Archive for January, 2011

Decadent Fish Sticks

January 27, 2011

From the October 21, 2008 New York Times comes a recipe for Almond-Crusted Fillet of Sole by Alain Ducasse.  Essentially, very indulgent fish sticks, they are made with ground almonds, egg yolks, and butter.  So why are they so tragically bland?  I would think that all that richness would lube up my taste buds, but Mrs. Paul has more flavor.  Granted, sole is a mild fish, almonds are a mild nut, but they are bound in egg yolk and pan fried in unsalted butter.  They were seasoned generously with salt and pepper.  They were browned to a beautiful golden hue.  There was good fond for the additional butter sauce to put on top with steamed potatoes.  Instructions were simple.  Did I miss something?

A rescue effort ensued.  Using the bare fixing that were in house, I attempted Judith Jones’ Fish Cakes.  Made with mashed potatoes, scallions, ginger, and my addition of celery, I say attempted because they fell apart when I tried to flip them.  At that point, I mashed it all together to make a really good hash.  Who needs fish sticks when you can have hash?

This Is Art

January 25, 2011

One of my favorite shows last year was the Marina Abramovic retrospective at MOMA.  I fell particularly hard because I usually hate performance art, and she completely won me over.  Given the opportunity to “be” a part of her newest work, a chef and artist collaboration with Creative Time, I jumped.  This newest endeavor is a dessert at Park Avenue Winter called Volcano Flambe, essentially a baked Alaska.

As a participant, not just a diner, you are presented with a wooden box with headphones at the onset of your “dessert”.  Abramovic instructs you to close your eyes, letting your sense of smell take over, breathing in the fumes of torched rum in three counts.  This moment, when you hear Abromovic’s deep and accented voice, is actually the most profound – an intimate interlude in the public space of a restaurant, connected by the anticipation of eating.  When she’s done and your eyes are opened, the dessert itself is a beauty to behold – a burnished cloud of meringue on top of dirt-like chocolate cookie crumbs, haloed by a spun sugar spirogram – Vesuvius in sugar and spice.  As a dessert, it is suitably tasty, but not an artistic challenge to the tastebuds, even with the cold chocolate ice cream surprise inside.  At $20, it’s an expensive dessert, or the high price of being arty.

Not So Fast Gumbo

January 20, 2011

Also from the Fast page in the February 2003 Food and Wine, I made their Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo.  Fast gumbo, an oxymoron, don’t you think?  It claims 25 minutes to make, but if such was the case at the 25 minute mark, you would have an unarticulated, wan soup.  Only after an hour is it ready for show time, a flavorful soup that is the best of surf and turf – briny shrimp and smoky sausage.  The trade off is that the life is sucked out of the sausage and shrimp, making them flavorless nuggets on their own.  How can I make it better?

Consulting The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, I would have to sacrifice time for these details:

-make a real roux to coax more nutty flavor, and then cook the vegetables

-brown the sausages whole, then slice and add in the last 10 minutes of cooking

-add wine

-make the stock separately with the shrimp shells first, remove the shells, then add the vegetables, sausage and shrimp

In the meantime, I wanted to beef up the tasty but watery stock.  I didn’t want to incorporate okra due to my own prejudices and fears, but I wanted something that would act as a thickener and to provide further interest to the soup.  The answer was rice, a natural accompaniment to gumbo.  I strained out the solids, and cooked the remaining stock with a little rice so that the rice would overexpand and release its starch.  It gave a viscous body and substance without losing flavor.  A gumbo worth waiting for.

We Could All Use Some Heat

January 18, 2011

If only, one could have the opportunity to learn from the greatest, as Bill Buford does in Heat.  What starts as an investigative piece on Mario Batali, turns into a teaching meditation on the audacity of good food.  The short bio on Molto Mario becomes a stepping stone to intern at Babbo – admittedly one of my favorite fine dining experiences.  A vivd recounting behind the scenes, where the curtain is parted to reveal that the back breaking work of a busy kitchen, Buford’s endless curiosity is intertwined with the origins and evolution of Italian food, which lead him to an apprenticeship with an infamous butcher in a small Tuscan village.  The lesson is that one learns to be a good cook by doing it all the time, repeatedly, honing all your senses, most essentially by touch.

I want to be a better cook this way.  Instead of fluttering between recipes, which is  how my curious mind works, I should master a few things.  A much more different accomplishment when I have only myself to feed, and not a restaurant that serves 350 people a night.

Over the holidays, I did master my granola, having made ten batches for gifts.  The repetition made me improve my technique – mise en place, getting to know my stove, knowing that moment when toasty starts to cross the line of burned, sharpening my eyes and nose.  A crash course that is small in scale and simplicity, but a mastery nevertheless.

Frittata Friendly

January 13, 2011

For my first dish of the new year, I didn’t want to step into it blindly, like I usually do with recipes.  I have looked to recipes as a way to learn and to an extent, test my ability to be obedient and to follow.  What I’ve learned last year is that not all recipes live up to their potential.  If I didn’t like the recipe, I blamed the source.  I should know better than that.  If it looks or feels wrong, I should take it upon myself to improvise and improve.  Even a little research ahead of time wouldn’t hurt.

The first winner of the new year is a Potato, Sausage and Kale Frittata from the February 2003 Food and Wine.  Not only did I carefully read it over, but I compared it to my cooking bible, Cook’s Illustrated Best Recipes.  The two recipes varied quite a bit in quantity and ratio.  FW had more than twice as much filling and egg as BR.  They both employ a stove and oven technique, although FW uses the broiler.  BR was able to better explain the loosen and tilt method as a means to cooking the eggs, an active process which feels unlike the cake-like thing that I was making.  I also compared these to another frittata recipe that had been successful for me, concluding that I would use my largest frying pan (11 1/2″), stick to the list and proportions of FW ingredients and finish it in the oven at 350 degrees for 2-4 minutes, not the broiler.  My reality was that this Fast 30 minute recipe took over an hour with everything taking longer to cook than expected from the sausage and the potato, to the final finish in the oven.

Did all the extra attention pay off?  I’d say so, otherwise I would have ended up with a burnt undercooked frittata given the instructions.  With this lesson, I feel that I can confidently craft any frittata of my making, although I can’t complain about the combination of sausage, golden potato and kale, which I love, and seem to have many recipes for in soup, pasta, and casserole form.  The real winner in the recipe is the Yukon potato which accounts for the pockets of velvet-y smoothness.  I would think that the eggs would give it a fluffy creaminess, but it functions more like glue, holding everything together.  It’s a foolproof frittata.


January 11, 2011

First order of the New Year – pruning the recipe file.  Before I cook my first meal of 2011, I want to get rid of redundancy.  Like choosing the winning Lotto number from a basket, I actually enjoy  randomly picking out a recipe from this mass of clutter.  Chalk it up to the element of surprise and the dopamine effect.  But I have picked too many things that I have no interest in cooking now.

I plucked out recipes that I already know how to cook, but might not of when I clipped them a century ago, like Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Olive and Goat Cheese.  Recipes that were too non-sensically exotic and fussy were banished, like Hen Braised in Tomatillo Puree (an 18 month old hen? really?).  I got rid of cocktails because I don’t drink at home.  Out went randomly scribbled ingredients that I was supposed to know what it made.  And why do I have a recipe for Grilled Taleggio Sandwich with Apricots and Capers when I don’t even like apricots?  Hmm, maybe I’ll keep it and substitute figs…

I kept an inordinate number of vegetable and fish recipes, since if I’m going to cook, I should cook more healthy than not, especially since I’m such a sinner when I go out to eat.  I like a compelling challenge so there are a few marathon doozies.  I tried to be judicious with sweets.  In the end, I purged a little, not a lot, making me want to cook more and hoard less.