Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trust your own crust

When will I get over my conviction that people who write cookbooks know more than I do, simply by virtue of their having written cookbooks? Maybe I'll get over it when I write my cookbook, topic TBD. (Judging by what's been coming out of my kitchen lately, a meditation on noble culinary failures might be worth exploring.)

My feelings of inferiority are even stronger if said cookbook writer is English and glam and the sister of my darling Daniel Day-Lewis. But listen up, Tamasin Day-Lewis
: Your tart crust was ucky. And I knew it didn't seem right when I was putting it together, but I soldiered on, thinking that you couldn't possibly steer me wrong.


Day-Lewis's pie-dough recipe in
The Art of the Tart calls for a cup of white or whole wheat flour, four tablespoons of unsalted butter, a pinch of sea salt and two tablespoons or so of ice water. Not enough fat, I thought, and not quite enough water. I was right on both counts. I whirred the (white) flour and salt in the food processor for a few seconds, cut the cold butter over the top of the flour, put the top back on the processor and started working the pulse button. I was waiting for that magical moment when the mixture starts to look like coarse cornmeal . . . and it never came. Know why? Because there wasn't enough fat.

I didn't want to overwork those four paltry little tablespoons of butter, so I laid off the button and started drizzling in some ice water. Day-Lewis warns that too much water makes the crust liable to shrink upon baking, so I was very judicious. But her prescribed two tablespoons (say it with me now) weren't enough to bring the dough together. So I added a bit more water. Then a bit more. And more still. The moment the dough looked the slightest bit clumpy, I dumped it onto the counter and pressed the clumps into a ball, smooshed the ball into a disk, wrapped it in plastic and banged it into the fridge for a half-hour.

When I rolled it out, the damn thing
still cracked like the leather seats in a '91 Buick Park Avenue. And when I tasted a scrap, it was flat and floury. (Do you taste raw pastry dough? I did this in front of my father once while on Thanksgiving pie duty and sent him into paroxysms. In my opinion, if it doesn't taste okay raw, it's not going to taste okay baked.)

Despite its dryness, the crust did indeed shrink when blind-baked. It cracked and leaked filling all over the place (this is why I always put my tart pan on a baking sheet). And it tasted flat and floury. The innards were delicious, though, which rescued the project from utter failure.

So, Tamasin, I do owe you thanks for the lovely filling recipe, which I'll certainly use again, and for reminding me that I should more often trust my instincts about whether a recipe is good or not. Say hi to your brother for me. And try this pie-crust recipe
, which has never once failed me.

Chard, Gruyère and Crème Fraîche Tart

9-inch unbaked tart shell, chilled
2 heads of Swiss chard
1 cup crème fraîche

4–6 T. whole milk

1 egg, beaten, plus 4 egg yolks

3/4 c. Gruyère, grated
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Strip the leaves off the chard, and wash leaves and ribs carefully. Set the leaves aside for something else (you can sauté them with a little olive oil and garlic and serve them alongside this tart, if you like). Then slice the ribs as you would celery, in 1/4-inch widths, and steam them until tender. Drain and let cool.

Bake the tart shell blind for 15 minutes, then remove the beans, prick the bottom with a fork, brush with beaten egg, and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees F.

Beat together until smooth the remaining beaten egg, yolks, crème fraîche, and milk, then stir in the cheese and cayenne pepper and, sparingly, some salt and pepper.

Quickly assemble the layer of cooled chard ribs on the tart bottom, pour the custard over the chard, and cook until browned, about 30 minutes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Nice Sangy

For reasons I have never investigated, my father, who grew up in the Midwest, has a tendency to call a sandwich a “sangy.” He also—again, for reasons uninvestigated—has long called my sister “Bears-o.” (My sister in no way resembles a bear.) Hence, one of the refrains of my childhood was the lunchtime query, “Care for a sangy, Bears-o?”

Often, she did, and yesterday, I did, too. Unfortunately, my father lives hundreds of miles away, and I’m a grown man, so I had to make do on my own. What we’ve got here is a little mother-of-invention-ish, but it’s also a bit indebted to a sandwich creation in a Chicago brewpub called the CB&J, which is a wonderfully lethal fried mush of cashew butter, Morbier cheese, and fig jam, served alongside a coup-de-grâce of macaroni-and-cheese. Lacking all of those things, I settled for this instead.

First, take a nice hunk of sourdough wheat and slice off a couple of nicely matched slices. Smear the outsides with duck fat. (Yes! The year of duck fat continues!) Resist the urge to call it done. Get a nonstick pan going at medium heat—it is, by the way, more or less all right to heat up a Teflon pan with nothing in it, as long as you’re not using super-high heat and put something in it eventually. Put one slice of bread duck-fat-side-down and listen for the sizzle.

While that’s happening, cut a few healthy slices of cheddar—or, if you’re really going for a knockout, Cotswold. Place them on the bread as it’s sizzling. Layer on a few slices of roasted red pepper (jarred is totally fine). Pick up the second piece of bread and smear some globs of jalapeno jelly or other hot-sweet condiment on the side that doesn’t have any duck fat on it, before pressing it down onto the rest of the sandwich (duck-fat-side up!). Once the bottom of the sandwich has browned up, carefully flip the whole thing and give the top side the same treatment, which won’t take long.

Slide the greasy melty darling from the pan and pile some pickles or rice chips on the side. Console your arteries with the thought that…. um, well, there is no consolation for them, actually. Especially if you used the Cotswold.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rustlin' Evidence

Pizza is a thing we like to make. You may not feel the need, given the general ubiquity of the form across the country, but to my taste most of it is just unimaginative.
New York style? Greasy, limp, and overhyped—seriously, it cannot even be considered edible unless it’s beneath a tidal shoal of hot pepper flakes. Chicago style? Indigestible wodges of cheese drowning in oregano, poured into an oily shell. I know people (like Watson) will jump up and say, “But you’ve never tried this place or that place.” And sure, there are exceptions—New Haven style and Sicilian style, for starters--but for pizza you really, truly bond with, you’ve got to make it yourself. At least I do.

So the optimal Melvin-style ‘za is both a years-long work in progress and
an impossibility. There will always be another variation to try, whether in dough makeup, saucing, toppings, or temperatures. What’s below is just last night’s incarnation of a kind we’ve been tinkering for a while, called The Rustler after its inspiration, found at Minnesota’s Pizza Lucé.

Before we get into that, we’ve gotta talk crust. People, crust is not scary. It is not hard. And it does not even take that much time. Here’s all you do for a crust that is crisp, not puffy or oily, but also not crackery: measure a scant tablespoon of yeast into a quarter cup of warm water, then add a pinch of sugar and dissolve. In a large bowl, mix roughly 2 2/3 cups white flour with a very healthy tablespoon of your favorite salt. We’re using kosher right now, but coarse sea salt adds a nice crunch. You can use a little rye flour in place of some of the white if you must. Once the yeast proofs, mix it into the flour along with 2 tbsp. each olive oil and milk. This has been a point of great variation—the milk makes for a crispier crust, but adding too much of it can lead to weird exudations later on. Also add another quarter cup of water—I like to swirl this around the yeast bowl to make sure you get all that bacterial goodness.

Mix everything together a little and see if it’s too dry. For years, I aimed for a dry dough, but this was wrong. You want what comes together here to be wet but not sticky—you’ll get a feel the more you do this. So add some more water if it seems like a good idea, but try not to wait until things are really coming together because it’s harder to incorporate the water after a while. If it gets too wet, hey, add a little flour. (This is not astrophysics.) Knead the dough for just a few minutes—it can be very satisfying to pick this moist ball up in your hand and slam it down into the bowl or onto a board, if you’re using one. I tend to just use the bowl, since the dough is wet enough not to leave any flour behind. In any event, grease a bowl with some olive oil, put the dough into it, turn it once, and leave it to rise.

Oh, no, a rise! How long is this going to take? What do you take me for? You childless yuppies have no idea how real people live!

Let it rise a whopping 30 minutes. You’re going to need that time to prep the other ingredients and heat up the oven. Speaking of which, my preferred oven temperature right now is 520, but of course YMMV. 500 is a pretty good benchmark. I’ve taken it up to 550, but that has a tendency to set off smoke alarms and the like, as well reduce the cooking time to something like a minute and a half, which isn’t ideal for most toppings.

I could write a treatise here on toppings, but the general point is
Kenny Shopsin’s mantra: if there is something you like to eat, eat it. (This is perhaps better known as Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s mantra.) I’ve had success with artichokes, cilantro, pureed cauliflower, apples, anchovies, and dozens of other things. Whatever. We need to focus on the Rustler or this entry will never end. However, it is worth mentioning that tomato-based sauces are not in favor Chez Melvin right now—a swab of olive oil, a dab of anchovy paste, a blorp of chipotle salsa are more like it. (I am at the moment heavily influenced in this by Manetta’s, in Long Island City, New York.)

The Pizza Lucé Rustler uses a tomato-y barbecue sauce and a mix of cheddar and mozzarella, topped with mock duck, sliced red onion, banana peppers, and pineapple chunks. (I have to say that Lucé’s crust can taste like a waffle-tread sneaker, unfortunately.) What’s pictured above uses similar toppings, but we’re using Trader Joe’s meatless strips, and we skipped the banana peppers because, um, well, we forgot them. The critical element at work here, though, is the sauce,
Smoke Daddy Sweet and Smoky, which is heavy on the molasses and the vinegar. (We gave this stuff a tryout because Watson hung out with Señor Smoke Daddy as a vacationing child.)

By this time you have these things prepped and the oven heated, the crust is essentially ready to go. You can, however, let it rise for hours if you’re so inclined. No one will die. Lightly grease a pizza pan with vegetable oil (not olive oil), and stretch the crust out to fill in—it should be pretty elastic and shouldn’t require rolling. Swirl a nice layer of the sauce, add a blanket of mixed cheeses, and then dot everything else around to your satisfaction. Throw in the oven on the bottom rack for about 10 minutes. Then move it up—unless you like a very black crust—for another five or so. You will absolutely know when it’s done—everything will be nice and caramel-colored, the mock duck will be only just starting to carbonize, and there should be only a very little bit of liquid (from the pineapple, mostly) left on the top. Pull it out, slice it up, chomp into your first piece, and scorch the roof of your mouth. At least that’s what I do. More temperate souls might wait 5 or 10 minutes—you could make a nice salad, say, or pour a strong beer. We went for the
Left Hand Smoked Porter, which made for perhaps a too smoky ensemble. But hey, you know what you like.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The cream police

"I thought carbonara had cream in it," Melvin said when I showed him the recipe as part of my proposal that we make do with what's in the pantry tonight instead of venturing out into the eyeball-hardening winds currently scouring Chicago. Nope, no cream, which is one of many things I've learned in years of following periodic flareups on forums like about what makes for "authentic" carbonara/fettuccine Alfredo/Caesar salad/martinis/insert your own classic here.

I'd never tried to make real pasta carbonara before tonight, and now that I know how easy it is I'm thoroughly embarrassed that it took me so long. You probably have everything you need for it in the house right now: bacon, eggs, pasta, Parmesan, salt & pepper. Easy peasy.

(Note: No picture today. We really need to invest in a better camera around here, so that our tasty creations don't end up looking like the dog's dinner when we post pictures of them online [although I hear tell that on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog].)

Pasta alla Carbonara
adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Italian Country Table
Serves 4

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 cup (4 oz.) freshly grated Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese
4 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound egg tagliatelle

1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp (be careful not to burn the brown glaze that forms on the bottom of the pan). Cover and set aside.
2. Lightly beat together the eggs, 2 teaspoons of the cheese, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper in a small bowl.
3. Cook the pasta in boiling water until it's cooked but still firm to the bite. Remove 1/4 cup of the pasta water and add it to the bacon pan. Drain the pasta thoroughly in a colander.
4. Reheat the bacon over medium heat, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the pasta to the pan and toss to blend. Mix in the eggs, stirring until they firm up and cling to the pasta. Season generously with black pepper.
5. Turn the pasta into a warmed serving bowl, and pass the rest of the grated cheese with it at the table.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eggs à la Charlton Heston

I know Watson just posted about a fantastic mishmash breakfast, but frankly fantastic mishmash breakfasts are something we do a lot of around here. The warhorse of the group is something that we call Mexican Eggs, though it is sometimes about as Mexican as
Kenny Shopsin’s African Green Curry Soup is African (i.e., it is essentially just our idea of something that people in Mexico might like). It derives, as the mushroom lasagna did, from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens, and if that means we’re in a rut, so be it. It is a very tasty rut.

What you do is this: sauté up some red peppers—or green if you like them; we do not. You can also include some onion (red or white) or garlic, if you’re so inclined. As things fry up, toss in either some grated jalapeño or a spoonful or two of hot salsa—right now we’re favoring the Frontera chipotle salsa, but suit yourself.

Wait, did I say grated jalapeño? I did. Next time you pick up some fresh ones, toss a couple in the freezer. When the time comes, pop them out and without defrosting set to work on them with a box grater or microplane. You get nice little spicy bits and much easier cleanup than when you wrestle a live one.

While the peppers and what-have-you are frying up, slice up a flour tortilla. (Do not use corn tortillas because they are always unappetizingly mealy.) Beat four or five eggs and set aside. Chop a little cilantro and some scallions, if you have them. Also grate a nice pile of cheese—cheddar is a favorite here, but lots of standardish white and yellow cheeses work just fine. Pause to wonder why there seems to be very little actual good Mexican cheese, yet seemingly endless varieties of the blander kinds.

As the peppers stick and blacken a bit, add the tortilla slices. Push them around a little, and maybe add another spoonful of salsa. Add the eggs and mix in well. As the eggs start to set up, add the cheese. Serve immediately and garnish with the cilantro, scallions, and more salsa. It will not be the prettiest plate you have ever presented, but this is a mishmash breakfast, not
Hot Potato, Cold Potato, for goodness sake.

You can vary the specifics in this essentially to your heart’s content. We’ve been working in some Trader Joe’s veggie chorizo lately (add it just before the tortilla strips). It adds a bit more spice, depth, and color to the final product. And for a couple white middle-class Northerners who don't know jack about Mexico, those are all good things.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Access forbidden.

Deb's post today reminded me to rummage in the fridge for the last of the black-rice pudding I made a week or so ago. This is the most ridiculously easy recipe in my whole repertoire, I think -- three ingredients (water & salt don't count, right?) and minimal exertion by the cook result in a dish that is both an excellent dessert and a lovely breakfast. Today, it was also a good lunch.

This is one of the rare desserts that I'll make on a Tuesday just for the hell of it, but have also made for company. It's the perfect finish to an Asian-y meal: nutty and a little bit sweet -- but not too much. (If Melvin were reading over my shoulder, he'd say: "Just like you!") It's also a simultaneous creamy/chewy experience that I find very satisfying. The black rice, which turns a terribly exotic dark purple when cooked, is sometimes labeled forbidden rice (ooh la la!) and is mighty expensive if you buy it at a chain grocery. I picked up a small bag last month from the sad little clearance shelves hidden away at the back of my nearest Dominick's -- the original price was ree-diculous. Try an Asian market or a natural-foods store for a better deal.

Black-Rice Pudding

1 cup black rice
1/2 cup sugar
1 can unsweetened coconut milk (I use lowfat), stirred well

Place rice in a 3–4 quart heavy saucepan with 3 cups water and 1/4 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 45 minutes. (The rice will still look pretty wet at this point.)

Stir in the sugar, another 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1 1/2 cups coconut milk. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Give it a stir occasionally.

Remove the pan from heat and cool the pudding for at least 30 minutes (the mixture will thicken a bit more as it cools). Serve it warm or at room temperature, in plain white bowls to maximize the gorgeous purpleness of the rice. If you have any coconut milk left, drizzle a bit over each serving.

Leftovers keep for a week or so in the fridge, and are very tasty cold, warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How Not to Make a Roux

Despite the homage below to my willingness to substitute rashly and too much, I found myself seized over the weekend by the need to tackle not one but four recipes in the service of a mushroom-and-port lasagna. “Mel,” I hear you say, “seriously, four recipes? For a hot mash of mushrooms, cheese, and pasta? What’s your effin’ problem?”

My problem--in this instance, anyway--is that I haven’t made anything I haven’t loved from Annie Somerville’s
Fields of Greens (1993). I was a vegetarian for fifteen-ish years and went back to this one again and again, long after most of the Moosewoods had been wrung dry of their charms, such as they were. So when it became clear that (1) it was really cold and wet out, and (2) something had to be done with those pre-Christmas mushrooms in the fridge, I knew where to turn, even though—even though—the recipe itself uses phrases like “labor of love” and “preparation is lengthy.” Sometimes that’s just how it has to be.

Watson was having none of it, opting instead to compile a one-pot squash-and-beaner that was a good cupboard cleaner—and has made for good lunches this week—but didn’t address that need for a January hot dish and didn’t do anything about the mushrooms, either.

But of course, by the time I’d scanned the recipe in all its complexity, there was shopping to be done. For starters, we didn’t have enough mushrooms.

Recipe number 1 was essentially for mushroom sauce, and it entailed some mushroom stock, which under other circumstances could have meant that this would be actually a
five subrecipe extravaganza. Luckily, we had some frozen into a solid, disturbing-looking mass in the freezer, right next to the pierogi.

So while that was heating up, I soaked some porcinis and sautéed half an onion in some olive oil. Incidentally, have you ever known a cat to like to lick olive oil bottles? The bad one of ours does, and frankly it’s gross. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. Anyway, to the onions I added the porcinis (chopped up), their liquid, a whole lot of minced garlic, some white port, and cooked it all down into a savory mess, which I transferred to a bowl. In the same pan, I melted some butter and whisked up a roux, thickening it gradually with the mushroom stock. This, friends, is indeed how one makes a roux. To the successful sauce, I returned the savory mess from above, and things are off to a good start.

On to recipe 2: mushrooms and leeks. Leeks are probably the most wasteful vegetable I know, other than my brother-in-law--all those lovely green tops, useless for much of anything besides more stock. But whom are you going to argue with about it? Anyway, a couple cups of those sliced lovelies go into some oil and get sautéed for a bit with some thyme and garlic and such, then covered and steamed for about 8 minutes before getting pulled from the pan. This pan is about to really go through holy hell, but I decide not to mention it to Watson, who would worry. I crank the burner up to high, promptly incinerating some stray leek bits and nearly one of my eyebrows. To the pan I add just a drop of oil and half the mushrooms. They sizzle and start to melt, but not nearly as fast as the pan is blackening. I add some more chopped garlic, which doesn’t really affect the situation at all, and some more port, which does help. I remove this batch and repeat the exercise, despite a look of concern from Watson, who leaves the room. A few minutes later, she returns and wonders if our carbon monoxide detector is on the fritz. Seeing as we removed it from the ceiling some weeks back on account of suspicious behavior, this seems a reasonable supposition.

To try to disguise what I’ve done to the pan (OK, her pan actually), I’ve thrown more port, the first batch of mushroom, and the leeks back into it and shut off the burner, all the while making “isn’t this just heavenly, dear?” noises. Watson, unfooled, is opening a number of windows and doors, which is sort of unfortunate (see observation about “wet and cold,” above). But at least we’ve reached the end of recipe 2.

Recipe 3 is simplicity itself. I blorp a container of ricotta into a bowl and mash it with some beaten eggs, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Heck, that barely counts.

Recipe 4 is a herb béchamel. After realizing we don’t have enough milk, running out through one of the open doors/windows to go to the 7-11 on the corner, and returning to find that we might, actually, have just enough milk after all, I take the first fateful steps down the path to not making a roux.

See, what the recipe calls for is this: scald some milk in one pan, while melting some butter in another. Into the butter, stir some flour. Now, given that I had made a more complex roux earlier this same evening (we’re about 90 minutes into the process at this point, by the by), one might well imagine that I would know what to do next. And, indeed, should you consult page 155 of
Field of Greens, you, too, will see what to do next.

Reader, I did not do that.

Nevertheless, I charged ahead—still worried about how I was ever going to clean that seared pan—and let the béchamel burble away with some bundled fresh herbs, as I began to assemble the actual lasagna. No, I am not going to get into the whole boil/no-boil thing. The answer is always no-boil.

So: mushroom sauce, pasta, mushroom sauce, leek/mushroom mixture, cheese (Gruyère and Parmesan), pasta, ricotta mix, pasta, mushroom sauce, cheese, pasta. And now, with the oven preheated, all I need to do is “Pour the béchamel over the lasagne, spreading it evenly to cover the corners.” This proves difficult because what I have is not a spreadable sauce but rather a pan of hot milk. For in making--or, rather, not making—the roux, I scraped the butter and flour into the milk, rather than the other way around, and as a result that nice rouxy thickness never developed.

Actually, it was worse than that. Watson was pitching in around the time of the roux misstep, and I actually told her to scrape the butter and flour into the milk, rather than the other way around, Trusting soul that she is, she did. That’ll teach her to listen to me. (I am reliably informed that she was biting her tongue forcefully at this moment, which will teach me not to ask her what that grimace is about.)

Alas, into the oven all the same—and if I do say so the kitchen smells pretty damn good about this time. But as the baking time passes, and then some, there is still this undeniably liquid quality to what’s in the pan. Around this time, Watson forswears her taciturnity and says, in effect, “That’s not how you make a herb béchamel, you know.”

Crestfallen, I consider taking to the tub, but instead we sit down to some mushroom-noodle milk soup. Later I scrub the pans with Kennedy-esque vigor. ("You certainly are domestic today," said Watson.)

The next day, we discover that several hours in the fridge has done a world of good, and that we now have a reward worthy of all the seemingly wasted effort. No, really, it's terrific. Try it yourself sometime.

It's what we've got, and what we've got is good

"The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found." —Calvin Trillin

"If we can eat like this from our leftovers," Mel observed, "I'd say we're doing pretty well
." He was looking at the New Year's Day breakfast he'd improvised out of the stuff in our fridge and on our countertops.

The bottom layer (invisible here under subsequent strata of deliciousness): the previous night's skillet cornbread, from a recipe in
The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.

Next: a layer of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Then: eggs fried in fat that Mel had patiently rendered from a smoked duck breast. The fat had languished unloved in the fridge for a few weeks, because it took us that long to figure out its irresistible resemblance to smoky, extra-silky butter. (Some of it went into the cornbread batter, too, replacing half the melted butter. We later agreed that we should've substituted it for
all the butter.)

Finally: a scattering of diced smoked salmon on Mel's serving and crisp bacon bits on mine (left over from our New Year's Eve feast of oyster & benne-seed stew, also courtesy of the Lee Bros.), plus some chopped scallions. Oh, and a few shakes of hot sauce over the top.
On the side: leftover mustard-roasted potatoes, recipe courtesy of the fabulous

Improvisational cooking has always been tough for me—I'm a recipe-follower through and through. Mel has taught me to loosen up a little and follow my instincts, to read recipes as inspiration rather than gospel, and to work with what's in the kitchen instead of racing off to the store for an incidental ingredient. More improvisation in 2009! Also, more duck fat.