Monday, April 27, 2009

bake your way through finals

It is reading period, and the tension is killing me. I have to memorize the thousand and one exceptions to the hearsay rule. I have to be able to explain exchange transactions and Roth IRAs for Fed Tax. I need to learn the distinction between the attorney-client privilege and the duty of confidentiality for Professional Responsibility. I have to do too much in too little time.

I'm behind on writing blog posts, no surprise. I don't have the presence of mind to write about lemon curd soufflé or arctic char en papillote, and I can't find the voice I need to tell you about the Mad Italian Chef. Right now, the only corner of the world that is still making sense is the part that contains my kitchen.

Tonight I made jamprint cookies, which are a faster version of jam tarts: rounds of basic butter dough, pressed to make indentations, and filled with dollops of sticky jam.

They're quick and easy, and there's something soothing about shaping and filling them. Once I had the tray in the oven, I wasn't exactly calm, but I did feel better.

I don't know if I'm going to be writing any full blog posts any time soon. My connection to sanity is looking a little tenuous as it is. But I have five pounds of flour and plenty of imagination, and I'll bake my way through finals if I have to.

Jamprint Cookies

(Makes two dozen. Don't eat them all yourself.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Set out a nonstick or parchment-covered baking tray.

Using a fork, cream one stick of salted butter, a quarter-cup of sugar, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt together until light and fluffy. Add one cup of all-purpose flour little by little, blending with fork until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Crack in one egg, and use the fork to stir it in until the mixture forms a ball.

Pinch off teaspoon-sized lumps of dough, roll them into balls, and lay them in rows on the baking tray.

Flatten each ball out into a rough disc, and using your index finger or thumb, make a deep indentation in the middle, big enough for a decent-sized dollop of jam.

Fill the indentations with jam (flavor of your choice; I'm partial to apricot and raspberry), but not too much, or else they'll overflow. Move the tray to the oven. Bake for thirty to thirty-five minutes, or until the cookies are lightly browned at the edges.

Transfer to a cooling rack. Serve with tea or coffee.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

goodbye winter, hello spring... cleaning

I think it is finally safe to say that spring has arrived, even in Boston. Which means we've come to a very special time of the year. No, I'm not referring to asparagus season. I don't mean artichoke season, either. And while I usually go on a quest for English peas for risi e bisi right around this time, I'm not talking about that, either. You see, before I revel any of this spring produce, there remains one minor, nagging detail.
I need to clear out my freezer.

It's not completely out of control (it's a small freezer), but it did get quite full over the winter. Multiple cartons of ice-cream. Various Ziploc freezer bags full of herbs and root vegetables for stock. A lot of Tupperware and yogurt containers that I really should have been better about labelling.

It's mostly that last group that has been targeted for cleaning-out. Ice-cream is ice-cream, and if necessary, its age may be estimated by the quantity of ice rime on its surface, but a container of dark liquid could be anything from meat stock to crazy water, and who knows how long it's been there?

After some puzzling (and, where necessary, taste-testing), the inventory came out to beef stock, duck stock, watermelon puree, shepherd's pie, chicken pot pie, and braised duck legs.

The pies have been moved to the fridge, and they'll become lunch over the next few days. The watermelon puree has been tossed, because I can't remember how it got there in the first place. The beef stock will become the base for a vegetable soup.

The leftover braised duck legs and duck stock, however, were a little more challenging. The braised duck legs were from an experiment: mulled-wine braised duck with celery root puree. The outcome wasn't bad, but it was far from great. (The best part of the dish was the celery root puree.) The duck stock came from the carcass of the duck I roasted for Novel Food a few months back, and while it seemed a good idea to make it at the time, it came out a little too strong to be a good soup base.

I ended up shredding the duck legs and throwing them in a pan with onion, celery, carrot, and some fresh herbs. The duck stock went in too, followed by a can of tomato paste, and after a long, slow simmer, I had duck ragù.

A thick meat ragù pairs perfectly well with a wide pasta like pappardelle, but I decided I wanted to make a pasta I'd read about and wanted to try for its name alone: strozzapreti.

Strozzapreti are a kind of rolled pasta from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and their name translates literally as "priest-choker." As you'd expect of such a colorful name, there are multiple stories surrounding its origin: some say that it comes directly from a greedy priest who ate too quickly and choked himself to death, and others say that it has to do with the fact that the pieces of pasta are "choked" to produce their twisted shape.

The explanation I like best, however, is that when the housewives of Emilia-Romagna had the village priests over for dinner, they would make these thick, chewy ropes of pasta for the first course, so that the priests' appetites would be "choked" and they wouldn't eat much of the expensive meat course that followed.

I didn't prepare a meat course to follow my strozzapreti, but I can tell you that they're quite filling. Paired with duck ragù, they were a satisfying lunch, and an excellent reward for getting my freezer clean.

Now that that's out of the way, where can I find fresh English peas in Boston? There's risi e bisi calling my name...

Strozzapreti with Duck Ragù

This dish works just fine with pappardelle if you’re not in the mood to roll strozzapreti. Also, if you’re not making this with leftover duck, you’ll probably want to spread the process out over a few days.

(Serves one, with leftovers. Both the finished sauce and the uncooked pasta will freeze.)

First, the duck. If you have leftover duck, you can skip this part and get straight to either the sauce or the pasta. If you’re starting from scratch, read on.

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Take three duck legs, give them a quick rinse, and pat them dry. Prick them all over with a skewer or a sharp knife.

Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot with lid over low heat. Arrange the duck legs in the pan, skin side down. Cook until the duck legs start to release their fat, about five minutes, then flip them over and give the other side another five minutes. Pour off the fat (save it for cooking potatoes), prick the duck legs again, and give them another five minutes. Repeat this process, draining off the fat, until the duck legs are a nice rich golden brown all over. Set the duck legs aside.

In the same pot, cook two finely sliced onions (or four finely sliced shallots) until caramelized. Pour in two cups of cheap red wine, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom, and throw in a teaspoon of mulling spice (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel.)

Bring this mixture to a simmer, and slide the duck legs in. (Add a little water if they’re not fully covered.) Once you no longer smell alcohol fumes when you stick your head over the pot, put the lid on and move the pot to the oven. Leave it there for at least an hour and a half.

Once the hour and a half have passed, remove the pot from the oven. Carefully lift out the duck legs – they shouldn’t be falling apart, but the meat should come easily off the bones. Set the duck legs aside. Reserve a half-cup of the braising liquid (or whatever’s left, if you have less than a half-cup), being careful to strain out the mulling spices. The duck and the braising liquid can be frozen at this point.

To make the sauce, heat a little olive oil or duck fat in a heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Add one finely chopped onion, four finely diced celery ribs, and three finely diced carrots. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Throw in a few sprigs of thyme and a few whole leaves of sage; stir until they release their aromas.

Remove the meat from the duck legs and break it into smallish pieces. Add them to the pan. Add your reserved duck-braising liquid (or a splash of red wine, if you’re doing this with leftover duck.) Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally.

Add either a sixteen-ounce can of tomato puree, or a six-ounce can of tomato paste plus two or three cups of duck stock to the pan. Stir the mixture until it is smooth, and keep it at a low, steady simmer for at least an hour and a half.

Once the contents of the pan are a thick, aromatic sauce, turn off the heat. Salt to taste. Fish out the thyme stems and sage leaves. The sauce may be left to cool, then transferred to containers and frozen.

To make the pasta dough, it’s the standard recipe: two cups of flour with a well in the middle, add four or five egg yolks, a glug of olive oil, and water as necessary. Stir until it comes together, then knead until smooth and elastic. (Detailed instructions here.) Allow to rest for at least an hour in the fridge before rolling.

To make strozzapreti, start by rolling and cutting your pasta dough into lengths a little wider than fettuccine. (Or just cut them into fettuccine, if your pasta machine is a basic model like mine.) Cut these lengths into short strands, about double the width of your palm.

Pick up one strand and double it over. Place it between the palms of your hands and roll, applying firm pressure, to produce a twisted rope of pasta. Keep going. Your first few might look a little odd, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Repeat this process until you have twisted lengths of pasta laid out on all available surfaces. (You can lay the strozzapreti out on baking trays and freeze them at this point, if you’re not going to cook all of the pasta in one go.)

To put it all together, start by having your duck ragù warm (or warmed up) over low heat in a pan big enough to hold however much pasta you’re cooking.

Set a big pot of salted water on to boil. Once it hits a rolling boil, drop in your pasta. Cook for six to seven minutes (add a few extra minutes if frozen), then drain and add to the pan with the duck duck ragù. Toss to coat; cook, stirring occasionally, for another minute or two.

Turn off the heat. Ladle up the pasta in big bowls (a little finely-chopped flat-leafed parsley is a nice finishing touch.) Serve immediately.

Monday, April 13, 2009

full of hot air

The soufflé has occupied a vaunted place in haute cuisine since there was such a thing as haute cuisine. Its praises are sung, and its tricky nature both admired and cursed. On dessert menus, the soufflé comes with its own smug fanfare: "Please allow thirty minutes," whispers the menu, in a breathless italic flourish.

Sadly, the soufflé has been pulling the wool over the culinary world's eyes for far too long. By dint of its formidable reputation, it has deceived, mislead, swindled, bamboozled and hoodwinked generations of nervous home cooks. To judge by its lore, you need a dedicated bowl, a dedicated whisk, particular weather conditions, and a preparatory sacrifice to Brillat-Savarin to ensure success.

Of course, that's all a load of bunk. (Or should that be hot air?)

A soufflé is not an ethereal creation of angel wings and fairy dust. Its diva-ish ways are largely unwarranted. As much as it wants to pretend that it belongs in a class of its own, it's a close relative of other egg-leavened desserts like génoise and angel food cake. It's even distantly related to - gasp - the lowly omelette.

A chocolate soufflé, in particular, is nothing more than a flourless cake with a bad attitude.

It all comes down to leavening agents, the ingredients that make baked goods rise. Biological and chemical leavening agents, like yeast and baking powder, work because they generate carbon dioxide. Eggs, however, are a mechanical leavening agent: when you beat eggs, you're introducing lots of tiny little air bubbles which expand during baking.

If you crack an egg into a bowl, and start beating it with a whisk, the egg will go from a thick, viscous liquid to a thinner liquid, to a liquid with lots of bubbles in it, to a thick, pourable foam, like the head on beer. Throw this in a pan over low heat, and you'll get a nice, fluffy omelette. This is also how you leaven a sponge cake, or a flourless chocolate torte.

If you separate the egg, and just beat the white, the foam will be even stiffer, like bubbles from bubble bath. This is how you leaven an angel food cake. (Or, if you, like me, are not a fan of angel food cake, one of these.)

And if you separate several eggs, stir the yolks into melted dark chocolate, beat the whites with a little sugar until stiff and almost Styrofoam-like in solidity, and then gently combine the two, you have soufflé batter. Spoon this into a dish, give it some time in the oven, and you will have a soufflé, in all its rich, fluffy glory.

It is, quite honestly, that straightforward. You do not need a hand-burnished copper bowl. You do not need a whisk blessed by virgins. You do not need sacrifices to the French culinary pantheon. All you need is a little patience to put the haughty soufflé right in its place.

Bitter Chocolate Soufflé

If you're baking this during Passover, double-check that your chocolate is pareve, and use vegetable oil to grease the soufflé dish.

(Recipe not for one. Soufflés don't make for good leftovers. Round up two or three friends.)

First, get your equipment ready. You'll need a soufflé dish, minimum capacity six cups, maximum capacity eight cups. (An eight-cup dish will be on the large side; your souffle is not going to tower over the edge, but it will bake just fine.) You'll need two large bowls, one heatproof, and one metal. (The bigger, the better. It doesn't have to be copper.) And finally, you'll need an electric mixer, or if you're doing this the old-fashioned way, a big balloon whisk.

Wash the dish, the bowls, and the beaters or whisk thoroughly with soap and hot water. Dry them well with a clean tea-towel.

Assemble your ingredients. You'll need six ounces of unsweetened baker's chocolate (chips or chunks), two-thirds of a cup of white sugar, and six eggs. Use fresh eggs; this does make a difference. (Fresh eggs stand up better to beating. Save your older eggs for hard-boiling.)

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Take your souffle dish, grease it well with butter, and sprinkle with sugar. Shake out the excess. Set aside.

(Not my photos. These are Alex's work.)

Next, take your heatproof bowl and dump in your chocolate chips or chunks. Place this bowl over gently simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted. Set aside in a warm place.

Grab your eggs, and separate the whites into your big metal bowl.

Put three of the yolks into a small bowl and set them aside. (Put the other three in Tupperware - you can use them to make pasta dough or hollandaise or lemon curd later.)

Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites. Grab your whisk (or electric mixer.) Take a deep breath. Start beating.

The egg whites will slowly turn frothy. Keep beating.

Then foamy. Sprinkle over one-third of a cup of sugar. Keep beating.

The foam will form soft peaks. Sprinkler over another one-third of a cup of sugar. Keep beating; switch hands if your arm is cramping up.

Then it will form stiff, slightly glossy peaks. If you tip the bowl and the whites don't move, they're stiff. (Ideally, you should be able to turn the entire bowl upside down.) You can stop beating.

Stir your yolks into the melted chocolate.

It will sort of seize up; don't worry, this is normal.

Using a rubber spatula, glop a cup or two of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Fold them in until the mixture is even.

Add the rest of the whites, folding very gently. Take your time. It's fine if it looks a little streaky, as long as you don't have patches of pure white and patches of pure chocolate.

Once the egg whites have been folded in, spoon your mixture into the souffle dish.

Put the souffle dish in the oven. Resist the urge to peek. Bake for forty-five minutes, or until it is set around the edges but still wobbles very slightly in the middle when you shake the dish.

Once cooked, remove the souffle from the oven.

Carve out portions with a spoon.

Serve immediately. Berry sauce or whipped cream is a good accompaniment.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

pigging out

There are some phrases that I absolutely cannot imagine myself saying.

I have yet to conceive of a situation in which I would make the declaration, “Fed Tax is fascinating.” I shudder to think of the drugs I’d have to be on to announce, “I’m really enjoying my Evidence reading.” I will concede that you might get me to utter the words “I can’t wait to be a lawyer” if you put a gun to my head – but it would have to be a very big gun.

And I was sure that the phrase “I don’t think I can eat any more pork” would only come from my mouth when – if you’ll pardon the pun - pigs flew.

As it turns out, there was no porcine aviation involved when those words passed my lips. But it did take five pigs, five chefs, and five winemakers to bring me to that point.

They call it Cochon555. It's a touring culinary event, hosted by the Taste Network and held in multiple cities: five chefs prepare five heritage breed pigs for a crowd of pork enthusiasts, and five family-owned wineries provide the libations. This "friendly competition for a cause" raises awareness for the charitable foundation Farms For City Kids, and the winning chef takes the title "Prince of Porc."

I learned about Cochon555 from Jacqueline Church, the Leather District Gourmet, who not only participated as a judge, but also conducted interviews with all five of the chefs in the weeks leading up to the big day. After reading her profiles of Jason Bond (Beacon Hill Bistro), Joseph Margate (Clink), Matthew Jennings (Farmstead Inc.), Jamie Bissonnette (Toro), and Tony Maws (Craigie on Main), I could hardly wait for April 5th. I even persuaded a friend to come along with me. (If you remember Bill, I’ve been encouraging him to start a food blog, and I thought Cochon555 would be a good way to introduce him to other bloggers.)

Sunday evening rolled around, and in a welcome change from the usual turn of events, I wasn’t wandering around some unfamiliar part of Boston while cursing Google Maps. The Liberty Hotel is just a few minutes away from Boston Common, and once I got there, the ballroom was easy to locate. I met up with Bill, and we proceeded to our evening of all things pig.

(Photos? Not from me. Try the writeup over at Feed Me Like You Mean It.)

First up, from a table festooned with pig-shaped balloons, were soft corn tacos filled with “Whole Pig Carnitas.” Matthew Jennings’ offering was an excellent example of the way a simple approach can be extremely effective: it’s hard to beat the appeal of slow-cooked shredded pork with pickled onions and a sprinkling of homemade farmer's cheese. (The tacos also came with cilantro, but I asked for mine without, because cilantro always tastes oddly soapy to me.)

It quickly became evident that encouraging Bill to attend Cochon555 was a very good move on my part: while I was thoroughly preoccupied with the aforementioned taco, Bill was thinking about more practical matters, like snagging a space at one of the few tables. After I came out of my happy reverie for long enough to lick the juices from my fingers, I took a moment to look around the room. I noticed Richard Auffrey, the Passionate Foodie, at the next table over. We relocated, and I made the acquaintance of Richard’s wife, Juanita. Bill and Richard started talking about wine, and I paused to contemplate my next move.

General consensus suggested that the most efficient way to obtain food and wine while still hanging on to our spaces at the table was to send two people out at a time to pick up two of the same dish. The crowd at Jamie Bissonnette’s table looked like it was moving quickly, and so I dashed over to pick up two plates of banh mi, which are French sandwiches that moved to Vietnam, got comfortable, and picked up some local character.

Chef Bissonnette's interpretation involved lengths of crusty baguette stuffed with homemade pâté and cold cuts, piled with pickled carrots, daikon, and cucumber, and finished with a spicy vinaigrette. It was the kind of sandwich that demands one's full attention. Suffice to say, I did not add much to the conversation at the table until I'd polished off the last crumbs.

Truth be told, I didn't add much to the conversation even after I'd polished off the last crumbs, because I noticed a cart with a pig carcass being wheeled through the crowd, towards the front of the room, and soon I was absorbed in seeing how a master butcher goes about breaking down a pig into various cuts. (It involves a sharp knife, cleaver, and hacksaw.) As the butchering demonstration drew a fascinated crowd, culinary student volunteers from Johnson & Wales started handing out rounds of baguette smeared with a spread made from rendered pork fat, seasoned with lemon juice, anchovies, herbs and spices. The crowd had some mixed reactions to the idea of eating lard, but it was actually quite tasty, with a texture similar to that of butter, and a faintly porky flavor.

Once the demonstration was over, I returned to the table my companions were still determinedly guarding. Richard and Juanita told me that my next stop needed to be Jason Bond’s table, where the offerings included red-cooked pork belly, an assortment of classic French charcuterie, and bacon praline marshmallows.

Jason Bond's table was definitely attention-grabbing: one of the dishes was hure de porc farci, a whole pig's head stuffed with jambon persillé. I was so absorbed in contemplating the display that I completely forgot to grab forks when I picked up plates of pork jelly, fromage de tête, mortadella, and pork liver mousse. (I did remember napkins.) For the record, pork jelly is decidedly not finger food, and pork liver mousse isn't much better, but there’s something delightfully uncivilized about using your fingers anyway.

Fortunately, Bill did a better job remembering the forks when he fetched plates of red-cooked pork belly and loin with blood sausage and black garlic. The meat was deliciously tender, and the black garlic added a delicate sweetness - a little like roasted garlic, but more subtle.

I made one last trip to Jason Bond's table for bacon praline marshmallows and chiacchiere (Carnivale fritters) with sanguinaccio, a chocolate spread made with pig's blood. ("Dessert for the "Twilight" crowd," joked one member of Bond's staff.) The marshmallows were appealingly salty-sweet, and the sanguinaccio, despite its potentially eyebrow-raising description, had a complex flavor and a lovely thick texture. However, it was rather rich, so I stopped off for another glass of wine and a moment to catch a second wind.
(Our five winemakers were Patz & Hall, Krupp Brothers, Chase Family Cellars, Meander Wines, and Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery. I suspect there will be other bloggers with more intelligent commentary, so all I will say is that my favorite of the evening was the sparkling white from Westport Rivers.)

Once I felt ready to continue eating, Bill headed to Joseph Margate's table, and returned with plates whose contents, in all honesty, alarmed me at first glance. The little pork sandwich appeared perfectly innocuous, but there was a cube of something fried on a toothpick, and it was balanced on the rim of a shot glass of clear golden liquid. I thought I was looking at an experiment in molecular gastronomy. (Molecular gastronomy is a fascinating idea, but I'm not always convinced of its merits as food.)

My fears turned out to be unfounded, however: Bill explained that the fried cube was a head cheese fritter, and the liquid in the shot glass, a pork consomme. Definitely food, and perfectly delicious, too.
It was the porchetta sandwich, however, that turned out to be the show-stealer. Porchetta is a roast made from an entire gutted, boned pig, stuffed with rosemary, garlic, and fennel, and slowly cooked for many, many hours. It's a specialty of Lazio, the region in which Rome is situated. I first encountered it at a wine festival in the town of Marino Laziale, where it was served in thick slices on crusty bread. (It was so simple and satisfying that I hopped back in line to buy a second one immediately after snarfing down my first.)

Margate's porchetta turned out to be every bit as good as the one I had in Italy: fragrant, juicy, and fantastically tender. The sides were also excellent: potato salad with grainy mustard, sweet brussels sprouts, and a crisp, light coleslaw.

Finally, I made my way through the crowd at Tony Maws' table to pick up plates of crackling, crispy confit of young pig, fromage de tête and pâté, pork ribs, and black sausage. The confited pork was lusciously rich, and the crackling immensely satisfying, but the production line appeared to be having a hiccup or two, and I didn't see any ribs or black sausage. (I may or may not have gone back for another helping of porchetta instead.)

Having made my rounds of all five tables, I decided it was time to stop eating. We stood around drinking wine and chatting until our event host reminded us that we should cast our votes for the "Prince of Porc," encouraging us to decide based on the "best moment." (Voting is 49% judge-based, and 51% people's choice, so it was more than just a formality.)

Though I admired the scope of the charcuterie, and I did think the bacon praline marshmallows were a clever idea, I honestly loved the porchetta best, and so my vote went to Joseph Margate.

Votes were collected, and while they were being tallied, our host raffled off some of the cuts from the butchering demonstration, and the culinary students came through the crowd with platters of dessert. The concept, as our host explained, was "Swine and Sweets." From the spicy chipotle truffles to the caramel popcorn, all the desserts contained bacon. I wasn't sure how much the caramel popcorn really benefited from the addition of bacon grease, but the bacon definitely added a welcome salty, smoky note to the chipotle truffles.

After a few more minutes, our host announced that we had a winner. Matthew Jennings of Farmstead was awarded the title of Prince of Porc, receiving a trophy and a bottle of bourbon to mark his achievement.

Their duty done, the judges came out of wherever they had been hiding, and Jacqueline came by to say hello. She encouraged us to stay for the after-party, and while Richard, Juanita, and Bill called it a night, I decided to stick around for a while longer.

The decision turned out to have mixed results. As I followed Jacqueline out to the bar for the after-party, I had my first run-in with an unpleasant food blogger.

The Farmstead team had been kind enough to grant my request when I asked for one of the pig-shaped helium balloons that had decorated their table, and I had tied it to my bag. It bobbed cheerfully on its string, and I looked forward to the double-takes I was sure I'd get when I caught the T back home. However, a New York blogger who shall remain nameless - a complete stranger - thought it would be amusing to hold a lighter to the string at a point right near my head, sending the balloon all the way up to the high, wooden-beamed ceiling of the atrium.) Said blogger was not gracious enough to apologize for his inappropriate behavior. Both Jacqueline and I were quite disgusted.

We didn't dwell on it, however: we were distracted by the food laid out for the after-party. Yes, despite the fact that we'd just had a three-hour orgy of all things pig, Chef Margate had put out a small spread, just in case we hadn't had enough to eat. (He didn't put it quite that way, but I suspect there might be a grandmother or two among his influences.)

Of course, we weren’t exactly complaining about our unexpected second (third, fourth?) dinner. We eagerly tucked into slices of rich duck with five-spice, sliders filled with tender little veal meatballs, and a platter of local cheeses with fruit compote and crackers. When Chef Margate saw that we were probably going to keep eating as long as there was food, he also brought out a platter of homemade bresaola drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. It was delicious: rich, just a little salty, and perfectly complemented by the slight fruitiness of the olive oil. Chef Margate was also nice enough to stop and chat with us for a little while, and now I definitely want to have a meal at Clink.

(Plus Toro, and Beacon Hill Bistro, and I haven't seen Craigie on Main yet, and there's talk of a food blogger roadtrip to Farmstead...)

But not for a while. I might need to eat salad for a few weeks before I eat pork again.