Friday, July 25, 2008

where cooking goes to die

I'm back in Hong Kong for the next two weeks, learning what law firm life is like. As I've previously mentioned, my parents' kitchen doesn't see much in the way of cooking. I might write about some of my favorite restaurants, but don't be surprised if all stays quiet in this corner of the blogosphere until mid-August.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

what proust ate when the world wasn't looking

Marcel Proust must have been a very hungry man.

After all, if you were to judge by cultural references, you'd guess that Proust lived on nothing but madeleines and lime-flower tea. Day in, and day out, nothing but cups of tea and dainty little cakes. Hardly a satisfying diet.

Fortunately, the cultural references are rather incomplete. Proust ate quite a lot of other foodstuffs, and he wrote about them in great detail in A La Recherche de Temps Perdu. (The madeleine just happened to steal all the limelight.)

Roast chicken. Boeuf en gelee. And asparagus. Lots of asparagus.

"I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game: but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet - still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed - with an iridescence that was not of this world."

Proust writes of green asparagus, but it's white asparagus that are arguably more interesting. Unlike, say, red bell peppers and yellow bell peppers, green asparagus and white asparagus aren't different varieties of the same plant. Instead, white asparagus are created by burying the asparagus stalks in soil as they grow. Without light, the asparagus produce no chlorophyll, and thus never take on a green color. White asparagus are sweeter and more tender than green asparagus, and they're quite a delicacy in Germany, where they are known as spargel.

Traditionally, white asparagus are in season from May through June, but hothouse production means that you can have white asparagus all summer long. I know this all too well, because they were a summer special in the Italian restaurant I worked at, and as the lowest-ranking member of the kitchen staff, I had the task of trimming and scraping every crate of asparagus that came through the kitchen. I think I trimmed and scraped my weight in asparagus that summer.

We served the asparagus as a starter, gently cooked in stock and accompanied by either hollandaise sauce or a poached egg sprinkled with flakes of Parmesan. For an extra charge, patrons could also have their asparagus topped with shavings of black truffle.

I never had the chance to try the completed dish (even without the truffles), but I did get to try the asparagus. There would always be a few bruised or broken stalks in each crate, and those would end up poached and sliced into pieces as a snack for the kitchen staff during dinner service. Even without the extras, the asparagus were delicious: very tender, with a sweet, delicate flavor.

So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity when I saw white asparagus at a Haymarket stall on Saturday. The asparagus weren't quite as tender as the ones we served in the restaurant, but they had a lovely mild flavor, and they were delicious with oozy egg yolk and flakes of salty Parmesan.

Sadly, I don't think Proust ever got the chance to try white asparagus with poached egg. If he had, I think the madeleine might not have rated a mention at all.

White Asparagus with Poached Egg and Parmesan
(Serves one as an appetizer or light meal.)

Wash one-third to one-half of a bunch of asparagus, depending on the size, and trim off the bottom inch. If your stalks are thick, use a vegetable peeler to scrape off the outermost layer on the bottom half of the stalks. If they're slender, don't bother - it's more trouble than it's worth.

Put a small pot of chicken or vegetable stock - just large enough to submerge the asparagus - on the stove over high heat, followed by a second small pot of salted water.

When the stock comes to a boil, drop in the asparagus and put the lid on. Cook for eight to twelve minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus, until tender and easily pierced with a fork. Remove the asparagus from the pot, and arrange on a plate.

When the asparagus are a minute or two away from being done, bring the pot of salted water to a simmer. Stir the water to form a swirling vortex, and gently crack one egg in. Cook until the white is set but the yolk remains liquid. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon, and place gently atop the asparagus. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Note: Ideally, you want to time the asparagus and the poached egg so that the egg is done just after you've plated the asparagus. If that seems too finicky, though, cook the asparagus first and leave it in the poaching liquid until the egg is done.

Monday, July 14, 2008

let's (not) talk about sex

I hesitate to describe a dish as "sexy." As Terry Durack puts it, we have enough sex on beds and floors and up against walls to be having it off on our plates, too.

Food does not need to be sexy. Too much talk of sex in a food context, and my mind wanders to that truly regrettable scene from American Pie. I like food to make my palate happy. (And my arteries not too unhappy.) It doesn't need to stimulate anything else.

Nonetheless, the appellation is occasionally appropriate, and this dish probably deserves it. There's a certain je ne sais quoi about wide ribbons of dill pasta in a slippery vodka cream sauce, barely dressed with bits of smoked salmon. It's like a classy little black dress, sexy in an understated sort of way.

I suspect it falls into the nebulous, ill-defined category of "date food," which, as far as I have been able to determine, is either food you order and barely touch in order to impress your dining companion, or food that will supposedly get you laid.

Of course, that shouldn't stop you from making this pasta for yourself while wearing your oldest, fuzziest pajamas, and eating it as you watch trashy crime procedurals on television. It certainly won't stop me.

Fresh Dill Pappardelle with Smoked Salmon and Cream

If you're not feeling up to making fresh pasta, you can substitute good-quality dried pappardelle, and add dill to the sauce.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

To make the pappardelle, combine one cup of flour, one egg, half a cup of finely chopped dill, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of olive oil, and enough water to make an elastic dough. (For more detail on making fresh pasta, see here.) Roll out the dough and cut it into wide ribbons.

Set a pot of salted water on to boil.

Finely slice four shallots and saute them in butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Add a small splash of vodka and the juice from half a lemon, and let it simmer until the fumes burn off. Add a half-cup of heavy cream, and let it simmer on very low heat.

When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pappardelle. Cook for two to three minutes, or until tender. Drain the pasta.

Remove the sauce from heat, and stir in three or four pieces of smoked salmon, cut into strips. Add the drained pasta to the pan and toss with the sauce. Serve immediately.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

a chocolate sauce, of sorts

I like to collect chocolate.

Not like stamps or rocks - no albums or boxes. Not neatly or methodically, but haphazardly and impulsively. I buy chocolate from big supermarkets, from gourmet delis, from chocolatiers. It tends to pile up, a random assortment of chocolate in varying states of eaten (uneaten?).

It might be more accurate to say that I accumulate chocolate.

Bars of chocolate. Wafers of chocolate. Pastilles of chocolate. Chocolate with pink peppercorns, with lavender, with rosemary. (But not bacon. Yet.) Chocolates twisted in shiny foil, chocolate wrapped in lovely thick paper. If it has an unusual flavor or a high cocoa content, chances are, I'll buy it.

So it's not all that surprising that I went wandering in a gourmet grocery, and a tin of cocoa powder caught my eye. It turned out to be gloriously fragrant and bitter, and then I had to figure out what I was going to do with it.

There's no shortage of desserts to be made with chocolate or cocoa powder, but savory dishes are more interesting. The most famous is mole, a complex, spicy sauce native to Mexican cuisine.

I've been told that it shouldn't be described as chocolate sauce, but I find that it's a perfectly adequate description as long as you're not using Hershey's chocolate syrup as your reference point. It tastes of the very essence of chocolate, all dark and a little bitter and almost smoky. Mole is usually served over turkey or chicken, but I'm fond of this version, which is made with black beans.

Black Bean Chocolate Mole with Caramelized Onions and Peppers

This dish is a blatant rip-off of the "Cubano Stew" served at the now-defunct Divine Bar East in New York City. They served it over shredded pork shoulder, but I find that it makes for a satisfying meal on its own.

(Serves one for two or three meals.)

Cut a small white onion into half-moons. Cut one red bell pepper and one yellow bell pepper into thin strips. Dice one small tomato.

Heat olive or canola oil in a large, oven-safe pan over low heat. Add the onions, the bell peppers, and the tomato. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions and bell peppers are soft and fragrant.

Season with a generous dusting of chili powder, a light dusting of cinnamon, and just a little cayenne.

Rinse and drain one can of black beans. Add them to the pan and let them simmer, stirring occasionally.

Add two tablespoons of almond butter and three teaspoons of bitter cocoa powder to the beans, followed by a generous glug of red wine or balsamic vinegar. Stir until everything is well-incorporated, and the mixture is thick and fragrant. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for an additional five to ten minutes, then remove the pan from heat.

Top with grated pepper jack cheese. Pop the pan under the broiler and cook until the cheese is melted with golden brown spots.

Serve with warm tortillas (corn or flour, your choice) and sour cream, if you like.

Note: If you're drinking wine, this goes well with a spicy Spanish red.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

blame it all on exxon and enron

Oh dear. It's been a while since I've been here, hasn't it? I don't see any cobwebs, but this place is looking a bit dusty. Pardon me while I tidy up.

I have an excuse. It might even qualify as a good excuse: I'm working as a research assistant to a professor this summer, and I've been kept very busy with the latest round of decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. In a way, it's really all the fault of Exxon and Enron that I haven't had any time to sit down and write up what I've been cooking lately.

At least there has been plenty of cooking, because Bella and I have a standing appointment to visit Haymarket on Saturday mornings, and I inevitably come home with too much produce. Last week, I found myself with two large eggplants, a huge bunch of basil, and a huge bunch of mint (plus seven pears and a pound of tomatoes, but that's another story), and no particular plan for their fate.

I probably would have ended up with perfectly acceptable - if unremarkable - roasted eggplant and basil-mint pesto, if I hadn't remembered a summer dish Matt likes to make: eggplant, roasted and smothered in tomato sauce with mint, baked with a topping of crumbled goat's cheese. Though I like the flavors, I find that it suffers from "don't-know-what-to-serve-it-with" syndrome. It usually ends up served over angelhair pasta, but I've never found that to be an entirely satisfactory solution.

The answer? Borrow Alex's pasta machine, make fresh mint pasta, and bake up an eggplant, goat's cheese, and mint lasagne.

I used the "ten-layer" approach I've seen on a few blogs, which calls for paper-thin sheets of pasta and thin layers of filling, supposedly producing lighter results than the standard method. (If you're generous with the sauce, you can also get away with not parboiling the lasagne sheets.) I can confirm that it worked quite nicely: this lasagne is light enough to still be appetizing on a hot summer's day, and you can even have two pieces with no ill effects.

Eggplant, Goat's Cheese, and Fresh Mint Lasagne

To make this dish richer - or appease any die-hard meat-eaters - you can add a little sauteed ground lamb to the filling.

(Serves one for many days.)

This is a time-consuming dish. It's not complicated, but it has lots and lots of little steps, and if you don't plan it out carefully, you'll be layering pasta sheets with eggplant at one am and swearing you'll never do anything quite so stupid again. (Trust me. I learned this the hard way.)

You have two options: either set aside a quiet weekend afternoon to do the whole thing in one go, or make the pasta and the eggplant on one day, and do sauce and assembly on the next.

Start with the pasta: Take a bunch of mint leaves and chop them finely. You'll want something between a third- and a half-cup of chopped leaves. Set them aside.

Clean your kitchen counter - you want it very, very clean, and perfectly dry. Tip out one cup of flour on the clean surface, and make a well in it. Crack in an egg, add a pinch of salt, and pour in a little olive oil - about a teaspoon or so to start.

Stick your fingers in the well to break up the egg, and stir with your fingers so that the flour gets pulled in little by little. When the liquid in the well looks pale yellow and pasty - a bit like pancake batter - add another teaspoon of olive oil, and the chopped mint. Keep stirring.

Keep stirring until the dough starts to pull away from the counter, then knead it gently until the excess flour is incorporated. If it looks as though you have a lot of excess flour, add a teaspoon of water. Form the dough into a ball, and start kneading.

Keep kneading. Knead until your arms feel as though they're going to fall off, and then knead some more. When the dough feels smooth and elastic, you can stop. Form it into a ball again, wrap it in plastic, and put it in the fridge to rest. (You may want to go have a rest, too.)

Next, prepare the eggplant: Preheat the oven to 350F. Take one large eggplant, cut off the ends, and peel the skin. Cut it in half lengthways, and then slice it as thinly as you can. Lay the slices on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Roast until the slices are soft and wrinkly around the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

(If you're doing this in one go, remove the pasta dough from the fridge at this point.)

Now we move on to the sauce: Chop up six to eight garlic cloves, and saute them in olive oil until they're fragrant and browned. Add one sixteen-ounce can of tomato puree and a teaspoon of salt, and let it simmer, stirring occasionally, over very low heat. When the sauce starts to smell good, turn the heat off and stir in a few leaves of chopped fresh basil, and a few leaves of chopped fresh mint.

Still awake? It's time to put everything together. Preheat the oven to 400F.

Assemble your pasta machine. You can either roll out all the lasagne in one go and cover the sheets with damp tea-towels, or roll out the sheets as you go along. (I'm short on tea-towels, so I use the latter method.)

Get out your baking dish, and spread a layer of sauce in the bottom. Add a layer of eggplant, another layer of sauce (be generous), a sprinkling of crumbled fresh goat's cheese, and a layer of pasta. Repeat until you've run out of eggplant. If the last layer is pasta, cover it with all the remaining sauce. Top with crumbled goat's cheese.

Bake for twenty to thirty minutes. Allow to cool for ten minutes before serving.

Note: If you have leftover pasta dough, it can be rolled out and cut into pappardelle, which goes nicely with a sauce made from garlic, fresh tomatoes, blue cheese, and a little fresh basil.