Cheese, Fruit, Random Thoughts, Salad, Science, Vegetables

Brilliant disguise.

There is something inherently fascinating about things that are not what they appear to be. Throughout history, people have engaged in masquerades, discarding their true identities in favor of new ones, even if only temporarily. Insects and reptiles and sea creatures assume other colors and forms to deceive predators; in a sophisticated double ruse, the viceroy and monarch butterflies resemble each other, with each posing as its distasteful counterpart. Objects sometimes even pose as other objects. The National Palace Museum in Taipei maintains on permanent display two pieces of sculpture – one, a slab of jasper, the “Meat-Shaped Stone,” rendered as red-cooked pork belly; the other, a chunk of jadeite carved into a head of Chinese cabbage – that perfectly mimic pieces of food, so perfectly one cannot help but circle the display case, nose to the glass, squinting at the detail, marveling at the success of the deception. The Meat-Shaped Stone in particular is uncanny, having wholly abandoned the hard qualities of rock and in favor of the wobbly, fatty qualities of braised pork, down to the tiny follicle pores on the glazed rind.

Meat-Shaped Stone

Even actual food sometimes masquerades as other food, or even as inedible matter. There’s a certain fetish in modernist cuisine for trompe l’oeil cooking, things that fool the eye. Faux “caviar” tasting nothing like fish eggs is probably the most common deception, but you also will encounter near-perfect facsimiles of garden topsoil made from dried chicory, roots, and tubers at restaurants like Manresa and Noma, or kaolin-shelled potatoes resembling hot stones at Mugaritz. This fascination with culinary mimicry extends to more quotidian foods like cake, which appears in the guise of whole jack o’lanterns, Barbies, and the revolting “kitty litter cake,” in which Tootsie Rolls stand in for cat feces and serving the cake in a genuine cat litter box is considered the pièce de résistance of presentation. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could eat anything designed to look like someone took a shit in a box, but judging from the online popularity of the cake I seem to be in the minority. The height of bacon-sausage gonzo-ness a few years ago yielded grandiose projects like entire football stadiums crafted from summer sausage, blocks of cheese, and crackers. Now, Wisconsin girls love to party with sausage and dairy products, but there’s a point at which fashioning snacks into architectural wonders starts to take on a clown college quality.

A philosophical inquiry into the nature of mimicry deserves its own discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the food. For example, the flesh of a tomato looks like raw ahi. And a mozzarella ball is the same shape as a tomato. Can the tomato become a convincing ahi tartare? Can the mozzarella ball become a tomato?

Caprese salad

The inspiration for this dish is Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit,” one of the most famous trompe l’oeil foods and an homage to the medieval craft of disguising meat-based items as realistic-looking fruit. Blumenthal fashions foie gras mousse into a sphere and dips it in a mandarin gel, yielding an eerily realistic facsimile of a mandarin orange, down to the orange-peel texture. Rather than coating a meat base with the tomato gel, I thought mozzarella would be a better pairing. Taking it one step further, burrata is even more delicious and is soft enough to accommodate an injection of basil pesto. The resulting dish looks like a small tomato, but tastes like a caprese salad.

IMG_8030On the left, the real thing. On the right, the impostor.

A note: store-bought burrata is notoriously expensive and never nearly as fresh as it should be, so make your own if you can or don’t bother spending the extra money on burrata. Just buy fresh mozzarella instead. Due to the presence of rennet, burrata will continue to firm up over time as the enzyme sets the dairy proteins in the cream filling. There is nothing you can do to stop this process short of eating the burrata before it totally sets.

Burrata

I don’t recall where I learned this recipe, but it’s a pretty bog-standard recipe for burrata. Temperature control is pretty important to a good finished product so be sure to use an accurate digital thermometer.

1000 ml whole milk
1/4 tsp calcium chloride
2 tsp citric acid
1/4 tsp liquid rennet
water
1 tsp salt
60 ml heavy cream

Combine the calcium chloride and the milk; whisk thoroughly to dissolve. Then dissolve the citric acid in about 1/4 c cold water and whisk into the milk over low heat. Bring to 88F-90F, stirring constantly.

Mix the rennet with a couple tablespoons of water (precise quantities are not terribly important) and add to the warmed milk. Stir several turns around the pot with a wooden spoon, and then let stand for about 10-15 minutes until the milk has set and pulls away slightly from the edge of the pot. Do not agitate or disturb at all during the setting process or your mozzarella will not form.

Once set, slice into 1″ cubes with a sharp knife. Bring the pot back up to 105F-108F, stirring gently with a silicone spatula to even out the temperature as the liquid heats. The curds should mostly lump together and fall to the bottom of the pot; some bits, ricotta curd-like, will float on top. Once the pot reaches that temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for about 15 minutes, continuing to stir gently from time to time.

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Strain out the curd, as much as you can, with a skimmer, into a fine mesh strainer. Strain out the remaining bits through another mesh strainer and add to the rest of the curd. Remove about 25% of the curd to a small bowl and combine with 1/4 tsp salt and the heavy cream. Set aside.

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Divide the curd into eight equal portions. Perform the following steps on each portion, start to finish, before moving on to the next one. Place in a microwave-safe bowl, microwave on high for about 45 seconds, and, using a wooden spoon, press against the side of the bowl to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle salt on the curd and knead on a ceramic plate, folding over itself and kneading as you would bread, until it is smooth.

Press into a circle with slightly thinner edges; add 1/8 of the creamed curd and gather up like a purse. Place in a square of clingfilm and twist to tie. Set in a muffin/cupcake tin to maintain the shape. Repeat until all the curd and filling are used.

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Pesto alla Farina

I can’t take credit for this pesto method; it’s my guess at the delicious pesto alla genovese I enjoyed at Farina in San Francisco a few years ago. Whereas a traditional basil pesto is made by pounding basil leaves to a paste with oil before incorporating cheese and pine nuts, in this case the pine nuts and olive oil are emulsified first with blanched garlic to form a thick, creamy base; the basil is then spun into the mix until it yields a bright green, smooth paste.

2 garlic cloves
100g pine nuts
125 ml extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian (grassy but not peppery)
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano
3 c basil
Sea salt

Blanch the garlic in simmering water for one minute. Drain.

Combine the pine nuts and olive oil in a blender and process until smooth. Add the blanched garlic and cheese and process again. Then add the basil; process until smooth. Season with salt as necessary.

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Tomato gel

This is a simple gel based on gelatin, which melts in the mouth. If using the tomato leaves freaks you out, you don’t need them. They just add a little bit of fresh tomato taste to the gel (and are not poisonous in the amounts you would typically use). The beetroot powder helps deepen the color intensity of the tomato gel but, again, is not essential.

1 kg ripe red tomatoes
salt
2 tbsp tomato paste (double concentrated)
4 tomato leaves
1/4 tsp beetroot powder
20g gelatin leaves

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh. Place the pulp and any accumulated juice in a strainer and allow the juice to drip out. Blend the juice with the flesh in a vitaprep and set aside for an hour to allow the solids to float up. Skim them off. This will not be a totally clear liquid as one would obtain through agar or gelatin clarification, but rather a more turbid juice; too clear, and it will not be opaque enough for the finished dish.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cold water and squeeze out. Measure out 250g of the juice and combine with the beetroot powder, tomato paste, and hydrated gelatin. Heat until well blended and then cool to about 50F. The gel should be somewhat thick but not set.

To assemble:

Unwrap a burrata sphere and inject the center, through the top, with the pesto. Fill the grooves with pesto as well and place in the freezer on a wax-paper lined plate or sheet pan for 15 minutes, with a skewer vertically through the center.

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Dip the spheres in the tomato gel, holding by the skewer. Return to the wax paper and re-freeze. Repeat twice (you probably will need three or four dips in the gel to achieve the right appearance). If the dipped cheese sticks to the wax paper, use a spoon to lift it off the paper so the tomato gel doesn’t come loose.

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Serve with bread and olive oil; refrigerate “tomatoes” if not using immediately.

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Tomato tartare

Tuna tartare, usually made with ahi, has become somewhat cliché. It’s always formed in a ring mold with mimosa eggs or raw quail egg yolk, “Asian-ized” with sesame oil, soy, and some kind of citrus, or tossed with avocado and served on pita chips. Guy Fieri serves it in tacos at the same Times Square restaurant Pete Wells reviewed, in a blistering takedown, two years ago. Guy Fieri. I rest my case.

It’s more interesting to make a tomato salad that looks like a tuna tartare. A spherified yellow tomato purée stands in for a raw egg yolk; the compressed tomato is a dead ringer for diced tuna, punctuated with onion, mustard, and herbs. When you pierce the sphere, it will run, just like the yolk. If you don’t want to make the spherified tomato, just skip it. Capers or diced pickled vegetables are also perfectly cromulent additions to this salad.

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500g large yellow tomatoes
500g large red tomatoes
1 tbsp shiro shoyu (white soy)
1 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
sodium alginate .8%
calcium chloride .5%
small white onion
small bunch chives
smal bunch tarragon
2 tsp dijon mustard (I used an espelette mustard)
2 tbsp olive oil
black pepper
edible flowers and additional herbs if desired
salt
piment d’espelette

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh, leaving only the exterior flesh. Reserve the pulp, interior flesh, and any accumulated juice.

Combine the vinegar and shoyu. Pack the trimmed red tomato flesh in a vacuum bag, in a single layer, and add the vinegar mixture. Vacuum. Set aside. Note: if you do not have the means to vacuum pack your tomato dice, the tomato will not firm up, as it would under vacuum, and the dice will not remain very distinct. If you do have access to calcium chloride, you can set the tomato halves in a .1% solution for 30 minutes and then dice as specified below.

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Place the trimmed yellow tomato, plus any juice drained from the pulp and interior flesh, in a container and weigh out 250g into a blender. Add 2g alginate, 1/2 tsp salt, and blitz until fully dispersed. Set aside for at least 30 minutes to hydrate.

Blend together the calcium chloride and water (5g per 1000g water; scale down if you like). Drop the alginate/tomato blend by a small scoop or dosing spoon into the calcium bath and set for about 30-45 seconds, until the exterior skin has formed but the spheres are still wobbly. Drain with a perforated spoon and place in a plain water bath.

Finely dice the vacuum packed red tomato. Finely dice the white onion. Whisk together the mustard, oil, and 1 tbsp each minced tarragon and chive. Stir in the tomato and onion dice. Note: again, if you do not have access to the means to vacuum your tomatoes, you can try leaving the dice in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for about an hour. The liquid will drip out. This will not substantially improve the firmness of the tomatoes but it will make them less liquid.

Plate the tomato mixture and add the yellow tomato “yolk.” Garnish with herbs, flowers, and espelette.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:

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Fish, preserving, Salad, Vegetables

To Russia, with love.

There’s an expression that goes something like this: “He (or she) knows just enough to be dangerous.” When it comes to culinary expression, a little bit of information plus a lot of ignorance can turn cultural homage into caricature. Who among us has not cringed at some hamfisted effort to honor a particular cuisine? I place in this category basically anything The Olive Garden has ever produced in the name of abbondanza, myriad attempts by clueless schools to celebrate Black History Month with fried chicken and watermelon, and the time when, in law school, I cooked a perfect salmon florentine out of the Pierre Franey 60 Minute Gourmet book for a date who promptly requested soy sauce, because “that’s what goes on Chinese food.” Cue sad trombone.

Recently, our Supper Club assembled around a pre-Soviet Russian theme, inspired by Chekhov’s praise in The Siren for the classic Russian dish, kulebyaka, a giant brioche enclosing sturgeon, kasha, and mushrooms. In a turnabout of the czarist predilection for all things French, Escoffier brought the kulebyaka back to France, where its complexity and richness thrilled gastronomes. The selection of this theme made me mildly anxious. I primarily associate Russian food with the folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful, about a kind of creepy talking doll whose eyes would light up like fireflies whenever it was about to dispense profundities like “the morning is wiser than the evening” to the little girl who fed it bits of cabbage soup, black bread, and kvass. You get what you pay for, I suppose. To expose the depths of my ignorance even further, I can’t think about this story without hearing Yakov Smirnoff in my head, saying something like “…In Soviet Russia, creepy little girl doll eat YOU!” Like I said, just enough to be dangerous.

Under the circumstances, it seemed best to steer clear of anything that might resemble a mockery of Russian cuisine. Pickled vegetables are popular throughout Russia, as are hearty breads and smoked fish. Why not combine cured and lightly smoked mackerel with black bread, not as a sandwich, but as a first course? To reinforce the cold freshness of the dish, a salad of pickled apple and celery is compressed for crispness, and scattered on the mackerel with herbs, peppery radish slices, and toasted bread crumbs.

Cured mackerel, compressed celery and apple salad, black bread

This dish combines smoky, briny mackerel, with a compressed, vinegared salad, and slightly bitter toasted black bread. It’s not Russian in any traditional sense, but surely could be served at the modern Russian zakuski table.

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Cured mackerel

1 whole mackerel, about 4-5 lbs after gutting
100g sugar
50g brown sugar
120g sea salt
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tbsp coarsely ground coriander seed
120g Bakon vodka or another smoke-flavored vodka

Combine all dry ingredients well.

Fillet the mackerel. (For a treat, roast the rack and the head at 400F until the meat is just opaque. Pull it off the bone and eat with a squeeze of lemon and some salt, or some chimichurri.) Remove any pin bones with tweezers and trim off any portions discolored with bile (depicted in photo) as they will be bitter.

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Place the fillets in a container just large enough to hold both. Coat the mackerel well with the seasoning on both meat and skin side (about twice as much on the meat side as underneath), and set in the container skin side down. Drizzle the Bakon vodka over the top. Cover the container tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate 12 hours.

By this time, some liquid should have leached from the mackerel and mixed with some of the curing spice to form a light amber liquid. Flip the fillets over so the meat side is down in the liquid. Cover tightly and cure for another 3 days.

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After a total of about 3-4 days, depending on thickness of your fillets, the mackerel should be ready. Test by slicing off a thin bit. If the mackerel is satisfactorily cured, rinse lightly, pat dry, and cold-smoke using alder or oak chips and a smoking gun for about 30 minutes, over ice. Wrap tightly to store. You can hold this cold cured mackerel for about 4 days under refrigeration, but otherwise should freeze it. As the curing process removes a substantial amount of water, cured fish freezes nicely. In fact, the mackerel photo above came straight from the freezer – we ate the other one before I remembered to take a picture. Bonus: frozen mackerel slices more easily.

Compressed celery and apple salad

The purpose of the Vitamin C is to prevent the apples browning. If you intend to serve immediately after compressing, you probably don’t need it, but if you intend to hold for more than a few hours, be sure to use Vitamin C or lemon juice.

10 mg ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
30 ml filtered water
30 ml white wine vinegar
1 sprig tarragon
2-3 ribs celery
1 large Granny Smith apple

Dissolve the ascorbic acid in water. Stand 15 minutes and then combine with the wine vinegar and tarragon in a plastic bag. Vacuum on high for 90 seconds.

Peel and slice the celery, and slice the apple, into paper-thin slices using a mandoline or by hand. Bag separately and add about 1.5 tbsp vinegar solution to each bag. Seal and compress in vacuum chamber. Hold under refrigeration until ready to serve.

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Pumpernickel bread prepared according to recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Berenbaum

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Slice the bread very thinly. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the bread slices and turn to coat with butter on both sides; continue to toast until browned. Cool and break into bits or crumbs; hold for service, tightly covered.

To assemble:

Thinly slice the mackerel and pound it out as carpaccio, between sheets of clingfilm. Thinly slice a red or watermelon radish (black radish is appropriate as well).

Plate the mackerel, with the herbs, salad, radish, and toasted black bread crumbs evenly distributed, or in any other configuration you like.

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Bonus: Beetroot sorbet

This is a bonus dish. Initially, I planned to pair the mackerel and rye with a beetroot sorbet, thinking it would seem especially Russian. When I tasted it, though, it really just tasted really beet-y and sweet; even a meaty, strong fish like mackerel was tasteless beside it. Incidentally, this is why it’s a good idea to taste a dish before serving it the first time (I say this as someone who rarely follows my own advice, except when I have some doubts at the inception). The beet sorbet is far too strong for most pairings but makes a great intermezzo.

Beetroot sorbet (1 pint)

12 medium beets, about 700g
200g sugar
300 g water
100 g liquid glucose
2 leaves gelatin
1 tbsp sherry vinegar

Scrub clean and roast the beets at 400F until tender to the center, about 75 minutes. Cool and peel. You should have about 550g beets. Slice into chunks.

Heat the water, sugar, and glucose in a pan and bring to a simmer. Add the beets and simmer about 20 minutes until the beets are extremely tender. Hydrate the gelatin leaves and add to the beet mixture with the vinegar.

Puree until completely smooth in a vitaprep or blender (if you cannot achieve a velvety consistency in your blender, strain the mixture through a chinois). Chill and process in an ice cream machine. Freeze at least 4 hours to set.

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Pork Products, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Salad

Give the people what they want.

When it comes to recipe development, one of the most difficult challenges is developing “new twists” on old favorites. Classics and traditional family dishes come freighted with expectations – mom’s pork chops, Uncle Joe’s macaroni and gravy. When you run up against these dishes, you’re fighting not just taste but memory and relationships.

Take potato salad, for example. Everyone has an idea what potato salad should be, and that idea usually is grounded in the summer picnics of childhood. For me, it’s boiled russet potatoes, diced up with onions, hard boiled egg, and celery, bound together with mayonnaise and a little dry mustard. The mayo was always Hellman’s, and the russets were invariably a little overcooked and started to crumble into the dressing if you stirred the salad too much. I didn’t love mayo as a kid, but I liked potatoes and could eat that salad every day in the summer. And we practically did – at picnics in Lake Park, cooking out pork chops and chicken legs on the patio, standing up at the kitchen counter when it was too hot to eat anything else.

But this was Milwaukee, and so there was another kind of potato salad as well. As a kid, I always considered it the “weird potato salad,” meant for adult palates. It was sweet and vinegar-sour, and the potato discs were greased with bacon fat and chunks of crisp fried bacon. Sometimes it contained flecks of pickle; other times, celery seed. We never ate it at home – we were squarely in the mayo camp – but over the years I found plenty of warm German potato salad nestled next to bratwurst or fried perch (on Fridays), or handed out in little paper cups with miniature spoons at the state fair.

Let’s say that, in the twenty-first century, you were going to try for the ultimate potato salad. What would that be? I put it out to the readers on Facebook:

“Tell me about your dream potato salad. Do you like mayonnaise or vinegar? Celery, eggs? Bacon, yes or no? Do you want something new and different, or something that takes you right back to picnics when you were a kid?”

As it turned out, most people wanted something that took them home. Mayonnaise, celery, vinegar, possibly some kind of pickle or eggs; Mom’s potato salad. After about a dozen comments, though, things got interesting. Someone mentioned smoked mustard. Then I said I had espelette mustard. Then someone else – knowing that I’ve been working with ibérico de bellota pork products – tossed out the words “ibérico bacon.” Game on!

Here’s what I decided. This new and improved potato salad would fuse both mayonnaise and bacon fat. I had some panceta, or smoked ibérico bacon, from Iberico USA, some of which I’d used the night before to make an oyster stew. The two remaining slices were just enough for this dish. Now, as I don’t believe in wasting ibérico fat – it tastes too good and it’s too hard to come by – I also decided to use the bacon fat from these two slices to make mayonnaise. Baconnaise. This is the deal with bacon fat-based mayonnaise, or baconnaise. You can’t use all bacon fat or it’s like trying to guzzle lard. I mean that literally; bacon fat solidifies to the consistency of custard under refrigeration, so you need to base your mayonnaise primarily on an unsaturated fat that won’t harden up. As delicious as warm bacon fat might be, there’s nothing grosser than the sensation of cold, greasy lard on your palate.

Here it is: the best potato salad you’ll ever eat. The baconnaise brings a subtle bacon taste to the salad, the bacon cubes add crispness, the pickle and capers lend a sour/salt quality, and the tarragon adds just a little sweetness. If you’re uncomfortable making your own mayonnaise, use a good-quality prepared mayonnaise like Hellman’s (see below). If you aren’t up to sending away for ibérico bacon, feel free to use any good quality bacon, thickly sliced. If cornichons aren’t available in your local market, use a small savory pickle. And one last thing: serve this salad cool but not cold, about 30 minutes out of the refrigerator at room temp, to bring out the flavor of the bacon and herbs.

THE FINEST POTATO SALAD IN THE WORLD

Serves about six to eight as part of a meal; may be doubled if necessary

1 lb (about one really large) Idaho® russet potato
4 tsp nonpareil capers
about 6 cornichons, drained of brine, or two 2″ long dill pickles
2 1/4″ thick slices of smoked bacon, frozen for about 30 minutes
1 shallot, minced
2 large eggs
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (I used Maille green peppercorn Dijon; any Dijon will do)
2 tbsp white wine vinegar (I used Champagne vinegar)
1/2 c sunflower oil or another neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola, or 1/2 c prepared mayonnaise
The reserved bacon fat from cooking the bacon, above
3 tbsp sour cream
about 8 chives, sliced into small thin rings
about 10 leaves tarragon, minced
Salt and pepper

Place the whole, unpeeled Idaho® potato in a saucepot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, uncovered, over medium heat and then reduce to a simmer.

Meanwhile, place one of the eggs in a small saucepot and cover with water. Bring just to the boil and cover; turn off the heat. Allow the egg to sit, covered, in the hot water for 15 minutes. If you like, you also can cook the egg in the same water as the potato, as it simmers.

Remove the cooked egg from the water and rinse in cool water before shelling. Slice in half and carefully remove the yolk; set aside. Slice the egg white as thinly as possible.

Mince the shallot and the capers; dice the cornichons as finely as you can. Combine the three and add the sliced egg white.

Mmm, flavors.

Remove the bacon slices from the freezer and dice about 1/4″ or smaller. (The freezing simply solidifies the fat to make the bacon easier to dice). Place a small (8″) skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon cubes. Adjust heat if necessary to prevent burning. Stir on occasion, browning the bacon until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the shallot, caper, and cornichon. Leave the fat in the pan; you will use it to fortify the mayonnaise.

The Bacon of Glory

Cooking up bacon.

Combine the remaining raw egg and the white wine vinegar; add 1 tsp water and the mustard. Whisk well to emulsify. Dripping one drop at a time at first, and then a thin stream, add the oil very slowly, whisking continuously. If the mixture breaks, add a little (say 1 tsp) water and continue whisking.

**Note: If you don’t want to make mayonnaise, use about 2/3 c prepared mayonnaise; omit the sunflower oil, but whisk 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1 tbsp white wine vinegar into the mayonnaise before proceeding to the next step.**

Emulsifying.

Once the mayonnaise comes together, whisk in about 2-3 tbsp of the reserved bacon fat. Taste after 2 tbsp to make sure it’s not too bacon-fatty. As strange as that might sound – who doesn’t love more bacon? – the bacon flavor will intensify once you add it to the cooked bacon. You want to taste the potato and everything else in balance, so don’t go bacon crazy.

Whisking in the iberico fat.

Baconnaise.

Remove the potato from the simmering water when it is just tender, about 35-45 minutes depending on the size of the potato. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes and then peel.

Dice the potato about 1/2″ – the easiest way is to cut first into 1/2″ thick slices, and then to dice each slice. Add the potato to the bacon mixture, and add about 2 tbsp of chives and all the minced tarragon.

Add the sour cream and about 1/2 c of the baconnaise to start. Combine well. If you like a more mayonnaise-y salad, feel free to add a little more baconnaise. Season with salt if necessary (unlikely) and pepper to taste. Store the remaining baconnaise, which is great on sandwiches.

Finish by pushing the egg yolks through a sieve over the top of the potato salad and garnishing with the remaining chives. Enjoy this finest potato salad ever with something simple, like grilled chicken, or a nice Wisconsin brat. Note for summer consumption: keep this well-refrigerated or on ice, and chill leftovers within an hour of removing from the cold (if it’s 80F or less outside you probably can get away with chilling within two hours).

Sieving egg yolks.

THE FINEST POTATO SALAD IN THE WORLD.

*Note: This episode was brought to you by the letters I, P, and C (that’s the Idaho Potato Commission, who provided compensation for this recipe).

Special thanks to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta!

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Salad, Science, Vegetables

Terroir.

At some point, everyone who cooks decides what kind of cook to be. Many people aspire to enough cooking skill to turn out reliable family favorites; others hope to produce nutritious, healthful meals; some look forward to weekend mastery of the grill. Some professionals tread in others’ steps, whether at chain restaurants or on the line at classic French restaurants; others attain mastery of niche cuisines; still others forge their own cuisine, synthesizing their experiences and constantly evolving.

Invariably, cooking involves emulation. It’s how you learn, and it’s how you decide what to keep and what to toss when developing your own style. In School of Rock, Jack Black’s character tells one of his students, who’s been writing his own songs in secret, to give it up to the rest of the class. “That’s what bands do,” he says. “Play each others’ songs.” And that’s what cooks do – cook each others’ food. Talking about food, eating out at different restaurants and trying out what you’ve learned, adjusting to your taste and incorporating new techniques, is the best way to keep from becoming entrenched and passé.

Recently, a dinner guest asked me to post the recipe for an edible “soil” served with a garden salad a few weeks ago, so she could try it out at home. The soil recipe follows, but first a note about emulation and innovation. Edible soil is one of many ideas in the school of trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) cooking. It looks like dirt, and when served with appropriate vegetables, conveys the idea of freshly-picked produce straight from the garden, still dusted with earth. I’m not totally sure who introduced the concept to the dining public, but I’ve had it in several places during the last few years, including at Manresa, where David Kinch takes you “into the vegetable garden,” and at a private dinner by R.J. Cooper. If I had to guess, though, I’d say the idea originated with René Redzepi at Noma, who evokes Danish terroir in all dishes, none more obviously than “Radishes in Edible Soil.” Playing each others’ songs, cooking each others’ food.

True to Danish inspiration, Redzepi’s soil features malt and beer tastes, fermented tastes reminiscent of the grains and preserved foods that make up so much classic Danish cuisine. Kinch’s soil counters the natural sweetness of fresh California vegetables with bitter dried chicory, mellowed by dried potato. At Gilt in NYC, Justin Bogle moves closer still to the earth, combining dried mushroom with charred onion ash. Each selected ingredients meant to convey a specific idea.

So, back to the recipe request. The dinner in question was based in Mediterranean flavors – tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, yoghurt, olives. I had a load of gorgeous, locally grown vegetables from the daily farmer’s market at Union Station. How to tie the two together? Simple – with an edible soil of kalamata olives. Dried and ground with dehydrated mushrooms and toasted nuts, the end result not only looked exactly like potting soil, but brought the vegetables into the Mediterranean theme.

Edible soil

Choose a meaty, richly flavored purple/black mushroom. Don’t try this dish with canned California black olives. Or I suppose you can, but it won’t have the rich taste of kalamatas or niçoise olives.

I use a food dehydrator (uses less power than an oven), but I’ve also prepared this soil and other dehydrated items in a regular convection oven. Be sure to use the convection setting; otherwise it may take forever for your items to dry. Once you grind the mushrooms, be sure to remove anything larger than a grain of kosher salt (spoon them out or use a sieve). The larger pieces are hard as rocks and you don’t want to break your teeth.

12 oz kalamata or niçoise olives (drained of brine)
1 lb cremini mushrooms, stemmed
8 oz maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms, broken into chunks
8 oz shiitake mushrooms, stemmed
3 oz walnuts

Set the food dehydrator or convection oven to 150F. Spread the olives and mushrooms on separate trays (if using the oven, a half sheet pan lined with silpat is best) and slide into the oven or dehydrator. Dry overnight or for about 12 hours, or more if necessary. The mushrooms may be dry sooner; you can pull them then. The olives will not become completely brittle due to oil content. Cool completely.

In a separate oven (or toaster oven), heat the walnuts until they reach a deep golden brown color. Remove from heat and cool completely.

Grind the mushrooms first in batches in a spice grinder, or in a food processor. Remove large chunks that do not grind. Shiitake mushrooms are especially hard and difficult to grind if overdry. Wait a few minutes and be careful when releasing the lid; the mixture is powdery, and you should wait for it to settle. Spoon into an airtight container.

Without rinsing out the container, grind the nuts first with about 1 tbsp mushroom powder and spoon into an airtight container. Do not overgrind; stop before the mixture resembles nut butter. If the mixture contains large bits, remove them. Then grind the dry olives, again without rinsing the container. The olives will grind to a somewhat oily consistency and will not be powdery. Don’t worry; you need this oiliness to bind the mushroom dust.

Mix the three products together, reserving a few tbsp of each, adding back more olive, nut, or mushroom powder as necessary. Store in an airtight container. The edible soil mixture will keep for weeks if it is dry and tightly sealed.

Soil.

Vegetable garden

This is a simple salad of thinly sliced vegetables, dressed simply and plated with edible soil. You don’t have to use the same vegetables I used – this is what the farmer’s market yielded, but depending on the season and your location, other vegetables may suit better. .

Don’t season the salad greens with salt. They will wilt, and what’s more, they’ll be too salty once stirred together with the salty edible soil. Use loads of herbs (except cilantro, rosemary, or sage, which are too strong and/or dissonant).

Although the pictured dish is plated simply, if you have time (I did not), you can arrange vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers cleverly in or atop the soil for a beautiful presentation

1 small zucchini
1 small yellow squash, or pattypan squash
6 french breakfast radishes, scrubbed well
1 chioggia beet, scrubbed well
pea sprouts
2 c arugula, washed and spun dry
1/3 c each chervil, parsley
small handful each tarragon, savory leaves
if available: edible flowers, such as violets, dianthus, nasturtium (be sure they are clean and not treated with pesticides)

extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp sherry vinegar

Slice the squash paper thin with a mandoline. Refrigerate. Slice the radishes and beets paper thin as well; immerse the radishes in ice water and refrigerate. Immerse the beets in ice water with 1 tbsp sherry vinegar and refrigerate. If serving immediately, you can skip the water bath, but it keeps the vegetables crisp and ice-cold.

When ready to serve, drain the radish and beets well. Combine in a large bowl with the sliced squash, the herbs, arugula, and pea shoots. Drizzle with olive oil and toss with clean hands until each bit is lightly coated with oil. Plate atop edible soil. Mist vegetables but not soil with sherry vinegar (or drizzle carefully). Garnish with edible flowers if using.

Vegetable garden.

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Fruit, Quick Meals, Salad, Soup, Summer, Vegetables

Summer Food 2010: The Raw Edition

Quick meteorological fact: by this time last year, Washington, DC registered ten days with high temperatures over 90F. This year, so far, we’ve experienced forty, with more to come in August. Welcome to summer on the eastern seaboard. In the spirit of the season, I’m participating in the Summer Food 2010 Project, where other foodical types will write and podcast about the many foods of summer. Picnics, beach food, barbecues, putting up jam and pickles … if it’s about summer, we’ll be talking about it!

I don’t need to tell you that, once the temperatures rise, firing up the stove seems less and less appealing. On the hottest nights, I don’t cook anything at all. That doesn’t mean we don’t eat. After all, summer dinners are about simplicity and taking advantage of the season, and few things are easier or tastier in the summer than fresh produce.

Two things. First, complicated raw preparations are out of the question. Could you simulate cheese with raw cashews, or make a raw mushroom “burger”? You could, but it takes time, planning, and effort. Could you make some kind of kale-mint-broccoli drink? Yes, but it would be gross. Second, a number of foods aren’t edible or tasty when raw. Some, like most mushrooms and most beans that you usually find in a dry state, must be cooked to neutralize toxins before eating. (There exist some exceptions, like button, cremini, and porcini.) Others aren’t tasty without cooking. Raw potatoes and sweet potatoes possess an unpleasant crispness and starchy taste from the free water and starch. Raw plantain and okra are slimy. Eggplant/aubergine is astringent and bitter unless cooked; quince, usually used for preserves like membrillo, is mouth-puckeringly tart. To me, raw brassicas like cauliflower, broccoli, and kale, are unpleasantly cabbage-y, although I know some people who love uncooked kale.

Instead of trying your damnedest to whip up a raw potato salad, try these refreshing light dishes. Each one can be prepared in minutes, without heating up your kitchen. You can use the time you save to sit around doing nothing in particular.

Cantaloupe soup with mint

I came up with this one evening when I finally got tired of the half cantaloupe taking up space in the refrigerator. Coincidentally it was about 90F outside even though the sun had set, and I wasn’t interested in firing up the stove. This might be the easiest and most striking summer dish in your repertoire. Don’t limit yourself to cantaloupe – honeydew and watermelon work just as well. If you elect to use watermelon, you might consider a seedless variety to save time.

one cantaloupe (or other similar melon), halved, and seeds scooped out
one lime, halved
about 4-6 mint leaves
yoghurt, strained
sea salt
mint and basil leaves, chiffonade

Scoop the cantaloupe flesh – I use a giant metal serving spoon – into a Vitaprep or blender, add a pinch of salt, the mint leaves, and the juice of about half a lime (use less if the cantaloupe is not very sweet). The lime juice is not meant to make the soup tart – you want to bring out the flavors of the cantaloupe with a little acid. Add more if necessary. Purée until completely smooth.

Pour into cups or small bowls. Garnish with a quenelle of yoghurt, a little sea salt, and the chiffonade herbs.

Chilled cantaloupe soup. Mint, basil.

Zucchini, peach, ricotta salad

Strictly speaking this is not a “raw” dish. Ricotta cheese is made from whey or milk that has been heated before curdling. (Arguably, the same is true of the yoghurt garnish for the cantaloupe soup.) That said, most of you aren’t making your own ricotta – or yoghurt, for that matter – so don’t let this technicality bother you unless you are a raw food enthusiast.

1 zucchini/courgette, washed well
1 large peach, washed well
1/2 c ricotta cheese
one lemon, zested and halved
1 tsp green peppercorn mustard or Dijon mustard
olive oil
espelette pepper (if you have it) or sriracha chile sauce
salt and pepper

Slice the zucchini thinly, lengthwise. Halve the peach, remove the pit, and slice each half thinly. Squeeze the juice of half the lemon over the peach slices.

Whisk together the juice of the other lemon half with the mustard. Season with a pinch of salt and a little pepper. If you do not have espelette pepper, add two or three drips of sriracha. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to form an emulsion (you will use between 2-3 times the quantity of oil as you have lemon juice).

Arrange the zucchini and peach on a platter. Drizzle with the emulsion and season with lemon zest, a little sea salt, and pepper. Spoon ricotta in 1 teaspoon bits over all.

Zucchini, peach, ricotta.

Sauce verte

Drizzle this sauce onto tomatoes, peaches, or nectarines, stir into steamed green beans, or use to sauce grilled or roasted meat. This sauce is equally at home with grilled chicken, halibut, and roast beef (or bison – see the photo below).

1 c watercress leaves
1 c arugula leaves
1 c basil leaves
1/2 c Italian parsley leaves
2 salt-packed anchovy filets
1 tbsp green peppercorn Dijon mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 1/2 to 2 c extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Purée the herbs and greens in a Vitaprep or blender with anchovy, mustard, a grind or two of black pepper, and olive oil until completely smooth. You may need to turn off the blender from time to time and turn the contents to move the raw greens to the bottom, tamping everything down. When puréed, add half of the lemon juice and the vinegar and process again. Taste and add salt and additional lemon juice if necessary. The anchovies may make further salting unnecessary. Set aside in tightly sealed nonreactive container.

Sauce verte.

Roast bison trip-tip, sauce verte.

Tomato salad

This is a true summer salad – tomatoes out of season are no good. If you grow your own heirlooms or otherwise have access, this is the time to use them. The pictured dish used red zebras and Cherokee purples, but nearly any tomato will work. The only tomatoes to avoid are the paste tomatoes, like San Marzano – these are less juicy by nature and are too dry for use in salad.

2-4 heirloom tomatoes
Sauce verte
sea salt and pepper

Square off tomatoes and garnish with sauce verte, drizzle of olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Retain tomato trimmings for another use (like saucemaking or just plain eating).

red zebra, cherokee purple.

A summer meal.

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Beans, Beef, Latin, Pork Products, Salad, Vegetables

Cuba libre.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that we’ve been eating a certain amount of Cuban food during the past several days. One of my favorite people in Washington is leaving town for good, and moving back to her hometown, Tampa. I’m happy for her and all, but I wish she weren’t leaving. We’ve had some great times together over the past ten years – her office was right next to mine at my old job and over the years we’ve had cake parties together, eaten our way through a lot of DC restaurants, tried to find something good to eat in Oklahoma City (I don’t think we were successful), and consumed a lot of wine and boar sausage in Languedoc.

So to celebrate her awesomeness, some of us friends decided to throw a party. Cuban food seemed the natural choice – Tampa has a long relationship with Cuba and Cubans, starting with the establishment of Ybor City in the late 19th century as a cigar manufacturing center and vibrant Cuban community. Normally I gravitate toward the more obscure foods, or update the classics. But a buffet for forty seemed a time to play it straight. With the greatest hits of Cuban cuisine – long braises like ropa vieja, hearty dishes like black beans and rice ( frijoles negros), plátanos or plantains, and slow roasted pork – how could we go wrong?

To cater to the vegetarians at the party, I elected to make the frijoles negros a meatless dish. Along with the plátanos and the avocado/mango salad, they make a totally filling meal for vegans. For meat eaters, the ropa vieja, with its falling-apart tender beef in a seasoned tomato sauce, and the slow roasted pork, with a counterpoint of crisp, pickled red onion to cut through the fatty meat, complete a perfect home-style meal.

Family style.

Frijoles negros

Here it is – Cuban black beans and rice, suitable for vegetarians. Beer and pimentón, smoked Spanish paprika, make up for the absence of meat-based stock and ham hock. Pimentón is not traditional in Cuban cuisine but it adds smokiness, a slight sweet flavor, and depth to the dish.

1 1/4 lb black turtle beans, rinsed and picked over
olive oil
two medium onions, peeled, fine dice
8 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
1 large rib celery, strings removed, fine dice
2 cubanelle peppers, seeded, deribbed, skin removed, fine dice
1 1/2 tsp pimentón, preferably dulce (sweet)
1/8 tsp cayenne
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp cider vinegar
1 12 oz bottle beer – pilsener style
water
salt and pepper

Soak beans if you have time; otherwise just simmer until cooked completely through to the center. Drain, reserving 2 c cooking liquid, and set aside.

Place a large pot over medium low heat and add oil. Sweat vegetables, adding in the order prescribed. When all vegetables are tender, add pimentón, cayenne, and oregano and saute for one minute. Add bay leaves, thyme, 1 tsp sugar, and drained beans. Add vinegar, beer, and about 1/2 c water. Simmer, covered, until very tender – about 30 mins; remove lid and add the reserved bean cooking liquid. Continue to simmer another 30 minutes. If the mixture requires more water to stay moist and somewhat soupy, add more water (add 1 tbsp vinegar per additional cup water). Remove thyme branches and bay. Taste for salt and pimentón, and season. Do not be surprised if you need to add quite a bit of salt – beans often require aggressive seasoning.

Serve with steamed rice.

Slow roasted pork shoulder, sour orange mojo

Sour oranges are not widely available outside of Latin markets, and even then, you may not find them. I was fortunate to find them at the Berkeley Bowl. But don’t worry – the bottled juice, available at most Latin markets, is just fine. You also can substitute a 50/50 blend of orange juice and lime juice.

6 lb pork shoulder, or Boston butt, bone-in
3 c sour orange juice, either freshly squeezed or bottled (jugo de naranja agria)
8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
kosher salt

Combine the orange juice and garlic cloves at least 24 hours before roasting the pork. Rub the pork with salt, about 1/2 tsp per pound, and marinate in the orange juice about 24 hours. If you don’t have the time, you can marinate for as few as 4 hours.

Oven 400F/200C. Remove the roast from the marinade and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Season evenly but lightly with kosher salt. Reserve the marinade in the refrigerator.

Roast at 400F/200C for about 20 minutes, until a golden brown crust begins to form. Reduce the heat to 200F/90C and roast for 6 hours, rotating the pan a couple of times.

Slow roasting pork shoulder.

Remove the roast from the oven and allow to rest for 45 minutes before slicing. Meanwhile, pour the excess melted pork fat from the roasting pan and place the roasting pan, with drippings, on the stove. Pour in the reserved marinade and bring to a simmer, incorporating the fond (drippings) into the marinade. Strain.

Delicious roast pork with pickled onion.

Slice the pork and serve, drizzled with sauce, with pickled red onion.

Pickled red onion

I’ve flash pickled red onion on these pages before. Here’s a slower version that you can store, in the pickling liquid, in the refrigerator. It’s best after about two hours, and within a few days.

2 red onions, peeled and sliced pole-to-pole
2/3 c red wine vinegar
2/3 c filtered water
2 tsp kosher salt

Dissolve the salt in the vinegar and water. Pour over the onions and allow to sit, covered, for at least 2 hours. If you wish to pickle overnight (the onions will be totally pink if you do), refrigerate the container.

Ropa vieja

Ordinarily, the beef for ropa vieja is simmered first in a mirepoix-based broth; the beef is shredded into ropy strands and simmered in a spiced tomato sauce. But I hate to lose that beefy flavor to the simmering water, so I always simmer the beef in the tomato sauce. Bonus – not only does the hearty taste of the beef enhance the sauce, but the acid in the tomato helps tenderize the meat, and the dish can be completed in one pot, rather than two.

2 lb skirt steak (flap or plate)
two medium onions, peeled, fine dice
8 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
4 cubanelle peppers, seeded, deribbed, skin removed, fine dice
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
2 28-ounce cans crushed or diced tomato

Place a large, deep pot over medium low heat and add oil. Sweat vegetables, adding in the order prescribed. When all vegetables are tender, add the oregano and cumin, and saute for one minute. Add 1/2 tsp salt, bay leaves, thyme, and the tomatoes. Add the beef and bring to a bare simmer. Cook at a very low simmer, covered, until very tender – about 2 hours.

Remove the meat from the pot and shred it roughly into long, ropy chunks of strands about 1/2″ wide. Return to the pot and bring to a bare simmer again. Cook until very tender, another 45 minutes. Season with salt and add oregano or cumin if necessary. Remove thyme branches and bay.

Serve over rice (especially yellow rice, arroz amarillo, made golden with achiote).

Avocado and mango salad

Jicama adds crunch to this salad, and lime juice keeps it tart. Don’t skimp on the lime – the mango can be too sweet, and this isn’t a dessert; it’s a salad.

2 avocadoes, peeled and pitted
1 large mango or 2 small mangoes, sliced parallel to the pit
1 small jicama root, peeled
2 limes
watercress, washed and dried
sea salt and black peppercorns (I used smoked peppercorns)

Slice the avocadoes into about 8 slices per half. Slice the mango into thin batons, about 1/4″ thick or less. Arrange the mango slices on top of the avocado slices, squeeze lime juice over all, and season with pepper.

Julienne the jicama and toss with lime juice. Arrange atop the mango. Season with a little salt and garnish with watercress.

Avocado, mango, jicama, lime.

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