Potato nests

If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would be pasta al pomodoro. But if that wasn’t on the menu, then I’d probably choose something that incorporates potatoes.

I love potatoes. I love baked sweet potatoes with a big slab of butter and Maldon salt and crispy cubes of roasted Yukons tossed with hard herbs. I love baby boiled potatoes cooked in an obscene amount of salt water so that each piece tastes perfectly seasoned through to the core. I love José Pizarro’s salt-crusted fingerlings with cilantro mojo, an excellent appetizer that takes boiled baby potatoes to the next level. And I love potato chips. My God, do I love potato chips.

One of my client’s also really likes potatoes. I make these potato nests for him quite often, and they belong in the Potato Hall of Fame. I especially like to snack on the crispy odd bits as they come out of the oil. I usually end up eating three or four nests worth of scraps. Eek! Oddly enough, they also hold up quite nicely in the fridge. I think it’s kinda like how cold pizza is a delightful indulgence in its own right — an entirely different dish from its predecessor, but no less delicious.

These potato nests are like shredded bundles of fried potato shoestrings. Do I have your attention? You’ll note a decidedly short ingredient list. The recipe is a blank canvas onto which you can free to improvise additions like adding a handful of chopped herbs (chives, dill and parsley are nice) or shredded carrots or beets. But I caution against getting too fussy with it. I tend to err on the side of keeping it simple, and here simplicity will not disappoint.

I like to serve these with a spoonful of crème fraiche that’s been mixed a grated garlic clove and a squeeze of lemon. If you’re feeling real fancy, you could add a dollop of caviar and no one would complain.

Potato nests

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

  • 600 g shredded Idaho potatoes (roughly 3 large potatoes)
  • 90 g brown rice flour
  • 2 t kosher salt
  • Couple grinds black pepper
  • Couple scraps of fresh nutmeg on microplane
  • Roughly 1 C grapeseed or sunflower oil

Mix together the shredded potatoes, brown rice flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Work quickly as the potatoes will begin to oxidize after they’ve been shredded.

In a medium sized, high-sided skillet, add enough oil to come up about ½” and heat the oil over medium flame. The oil is ready when you a small scoop of shredded potato sizzles when it hits the oil. If not, let it heat a bit more.

Scoop small spoonfuls of shredded potato into the oil. I use a small ice cream scooper to portion the potatoes into the oil, but you could easily use a spoon. Once the potato hits the oil, spread the top a bit so you get a more flat disc as opposed to mini-mountain. This ensure even cooking.

Once the potatoes are browned, roughly 2 minutes, flip them over, taking care not to burn yourself with hot oil. If they’re coloring too quickly, adjust the heat.

Transfer to a sheet tray with a rack to drain excess oil. Try not to eat them all as you fry.

Top and serve or store for later snacking. Refrigerating will make them softer but not inedible. Think cold pizza

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A soup for later

This recipe isn’t exactly spring-friendly, but I just can’t help myself because it is so. damn. good. Bookmark it for next winter when the days get short and hope is spare. Or swap out the squash for zucchini, make it today and let it rest overnight in the fridge to serve the following afternoon at room temperature with heaps of crusty bread for sopping (or as stand-ins for spoons).

The soup is from Lucca, a charming Renaissance town in northwest Tuscany nuzzled close to the Tyrrhenian Sea. I once took a day trip to Lucca with a photographer friend, and as we roamed the city we stumbled on an ad hoc antiques sale in the middle of the street. The vendor had a vast collection of beautiful, ornate dressers and mirrors leaned against buildings waiting patiently to be purchased. It looked like a photo shoot for Architectural Digest.

My friend Maddie introduced me to this recipe earlier this month. We collaborated on an olive-oil themed dinner and included this soup on our menu. Frantoio means olive press or olive mill, so frantoiano refers to the person who makes olive oil. It is said that this is a soup for the olive oil artisan, a blank canvas of cooked amalgamated vegetables that’s just begging for large, swift brush strokes of freshly pressed olive oil.

The vegetables should be cooked to scomparire, meaning to disappear or to vanish, which happens after ample time simmering on the stove. It’s also important to let the soup rest, overnight if possible. That gives it time to breath after having worked feverishly for hours. Which is kind of how I feel after a long day of cooking. I’m so much more pleasant after a brief repose. Aren’t we all?

Zuppa alla Frantoiana

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Adapted from this recipe from Saveur

For the beans:

  • 1 cup dried cranberry or cannellini beans
  • 1 onion, halved
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 spring rosemary
  • Filtered water to cover

For the soup:

  • 3T olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 2 springs sage, rough chop
  • 1T tomato paste
  • 1 bunch kale, rough chop
  • ½ head green cabbage, rough chop (Napa cabbage would work, but don’t use red cabbage as it will bleed out an unfortunate shade of blue)
  • 1 fennel, medium dice
  • 1 carrot, medium dice
  • 2 celery stalks, medium dice
  • ½ onion, medium dice
  • 1 leek, sliced in ¼” half moons
  • ½ butternut squash, medium dice
  • 1 bouquet garni of 2 springs thyme, 1 bay leaf and 1 sprig rosemary
  • Filtered water

To serve:

  • 1 bunch mint, rough chop
  • ½ bunch parsley, rough chop
  • 1 bunch dill, rough chop
  • Slices of crusty bread to serve

Cook the beans: Soak the dry beans overnight in plenty of cold water. Alternatively, quick-soak the beans by covering them with cold water, bringing them to a boil, covering and soaking for 1 hour. Drain the beans.

Place the soaked beans in a large pot with 1 onion, 1 carrot, 2 bay leaves and a spring of rosemary, if you have it. Cover the beans with at least 2 inches of cold, filtered water and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook until the beans are very tender. Depending on the age of the beans, this can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, but not swimming, in water. Once they beans are tender, turn off the heat. Remove the onion, carrot and bay leaves. (This step can be done up to a couple days ahead of time)

Mash the beans casually with a potato masher, or transfer ½ of the cooked beans to a food processor and pulse them to break them down to a chunky paste before adding them back to the pot.

Make the soup: In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and smashed garlic clove. Once it’s taken on a bit of color, about a minute, remove the garlic clove and add the chopped sage and tomato paste. Fry for a couple minutes until the tomato turns a light rust color, then add this mixture to the beans.

Add the kale to the pot of beans and bring to a boil. Add the cabbage and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the diced carrot and fennel. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the celery and cook a few more minutes. Add the onions, leeks and squash. Cook the soup until the vegetables have begun to disassemble themselves, about an 1 hour, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Once cooked, cool the soup and refrigerate to serve the next day, or cool to room temperature before serving.

To serve, ladle a large scoop of soup into a bowl and top with a generous slick of fresh, peppery olive oil and a large sprinkle of fresh herbs. Serve with crusty bread on the side.

This soup is even better the next day. I like it just slightly warmer than room temp.

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Zuppa alla frantoiano from last week’s dinner series

 

A Italian affair to remember

This September I’ll be leading a group of ten people on a food tour through Rome and Tuscany. I’ve had the tremendous good fortune to live in both regions for long stretches of time, and I designed this tour to highlight my favorite aspects of Roman and Tuscan food culture. This is my Love Letter to these remarkable places, which are often over-looking and misunderstood by fly-by-night tourism companies ushering unwitting tourists from one monument to the next without providing any context to the experience. I can’t wait to share the incredibly nuanced and complex food and wine traditions of these regions with you.

More details and the trip registration information can be found here. Some trip highlights include:

-A market-to-table cooking class at Latteria Studio in Trastevere, a lovely neighborhood just off the Tiber River across from Rome’s bustling centro storico. Carla Tomasi is a cook’s cook who’s worn many different hats in the food world: restaurateur, chef, baker and gardener. Carla will walk us through the neighborhood market to pick out the season’s freshest produce before leading us back to the studio for a hands-on cooking class. We’ll sit down for lunch afterward and admire Rome’s incredible afternoon light searing through the west-facing windows

-Tour of Testaccio market in Rome with Katie Parla. Testaccio is my favorite neighborhood in Rome. It is named after Monte Testaccio, an artificial mountain composed of a colossal pile of discarded clay amphorae dating back to the Roman Empire. Testaccio is also home to Rome’s ex-slaughterhouse turned multi-disciplinary art space and crafts market. You can still walk through the slaughterhouse and see the stalls and hooks from which the animals were hung. The food culture in this neighborhood is deeply steeped in the tradition of quinto quarto, the fifth quarter, referring to the entrails and undesirable parts of the animal that were part of the slaughterhouse workers’ salary. This neighborhood feel lived in. The piazze are teeming with kids playing soccer, the restaurants are filled with Romans gesticulating wildly over a morning espresso and Testaccio market is always bright and bustling.

-A four-night stay at Fattoria Poggio Alloro in Tuscany just outside of San Gimignano. Named after the abundance of bay leaf bushes lining the property, this charming agriturismo is run by the Fioroni family, whose patriarchs moved to Tuscany from Le Marche after World War II to escape the oppressive mezzadria farming system, a form of sharecropping that forced farmers to work in dismal conditions without just compensation. The Fioroni family has been organically farming the land ever since. They produce excellent wine, olive oil, saffron, cured meats and honey. You will have ample down time to lounge by the pool or hike the dense forests surrounding the property perfumed with bay leaf and wild rosemary.

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A view of San Gimignano from the table at Fattoria Poggio Alloro
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Pool at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

-A mid-morning truffle hunt through the forests just outside Forcoli with Savini Tartufi and their pack of truffle-sniffing dogs. Truffles have long been a prized ingredient in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking; Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the famed French writer and gourmand, declared them “the diamond of the kitchen.” In Italy they are given particular prominence in the cuisines of the northern regions where dishes tend to take on a decidedly more luxurious tone. After the hunt we’ll sit down together for a truffle-themed lunch with Savini to taste these treasures of the earth.

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Giotto, the Savini Tartufi mascot
tagliolino
Tagliolini with white truffle

I hope you’ll consider joining me on this epic adventure. If you know someone who would be interested in learning more about this trip, please pass this on to them. Italy is a country that’s easily misunderstood. In truth it is a land filled with endless paradoxes begging to be explored with more nuance and curiosity. I promise to show it to you with fresh, honest eyes. Once again the registration link can be found here.

Please e-mail me at brianna@twkchicago.com if you have questions or would like more information.

A tavola!

 

Tuscany
Tuscan grape vines
Tuscany sunset
Sun setting on Tuscany
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Rome from afar

A golden elixir

I made these vegetables last week and almost couldn’t believe how delicious they were. Slices of celery, fennel, spring onions, and carrots get boiled in a heady, saffron-spiked broth fortified with olive oil, various vinegars, aromatics and herbs. I would be happy to eat them straight from the jar, but they’d be a welcome addition to any sandwich or a warm bowl of stewed beans.

I made them as a part of a flurry of recipe testing of dishes that showcase olive oil. Two friends and I will be hosting an olive oil-themed dinner this Sunday, and so I’ve been exploring different ways to enjoy it. Some olive oil recipes I cannot live without include: Olive oil cake with an afternoon espresso; olive oil gelato for dessert; the purest extra virgin olive oil I can afford with naturally leavened bread for a snack (or dinner, if I’m feeling particularly lazy); olive oil braised vegetables for anytime really.

I’m also reading Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity, a comprehensive deep-dive into the history of olive oil and the big business of olive oil fraud. It is opening my eyes to the rich and textured history of olive oil in the Mediterranean as well as giving voice to some of its more ethereal, alchemical qualities that inspired Homer, Pliny the Elder and Plato. Standing in a field of olive groves and lilies in Assisi, Mueller writes, “I first realized that olive oil did something special to people. Just as oil, a powerful solvent, brings out essential, sometimes unexpected flavors in food, it also reveals the essence of certain people: the hidden contradictions, their secret passions and dreams. It gets under their skin, seeps into their minds, and colors their thoughts.”

This passage prompted me to trace my own history with olive oil. I don’t remember the moment I first realized that olive oil was an ingredient unto itself and not just a canvas on which to paint other more mind-binding and palate-pleasing things. I do remember visiting an olive grower outside San Antonio and watching the bright green liquid pour forth from the mechanical press. I had no idea fresh olive oil took on the color of an emerald.

Back in recipe-testing world, I was inspired by Tamar Adler’s excellent guidance from the aforementioned recipe, which prompted me to flip through her book of essays on cooking to look for more olive oil ideas. That is where I found this recipe for olive oil tart dough. Don’t be fooled by the short list of ingredients; it is a stunner.

I have a tough time with pastry dough of any kind. Usually I end up under-mixing it because I was taught over-mixing pie dough is a sin. Well, under-mixing is also a problem, so try to mix it just right. Happily, this dough is forgiving and you needn’t fret quite so much about over-mixing as with pie dough. I mixed this with a wooden spoon and let it rest a moment before rolling it out into an 8-inch tart pan and blind-baking it. I filled it with a ricotta custard and garlicky kale, but you can fill it with whatever speaks to you. I’ve shared the recipe with the gram measurements because that’s how I prefer to bake.

Olive Oil Tart Crust

  • Servings: two 8-inch tarts
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

  • 200 g spelt or whole-wheat flour
  • 150 g all purpose flour
  • 65 g good olive oil
  • 3 g kosher salt
  • ½ C ice water

Place all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Pour the water evenly over the dry ingredients and mix it with a wooden spoon. If the dough isn’t coming together, you can add a touch more water. Once the mixture begins to come together, turn the dough onto the counter and knead it until it comes together in one smooth mass, 3 to 5 minutes.

Divide the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic and refrigerate. Rest the dough for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a circle roughly 10 inches in diameter. Lay the dough over the tart pan and gently press it into the pan. Using a paring knife, trim the edges so they are flush with the edge of the tart pan.

Lightly oil a piece of tinfoil and place it over the surface of the tart. Cover with dried beans or pie weights. Make sure the crusts are covered with tinfoil so they don’t burn.

Bake the tart dough until it’s lightly browned on the edges and no longer raw in the center, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and turn the oven down to 350 degrees.

Let the tart cool, then fill it with whatever custard components you have on hand. If filling with hearty vegetables like cauliflower or squash, be sure the vegetables are par-cooked.

Finish baking the tart, roughly 10 to 15 minutes more, taking care not to burn the edges. If the edges start to burn you can cover them with tinfoil.

Let the tart cool completely before slicing.

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The underdogs

I always root for the underdog, which is why it is not fun to watch sporting events with me. I feel so sorry for the losing team, imagining their hurt and disappointment as they drag their tired feet to the locker room. It bums me out for the rest of the afternoon.

I root for the underdog because I love a good story. In the world of vegetables, it is tempting to gravitate toward the overtly enticing ones: the entire thistle family (artichokes, cardoons, and the like) inspires gushing prose with their multi-layered, thorny defensive structures hiding a celestial core that can only be accessed with dogged determination and a sharp paring knife. I chose the logo for my business because of the rich metaphor embedded in the artichoke. The first tender stalks of asparagus are almost too beautiful to eat, much less write about, and spring garlic holds hope for all that is to come in its tiny, sulphurous bulb.

I love all those vegetables, but they are literary low-hanging fruit. I’m intrigued by the oft over-looked vegetables that are snubbed in the recipe sections of vegetable cookbooks and relegated to the back of the produce section. The tubers and the roots, often gnarled and caked with moist dirt collecting moisture in the bottom of your crisper drawer.

Take cabbage and potatoes. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about these two. Each is meaty enough to stand on its own, but they fortify the other, leaving me with a stick-to-your-ribs feeling when I eat them together. They are an unremarkable pair, and it is that unexceptional-ness that strikes deep affection in me. Quintessentially Irish, which feels well-timed given that St. Patrick’s Day has just passed.

One of the first things I remember learning to cook was a baked potato. My mother had this strange wire contraption for cooking baked potatoes. It had six spokes in two rows of three that stood perpendicular to the spine of the thing. The cook was meant to impale six raw potatoes, one per stake, and bake them for an hour. The impaling, I suppose, was a version of poking holes in the flesh to prevent it from exploding in the oven. Internet forums seem to suggest that heat causes the moisture in the potato to convert to steam, and without proper poking, the pent-up steam will cause the potato to burst. I’ve never had a potato burst in the oven, but it probably doesn’t hurt to poke and save yourself any potential trouble.

The best potatoes I’ve ever tasted were from Giovanni Bernabei’s farm outside Rome. They were small things with lumps and bumps about them, so clearly not the product of genetic modification. They took forever to clean. The dirt lived deep in the groves and cranies of their flesh. The flesh itself was a dark beige color and tasted like sweet, warm earth. They made the most celestial gnocchi.

The best cabbage is firm-fleshed and sweet. It is just as good raw as cooked, especially if you shave it thinly with a sharp knife or a mandolin and mix it with a bit of salt and white wine vinegar. I’ve written about my love of cooked cabbage before. To me it is the perfect vegetable to apply heat to. It does well grilled, sautéed, steamed, and of course, roasted. I consider it the Universal Donor of the brassica family.

This past weekend the center grocery store display was piled with carrots, green cabbage and red potatoes. I grabbed a sack of fingerlings and a head of cabbage and ran home to make this.

Verza Sofegao/Smothered Cabbage

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Courtesy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

  • 1T olive oil
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 pinch chili flake
  • 1 head green cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 2 t kosher salt
  • 1 T champagne or white wine vinegar

Sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until slightly colored, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook to soft, 1-2 minutes. Add the chili flake, then the cabbage and salt. Toss the cabbage and sauté for a few minutes until it cooks down slightly. Cover tightly with a lid and leave to cook over medium-low heat until it softened completely and takes on a pale golden color, about 1½ hours.

Taste and adjust for salt. Add a bit more vinegar if it you like it on the punchy side.

 

A point of contention

Ragù is one of those staples of Italian cooking that can easily incite spirited debate. Ragù in Naples bears little resemblance to ragù in Bologna. It’s a sauce that varies greatly region to region, although all Italians seem to agree that pasta should always be involved in the equation.

A couple points of contention: White vs. red, which is generally demarcated by north vs. south, the former insists on little to no tomato product and the addition of dairy while the latter cooks the sauce almost exclusively in tomato. Then there’s the question of meat: What types of meat to use, in what ratio, and whether to grind the meat or cook the meat in large pieces then remove once the sauce is ready and serve it as a separate course to follow the pasta.

The Neopolitans sauté onion, carrot, celery, garlic and either minced pork or beef with red wine, tomato, nutmeg and marjoram and cook it in a terra cotta pot. Ragù alla siciliana is an entirely different affair where large hunks of meat are browned with onions, then slowly cooked in tomato for hours until they relent. In the mountains of Abruzzo, they use only lamb and fortify the sauce with woody herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage.

Arguably the Grande Dame of ragùs, and perhaps the most well-known in the U.S., hails from Bologna. There the sauce is a decidedly richer affair due to the presence of cured meat (usually prosciutto because in Emilia-Romagna prosciutto is omnipresent and superb), meat stock, whole milk and heavy cream, which is added at the very end to prevent splitting. The Bolognese are so fanatical about their ragù that the local chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina sanctioned an official recipe in 1982 that calls for pancetta, ground skirt steak and two cups of heavy cream to finish[1]!

Alla bolognese served as my entrée into the world of ragùs. It came to me via my first cooking job in Chicago working for Tony Quataro at Formento’s. It’s not a project that lends itself to 30-minute weeknight meals, but if you put in the time, ragù alla Bolognese will reward you generously with a sauce that’s robust and layered with flavor. It’s a good project to undertake on a Sunday when you have time to kill hanging around the kitchen stirring and periodically adding more liquid. Tony had me add the milk in increments so it can reduce down and concentrate. This is time-consuming and requires periodic stove attention; hence, the half-day project.

This recipe comes from Pasta by Chris Boswell, the former head chef at the Rome Sustainable Food Project. Chris doesn’t include heavy cream at the end, but I like to mount a couple tablespoons of heavy cream into the sauce once it’s finished in the spirit of le Bolognese. The heavy cream is not required and can in fact make reheating tricky, so leave it out if you plan on freezing the sauce to reheat at a later date. However, you must serve the sauce with a side of Parmigiano reggiano. The recipe calls for specific amounts of various ground meats. If you have a grinder attachment to a Kitchen Aide, you could use that. Otherwise you could pulse it in the food processor. Just make sure the meat is cold so the fat doesn’t start to melt.

In Bologna they serve this sauce with hand-cut tagliatelle, which is simple enough to make as the sauce cooks down. I’m never sorry when I go to the trouble of making homemade pasta, and you can easily freeze the leftovers for a quick weeknight meal.

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Ragù alla Bolognese

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Recipe adapted from Pasta by Christopher Boswell

  • 3T butter
  • 1T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, small dice
  • 1 carrot, small dice
  • 3 celery stalks, small dice
  • 1 oz Prosciutto di Parma, small dice
  • 9 oz beef chuck, ground
  • 9 oz pork shoulder, ground
  • 3 oz pork belly, ground
  • 2 oz tomato puree
  • 1 C white wine
  • 3 C beef or chicken broth
  • 2 C whole milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ C heavy cream
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Couple scrapes of nutmeg on the microplane
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for finishing

Saute the vegetables in the butter in a large rondeau. Add the beef and a pinch of salt, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon and cooking until its weeped out its moisture and begun to brown, 5-10 minutes. Set aside in a bowl. Add the olive oil and heat before adding the pork. Sweat the pork shoulder and belly until its weeped most of its liquid and begins to brown.

Add the beef mixture back into the pot. Add the wine and cook for a minute or two before adding the tomato. Cook for a couple more minutes.

Add the stock and bay leaves. Partially cover and cook for 2 hours.

After an hour, start adding the milk in increments, making sure the meat mixture remains partially submerged for the duration of cooking. Stir periodically to prevent scorching.

The sauce is ready once all the milk is added, the liquid has reduced and the sauce has thickened. Add the heavy cream once the sauce is consistency you’re looking for and cook it all together for another 5 to 10 minutes.

If the sauce still looks loose, continue cooking. Finish the sauce with a couple grates of fresh nutmeg and freshly cracked black pepper. Serve with tagliatelle and loads of grated parm.

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[1]“Classic Ragu alla Bolognese”. Saveur. 27 Feb. 2008. Accessed on 7 March 2019. <https://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Classic-Ragu-alla-Bolognese&gt;

 

A odd couple

This dish puzzled me when I first came across the recipe. Pork and milk seemed like an odd couple, two mismatched socks lingering at the bottom of the hamper. In fact, it is a celestial pairing, and the result is unlikely anything I’ve ever tasted: the braising liquid turns rich, full-bodied and unctuous after hours of slow cooking. Pillowy soft curds caramelize as the heat works its slow, wondrous magic, the pork finally relenting its tough exterior to reveal layers of tenderness. The caramelized curds settle around the roast like fan girls to a pop star as the pork-infused milk continues reducing unfazed.

My two partners and I served this the other night over a bed of sautéed bitter greens as part of an Emilia Romagna-themed dinner and it did not disappoint. A guest told one of my partners that it was the best pork he’d ever tasted. I don’t know if maiale al latte can stand up against all other pork dishes, but I do know it will be a welcome addition to any table in the northern hemisphere this week as the chill of winter hangs on with a death grip.

Maiale al Latte

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

  • 2 pounds of boneless pork shoulder
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 2 T vegetable oil
  • 40 g butter
  • 40 g prosciutto, minced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ lemon, zested
  • 1 whole clove, smashed

Season the pork generously with salt and pepper (do this the night before if have the foresight and you won’t be sorry). Using butcher’s twine, tie up the roast so it resembles a vaguely uniform shape.

In a small saucepot, heat the milk, bay leaves, lemon and cloves to a boil and turn off the heat. Set aside on the stove and keep warm.

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed, 2-quart saucepan. Sear the pork on all sides, moderating the temperature so as not to burn the fond forming on the bottom of the pan. Remove the pork and set aside. Pour off the extra fat into a small container and discard once cooled.

Add the butter to the pan and sauté the onion and prosciutto until softened, about 10 minutes. Scrap the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to lift up the fond and incorporate it into the onions.

Add the garlic clove, pork and hot milk. Cover partially and cook over medium-low heat until tender, at least 2 hours. As the pork cooks, continue checking that the milk isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan and scorching. It’s also a good idea to flip the roast every now and again to ensure even cooking and no scorching. If the milk reduces too quickly, heat up a little more milk on the side and add it in. The pork should stay partially submerged throughout the duration of cooking.

To test the meat’s doneness, poke it with the tip of a knife. The meat should split apart easily and there should be a pool of caramelized milk curds floating around the roast in tandem with the soffritto on onion and prosciutto.

Once the pork is cooked, pour off the liquid (keeping the roast and curd in the cooking saucepan) into a smaller saucepan and reduce by ½ until slightly thickened. Clip the twine off the roast and serve in a small pool of gravy with a pile of caramelized milk curd on top. Serve alongside a lemony pile of salad greens, spicy sautéed kale or braised white beans. This dish will provide sensational leftovers the next day, although the sauce does nicely when reheated a bit.

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Pink Kraut

In March of 2013, I moved into a three-story, Tudor-style house on Dayton Avenue in Tarrytown, New York. I had five roommates, and we’d all come from various cooking schools and culinary jobs to intern at the restaurant down the road. The house on Dayton Ave was our home away from Home, a shared way station where we scarfed down Ben and Jerry’s at 2:00 A.M. before dragging our weary, calloused feet to sleep on lumpy mattresses, too tired to swap out our street clothes for proper pajamas. On our days off, we’d make pancakes and biscuits for breakfast and lay blankets out in the front yard, reading M.F.K. Fischer to each other and napping in the late afternoon sun.

Working for Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was a time of tremendous personal development for me, both intellectually thrilling and emotionally draining. I cried in the bathroom a lot. On really bad nights, I snuck up to the pastry kitchen after service and hid in the walk-in refrigerator eating handfuls of the really good dark chocolate. The first couple weeks I regularly cursed myself for always insisting on doing it the hard way. I wouldn’t have survived without the early morning runs and the dark chocolate pit stops.

Eventually, I settled in to the work as the damp chill of early spring gave way to lighter, longer days of summer. Each day the restaurant exposed me to new flavors and I gradually caught on to smarter, faster ways of completing my prep tasks as I watched the other cooks work with lightening speed and agility. The kitchen expanded my palate and stretched my understanding of good cooking. I ate tomatoes of every shape, size, color and acidity, pickled wild ramps, maple mead, algae aiöli, whipped lard with maple syrup and salt, and that famous Red Fife brioche toasted in an unholy amount of butter.

I’d had difficult jobs in the past, but nothing came close to the physicality of working in that kitchen. Some nights I thought I would collapse in a heap as I scrubbed the walk-in floor at midnight. It was the kind of work that makes the very center of your bones ache and initiates you to a level of exhaustion that feels almost out-of-body.

During that summer, I made sauerkraut for the first time with Adam Kaye, Dan’s second in command and head of the charcuterie program. Together we sliced cabbage and packed it into a 24-quart Cambro as he explained the science behind fermentation. I still find this ingenious cooking method difficult to understand. How does sliced cabbage mixed with salt and left out at room temperature morph into something so nuanced, pungent and complex? Several years later when I worked in a bakery, I had a similarly difficult time understanding the science behind sourdough.

I thought about Blue Hill and the house on Dayton Avenue last week as I made a batch of sauerkraut. My kitchen is quite cold these days so it took a while to get going. I let it ferment for five days but probably could have let it go longer. This recipe left me with four quarts of fermented cabbage that I’m eating on pretty much everything: tacos, hummus, sandwich wraps, braised chickpeas, greens and yogurt. It might even work interspersed between handfuls of the really good dark chocolate eaten straight from the refrigerator on those days when you just want to cry in the bathroom.

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Pink Sauerkraut

  • Servings: 4 quarts
  • Difficulty: easy
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Adapted from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen

  • 1 head green cabbage, sliced 1/8”
  • ¼ head purple cabbage, sliced 1/8”
  • 1 T salt

Mix the salt and the sliced cabbages in a bowl, gently massaging the cabbage to evenly distribute the seasoning. The mixture will begin to leach out liquid. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Taste the cabbage. It should taste a little saltier than you’d like the end product to taste. Adjust accordingly.

Using a large container that you can place weights on, pack the cabbage into the container, pressing down using the flat end of a rolling pin or a closed fist to remove any air pockets and ensure the cabbage is completely covered with the liquid. This prevents unwanted mold and bacterial growth. If there’s not enough liquid, you can make a brine by dissolving 1 T kosher salt in 2 C water and pouring it over the cabbage to cover. Only add enough brine to cover the cabbage.

Place weights on top of the cabbage to keep it covered with liquid. I used a 2 quart Cambro and placed a small plate inside the Cambro then four mason jars filled with water on top of the plate. If you have a large mason jar you could use that and place a smaller mason jar filled with water on top to weight down the cabbage. I also placed a layer of plastic wrap over the cabbage to help ensure the entire surface stayed submerged.

Let the cabbage ferment for 4 to 5 days, checking periodically to see that bubbles are forming. The speed with which the cabbage ferments will depend on the heat in your kitchen. It will move much quicker in the warmer months.

Have a taste once it starts to smell and you notice bubbling activity along the surface. Refrigerate once it’s reach it’s full potential.  It will continue to develop flavor in the fridge.

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In Favor of the Long Cook

Almost everything we eat is over-cooked. At least that’s what my chef friend Michael believes. We were in the final throes of summer last year when I called him to ask for help. I was in a cooking rut and needed some fresh ideas. He added this as an aside after explaining his preferred method for cooking salmon: Sear the flesh side well in a pan until it’s cooked three-quarters of the way, then flip it and pop it in a gentle oven to finish cooking and serve it with some sort of delicious sauce or chutney. I think his suggestion included charred scallions, sautéed sungold tomatoes, garlic and smoky chili.

Michael cooks at Chez Panisse. I met him two summers ago while I was staging at the cafe. The salmon they buy and serve in the restaurant bears no resemblance to the flaccid slabs of pale orange flesh adorning the window of the fish department at Whole Foods. It is a shockingly bright orangeish-magenta, like the color of a highlighter.

Michael’s been cooking for nearly 12 years. Like most of the cooks at Chez Panisse, he elevates the work of a cook to a form of artistry. Watching him move behind the stove is like watching a meticulously choreographed piece of ballet. No movement is wasted. I suspect he could easily cook blindfolded. He approaches the work with such care and intimacy it can feel vaguely voyeuristic to watch.

I tend to call Michael when I’m stuck or when I long to be challenged. He’s that kind of friend, the one who gently coaxes you to shift your perspective on whatever it is you’re wrestling with simply by asking the questions no one else thinks to ask and staying quiet enough to hear the response. One time he commented about how coming to terms with not being in control paradoxically gives you more control over your life. I’m still chewing  on that one.

We circle back to the theme of Time often, like how less experienced, more pusillanimous cooks will invariably ask How long should I cook this for? It’s a strange question to ask a professional like Michael. What do you mean? I imagine him responding with a quizzical look in his eyes. You cook it until it’s done.

It can take a while to build the muscle tone in your wrists and fingers and the sensorial sensitivity to know what medium-rare feels like, or what a cake sounds like when it’s finished baking, or what perfectly caramelized onions smell like in the pan. Recipes and other cooks can explain these guideposts to you, but it’s the physicality of actually cooking that embeds it in your bones. Without her realizing it, Time will do the same thing to a cook that it does to a tough piece meat braising gently in liquid; it tenderizes her. It only occurs to me now how time often has the same effect on the human heart.

While I agree with Michael that most of us probably over-cook our salmon, I must defend the act of over-cooking certain things. I love charred pizza crust and prefer my toast slightly burnt (I’m prone to setting off the fire alarm, prompting my sister’s dog to howl directly underneath it until I rectify the situation, which I will admit is part of the fun of burning the toast). I always reach for the end pieces of pumpkin bread and pound cake. The crispy, burnt edges of lasagna are my favorite part, especially when contrasted with a bite from the center that’s so soft and pliable it will yield to the side of a fork.

I also like over-cooked vegetables. Not the boiled baby carrots that mothers across America were serving in the 1950s. I’m talking about intentionally overcooked vegetables. The Italians taught me this. They call it stracotto, which is an adjective that technically translates to “overcooked” but not in the vein of baby carrots that have been boiled to pieces.

Stracotto is the name of a dish of slowly stewed meat (often horse or donkey, harkening back to the culture of la cucina povera where you used what you had). It can be served as is, used as a pasta filling or transformed into a sauce for pasta. It’s also used to describe the following vegetable preparation: blanch the vegetable briefly, then partially cover the pot and let it bath leisurely in a healthy dose of olive oil infused with chili flake and garlic. Over time, the vegetable leaches out its water and begins to disassemble itself. The water plus the disintegrating parts of vegetable commingle with the oil to create a mass of what can best be described as broccoli goodness. It’s similar to cooking confit except with less fat and fanfare, but equally, if not more, delicious.

How long does it cook? Until it’s done, which normally takes me about an hour.

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Last summer I shared a recipe for zucchini stracotto. This cooking method works well with a variety of vegetables, although I’ve had the best results with romanesco, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini. For vegetables with a higher water content like zucchini and other summer squashes, you can skip the blanching step. Like meat-based stracotto, this dish works spectacularly as a pasta sauce by thinning it with a bit of pasta water. Shower with shaved ricotta salata and you’ve got yourself a proper feast.

Broccoli Stracotto

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
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  • 3 broccoli heads, cut into florets, peeled stems included
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 1 T chili flake (you can cut back to 2t if you don’t love spice)
  • ¼ C extra virgin olive oil
  • Couple tablespoons of blanching liquid

Fill a large pot with water for blanching the broccoli. To prep the broccoli, cut it into medium-sized florets, all roughly the same size. Peel the stems using a peeler or a paring knife and cut those into roughly the same size.

Meanwhile, in a wide rondeau gently heat the olive oil with the smashed garlic cloves. Let the garlic cook in the oil until softened, about 3 to 5 minutes, then remove the garlic cloves. Add the chili flake and cook for 30 seconds. Turn down the heat.

Once the water is boiling, add a generous amount of salt. Bring the water back to a boil and add the broccoli. Blanch the broccoli for 2 to 3 minutes, just until it starts to soften and tenderize. Turn the heat back up on the olive oil, scoop the broccoli out of the blanching water and transfer it to the garlic-chili oil. Make sure some of the blanching water gets into the pot, a couple tablespoons plus whatever’s clinging to the broccoli. The water will sizzle and sputter when it hits the oil, so take care.

Jostle the broccoli in the oil to evenly coat it with oil, turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for about an hour, checking it every 10-15 minutes and stirring when necessary to prevent scorching. You may need to add a couple tablespoons of blanching water to keep it loose enough to prevent scorching. It’s done once the broccoli has almost completely disassembled itself and transformed into an elegant mass of greenish-grey vegetable goodness.

 

 

 

A Word about Mastery

I am an enthusiastic learning. When I first moved to Italy, I convinced the director of the Italian language school where I was studying to place me in a class well beyond my comprehension level because I was desperate to reach a language fluency that would enable me to shoot the breeze with the barista at the bar across the street from my apartment. I’m not sure how this became the yardstick I used to measure my progress, but it did. I never reached that level of effortless fluency I initially sought, but I did achieve fluency in stumbling my way through small talk over a steaming cappuccino, which proved rewarding in its own way.

I am also an impatient learner. I want the answer quickly. I hate convoluted word problems, which made studying for the LSAT akin to an elevated form of Chinese water torture. I frustrate easily when I try something new and don’t catch on quickly. I want to be good at whatever I do, and I’d prefer to not make mistakes.

This drive for perfection and fear of making mistakes made me a terribly anxious, yet highly motivated, student in culinary school. I was hungry for knowledge and eager to find mastery in my new chosen craft, which I loved dearly. By then I was in my late 20’s and should have known better than to assume that two years in culinary school would transform me into a chef with a refined palate.

I understood then that mastery does not come through willful self-determination. Mastery is a long game that favors the Tortoise for his slow, steady progression. It comes after years of toiling and coming up short, after countless iterations of failure and misfires. One must possess a genuine love and appreciation for the process to stay in the game. In that sense, true mastery is an anathema in a culture where we worship at the altar of Instant Gratification and Two-Day Shipping.

I knew this, but my ego and the fear of failure that dogged me kept me from relaxing enough to allow the process to unfold naturally. I studied my textbooks dutifully and neatly wrote out my recipes on 3-by-5 cards. I memorized the ratios for stocks and base sauces. I stayed after class and asked my instructor for help with a sauce that was giving me particular trouble. I chose the most difficult internship I could find, volunteered to deep clean the school’s kitchens in my off-time and practiced small dicing potatoes at home.

So you can imagine my horror and indignation when, two years later, I sat on the graduation stage with my peers feeling totally and utterly unprepared for what awaited me. The vast space of what I did not yet understand about cooking loomed in front of me. Insult compounded on injury when the academic coordinator announced that I had been awarded all three academic achievement and leadership awards. I literally could not have efforted any harder, and yet mastery felt just as far away as it did on my first day of class.

Working to attain a level of fluency in whatever it is you most long to master – be it knitting or parenting or bread baking or Excel or drawing or string theory — is a subtle process, and progress (I’m not even sure that’s the right word for it) can’t always be clearly tracked like the line items on a check list.  Patience isn’t a virtue; it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

I’m grateful that I developed a strong work ethic early on in life as it has helped me achieve tremendous and beautiful things. In the worlds of writing and professional cooking, it has proved essential. But I’ve had to learn the difference between having a strong work ethic and pushing myself beyond reason because deep down somewhere I harbor a sneaky suspicion that I’ll never be enough. I’ve used the excuse of having a “strong work ethic” to self flagellate and obsess over making everything happen now, now, now, prompting great suffering in my life. I’ve glorified the Hare for his speed and agility, as if Ia could out-run insecurity, fear and doubt. Now I’m getting much more curious about the Tortoise.

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Halfway through my first culinary skills class, I suggested to my instructor that the school add another class to the curriculum: Introduction to Sauces. I knew sauce-making was a key skill that every good cook possessed, but I hardly understood it. During my first skills course, we made chicken stock every morning for the rest of the school, and I was frankly nonplussed by the whole affair. On its face, stock is not very exciting. You simmer a bunch of bones with some vegetables for a long time and get some murky liquid that reeks of meat. It turns out that bones, especially chicken backs and feet, veal shins, oxtails and the like, harbor vast reserves of flavor-packed collagen. Exposed to slow cooking in water for long periods of time, they generously exude flavor into the liquid, leaving you with what I can best describe as a highly fortified meaty tea (take note that stock can be made from pretty much any kitchen detritus, not just animal bones and carcasses, although bones from animals do possess the unique characteristic described above). This meaty tea serves as the base for all kinds of sauces.

Pan-sauces use stock to lift up the meaty bits that stick to the pan during searing and amalgamate into a luscious glaze through natural reduction that’s made even more luscious with a couple of cold pads of butter whisked in at the end (a process called mounting). Braises are made all the more substantial through the use of stock as the cooking medium. Chicken thighs braised in chicken stock comingle as the liquid gentle reduces and concentrates to create a convenient sauce with moist, fork-tender meat all in one pot. The definition of delicious convenience!

During culinary school, sauces were a great mystery to me. It seemed like they were the glue that held every dish together, and yet each recipe confounded me. How did a pan sauce work, and how was I to know to add diced cornichons and Dijon mustard to a pan-sauce for pork chops versus chopped shallots and rosemary to a steak sauce? How did a whole pot of boiling stock transform into one cup of rich, vicious demi-glace? Where did flavor come from?

I’m still tangoing with the last question, and I imagine I will for as long as I cook. In culinary school, I longed for a succinct explanation for how to create flavor. Turns out, much like truth or beauty, the mechanics of flavor cannot be distilled into neat bullet points that fit on a 3-by-5 card.

I wish I had had Susan Volland’s excellent book about modern sauce-making as a resource then. It takes much of the mystery out of sauce-making, and her essays are brilliant. Some of her more salient points include:

  • Consider plain water as an empty vehicle through which almost anything is possible.
  • Never stop practicing seasoning. It is a life-long skill upon which you can always improve.
  • Sauces are personal. Nobody builds a ham sandwich in the exactly same way. Don’t be afraid to make yours “just the way you like it.”

I’ve mentally divided the world of sauces into two very broad categories: Cold and Hot. Cold sauces include, but are not limited to: yogurt sauces (think labneh and tzatziki), salsas, chutneys, romesco, pestos, vinaigrettes, chermoula, aiöli, relishes, pickly things like giardinera, gremolata, chimichurri, compound butters and infused oils.

Hot sauces include reduced stocks (think jus and demi-glace), hollandaise, beurre blanc, béchamel, brown butter, gravies, curries, barbecue, tomato and pan-sauces.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the myriad possibilities, but you get the idea.

I like to keep a couple of sauces in rotation in the fridge to simplify weeknight meal planning. A couple good sauces mean all I have to do is steam some rice, roast some vegetables, scramble a couple eggs or sear a piece of fish and dinner’s done.

Zhoug, a spicy Yemeni herb sauce, is one of my all-time favorites. In Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi describes zhoug, which he calls the Israeli national chile paste, as a kind of Middle Eastern gremolata and encourages you to keep the texture coarse as if it were made in a mortar and pestle. You can do this by hand-chopping the herbs and chilis or by pulsing them in the food processor. Or just say to hell with it and blend everything in the VitaMix.

Trader Joe’s make a pretty good version of zhoug if you’re allergic to cleaning your blender or the food processor. It should be burn-your-mouth hot, so if your chilis aren’t particularly pungent, consider upping the ante. And if you don’t like cilantro, I feel so sorry for you.

Zhoug

  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 1 bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley, including stems
  • 1 bunch cilantro, including stems
  • 2 small green chilis, rough chop (I used 1 large serrano)
  • 2 t toasted cumin seeds, ground in mortar and pestle
  • ½ t ground cardamom
  • ½ t ground clove
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • Pinch of sugar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2-3 T water

Place all the ingredients in a food processor or blender minus the water. Pulse or blend until a coarse paste forms. Add as much water as you need in order to attain a coarse paste consistency.