Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cracking the Dressings: Roasted Pepper Vinaigrette

18 Variations on Vinaigrette, another chart in How to Cook Everything that's just completely loaded with potential. All of them are variations on the classic template: oil, acid (vinegar, lemon juice, what have you), salt, pepper, hopefully some shallot and maybe a little bit of garlic.


Bittman swears by emulsifying it all in the food processor, as the cleanup time still makes up for the whisking-by-hand time, not to mention the stress on your wrist.

So for Roasted Pepper Vinaigrette, first you roast a pepper (in this case, a red one). I do this on the burner, turning it with tongs until it's black all over. The one you see here is about halfway there.


Then stick it in a plastic bag and seal it so that the pepper steams as it cools. You can then peel it with your fingers under running cold water, slice it open, remove the stem and seeds, and you're ready to make the dressing.


Olive oil (something like 1/3 cup), good wine vinegar (I used sherry vinegar, around 3 tbs.) and the pepper are all that Bittman suggests, along with salt and pepper, of course. I added to this a bit of shallot, because hey, why not?

Let 'er rip.


And here's what you get: a delicious salad dressing that tastes so much better than even the best storebought (which, for the record, is Newman's Own). If only it kept for longer, I'd make it by the gallon. Oh, well. Can't win 'em all.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Taco Night: Fish Tacos, Real Refried Beans, Mexican Cheese Salsa, Guacamole

Fish tacos: I hear they're transcendent, but impossible to find in New York. Pinche Tacqueria on Mott Street (they also have a place on Lafayette now) makes a pretty tasty one, but I have no West Coast reference point. Anyway, Bittman's recipe for fish tacos is the central point for his "Weekday Mexican-Style Spread," which also includes refried beans, guacamole, and salsa.


Now, Taco Night has always been a favorite in the Fishner house. My mom makes the most delicious white people tacos in the world: ground turkey, Old El Paso taco seasoning, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and grated cheese. They're great. They are totally inauthentic and totally amazing. No lime wedges, no radish slices, and sure as hell no cilantro. I've never seen anyone else serve cucumbers with tacos, but you should try it sometime, it's quite nice.

So I'm not ashamed to admit what drew me to this menu in How to Cook Everything: the salsa Bittman suggests, Mexican Cheese Salsa, has cucumbers! Feeling validated by this fact, we decided it was the perfect choice for dinner.

Guacamole, we've covered before (the menu actually suggests Crunchy Corn Guacamole, which is the same thing with 1/2 cup corn thrown in, but no corn was to be had).


The salsa is very simple: you've got diced tomatoes, cucumbers, salt, pepper, lime juice, onion, and minced chile (I used a jalapeno) along with 1/2 cup of queso fresco. This stuff is simple, really fresh tasting, and perfect for tacos (especially if you like them with cucumbers, which you probably will). It will only get better once tomato season arrives! I can't wait for tomato season. But I digress.


Now, the fish taco recipe is very flexible; it's listed as "Fish Tacos, Four Ways," because you can poach the fish, as it's suggested in the main recipe, but you can also grill, broil, or fry the fish. We opted for broiling, as it seemed the easiest: throw some olive oil, salt and pepper on the fish, stick it in the broiler until it's just barely cooked through, and you're good to go.


So that's pretty much the fish tacos; serve them with lime wedges, that rare essential garnish. I don't know about you, but I just need some extra lime juice to squeeze down on these guys.

Meanwhile, the refried beans, something that I did not expect to taste as good as it did. You take 3-4 cups of beans and mash them in some hot fat; whether it's lard, butter, or neutral oil is up to you (we opted for neutral oil, and it was still delicious). Then you add some onion, cumin, and cayenne (we were out of cayenne, and so we used some chili powder instead which worked pretty damn well) and let it cook until the onions are soft. There is room for lots of interpretation on this one. Finally, just add some of the bean liquid to thin it out to the consistency you like. Delicious.


This was definitely one of the top five meals since the project began. Spring is here, and this all tasted like it. Are you all siked? I am.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pizza Party: Pizza Dough, White Pizza with Caramelized Onions and Vinegar, & Pizza with Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella

So, my mom's been wanting to make pizza for a long time now. The project seemed the perfect excuse, not that you need one: all things considered, it's a simple process and it yields great results even if you don't have a pizza stone, which *gasp* we do not. And it's really fun. And you can't argue with this:


So you take flour, cornmeal (optional, but makes the crust crispier), yeast, and salt, and put them in the food processor.


Turn it on, and add some water and olive oil through the feed tube. It will form a ball within about thirty seconds; if it doesn't add some more water. What you end up with looks like this:


Put it on the floured counter. Knead it a little bit.


Put it in a bowl, cover it, and let it rise for 1-2 hours. Sounds like a lot of downtime, but this is when we threw together our toppings. Each batch of dough makes two pizzas (or one huge one, I guess). On one we did just some caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar. The other, tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms and turkey sausage (from DiPaola Farms at the Greenmarket--the best turkey sausage I've ever tasted). So, we caramelized some onions, over fairly low heat, for a pretty long time til they were nice and brown and sweet and delicious. Did pretty much the same thing with the mushrooms, which cooked faster. Browned the sausage (crumbled out of its casing), and threw together a batch of Fast Tomato Sauce.


And by then, the pizza dough was ready.

We stretched and rolled it out so it was as thin as we could get it, then laid it out on the baking sheets and got to topping. For the white pie we mixed a bit of the balsamic vinegar with the onions and just spread them out on top. For the other pie, I spread out a pretty thin layer of sauce, then the cheese slices, then scattered about the sausage and mushrooms. Sprinkled some grated parmesan on top of that, because why not, and our pies were good to go.


Bittman says that they need to bake for 6-12 minutes on 500 degrees. Ours took more like 20 minutes, but maybe that's because we like a nice crispy crust. Here's the finished white pie:


This one is definitely going into heavy rotation; let me know if you ever want to have a pizza party and I'm so there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Light, Fast, Easy: Grilled Squid

So, this one is sort of an approximation. Grilled Octupus, something I definitely still mean to try, involves simmering the cephalopod for about an hour until it's "nearly tender." Then you grill it up, with a little bit of olive oil and lemon juice just till it's a bit crisp. That's it.

Grilled Squid 1.jpg
I had squid in the freezer (how awesome is the top hat-wearing squid on this package?), so I used that instead. Basically, I cut out the simmering and went straight to the grill (a stovetop cast iron thing that's a bitch to take out and clean at the end of the night, but really gets the job done).

Grilled Squid 2.jpg

Served it with garlic bread and a salad. I can't tell you how nice it is to have a light, springy seafood and greens meal after so much brisket etc.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Win Some, Lose Some: Braised Beef Brisket

Not everything I did this Passover was an epic failure. No, this year I also made something I never thought I could handle: the brisket.

Brisket 4.jpg

Not just brisket, but the brisket. The lynchpin of the post-seder meal, a recipe that your grandma's probably been perfecting since before your parents were born. It's a lot of pressure, but I was confident I could do it after reading Alice Waters' "Slow Food" essay in Da Capo's Best Food Writing 2008 (I believe the esssay also appears in her Art of Simple Food book). "Nothing creates a sense of well-being like a barely simmering braise or stew cooking quietly on the stove or in the oven," Waters writes. I called Aunt Susan to see if I would be trusted with the task--after all, I'd have to make this recipe for the project eventually, right?

It wasn't until she said yes that it really hit me: I was making the brisket. Gefilte fish, that's manageable, no one likes that stuff anyway. Worst comes to worst we eat from the jar. But the brisket cannot be messed with. Then again, there's something fun about having a slab of meat (there were actually two of these) this huge in your kitchen:

Brisket 1.jpg

The most important thing, from what I'm told, is to find a good cut of brisket, where "good" means fatty. Anyway, Bittman's recipe in How to Cook Everything is, of course, pretty simple. Takes about three hours to cook, but there's not a whole lot going on, and barely even any prep work. I added carrots where he says just onions, but other than that I followed it pretty much exactly, and it came out great.

Brisket 2.jpg

You brown the meat on both sides. Then you pour off the fat, and throw in the onions (and carrots, in my case). Let those soften and then throw in some minced garlic and tomato paste.

Brisket 3.jpg

Stir, return the meat to the pan, and then add stock, to almost cover the meat. Cover, stick it in the oven (300 degrees) and let it go for about 2 1/2 hours, turning it over every 30 minutes or so.

Brisket 5.jpg

And it works. The slow cooking really breaks down the connective tissue and fat in the meat and makes it really tender as it cooks. It's a bit disconcerting, because the meat definitely got really tough about 90 minutes into cooking, but then it came back around to tenderness by the three hour mark (it took more than 2 1/2 hours).

Brisket 6.jpg

I let it rest, sliced it, and it was ready to go. Everyone at the seder seemed to enjoy it (I swear even my vegetarian cousins were eating the stuff), and I must say that it was even better as leftovers. A few days sitting in its own gravy works wonders, truly.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Oy Vey: Gefilte Fish

"Don't learn to make gefilte fish," Grandma Ruth told me when she heard of my plans. "It's not worth it. Learn to make something that you'll eat more than once a year." Grandma' always right, and this was no exception, as it turned out. But still, I had to do it! For the project!

You know, I never really liked gefilte fish. At this moment, though, I truly hate it. This week I finally hit my first true, flat-out, nothing doing, face down failure of the project. Sure, there have been some things that didn't come out perfect so far, but nothing that took up hours of time and more money than I'd like to admit only to leave me with nothing usable. Other than some fish stock, which I guess counts for something.

Let's start at the start. I took the day off for Passover, as my parents were hosting the seder at their place on Thursday and it seemed like as good a time as any to take a crack at How to Cook Everything's recipe for Gefilte Fish, definitely an all day affair. Now, for the uninitiated out there, gefilte fish is a processed fish that you eat at passover seders. It tastes pretty much exactly how it looks, mild and benign and a little weird, but sort of familiar and nice at the same time. It was never my favorite thing in the world, but once a year I eat half a piece and call it a day. It never actually occurred to me until I saw it in HTCE that you might think of making it from scratch.

The main ingredient here is 3 lbs. of whitefish fillets (carp or pike will do as well) and 3 lbs. of scraps (head, skeletons, etc.). You put the scraps in a pot with celery, bay leaf, peppercorns, and an onion and essentially make a stock from it. Then you take the fillets, throw 'em in the food processor with another onion, chop it up together pretty fine, add some eggs and matzoh meal, and form egg shaped balls out of this mixture. You put those in the pot with the stock and scraps and about 3 cups of carrots, and let these balls cook for about an hour and a half. Gross, right? But I bet it tastes pretty good all in all, despite the fact that 90 minutes seems like a terribly long time to cook fish. Who am I to argue with tradition, though.

So, around 10 in the morning I went the Whole Foods Theme Park, a.k.a. Whole Foods Bowery (seriously that place is unreal). The fish guy there was incredibly helpful in helping me pick out a couple whitefish, which he then filleted, skinned, and left me with the scraps in addition to the fillets. Boondoggle number one occurred when I left with just the fillets but no scraps. OK, so, cab ride back to the Bowery and then another cab home with scraps in hand (I was in a bit of a time crunch). So those go into the pot, and I turn my attention to making the fish/onion mixture. Oh, what's this! It's hundreds of pin bones still in the fillets. Trying to get them out was frustrating, I don't think I had the right tools and I'm not really very experienced with these things.

Alright, I've already been in three cabs today, what's the hurt in two more? So, back out to Whole Foods (this time the Union Square one).
"Do you have whitefish fillets? Boneless? I really need them without bones."
"Okay, great, I'll take three pounds. Can you take the skin off?"
"Awesome. And you're sure there's no bones?"
"Great. I'll take it."
I don't want to tell you how much I paid for those three pounds of boneless skinless filets, but suffice it to say it was in keeping with the usual Whole Foods range. So imagine my surprise when I got home to find even more pin bones than in the first batch of fillets! And for what it's worth, he also left on a fair amount of the skin. Way to half ass it, Whole Foods Union Square! It wasn't even crowded; I was the only customer at the fish counter at the time.

That's it. End of story. Pretty anticlimactic, I know. I do have a few quarts of delicious fish stock to show for my troubles, and I did think it was kind of fun preparing that fish head for the pot. I'll have to work with whole fish more often. That's a plus, one more thing I'm feeling confident about in the kitchen. Thanks for nothing, Whole Foods. You're gonna have a really angry guy returning a lot of fish fillets tomorrow morning, FYI.

Next year, in Jerusalem! Or at least in NYC, with homemade gefilte fish. You gotta be reasonable, know what I mean?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What's Not To Like: Chorizo with Peppers and Onions, Polenta Gratin

Sausage with Peppers and Onions is one of my favorite combinations of all time. It works on pasta, it works on a crusty roll, it works all by itself, with a nice salad, really anywhere you see a sausage with some peppers and onions, you're in for something delicious. Check it:

I decided to serve this with polenta, at the recomendation of one of How to Cook Everything's lists (I think it was "Dishes to Serve with Polenta" or something to that effect). To keep things interesting, I used the Polenta Gratin variation instead of the standard Polenta recipe. Basically, instead of mixing in the parmesan cheese at the end of cooking, you spread the polenta out on a baking sheet and sprinkle the top with cheese, then throw it in the broiler till it browns and gets a bit of a crispy layer on top. This tasted good, but all in all the crispiness wasn't enough to truly set it apart from regular polenta; next time I think I'd skip this extra step and just plop the polenta down on the plate once it's done.

Bittman's method for cooking the peppers and onions is interesting, and leaves you with really tasty, dark brown caramelized onions, which I've never before been able to achieve with straight up sateeing. What you do is this: slice the onion, lay it out in the pan without any oil or anything, and turn the heat on. Let it cook, covered and undisturbed, for about 10 minutes or so until they're starting to get some color and dry out a bit. Then it's safe to add some oil and start moving them around a bit. They shouldn't stick; if they do, I think they need more time. At this point, add the peppers, and cook until everything's soft to your liking. I let mine go for a long time, because in my book, the browner the better. Here they are maybe halfway there, when they were still very pretty but not nearly tasty enough.

Alright, so then you set aside the veggies and cook the sausages in the same pan. Once they're done, plate it up, and you're good to go. If I weren't so lazy I'd serve this with a salad. Maybe next time.