Friday, January 25, 2008

how to make crème brûlée with an oxyacetylene torch: a picture guide

(or How Cooking is Just a Socially Acceptable Excuse To Play With Knives and Fire)

Start by making friends with a crazy MIT grad student. (Mine is named Alex. She went to school with Bella. She is responsible for the pictures.) Have your crazy MIT grad student friend invite you to Flamboyant Dessert Night, held at an MIT theme house populated by mad hippie engineers.

Arrive at Flamboyant Dessert Night and learn that the crème brûlée is having technical issues: the giant baking dish won't fit in the water bath. Stage an impromptu takeover of dessert. Rescue the crème brûlée by transferring the custard into smaller baking dishes, i.e. every cake pan in the house.

Bake the custard. Test for doneness using the nearest clean implement you can find (a carving fork, in this case), like so:

When the custard is cooked, remove from oven. Let cool, then chill in the fridge. Remove from fridge when cold (or when the mad hippie engineers start to get impatient.)

Sprinkle the custard with sugar.

Ask for the blowtorch. Receive assurance that the blowtorch is on its way. Wait. Grow impatient. Wonder how long it takes to procure a simple propane blowtorch. Discover that there's been a slight breakdown in communications when two of the mad engineers wheel in a gas tank.

Accept that MIT students are crazy, and that you will be making your brûlée with a tool more commonly found in a construction site than a kitchen.

Making crème brûlée with an oxyacetylene torch is very similar to making crème brûlée with a propane blowtorch, but there are a few key differences. The flame of an oxyacetylene torch is hot enough to weld steel. If your cake pans are metal, make sure they don't melt. If your cake pans are Pyrex, make sure they don't explode. And be careful not to let the flame come too close to the custard, because you want the sugar to caramelize and not burn.

Making crème brûlée with an oxyacetylene torch is probably inadvisable. (Small children should not try this at home.) It is, however, immensely fun, and the power trip is almost better than the sugar rush from eating the crème brûlée itself. It makes me wonder if I shouldn't cook with heavy-duty power tools more often.

Coming soon: how to carve a roast chicken with a chainsaw.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

a meal for an incredibly lousy day

This is my entry for the January 2008 Monthly Mingle, where the theme this month is comfort food.

All food is comfort food, to some extent. It is always easier to face the world after eating a decent meal - or after preparing one. My reaction to a lousy day is usually to cook something involved and elaborate. My brain gets a break while my senses take over. But my reaction to an incredibly lousy day - the kind that makes you feel as though you've been run over by a Mack truck - is to prepare something simple, soft and warm with too much butter in it. Something that makes life seem less awful. Something like polenta with poached eggs.

Law school has (more than) its share of incredibly lousy days, so I make this fairly often. The polenta, butter, and eggs remain constant, but the kind of cheese and other additions vary, depending on what I have on hand. I picked up poblano peppers on my last shopping trip, so I settled on a Southwestern theme when making this last night, using Monterey Jack cheddar for the cheese.

This dish isn't exactly pretty, but it is appealing: pale yellow polenta flecked with green pepper, topped with a poached egg oozing golden yolk. There's not much technique to this dish, but it does need good ingredients. It's worth splurging on European butter, and the freshest eggs you can find.

Southwestern Polenta with Poached Eggs

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Take one or two poblano peppers (depending on size and how much you like spicy food) and either roast them under the broiler, or if you have a gas stove, over an open flame. If you're broiling, cut the poblanos into strips (discard the seeds) and place on a roasting tray with a drizzle of olive oil. If you're using an open flame, stick the poblano on a fork and roast, marshmallow-style, until the skin blisters and chars.

Allow the poblanos to cool before removing the skins, which will come off easily when you rub them. Cut into fine dice and set aside. (Roasting leaves poblanos softened, but not fully cooked. If you prefer them a little less raw, you can sauté them briefly before dicing.)

Bring two cups of water to boil in a small saucepan. Add one cup of yellow polenta (coarsely ground cornmeal), and stir vigorously. Turn down the heat. Keep stirring. Add more water if it becomes difficult to stir. Cook until the individual grains are soft (think cooked rice), and the mixture is thick, but not stiff. Stir in the diced poblanos. Turn off the heat.

Take a generous lump of butter and add it to the polenta. Stir until it melts in. Follow with a heap of freshly-grated Monterey Jack. Add salt to taste. Keep the polenta warm while you make the poached egg(s).

(Matt gets credit for demonstrating the following poached-egg technique.)

Fill another small saucepan halfway with water, and bring to a simmer. Stir the water to form a swirling vortex; gently crack the egg into the vortex and cook until the white is set but the yolk is runny, around two to three minutes. Repeat the process if you'd like more eggs. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the egg to a plate with polenta. Tuck in.

Note: Leftover polenta can be poured into a cake tin, cut into slices, and lightly fried. It makes a good accompaniment for sweet potato and black bean stew.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

singing a song of sardines

A baby sardine saw her first submarine:
She was scared and looked through the peephole.

"Oh come, come, come," said the sardine's mum.

"It's only a tin full of people."

Silly songs aside, the sardine doesn't get much love in America. Probably even less than the beet, really. It's either confused with its brine-cured cousin, the anchovy, or dismissed as another entry in the category of Strong-Smelling Fish, along with pickled herring and smoked mackerel and the like. It probably gets mentioned more frequently by commuters in packed subway cars than it ever does in a culinary context.

This is, of course, a pity and a shame. Sardines are definitely not anchovies, and they're not a strong-smelling fish. Contrary to popular belief, you won't need to leave all the windows open or make an appointment to have the house fumigated after you've served up a meal of sardines. They don't smell much stronger than oil-packed tuna - in fact, fresh salmon fillets are probably more noticeably fishy than sardines. They're also not brine-cured like anchovies, so their flavor is assertive, but mild.

Though fresh sardines are spectacular, they're also a pain to find, so I usually make do with tinned.* Sardines on toast are a classic, but they can be put to more interesting uses, like the following spaghetti with garlic, lemon, and capers. It's quick, simple, and if you usually keep the ingredients on hand in the pantry, it's a good hot meal to prepare on short notice.

Sardine Spaghetti with Garlic, Lemon and Capers
Make sure your sardines are packed in olive oil (not soybean oil or tomato sauce), and that your capers are in vinegar and not brine.

(Serves one for two meals, plus leftovers)

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, open two tins of sardines in olive oil and dump their contents into a shallow baking pan. Use your fingers to gently split each sardine into fillets, and arrange them skin side up. Sprinkle with sea salt. Slide the pan under a broiler on high heat.

Zest and juice one large lemon, and mince four garlic cloves. Sprinkle the zest, the juice, and the minced garlic over the sardines; return to the broiler for another minute or so. Remove from the broiler, and add three or four teaspoons of capers in vinegar. Set aside.

(Warning: truly awful photo ahead. How much more proof do I need to offer of my incompetence with digital cameras?)

When the water has reached a rolling boil, add half a pound of spaghetti. Cook until al dente, then drain and toss with the sardines. Serve immediately. A salad of bitter greens makes a nice accompaniment.

*The Venetians make a wonderful dish called sarde in saor: fresh sardines, fried and marinated in vinegar with onions, pine nuts, and plump white raisins. Keep an eye out for them if you ever visit Venice - they're absolutely delicious.

Monday, January 14, 2008

how to eat a ripe kiwifruit

You know how to eat kiwifruit, don't you?

Of course you do. You buy them from the supermarket, hard and fuzzy like misshapen tennis balls, and you slice them in half and carve out the insides with a spoon. The pale green flesh is juiceless, firm and puckery. The seeds leave your tongue with the unpleasant sensation of having been scoured. You toss the skin with a third of the flesh still attached. You're reminded of why you only eat kiwifruit when it appears in fruit salad, its abrasive qualities overpowered by the presence of pineapple or cantaloupe melon.

No, you don't.

The way to eat kiwifruit is to buy a big bagful at the supermarket, shove said bag in the deepest, darkest nether reaches of your refrigerator, and forget about it until your next fridge cleaning - assuming you clean out your fridge on a monthly basis. You should rediscover the kiwifruit right around the time when they'll be ready to eat.

(The kiwifruit in the above image is unripe. Ripe kiwifruit are not so pretty. The image is not mine - it's from Wikimedia Commons, and is the work of André Karwath.)

The first thing you'll notice is the smell. An unripe kiwifruit is odorless. A ripe kiwifruit has an intensely floral, almost winey scent. A ripe kiwifruit will make you wonder if you could get drunk off it.

Ripe, the kiwifruit changes in appearance. The skin darkens, and wrinkles around the stem end. Slice it in half, and the flesh inside will be a deep, vibrant green. Your spoon will meet with no resistance as you sink it in.

The first taste is a revelation. A ripe kiwifruit is sweet with a touch of tartness, and bursting with juice. A ripe kiwifruit will leave you licking your fingers. All you'll discard will be the skin, scraped clean to the point of translucency. And then you will reach for another kiwifruit, and another, until they're all gone and only the lingering fragrance remains as testimony to your gluttony.

It is possible to cook with ripe kiwifruit. It becomes luscious sorbet, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it would make really interesting syllabub. However, I can't share any kiwifruit recipes until next month, because last month's kiwifruit were ripe yesterday... and I've already scoffed the lot.