Monday, November 30, 2009

Soup Weather

"How to Improvise a Soup," p. 125, has five steps that tell you everything you need to know. It could be a whole book in itself, but it only takes one minute to read.

Quickest Chicken Stock
Better Chicken Stock
Vegetable Stock
Smoky Black Bean Soup
Pureed Pumpkin Soup
Potato Leek Soup
Miso Soup

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Staple, Thanksgiving Edition: Vegetable Stock

When I said I'd bring four sides to Thanksgiving this year, it seemed like a good time to make the vegetable stock in How to Cook Everything. There's a bunch of vegetarians in the family, so I couldn't use chicken or pork stock where I usually would--cooking beans, finishing soups, moistening stuffing--so, vegetable stock.

Vegetable Stock

It's pretty simple. What you see above is a whole mess of chopped up veggies--carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, parsley, some garlic--with some soy sauce and peppercorns. Throw them in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce to very low simmer, and let cook for at least thirty minutes, more if possible. Bittman doesn't suggest a maximum time but if you've read Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking, you'll be completely terrified to simmer for anywhere more than an hour (though if you're like me, you probably don't remember the reason he gave). Also taking a queue from Ruhlman, I browned some of the veggies before adding the water for a deeper color and flavor.

Vegetable Stock

Then you just strain, squeezing any excess water and flavor out of the veggies. The broth is delicious: savory with a touch of sweetness. It's very complex. The mushrooms even add a touch of meatiness, without imparting their distinctive--and, for people like my cousin Sara, dealbreaking--mushroomy flavor. You don't taste this and think "mushrooms." I can't wait to see how it works in the dishes I'm planning to make (the lentils, which I cooked beforehand in this stock, were good).

Round Two: Bread Stuffing, Tweaked

Okay, that didn't go so well. It's okay. That's why I made a stuffing ahead of time. Determined to make a phenomenal Thanksgiving stuffing, I dusted myself off and got back on the horse on Saturday, making a second stuffing. This one was for the purpose of getting the texture right--moist, but not mushy (the first one was like a plate of breadcrumbs, with turkey sausage).


Above is the stuffing before it went into the oven. I sauteed onions in equal parts oil and butter until soft, then added some herbs, the bread cubes (from Bread Alone, a hearty mix of whites and whole wheats) and a fair amount of stock and water until I had what I thought was the right consistency.

So this stuffing was markedly better. It was moist, though still not nearly as wet as I like it, and cooking it in my amazing new Staub dutch oven gave it an incredible crust on the bottom. But I still wasn't sure about this stuffing. Even with more moisture, it didn't taste like what I was used to, and to me, that's the most important thing with Thanksgiving stuffing. Below, the stuffing after it came out of the oven (the cast iron gave it an incredible crust).


What exactly am I used to? Pepperidge Farm's bag of stuffing, that's what. Resting somewhere on the legitimacy scale between Stove Top and from-scratch stuffing, it's real bread and a seasoning pack. And after reading this post on Serious Eats rounding up store bought stuffings, I feel reassured that I should stick with what I already know I like. I'm confident that the stuffing will still to be totally next level, because I'm taking the advice of the Serious Eats team and doctoring it up with the things I planned to put in my homemade stuffing (chief among them Dipaola Turkey Sausage from the Greenmarket, aka the best turkey sausage EVER). I'll let you know how it goes after the big day.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Can't Miss: Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

So, this is a combination that's very popular, but it's not a case of undue hype. Brussels sprouts really just go great with bacon. I'm not even saying that as part of the standing "everything tastes better with bacon" rule; brussels sprouts are a food that pair with the smoky stuff particularly well. Why ask why?

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

So, you're gonna chop up some bacon. Cook it until it's crisp and the fat is rendered. Meanwhile, as the bacon cooks, trim the bottoms off of your brussels sprouts, and either slice them or quarter them. This was new to me--I'd only ever left them whole or, at most, halved them to roast. Slicing breaks them down a bit, so you have more errant leaves floating around, which I liked. I'm sure it'd work fine if you halved them instead of slicing, but I liked doing it this way.

Okay, so now your bacon is crispy. Throw the sprouts in the pan with a splash of water, about a quarter of a cup, some salt and pepper, and toss them together and cover for about five minutes. Then uncover, let any remaining liquid cook off, and you're done. This dish is a wonder of comfort cooking and simplicity: not counting salt and pepper, you're looking at a whopping two ingredients. Shout out to Daniel Meyer, who tipped me to Flying Pigs Farms' shoulder bacon, which is what I used in this recipe. It's a little more meaty than regular belly bacon, and it worked incredibly well here.

It occurs to me here that I completely forgot to add the balsamic vinegar or lemon juice that the recipe calls for. Whoops! It was still delicious. I'll just have to make it again.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Do Not Panic, This is Only a Test: Bittman's Favorite Bread Stuffing

I've never made stuffing from scratch before, so when I said I'd do it for Thanksgiving dinner this year, I decided to get some practice in.

"This classic dressing is based on a wonderful recipe by James Beard," Bittman writes in the introduction to what is billed in the book simply as My Favorite Bread Stuffing. Fair enough. I'm not one to start second guessing Bittman, let alone James Beard himself. I went with the sausage variation, using turkey sausage.

Bittman's stuffing recipe is strange, though. First of all, the recipe calls for breadcrumbs instead of cubed bread. That was unexpected, but again, who am I to second guess James Beard? Nobody, that's who. I'd never had breadcrumb-based stuffing. Maybe it would be really good. This is just practice stuffing. Stick with the recipe.

So, you cook the sausage in its own fat (I added a bit of oil, as turkey sausage has a lot less fat to render than pork sausage) then add onion, minced garlic and ginger, and a teaspoon of cumin if you like (I skipped the cumin). Then you stir in the breadcrumbs and some chopped scallions. Then you bake it, either in the bird or in a baking dish. I opted for a baking dish, because that's how my family rolls, and I don't know if I'll be at Thanksgiving in time to get my stuffing in the actual bird. Now, every other stuffing recipe I've ever seen has you add stock or water to the breadcrumbs/cubes at this point. This one makes no mention of that.

I had a bad feeling about this one from the get-go. It was disappointing, but to be fair, it was stuffing with sausage in it--we had no trouble finishing it. Also, it turns out that shrimp and stuffing go well together, so there's that. I didn't get any pictures of the stuffing, but here's one of the shrimp we ate it with.
Simplest and Best Shrimp

What's your favorite stuffing recipe? Let me know in the comments, I think I have time for one more dry run before Thanksgiving hits.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mark Bittman Does Not Want To Stress You Out.

Today in the Times, Bittman brings us another incredible list of 101 short recipes. This time, the focus is on Thanksgiving sides, salads, deserts, and everything in between, with an eye towards not having you scramble around the kitchen like a crazy person on the big day. It's huge, and you should take a look at it right now.

UPDATE: I'm poking around the Times' Thanksgiving page (great resource, btw) and I've come across this oldie-but-goodie from Bittman circa 1997. In which our hero attempts the entire feast in true Minimalist fashion, over just three hours the day of. I bet 1997 Bittman wishes he had 2009 Bittman's list of 101 head starts. And while we're on the subject, check out Serious Eats' Thanksgiving page, which has recipes, pointers, techniques, and even whole menus.

101 Head Starts on the Day [nytimes]
Give Thanks: In Three Hours, From Scratch [nytimes]
Serious Eats: Thanksgiving [serious eats]

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sunday Dinner, Monday Lunch: Seared and Braised Pork with Red Wine

I'm taking lunch with me to work a lot more. It's a no-brainer, since it helps save money and keeps me from tossing leftovers when I forget to eat them and they go bad. So the list "15 Meat Dishes That Are as Good or Better the Next Day," p. 760, caught my attention and led me to the braised pork with red wine dish--that, and the fact that I never really cook pork, but love to eat it.

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This is a lot like making brisket, and as such the end result has a briskety vibe to it. You brown the meat first if you like, (it's boneless pork shoulder), remove it from the pan, pour off most of the fat, add some carrots and garlic and then a lot of fruity red wine and some stock. Return the meat to the pot, let it bubble gently for a couple hours (with the lid on, something Bittman doesn't really mention in the recipe), and you're pretty much done. It's a little time consuming but it's not hard by any stretch. I served it over macaroni, because I had no egg noodles. With Quick Cooked Bok Choy, which I've made a few times before and is now a go-to. Bok Choy is the best.

And Bittman's right about it tasting better the next day. This was very good when I made it for dinner on Sunday, even better when I brought it for lunch on Monday, and downright incredible when I brough the last of it to work for lunch on Wednesday.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bittman in The Feed

Time Out New York's food blog The Feed has a short interview with Bittman today. The headline tries to make him look like a cranky old man, but the actual interview is full of the helpful kind of wisdom we've come to expect: "When I’m in the kitchen I’m not obsessively trying to create the perfect dish; I’m trying to put dinner on the table. Comparing yourself to the people who cook on television is like comparing yourself to Andre Agassi. If you can drive you can cook." As someone that doesn't know how to drive, I'm not sure how to take that last analogy, but as usual I like where Bittman's coming from. More wisdom at the link below.

What Pisses Mark Bittman Off? [the feed/time out ny]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Paupered Chef Will Teach You To Make Stock, If You Will Let Them

I've made chicken stock before, and I do it more and more now. It's not that hard, if you have the time, and it's worth it. I still keep some store bought stock in my pantry just in case I need it. I'm only human.

When I first made stock way back in the beginning of the HTCE project I didn't provide a ton of step by step directions. So I thought I'd pass along this post from The Paupered Chef's Nick Kindelsperger. It's a well written and beautifully photographed account of Kindelsperger's quest to make the best Jewish penicillin he can muster for his ailing wife. It is, dare I say it, better than Bittman's recipe in How to Cook Everything (there are ways in which the blog is a better forum for the recipe than the printed page, yes?).

Since I first made stock, I've been after the perfect recipe. Bittman's comes out light and simple, and it's not bad by a long shot. But I like a really strong, dark brown thing that I just didn't get from HTCE. I've been looking for tips all over, but what I think has made the most difference came from Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking, an essential text for the home cook looking to gleam some helpful knowledge from the pros. What you do is brown the chicken in the stockpot you're going to use before you add the water. The caramelized bits of meat give the stock a deeper darker color and flavor. You can also use this method to brown any vegetables you are using, to the same effect. Just don't tell Mr. Ruhlman that you keep canned stock just in case. He will NOT let it slide.

Well, Ruhlman's a bit of a snob (it's why we love--him someone's got to uphold these standards, right?) and I wouldn't go that far. But with that said, I can't recommend enough taking a crack at homemade stock. It's not difficult, it just takes time. Use Kindelsperger's recipe, or Arthur Schwartz's. or Bittman's or Ruhlman's or Pepin's or your grandma's or whoever you like. It's cathartic, and your house will smell incredible. And then when you inevitably get your first cold of the fall, there's Jewish penicillin right there in the freezer, waiting for you. And it's way better than canned.

Building a Better Chicken Soup [the paupered chef]
THE Best Time to Make Stock [michael ruhlman's blog]

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's Getting Dark Early: Smoky Black Bean Soup

As I've noted before, it's Fall! I love this season: the weather, and the food (what else is there?). Pumpkins are at the market, soup is back on the menu, and I'm not constantly perspiring. Sure, it'll be cold soon, but have you tasted the apples?! Anyway, I was going to use the black beans from before in another bean salad, but the potato-leek soup turned out so delicious that I decided to make Bittman's Smoky Black Bean Soup instead. Winter's coming, I'd better assemble an arsenal of soups to be used as sustenance, comfort, and homeopathic remedy, right?

Smoky Black Bean Soup

In the recipe, you sauté some onions (I substituted half of the onions for red bell pepper), then add beans, stock, and chipotle pepper (either dried or canned). Basically you just simmer that, then puree some of it if you like (I do). I added the step of browning some bacon and adding it after pureeing. Couldn't hurt, right? Finish it by squeezing in a bit of lime juice just before serving. Bittman suggests some sour cream as well, but I didn't have any, so I used some ricotta salata I had in the fridge--not a bad combination at all, though I must admit that sour cream or even a bit of yogurt would be better.