When it comes to cooking there is one thing I wish people knew more about: acid! When you are doing the final seasoning of a dish don’t just reach for salt and pepper. I’m lucky enough to have a lemon tree in the front yard. Lemon is nicely neutral in its effect on dishes but there is a whole palette of acidic options. Beans and lentils love red wine vinegar which brings a darker, more complex tannic flavor. Sherry, rice or cider vinegar also offer complexity that are super in a lot of soups. If you don’t have a lemon tree try Champagne vinegar which has a similar neutrality. And I haven’t met many things that don’t taste better with some thick, aged balsamic. Acid has a wonderful way of bringing out flavors and adding brightness all while reducing the amount of salt you need. Give it a try!
Red Kuri is an odd squash because the skin will actually soften as it cooks so you don’t even have to peel it. It also has a simply wonderful, rich flavor. This is a modification of a recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent Around My French Table (again!). I wanted to add a few more layers of flavor so I made a sachet with some herbs and spices.
Red Kuri Soup
1 Red Kuri Squash
1 1/2 large leeks white and light green parts only
sachet (bay leaf, few sprigs thyme, few peppercorns, few sprigs parsley, half star anise)
3 c milk
3 c water
Wash the squash then halve it and scrape out the seeds a fibery material. Take the pointy top and blossom nub off then cut into slices. Dump this in a pot with the well cleaned leeks and everything else and bring to a simmer. Add a bit of salt too. Cook until everything is soft (about 30 minutes) and puree (taking the sachet out first of course). After pureeing season to taste with salt, pepper, acid, and Pernod if you have it. Pernod is an anise flavored liquor which compliments the star anise nicely. I used some lemon juice and a little sherry vinegar. Enjoy!
Fennel has shown up at the farmers’ markets here. I have always wanted to love fennel but I have always found it to be incredibly finicky. You can shave it raw for a nice refreshing salad but to get fennel cooked so that it is firm without being too crunchy or too soggy is something that has eluded me. Thought of perfectly cooked fennel, deeply caramelized keeps me coming back to try.
I have read a lot about the merits of sous vide for cooking meat and fish. I haven’t, however, read a lot about sous vide and vegetables. It turns out that cooking sous vide allows for better retention of vitamins (I even found a study) and allows you to force desired flavorings into the food in a remarkable way (edible cocktails anyone?). In the case of fennel you can cook it until it is done but still firm and then quickly sear it in a pan and enjoy some of the best fennel I have ever had.
Carmelized Fennel (Borrowing heavily from Keller’s Under Pressure)
Sachet: Bay leaf, thyme, pepper corns, star anise
Two medium fennel bulbs
Chop off the fennel tops. Remove any damaged leaves from the fennel leaves and/or peel the outside. Slice the fennel into 1/2 inch sized wedges trying to keep a piece of the core for each wedge. Toss the fennel with some pernod, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Vacuum seal with a sachet. In my case I used two bags each with a sachet. Cook at 85.5 C for 40-60 minutes until tender. I was closer to 60. Pull them out of the bags and pat dry and then sear in a skillet with some canola oil.
I added them to a “no kids eating dinner” salad with beans and radishes from the garden, lettuce from the market, bread toasted in butter, tuna, olives, and a little cheese. I tossed all the ingredients separately with a champagne vinegar and honey dressing to taste adjusting salt and pepper accordingly. The fennel had the wonderful deep flavor I’ve always wanted with just the right texture. Wonderful.
Two new cookbooks provided inspiration for the beginning and end of Christmas dinner this year. The first is by Heston Blumenthal whose restaurant The Fat Duck sits in the upper echelon of the culinary world. I am thoroughly enjoying his Heston Blumenthal at Home book. This book is definitely designed for the adventurous home cook and is filled with insight that can help improve even basic techniques as well as some challenges to push yourself in new directions. The pumpkin soup caught my eye and, given the season, I had to try it. Blumenthal is keen on preserving component flavors which means only cooking things until they are done and not cooking soups so long that they become muted. In this case the pumpkin is cooked in two different ways. Half is roasted and the other half is sweated with onion. I was a little lazy in that this is the soup sans garnishes (though couldn’t resist some espelette pepper) but it is delicious even in this simple form. Here is a link to a more complete version.
Blumenthal Inspired Pumpkin Soup
One small pumpkin (1 kg, metric units I know!)
150 grams unsalted butter (he calls for 250, over two sticks, but I couldn’t do it)
3 medium onions sliced thinly
400 g whole milk
600 g water
sprig of rosemary
vinegar to taste
Peel the pumpkin, cut in half then seed. Cut one half into chunks, toss with some oil and roast in a 180C (350F) oven for 40 minutes until soft and a bit browned. Thinly slice the other half of the pumpkin. Warm the milk in a pan until shy of simmering and drop the rosemary in and turn the heat off. When the roasting is nearly done melt the butter over medium heat and sweat the onions and pumpkin until softened, careful not to color. When softened add the milk (discarding the rosemary), water and roasted pumpkin and bring to a simmer and cook for another 10 minutes. Puree the lot in a blender (careful not to burn yourself, do it in batches) and run through a sieve if your blender leaves chunks. Season with salt, pepper, and your favorite vinegar to taste. Don’t be shy but you don’t want to taste salt or vinegar they will simply bring out the flavors of the soup. Pour into bowls and sprinkle a little hot pepper of choice on the top.
It seems a bit finicky but I have never tasted the sweetness of the onions coming through a soup of this type before. Very cool and I’m sure you can use this technique for all kinds of things.
Dessert came from the Milk cookbook. It was their legendary Crack Pie. It is so named because once you try it you will keep coming back for more. Scientific evidence supports this. As with the Confetti Cookie recipe this one is involved. The crust is actually it’s own recipe of oatmeal cookies that are then crumbled and mixed with butter to form the crust. It is really just a modified Chess Pie if you hale from the south but the secret ingredient of Freeze Dried Corn powder adds a very special flavor. Here is a video from Martha Stewart who visited Milk Bar and managed to score the recipe before the cookbook came out.
This is the third thing I served at the Paella Party that I thought warranted a blog entry. Believe it or not there is still one more!
I love strawberry and rhubarb together. When eaten raw, a good strawberry is hard to beat but when you cook them they can get a little cloying. Enter rhubarb, providing the perfect vegetal acidity to bring harmony back to the world. And so every year I return to my favorite combo creating free-form pies that are so simple and so good it feels like you are cheating.
Tip: Make extra pie crusts and store them in the freezer. They will keep when wrapped tightly in the freezer and you are only an hour or so away from a great dessert.
Tip 2: This is from America’s Test kitchen whose attitude I find trying at times. Add vodka to your crust. This way you can add a good bit more liquid than is called for and make a dough that is easier to work with. The extra liquid is mostly alcohol so it simply evaporates in the oven leaving the crust crisp!
Tip 3: Make a galette instead of a pie. It’s faster to make, it’s faster to bake and they just look cool!
Most of the recipe comes from CookWise which is a great book about the science behind cooking if you’ve never heard of it. If you feel that you aren’t very good at making pie crusts here is some unsolicited advice. Take my advice and add some vodka to make the dough workable, move the crust a lot while rolling making sure it is well floured, and make a lot of pie for practice!
Pie Crust (makes three, freeze the extras!)
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 c cold water
up to 1/3 c cold vodka
11 ounces all purpose flour
1/2 lb cold unsalted butter cut into 1/2 in cubes
If I have any purist readers I know I’m about to offend (sorry). Put the flour and butter into the bowl of a standing mixer. Mix a bit by hand with the paddle attachment and then put all of it in the freezer for upward of 30 minutes to chill. It is important to keep the butter cold. Dissolve the salt in the water and stick in the fridge. Chill the vodka too. When its time, mix the flour and butter (start slowly you will get a cloud of flour) until the butter is in small pieces. People say it looks like cornmeal but I don’t usually get quite that small. Add the cold water and if that doesn’t start to come together start adding the vodka a bit at a time until the dough starts to clump. Try to make these decisions quickly since you don’t want to over mix and build up the gluten (this will make your crust chewy). Turn it out and bring it together by hand if necessary. Use your kitchen scale (you have one right?) to weigh into three equal pieces. Wrap in plastic wrap flattening into a disk and put in the fridge. Freeze anything you don’t want to use right away. I typically wrap again in foil to help protect it. Don’t forget to label the foil!
A few years ago now I bought an actual Paella pan. In my own defense there were a lot of pan sizes to choose from, as is often the case. From the diminutive, single portion size to the feed a town size. When viewed in this relative context one can easily choose a pan that is on the big size for your needs. This is exactly what happened to me so when I go to pull the Paella pan out it is time to invite some people over. As many as we can find usually. Here is a closeup of the pan showing the signature dimples.
I once saw a food show of some sort that showed Paella being cooked over orange wood. Of course this meant that I had no choice but to always cook Paella on the grill which leads me to the second part of the story. I’ve been in the market for a new charcoal grill and a recent, generous gift from my parents meant that I could afford the one I’ve been pining for. What better time to get it then for a Paella party. The one small aspect I overlooked was assembly of said grill. One hour before the guests arrived I had dessert done, cracker dough chilling, and chicken seasoning but had done little else. I realized I couldn’t finish the assembly in time so I reluctantly called off the assembly. My friends, upon arrival (and after the first bottle of bubbly and some homemade crackers) graciously volunteered to finish the job and set about the task. In fact they were a little upset we hadn’t called them over earlier to do it. Silly me always trying to do everything myself when there are good friends who would like to help! Anyway, I will post more about the new grill later as I learn how to use it.
As is often the case when I get behind the blog suffers so my photo count is low and I don’t have any photos of making the Paella. Here it is finishing up on the grill. I will have to make it again soon since this calls for more photos. To say I have a recipe is to exaggerate a bit since I was really winging this. Instead let’s call it Paella Guidelines. I will also not pretend that this is authentic but I will say it is yummy.
Paella Party Guidelines
2 C chopped onions or shallots or mix
1 lb peeled shrimp (shells reserved!)
3 C arborio rice
Legs, thighs, and wings from two chickens
Some green beans from the garden
Some piquillo peppers
Handful of chopped tomatoes
3 oz Chorizo chopped into pieces
two generous pinches saffron soaked in some wine
6 c chicken stock (homemade right?)
1 C white wine out of the fridge
Lemon from the lemon tree
salt and pepper to taste
A few hours ahead season the chicken with salt (around 3/4 tsp kosher salt per pound), pepper, and smoked paprika to taste and put in the fridge. Pull chicken from fridge 30-60 minutes before cooking. Cook the shrimp shells in a large pot until they color and pour your stock over them and bring to a simmer. Preheat the oven or grill to 350. Heat the Paella pan (I start on the stove). Brown the chicken well on both sides and set aside. Add some olive oil and then the onions/shallots and chorizo and cook stirring frequently. Add some more smoked paprika and a splash of wine never hurt. When things are looking good pour in the rice and mix some more and allow to toast a bit. Then pour in most of the stock and make sure things are mixed and spread out well and check for seasoning. Place the chicken pieces and peppers around the pan and move to the grill or oven. Keep an eye on things. Probably about 20 minutes in I put the green beans in. Around 30 minutes in I added the shellfish. A lot of times people call for putting the shrimp in at the beginning but I just don’t like overdone shrimp. I added a little bit more stock at this point. When it is about time I tasted the shrimp to check on seasoning and for doneness. Season or add more stock/wine as appropriate. When it is done bring it to the table putting some nice lemon wedges around the outside and topping with some chopped parsley if its handy.
I have to say it was good, especially the chicken. I think the early seasoning and then long amount of time on the grill absorbing some smoke made it really nice. The one thing we didn’t have in abundance was the crust you are supposed to get on the bottom. Not too bad for first try on a new grill though. Here’s a shot (taken by a friend!) of my wife with the kids looking on getting everything settled. I didn’t take wine notes but wines that were enjoyed include Lucien Albrecht Cremant D’Alsace Brut Rose (nice light, fruity sparkler), Harmonie 2010 Muscade Sevre et Maine (if you can find this it is very good for the price), Remelluri Eioja 2007 (a perfect match for Paella!), Bedrock 2009 Sonoma Coast Syrah (a nice cold climate Syrah that I love).