Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Legumes, and a Strikeout

cranberry beans
Work travel makes food blogging pretty impossible. However, when I got back yesterday, I found that our copy of the Rancho Gordo cookbook had arrived from Amazon.com. I've been cooking a lot of legumes (i.e. beans) this year, but that's a fairly new thing for me. I've always ordered bean dishes at restaurants, finding such things as cassoulet or "white bean crostini" to be irresistible words on a menu, but for the longest time felt uncomfortable making them myself.

When it comes to legumes, too many cookbooks stop short, writing things like: "serve on a bed of cooked lentils". Well, what kind of lentils? cooked for how long? on what heat? soaked? no soak? soaked with what? soak with hot or cold liquid? do you keep soaking liquid? etc ... you get the point.

It's like there was this body of assumed knowledge that I somehow never acquired. I felt amiss because I didn't know the fundamentals and I dislike blindly following a recipe.

This all changed when I received a copy of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything earlier this year. All it took was a few coherent paragraphs and the veil was lifted. I've been having fun cooking with dried beans since. I certainly don't feel the archaic stigma that beans were "the poor man's meat", and I have to question if that stigma even exists anymore with any generation that came after the Baby Boomers. I will also note that the whole "gas" issue does indeed go away if you eat them on a slightly more regular basis -- something confirmed by vegetarian friends.

Looping back to tonight, I finally had a chance to look through the Rancho Gordo cookbook (for those who don't know, Rancho Gordo is a neat Californian business that grows and sells heirloom beans). First reaction: unlike my instant love affair with A Platter of Figs, I must say that I'm a little unsure of the Gordo book. For starters, there aren't nearly enough photos, which I'm sure had to do with their publishing budget constraints but it is what it is. An honest photo can tell you a lot about a dish and how it was cooked.

I have to familiarize myself with more of the recipes before I can pass verdict, but I did try the Chili Con Carne recipe tonight and came away puzzled by the cookbook's approach. I tried to follow the recipe pretty faithfully save for using fresh chiles rather than chile powder (the book stresses using pure chile powder rather than chili powder, which is a mix... but I couldn't easily find pure chile powder). The result -- a too-thin soup that was edible but not worth making again.

I'm willing to entertain the notion that I completely messed up, but suspect that more likely the authors and I just have different ideas on what a good chile is. All this said, I remain optimistic that the cookbook will give me good ideas to work from, and I certainly continue to be a customer of Gordo beans.

But, for tonight, my picture of cumin seeds was more interesting than the dish itself...
cumin seed

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Notes from the road; 24, 24, 24 links

Wordle after 24, 24, 24 post

I don't know what it is about Wordle that satisfies my inner geek, but periodically I love popping over there, entering the blog URL, and capturing a snapshot from the main URL at the time. The above wordle is from the 24/24/24 set of posts.

This has been a light blogging week since both of us are tied up with work and/or travel. I happen to be at an offsite with my colleagues (we're a startup of about 30 people), and for fun I took on the challenge of making dinner one night. I've never cooked for more than 8 at one point in time, so it was definitely an interesting experience. Because we have a lot of vegetarians and vegans in this crew (about half!), we decided to make a huge version of the vegetarian chili I blogged many weeks ago, with a ton of different garnishes (it seems to have been a hit). Cooking in bulk really has its own set of lessons and requirements.

Most of my time is spent in meetings here, but there's the occasional chance to duck into the kitchen (some people like to go for a walk to clear their head, I like to cook). While we were making hummus the other morning, my colleague Nicole taught me that you can better juice lemons by rolling them around under your palm first. I'm not entirely convinced it works wonders, but I suppose I should listen to the spirit of the Italian grandmothers she has known! Since no lemon is alike, it is impossible to do empirical testing, however if nothing else, this will be a fun task for me to give to munchkin to keep her occupied while I cook!

I've also been meaning to link to all the other 24, 24, 24 participants from this great event, and I'm hoping Palachinka, who had a fascinating post on medieval Serbian cuisine, doesn't mind that I pilfered her table of pics and links, since it was so nicely done! (the order is pretty random, and I had to move some things around to fit the narrower format of this blog)

24 Meals, 24 Hours, 24 Blogs - The Roundup:

Nemanjić Family Tree, fresco from Dečani MonasteryNoob Cook: East meets West in A Tropical Garden CityFoodwoolf: Farmers' Market Iron Chef: Battle in the KitchenSpanish Recipes: A Spanish Menu - My gift to the Winners of the Olympic Games
The Constables' Larder: From Provence to the Catskills - a Voyage from David to BertolliChateau Petrogasm: Welcome to the Chateau - An evening of Wine, Food, and ArtFig and Cherry: Aussie BBQ Bonanza - Celebrating DiversityCulinary Escapade: Chocoholic Heaven
Hugging the Coast: The Four Corners of Carolina BBQ Road TripCakespy: A Sweet Trompe l'oeilFood Junkie Not Junk Food: Hot Weather LunchMiami Dish: First Annual Farm to Table Dinner
Food Stories: The Very Best of BritishRed Cook: Mid-Autumn Festival BanquetFood Wishes Video Recipes: The "Found on Foodbuzz" 24-Item Tasting MenuLa vida en Buenos Aires y afines: From matambre to empanadas an argentine dinner
No Recipes: No Menus: an underground restaurant affairWandering Italy: Eating with Tuscan LocavoresPassionate About Baking: EAT LIKE A KING; FEAST FOR A MAHARAJAFeeding Maybelle: Eating Art: A Tasting Menu Inspired by Masterworks of Art
Jersey Bites: A Tomato Garden PartyZenKimchi Korean Food Journal: Behind-the-Kitchen with Chef Hu-nam Kim of Star ChefThe Accidental Scientist: `Aha`aina - Recapturing the Global Flavors of the LuauThe Nourished Kitchen: Criminal Tastes - An Illegal Supper

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In Love with A Platter of Figs

We just got our copy of David Tanis' new book A Platter of Figs, and I'm in love. I try not to fall for all the new pretties, but this one has hit home. Tanis is the chef at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse for 6 months of the year and he has written a gorgeous, completely unpretentious book.

How can you not love someone who writes, "What makes a boy from Ohio, born in the wrong century, raised on Tater Tots and Birds Eye, end up wanting to eat like a Greek peasant for breakfast, a French peasant for lunch, and a Moroccan peasant for dinner?"

Aw shucks Tanis, you had me at "peasant".

In Platter of Figs, Tanis takes a moment to describe his past, but he's not trying to impress you with credentials, nor do you sniff false humility. I loved reading about how Alice Waters pretended not to hear him when he, hanging around as a young man, asked for a job over and over until one day the Panisse baker left to get married.

This book, organized by seasonal menus rather than food category, just oozes love of good food and good company. It is Tanis' philosophy that really gets me, such as his love for beautiful rather than pretty food; the natural over the gussied-up.

Tanis writes, "Simplicity is key. People who cook fussy food for their friends seem to have the least fun. I say leave that fussy food to those with a staff and a paid dishwasher... A meal needn't be fancy, nor should it take all day to make. But, that said, most of the menus in this book are not those 30-minute-specials-with-only-3-ingredients whose intent seems to be to keep youout of the kitchen. What's wrong with spending a little time in the kitchen? "

Granted that we all live busy lives, but I revel in my time in the kitchen. It is a chance to step outside the intensity of the work world and let the creative mind roam free. With it comes that timeless pleasure of sharing a meal with a loved one, or a group of friends. Of course work and stresses intrude and often supersede, but nonetheless, the food experience provides a target worth pursuing and a delightful canvas on which to paint.

While I love that chefs today get a chance to emerge from behind the curtain to applause, I'll admit that I'm a bit sick of the "celebrity chef". I do not watch food television, both because of limited time and because I don't find many of the "personalities" appealing, each with his or her own shtick targeting a particular viewer type (the bubbly, the geeky, the down-home country, the kitchen terror, etc). However I should not generalize, for my distaste does not apply to all (probably quite the contrary). As an example of something I really enjoy, I'll mention the Eric Ripert's toaster video pieces (link). The man is a culinary genius but he is utterly real and charming in these little spots.

I digress (how unusual, Giff). Christ, now he's talking to himself. The POINT is that I found Tanis' cookbook both delightful and inspiring. As for my own touch to this little post, I may not have a platter of figs to share, but I can leave you with a plate of plums. Consider it an homage to fading summer, in a melody of black, alderman and prune. And yes, I devoured them all in one sitting!

Plate of Plums

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: From Provence to the Catskills - a Voyage from David to Bertolli

table cheers

You can sense it in American kitchens, our restaurant conversations, and across the food blogosphere: a newfound appreciation of good food prepared from fresh, local ingredients. This trend has been building for a long time, and no figure has played a more inspirational role than Alice Waters, chef/owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Waters is part of a long lineage of culinary masters inspired by the food from the south of France - that amazing intersection of French, Italian and Mediterranean flavors, and where fresh and local are a way of life.

We were thrilled to participate in Foodbuzz's 24, 24, 24 blogosphere event, astounding in its scope, with 24 food blogs around the world experiencing and sharing 24 meals over a 24 hour period. What better way to take part than to celebrate Alice Waters and her place in this historical line of chefs bringing the south of France to the world. In doing so, we wanted to transport a taste of Provence to Stone Ridge, NY, a small town in the the foothills of the Catskill mountains.

We crafted a meal tracing the development of this movement, with each course inspired by one of four culinary greats, in chronological order:

24, 24, 24 menu
For those less familiar with some of the chefs named above, Elizabeth David first published Mediterranean Food in 1950, followed by French Country Cooking in 1951. In her foreword to the American compilation of David's cookbooks, Alice Waters writes that meeting David was "the thrill of my life." Waters was also tremendously influenced by Richard Olney, the American who lived near the Domaine Tempier vineyard (hence the choice of wine for the main course) in the south of France, and who wrote such well-known books as the incongruously named Simple French Food (his recipes are anything but simple). And completing the nexus of people around Alice Waters, we have Paul Bertolli, a well-known chef who worked for Alice at Chez Panisse before spreading his own wings. In 2003, Bertolli published the fascinating Cooking by Hand cookbook.

The Dinner
Our goal was to work with as local and fresh ingredients as possible. The growing season here in the Catskills is winding down, but still strong. We started out with a trip to a local farm, Gill's, and made our final meal decisions based on the bounty laid before us.
farm bounty

Also in keeping with the local theme, our pork came from a New York farm, courtesy of the fabulous Fleisher's butcher in Kingston. We fended off hunger in the countdown to dinner with a cows milk cheese called Toussaint, from the Sprout Creek Farm in New York.

We were joined at this feast by four good friends, Mike and Rebecca G, and Mike and Sumi D, who showed angelic patience as we cooked and plated and paused for a photograph here and there.

In order to keep length manageable, and thus this all readable, we have described each dish making up the meal in the six following posts, and listed out the recipes.

amuse grouped
Potato, Leek and Onion Soup, topped with alfalfa and cherry tomato

zucchini pudding
Zucchini Pudding

pork serving dish
Pork Shoulder Braised with Dried Chiles

shell beans plated
Fresh Shell Bean and Green Bean Ragout

risotto chard done
Chard Stuffed with Fennel and Lemon Risotto

panna cotta plated
Lavender Panna Cotta with Peaches

We hope you enjoy the above posts, which include more pictures and thoughts, and you can also see the full set of photos from the dinner at our flickr set. We will leave you with a few favorite shots.

sauternes and glasses
A taste of the past

morning after
Morning light and a memory of the meal

In Conclusion
I want to end by commending and thanking Foodbuzz for challenging its community to produce an ambitious global food event. This project was a huge undertaking, but tremendously fun at the same time. I can't wait to read the 23 other posts that all were written today, and I hope to update this post with links to the other 24, 24, 24 posts as soon as I can. For now, check out the list at Foodbuzz's 24 page.

Lavender Panna Cotta

panna cotta plated
(part of From Provence to the Catskills, our celebration held as part of of the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 blog event)

For dessert, we turned for inspiration to Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand. This is a wonderfully personal and entertaining book, its recipes interspersed with interesting concepts and stories, such as the letter to Bertolli’s newborn son about aging aceto balsamico, or the concluding Conversation with a Glass of Wine, in which Bertolli creates an imaginary opera of the interactions of the various courses of his meal with a bottle of Barolo.

The dessert section (which is organized into full menus to highlight the place of dessert in a meal), contained a recipe for rose-scented panna cotta with a compote of white nectarines. We just missed the Catskills nectarine season, but the peaches are still magnificent. Instead of roses, we used French lavender from the garden to continue the Provencal theme. We were not disappointed – the panna cotta was delicate and refreshing, the peaches sweet and cool, a perfect end to a rich meal.

I’ve always loved panna cotta as a dessert in restaurants, and was surprised by how easy this was. There is very little “cooking” involved, and the dessert can be made well in advance and kept refrigerated until serving. The only tough part was getting the panni cotti (is that the plural?) out of the ramekins at the end – Bertolli doesn’t give any suggestions for preparing the ramekins to help them slip out; I suppose any kind of lubricant might interfere with the delicate flavors. The Epicurious recipes I looked at suggested warming the molds first by sitting them in some hot water prior to inverting them, which worked after a while, but warmed the puddings up a little. Maybe I was just too impatient to get them served!

Lavender panna cotta with peaches (fills about 10 small ramekins)

6 cups of heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
10 heads of lavender flowers, coarsely chopped
6 tbs cold water
2 tbs gelatin (usually 2 small packets, if using packaged gelatin)
For the sauce:
6-8 ripe peaches
3 tbs sugar
1 cup of cold water

Warm the cream with the sugar and salt over a low flame until hot, but well below a simmer. Turn off heat. Add lavender flowers and steep for about 15 minutes. The lavender flavor should become quite pronounced – if not, leave it for longer, as it will become less strong when cooled.


Strain the flowers out of the warm cream.

Place 6 tbs cold water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the water. Leave for 5 minutes to soften. Whisk in some of the warm cream to dissolve the gelatin, then whisk the gelatin/cream mixture back into the rest of the cream. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a medium size mixing bowl.

Set out ramekins on a baking sheet that will fit in the refrigerator.

Set the bowl of cream into a larger bowl half-filled with ice. Stir the cream with a rubber spatula, scraping the inside of the bowl constantly so that the panna cotta doesn’t set. When the mixture is very cold and starting to thicken, remove the bowl from the ice and pour the mixture into the ramekins. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

For the sauce, peel and chop half of the peaches into small chunks (about 1/4 inch pieces – should yield about 2 cups), put in saucepan with water and sugar. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer with lid on for 45 minutes. Strain the mixture. Bertolli says to discard the cooked fruit, but I kept it for my 3-year-old – it was great over vanilla ice cream. Chill the syrup.

Peel, pit and dice the remaining peaches into ½ inch pieces (about 2 cups) and add to chilled syrup.

panna cotta de-ramekin

Unmold the panna cotta by running a paring knife around the inside of each ramekin and inverting on a plate. Spoon a couple of tablespoons of peaches and syrup around and over each panna cotta.

panna cotta peaches
Finishing the dish

table panna cotta
At the table

sauternes and glasses
This can be deliciously paired with a dessert wine -- in our case we had a 1967 Sauternes saved by Giff's father and passed down for a special occasion.

Chard Stuffed with Fennel and Lemon Risotto

swisschard colors
(part of From Provence to the Catskills, our celebration held as part of of the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 blog event)

Gill's farm had the most beautiful swiss chard, which changed up some of my ideas for a side dish to accompany the pork braise. Lisl thought "risotto" so we decided to make a reprise of one of my favorite meals from the summer, chard leaves stuffed with risotto, from the wonderful Mark Bittman blog Bitten. We kept it in line with the Alice Waters theme by working (mostly) off of an asparagus and lemon risotto recipe from The Art of Simple Food, although we swapped out the asparagus for a subtle amount of fennel. We lightened this dish up by removing the mozarella and parmesan cheese you will find in both Bittman and Waters' recipes, and by reducing the size of each ball of risotto.

Fennel and Lemon Risotto

1 fennel bulb, including the fronds
1/2 white onion
1 lemon
2 tbsp butter
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups vegetable stock

I made a vegetable broth the day before, which was a simple combination of 2 quarts of water or so, 3 carrots, 3 celery ribs, 1 onion, 3 large cloves of garlic, 2 bay leaves, several sprigs of thyme and a large bunch of parsley -- all simmered together for several hours.

Bring your stock to a boil in a saucepan and cover, turning off heat.

Remove the zest from your lemon, and reserve the juice. Fnely chop up some of the thin fronds from the top of the fennel and save a tablespoon's worth. Then remove the bottom and any tough outer layers to the fennel bulb and finely chop. Finely chop the onion.

Heat up the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add the onion and fennel. Cook until the onion is translucent, then add the rice. Cook the rice, periodically stirring, for about 4 minutes until the rice turns mostly translucent. Do not let it brown.

risotto stirring

Stir the lemon zest and fennel fronds into the rice, then pour in the wine. Stir almost continuously until wine is absorbed, and then add your stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring as continuously as you can bear. When the rice starts to thicken, add another 1/2 cup, and do not let the rice dry out. Cook until the rice is tender but not mushy, about 25 to 30 minutes in all. When the rice is almost done, stir in the lemon juice and carefully add salt (the amount will depend on the saltiness of your stock), then remove from heat to cool.

Stuffing and Cooking the Chard Leaves

Large bunch of swiss chard
2 cups of vegetable broth

With a sharp knife, remove the stalks running up the center of the chard leaves and discard. Boil a pot of water and parboil the leaves for about 30 seconds, then remove to cool.

Preheat oven to 400F.

With your hands, make small balls of risotto, about an inch or so in diameter, and tightly wrap each one in a strip of chard leaf. You can also combine two strips if you have smaller leaves -- this does not need to be perfect and impeccably wrapped by any means. It's not a Tiffany's box. Repeat "country cooking!" to yourself until you decide that taste is more important than impeccably wrapped spheres.

risotto chard rolling

You should have enough risotto and leaves to make over a dozen wrapped balls. Place closely together in a baking dish and pour the broth over top. Bake for 10 minutes at 400, then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for 10 more minutes. Plate on a serving dish, and dribble some of the broth from the hot baking dish over top.

risotto chard done