Sunday, March 21, 2010

It's the Little Things...

It was one of those weekends where even the simplest of pleasures evinced a feeling of contentment. I’m persuaded it had everything to do with the first warm spring weekend, although I'm sure the "urban shaman" featured on NPR's Weekend Edition (cultural elitist alert) would no doubt attribute my sunny disposition to a "balancing" effect brought on by the vernal equinox. Whatever. I'll leave that debate up to the experts, or the fools, possibly. All I know is, without examining it too closely, it was great to be alive in the Hamptons.
By nine-thirty Friday morning it was just warming up enough to dare opening up the house for the first time since last October. Every window that could be pried open admitted a brisk cross breeze through the first and second floors. Draperies billowed, magazine pages fluttered, anything not nailed down performed a Spring pirouette. It was lovely. Now who could harbor a niggardly spirit under such conditions, holistic rationalizations be damned!
When my absent Southampton host negotiated my winter caretaking services, I pledged to rekindle my dormant musical talents by learning a new piano piece on his beautiful Yamaha Conservatory grand. I played trombone in my high school marching and concert bands, but that was decades ago, and I haven't looked at sheet music since. Also, I play piano by ear and never bothered to learn the treble clef. Reading the Grand Staff then, borders on the ridiculous. Previously, my habit has been to learn, first, the left hand (easier) and then the right, eventually putting the two hands together. Piano teachers across the continents shudder at the thought of my unorthodox method, but it works for me. So, I've been muddling through the second movement of  Beethoven's piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, "Appassionata". It's a sublime section in D-flat Major, with an easy chord progression, but all those 32nd notes late in the piece intimidate me into forgetting that fact. As of this past weekend though, I can pick my way competently through the first 36 bars. Maybe by Winter 2012 I'll own bragging rights to the entire work. However, my sense of accomplishment to date remains undiminished.
All the balmy weather unfailingly lead to olfactory-tinged ruminations on quartered whole chickens and un-husked ears of sweet corn roasting over red hot briquettes on the Weber.
I don't think corn has even been planted yet, and the grill is still buried in the garage somewhere, but those two hurdles did not necessarily preclude crisp-skinned chicken and corn on the menu. Least ways, not in these here parts.
And that led to a pleasantly surprising weekend discovery. The lord of my transient manor has saved every gadget his sainted mother ever stored in her 1960's kitchen. This woman must have been a formidable cook, or had an expertly equipped staff (she was an admiral's wife, after all), as there was nothing overlooked in her impressive galley inventory. Buried in an enormous chest-of-drawers in the basement was a classic rotary cheese grater. The kind now - sadly - you can only find as a cheap plastic knock-off. I was tickled to death. I couldn't wait to put this gem through its paces with fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. It worked like a charm. I wondered aloud, to nobody in particular, why this wasn't the standard for cheese graters in America instead of those horrible, knuckle-shredding box thingies. Stupid. Capitalism, obviously, run amok. Now that he's checked off health care reform, maybe our Socialist President can put a stop to this culinary travesty of justice.
Vinegar Glazed Chicken and Beets - from Martha Stewart's "Living"
  • ½-cup Balsamic vinegar
  • ½-cup Sherry, or good quality red-wine vinegar
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 5 lbs bone-in chicken pieces
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • ¾-cup chicken stock, plus extra
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Begin by marinating the vinegar, garlic and rosemary for up to 2 hours.
Preheat a large (14 inch) skillet over high heat and add two tablespoons of olive oil, or just enough to coat the bottom of your pan.
Rinse and pat dry chicken pieces with paper towels and season well with salt and pepper.
Place chicken, skin side down in the skillet. Do not over crowd the pan, cook in batches if necessary. You should hear an immediate sizzle as each piece hits the pan. Allow the chicken parts to cook, undisturbed, for a few minutes so that they develop a nice sear. Brown on all sides, about 10 minutes per batch. Remove browned pieces to a warm platter.
Add the chicken stock and deglaze the pan. Return the browned chicken pieces to the pan, lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid reduces by one half.
Return the heat to high and add the vinegar marinade. Swirl around to incorporate with the chicken and broth. Reduce for about 10 minutes more.
Server immediately over polenta or egg noodles.
I knew anything this rich and tangy had to have a powerfully confident absorbing force, hence the polenta. I made mine with grated parmesan cheese and fresh sage leaves. It was perfect. On the side, my favorite vegetable.
Roasted Beets with Sage and Orange Glaze - from the NY Times
  • 4 medium-sized beets
  • 1½ Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ¼-cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 Tbsp orange zest
  • 4 fresh sage leaves, chopped
  • Salt & pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375° F. Place beets on a pan and roast for about an hour, or until they are fork-tender. Let cool slightly, and then slip off their skins. Cut into strips about ½-inch thick and put in a mixing bowl.
Melt the butter and sugar in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Add the orange juice and reduce to a light glaze (should just coat a spoon). Add the zest and sage. Cook for another minute or two to heat through.
Pour the glaze over the beets, season with salt & pepper and toss to coat. Serve warm or at room temperature.
I sat at the dining table audibly vocalizing approval of my own handy work. It was an OMG moment. I should have shown more restraint, but just couldn't help myself. 
Others might be relied upon to display sufficient humility in praising their own cooking, I essentially don't give a damn. I could be wrong; my taste buds could be totally out of whack, but I'm fairly confident that I'm a pretty good cook. Lately though, the dishes coming out of my Southampton kitchen have blown even me away. My only regret being you're not here to share in them and the pats on my back, as my arm is developing a cramp. But who knows, if you play your cards right...
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Blog O. Food and the Blustery Day!

Wow, what a weekend. New England and the mid-Atlantic got pummeled by a Nor'easter Friday and Saturday that effectively shut down huge swaths of road and rail. Great sections of the tri-state area were without power and National Guardsmen were issuing hip waders to local residents. I was ready with flashlights, candles and a half-cord of firewood, but my little slice of the Hamptons maintained electricity through the night. Damage to the grounds, however, was impressive. Upon awaking Sunday, I was greeted by big gaps in fences around the house and along the street, felled branches as thick as my arm, and litter everywhere. I spent a good part of the morning hefting waterlogged lumber into stacks and dragging tree limbs into a pile by the side of the house. A far cry from my usual house plant watering chores, but it had to be done, and ought to earn me extra credit with my benevolent landlord!
This was gonna be a weekend of exploring South Fork wineries and pairing my discoveries at Channing Daughters and Wölffer Estates with local produce and conscientiously raised Long Island chickens. But excursions were now limited to town. Instead, I splurged on a forty-five dollar Man Treat: two and a half pounds of hormone & antibiotic free, grass-fed, tucked-in-at-night-and-sung-to-sleep porterhouse steak. Three words: Worth. Every. Penny.
You buy a cut of meat this expensive, and the theme for the evening is already pre-determined: Don't F*ck It Up! So what did I do? I quartered some Yukon potatoes, a red onion, and one really big carrot, tossed them with some salt & pepper in a little olive oil and set them to roasting for an hour in a 375° oven. I also brushed the porterhouse with some olive oil and let it come up to room temperature. After an hour of roasting the vegetables, I maxed out the oven temp and set up a broiling rack about 6 inches from the heat source. Once the rack was red hot, the porterhouse went on, about 4 inches from the coils. I broiled it for seven minutes on each side and got beautiful sear marks on the outside, and a perfect medium-rare interior. I tented the porterhouse with aluminum foil and let it rest. And here's where things got interesting. 
In this house, Man Treats are topped with mushrooms... in cream, damn it. I had already shelled out close to fifty bucks on a steak, did you think I was gonna settle for common button fungi? Guess again. Shitake mushrooms, shallots, garlic, a little beef stock, some crème fraîche that Alice Waters taught me how to make, and to prove just what kind of man I really am, a couple fingers of Armagnac.
Start by browning sliced mushrooms in one tablespoon each of olive oil and butter, about 5 minutes or until all their liquid has evaporated . Add coarsely chopped shallots and minced garlic and sweat for 2 minutes, or until translucent. Pull the sauté pan from the heat and add a ¼-cup of brandy. Return to the heat and reduce the liquid for a minute or two. Add a ¼-cup of beef stock and cook to thicken, another two minutes or so. Stir in 3 tablespoons of crème fraîche*, season to taste with salt & pepper, and remove from heat.
De-bone the porterhouse and slice on a bias against the grain. Fan out on a serving platter and top with creamy shitake mushrooms and roasted vegetables on the side. Try to ignore the howling wind outside (but don't sit too near any plate glass just in case), and tuck in.
You'll think I'm a fool, but I really could taste the difference in the beef. It was heavenly. Nutty, flavorful even after chewing, and oh so tender. I also managed to get two more meals out of the steak the next day, so it really wasn't much of an extravagance after all; it just felt that way. So here's to crummy weather and convenient excuses for guilty pleasures.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food
Crème fraîche - a recipe by Alice Waters
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tbsp cultured buttermilk
Pour cream into a clean glass jar. Add buttermilk and stir well. Cover the jar loosely and let the cream sit at room temperature for 24 hours or so, or until cream thickens. When thickened, cover jar tightly and store in the refrigerator. Crème fraîche will keep up to 10 days chilled.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Meat & Potatoes, Italian-style!

Let's take the "What Am I Gonna Make For Dinner?" Challenge. You know the drill, whatever kind of day you've had, no matter your mood, sometimes you'd rather sit in a dentist's chair, sans Novocain, than think about putting one more meal on the table. Well friend, I'm here to help.
Surely you have onion and garlic in the pantry. Maybe some canned tomatoes and dried herbs. If you're a true foodie, I'll bet olives and pine nuts are regular items on your shopping list, if not, no worries. I've never been in a house that didn't have pasta in the cupboard, and if you don't have vegetable, chicken or beef stock on hand, well that metal spigot thingy in the kitchen has nature's most readily available cooking liquid: water. But then there's the matter of protein. Here in Belmont, grizzled Italians still stuff sausages the old fashioned way. If you're stuck in a flyover state, even breakfast sausage will do in a pinch, or frozen chicken breasts, hamburger meat, pork chops!!! Dinner has practically made itself.
And here are Blog O. Food's failsafe secrets:
Build a flavor base - sear meat in a heavy sauté pan with a couple tablespoons of good olive oil. Don't fuss with the meat too much, let it develop a nice brown covering. Once browned on the outside, remove meat to a bowl.
Enrich the base - To the same pan, add chopped onion and cook until translucent. Scrape up the brown bits from the pan as you sweat your onions. That's built in flavor right there. Next, toss in a few cloves of chopped garlic and heat through for a minute or two. Caution: if the onions or garlic brown too quickly they turn bitter, and your flavor base is lost. It's like burnt toast. There is almost nothing you can do to correct it, so a little care with this step if you please.
Layer in complexity - Remember those olives and pine nuts? Layering opportunities. Don't like olives? Think pine nuts are a New York affectation? March to your own drummer then. How about celery and carrots? Bell peppers, bitter greens, whatever. The key is, you're building something from the ground up. Be creative. Do not fear failure. Add whole, diced, chopped, puréed tomatoes, or even tomato paste and let things heat up a bit.

Low & slow - Return meat to the pan. Add cooking liquid, seasonings and herbs. Want a one-pot meal? Toss dried pasta right into the liquid. Bring everything to a simmer, Cover and lower the heat way down on your sauce to give all the separate ingredients a chance to meld and combine into something altogether different than a mere sum of its individual parts.

Nurturing - Occasionally stir and taste your sauce. Go easy on salt in the beginning stages. It's easy to add more salt later, and impossible to remove once you've put too much in early on.
And just like that, dinner is done. I texted Jean-9, flipped through the mail, and spied on my Facebook buddies all the while not constantly hovering over a pot on the stove.
See how easy that was?
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mature Audiences Only

I've been guilty of peeping at food pornography all week. Yeah, the new Williams-Sonoma catalog arrived, stirring me to bouts of self-pleasure. I always stash my credit card in another room while I leaf through the colorful pages. My fiscal reserve is no match for all that stark-white china, polished steel and kitchen gadgetry.  In this issue, Bill tried mightily to get me to buy his immersion blender and Le Creuset grill pan, but I'm in a committed relationship with my cast iron stovetop grill and Cuisinart food processor. I'm not above swiping his printed recipes, however, and I sure would love to work in that test kitchen. Maybe then I'd get an employee discount on all those sinfully expensive shiny objects!
White Bean Soup - adapted from Williams-Sonoma
  • ¼ cup olive oil, plus extra for brush
  • ¼ cup pancetta, chopped
  • ½ yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 each carrot & celery stalk, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cans (15 oz) cannellini beans, drained
  • 5 cups chicken stock
  • ¾ tsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • ½ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
  • Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook pancetta for 5 minutes. Add onion, carrot and celery. Cook for 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook and additional minute. Add beans, chicken stock and thyme. Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Off heat, puree in a food processor in batches, until smooth. Return to Dutch oven and stir in cheese. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, with Roasted Red Pepper Crostini on the side.
Roasted Red Pepper Crostini - from Williams-Sonoma
  • 12 baguette slices, ½" thick
  • 4 red bell peppers, roasted, skins, membrane & seeds removed, chopped
  • ½ tsp Kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar
  • ½ tsp red pepper flake
  • ½ tsp honey
Brush baguette slices on both sides with olive oil, and  season with salt. Toast bread on a hot cast iron grill over medium-high heat, 2 minutes on each side. In a small mixing bowl, toss to combine chopped roasted peppers, salt, olive oil, parsley, vinegar, red pepper flakes honey and a little ground black pepper. Top each toasted baguette slice with roasted pepper tapenade. Serve with white bean soup.
Not bad, William, not bad. Earthy and nutty soup made smoky by the the bacon. Puréed was the way to go. Smooth and creamy, without the cream!
Spring is struggling for a foothold in New York. White bean soup will keep the chill at bay until the sun finally warms things up and the first buds open on the trees.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food