Pork Products, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Seafood, Soup

Land and sea.

When I was a kid, we ate most family meals at home. My mom worked – like most women today – and, every day upon coming home from the local junior high, she’d pull ingredients from the refrigerator and pantry and start making dinner Some nights, we’d have American classics like roast chicken, beef stew, or spaghetti with meat sauce. Other nights, we’d have favorite Taiwanese dishes like soy braised pork with boiled eggs, or steamed fish with black bean sauce. And once in a while, we went out.

There weren’t a lot of dining options in the western suburbs of Milwaukee in the 70s and 80s, short of pizza, burgers, and family-style restaurants. My favorite place was Marty’s Pizza, which turned out enormous pizzas in rectangular pans, cut into squares. I ate it with friends at birthday parties and after high school football games, and there was something about the shallow-crusted pie, with its sweetish sauce and nuggets of Italian sausage, overlaid with bubbling, browned mozzarella, that was irresistible. Part of the lure of Marty’s was the fact that my parents would never take us there, for reasons they never explained – a family feud, perhaps, or a grudge against Marty? If my family went out for pizza, it would be to Shakey’s – where buffet stations entreated us to “Take all you want, but please eat all you take.” Shakey’s – which no longer survives in Milwaukee but as I understand it can still be found in parts of the South and West, and inexplicably the Philippines – seemed exotic in its own way, as round pans bearing thin, crisp-crusted pies would empty and reappear on the buffet stand, alongside fried chicken and battered Mojo potato rounds. Shakey’s had a sort of Olde English theme going, corrupted by pizza-parlor checked tablecloths and player pianos, and from time to time you would notice a wooden sign on the wall, reading “Ye Olde Notice,” that would inform the customer of its check acceptance policy or the superior quality of the pizza.

Once in a while, my parents’ appetites for lobster and crab took us to Red Lobster. While they cracked open lobster claws to dip in drawn butter with lemon, I invariably dined on the clam chowder. I was a picky kid, and my parents – rather than wasting the $15.99 on a frighteningly large pile of snow crab legs I’d probably just push around the plate – went with the safe bet. Having eaten many a can of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder, I could be counted on to enjoy a cup of Red Lobster’s chowder and a baked potato, heavy on the sour cream and butter. At some point in the meal, I usually proclaimed the chowder to be “excellent” and called for a second cup, to be eaten with as many cellophane packets of oyster crackers as I could charm off the waiter.

Red Lobster’s chowder was of the roux-thickened variety, practically as thick as béchamel and with a tendency to congeal once it cooled. In fact, I think I used to amuse myself by standing the spoon up in the chowder and counting the seconds before it would fall to the side. And to be honest, I’m not totally sure it contained fresh clams (which in retrospect would be really strange for a seafood restaurant, but it’s Red Lobster, and it was long time ago). I was six years old, though, and it obviously didn’t matter to me. I went crazy for the diced potatoes, the cream, and the little green bits of parsley sprinkled over the top.

Chowders of all kinds – clam, lobster, corn, chicken – are still a favorite, although I let the potato do the thickening these days, and I always add some kind of cured pork product, like bacon or pancetta. As you know, I’m a big fan of the ibérico de bellota pork products from Iberico USA, and I recently got my hands on some panceta, smoked bacon from the belly.

Panceta de ibérico de bellota.

My husband persuaded me to fry up a few slices – “to sample the product in its pure form,” he reasoned. I’ve cured my own ibérico bacon, but this panceta, having been smoked as well as cured, tasted like a superhero version of regular bacon. More crispy fat, more sweet/smoky meat. Of course, as we ate nearly half the package, only a few slices remained. I decided to incorporate them into clam chowder. Unfortunately, the market was nearly out of clams – the dozen manila clams they could offer weren’t enough for chowder – so we went to Plan B. Oyster stew. We’re still in the cold-water months (the so-called “R” months), and the oysters are plump and sweet.

Why seafood and pork products? They’re a classic combination, an age-old way for coastal communities to stretch scarce meat products with plentiful ocean resources. Most fish and nearly all shellfish are low in fat, and the richness of pork not only adds flavor, but provides additional fat to enhance the flavors of the seafood. Think of shrimp and grits, chowder (of course), the many Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that combine seafood and pork, and the Portuguese classic porco à alentejana. Of course, with the passage of time and increasing affluence, the land/sea combination came to epitomize a certain type of rapacious consumption, far from its origins. The surf and turf available at most steakhouses is an exercise in excessive “luxury,” a parody of fine dining; the carpetbagger steak, a favorite of notorious glutton Diamond Jim Brady, is so over the top it terrifies even my husband. There’s no need to make a mockery of the concept, after all.

Oyster stew

It’s worth the effort to use live oysters in the shell, rather than pre-shucked oysters in liquor. Roasting whole oysters in a blazing hot oven will impart a little bit of a smoky taste to the shellfish, and the roasted whole oysters yield far more liquor as well. Besides, once roasted, the oyster is easy to shuck; in fact, you’ll know it’s ready to go when the top shell pops open. Be sure to strain through the finest mesh possible to remove any grit.

The panceta from Iberico USA is luxurious, fatty, and delicious, and as things go, it isn’t crazily expensive. The fat is especially nice for cooking the leeks and celery. You can use any good quality bacon, though; just be sure to buy a thick cut, and reserve the fat for cooking. You want that smoky taste throughout the stew.

about three dozen oysters, scrubbed under cold water and kept on ice
6 fresh or 2 dried bay leaves
about 12 sprigs thyme
1 c dry white wine, like Champagne
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, washed well
2 ribs celery, strings peeled
1/4 lb bacon, preferably of ibérico de bellota
1 c heavy cream
pepper to taste
3 additional sprigs fresh thyme, about 6 chives, and 1/4 c flat leaf parsley

Oven 500F/260C.

Split the leeks in half lengthwise and slice thinly (less than 1/8″). Slice the celery ribs thinly crosswise about 1/8″. Set aside separately.

Arrange the cleaned oysters in a single layer over the bay leaves and thyme in one or more large, heavy pans (like sauté pans or a heavy roasting pan). Divide the wine equally among the pans. Place the pans in the hot oven and roast just until the oyster shells open. Remove immediately from the oven and, with tongs, move the oysters to a plate to cool, pouring the oyster liquor into the roasting pan as you go.

Ready to roast.

Roasted, with bonus oyster crab

Pour the remaining oyster liquor through a fine filter (such as a mesh tea strainer or a chinois). Repeat, lining the chinois/strainer with a triple thickness of butter muslin or cheesecloth. When the oyster shells are just cool enough to handle, pop the top shell open with an oyster knife and cut the oyster free. Keep the oysters in the liquor. If you find oyster crabs (pictured above), eat them!

Dice the bacon about 1/4″. Place a large, heavy saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add the diced bacon to the pan. Saute until crisp and deep golden brown; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp bacon fat (reserving the rest for a future use). Add the leeks and reduce the heat; sweat until tender. Add the celery and cook about 2 minutes more. Remove from the pan.

Mmm, ibérico bacon.

Strain the oyster liquor once more through the chinois into the pan. Bring to a simmer and reduce to 2 c. Return the vegetables to the pan, then the cream. Bring back to the simmer ad add the oysters. Heat through.

Garnish with the diced fried bacon and the minced fresh herbs.

Oyster stew, panceta.

Special thanks to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta for this dish.

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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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Pasta, Pork Products, Potatoes

Winner winner gnocchi dinner.

About a year ago, I answered a question about successful gnocchi-making, noting that both egg and flour can make gnocchi heavy or tough, and that “once you become adept, you may be able to incorporate the flour and potato without using any egg at all.” Well, now’s the time.

Here’s why. Kneading wheat flour with liquid develops gluten, a protein that, once developed, lends structure and elasticity. Gluten denatures and firms when exposed to heat. Egg proteins – particularly the ovoalbumin in the white – denature and form an increasingly hard gel when exposed to heat. Together, flour and egg transform fluffy, starchy potato into poachable dumplings. Without anything to hold together the potato, it will simply disintegrate and dissolve into the cooking liquid. With too much, however, the dumplings become tough and/or heavy.

One way to minimize the potential for toughness is to eliminate the egg entirely. You don’t need it; the egg really just enriches the gnocchi. Using egg, however, means you must use more flour to soak up the egg’s moisture. The more flour you add, and the longer you knead the dough, the stiffer and more leaden the gnocchi will be. So dispense with the egg, and use just enough flour to lend structure to the potato. Work the flour-potato mixture long enough to develop the gluten so the gnocchi don’t completely collapse on cooking. Rest the dough before forming, to allow the gluten to relax for more tender dumplings.

A lot of people think the eggless gnocchi are more difficult to make than the egg-enriched variety. I disagree. Once you get the hang of these, they’re easier and far faster to make than any gnocchi involving egg, and the texture is so much better. Counting the time to bake the potatoes, you can get these out in an hour; make extra and freeze them if you like. You may incorporate small quantities of light, dry flavorings like minced herbs or Parmigiano-Reggiano at the same time as the flour.

Potato gnocchi

Preheat the oven to 400F/204C and, using a fork, poke several holes in the potato skin. Place the potatoes in kosher salt in a baking dish and place in the hot oven; alternatively, simply bake directly on the oven rack. The salt is not essential. Bake until thoroughly tender.

As soon as possible, halve the potatoes, scoop out the innards, and rice directly onto a wooden board. Spread out on the board by fluffing with a fork to release steam. Set salted water to boil.

Riced potato, spread out to dry.

Season the surface of the riced potato lightly with salt and then add just enough flour to coat the surface of the potato at first; knead together until the mixture forms a sticky dough. If it’s too sticky (sticking mostly to your hands), add more flour. I use my fingertips to grab just a couple of tbsp at a time, to avoid over-flouring.

Sprinkled with flour (and salt).

When you reach this point – the dough holds together but is not stiff, and is a little sticky but not gluey – cover with a clean kitchen towel and rest for about 30 minutes to give the gluten time to relax. Then portion with a bench scraper and roll quickly and lightly with your hands on a flour-dusted board into a rope about 3/4″ in diameter. Don’t press too hard as you roll; just press hard enough to roll to 3/4″. The surface shouldn’t be sticky; it should feel smooth. Using the bench scraper, cut into 3/4″ pieces. Roll each piece out onto a gnocchi board or the tines of a fork if you like.

Cook the gnocchi immediately in just-boiling salted water until they float. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in heated bowls.

Rolled and grooved.

Sauce as you like. These are served with braised ibérico de bellota pork cheeks and peas, in a sauce of the reduced braising liquid, with thyme and chive. You can finish with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I did not.

I used the ibérico de bellota product I wrote about here – you can order it from Ibérico USA. I highly recommend it – the cheek meat is sweet and rich.

Pork cheeks, peas, gnocchi.

2 lb/1kg pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 c/450 ml light red wine (I used a pinot noir; brouilly or something similar would be great as well)
6 c/1.4 l quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
bouquet garni
1c shelled English peas
several branches thyme, leaves only
chive, 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 wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

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 covered container and chill until ready to use. Strain the braising liquid through chinois. 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, torn to coarse chunks with a fork. Add the peas. Heat through until the peas are cooked.

Sauce the gnocchi with the cheek and pea, and the reduced braising liquid. Garnish with chives and thyme, and black pepper.

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Holidays, Potatoes, Quick Meals, Vegetables

Hats off to Hanukkah.

Note: I usually don’t republish old posts, but if you’re thinking of making potato latkes this week for Hanukkah, try these out. They’re delicious. I’ve omitted the discussion of sweet potato latkes and celeriac-potato latkes; if you want to try those, visit the original page. If you ask me, though, the classic potato latke, without embellishment, is the only way to go.

From R., 1 December 2009, Hanukkah: the best latkes?

Q: Thanksgiving is over, but Chanukah is just around the corner. Can you give me some latke advice?

What is your preferred potato? I assume there’s some ration of wax versus starchy that would yield the optimum pancake. Also, do you have some new vegetable variations I could work in the mix?

I’m thinking of making ahead and freezing, then reheating for the festivities. Anything special I should know?
Finally, since I’m being a nudzh, any other special Chanukah nosherai you’d like to share?

A: Thanks for your question! When you make latkes – or any other potato pancake – you really want to rely on the starch in the potato to hold the cake together, rather than a batter, which make the cake heavy. So you want to use a starchy potato. You’ll still need to use some egg and flour or matzo meal to bind the potato, but you won’t need much.

What’s a starchy potato? Potatoes run the gamut from “waxy” – meaning high water, low starch – to starchy. How can you tell? Starch content varies by variety, but, generally speaking, russet potatoes – large, with a dark, tougher skin – are starchier at 20-22% than the thinner-skinned, smaller red potatoes (16-18% starch). Yellow varieties, like Yellow Finn and Yukon Gold, are in between. There’s another difference relating to two components of starch – amylose and amylopectin – which relate to the way the starch diffuses or holds its shape. Waxy potatoes contain more amylopectin, and hold their shape better. But that’s more information than you need for this purpose. Brown good, red not so much. And that holds true as well for hash brown potatoes, when you want them to stick together.

So here’s my recipe for latkes. Good any time of year, and not just Hanukkah. I recommend you pre-sauté your onions to deepen their flavor and avoid any potential for a sharp raw bite. If you consider this fussy or want to save about five minutes, you can skip this step, but I recommend it. Finally, I use a food processor with the julienne disc to shred the potatoes into long thin strands, but a box grater works well also. Either way, squeeze the potatoes in kitchen towels as dry as you can – do it twice if you have time.

1 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 large yellow onion, minced
2 tbsp flour [you can substitute matzo meal if you like; I prefer it because it makes a crisper latke]
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
2 scallions, washed and root end removed, minced
kosher salt to taste (you will need at least 2 tsp)
black pepper
oil – preferably a blend of olive oil and canola, or just canola. If you intend to serve with a meat only meal, consider schmaltz, duck fat, or beef tallow for a really delicious treat.

Place a 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, matzo meal or flour, nutmeg, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet (or wash and return to the stove).

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 to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Don’t take too long with this step or the potatoes will discolor.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add up to 1/4″ of oil to the pan. Cook a test spoonful of latke mixture to ensure that the pan isn’t too hot (or too cold); adjust the heat accordingly. Fry heaping tablespoonfuls of the latke mixture, mostly the potato. Much of the egg mixture may remain in the bottom of the bowl – don’t feel compelled to use it all. (You can use it at the end to make more of a crêpe-y pancake.) Do not overcrowd the pan – in a 12″ skillet you probably can cook about four at a time. Drain cooked latkes on a rack and hold in a preheated 220F oven. Repeat until all the latkes are cooked. If the oil becomes dark or dirty, start over with fresh oil.

Season with salt if necessary (it shouldn’t be, in my experience) and a grind of black pepper. Serve with applesauce or sour cream. Enjoy!

Latkes (with a little black truffle, why not)

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Chicken, Mushrooms, Potatoes, Random Thoughts

Autodidact.

Here’s a major peeve. The other day, I came across a piece on the internet (where else?) that explained the difference between a chef and a cook as follows:

“[T]echnically speaking, a chef is someone who necessarily obtains a professional degree and prepares food in a professional setting. A cook, on the other hand, may not be professionally trained and may or may not be working in a professional setting.”

It’s a good thing that the site includes a disclaimer that “The information is ‘AS IS, ‘WITH ALL FAULTS,'” because its definition of “chef” is a total load. Although the term “chef” has come to designate those who cook in a professional setting – whether or not they actually lead a kitchen brigade – formal culinary training culminating in a professional degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a chef. Thomas Keller never attended culinary school, nor did Ferran Adrià. Or Charlie Trotter, or Heston Blumenthal, or Pierre Gagnaire. Neither did most of the French chefs who trained in the apprentice system in France, like Jacques Pépin or André Soltner. Not that culinary school isn’t valuable – professional cooking involves a great deal of rigor and knowledge, and a formal educational setting makes for consistency and high standards. But it’s not true that culinary school is necessary to professional success. The alternative description for these chefs – as “self-taught” – isn’t any better, though. How do we learn to cook, if not in culinary school? We learn the same way – by eating other peoples’ food, by cooking alongside and trading knowledge with other cooks, by reading about food, by our own mistakes and successes in the kitchen. Bottom line: both formally trained and “self-taught” chefs learn to cook mostly by daily experience.

Last week, cleaning out a corner of our basement, I found a notebook containing my recipes from the early- to mid-1990s. If you’re learning to cook – professionally or for the home, formally or not – I strongly recommend keeping a journal of your recipes. If nothing else, it’s a great retrospective on your culinary life at a certain time. Looking through my own notes was pretty enjoyable, if in an embarrassing kind of way. My first efforts at cooking that didn’t involve a pack of ramen noodles or jarred spaghetti sauce were simultaneously grandiose and elementary, like wrapping chicken breasts and Gruyère in puff pastry. Sometimes they worked out, sometimes they didn’t. The chicken and cheese, uh, wellington was a crapshoot – sometimes the Pepperidge Farms puff pastry burst a seam and a mixture of melted cheese and the chicken juices gushed out onto the baking sheet. Other times, the puff pastry browned up, crisp and flaky, but the chicken within was pink and cool. When things turned out, it was like a pretty nice chicken hand pie. It wasn’t until I learned to pre-cook the chicken and cut a couple of slits in the pastry, though, that I could turn out that dish reliably.

Just before I went off to law school in 1990, two things happened: I got my hands on a copy of Pierre Franey’s New York Times Sixty Minute Gourmet, and discovered cooking wine. Like a certain type of amateur cook, I thought I could just read a cookbook as one would a novel, and then wing a dish based on what I’d read, “making it my own.” It’s arrogant and stupid, since there’s a reason Pierre Franey, and not yours truly, was tapped to write those recipes back in the day. Hint: he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t. Once I set aside my ego and started cooking the recipes as specified, things improved dramatically. Anyway, here’s a dish from the early hubris-filled days, when I thought I could come up with awesome recipes out of thin air. I changed a few things to comport with proper cooking technique, but otherwise left it unchanged.

Chicken with mushrooms and potatoes

This dish had several inspirations. First, I was really into mushrooms. One summer during college, I visited China with my family. I was a picky eater, and China is no place to be picky. One afternoon, at a luncheon with Communist Party types, I realized that I was going to starve if I didn’t try something, and reached out for the braised bok choy and mushrooms in a light brown sauce. I wound up eating most of the communal plate, so there you go.

Second, I read the Pierre Franey cookbook practically every night and admired a couple of recipes – one a roast game hen with potatoes and mushrooms (bonne femme) and another a chicken fricassée. (By “admired” I mean “appreciated the idea of” – I hadn’t really cooked or eaten either dish at that point, but I thought the descriptions sounded great.) I didn’t like heavy cream, and I wasn’t sure where to get little hens, so I tried to employ a fricassée technique with bone-in chicken breast, but with a flour-thickened sauce instead of cream.

I made three changes to the original recipe. The original recipe called for cooking a skin-on chicken breast en blanquette – without browning – because Franey’s fricassée recipe really is a blanquette. The thing is, the blanquette doesn’t work for skin-on chicken, because the skin becomes rubbery after stewing. So either brown the chicken breast, or brown it well before proceeding.

Initially the dish also called for sprinkling the flour over the bubbling liquid after the chicken had cooked nearly through, to thicken the sauce just before serving. Sometimes that sort of worked and sometimes it really didn’t. Well, if you know anything about gelation of starch, you know why I was totally wrong – adding starch to a hot liquid causes it to clump together as it immediately forms a sticky gel. And another thing: the raw flour taste never really cooks out unless you toast the flour first, or fry it in oil as in a roux. That’s why, when making velouté sauce or gravy, we whisk flour into hot fat before adding any liquid. I changed that part of the recipe. These days I rarely make flour-thickened sauces other than béchamel, but that’s neither here nor there.

I also substituted regular dry white wine for the original cooking wine, which is an abomination. Anyway, welcome to Amateur Night circa 1990. Take a trip back in time, and enjoy!

two chicken breasts – bone in and skin on
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all purpose flour
one small onion, small dice
2 c chicken stock
1/2 c dry white wine
one large russet potato, scrubbed and diced 3/4″
half pound cremini mushrooms
vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Season the chicken on both sides. Place a sauté pan over high heat and, when hot, add enough oil to film the pan. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown well. Turn the chicken over, reduce the heat, and cook en blanquette – don’t let it color. Remove to a plate.

Add the butter to the pan. When the butter bubbles, add the onions and sweat. Add the flour to the pan and whisk, incorporating thoroughly. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook the mixture for about five minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Add the wine and whisk well to incorporate thoroughly. Bring to a simmer. Add the chicken stock slowly, whisking; bring back to a simmer and continue to cook for about 5 minutes.

Half-assed velouté

Return the chicken to the pan, skin side-up. Surround with the potatoes. Cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms, stir into the sauce, and cover the pan again. Cook another 5-6 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the pan. Season the chicken and the potato-mushroom mixture with salt and pepper and serve with the chicken.

Amateur night circa 1990.

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Holidays, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Science, Vegetables

Gratinizing.

This summer was the warmest weather on record for DC, and New York, with 52 days over 90F in June, July, and August, and no relief at night. Those sweaty days are a distant memory now – the entire east coast, from the Carolinas to New England, is either digging out from under a couple of feet of snow or being slapped by 35 mph winds. A thick, even coating of salt spray coats my car, and the gales in Baltimore are so strong that even the interior doors are rattling.

Seasonal eating! That’s why we do it. During the hottest days in July and August, we ate nothing heavier than chilled zucchini soup and completely raw salads of peaches and corn. Melons went straight from the refrigerator to the blender with a squeeze of lime; tomatoes, sliced thickly and spread with cooling mayonnaise, dripped juice into a thick slice of sourdough. Today, though, the shiny and identically pale pink tomatoes in the supermarket are about as inviting as the rock-hard, sour peaches from the southern hemisphere. When the temperatures head south of freezing, it’s time to turn on the oven and start thinking about braised meats, turnips, cabbages, potatoes.

It is no secret that potatoes are my favorite food and I look forward to autumn every year so I can cook all the potato dishes I want and more. Tonight, on the way home from the office, my husband and I stopped at My Organic Market to pick up some vegetables. As always, I was drawn to the potatoes. This time, though, I spotted something unusual: the heart-shaped potato.

Our potato god.

I put the heart-shaped potato in the basket. “This is very exciting. I’m going to buy it,” I informed my husband.

“Excellent,” he said. “Are we going to worship it?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Yes. It will be our potato god.”

The heart-shaped potato was of particular interest to me not merely because of its deistic qualities but because the USDA maintains fairly particular standards for grading produce for sale to the public. Potatoes, for example, generally must be classified as No. 1 to be sold as whole, unprocessed raw produce at retail. Among other things, U.S. No. 1 potatoes must be “fairly well shaped,” which means such a potato has “has the normal shape for the variety,” and “is not materially pointed, dumbbell-shaped or otherwise materially deformed.” A “seriously misshapen” potato – one which does not meet even U.S. No. 2 standards – is “seriously pointed, dumbbell-shaped or otherwise badly deformed.”

So what of the heart-shaped potato? By no means is this the “normal shape for the variety,” Russet Burbank to be exact. At the same time, however, I have a hard time imagining a potato grader giving the heave-ho to a heart-shaped potato. Who would be so cold? I picked up two heart-shaped potatoes tonight, as a matter of fact (the other one bore a closer resemblance to the state of Michigan in 3-D and was perhaps a more marginal candidate for retention). And just to hedge my bets, I put two Yukon Golds in the basket as well.

Yukon Golds (medium starch, non-deistic)

What were my plans for these potatoes? Just before Christmas, the New York Times T magazine interviewed Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food. The culinary innovators stated in closing that they were “bringing back the potato gratin.” I actually started from my seat (and bumped into my desk, since I was reading the piece in the office), since I too am bringing back the potato gratin. Of all the great, classic potato dishes, potato gratin has the potential to involve the most work for the lowest payoff. The best gratins feature thinly sliced potatoes, layered atop each other and pressed into a soft cake of multiple layers. More often, though, the resulting dish is a series of slippery, too-distinct layers, separated by a mass of curdled protein and grease, not a thick, firm, and creamy potato cake. You go through the hassle of slicing all those potatoes, layering them in a gratin dish in precise overlapping shingles, seasoning each layer and pouring cream over all, and in the end the whole thing isn’t all that great.

I’m not sure why – maybe it’s something in the water of the mid-Atlantic – but this year, I decided to change my gratinizing technique. The time just seemed right. I knew from making various pasta gratins, for example, that the best way to prevent melted cheese from separating and clumping is to make a mornay sauce, which is basically a béchamel with grated cheese whisked in. In the classic mornay sauce, the starch from flour keeps the cheese proteins from clumping together as they melt. I wasn’t planning to bake the potatoes in mornay sauce – you don’t need or want cheese in a classic potato gratin – but the lesson is to protect the dairy proteins with starch. Sliced potatoes release quite a bit of starch, and it seemed to me that potato starches could serve the same purpose as the flour in a mornay sauce – to coat the dairy protein and prevent it from clumping together. How to get the potato starch into the milk? Cook the potatoes in the milk.

The result is not only a perfect gratin, but a much faster one as well. By cooking the sliced potatoes in seasoned milk before turning them into a gratin dish, you achieve four-fold benefits. The potatoes cook much more quickly than they would in the oven and are seasoned more evenly, while the released potato starch prevents the milk proteins from clumping and separating. Meanwhile, the starch thickens the milk, yielding a creamy sauce. Depending on the thickness of the potato slices, the gratin can be finished in fewer than 20 minutes.

Perfect gratin.

Potato gratin

I’ve found that medium-starch potatoes retain their shape best but release enough starch that the slices cling together in a fairly thick cake bound in a creamy sauce. Yellow potatoes like Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn tend to be medium-starch, medium-moisture. “Waxy” potatoes, which tend to have red skins, don’t release enough starch for my taste, and starchy potatoes like Russets (the heart-shaped potato god depicted above) tend to break apart during cooking.

One more thing. I’ve read some crazy things about the French expression of potato gratin, pommes dauphinoise, including those that assert that the milk really is supposed to curdle (to approximate some sort of ersatz cheeselike state). No less an authority on gluttony than Jeffrey Steingarten has made this claim, which seems to me ridiculous. Why would the French bake potatoes in milk until it curdled? That seems to me contrary to anything the French would do. Now, some recipes for pommes dauphinoise call for cream – single (light) cream, half and half, or heavy cream – rather than milk, and that seems to me plausible, if kind of heavy. So if you like, feel free to substitute cream for some of the milk. But don’t let it curdle. The gratin should be smooth, with a fine, dense texture.

2 lbs (about four to six) medium-starch potatoes, such as Yellow Finn or Yukon gold, peeled
About one quart of milk (you probably will not use it all), or substitute up to 1 c cream for every 3 c milk
Leaves from three or four thyme branches
scant 1/2 tsp salt per pound of potatoes
One or two large garlic cloves
Optional: Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Oven 400F

Heat about ½ cup of the milk to about 120F and stir in the salt and the thyme. Ensure that the salt is dissolved and add to the rest of the cold milk or milk/cream mixture.

Using a mandoline or benriner, slice the potatoes thinly (you also may use a food processor) and add them all to a pot. Pour seasoned milk over just to cover, and place over medium low heat. Bring the entire pot to a simmer. Be careful not to let the milk boil, as it may curdle and will certainly boil over. If your potatoes are sliced very thinly (as they would be if you use a benriner or a mandoline set to 1/16”), the potatoes should be just tender virtually as soon as the milk simmers. If they are not just tender, simmer for another minute or two until they are tender.

Rub a large shallow gratin dish (or several small gratin dishes) with the garlic clove. Dispense with the painful layering process – gratin is, after all, a rustic dish – and pour the potatoes into the gratin dish, with milk to cover. Sprinkle with cheese, if you’re using it. Bake until bubbling and golden brown. Cool slightly. Don’t worry if the dish appears somewhat moist – the potatoes will absorb any remaining liquid, firming up and becoming thick and creamy.

Gratin.

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Baking, Holidays, Pastry, Potatoes, Q&A, Random Thoughts, Southeast Asian, Squash, Vegetables

Halloween.

A reader asks for a vegetarian appetizer suitable for a Halloween-themed party. Learn why a jack o’ lantern isn’t your best pie pumpkin, and check out three vegetarian appetizers, on the Great Pumpkin page.

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