Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Random Thoughts

Civics lesson.

Hey readers! I’ve got a favor to ask. If you read my last entry, you know I prepared risotto for a Marx Foods contest involving riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice. It’s voting time – won’t you please visit the Marx Foods contest page and vote for my dish? Thanks – and thanks to those of you who’ve already voted! (ps: polls close at 4pm Eastern on Friday, June 1.)

Again: the link to the contest: http://marxfood.com/favorite-risotto-recipe-integrale-gauntlet/

Risotto integrale, savoy cabbage, duck breast.

***Update: I’m through to the second round. Thanks for your support!***

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Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Italian

An integral component.

When you hear the words “brown rice,” do you glance anxiously over your shoulder, bracing for the oncoming thud of so many Earth Shoes and the stench of patchouli? You’re not alone. I happen to like brown rice, but the sad fact is that it usually isn’t celebrated for its nutty flavor and firm texture. Instead, it’s most often touted as the more healthful alternative to white rice, appearing as a bland, steaming beige pile beside equally dull crowns of unseasoned broccoli and a broiled salmon fillet. Yawn – and that’s a shame, because brown rice can contribute flavor and texture that polished white rice can’t.

Recently, a Facebook acquaintance asked if I’d be interested in participating in a cooking challenge sponsored by Marx Foods. I contacted Marx Foods and received a kilo of organic riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice – with instructions to cook through a “gauntlet” of dishes. This is the first, a savory risotto. (The next two, sweet risotto and cook’s choice, depend on gaining enough votes in the first round to advance. So please vote! Follow this link to vote before June 1!)

If you’ve ever wanted to work with brown rice but have been brought up short by the differences from white rice in cooking time and water content, I encourage you to try the integrale when making risotto. Ordinarily, the challenge when making risotto is stopping short of overcooking, at which point the rice becomes heavy and mushy. In addition, the cooked risotto will continue to absorb any residual liquid, changing quickly from a slightly soupy dish to a gummy, starchy lump. Using an unpolished rice still bearing its bran, however, slows the pace at which the rice absorbs liquid. Not only does this make it easier to tell when the rice is approaching the ideal texture – cooked through and not hard, but retaining a firm bite – but the fully cooked risotto will not absorb residual liquid as quickly, maintaining its soupy texture. What’s more, the open-pot cooking of risotto relieves you of any guesswork and worry about under- or overcooking associated with steaming. You simply add as much simmering liquid, bit by bit, as it takes to cook the rice.

The keys to a really flavorful risotto are to toast the rice grains well in oil before adding any liquid (a process called tostatura), to use a really flavorful stock (I happened to have plenty of duck stock at home, but any good stock will work well), and to season with salt while cooking rather than waiting until the end. That way, each grain of rice is seasoned through to its core.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast

To complement the nutty, earthy flavor of the integrale, I added savoy cabbage to the risotto near the end of cooking, and served with a simply seared duck breast, with lots of herbs on the finish to brighten the dish. The resulting dish was faintly reminiscent of that broccoli-cheddar rice we all ate as kids – savoy and broccoli both being brassicas – but in a good way, not a fake out-of-a-box way.

1 large duck breast (magret), about 500g (just over a pound)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and small dice (1/4″)
1 medium leek, white and light green only, washed well and small dice (1/4″)
1/2 medium head savoy cabbage, finely chopped
1 tbsp duck fat or unsalted butter
250g integrale rice (about 1 2/3 c)
250 ml dry white wine (a little more than 1 c)
1.4 l strong duck or chicken stock (about 6 c)
1 dried or 2 fresh bay leaves
4 stalks fresh thyme
chives
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
about 1/2 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper

About 45 minutes before service, bring the stock to a simmer and maintain at a bare simmer. Cover if necessary to prevent evaporation.

Mise en place.

Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp duck fat or butter. Add the onion and leeks, season lightly with salt, and sweat until tender. It is not necessary to brown the vegetables.

Leeks and onion.

Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil and becoming somewhat chalky-looking, about 5 minutes (tostatura).

Tostatura.

Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Add some salt – perhaps 1/2 tsp – and the simmering duck stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes and the rice should release starch into the stock.

Releasing starch into stock.

After about 30 minutes, while the rice is still firm but nearly tender enough to the bite, add the savoy cabbage and stir well to continue cooking, adding the remaining stock. Taste for salt at this point and season lightly if more is necessary. The rice takes about 30-35 minutes to cook and, when properly cooked should still be firm as opposed to mushy, but must not be hard in the center of each grain.

Adding savoy,

As soon as the rice is cooked, remove from the heat and stir in 4 tbsp cold butter and the Parmigiano. Beat well to coat with the butter; add 1 tbsp water if necessary to loosen. Your goal is to form an emulsion between the residual liquid in the pan and the butter, slightly thickened and stabilized by the starch (mantecatura). Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and pepper to taste.

Plate the risotto and add the sliced duck (see below). Garnish with herbs. Serves six as primi or as a component with additional vegetables or meat.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast.

Duck breast

This duck breast was cooked at 140F/60C, but the duck may be cooked conventionally on the stovetop and/or finished in a warm oven.

If cooking sous vide: Vacuum pack the duck breast with 2 sprigs of thyme on the meat side. Place in a water bath with an immersion circulator set to 140F/60C for between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove and dry on paper towels.

Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin (you should encounter virtually no resistance when attempting to score the fat). Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and sear the meat side for about 15 seconds. Slice.

140F duck breast.

Searing duck breast.

If you prefer to cook conventionally: Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin. Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and reduce the heat. Cook until just shy of medium rare; remove to a board and rest for about 5 minutes. Slice.

*Thanks to Marx Foods for the integrale!

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Brassicas, Fruit, Pork Products

The Personality Kid.

Fact: admitting to anything less than total adoration of certain foods will result in your ostracism as a “commie.” I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago after publicly declaring that bacon was overused and had become something of a cliché, not to mention a flavor crutch. And I’m probably about to learn it again by saying that, in my experience, pork chops are not always the best the pig has to offer. Next to bacon, perhaps no other part of the pork is as beloved as the chop. Indeed, pork chops and bacon are Homer Simpson’s “two favorite animals.” And in the classic Brady Bunch episode where Peter attempts to reinvent himself as a more exciting character, he Bogarts the name of that evening’s dinner: pork chops … and applesauce.

Before you refer me to the Committee on Un-American Affairs, let me just say that I’ve cooked and eaten some truly delicious pork chops, sure. Brined and smoked, wood-grilled with maple and lemon, or sliced off the bone, fried, and sandwiched within a bun with some slaw, pork chops can be terrific. The problem is that pork chops are unreliable kitchen companions. The blade and sirloin chops contain the most dark meat – usually a guarantee against drying out – but they’re hard to pan-fry because of the bones, never take a good brown crusty sear, and take better to braising. Even after braising, though, the weird bone pattern makes them a pain in the ass to eat. The rib and loin chops have the most manageable bone structure – a curved edge or T-bone, respectively – but the meat is usually very lean thanks to the “other white meat” fetish, and, if too thin, will dry out in the time it takes to get a decent sear.

Enter the ibérico pork chop. Since last fall, I’ve been working with various cuts of ibérico de bellota pork – the rich, sweet cuts of meat from black-footed pata negra pigs that forage acorns in western Spain. Wagshal’s Market provided me a pair of rib chops, which my husband regarded with enthusiasm. Out of one side of his mouth, he gritted the words “pork chops … and applesauce,” jaw firmly locked à la Peter Brady, the Personality Kid. He loves pork chops unconditionally. I knew what I had to do.

Pork chop comparison. Niman Ranch on the left (an admirable chop, but still); Iberico de bellota on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the ibérico pork chop makes up for the shortcomings of the conventional pork chop. It’s got the single bone curving along one side, which leaves you with a nice big eye of meat, and instead of being lean to the point of dryness, it’s got plenty of interior fat to keep things moist and flavorful.

“Pork chops and applesauce”

If you don’t have the ibérico pork chops, don’t worry … you can use a regular pork chop, but try to use one about 1″ thick or so to keep the meat juicy. For these purposes, select a rib chop; the blade chops (cut from near the shoulder), the loin chops (cut to include both loin and tenderloin), and the sirloin chops (cut from near the hipbone) all contain an interior bone or bones that divide the meat. Although I usually do recommend cooking meat on the bone for flavor and moisture, when pan-frying, the meat shrinks slightly, leaving only the bone in contact with the pan. With multiple interior bones, the meat never gets a really good sear. Save those kinds of chops for the broiler.

Cooking the sliced apples sous vide preserves their intense apple flavor. It is not necessary to do so. I have provided instructions for cooking both ways.

2 granny smith apples, peeled and sliced thinly
2 c apple lambic or hard cider
1 c pork stock or white veal stock
3 cloves garlic confit
about 12 oz red cabbage, thinly sliced (about 3/16″)
2 tbsp rendered pork fat or an oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed
several thyme branches
fresh bay leaf
1/4 dry white wine
2 rib chops, preferably ibérico de bellota

For the applesauce:

If cooking sous vide, seal the apples in a bag with two thyme branches and a pinch of salt. Cook in a circulating water bath set to 183F/84C for 20 minutes. If cooking conventionally, proceed to the next step.

Heat 1 1/2 c of the apple lambic in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer. Reduce by 2/3. Add the stock and garlic confit and reduce again by half. If not cooking sous vide, add the apple slices and two branches of thyme, cover, and simmer until tender.

Remove the herbs. Transfer the reduction and the cooked apples to a vitaprep/blender and process to the desired consistency (for a smooth puree, you may need to add more water or stock).

For the cabbage:

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp of the pork fat or oil. Add the cabbage, bay leaf, and a couple of sprigs of thyme and sauté until just wilted. Add the white wine and toss; the cabbage should turn a bright magenta due to the wine’s acidity. Once the wine has evaporated, add 1/2 c apple lambic; reduce heat and continue to cook until completely tender. Season with salt.

For the pork chops:

Season well with salt on both sides. Place a skillet over high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the pork chops, searing on the fat edge first to render, and then on one side. Add the thyme branches to the rendered fat and baste. Turn over when golden on the bottom; reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, basting with the thyme oil, until about medium on the inside. Rest for five minutes before service.

Serve with the apple sauce and red cabbage; garnish with additional thyme and chives if you have them.

Pork chops, lambic-braised red cabbage, chunky applesauce.

*Thanks again to Wagshal’s Market and Iberico USA for the pork chops featured in this dish.

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Beef, Brassicas, Cheese, Offal, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Soup, Vegetables

Cheeky.

One of the most interesting aspects of social networking is its potential to unintentionally reveal the truth about the self, the person behind the crafted public image. Along these lines, a surprisingly large number of self-described “foodies” – the kind of people who TiVo Food Network and would throw their panties at Michael Symon if he turned up in a local supermarket – evidently find certain foods too scary to eat. “I love ya Chef but sweetbreads I don’t think so……LOL!” goes one recent zinger on Facebook. “Ewwww….tongue!” says another. You can’t beat it for wit.

You already know about my low tolerance for this infantile attitude toward food. This goes back a long time. The summer after graduating from law school, I went to Spain and Portugal with some friends, a trip that reached its nadir one night in Seville when, nerves frayed from two weeks of hairpin turns in a packed Peugeot, sweaty nights in a series of hostels without air conditioning, and a couple of travel companions who displayed a surprising lack of dietary sang-froid, we got into an argument at the restaurant. Sitting beside the Guadalquivir and surveying the platters landing at tables around us, one travel companion complained that nothing on the menu was edible because all the seafood and poultry came head-on and bone-in.

“Just … order it,” I gritted tightly. “That’s how it comes in Spain.”

“Well, it’s gross,” she shot back. “I don’t eat food with the heads on. I don’t care where we are.”

“We’re not in Roseville, Brenda*. Shrimp has heads. Chicken has bones. There is no goddamn boneless chicken ranch.”

At this point there was a great scraping of metal on concrete as Brenda pushed back her chair, stood up, and threw her napkin down on the table. “You – are – such – a – @$%&^*@ – $#@&$!” she shouted, storming off and attracting the full attention of the other diners, who I’m pretty sure got the gist of her outburst even if they didn’t speak English. Good times, good times.

Looking back, I probably could’ve been nicer about it. For example, if I were trying to ease someone into the idea of eating offal today, I’d serve them braised cheeks. They’re basically like any other cut of meat but better, with all the flavor concentrated in one small disc, bathed in a glossy sauce. The plentiful collagen in the cheeks – heavily exercised by all that chewing – accounts for the sauce’s body.

Iberico pork cheeks.

Cheeks aren’t always the easiest cut to find, but I encourage you to look around, because they’re well worth the hunt. If you’ve got access to a market that caters to a Latino clientele, you might find them, as they’re a favored cut (and I’ve heard that Wal-Marts with well-stocked meat departments sometimes carry them in the freezer section, so give that a shot – it may be the only time I ever endorse stopping into the Wal-Mart). If you can’t find cheeks, substitute shank, shoulder (in the case of pork), or short rib (in the case of beef). Don’t substitute pork belly; it’s a lot fattier than the cheek, and you’ll wind up with a greasy braise. And don’t substitute hog jowl; it resembles the belly more than the cheek.

Pork cheeks, celeriac pancake, apple

If you subscribe to the textural variation school of cooking – and I do – you will want something firm or crisp to accompany the cheeks, since they’re falling-apart tender and saucy. A celeriac-potato rösti-like cake makes a great accompaniment. Relieve the richness of the cheeks with a fresh apple salad. If you have leftover cheeks, enjoy them with toast points, cornichons, and mustard for lunch.

I used ibérico cheeks and highly recommend them; they had an intensely meaty, nutty flavor that I haven’t encountered in any other type of pork. If you’d like to try them, Iberico USA carries them. The long braising process in the flavorful liquid makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of conventional pork, though, so don’t hesitate to make this dish if you can’t spring for the ibérico cheeks. Keep the cooking temperature low, as near to 180F as you can, to ensure tenderness rather than stringiness. The intention of long cooking at low temperatures is to break the collagen down into gelatin, which then bathes the meat’s muscle fibers. Although it may seem that braised meats cannot become dry, this is untrue; the fibers in the cheek, like those in other heavily-exercised parts of the animal, are long and will become tough, dry, and unpleasantly stringy if they lose too much moisture. If that happens, you can notice the stringiness even when the meat is adequately coated in sauce. So don’t be tempted to cook at a higher temperature, and always be careful when reheating.

One last thing: in a conventional braise, the meat is browned first to develop rich, savory flavors via the Maillard reaction. I dispensed with this step because the cheeks are quite small and I wanted to reduce the possibility that the meat would toughen up. It turns out not to be necessary.

Oh, actually, one last last thing: the ibérico cheeks came in a pretty large Cryovac package and, when thawed, gave up a few cups of blood. I saved the blood, which smelled sweet and clean, and not slaughterhouse-y in that way that factory-farmed (CAFO) pork smells. I’ll be making blood sausage with that in the future, so watch for the post.

2 lb pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
16 oz ale
1 1/2 quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp grated fresh horseradish root
bouquet garni

2 granny smith apples
lemon juice
chives, minced

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the ale and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half. This step is necessary to reduce the booziness of the beer.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

After removing the cheeks

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Heat through.

Prepare a brunoise of the granny smith apples and toss with a little lemon juice to prevent browning. Then combine with the chives.

Serve the cheeks with celeriac rösti wedges and the apple-herb salad.

Iberico cheek, celeriac rosti, mustard, celeriac purée.

For the celeriac rösti:

This isn’t strictly a rösti, which classically features just potatoes and butter. It just sort of resembles one.

1/2 celeriac root, washed and peeled (use a knife to peel, not a peeler)
1/2 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 medium yellow onions, minced
1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp ground celery seed
pinch of cayenne or espelette pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
kosher salt to taste, at least 1 tsp and probably more
black pepper
celery salt to finish
vegetable oil and butter

Oven 425F on broil. Set the rack in the middle position of the oven.

Place a 12″ skillet over medium heat and, when hot add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to color slightly. Do not brown. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Combine the eggs, flour, celery seed, cayenne, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet.

Shred the celeriac in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Toss with about 1/2 tsp lemon juice to prevent browning (try not to use more or it will be sour). Shred the potatoes in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Place in a clean kitchen towel (one that does not smell of detergent or dryer sheets), fold the towel over, twist the ends, and squeeze the towel over a bowl. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato. If necessary, repeat in another towel. Add the grated potatoes and celeriac to the egg mixture and stir well to combine.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add about 1 tbsp each butter and oil to the pan. Swirl the pan once the butter foams to coat the sides about 1″ up. Add the entire mixture and distribute evenly throughout the pan, patting to compress somewhat. Cook until the underside is golden brown and pulls away slightly from the sides; transfer to the broiler.

Cook until the top is golden brown. Remove,cool slightly, and transfer to a cutting board. Slice into wedges. Season with a grind of black pepper and a little celery salt.

Golden brown cake.

Beef cheek, ricotta dumpling, cauliflower soup

Certain cuts of beef taste to me like “generic meat.” Beef tenderloin, for example – I’ve never really understood the great love of filet mignon (although I imagine it corresponds with the fear of offal). Or the round – there’s nothing really wrong with it, but I’ve had a lot of roast beef made from the round, which tastes to me like AnyMeat. It could be the reason why I’ve never been able to get excited about deli roast beef sandwiches.

Beef cheek, though? You’ll never mistake that for anything other than beef. Along with the deckle and the short rib, it is one of the three cuts that deliver the most intense beef flavor per bite. The dish below – beef cheeks with dumplings and a creamy cauliflower soup, garnished with flash-fried cauliflower florets – is pretty rich, and a small-portions kind of thing. If you have fresh truffle, now is the time to use it.

You’ll have leftover beef cheek and braising reduction; you can shred up the cheeks in the reduction and toss it with tagliatelle or pappardelle.

For the beef cheek:

1 1/2 lb beef cheeks, cleaned of the most obvious gristle and silverskin
medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
bouquet garni (leek w/bay leaf, thyme, parsley)
2 c dry red wine
1 quart white beef stock or veal stock

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Sear the beef cheeks on all sides until deep brown (a couple of minutes per side). Remove to a plate. Add the vegetables to the pan and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Return the beef cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Gently heat through.

Serve with the cauliflower soup, flash fried cauliflower florets, and the dumplings. If you have fresh white truffle (or black), slice a little bit over the top.

Beef cheek, cauliflower, ricotta dumpling

Cauliflower soup

2/3 lb cauliflower florets and stems, sliced 1/4″
2 1/2 c white veal stock or chicken stock
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar (to taste)
5 tbsp butter
2/3 c heavy cream
salt and white pepper

To prepare sous vide:

Bag the cauliflower with the salt and 1 tbsp butter. Vacuum seal and drop into a circulator at 183F/84C for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a simmer with the bay and thyme.

Remove herbs. Transfer both cauliflower and stock to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

To prepare conventionally:

Bring the stock to a simmer with the thyme and bay leaf and, when add the cauliflower. Simmer until tender, about 8 minutes; do not continue to simmer beyond that point. Remove herbs.

Transfer to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

For the dumplings:

1/2 lb whole milk ricotta
1 egg, beaten
between 3-5 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
minced assorted herbs – thyme, chives, tarragon, parsley

Combine the beaten egg with the minced herbs, salt, and the ricotta. Incorporate well. Spread out on a flat surface and sprinkle flour evenly over the surface; working quickly, fold the ricotta/egg mixture over itself again and again, using a bench scraper or knife to incorporate the flour into the ricotta, to form a small square. Transfer it back into a bowl and let it rest (you can rest it in the refrigerator for up to a day at this point, tightly covered).

At serving time, bring a pot of salted water to a simmer and, using a small scoop or two spoons, drop balls or quenelles of dumpling dough about 3/4″ into the simmering water. When the dumplings float, let them simmer for about a minute. Remove from the water with a skimmer and drain briefly on a clean kitchen towel.

With a cauliflower soup.

*names have been changed to protect the food-cowardly.

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Brassicas, Random Thoughts, Vegetables

Romanesco.

Recently, on the way home from the office, we stopped at the market to pick up a few things and wait out the traffic. You know how it is – you walk into the store thinking you’re just going to pick up a box of pasta, and the next thing you know, you’ve been sidetracked by the golden beets. On the way out of the produce section, I spotted something irresistible.

Romanesco cauliflower.

In the checkout lane, it was inevitable that someone would ask, because the vegetable in question is a headturner. A woman in the next aisle leaned over. “What is that?” she asked, turning it over.

“Ah,” I said. “That is romanesco. People always describe it as a cross between broccoli and cauliflower because of the color, but it’s not. It’s actually an old variety of cauliflower.”

Moments later, I heard the bagger ask the cashier about the romanesco. “Oh, that’s broccoflower,” he said. “It’s a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. It tastes just like both!”

I’m not usually committed enough to being right that I need to be a total jerk, so I didn’t say anything. Some people, not so much. Years ago, in San Francisco, a casual chat with a total stranger at the Real Foods Market on Polk Street nearly came to blows when the woman in question insisted, beyond the point of obnoxiousness, that shallots were “scallions” and scallions were “leeks.” Oh, and for the record, she was the one who cocked her fist, not me. But enough about that. Actually, romanesco – a cauliflower variety sometimes described as a type of broccoli and infrequently even described as a cabbage – isn’t a cross. It’s just a variety of cauliflower which, like cauliflower and cabbage, is a type of Brassica oleracea. The conical spire pattern that characterizes the romanesco has been described as a striking natural illustration of the fractal – a recursive geometric pattern – although the romanesco’s spires don’t continue endlessly. Look closer at each the bumps on each spire – each one looks like a miniature of the larger ones. It’s one of the most beautiful vegetables.

Don’t be intimidated by the romanesco’s appearance. You can cook it just as you would any other cauliflower, although you should take into account its chartreuse cast and gothic appearance if the aesthetics of the dish are important. As with all brassicas, it shouldn’t be overcooked or it turns to mush and smells cabbage-y. Conversely, if you have no romanesco, try any of these recipes with cauliflower.

Romanesco, crispy capers, lemon

A little like the classic bagna càuda, this packs the punch of olive oil and anchovies. Unlike that Piedmontese dish, though, this features fried capers and lemon. The romanesco becomes sweet and caramel-y with its dip in the boiling oil.

one head romanesco cauliflower
1 1/2 tbsp capers, salt- or brine-packed
4 anchovies
2 c olive oil
one lemon
Salt
flat leaf parsley

Divide the romanesco head into its spires/florets. Cut the center core into chunks about the size of one of the smaller spires, if you like. Coarsely chop the anchovies.

If necessary (only if using salt-packed capers), soak the capers, rinse, and repeat to remove excess salt. You can skip this step if using brine-packed capers.

Place a saucepot filled with oil over medium heat and, when hot (350F/177C), add the romanesco florets. Don’t crowd the pot; fry in batches. Fry until golden brown. The size of the florets will reduce by about 30-40% as they lose water during frying. Drain on paper towels over a rack.

After frying all the romanesco, fry the anchovies and capers until the blossoms open; this takes only about 20-30 seconds. Toss with the romanesco. Squeeze a lemon and sprinkle parsley over all. Season lightly with salt if necessary (the capers and anchovies are pretty salty; you may not need salt).

Romanesco, crispy capers, anchovies, lemon.

Romanesco, brown butter

Tip for the haters: brown butter makes any vegetable delicious. Case in point: my husband claims to dislike cauliflower, but the other night, he went back for seconds of romanesco cooked sous vide in brown butter. That may have had something to do with the house-cured bacon, braised whole and served with a marchand de vin– style bacon sauce, but I just want to remind anyone who’s still reading that he did NOT have to have seconds of the romanesco.

What makes brown butter and romanesco even better is a bit of pungency and acid to cut the richness. Try sage leaves, capers or a small amount of diced kimchi – yes, kimchi. Brown butter and kimchi taste amazing together. Substitute capers or a little diced kimchi for the sage leaf if you want to try something different.

one head romanesco cauliflower
4 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
4-6 sage leaves
1/2 lemon
sea salt

450F/232C oven.

Divide the romanesco into its spires/florets, or, if you like, slice it into 1/2″ thick steaks. Toss with oil and spread on a sheet pan. Roast until golden brown.

Place a small saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Watch as it melts and foams; as it turns golden brown and smells nutty, add the sage leaves and fry until crisp. Add about 1 tbsp of lemon juice to the butter and remove from heat. Toss with the romanesco and season with salt.

Instead of roasting, if you have an immersion circulator or another sous vide apparatus, set it to 185F/85C. Season the romanesco with salt and seal in a plastic bag. Cook for 25 minutes. Remove from immersion circulator. Toss with the brown butter before serving.

House cured bacon, bacon reduction, 85C romanesco, brown butter.

Romanesco, cocoa

I see you backing away in fear, but trust me – this is a well-known taste pairing. As the Khymos folks (or whatever the singular of folks is) have noted, they go really well together (TGRWT). I don’t know why, from a scientific standpoint. It seems that the bitterness and slight acidity of the chocolate balance the sweetness of the caramelized cauliflower, while the fruitiness/nuttiness of the chocolate bring out those qualities in the cauliflower. So both contrast and synergy appear to be at work.

This is the easiest dish I could conceive to introduce the pairing. Romanesco – caramelized by frying rather than roasting, which takes babysitting to avoid burning – gets a quick dusting in chocolate shavings. If you try and like it, let me know and I’ll post some recipes for more interesting dishes, like roasted cauliflower flan and cocoa tuiles.

one head romanesco cauliflower
2 c grapeseed oil
small bar of unsweetened chocolate OR unsweetened cocoa powder
sea salt, preferably something with texture like Maldon or Halen Môn

Divide the romanesco head into its spires/florets. Cut the center core into chunks about the size of one of the smaller spires, if you like.

Place a saucepot filled with oil over medium heat and, when hot (350F/177C), add the romanesco florets. Don’t crowd the pot; fry in batches. Fry until golden brown. The size of the florets will reduce by about 30-40% as they lose water during frying. Drain on paper towels over a rack.

After frying all the romanesco, season with sea salt. Shave the unsweetened chocolate over the romanesco with a microplane (for grating hard cheese). Alternatively, sift some unsweetened cocoa through a sieve over the fried romanesco.

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