Sunday, February 28, 2010

Start Me Up

Back in "the day," I posted about how sourdough drives me crazy. Sourdough bread is a bit of a touchy process (especially if you don't bake every day), and as of late, I've been baking a fair amount of pizza/focaccia and using that old standby, instant yeast. Just makes my life easier, as does baking pizza and focaccia, since they're pretty friggin' easy compared to say, baguettes, or other loaves that actually require a modicum of skill to shape.

Of course when you bake sourdough, you use a starter. And I had a really nice, delicious starter going during my sourdough baking days, but with splitting time between DC and NYC, my starter has been faced with months and months of neglect. So, the other day, I did a little experiment to see if I could bring it back to life - once I found it in the back of the fridge!

Here's what she looked like when I opened the container...

Pretty gross, right? By the way, that liquid on top is called hooch, and you got it, it's basically alcohol, but no matter how much of a drunkard you may be, don't drink it...not good for ya.

In order to revitalize a starter, you're supposed to feed it every 12 hours, and you start by getting rid of almost every last drop of that sludge above. This is what I was left with...

Feeding, which takes place every 12 hours or so, is done by mixing that tiny bit of leftover starter with half flour and half water - by weight. Don't forget, a cup of water weighs almost twice as much as a cup of flour. Stir it all together, and this is what you get...

Now, cover that tightly with plastic wrap and leave it on the counter for 12 or so hours. At that point, my starter actually showed some signs of life...

Now, throw it all away again, and refeed. Do that again in another 12 hours. And lookee here - after 3 feedings and 48 hours, here's what I ended up with...

A perfectly refreshed, sour-smelling, highly agitated starter. And today I baked some beautiful focaccia using almost all of that starter for my dough. Feed the little bit that's left over (no more than a tablespoon) with that same proportion of flour and water (50 - 50), let it sit on the counter for 4 - 6 hours till it shows some signs of activity, and back in the fridge awaiting either it's next use or feeding. Not really that hard at all, and barely drove me crazy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Say It Ain't So, Joe

One of my favorite places in "the city" for a slice has always been Joe's, on Carmine Street, right where it runs into 6th Avenue, or Avenue of the Americas for those from another planet. We're talking SLICE here, and the dearth of good slice places is pretty much common knowledge, certainly on the island of Manhattan. Oh sure, you can schlep up to Patsy's and hope that the slice you get is good...though it's never as revelatory as a whole pie fresh from their oven. Or you can luck into a decent slice from any number of the million pizza joints that dot the island, but odds are against it. You can get a great slice in the Bronx and Queens, and you can get a great slice in Brooklyn and maybe even on Staten Island, but that takes planning and time. Now if you're from outta town, you probably think I'm nuts, but that's only because your baseline for slice judgment is probably a bit off...and I say that with no disrespect.

So Joe's is a place I've recommended on eGullet and to any number of friends and strangers who ask where they can get a good slice of pizza, because I have always liked their 'za. And it's a classic joint, too. No seats, just some high tables and a bit of a counter along a wall and along the front it is, and you can see the table out front. It's just like the ones inside!

Just the other day I happened to be wandering around the "village," (yes, Greenwich Village, you aliens, you) when the urge for a slice (or two) struck, so I fought my way up to the front and ordered two slices; a fresh mozzarella slice ($3.50) and a "regular" ($2.50). I even was able to nudge my way into a space at the ledge by the front window, a prime spot if ever there was one. My fresh slice looked like this...

Right off the bat, I knew something was amiss with the fresh slice. It basically cracked into 3 or 4 pieces when I tried to fold it into the classic eating a slice of pizza while standing up style. I like a bit of char on the crust (it's very traditional) but this puppy was black and burnt, as can be seen on the rear edge. That was the color of the whole bottom. It was cracker like and that's not good. Part of me wanted to bring it right back to the counter, but the place was packed and I wasn't in the mood. So I moved on to the regular...

And it really wasn't much better, crust-wise. Once again, overcooked and cracker-like, no fluffy tenderness at the edge or cornicione, and nothing like any other slice I've ever had at Joe's. I mean, on both slices, the toppings were good; but pizza is as much or more about the crust, isn't it? "What the hell is going on here?," I asked myself.

Now, they were busy (they always are) so that's no excuse. And maybe there were some new guys manning the ovens, but that's no excuse. Or making the pies, but that's no excuse. What I'm hoping is that I just ran into a bad day at Joe's. And when you have a bad slice or two at Joe's, you can always walk to the corner of Bleecker and Carmine, into a shop that actually used to be Joe's, and comfort yourself with this...

GROM will help make all your pizza troubles disappear...that's half cioccolato all'aranciata and half espresso...and at least that was damn good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mama Mia, That's A Spicy Meatball

I'm sure some of you remember that great ad campaign from the 70's, featuring the title line of this blog post as its dialogue. Over and over, tasting the fictional Magdalini's Meatballs, and never getting the line right. Poor guy.

So I'm happy to report that you most likely won't be needing the advertised product I refer to above when you finally do get to try The Meatball Shop's meatballs...and sides, for that matter.

And I do mean try. This was my fourth attempt (4th! -these guys either have a good PR machine or they really hit upon something - or both) - though in actuality they weren't yet open for lunch the first time I walked by with Significant Eater. Two more tries for dinner, and they were totally slammed - so I kept on walking. Now they're open for lunch, and a table was available today, so I grabbed it right up...and don't tell SE; she'll be bummed.

A very friendly staff brings you your menu from which you choose your balls and your sauces - literally by checking off various boxes on the mixing and matching allowed, but single balls with sauce are offered as sliders for $3. Four meatballs come to an order, along with the sauce you've chosen and a small piece of locally baked focaccia - okay, it's from Il Forno, as are the baguettes that the heroes come on - and the meatballs'll set you back $7.

Now granted, this write-up is only based on a tasting of 2 of the 6 meatballs offered (33%), 2 of the 4 sauces (50%) and 2 of the 12 sides (I failed math). I didn't order heroes or sliders either (0%), because I'm not into competitive eating (though it sure seems to have taken over the once-fun Food Network), and since those sandwiches have meatballs and sauce inside of them, at least I tried 33% of the main draw.

Here's what I ordered...

Actually, it kind of looks like I am a competitive eater, but I promise I'm not - I actually took home 2 of each of the balls. And starting at the top left: lamb meatballs with mushroom gravy, roasted butternut squash, spicy pork meatballs with classic tomato sauce and risotto. A $20 lunch special if ever there was one.

While the risotto was as it is in most restaurants (I shudda had the polenta, in other words, and how about risotto pancakes from someone, please), both meatballs I had were delicious. Starting with the lamb:

which were seasoned with pine nuts, raisins and mint (maybe ground right along with the meat), yet not overpoweringly so, this is just great comfort food. The slightly gamy taste of the ground-in-house lamb (I'm guessing shoulder, neck, etc.) came through perfectly, with the caramelized exterior bits really adding an extra punch. I love lamb. The mushroom gravy was good too, but I was busy just loving the lamb - naked or so they say.

Next came the spicy pork meatballs...

once again, ground-in-house pork butt, with a good hint of red pepper flakes, served in a kiddie pool of their classic tomato sauce; the sweet, fatty pork plays nicely with the slightly acidic tomato. It was hard taking 2 of each of these home.

There are twenty-five (yes, 25!) desserts on the menu. Well, there are 5 freshly baked cookies to go along with 5 flavors of house-made ice cream (you pick the combo), and I think that comes out to 25 (5 x 5, right?)...they're all 4 bucks, and a nice finish, competitive eater or not.

With prices this friendly, a location right in the cross hairs, a nice bunch of folks enjoying cooking and feeding people and some excellent food, there's no doubt Meatball Shop is going to be jammed for a long time to come. But do try to go, even if it's only for a light lunch.

Also, a nice little wine and beer list is on the blackboard over the bar. A few beers are served in 3 different sizes and they are $3 for a glass, $5 for a pint and $9 for a quart...all quite reasonable for the nabe, I believe.

Full disclosure - when the check came, I had been comped one order of the meatballs, which was a nice gesture from a new neighborhood hot spot.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lazy Man Pizza - Oh, Make That Focaccia

Say what? Lazy man chicken is one thing, but lazy man pizza- that's a whole other category!

But it's why I make focaccia and just call it pizza - they're both flatbreads, after all. My main problems when I make (real) pizza are the whole shaping of it and then getting it onto and off of the peel and onto my pizza stone which has been heating for an hour at 550+ degrees...I usually end up with something that looks sort of round (if I'm lucky) and then if I'm really lucky it slides off the peel without a problem...however, after a few disasters with the pizza ending up on the oven door or on the oven floor, I decided to make focaccia my go to flatbread...and just call it pizza. Here's a tip, too - if you serve it already cut into slices, who is really gonna know?

You see, with focaccia, you get to shape it right in the pan in which it bakes, and that's what makes it lazy man pizza in my book. It's also lazy man in that it really only takes a few minutes of work...and a lot of waiting around for the yeasties to do their thing. What could be more lazy man than whipping up some dough and waiting a few hours before the next step? You can nap, shop, surf the webs - all good lazy man projects.

I like to start the night before with a pre-ferment; call it a biga, call it a poolish, call it a starter or call it whatever you wish, it's a mixture of flour, water and a tiny bit of yeast which is stirred till it comes together, covered and allowed to sit in a cool place morning, it will be all bubbly and smell can use some or all of it when you make your larger batch of dough.

Starter is cool stuff. It will last for a few days (3, at least) if you refrigerate it after it has been fermenting for a while. Frozen, it will last for 3 or 4 months - just put it in the fridge the day before you plan to use it...and take it out of the fridge to warm it up about an hour before you mix up your dough.

At this point, let's see how lazy this all is. A recap, if you will.

1. Night before - whip up starter - go to sleep. 10 minutes work, 8 hours sleep.

2. Mix dough and let rise - 10 minutes work - 2 hours of waiting.

3. Put dough into pan and let proof - 10 minutes work - another hour or more of waiting. By the way, proofing is another term for rising; it just happens after the first rise.

4. Put pan into oven - 1 minute work - wait till it's finished baking. Remove from pan and wait a few minutes before slicing.

Man, have you just been lazy, or what?

By the way, there are a million focaccia recipes out there - I like the recipes in Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice and Carol Field's seminal The Italian can't go wrong with either of those.

Now of course, you can go the real lazy man route (and I'm sure a few of you will or have) and buy frozen dough or heaven forbid, that product called Boboli. But it will be so much better if you make your own.

Take a look at a few before and after shots of lazy man focaccia. The first of each is simply sprinkled with a touch of rosemary and sea salt and the second is covered with very thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes, rosemary and French sea salt. And lots of olive oil.



What lazy man pizza-making tips do you have?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Algonquin Cocktail

Looking for something a bit different to drink last night, I came across the Algonquin Cocktail in one of my favorite cocktail books - Dr. Cocktail's (aka Ted Haigh) Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails. Back in the 1930s, New York City's Algonquin Hotel hosted any number of "renowned literati of the time," where the group became known as the Round Table, though according to the good Dr., they probably didn't drink the eponymous evidently came into being a good number of years later.

Now, being a slightly obsessed person (shhhh), and just because I like to, I pulled out a number of cocktail books, to check and see what they might tout as "the" recipes. Both Gary Regan and David Wondrich had essentially the same ingredients in the same proportions, but then Dale DeGroff, in his masterpiece The Craft of the Cocktail, had something totally different - and rather weird sounding, containing rum, blackberry brandy, Benedictine and fresh lime juice. Though Mr. DeGroff does write that he served it with great success, for many years at the Rainbow Room, that version didn't sound like the one I wanted to drink, so we went with the majority - democracy rules, after all (well, except in the U.S. Senate, but that's another story).

Back to the Algonquin - a nice, dry, easy drinking cocktail, with a ratio of 2 parts rye, 1 part dry vermouth and 1 part pineapple juice. Shaken or stirred, and you can't go wrong...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Lazy Man Roast Chicken

I know what you're thinking: "lazy man roast chicken, who's he kidding?" Because, you know, roasting a whole chicken, if done properly, is a bit of a pain. There's the cleaning of the bird, the trussing (if you truss), the seasoning, the clean up, etc. etc. To say nothing about properly cooking the breast meat (i.e. not overcooked) at the same time as properly cooking the legs and thighs (i.e. cooked enough).

Don't kid's the same with turkey. I remember a Thanksgiving a few years ago where I actually took the bird out of the oven and carved off the legs and thighs and put them back in the oven to roast some more. People looked at me like I was crazy, but then many claimed it was the juiciest turkey they'd ever had.

But lately I've come across a simple fix...let's call it the lazy man roast chicken. Simply roast the parts, many of which are already available cut-up at your local grocer. Sure, I know it's not the same...but really, other than the presentation, it is. I mean, unless you're telling me chicken thighs don't come from a chicken, it's the same. Now, you won't get to gnaw on the carcass, but I'm willing to bet a lot of you don't do that anyway - it's just me and a few heathens that do. But what you do get to do is pick the parts you like the best...and for me, that's legs and thighs, mostly.

Just like with anything you're cooking, the final "product" is only going to be as good as what you start start with decent chicken, please. Purdue, Foster Farms, and that wan store brand chicken just aren't going to cut it; no matter how much you brine and cajole them, they still taste like cardboard. Fortunately for us, we live in a neighborhood that has a big Jewish and a big Chinese population, so other than the battles of the ancient cultures, some pretty decent chicken can be found.

In Chinatown, of course, you can buy freshly killed poultry, with the head and feet still on. And fresh = good. The weird thing is, my grandmother, who to the best of my knowledge was not Chinese, used to get her whole chickens the same way! She even bought chicken feet, which she used to great effect in her soup and fricassée.

Back to the parts - our local grocery carries Empire, and it's a pretty tasty chicken, so that's what I use. As a matter of fact, their thigh/leg combos cost less than whole birds, so it's practically a bargain. After rinsing the parts well (and disjointing the leg from the thigh), I toss the pieces with some olive oil, salt, pepper and lately I've been throwing in some quartered potatoes, lemon slices and fresh rosemary as well. So here's what you start with...

I've been roasting at around 400 F (your oven is preheated, right?), sometimes with convection, sometimes without...I'm trying to find out the best temp/time situation, but because they're legs and thighs, it takes a lot of work to screw it up. Figure about 50 minutes to an hour, and take the roasting pan out of the oven and give everything a good stir every 15 minutes or so.

The chicken soaks up the lemon and herbs, the potatoes soak up some of the chicken juices, and when it's all done, it looks like this...

Perfect for a midweek, casual meal. And perfectly easy too, especially for you lazy man cooks.