Monday, December 31

How to Boil an Egg

It seems like a simple task, but boiling an egg for slicing or Salade Nicoise calls for technique. A perfect egg should be rich and luscious with tender white and bright yellow center. It should never be dry and crumbly in the yolk, or worse, marred with that green patina you sometimes see.

I hesitate to use the phrase "hard cooked" because what you really want is an egg that's pliant in the yolk with slight darkening toward the center. After all, cooking eggs is mainly about getting the yolk right.

Where Does the Green Ring Come From?
The good news is that the ugly green gray ring that sometimes appears around the edge of the yolk is harmless. The bad news is that it's fairly disgusting to look at. The other bit of good news is that it can be totally avoided.

The ring forms when sulfur in the egg white reacts with iron in the yolk. The most likely cause of is overcooking, but apparently (according to a University of Nebraska posting) it can also be caused by an abundance of iron in the cooking water.

How to Avoid the Dreaded Green Ring & Get Perfect Firm Egg Yolks
I've been using this method for several months now with perfectly consistent results. I hope you find the same success.

Take cold or room temperature eggs and put them in a pot of cold water. Put it on the stove and bring the pot to a boil. Once the water has reached the boil, remove the pot from the heat and set your timer for 10 minutes. After the timer goes off, plunge the eggs into cold water and relax. When you crack open your eggs, it all has gone to plan, you'll find a bright yellow, slightly moist and dense, delicious yolk.

Monday, October 1

For the Love of Peanuts: Pea? Or Nut?

Peanut Mysteries
This nearly irresistible childhood palliative and adult guilty pleasure turns out to be a legume, so it's closer to a pea than a nut. But don't get your hopes up diet-conscious eaters, it doesn't count as roughage--especially when roasted and ground into Skippy.

Originally domesticated by our neighbor-nations to the south, the thirsty peanut plant grows close to the ground in warm climates with sandy soil. This explains, in part, why most of the US peanut crop is grown in the southern states. Peanut pods mature under the surface of the soil upon pollination, and harvesting involves pulling the entire plant up by it's roots.

If you drive the highways of Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia or the Carolinas you may encounter a roadside boiled peanut truck. Eaten and enjoyed for it's edamame-like qualities, this preparation method yields a salty, damp, grassy-tasting snack. I know it doesn't sound that good, but try some if you get the chance. It'll really open your eyes as to the Hyde nature of the groundnut. It's an acquired taste that couldn't be further from the sweet, smooth super-market peanut butters on which most of us were raised.

Peanut Peril
I think we all know that peanuts are loaded with fat, but in moderation, that's not a problem. What's more of a problem is a fungal by-product called aflatoxin. It's a potent carcinogen, so it behooves all of us to avoid open-air storage of any peanut product. Those red bins in the health food store have been shown to be ideal breeding grounds for the fungus, so it's best to stick with name brands in sealed jars.

Commercial peanuts are sprayed with anti-fungals and carefully monitored in production, so aflatoxin contamination isn't much of a problem for buyers of the big three: Skippy, Peter Pan, and Jiff. If you're like me and you prefer natural peanut butter, be aware that organic peanuts may contain more aflatoxin than non-organically raised peanuts. In this case, organic may not be necessarily better. I wish I could be more specific than this, but peanut butter manufacturers are not required to make aflatoxin content information public. I called a couple of companies and wasn't able to get any details.

Friday, July 27

Paella is the New Black

Paella is the New Black

The big culinary retailers seem to have a whole cabinet full of new pans and accouterments for paella, but all you really need is a wide, flat-bottomed saute pan (preferably with straight sides to maximize the cooking surface area) and good heat source, and some Bomba or Calasparra rice (paella rice). The super-thin metal pans you see on the shelves might be traditional in some way, who knows, but they're also perfect for burning your ingredients and inducing hot spots. I prefer seasoned cast iron or stainless. For the grill, cast iron is just plain thematic.

Part of paella's lore is that it was originally made by Spanish caballeros over an open fire using rabbit or whatever other wilderness creature was strolling nearby as the protein. Whether true or not, its easy to imagine how smoky flavors would compliment a dish rich with onion, peppers, and saffron. So a charcoal grill works great, and it gives you the unparalleled luxury of making something really impressive and delicious outside while friends gather around the beer cooler to relax under the setting sun.

Proteins Come First
Get any ingredients you want on top of your finished paella ready. You'll add them back in later. I usually opt for baby artichoke hearts, asparagus, and chicken thighs. But you can do anything really. There are a million flavor combinations, but if you do the rice well, they will be complementary rather than center stage. The flavors you develop in the pan with these first ingredients will linger and help to bring your dish together at the end. After your proteins are well browned in as much oil as they need, and your vegetables are almost cooked, take them off the heat and set them aside. If a lot of fat was rendered, you can pour off most of it, but keep the pan greased.

Get your Sofrito Ready
In part 1, I talked about getting your sofrito ready. Here's the master recipe for sofrito that's enough to serve about 4 or 5 people. You can add red and green peppers if you like, too, about half a cup of finely chopped of each:

2 medium tomatoes, grated and skins discarded
1 medium onion, peeled and grated
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 olive oil

Start your grill or stove off slowly. Sofrito needs time to cook on a slowish fire, not a quick blast of high heat. On the grill, this means covering with enough air vented through to keep the embers burning (for charcoal). On the electric or gas range, you already know the drill.

Dress your pan with 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil and keep more on hand. The process of cooking out the moisture and creating a deeply caramelized sofrito usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour. So pace yourself, open a beer or pour a glass of wine, and realize that slow, steady heat is your friend.

As the sofrito loses moisture and cooks down, it will slowly turn reddish brown. Keep it going until it's very heavily caramelized, and salt along the way. You're looking for a dark, tomato-paste consistency that's pungent, sweet and savory. Remember that aside from some chicken stock and a few ingredients, you're really making the most important flavor base of the dish. So take it slow and don't give up on it until you think its concentrated enough. When you taste a tiny bit, the salt and oil should quickly permeate your palette and the aromatic garlic and and onion should have a potent, browned but not burned flavor. This requires lots of stirring and paying attention. If you're doing this on the grill, the grill-cover will be coming on and off, and you'll be stirring in between. On the stove top or gas, leave it uncovered. When you're convinced, and I mean really convinced, that the sofrito can't take one more moment on the heat, scrape it out and set it aside.

3 More Keys and You're Done
1st Key: While the pans still hot, toast your saffron by wrapping 5 or 6 threads in foil packet and throwing it into the pan for a few minutes. When it becomes aromatic, it's ready.

2nd Key: Get your stock hot. I usually use chicken stock, but you could use seafood or vegetable stock depending on your choice of proteins and vegetables. Just be sure it's good quality, or that you make it yourself. You'll need at least 3 cups (I usually heat up 3.5 cups in case I need more if the rice gets too dry). You can heat the stock on the grill while your sofrito rests, but I use a portable burner just to save time. After it's steaming and almost ready to boil, infuse it with the saffron you've toasted. You should get that satisfying orange color in seconds. Taste your stock and see where it's going. Remember that you've got a lot of salt in the sofrito already, so exercise caution.

3rd Key: Put your flat bottomed pan back on the grill (uncleaned!) and throw in about 1.5 cups of rice. Cook it in the rest of the olive oil until the grains are slightly translucent (just like when you're making risotto). When the rice has absorbed enough of the oil so you only see a pin head of white inside the grain, combine it with the sofrito and distribute it evenly throughout the pan.

Next arrange your proteins, vegetables, and a couple of fresh rosemary sprigs on top, and you're ready to begin the final cooking. From this point on, your spoon or spatula should not touch a single grain of rice (except to pick one up to test it for doneness, perhaps). Don't stir because this releases a lot of the starch from the rice and will result in a starchy, sticky mess. That's what your want for risotto to get that creamy texture, but not for paella.

Add the Stock
Add the hot stock to the pan gently over medium heat and let it go for 10-15 minutes untouched until most of the moisture is absorbed. Take the pan off the heat before it's completely dry, cover it, and let it rest for another 10 minutes. During this rest, the rice will finish cooking and absorb the rest of the stock. If you think the rice is too dry and too far from done, add a little water or stock and let it cook a little more before removing it from the heat to rest.

The Sought-After Crust
The Spanish love the toasty crust called the socarrat that forms on the bottom of the paella, but to get it, you have to put the 99% cooked rice back on the heat for a minute until you start to hear slight crackling sounds and smell the toasted rice. Don't let it go too long. Those crackling sounds let you know the rice on the very bottom of the pan is getting brown. After you think your socarrat has formed, take your finished paella straight to the table. Your friends will gasp.

Tuesday, June 12

Paella Is Rice, Not the Stuff on Top

Some make dishes over and over because they savor the memories over every forkful. Others because they're curious about a new style or technique, or they're just trying to get a wow at the table. The most soul satisfying dishes for me, however, come when I get a craving for something that builds into an inspiration to cook. Rice is a definite craver, and paella is a sure-fire satisfier. But it's not the stuff on top I want. Those prawns with the crazy long eyeballs, tons of clams, and copious chorizo chunks are great, but they don't hold a candle to a perfectly seasoned, irresistibly textured, gorgeously saffron-tinted bed of the paella.

Firm Pillow, Sticky Blanket, Saucy Slurry

Fortunately for me, rice has many roles to play in innumerable dishes: firm pillow for chops, sticky blanket for raw fish, and saucey centerpiece in risotto. It showcases flavors well and compliments them with its background earthy, nutty aroma and firm bite. Paella rules because it draws from most of these many possibilities.

In addition to providing it's own earthiness, rice carries the flavors of the paella's concentrated flavor-base, the sofrito, perfectly. It also binds together just enough in the pan to resist your fork just enough to keep things interesting. And the socarrat, a lightly toasted layer that forms on the bottom of the paella pan at the end of the cooking time, is a prize worth pursuing regardless of the fracas of flavor taking place above it.

Why is Paella so Good?
It's the rice! paella is best made with starchy, medium to short grained varieties. The most typical and famous Spanish rice for paella is called Bomba. Its grains are squat and round, and come swathed in plenty of starch to create body and bind the dish while its kernel is sturdy enough to deliver bite at the end of cooking. If you don't have any Bomba lying around, you can substitute. According to Jessica Lasky, one of the esteemed chefs I've had the pleasure to learn from at the Tante Marie school in San Francisco, Carnaroli (a variety mostly associated with risotto) can be used as an alternative. In a pinch, any short or medium rice could be pressed into service.

If rice is the Heart, Sofrito is the Soul of the Paella
sofrito is nothing more than a few vegetables cooked down and caramelized into a super concentrated paste. An ideal sofrito has enough body to actually cling to your spoon like tomato paste. To get this consistency, you need steady heat, a steady stirring hand, and a dedicated heart because it does take a bit of tending to get there. There are as many variations on sofrito as there are towns in Spain, but the main ingredients are onions and tomatoes. Some have garlic, some smoked peppers, and others sweet peppers. The traditional Valenciano sofrito (the root of all sofritos) is made from an onion, a tomato, and 4 cloves of garlic sliced thinly. One great method to get the sofrito going is to grate these ingredients into a mush, releasing all of their moisture as well as flavor so they're ready to be cooked down until almost, but not quite, charred. You want deep caramelized flavors and color, but not charcoal. Sometimes its a fine line.

Next Time
Why you should make paella on your grill and not on the stove, what sort of pan to choose, and the actual method for putting the final dish together.

Monday, May 7

Fill 'Er Up
It's 10:30p and--even after playing hide and go seek with your subjectivity by sipping pear brandy and overdosing on Stargate SG-1--you're feeling a little restless and looking for something to ease your mind? Don't despair, pare. It'll give you something (else) to do with your hands.

It's time to get your apple and rhubarb pie filling together and bake yourself a little happiness. Start by pulling the two disks of pie dough you made half an hour ago and put them on the counter to warm up a bit.

Bitter Fruit
Technically, rhubarb isn't a fruit. Rather, it's a stalky spring vegetable known to some as the "pie plant". When stewed in sugar and spices, the rhubarb's natural bitterness yields a balanced, sweet-tart vegetal flavor that's unique and unexpected. Apples add texture (rhubarb tends to melt a bit when cooked), bulk, and moderates the rhubarb's intense style. The classic rhubarb pairing, of course, is strawberry. But when I went shopping, the granny smiths were looking like money in the bank.

Granny smith's firm structure and sourness survive the high heat of baking. For a single pie, you'll need about 8-9 medium apples, cored and peeled. As soon as you put the first of your apple pieces into a bowl, squeeze a little lemon over them and toss. Every few minutes as you add more, toss the bowl around to coat the new bits. Lemon juice adds a bit of flavor to the filling and prevents oxidation browning. In a pie filling, brown pieces aren't terribly bad, but the reddish rhubarb color holds up better without any competition.

Chop the rhubarb into half to three quarters inch chunks, discarding the ends. Throw them into the bowl with the apple and toss in half a cup of sugar. To thicken the filling toss in a quarter cup of flour. Next, choose your spices. If you like the fall flavors, throw in cinnamon, a tiny bit of ground clove, and some ginger, or eave them out entirely. It's your evening, after all. No matter what you decide, however, add a solid pinch of salt. It just makes everything in the filling taste more like itself.

Here's the tricky part. Take your disks and unwrap them. Spread a little flour on a clean surface and start rolling with your trusty pin from the center of the disk, rotating your approach an hour on the clock face with each strike. Your objective is to create a round, eighth-inch plane of luscious buttery dough. Once you've achieved it as best you can, dust a tiny bit of flour onto your round and roll it up, window-shade style, onto the pin. This makes the transfer to the pie plate a lot less painful.

Now do it all over again with the second disk, pour the filling into the bottom half, and gently lay your second round over the top. Trim around the edges leaving about half an inch of overhang, which you'll fold over onto the pie plate edge. Crimp the edges, cut a few vents into the top, and throw it into a preheated, 425 degree oven. Bake it on a low shelf for 10 minutes, drop the heat to 350 and set your timer for 40 minutes. Once your crust has turned a nice golden brown and the fruit is soft, you're done. Take out the pie, cool at least 45 minutes on a rack (trust me don't skip this step) and serve. Hopefully you haven't gone through that pint of ice cream in the freezer yet, because it goes perfectly with pie.

(This one's for N...hope you had a chuckle :-)

Monday, April 16

Late Night Pie: A Sensual Affair

Moon Pie
Baking pie late at night may not substitute for dinner and a movie, but it’s better than mowing a pint of ice cream and watching a Kevin Costner rerun. And if, like me, you’re an unrepentant first-thing-in-the-morning eater, making late night pie has a lot to offer that dates don’t—it looks as good as it did when you went to bed, makes breakfast for you, and although not as hot as it was last night, its just as sweet and tender.

The Heart and Soul of Pie
At its very best, a fruit pie offers a hearty, toasty, salty, and delicately butter-flavored crust along with a moist, intense filling that reveals your chosen fruit's unique character and complexity in it's most favorable light. The crust might be flaky or it might be tender—the filling always luscious and redolent of fruit and spices.

For my late night pie, I decided on apples and blueberries. The apples were fresh, organic granny smiths. The blueberries were good quality, frozen berries from Washington state. For me, the soul of the pie is a golden and tender crust. Tarts demand flaky, more structured layered crusts and pies gently call for golden brown, melt-in-your-mouthiness. Without a stunningly beautiful and fork tender crust, the pie is just a tart without direction.

Approach the Crust
Buying a pre-baked pie shell is not only easy and cheap, it’s a total cop out! Embrace the flour and butter: make your own. It tastes and looks much better. Industrial pie shells skimp on the quality of the fat, and it’s the fat that makes the flavor in a pie shell.

So buy the good butter (unsalted) and flavor-neutral vegetable shortening. Be sure to avoid any vegetable shortening that contains trans-fats or has been partially hydrogenated. That stuff'll kill you...

Cool Your Jets
First, make everything as cold as you can: the flour, the food processor (or good old) mixing bowl, and the fat (a blend of vegetable shortening and butter, or butter alone). The flour can be stored in Ziploc bags in the freezer, as can your sticks of butter and shortening. Before you start, throw the food processor bowl in the ice box for a few minutes while you gather the rest of your ingredients and measuring spoons. To make a crust with both top and bottom, you’ll need:

2 ½ cups of all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 stick of unsalted butter (8 tbs)
1 stick of vegetable shortening (8tbs)
Ice water

You can elaborate this recipe by making pastry flour (half all purpose flour, half cake flour) but it's not really necessary.

Start by cutting up the butter and shortening into sugar cube sized pieces, then throw it back into the freezer. Measure the flour, salt and sugar and put it in the food processor or mixing bowl and pulse or whisk it around a couple of times to combine. Next add the fat cubes and pulse in brief bursts or cut in with a pastry tool until you see pea sized bits of fat scattered evenly in the flour.

Next add super-cold ice water a few tablespoons at a time, pulsing or cutting it in until you’ve mixed in a total of 8. You’re looking for a loose mealy texture that sticks into a semi-stable lump when squeezed. If it falls apart easily after clumping, you’ll need a bit more water, pulsing or cutting in after each addition. Be careful to add it just a tablespoon at a time until it’s ready. Take care not to push too far too fast in adding water and mixing: careful and frequent listening to your dough is the key.

Round it Out
Once you've gotten to a mealy mass that sticks under pressure, split it in half and pour into two Ziploc bags. Working quickly, form each of the dough into disks about an inch and a half thick and place in the fridge.

Now it's time to pop some corn and catch up on your movie for half an hour...the dough, like you, needs to relax.

Come back soon for part two, in which:
  • The filling is made and added
  • The pie is baked
  • A potentially tearful evening of alone time becomes a dramatic crowd pleaser the next day at the workplace, home, picnic, or dinner party.

Wednesday, March 7

More From Brussels (and Alsace)

Go To France!
When you think about the Alsace-Lorraine region (if you ever do) you might imagine misty rolling hills tucked between the River Rhine and the Vosges mountain in the north east of France. At least that's pretty much what you should be imagining, because it looks like that. Without getting into a huge history lesson, Alsace has passed between French and German control a thousand times, and the result is a blend of culture, language, and wine-making technique that makes the region unique. Also a bit creepy in light of the Nazi collaboration that may have taken place?? It's all a bit hazy what happened during that time, but there were heroes and in all wars.

Back to the Wine
If you're an aromatic white wine fan (as I am) you may imagine the so-called 'noble vine' (aka Riesling) flourishing on vineyards overlooked by castles and dotted with walled cities built hundreds of years ago. It's really like that, which is why Disney copied it and jazzed up the local folklore to create his scrubbed-up, family-friendly Anaheim paradise.

In Alsace today, there's a 'rue de vin' that's pretty much the same as Napa's wine trail, although it all feels more genuine because it's been around so long. For literally hundreds of years, families in the region have produced some of the most profound, aromatic Rieslings and a host of smaller varietals I had never heard of before visiting: Sylvaner and Pinot Auxerrois among them. They're both less acidic than Riesling, more rounded and mellow without the powerful floral perfumes you normally associate with Riesling. Sylvaner has Grand Cru terroir, so take it seriously when you go. Grand Cru!

The Food Sucked
I love food. I love food more than I love my doctor and my cat, which is a lot. But I have to say the food in Alsace wasn't good. The bread wasn't the crisp, light, slightly sweet Parisian baguette I had hoped for. And the big "must try" food for tourists is a monstrosity called the Choucroutte Avec Cochon de Lait--roughly sauerkraut with the piggie cooked with milk. Also simply called Choucroutte Avec Cochon. By either name, it was a disgusting pile up of blended pork products on a haystack of sauerkraut. I don't think the original dish must have looked this's kind of like the "chowder in the bread bowl" of Alsace. I stuck religiously to grilled meat and did fine. I advise the same. I have no doubt you can find a place that serves great Choucroutte...just proceed with caution.

The Cutest Town Ever Created
Globalization has brough big box stores to Alsace Lorraine. But a mile away on the 'rue du vin' you'll find the most amazing town called Riquewihr. It was a hub of wine trading for a long time, which explains why it's nestled in the heart of the vineyard country. When you're in Riquewihr it feels like a completely other world, except that all the shops have the same crap in them you can get anywhere (bascially). That's globalization again. It's a tiny walled city with a well and tiny streets that radiate from a central square. Yes, it has a drawbridge.

The Homophobic Hotel
I normally don't rant about political injustice, but I need to say something here. I was travelling with five other people (a couple (men), my partner (also a man), a gay man and a straight woman (both of whom are coupled but their SOs couldn't make it).

At this one hotel in Riquewirh that specializes in younger/poorer travelers, there was an immediate assumption on the part of the desk clerk that Pedro and Amy were a couple couple, and that the rest of us four guys weren't. In addition, the hotelier (who finally caught the vibe) asked us fifteen times whether we (the gay couples) wanted 'separate single beds' instead of doubles. Ok, once maybe to be polite, but he kept asking with an evil twinkle in his eye. Not cool.

And on top of that, the shower sucked and the room smelled like a carton of cigarettes had been lit on fire, dissolved in water, and then used to wash the sheets. The name of this place is "Hotel De La Couronne". If you're gay and not looking to be disrespected, avoid. To be fair, the younger man who did the check-out in the morning was extremely cool, and they had a very furry dog that was also excellent.

Thursday, February 8

Sugar Shack-The Coco500 Cocktail Connection

I'm blogging today to blow the whistle on a technique I learned recently at Coco500, one of the most innovative cocktail garages in San Francisco. As you may already know, Coco500's bev list was developed by Thad Vogler, the same mixmaster who manages the bar at Slanted door. If you had to come up with a short description, it would have to be "grand old standards with twisted ingredients". For example, the Manhattan is made with blood orange and they use organic sugar.

When I went to Coco500 a few nights ago, there was a bartender in training who made my cocktails, so I got to watch the blow by blow instruction. I ordered the signature drink (the Coco500), a mojito-inspired affair made with Thai basil and kefir lime vodka (which by the way is delicious). The cool trick they used, however, was to grind up the organic sugar using a coffee grinder into powder, helping the sugar to dissolve quickly and speed up the mixing process.

Serious Social Lubricant
Cocktails are a wonderful thing. They transport time-tested and honored liquors, bathing us in a bit of history with each sip, but they can also prepare the palette for food and loosen your tongue for a steady flow of conversation. But to accomplish all of this, they need to be delicious. And delicious means balanced, interesting, and greater than the sum of its parts. At Coco500, they treat each cocktail as an appetizer. During the training of the new bartender, I personally witnessed at least a dozen drinks being prepared under the careful scrutiny of the head bartender. And after each one was prepared, a fresh swizzle straw was dipped into the freshly poured drink, a little captured by covering the other end with a thumb, and then tasted before sending it out and disposing of the straw.

A Couple of Take-Homes
Get yourself a $15 blade grinder to use for sugar, but don't use it for anything else. Once you get into the habit of pulverizing your sugar, you'll start to think about doing things to it like tossing in a couple of bay leaves, maybe a vanilla bean, or kefir lime leaves to create flavor nuances that can womp up your creations.

Next, invest in a box of those black or red skinny bartender straws. Not only do they look mighty real leaning against the inside of the tumbler when serve your guests at home, they're also indispensable for sanitary, focused tasting of your latest concoction.