Saturday, May 29, 2010

no grill necessary

It's been hot in Boston this week.

Full sun, and the kind of heavy heat that makes you think twice about venturing outside in the afternoon. The kind that suggests that you shouldn't cook if you can't help it, and if you must do so, at least do so away from the kitchen.

The city seems to agree. Dinner is on the grill: if you go for a walk during early evening, right before it starts to get dark, you'll pick up the scent of charcoal and meat in the air.

To be honest, I'm not particularly excited about grilling. Let other people muck about with coals and wood chips and marinades and rubs - I'll put together salad or dessert.

I like dining al fresco, however, and I have enough friends with patios to eat dinner outside regularly in the summer. The trick is finding meals that don't require much time in a hot kitchen to prepare.

Fishcakes, for example, are quick to fry up - just a few minutes in a pan, and they're ready for the plate. Top with a basil-heavy fresh corn and cherry tomato relish, and dinner is served. No grill necessary at all.

Fishcakes with Corn, Tomato and Basil Relish

Inspired by a recipe of JJ and Emily's creation. These fishcakes will work with any firm, white-fleshed fish, though cod and haddock are particularly good. Even if you don't eat fish, it's worth making the salsa, which is also delicious over fried polenta with fresh mozzerella.

(Makes eight fishcakes. Allow one per person as an appetizer, and two per person for a main course.)

To make the salsa, shuck two ears of fresh corn and cut the kernels into a bowl. Finely chop half a red onion and add it to the bowl, then do the same with half a red bell pepper. Mince a clove of garlic and add it to the bowl. Take two sprigs of basil, pick off the leaves, shred them finely, and add them to the bowl. Squeeze over the juice of one lime, and add a generous pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper.

Take one cup of cherry tomatoes, cut in half, and put them in a pan over high heat with a little olive oil. Cook without stirring until the tomatoes char and stick a little, then add a little water and scrape up the browned bits. (You could also stick the pan under a broiler.)

Tip the tomato mixture into the bowl with the other vegetables. Give everything a stir. Allow to cool, then cover the bowl and put it in the fridge.

To make the fishcakes, take a pound of white fish fillets and cut them into small dice. (Not mince. You want the finished cakes to have recognizable chunks of fish.) Put the cut fish in a bowl with one finely minced clove of garlic, half a finely chopped red or white onion, and a small handful of finely shredded basil leaves. Crack in one egg. Add half a teaspoon of salt and a generous sprinkling of fresh black pepper. Put a hand into the mixture and stir to combine.

Once the egg has been mixed into the other ingredients, pour in half a cup of panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs) and stir gently to combine. The mixture should be sticky, but not too wet.

To shape the fishcakes, start by pouring another half-cup of panko into a small bowl. Set out a baking tray.

Divide the mixture into eight balls. Take one ball and squeeze it between your palms so that it holds together. Flatten it carefully so that it's under half an inch in thickness. Dip the fishcake in the bowl of panko until well-coated. Set on the baking tray. Repeat with the remaining fish mixture.

To fry the fishcakes, set a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Pour in a generous quantity of canola or other frying-suitable vegetable oil. Drop in a small pinch of panko crumbs; when the oil starts to sizzle, you're ready to start frying.

Cook the fishcakes a few at a time (don't overcrowd the pan), for three to four minutes per side, or until they're firm and golden brown in color.

Place the fishcakes on plates, and top with the corn salsa. Sprinkle with a little more black pepper, and serve immediately.

Friday, May 21, 2010

graduating... to yeast bread

I've become a fairly proficient baker after three years of law school.

Between Property and the estate cakes, Torts and the various tortes, and all the other cookies and pastry I've tackled in an effort to avoid my reading, I've amassed a fairly sizable repertoire. A batch of cookies is the work of minutes. Scones are a no-brainer. And I can probably make shortbread in my sleep.

Yeast breads, however, are a whole different game. I have been reluctant to futz with yeast, mostly because the usual reason for futzing with yeast is a desire to bake bread, and I feel no need to bake bread because I live within walking distance of Clear Flour. (If the French buy their baguettes, I see no reason not to do the same.)

I wanted to do something to mark the end of law school, however, and so when we had that wet, blustery day earlier this week, I went through my recipe bookmarks and dug out a recipe for English muffins.

I'm no stranger to cooking English muffins. ONCE Brunch featured spectacular egg, cheese and bacon breakfast sandwiches on homemade English muffins, and I minded the griddle when we were turning out the last few batches. Cooking the muffins is the easy part, however. From what I could tell, it was a difficult dough - very wet and very sticky. Almost slimy, to be honest.

The British recipe I'd bookmarked didn't look too bad, though. I figured that even if they ended up a complete and total failure, all I'd lose would be some flour and yeast and a little vegetable oil. And so I roughed the conversions from metric to imperial, and got out a mixing bowl.

Three hours later, I had these on my kitchen counter:

Suffice to say, my fears were completely unfounded. English muffin dough is on the wet side, but the oil keeps it from being unmanageably sticky. Mixing it up wasn't much more involved than making fresh pasta, and griddling muffins is far, far quicker than stuffing ravioli.

And then I had this for afternoon tea:

I think I'm a yeast bread convert. I even have my eye on a sticky finger bun recipe to tackle next.

English Muffins 

Adapted from this recipe.

(Makes one dozen. Extras can be frozen.)

Get out a big bowl. Dump in three and a half cups of all-purpose or bread flour, two teaspoons of salt, and one and a half teaspoons active dried yeast. Pour in one-and-a-half cups of warm water and a tablespoon of mild vegetable oil (canola or sunflower.)

Stick a hand into the bowl and start mixing. You'll have a sticky mess at first, which will gradually coalesce into a slightly less sticky mess, and eventually you'll have a sticky ball of dough.

Turn out your sticky ball of dough on a clean countertop. Do not add extra flour. Knead for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the dough still sticks somewhat to the countertop, but is fairly smooth and elastic.

Shape the dough into a round and put it back in the mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place until it doubles in size (around an hour or so.)

Remove the plastic wrap, and deflate the dough by gently pressing on it. Divide the dough into a dozen pieces; shape each piece into a round.

Place the rounds on baking trays and leave in a warm place to rise. (You can cover them with damp tea-towels, but to be honest, I never seem to have enough clean tea-towels around, and it doesn't seem to matter too much.)

Once the rounds have risen, set a cast iron frying pan or griddle on the stove. Turn the heat to medium low, and add a tiny bit of vegetable oil, just enough to create a sheen in the pan.

Cook the muffins in batches. They will expand slightly, so don't overcrowd the pan.

The muffins need about five to six minutes on each side to turn golden brown. (You may need to adjust the temperature if they're cooking too quickly or slowly.) When cooked, they'll sound hollow if you tap them.

Transfer the cooked muffins to a cooling rack. Serve immediately, or allow to cool and keep in an airtight container.

To serve the muffins, split them in half by piercing them around their circumference with a fork, and then gently pulling apart the two halves. (Don't use a knife. It ruins the texture.) Toast if you like. Serve with plenty of butter and jam.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

the last time I will ever talk about a law class

Of all the dubious decisions I've made in law school, taking Antitrust and Bankruptcy in the same semester definitely ranks somewhere up near the very top. As you might guess from the date on my last entry, finals period swallowed me alive. It took me until after graduation to recover.

My stress level during finals is best measured in baking supplies. This time, I went through five pounds of flour and five pounds of sugar, and when my friends asked if there was anything they could do to help, I told them to send butter. For three weeks, everyone who crossed my path ended up with sweet things (and possibly sugar shock.)

I'd like to say I'm never going to write another blog entry about law again. Unfortunately, I have to say a little about Antitrust in order to explain how I managed to get through so much sugar.

Several months ago, Hershey, Cadbury, Mars and Nestle were targets of a huge number of antitrust lawsuits alleging an enormous price-fixing conspiracy. So when I took Antitrust, I hoped we would talk about candy manufacturers.

A discussion of Hershey, Cadbury, Mars and Nestle would have fit perfectly into the syllabus when we were studying cartels and collusion under Section One of the Sherman Act. We could have examined the case as a conscious parallelism problem, and contemplated the relevant product market.

Alas, the semester came and went without a single reference to candy of any kind. But it left me with candy on the brain, and so, in addition to my usual pre-finals purchase of a five-pound bag of flour, I also picked up a five-pound bag of sugar. And proceeded to make vast quantities of caramels.

Recipes for caramels abound, but a particularly simple way to prepare them is to boil together sugar, invert sugar (some kind of syrup) and cream until you reach the "soft-ball" stage, stir in toasted nuts, and drop spoonfuls of the sticky mixture onto a sheet of parchment paper to harden. It's quick and easy - barely more involved than baking cookies - and the chewy, crunchy, buttery results are quite addictive.

So that's that: the last time I am going to talk about a law class, ever. I've sold my Antitrust casebook, and tossed all my notes, and I'm hoping to forget about concepts such as monopsony and the cross-elasticity of demand as soon as possible. But I will be making more caramel.

I just have to buy another five-pound bag of sugar first.

Nut Caramels

I like these with hazelnuts or almonds, but you could also use walnuts or pecans.

(Makes two dozen. They'll keep in an airtight tin for quite a while.)

Lay out a large sheet of parchment paper on your countertop. Ready a candy thermometer.

Get out a deep, heavy-bottomed pot. Dump in two-thirds of a cup of brown sugar, a half-cup of heavy cream, a half-cup of golden syrup, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.

Give everything a quick stir. Set the pot on a burner over medium heat. After a few minutes, the mixture will start to bubble at the edges. After a few more minutes, the whole thing will be foaming, with the bubbles rising and breaking very rapidly.

Stick the candy thermometer into the mixture, making sure it doesn't touch the bottom of the pot. The reading will hover around 200F. Wait. After a few more minutes, it'll creep up futher, probably to 225F.

You'll wait for what seems like forever before it starts to move again, but keep a close eye on the thermometer. When it does, it will do so quickly. Once it rises above 240F, pull the pot off the burner immediately. Stir in one-and-a-half to two cups of chopped nuts.

Working carefully, drop spoonfuls of the nut mixture onto your parchment paper, allowing room for them to spread. Give them at least half an hour before you do any taste-testing.

For cleanup, put the pot, spoon, and candy thermometer in the sink, and add hot water. Let them soak. The caramel will dissolve without scrubbing.

When the caramels are cool, wrap them in squares of wax paper. Keep in an airtight tin.

Note: You can make nut toffee in a similar manner by swapping out the cream for half a stick of butter, and using equal parts white and brown sugar. (They can be shaped into squares when the toffee is still warm and pliable.)