Monday, March 30, 2009

Huge Win: Fast Tomato Sauce

I think I made the best tomato sauce I've ever made, for the project or otherwise, last week. That it wasn't the exact recipe from How to Cook Everything matters little.

On p. 502 of HTCE is Fast Tomato Sauce, with or without Pasta. But on p. 503 is where the recipe vaults into greatness. "20 Quick and Easy Ways to Spin Fast Tomato Sauce" is the real reason this is so great. Basically, it's two pages of stuff you can throw in to the sauce at various stages, turning it into a fast puttanesca, tomato pesto, roasted tomato sauce, whatever. But what I think Bittman is really saying, not to put words in the man's mouth, is that you should add whatever the hell you want to this tomato sauce. I know I've talked about it a lot before, but it's a classic template and pretty much anything goes, as long as it tastes good to you.

Anyway, last week I started with leeks in addition to the usual onions, and threw in some cut up red and yellow peppers. Once those were nice and soft I added a big can of tomatoes, let it heat up a bit, and then a few tablespoons of tomato paste went in. It started to bubble together, smell great, thicken up a bit, at which point I pureed it in the food processor. I like doing this for two reasons. The main reason is that I prefer a really smooth tomato sauce on pasta, and I'm not crazy about chunks in my tomato sauce. If I were doing this without pasta, I probably wouldn't puree it. The second reason is that you can really half-ass the chopping if you know everything's gonna go in the food processor later on.

Alright, so it was a lot more vibrant and colorful all chunky like that, and I think if I were doing this without pasta, I'd leave it be. Anyway, after it was pureed I threw in these garlicky olives I had roughly chopped (this was the only garlic I added) and a little more olive oil. Ate it over pasta, which you might've guessed.

My only regret is that I didn't make more...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Breakfast Time: Crisp Panfried Potatoes (Home Fries)

I always thought home fries would be more difficult to make; I'm not really sure why. Turns out, it's super easy.

You take a couple pounds of waxy potatoes (I halved it and just used a pound). You can peel them, but it's not necessary (I like them skin-on anyway, so it's a non-issue). Put some neutral oil in your pan, and when it's hot, add the potatoes and DO NOT MESS WITH THEM for ten minutes, until they start to darken and they release easily. If you try to move them too soon, they will stick. Trust me, but more importantly, trust Bittman.

After the ten minutes or so, just stir occasionally til you think they're done (depends how you like it, I guess, but I like mine pretty well done so it took another 15 minutes or so). Towards the end, Bittman says to turn the heat up a bit more to give them a little more crispness, which works nicely. Don't forget to salt them while they're still hot. I drained them out a bit on some paper towels and then made eggs in the oil still left in the pan.

This egg isn't a recipe from How to Cook Everything, but it looks delicious in this picture, doesn't it?

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Should Be Harder: Miso Soup

Take some miso paste. Add it to water, hot but not boiling. Let it dissolve into the water, throw in some tofu, scallions, whatever you want, really.

Seriously, that's it. No wonder they give this stuff out for free at Japanese restaurants.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Taking Shortcuts: Quick Braised Fish with Black Bean Sauce

So, Quick Braised Whole Fish with Black Bean Sauce. I've never cooked a whole fish before, and Tuesday night at 7 didn't seem like a good time to start practicing my fish cleaning skills.

Luckily our man Bittman provides a super quick variation with filets instead of whole fish. The whole thing is very easy, but I bet it would be a lot more full flavored with a whole fish. Basically you lightly batter and fry the fish in neutral oil just to brown it. Then you remove it from the pan, add some onions, garlic, Ginger and scallions. You let those all cook until the onions are pretty soft, then add some chopped onions (I used canned, which worked nicely) and fermented black beans that have been soaking in rice wine or dry sherry. Cook that all together a while and then return the fish to the pan to finish cooking for another five minutes or so.

Served it with plain rice and some salad. It's not the dark, gummy black bean sauce you're probably thinking of from chinese restaurants. This is something a little lighter, with a good amount of veggies. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was the batter on the fish, which after being braised turned into something almost like a paste--maybe I didn't fry it at high enough heat, I don't know, but I think the next time I'd skip the batter altogether and see how that works out.

Also, I now have a huge package of fermented black beans. Anyone have any suggestions on how to use them?

Organic or Not

Who's that climbing the NYTimes' Most E-Mailed list? It's our man Bittman, reminding us that what matters is what you eat, not how it's labeled or marketed in this Sunday's Week in Review section. Definitely worth a read.

Eating Food That's Better For You, Organic or Not [nytimes]

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Simple, Easy, Complete: Hainan Style Chicken, Mustard Greens with Double Garlic

So, as Bittman alludes to in his intro to this recipe, it's a bit bland. You definitely need a dipping sauce or three to rescue it. It's easy, though, and it left me with a ton of leftovers, including some stock. Also, it's really cheap since you can use a whole chicken, although I guess some people would rather use just breasts. If that's the case, I implore you, go bone-in. I think this would be really bland and dried out without the bone, since the stock probably wouldnt pick up all that much flavor from just plain breast meat.

All you do is boil water with some salt, ginger, and garlic, add chicken, cover and turn off the heat after 10 minutes and let it sit for an hour. This keeps it pretty moist and tender. Then you cook rice with the stock, and serve it with the chicken and Ginger Scallion sauce for dipping. It's nice and light, lets the chicken flaunt its poultriness, and tastes pretty good. Also, there was this whole thing in the recipe about tomatoes and cucumbers, but I didn't have any of those around, so I skipped it. Maybe the recipe would've been a bit more remarkable had I included it, but I mean, what are the odds of that?

I think next time I would slice up the chicken before serving, which would make it look a bit less sloppy, but other than that, this is a pretty good, pretty easy (if a bit time consuming) one pot dish. We made it with the How to Cook Everything recipe for dandelion greens (we substituted mustard greens), which was good, even though Talia oversalted it. Clownshoe.

There were pictures of this, but really, they didn't make it look very tasty, so they aren't getting posted here. It was worse than the Chicken with Yogurt debacle.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Feast for a Knucklehead: The Simplest Paella, Seared Baby Bok Choy with Bacon Vinaigrette, and Roasted Asparagus

Sunday was the one week anniversary of my least favorite brother Jonathan's 26th birthday. In honor of this occasion, I told him I'd make him and his friends whatever he wanted (so long as it was in How To Cook Everything, of course). So that's how we ended up with Paella, a deceptively easy dish that takes much less time than everyone thinks. Since it was a special occasion, I replaced half the shrimp with squid and added some chorizo to the recipe for good measure. Check it out:

Basically, it works like this: saute some onions in olive oil, add chorizo if you're using it, and then add the rice (preferably paella rice, though I used arborio at Bittman's suggestion and it worked) and cook it for a minute until it looks "shiny." At this point you add the stock that's been heating up with saffron in it (if you're me, you add the saffron with the rice instead of letting it heat with the broth, resulting in a still very tasty but less orange dish), stir in the shrimp and squid, and throw it in a 450 degree oven for 15 minutes.

It actually took more like 30 minutes, but my oven is trife). When the rice is cooked through and the top is getting a nice brown layer, you're good. This was completely delicious and the chorizo was predictably a great call.

For veggies, we had two dishes. Roasted Asparagus is something I've made 100 times before, and it turns out is also in HTCE. I burnt them a little. They were still good, in fact I think they were better than usual. That's one veggie that does real well under high heat. I think next time I may even try the broiler (the recipe was for Grilled, Broiled, or Roasted Asparagus so there's a lot of room for interpretation as long as the heat is high).

But that was overshadowed, I'm afraid. It's not that it wasn't good (which it was) and it's not that I forgot the lemon wedges Bittman recommends (which I did). It's just that the other vegetable dish last night had bacon in it. So you see, it wasn't really fair. Seared Baby Bok Choy with Bacon Vinaigrette is simpy unfuckwithable, and not just because of the bacon. You boil and shock baby bok choy, cut it in half, and then cook it cut side down, so it gets just a bit charred.

It's a really interesting flavor, one I didn't think would work at all, but oh how it did. The bacon vinaigrette is just, you cook some chopped up bacon (about 6 oz, I used less) deglaze with some sherry vinegar, salt and pepper, and then whisk in some olive oil. Pour that on top of the baby bok choy and you have a serious side dish. For those of you who don't like to cook with bacon, there's an alternate recipe with a chili vinaigrette that also looks killer.

I served it all with a salad, not from the book. Our guests were Sean, Eva, and Mike, who it should be noted really loves a good, creamy rice and a cool, icy glass of red wine. I expect all of your comments below. Diana, you need to try harder. Happy Birthday big guy.

Oh! And for dessert I broiled some nectarines. The were so SO good. They didn't even need the ice cream, though it certainly didn't hurt.

One thing that's so great about roasting or grilling fruit is that it doesn't even have to be that great quality fruit. The nectarines were hard as rocks going in, but in the broiler they became these super sweet, sorta tart warm soft charred flavor bombs. I think it was Sean who said it was like pie, without the pie. Awesome.

(just kidding Diana, I owe you one, hope you're feeling better)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Minimalist Wednesday: Fast Tomato Sauce and Grown Up Mashed Potatoes

Today Bittman took his spiel to the Today show to do a recipe very near and dear to my own heart: Fast Tomato Sauce, that endlessly variable recipe that was a key reason I started the Ben Cooks Everything project in the first place. He didn't call it Fast Tomato Sauce, but that's exactly what it was, complete with the toss-in-anything-you-like attitude. Matt and Meredith keep the obnoxious to a minimum, which is nice. And! Bittman says you can throw in the rind of parmesan cheese when making sauce and get a lot of flavor from that otherwise garbage-bound ingredient. Awesome.

Meanwhile, the Minimalist column in today's paper, which went online last week, is all about making mashed potatoes a little healthier and a little more interesting. Boil potatoes, add dandelion greens, olive oil (interesting substitution for the butter that I've got to try).

Both these recipes use a similar concept of using a lot of veggies (tomato sauce, dandelion greens), and a lot less starch than you usually would (pasta, potatoes). Mark Bittman: waning you off carbs. That being said, both of these (especially the mash) look tasty as hell. Are dandelion greens in season yet? I guess so.

As always, the NYTimes video is better, more informative, easier on the eyes, and with 100% less cheery morning talk show hosts. It is not, however, embeddable, so please enjoy below the Today show clip and click here or below to see the Times video.

Green Potatoes from Liguria [nytimes video]
The Minimalist: The Greening of Mashed Potatoes [nytimes]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Off Site: The Simplest and Best Shrimp Dish

Keeping it short this time. This one is a banger: as delicious as it is easy. There's not even all that much to say. Put a lot of olive oil, like at least a quarter cup, and heat it up with some garlic in there, til the garlic is golden. Add the shrimp, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika (Bittman says hot paprika, but I just used regular with a little cayenne thrown in), and cook until the shrimp are done.

What you get is a spicy, garlicky, simple yet delicious dish. Exactly as advertised. You get a lot of mileage out of very few seasonings because the taste of shrimp shines through. Truly Minimalist. I bet this is good with squid too. Melanie made some lentils and rice to go with it, and it all went together very nicely.

Friday, March 6, 2009

...and now for something completely different: Two Boots Tavern

Pork buns in Chinatown. Lox and whitefish at Russ and Daughters. Smiley face pizza (that's olive eyes, mushroom nose, and red pepper mouth) at Two Boots. Food = memory.

Two Boots holds a really special place in my heart even among the aforementioned spots. Their original restaurant on Avenue A was a place I grew up in, eating smiley face pizzas, drinking coke out of boot-shaped mugs, and picking songs from their well stocked jukebox. It was a heartbreaking moment when I came back from Boston one spring break and took some friends there to find it was under new ownership. The fried calamari was gone, replaced with an appetizer menu of vegetarian options. The pizza was just not that great. Not long after, it closed down. There's been a sign about its eminent reopening in the window for what seems like years now, but the place is dead to me.

Now, while I'll always miss that space, this story isn't as sad as all that. Two Boots To Go, the slice joint/delivery place across the street still makes the stuff the way I remember, and they deliver to Stuy Town, so I've hardly been deprived of Two Boots for the last few years. They're also littered all over the city. I think most of the others are franchised out, but I'm not sure about all those details, and I don't really care, as all of them seem to more or less live up to the original. One thing's for sure: none of them miss the mark as badly as what the new owners refer to in the aforementioned sign as "Re:Boot." God, I hate them.

Well, last night I found a place that reminded me of the good times I had at Two Boots as a youngster. Two Boots Tavern is on Grand and Suffolk, a neighborhood that seems as random at first glance as Avenue A and 3rd Street must have back in 1987. It's a bar, it's an authentic Two Boots experience, and it's somewhere I'll be returning to quite a bit in the future. I had a chance to speak to owner Phil Hartman last night, and in between gushing to him about how I was raised on his pizza, he asked me to tell all my friends about the new spot. Well, Phil, that was already the plan: I can't recommend it enough. This place has a real appeal to it. Sure, that neighborhood doesn't hurt for lack of bars, but it could use more laid back spots, and that was exactly what we found at the Tavern last night.

So please, everybody reading this in the New York area, check out the Two Boots Tavern. You can drink (full bar plus beer on tap) AND eat delicious pizza. Plus they invented this thing called Cajun Pigs in Blankets that's a piece of andouille sausage wrapped in pizza crust. And it is GOOD. There's other bar snacks too, the drinks were reasonably priced, and what's more, Two Boots is back to its former glory. See you there.

Update: Phil Hartman just emailed me some kind words and corrections about the history of Two Boots:

Thanks for sharing your memories with me, and thanks for spreading the word to your blogsters...I raised three kids in the East Village -- and in Two Boots! -- and they've shared many of the same experiences as you...

Just wanted to clear up some of your misconceptions about Two Boots...

Two Boots was started by Doris Kornish and I in 1987 at 37 Ave. A. A local real estate developer, John Touhey, owned the original space, and we gave John permission to open Two Boots Brooklyn in 1989 -- he's done a fantastic job out there in Park Slope, especially with parents and kids.

Two Boots has grown over the years -- we just opened in LA, have a big, beautiful, full-service location in Bridgeport, Conn. with a stage for live music, and are building a small branch in Hell's Kitchen (9th Ave. & 44th St.)...NONE of the branches are franchises; all are owner-operated, and my office is right here in the EV on East 3rd St.

As for the original location at 37 Ave. A, Doris and I split up several years ago, and while I got Two Boots in the settlement, she received the original restaurant...Doris is a vegetarian, and Re-boot expressed her interests and sensibility. What more can I say? I find it as sad as you that our original location has been lost, but I'm glad you see that the spirit is still alive and well on Grand St. -- and at every branch of Two Boots, I think.

So, there you go. Avenue A, still dead to me, other branches, still legit.

What to Eat at Two Boots Tavern
[Grub Street]
Picture also lifted from Grub Street.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Wall*E Was Robbed: Fresh Tomato Salsa, Guacamole, and Caramelized Spiced Nuts

The Oscars were on, so I thought it'd be a good idea to have some friends over and have a betting pool, along with some potluck snack action. People brought enchiladas, chips, cheeses, lemon bars, cupcakes, and of course booze. I decided to make Caramelized Spiced Nuts, Fresh Tomato Salsa, and Guacamole.

First I made the salsa, which I completely forgot to take pictures of. It's a hugely adaptable recipe; you can throw in any seasonings you like, up amounts or remove things altogether, and even use fruit (like mangoes) in place of the tomatoes. Take some tomatoes, dice them up, combine with minced garlic, chile (I used jalapeno), cilantro (I left that out) and salt and pepper. I did it all in the food processor. To get the texture I prefer, I rough chopped 2/3 of the tomatoes, and then pureed the remaining 1/3 of the tomatoes along with the garlic and jalapeno, so it wasn't totally smooth, but not too chunky either. The salsa was delicious, but it's a recipe that's going to be infinitely better this summer when the tomatoes are fresh and delicious (and with 90% less indentured servitude...yikes). This was still good, considering the fact that the best tomatoes I could find were still pretty bland.

Next up was the Guac. Now, I don't like mine with tomatoes in it, so I scratched that. The recipe in How To Cook Everything is a simple one, all the main suspects are there: avocado, garlic, onion (I used shallot), chile (I think I used serrano) or cayenne (I used both), lime juice (I like a little more than Bittman calls for), salt and pepper. I also added some chipotle powder and a teensy bit of pimenton (smoked paprika). What can I say, I like smoky. It was really good. Guacamole is always really good.

It's a longstanding theory of mine, practically a law, that anything with avocado as a main ingredient is delicious. A related theory I am currently testing is that adding avocados to anything will make them better. Anyway, the guac was delicious. This gathering was actually something of a guac-off, as Clair and Grace both brought their own recipes, which were pretty delicious as well. Clair's was ultra lemony (or was it limeny?), and Grace's may have suffered from HAS (Hard Avocado Syndrome) but it was still effing tasty. Like I said, as long as you're not going with that stuff that comes in a jar (srsly how do they get away with calling that guacamole?) you're good. One last thing I think needs addressing re: gaucamole. You may notice I didn't use any cilantro, in the guac or the salsa. While I love the flavor it adds, a lot of people just hate the stuff with a passion. If I'm having friends over, I'm not gonna alienate half of them by using such a polarizing flavor. Let me know how you feel about cilantro in the comments.

Last up were the nuts. These are a revelation, another hugely customizable recipe. Once you make it once, it's your call to throw in any spices you like. So, you take water and sugar and boil them together til they start to thicken into a syrupy thickness. Then you add some cayenne (I'd up the amount in the book, I wanted these to be spicier), and a couple tablespoons of garam masala, plus some salt. Then in go 2 cups (I doubled though) of any kind of nuts you want. You boil these over medium heat until the liquid's even thicker (10 minutes give or take), then scoop them out with a slotted spoon onto a preheated baking sheet. Pop 'em in the over for ten more minutes, and you've got something much better than a store bought honey roasted nut.

All in all, the Oscars were boring, the betting pool was fun (Sage and I tied and took everyone's money), and the snacks were killer. What else is there?

OK, commence arguing about cilantro in the comments.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Set Your DVRs: Mark Bittman on Colbert

I'm excited about seeing Stephen Colbert nail Mark Bittman this week. Hopefully it leads to the legendary Colbert bump. Actually it looks like a week of bangers for Colbert:

OK, so maybe I'm skipping the Invention of Air guy. But David Byrne, Mark Bittman, and the guy who wrote the least expected book in Continuum's 33 1/3 series sounds like a helluva run.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Green Street Style: Chicken with Yogurt and Indian Spices and Fried Polenta

Kyle, the designer of this computer based periodical you're looking at right now, was in town from DC for the weekend. Clearly we had to make dinner. Sometimes it feels cruel making Kyle work on this project about delicious food that he rarely gets to enjoy. Someone please offer him a job here so that he can move to New York and come over for dinner all the time.

Anyway, I sent him a list of things we could make, and we decided on Chicken with Yogurt and Indian Spices, a curry dish with a yogurt base, and Fried or Grilled Polenta (in this case, fried).

Polenta was something we made a lot back when I lived with Kyle in Cambridge, Mass. Well, we made it once or twice, then stopped, probably because we were buying that kind that comes in a tube. That stuff looks, feels and tastes like rubber, lightly fried.

I'm not sure why we used that stuff, because real polenta is really easy to make, even though it takes some attention (read: constant stirring). Boil water (plus milk, not necessary but recommended by Bittman) with some salt, add the polenta, lower heat, and whisk constantly until it thickens. It should be about as thick as sour cream, says Bittman, but "for Grilled or Fried Polenta, you want something approaching thick oatmeal."

Then you smooth it out, let it harden up a little bit (this is a very similar technique to a recent Minimalist recipe) and pan fry it. You can also brush it with olive oil and grill it, which I might try in the broiler next time. If you do fry it, though, do yourself a favor and use a nonstick pan, because we started with a regular skillet and could not get a single piece to lift off easily, no matter how much oil we used. Anyway, this was really really delicious stuff, and with some practice, I think it could get even better.

The Chicken with Yogurt and Indian Spices is a really nice simple curry, where you brown your chicken (breasts and thighs in this case, but use whatever), remove it, sautee some onions in the oil and fat from the chicken, throw in a bunch of garlic along with cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, and cinammon... and maybe some others that I may be forgetting? I think there was cayenne as well. You let the spices cook for a minute or two (your kitchen goes from smelling good to smelling like magic), then stir in the yogurt. Add the chicken back into the pan, cover and let it cook over fairly low heat until it's done... this was about 20 minutes for me.

What you end up with is a chicken dish that photographs pretty poorly (it's a very brownish shade of grey) but tastes awesome and leaves a lot of sauce. Next time we'll need some naan bread or rice or something. Susan made a delicious Israeli salad (cucumbers + tomatoes, no leafy funny business) to go along with it, nothing from the book, but it had Drunken Goat cheese in it. Drool.

Oh, and it was totally Kyle's fault that all the polenta stuck. You can't let that guy do anything.