Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tarts #1

Tarts have been a little bit of an issue for me ever since I wanted to make one for dinner club a few months ago - and it was, shall we say, a friggin' disaster. Actually, they were even an issue for me back when I was in cooking school - but by baking lots and lots of them, I eventually became pretty good at it.

Fast forward a few years - not so good.

So, what to do but bake a bunch of tarts until I got good at it again. Because with summer coming up, I want to make tarts. I think they're kinda cooler than pies; after all, they're sorta French. Well, maybe all French. And we're trying to like the French again, aren't we? That they stand up straight by themselves and don't need to be served out of a dish makes 'em cool too. And, trust me on this, serve a tart for dessert and everyone goes "Wow!' Even if you might think it sucks.

When I decided to revisit tarts, I knew the hardest part would be the pastry, so the first thing I did was take about 14 cookbooks off the shelves. That' s what I usually do when I'm trying to get some sort of baseline for a recipe...in this case tart pastry. Down came Mastering the Art, The Pie and Pastry Bible, How to Bake, Joy of Cooking and lots of others. Since there are basically 3 types of pastry for tarts - pate brisee, pate sucree and pate sablee - that makes about 42 different recipe possibilities, or something factorial like that. And when you start looking at all those cookbooks, as well as the internets, you got problems.

Some of the best advice I got was from Patricia Wells, in The Paris Cookbook, who states that "once a cook is confident with pastry making, he or she is ready to attack just about anything." So, armed with that advice, along with Julia's recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking for pâte brisée sucrée (sweet short paste), I barreled ahead. And here's what the crust looked like after blind baking it until it was almost completely cooked - I actually think it should be baked all the way through (my fault, not the recipe's), but it's a start...

You see, it doesn't look like a total wreck - it certainly isn't Julia material yet; and since I liked Ms. Wells' advice so much, I decided to bake one of her tarts. This has to be the simplest tart recipe ever, containing 4 ingredients (though don't forget to add a pinch of salt to the filling) along with the crust. Called La Tarte au Jus Frais de Citron Presse de la Bonbonnerie de Buci. Simply a fine lemon custard, it has eggs, lemon juice, sugar and a bit of cream, whisked together and then baked in the shell. And...it's delicious.

Monday, April 27, 2009

It's Not The Heat...

You know how that line goes - it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Well, that's bull. To me, it's the heat. When it gets really hot, or even when I know it's going to be getting hot, I get cranky. I mean, it's not even the end of April, and for the past 3 or 4 days, the temperature has been in the mid to upper 80's. Today is supposed to be a scorcher too.

So what's a home cook to do? I don't really like to cook when it's that hot out, because my kitchen isn't air conditioned and ummmm, I'm cranky. Yesterday, after not being able to sleep the previous night, I actually installed the window air conditioner in our bedroom. Let me say this - a middle-aged jewish man installing an air conditioner is not a pretty sight - I was pretty much thinking that the unit was gonna end up smashed on the ground below - 15 floors down and bam...but accidents didn't happen so last night Significant Eater and I slept in air conditioned bliss.

But back to cooking - and I had to cook, because we had friends come over both on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday night I made a bit of a fancy meal, starting with some oysters on the half-shell, linguini with fresh clams for a primi (both shellfish procured at the greeen market that morning), a pork rib roast that had been rubbed with fennel pollen (thanks, Jude!), garlic, rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper), potatoes that were roasted in the oven underneath that lovely pork, broccoli raab, lemon custard tart and vanilla ice cream. There are, of course, no pix of that meal, because I didn't feel like playing with my camera in the hot kitchen...there's that heat again.

Saturday's dinner was much more casual...it hadn''t been planned at all, but I had made some tortillas earlier in the day and had all the fixings for tacos, so we invited our neighbors back to our place, and I threw together some salsa and guacamole, and heated up some pork and beans I had in the fridge. Along with maybe a few too many margaritas, we all had a good time...I know everyone was content, because both Significant Eater and our neighbor fell asleep on the couch while we were all watching a movie.

Last night, I wanted something simple and summery (remember, it's hot) for dinner, since we had gone out Sunday night, and we're trying to eat at home a bit more frequently. For a contorni, I decided to do something with this (the camera is back)...

The radicchio and ramps got sautéed in olive oil with a bunch of broccoli florets. Also in our fridge...

were two types of mozzarella (fresh and low moisture) along with Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of cheeses. What better to make than penne al telefono, something I first had at one of Mario Batali's restaurants here in NYC. Simple and delicious, I combined half a can of whole tomatoes (crushed with my bare hands) with a sautéed onion, and when the pasta was al dente, it went into the pan with the cheeses and a big handful of chopped thyme and parsley, as I had no basil in the house. Here's what it looked like while getting tossed around...

And that's why it's called al telefono - the strands of cheese sort of look like telephone wires, don't they? (Go ahead, use your imagination). Topped with a heap of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, SE and I inhaled big bowlfuls on a hot night...with the air conditioner going full blast.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

That Is So Cheesy

Who doesn't love the grilled cheese sandwich? You can't tell me that back when you were a kid, your mom didn't prepare a grilled cheese sandwich at least once a week (I'm pretty sure mine did, though my memory is a bit, ahem, hazy). Along with PB&J and bologna (baloney?) , it was a kitchen staple. As a matter of fact, during my high school stoner days (like those ever ended), I was considered quite a cook when preparing a grilled cheese sandwich for the red-eyed crowd. Back then, it was usually prepared on white bread (Wonder, please) and the cheese was undoubtedly one of those cheese products (Kraft, thank you) that came individually wrapped in cellophane, though I do remember packages that were basically a whole bunch of slices wrapped together.

Interestingly enough, the grilled cheese sandwich is so retro-cool that now there are contests to find the best grilled cheese sandwich "recipe," if you can imagine that. Terrance Brennan, owner and head chef of Artisanal Bistro, just finished running one. I didn't enter it, but I like making the occasional grilled cheese sandwich just for the heck of it. And the other morning I did just that, after I asked Significant Eater what she felt like for breakfast and she answered "cheese toast." Cheese toast is not actually grilled cheese, by the way, it's toast with cheese on it. Different animal altogether. But I wanted something somewhat special that morning, so here goes.

To start with, I cooked up a few slices of pancetta; I mean grilled cheese with bacon - how bad could that be? Italian bacon - even better. I had a few types of cheese in the fridge, and settled on two - pictured above are good old cheddar (sharp) and Emmenthaler (Swiss will do)...you want cheeses that melt nicely. I also had homemade bread pre-sliced in the freezer, so I took 4 slices out to thaw, along with the butter to soften, while I was cooking the pancetta...

To assemble, butter the bread - the bread needs to be buttered on the outside, which helps it cook up nice and crispy. Oh sure, you can butter the inside of the bread as well, but I'm watching my cholesterol - pancetta and cheese are low cholesterol, no? Then, lay a few slices of cheese down, top with pancetta and then the rest of the cheese. See...

Of course, being the gadget guru that I am, I happen to have a little countertop appliance - the Cuisinart Griddler G4. Go ahead and scoff, but this is one of the best little countertop griddles available - for both panini and pancakes, it can't be beat. While I was assembling the bread, I was preheating the griddler - a light comes on when it's nice and hot. You can't see the light, but what the heck...

After about 5 - 6 minutes at medium heat, here's the result. Would it win a contest? I doubt it, because it certainly didn't have enough fancy schmancy stuff in it...

But without a doubt, Significant Eater and I enjoyed one of the best grilled cheese with bacon sandwiches that we ever had. For breakfast. Not even stoned. Just hungover. Mmmmmm....good.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hello Mr. Chips

Cookies. Who doesn't love cookies? During the holidays, Significant Eater and I like to bring cookies whenever we visit friends or relatives. I think it's a nice touch, bringing something homemade instead of running to the store.

Now, I'm no Martha Stewart, but back when I lived in California, I'd put together some pretty damn nice gift baskets to give as gifts...one year, I even went so far as to make some herbal vinegars, and together with some decanted olive oils, each in their own little cruets, they became the centerpiece of some pretty nice gifts. Another time I sent a really nice gift box to my dad on his birthday - my own house smoked trout and salmon, a couple of bottles of California wine, various crackers and cheese - he got a giant kick out of it.

During holiday season, the cookies tend to be plain sugar cookie or ginger-bready type stuff, though after my last gingerbread cookies, they may move off the list (not big fans of gingerbread, I guess). The nice thing about the plain sugar cookies is that they then can get decorated with all sorts of sugars and sprinkles and weird dyes and food colors. They also last for a couple of days - even more when frozen. Delish.

But that was the holidays and this is now. And now, when thinking of baking cookies, my thoughts turn to one thing - CHOCOLATE. 'Cause really, what the hell is better than a chocolate cookie? (Okay, pretend that's a rhetorical question, will ya?)

One of my go-to cookies is a cookie popularized by a culinary icon, Dorie Greenspan. For those of you who claim to be foodies - if you don't know who Dorie is, guess what? You're not.
Anyhoo, Dorie popularized a cookie "invented" by Pierre Hermé, another of those culinary icons that all foodies should be thankful for. Pierre called it a Korova, which was the name of the milk bar in Kubrick's classic film A Clockwork Orange...I guess because Pierre felt it would go so well with a glass of milk. Sometimes they take on a nom d'plume, becoming more widely know as World Peace Cookies. And the recipe is available everywhere you look, but you might as well go to Dorie's site - variations and metric measures included.

I baked a batch recently (for a dinner party), and I've even figured out how to keep the logs of cookie dough nice and round - so not only do they taste good, they look good too. My slight variation on the recipe is that I sprinkle the tops of the cookies with a wee bit of fleur de sel - everyone seems to like the crunch that it provides...

And since I'm turning on the oven anyway, why not bake a couple of batches? That's when the latest issue of Cook's Illustrated (May & June, 2009) came into play. Because in it is an article entitled Chocolate Chip Cookies, Reinvented. Well, I'll hop on that bus, since chocolate chip cookies are always a hit. I usually make chocolate chip cookies based on the recipe on the bag of chips - a "toll-house style" but not the toll-house recipe, since I don't use Nestle's chips...partial to Ghiradelli here. But CI, in that CI sort of way, went ahead and baked like 7,000 batches of cookies in order to improve on the recipe. And improve they did. Just follow the recipe (tip of the day - follow recipes when baking) in the latest issue - use some good quality butter and chips, and get ready for the huzzah's, because these cookies are so damn good. After all, who doesn't love cookies?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hey Boss - or Is It Papi?

Hey Boss. That's what I hear when I go to my street fruit vendor, pictured above in the blue cap. Whatever you call him (and it's pretty much always a him), when you live in New York City your local street fruit vendor is a very important part of your neighborhood. And every neighborhood has at least 1, perhaps 10, or maybe even 100 of these carts. They're practically on every corner - downtown, midtown, uptown, lower east side, upper east side, upper west side, east village, GreenwichVillage...well, you get the picture.

The street fruit vendor serves a population always on the go. When you're running to the office, who wants to run into a store to pick up an apple or a bag of grapes? Instead you stop at the corner, fork over a buck or two, and you're set. Much of the fruit from these guys tends to be ripe - it's not stuff you're taking home to sit on the counter for 3 or 4 days while it softens. You're buying it to eat that day. And it tends to be a lot cheaper than the stuff in the grocery store.

A good number of these carts sell primarily fruit. Today however, Papi (which is what I call him after he calls me boss) had some asparagus, celery, tomatoes and garlic in addition to many fruits. Piles of berries - there's strawberries, blackberries and blueberries on that cart. Mangoes - last week, he had 3 types of mangoes, including one we ate just this morning, imported from Peru.

Last year, when Papi first set up shop on the corner of Grand and Clinton Sts., there was a loud hue and cry from the neighborhood. Who was this interloper? Of course, the fact the there is a grocery store not 50 yards from this corner might have had something to do with the whining.

Now, given the choice between shopping at Papi's cart or having to go into our lovely grocery store called Fine Fare, where just the fact that perhaps you've forced one of their employees to actually DO THEIR FUCKING JOB hangs over you like the cloud of doom, I'll take Papi any day.

But Papi started getting harassed by the police and disappeared for weeks at a time, only to resurface selling his low-priced goodies. When he first set up, probably last year at this time, he was there 24 hours a day. Selling fruit to drunken stragglers at 1 A.M. wasn't really profitable, so he scaled back his hours. He was gone all winter, but has been at his customary spot for the last 2 or 3 weeks, rather regularly I might add. Perhaps all of his documents, licenses, etc. are legal.

I don't know if the Street Vendor Project, an organization I try to volunteer for at their annual Vendy Awards extravaganza, had anything to do with helping stop the harassment, but their mission is to protect the rights of those who sell on the street. From their site:
There are more than 10,000 street vendors in New York City -- hot dog vendors, flower vendors, book vendors, street artists, and many others. They are small businesspeople struggling to make ends meet. Most are immigrants and people of color. They work long hours under harsh conditions, asking for nothing more than a chance to sell their goods on the public sidewalk.

The Street Vendor Project is part of the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation and advocacy to various marginalized groups of New Yorkers.
So it's good to have him back - and to support these people who are doing the jobs that our immigrant grandparents did more than 100 years ago. Don't forget where you came from. Oh, and yesterday I finally asked him his real name - from now on, it's "Hi Mohammed!"

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Do The Rye Thing

Rye bread. If you grew up in New York, raised in a pretend Jewish family (come on, you know the ones - no bacon in the house, but when you went out for Chinese food, the roast spareribs were always the first thing ordered - along with the shrimp with lobster sauce), you know from rye. Pastrami on rye. Salami on rye. Tuna salad on rye. Patty melts at the diner. And so on.
Whenever you got rye bread at the bakery, the question always asked was whether you wanted your rye seeded or un. And you always got to eat the tiny little end piece after the bread went through the slicer, which was the best part, imo.

So, in order to relive a bit of my youth, and because there just isn't that much great rye bread in the bakeries any more, I'm currently in the process of experimenting with rye breads using no yeast. Sourdough ryes, and as mentioned before, sourdough drives me crazy.

To help me with the sourdough project, I recently bought a copy of Ed Wood's Classic Sourdoughs and have been following his sourdough template, which in one form or another is basically fermenting your starter (you do have a starter, don't you?) with a cup to a cup and a half of flour and a cup of water for 8 - 12 hours (depending on ambient temperature), adding another cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water and fermenting for another 8 - 12 hours, followed by shaping, proofing and finally, baking the dough. Here's what the dough looks like after the second long fermentation, when the dough has risen to the top of the bowl and fallen back a bit...

For rye and multigrain breads, I have been baking in loaf pans - I want something that I'm able to slice and freeze and which will give me nice even slices. The first recipe I tried was Wood's German rye bread - very light on the rye - about 20% of the total flour is rye. Must say the bread came out great, if lacking a bit of that rye flavor I'm looking for. Here's the loaf, and notice - such a beautiful crumb (btw, for you non-bread bakers, the crumb is what the interior of the bread is called, as opposed to the crust, which is, well, the crust)...

Then I baked a couple of loaves, with double that amount of rye flour, so about 40% rye and 60% Hecker's unbleached white (my favorite all-around flour). One was proofed and baked in a loaf pan and the other free formed. I have a feeling the doughs were over-proofed; you can see the holes in the proofed loaf and that's what happens when you forget the loaves are proofing; by the time I went in to pre-heat the oven, this is what the loaf looked like, topping way over the loaf pan (note to self - use those timers)...

The boule also had blown up in it's brotform, and it separated dramatically while baking, which I'm pretty sure is do to the too long proofing period...

But the loaf pan bread baked up pretty nicely, though the crumb doesn't look as nice as the bread pictured above...

This bread's rye flavor is much more pronounced (notice the darker color), so I'm thinking that perhaps a bread with 50% rye flour will be just right. In France, a rye with less than 50% rye flour is called a pain de meteil; over 50% rye flour and you've got a pain de seigle. Balthazar Bakery here in New York makes a wonderful pain de seigle, btw.

But enough with the lessons already - you want that rye seeded or un?

Friday, April 3, 2009

I'll Take Manhattan

Often, when ordering a Manhattan, I'll become the object of derision, especially when we're out with people who don't really drink cocktails (sorry, Stoli Vanilla & diet Coke isn't a cocktail, and a vodka "martini" isn't either - it's cold vodka until the end, when it's usually warm vodka, and how delicious is that?). Invariably, I'll hear something along the lines of "Oh, my grandmother/mother/great aunt used to drink those." In which case, I'll sigh and reply, "Well then, she must've been one helluva smart lady."

You see, the Manhattan is a drink that both Significant Eater and I adore - not just because we live in Manhattan, or because the drink was invented in Manhattan, or because one of MY great aunts actually did drink them, but because it's just a damn good drink. Speaking of my great aunt who really did drink Manhattans; she was about 4'10" tall, weighed under 100 pounds, smoked Marlboro REDS all her life and lived till she was deep into her 80's. Not bad, eh?

But back to the Manhattan, and for all the history about this classic cocktail you should check out David Wondrich's Imbibe! (or any of Dave's other books, for that matter), a great read for those serious about drinks. You can head over to eGullet, where I'm a volunteer host and check out the topic about Manhattan's, for numerous and varying points of view.

For Significant Eater and me, we'll take our Manhattans with rye whiskey, thank you. I appreciate a Manhattan made with bourbon, but prefer the spiciness of the rye. And if it's 100 proof or more, all the better. Checking out my liquor cabinet this morning, I found a small sampling of ryes, most of which are available for around $15 a bottle - take that, Grey Goose!

That BIG bottle in the middle is not rye (nor is the small bottle on the left, obviously) - it's Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, a most delicious red vermouth from Italy which makes for an unforgettable Manhattan with the right rye. I like the 100 proof Rittenhouse on the far right, and the Wild Turkey at 101 isn't bad (but you can't go wrong with any of them, imo). And don't forget the bitters either, folks...

The two tiny bottles of bitters on the right are homemade bitters from a friend of mine...brilliant recreations of classic bitters which are sadly no longer available. The rest are widely available, and any one of them is a necessity in your Manhattan.

So, get out a mixing glass, add 2 or 2 1/2 ounces of rye, 1 oz. of sweet vermouth, a couple of dashes of bitters, fill it with cracked ice and stir like crazy before decanting into your favorite cocktail glass. You can garnish with a real maraschino cherry or a nice lemon twist (my preference). If you want that Manhattan perfect, split the vermouth 50/50 between sweet and dry...but don't forget the bitters. Sip slowly and savor the goodness of a cocktail that's been making Manhattanites and others happy for a long time.