stock to just below a simmer. This can be any stock, vegetable, chicken, veal, seafood. Try to use the best quality stock you can find, homemade if possible. Over the course of the process, the stock will gradually be ladled into the cooking risotto. Why keep it hot? It makes the pan do less work to maintain the same level of heat on the risotto as its cooking. Unlike other rice dishes, this is a rice dish in which you should not wash, rinse, or otherwise manhandle the rice beforehand; the whole point is to get as much starch out of the rice as its cooking, not to take off the surface starch before it cooks. Washing would completely defeat the process of making a risotto. Do not wash your rice. Ever. Seriously, don’t do it. You’ll end up with a sad risotto, and nobody likes sad risotto. Finely dice an onion or shallot and sweat in some butter over medium heat, with a bit of salt added. There should be no color on the onion/shallot, the sweating is just to get the raw flavor and water out of the onion/shallot and to develop flavor. After the onion/shallot has sweated for a few minutes, the rice is added and cooked lightly for another few minutes, just until the outside edges of the grains are translucent. Deglazing is done with a dry white wine, or some stock if you don’t have wine. Once you deglaze, turn the heat to low, so the risotto is just below a simmer. For the next 20 minutes, you will add stock one ladle at a time, stirring to incorporate. Do not believe the stigma that you have to constantly stir; this is false. Stir once every minute or two, just so the rice all cooks evenly, and to give the abrasive power so the starch can come out into the sauce. But constant stirring is totally unnecessary. When you can sweep your spoon across the bottom of the pot and can actually see the bottom of the pot, its time to add more stock. Continue feeding the risotto with stock until it is a texture you like. Make sure to taste for salt as it gets close to being done. Risotto is much like pasta in terms of when its done. I like mine aldente, so there’s a bit of a bite in the middle and mine is done earlier. If you like your pasta soft, your risotto will take a few more minutes. It will generally take about 20 minutes from start to finish on the stove. Once your risotto is done, add a little parmesan and dot the top with butter. Stir to incorporate and serve immediately. If risotto sits around for too long, it gums together.
But Kevin, you will inevitably ask, what about adding some vegetables or other flavorings to my risotto? You can certainly do that, in whatever combination you like. Wild mushrooms that have been sauteed with a bit of butter and thyme do nicely, or just some blanched spring vegetables thrown in a few minutes before the risotto is done cooking. You could even add some cooked prawns and a bit of basil. The choice is yours for flavoring. There are generally two ways flavoring agents are added. If they need a long time to cook, they are cooked separately and added to the risotto when its done. Some things, like asparagus, don’t take very long to cook and can be added to the risotto a few minutes before its done so that it can cook with the risotto. As long as you’re not relying too much on the risotto to cook something big, you’ll be fine.
So there you have it: a comprehensive guide to risotto. But of course, I can’t just turn you loose, I have to give you a jumping off point. What do I like to do with my risotto? I treat it simply, like I would with a pasta. I don’t have a recipe in mind when I go to the store, I just see what looks good and formulate a recipe while I’m there. Like just yesterday, I went to the store and saw some gorgeous oyster mushrooms and creminis, so I decided I would make a mushroom risotto. Here’s how I did it.
-1 cup short grain Italian rice -2 1/2 cups chicken stock -6 tablespoons butter -1 shallot, finely diced -2 ounces parmagiano reggiano -1/4 cup dry white wine -2 cloves garlic, minced -2 teaspoons thyme -1 lb mushrooms, roughly chopped -kosher salt
Heat the stock in a small pot. When the stock is hot, put a large, heavy pot on medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter is melted, add the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme, along with a generous amount of salt to draw the water out of the mushrooms. Once the water has evaporated, cook the mushrooms until they become brown, about 5 more minutes. Set aside and reserve. Wipe out the pot.
With the pot back on medium heat, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter is melted, add the shallots and sweat with no color for about 3 minutes using a wooden spoon. After the shallots are done, add the rice and toast just until they become translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add the wine and stir to incorporate. Once the wine has reduced by half, add in enough stock just to cover the rice. Stir the rice for a minute or so, just so the liquid is incorporated. After a few minutes, once the liquid has been absorbed to the point where you can scrape your spoon through the risotto and see very clearly the bottom of the pot, add another ladle of stock and stir. Repeat until almost all of the stock has been incorporated and the rice is aldente.
Taste for salt a few minutes before the risotto is done, and add the mushrooms to heat them through. Once the risotto is done, add the parmigiano reggiano and dot the top with the remaining butter. Stir to incorporate and serve immediately.
I can’t help but shake the odd feeling that my food silently judges me whenever I use inferior ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete snob about quality, but I know what’s good and what’s not. Those cans of Swanson’s Chicken Broth, for example, are passable, but nowhere near what they could be as far as chicken stock goes. And every time I have to use one of those insipid cans, I can just feel my food crinkling its nose in a perfect imitation of Alex Guarnaschelli as she destroys the hopes and dreams of yet another chef on Chopped. So I decided I would devote a day this past weekend to making my own stock.
Having had this idea in mind for a while, I saved the carcasses of two roasted chickens, and supplemented with an extra back and a few necks I picked up for a cheap price from my butcher. I also bought all the ingredients for a mirepoix (a fancy word for onions, carrots, and celery, known as a soffritto in Italian), as well as a bunch of parsley. With all of my ingredients assembled, I did meticulous research on making stock. As far as recipes go, they were all fairly similar: use spare chicken parts, a mirepoix roughly chopped, garlic, and a few herbs and spices to accent it. I opted for parsley and thyme as my herbs, both fresh. I contemplated a bay leaf, but it would be too much work to root around in the spice cabinet for a bay leaf, and I already had the parsley and thyme on hand and I figured that they were good enough. I supplemented with a small handful of whole black peppercorns. This is a pretty standard bunch of ingredients to go in a chicken stock. Some people salt it, although I subscribe to the school of “let me control my own damn salt level when I’m making the dish”, although I may be sacrificing unctuous chicken flavor in the name of sodium control; I will never know. Although people will debate me about the amount of water to put in the pot along with the other ingredients, the most practical thing is to cover all the ingredients by about 1 inch of water. Since the exercise is not to reduce the stock at all, we don’t want to put in too much water. The water needs to be as intensely flavored as possible without reducing, which means added only the amount necessary and no more. Yes, you will have more stock if you add more water, but it won’t be as flavorful. It’s basically an infusion, with all of the ingredients adding their own flavor to the liquid they are submerged in. The flavor slowly leeches out at low temperatures (explaining why we’re not cranking the heat; it would not make it go faster, it would lock in the flavor by cooking the ingredients), so we want maximal flavor in the pot, not only from the chicken, but from the other ingredients that inform the flavor of chicken.
But now onto the part that most people are scared of: cooking procedure. With all of my ingredients in the pool, I turned the stove onto medium. Apparently, if you bring the stock up to a boil quickly, the ingredients will cook instead of releasing their juicy goodness. It’s a slow tempering method, I guess, that is best for extracting maximum flavor. Yes, I probably could’ve put it on low, but we’re talking about an 8 quart stock pot almost full to the brim; if that thing was on low, I would be sitting up until midnight babysitting it (not that it would be much of an inconvenience, me staying up until 3 am playing minecraft on a regular basis anyway). So medium it was, until it came to a simmer, at which point it was turned down to low. Like I said before, the object is to flavor the water, not reduce the stock. Therefore, it should only be bubbling at a light simmer. Now don’t kill me, but I honestly don’t know how long it was on the stove. I put it on about a half hour before dinner, and ducked back in every now and again to skim, but I had a few beers and completely lost track of time. My best estimate is somewhere around an hour and a half. By then, the liquid was distinctly chicken colored, and it tasted like the start of an amazing soup. I figured I was done at that point. Really, we’re not following a precise science; it’s all about getting maximal flavor from the ingredients. Some would have you simmer the stock for hours and hours, which I believe to be past the point of diminishing returns. Yeah, five hours probably makes a really good stock, but one and a half is pretty good too, certainly better than a can of Swanson’s. I was happy with where I was, so I turned off the heat and let it cool a bit. Oh, and about the skimming, this is very important. Foam will collect on the top of your stock; this is not good eats, so take a ladle and skim the foam off the top. You can skim the fat too, like I did, but it isn’t as necessary, as you will see during the next step. The foam and the fat that gathers on top is referred to as schmaltz and can be used for various other purposes. I, for one, just discarded mine, as my main goal was the stock.
I strained my stock and let it sit in the fridge overnight to allow the fat to coagulate on the top of the stock. Unfortunately, I did not have a bowl big enough to accommodate about 5 quarts of stock, so I had to use multiple bowls which I then poured back into my empty stock pot. You should let your stock cool for a while at room temperature so that it can cool slowly. Be careful though, because chicken products can go foul quickly if left out for too long, so get that stock into the fridge after about 2 hours at room temperature. Funny thing about chicken fat, it looks almost identical to lemon jello when coagulated. This coagulation will help to skim the excess chicken fat, as we don’t want any of that in our stock. I took a spoon and skimmed the fat off my now cold pot of stock. In retrospect, I should have roasted some potatoes in it, or maybe make some matzah balls with it, but alas I threw it away. After laddling the chicken stock into 1 cup ziploc containers, I stored them in the freezer to solidify, after which I scooped them out into big ziploc bags. Yes, it sounds like the cheater way to do it, but stock won’t keep for as long in the fridge, and I don’t know about you, but it takes me quite a long time to go through 5 quarts of stock. When in need of stock, it’s fairly easy to just heat up the frozen stock brick in a small saucepan.
This process can be replicated with any number of meat scraps and flavor agents to make any number of stocks. Add shrimp carcasses and fish heads to make a fish stock, or even make a mushroom stock using mushroom stems and other mushroom scraps. And once you have your stock, the possibilities are endless. I’m planning on making some amazing soups over the next week while I have my wisdom teeth out, as well as maybe trying my hand at a risotto. But really, I think we’ve achieved our goal here. By making our own stock, we don’t have to feel as if our food secretly hates us for using the canned stock, and we can feel proud again about the quality of our ingredients, because we put a whole day into making that stock dammit! Like William Wallace may have said if Braveheart took place in a kitchen, “They may take our stock, but they’ll never take our freedom!” Okay, maybe I’m misquoting him just a bit, but roll with it, because I guarantee that this stock is the path to your culinary liberation from cans of fake ingredients.
Most people shy away from cooking fish because “it’s too hard” or “it will make my house smell like fish” or “I don’t like fish”. Bullshit. It’s not that hard, your house won’t smell like fish, and if you say you don’t like fish, you’ve probably just never had a good one. How is it possible to dislike fish? It’s one of the most delicate, mild proteins there is, and when it is cooked right, it can be done any number of ways with different flavorings and accompaniments. I honestly think that fish is one of the most versatile foods ever, which explains my love of it. It also turns out that fish is one of the healthiest proteins for you as well, containing many essential vitamins and oils whilst being very lean and packed with flavor.
Still scared of cooking fish? I understand. It’s a bit of a daunting idea at first. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. The first step you must take in overcoming your fear of fish is selecting one. Most grocery stores have a decent fish selection, containing both fresh local fish and imported, previously frozen fish. Try and avoid the latter if you can. Fresh and local is always best for fish, as this assures that it is free of any harmful germs that can fester in an older, non-native fish. Here in Seattle, we get salmon fairly consistently. I used to buy my salmon at Pike Place Market downtown, but it’s a bit of a hassle to go get fish there, and all of the fish is way overpriced during the summer tourist season. This is why I’ve been frequenting my local Central Market. It’s quite similar to Whole Foods and, like many high quality grocery stores, boasts a wonderful fish section. Although I could buy salmon for a lower price there, it’s still more expensive than I would like. So I’ve been going with trout. Rainbow trout are local to this area, and they are only $6 per pound, which is a steal. With smaller fish like trout, it’s best to buy them whole. Have your fish monger gut and scale them for you if they haven’t been gutted and scaled already. A bigger fish, like a salmon, is best consumed in fillets. I recommend going with tail fillets, as they cook more evenly and have a bit more flavor due to the muscles in the tail. But Kevin, you may ask, how do I tell which fish to get. It’s quite easy really. With whole fish, you want to see that their eyes are not cloudy at all. Cloudy eyes mean that the fish is not fresh. If you’re just looking at a fillet, look to see if there are any cracks in the meat. The more cracks and crevices there are, the worse quality. It should be a solid fillet with not breaks in it. And of course, your fish should not smell overwhelmingly fishy. This is also a sign that your fish is old. It should have a slightly salty smell, but be mostly neutral. Wrap your fish in plastic wrap and newspaper and keep in a cool place until cooking. Fish goes bad quickly, so don’t buy your fish more than a day in advance of when you cook it.
Now that you have a fish on hand, it’s time to contemplate cooking. Cooking fish is actually just as easy as cooking any other type of meat, I daresay even easier. Instead of reading for temperature, which can be difficult, the doneness test for fish is carried out with a fork. If the fish easily flakes by pulling your fork with the grain, your fish is ready. On fish like salmon, you can look inside to see the color. Unlike chicken, fish is a meat that can be eaten rare. It all depends on what you like. Personally, I like my salmon on the rare side, so I take mine off a little bit before the flaking gets really easy. You can cook fish however you like: it does well in both wet heat and dry heat, so you can just as easily poach a fish as bake it. For instructional purposes, I will outline the grilling process with a very simple provencal style recipe.
-1 whole trout -2 tablespoons olive oil -1 1/2 teaspoons salt -1 lemon -6 sprigs of thyme
Rub a little olive oil all over the fish, outside and inside. Sprinkle the inside with salt, and stuff it with lemon slices and sprigs of thyme.
Preheat your grill grates to medium high (a full chimney of coals) and oil them well. Place your fish perpendicular to the grates, so the grill marks are vertical on the skin. This will also make turning easier. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the top of the fish while its on the grill. For extra points, halve the lemon and place it on the grill before the fish for just a few minutes, then squeeze out the grilled lemon juice. After about 6 minutes, check the side of the fish that was in contact with the grill for flakyness. Turn just before the flake is easy. Make sure to be gentle and use a fish spatula and your hands so that the skin does not come off. The skin is what keeps it moist inside.
When the fish has reached optimal flakyness, i.e. when it is easy to pull the meat away from the bone with a fork, take the fish off the grill and tent it loosely with foil about 5 minutes. During this time, you can grill up some tomato slices dusted with salt, pepper, and herb du Provence, or some eggplant and zucchini. Accompaniments are up to you. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can make some aioli to go along with it.
Serve whole, pulling the meat off the bones with a fork. Discard the skin if desired, or eat it (it has a lot of healthy oils and tastes delicious). The cheek is a particularly muscly part of the fish, and is prized as one of the most delicious parts. Eyeballs are quite good too, if you can stomach them. Everything on the fish can be eaten, so have at it. This recipe is meant to be very simple and to keep the delicate fish flavor intact. Use whatever is left to make a fish stock, or discard.