June 25, 2009

In My Pantry: Vinegar and Oil

Vinegar and Oil

Olive Oil

The oil you use to cook with will be the foundation flavor upon which you'll build. Even though heat destroys some of the oil's character, it will still play an important role in the final flavor profile of what you're cooking. That's why I never use anything other than extra virgin when I use olive oil.

Olive oils typically are available in four grades. Extra virgin olive oil is low in acidity--frequently less than 0.5% and never more than 0.8%--without detectable flavor or aroma flaws and mechanically produced. Virgin olive oil has acidity up to 2.0%. is without detectable flavor or aroma flaws, and is mechanically produced. Olive oil, also called ordinary olive oil, has acidity up to 3.3% and is a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and lampante olive oil. Lampante olive oil is not fit for consumption as is, and is treated with caustic chemicals to rectify the problems and remove flavor.

The flavor profile of extra virgin olive oil depends on a number of factors, including the type of olives used to produce it and when the olives were harvested. Generally olives will be harvested early, while they're still unripe, or will be harvested late, as they start to fall off the tree.

Early harvest olives, those grown in cooler climates, and those grown in cooler years, tend towards green, astringent, bitter, pungent, leafy-herbal, and olive-fruity flavors and aromas. Tuscan oils are usually early harvest, and have what's called pizzicante--a tendency to grab the back of the throat with a pungent or peppery finish.

Late harvest olives and those grown in hotter climes tend toward sweet, light, flowery, and nutty-fruity flavors and aromas. If you want a delicate and mild oil look to Moroccan oils or California oils made from Mission or Manzarillo olives.

For delicate and mild oil, I prefer Le Fasce from Italy and Olio Santo from California. The fruitier, more fragrant oil of Alziari (France) is an excellent choice, while Lungarotti (Italy) adds some pizzicante. If I'm making pesto I prefer the more olive and pepper flavored oils, particularly Espuny, a Spanish oil with a distinctly piney note. L'Estornell, also from Spain, is a wonderfully olive-y oil. When I want a green oil with the aroma of a newly mown lawn I will select Ravida, Banfi, or Marfuga, all from Italy.

Deborah Krasner has written an excellent guide to olive oils called The Flavors of Olive Oil. She explains a lot about how and what to taste and includes flavor profiles for about 200 different oils.

 Other Oils

There are other oils in my pantry, of course. I use tea seed oil for stir-frying because of its high smoke point. For a nut oil I prefer hazelnut (filbert) or pistachio.

Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is made by reducing the juice of Trebbiano grapes, then straining the resulting boiled must. The boiled must is then reduced 30-50% to produce saba, a sweetener used during the Roman Empire. The saba is barrelled and allowed to acetify and evaporate for ten years or more, all the while being exposed to fluctuating temperatures. The result is aceto balsamico tradizionale.

In my opinion, the very best balsamic you can get for less than $100 is Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar. It's the one I use for everything, including dessert!

Other Vinegars

In addition to balsamic vinegar, I keep red wine and apple cider vinegars on hand. When I can find a good champagne vinegar, I like to keep it handy for lighter vinaigrettes.

If you're fortunate enough to find a sauternes vinegar, snatch it up. I've had some, and it makes a superior vinaigrette, especially when used with an excellent balsamic vinegar and an oil with some good pizzicante.

June 21, 2009

Knife Skills: Dicing

It's quite easy to dice using a chef's knife; it's a simple four step process. Step one, square up the vegetable by cutting off the sides. If you're dicing a potato you might peel it first, but with most vegetables peeling is a waste of time because you'll be trimming the peel off with your first cut. Save the trimmings for the stockpot or compost pile.

Carrot Dice 1

Step two, make slices of equal widths. If you're doing a ½" dice or french fries, make the slice ½" wide. A standard dice is ¼", while a brunoise would be an eighth or even a sixteenth of an inch.

Carrot Dice 2

Step three, make matchsticks, also called julienne. If you are doing this to a potato, you'd be ready for french fries. Just stack the slices so you can cut slices through them at the same width.

Carrot Dice 3

To complete the dice, turn the julienne 90° and make equal width cuts across the length.

Carrot Dice 4

That's all there is to it.

June 18, 2009

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet

Strawberries may well be my favorite food. Not surprising, really, when you consider that I was born within sight of Mt. Hood at the time of year when Hood strawberries are just right! To celebrate my birthday I thought it would be lovely to have a nice strawberry tart. But I couldn't decide exactly how it should look, so I made tartlets.

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet ShellI started by making some Vanilla Shortbread Dough. I used Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract instead of Tahitian, and replaced the vanilla paste with powdered freeze-dried strawberries to give the dough a bit of kick. I followed my own instructions, and didn't worry when the dough cracked before baking. Remember to chill the tartlet shells before baking. I baked them for about 13 minutes at 350°F/175°C.

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet FilledWhile the tartlet shells were baking, I mixed some whole milk ricotta with about a teaspoon of honey,  some puréed strawberries, and a hint of cinnamon. Once the shells were finished baking and cooling, I filled them with the ricotta. If I had had some, I would have used strawberry honey, which is honey from hives in which the bees harvest pollen from strawberry fields.

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet BuildingThe strawberries went into a bowl of cold water along with several sprigs of spearmint from the garden. Then it was just a matter of selecting berries that were just right, slicing them, and laying them into the shells, sometimes with mint leaves interspersed. To finish, I melted some strawberry jam and brushed it onto the berries.

As I said, I couldn't decide exactly how the tart should look, so I made two sizes of tartlets and then decorated each a little differently. One of them featured whole berries.

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet 1

I also made several smaller tartlets, decorating them as flowers.

Strawberry-Ricotta Tartlet 4

Now the only problem I have is that I have to eat them, and I can't figure out which one to eat first!

June 13, 2009

Ricotta-Stuffed Tomatoes

Ricotta-Stuffed Tomatoes

I'd just finished making ricotta. It was so soft and creamy that I just had to use it for supper. Ravioli would have been nice, but I didn't have the time or energy. Then I remembered the roma tomatoes sitting in the produce basket.

The tomatoes were easy enough to prepare. After washing them, I sliced them in half, then used a melon baller to scoop out the seeds. I sprinkled some sel gris on the inside, then turned them over on a paper towel to let them dry out a bit.

The refrigerator yielded garlic confit and caramelized onions. The herb garden provided greek oregano, basil, flat-leaf parsley, and rosemary. I chopped everything up and added the mixture to some ricotta. After tasting I added a pinch of Fleur de Sel, then covered it to let the flavors get acquainted for about half an hour.

To finish the dish, I stuffed the tomatoes with the herbed ricotta, which I topped with crushed garlic-parmesan crostini.  Then I baked them at 400°F (205°C) for 20 minutes. Roasted beets and a green salad completed a very satisfying meatless dinner.

I served this as a main course, so allowed one tomato per person. As a side dish, I would serve a single half.

June 12, 2009

Home Creamery: Whole Milk Ricotta

Whole Milk Ricotta
Whole Milk Ricotta

I never really liked cheese when I was young. Even as I grew older, I really never acquired a taste for cheese except when it was cooked into something. So it was a bit shocking to discover that making cheese interested me. Without a lifetime of cheese tasting experience, how would I know when something tasted right?

Research was required, so I started tasting cheeses at every opportunity and browsing books. Now I know that I like some cheeses, that I can learn to like some cheeses, and that stinky cheeses are not yet in either category. I also learned that, with proper equipment and a willingness to follow instructions, anyone can make cheese.

Traditional ricotta is whey recooked with vinegar. This version of ricotta doesn't require you to make another cheese first and it produces a very finely textured cheese with great flavor.

Whole Milk Ricotta

1 quart/liter whole milk
½ cup/125mL heavy cream (optional)
¼ teaspoon/1.25mL citric acid
¼ teaspoon/1.25mL cheese or kosher salt (optional)
This will produce about half a pound of cheese. The recipe scales up nicely if you need more. You can substitute 2 tablespoons/30mL freshly squeezed lemon juice for the citric acid but the resulting texture can be a bit more coarse.

As always, sterilize your equipment. The easiest method is to fill the pan you're using with water, your stainless steel spoon, and your measuring equipment. Bring to a boil and cover for 5 minutes.

Mix everything together in a stainless steel pan. I find it's easier if I put the pan with the milk into a larger pan, then fill the larger pan with water and heat that. When you mix everything together, the milk curdles almost immediately.

When you mix everything together, the milk curdles almost immediately.

As the milk heats, it thickens up and looks less lumpy. When the temperature approaches 195°F/91°C the curds start to separate from the whey.

The curds begin to separate from the whey.

Once the temperature is at least 195°F/91°C, but before it reaches 205°F/96°C, remove the pan from the heat and set it aside for 5-15 minutes. The curds will separate fully from the whey.

The curds have separated fully from the whey.

Put a colander into a large bowl and line the colander with dampened butter muslin or three layers of dampened cheesecloth. Gently pour the curds into the colander. Within a few seconds, much of the whey will have drained out, leaving the curds behind. You can let it drain in the colander, or tie the butter muslin closed and hang the cheese until it reaches the consistency you want. It should take 30 minutes or less to drain.

After draining about 30 minutes, the cheese is done.

Spoon the finished cheese into a sterile container and refrigerate. If you use salt, it will last up to two weeks in the refrigerator or three months in the freezer. If you choose not to salt the cheese, you should use it the same day for the best flavor and texture; it will last three days in the refrigerator. The whey can be used in place of milk in recipes.

This is a great cheese to start with, because it's very easy and forgiving.

Setting Up Your Home Creamery

A simple home creamery requires a few pieces of kitchen equipment. If you don't already have a good, accurate thermometer, get a high quality instant-read thermometer. A good stainless steel 2-quart covered saucepan will be your basic pan; a larger pan is usable but can be difficult to control unless you're doing larger batches. For measuring, you'll want a 4-cup measuring cup and a good set of measuring spoons. You'll also want some unbleached cheesecloth on hand, as well as an assortment of jars--I prefer french canning jars and bottles with bail tops.

June 10, 2009

Beets Two Ways

Roasted Beets Done

Beets are magical. The tuber is sweet, especially when it's roasted, and the greens are a tangy and nutritious addition to any meal.

Roasted Beets MiseWhen I have beets to roast I don't mess about. I drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle some sel gris or kosher salt on top, cover them with foil, and put them into the oven (350°F/175°C). After about 2-3 hours (depending on the size of the beet) they should be ready. They won't overcook if you leave them in the oven an extra quarter hour or so, they'll just caramelize. I like to finish them with a drizzle of Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar.

Beet Greens PrepThe greens require a bit more work. A thorough cleaning is necessary, and I like to remove most of the stalk. You can braise them as-is with some onion, garlic, and maybe bacon. I used them as part of a skillet supper.

An inexpensive steak, like a round steak, is perfect for a simple skillet supper, and you can stretch a small steak to feed several people. Slice it rather thinly against the grain so that it'll cook rapidly yet be tender. Be careful to clean it up by trimming excess fat and removing tendon and silver skin.

Chop up some aromatics--onion, sweet red pepper, some carrot if you like. Peel and dice a tomato or two, or cut some cherry tomatoes in half. Make a chiffonade from the greens, or at least tear them into smaller pieces. Get some garlic confit out of the refrigerator, or mince a clove or two of fresh garlic.

The actual ingredients really don't matter that much, use whatever you have. The quantity doesn't much matter either, just use more veggies than meat, and make enough for however many are eating plus one or two, because it's mostly veggies, so you want to encourage a second helping.

Steak and Greens Cooking

Preheat your fry pan with some extra virgin olive oil--keep the heat down between medium-low and medium. Once the oil starts to shimmer, toss in the aromatics. Stir for a minute or so, then add the steak and garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper. When the steak is mostly done, add the greens. After a couple more minutes the greens should be wilted and the steak should have given up some of its water. Now toss in the tomato and add a splash of wine. Give the tomatoes just enough time to soften, and it's done.

Steak and Greens

A simple dish like this will be successful if you follow a few guidelines. Use lots of fresh veggies of as many colors as you can manage; you need to eat all the colors for complete nutrition, and the color makes it more appetizing. Use an inexpensive protein--no need for porterhouse here. Remember the wine! Some alcohol is vital if you want to access all the flavors and nutrients, and it'll cook out by the time the pan is deglazed.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is that there's no recipe, and there are no recipe police looking over your shoulder to make sure you used exactly the same things I did in exactly the same proportions. Just get into the kitchen, use what you have, and create your own skillet supper. It'll be great!

June 9, 2009

Chicken Marsala

Chicken Marsala

I had just finished breaking down a chicken for a photo session when I realized that it was time to eat. Fortunately, I had some chicken on the cutting board. A quick trip to the pantry for inspiration yielded sweet Marsala wine and veal demiglace. Sometimes you need to test recipes a lot to get them right. Other times you can just throw something together and it's virtually perfect.

Chicken BreastsFirst, I prepped the chicken breasts. Bone-in and skin on is the juiciest way to prepare chicken breasts, but I'd deboned and removed the skin on the breasts for photos, so boneless, skinless chicken breasts seemed an excellent choice.  A quick rinse and pat dry with a paper towel, then salt and pepper (3 kinds) completed the prep.

I try never to start cooking without thinking things through and getting organized. While the chicken rested for a few minutes, I prepared my mise en place: slice some onion and crimini mushrooms; have a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter ready for the pan; pour a couple tablespoons of marsala into a prep bowl so I won't be pouring alcohol from a bottle into a hot pan; make sure to have a tablespoon or so of demiglace ready. Okay, I'm set and I have a plan.

When I'm doing classes and demos, I hear lots of questions about food sticking to the pan. I rarely have that problem, and here's why. First, I let the protein I'm cooking come to room temperature or as near to it as 30 minutes sitting out will do. Then I put some fat in the pan, usually olive oil, butter, or both. Then I preheat the pan--never preheat an empty pan, it can burn. The pan is ready when the oil shimmers or the butter foams. Only then do I put the protein into the pan.

Chicken Breasts CookingPatience is a virtue when cooking. It's really important to wait until the protein is ready before turning it. With most meats you'll be able to see that the color has changed. Turn it once and let it finish. The small bits that cling to the pan are what makes sauces so flavorful.

Sauteed MushroomsWhen the chicken is almost done, lift it out and set it aside, covered. If you cover it, residual heat will finish the cooking. Add butter and maybe a bit of olive oil to the pan and sauté the mushrooms and onions. Be sure to add salt and pepper.

Marsala SaucePush the mushrooms and onions to one side of the pan and deglaze with marsala. Be sure to keep your face back when pouring the wine into the hot pan just in case it ignites. Wine rarely ignites, but there's really no point in taking the risk. Stir in the demiglace, mix everything nicely, and taste. It's probably just fine, but taste it to make sure and adjust the seasoning, as necessary.

Plate the chicken, add a nice potato gratin and salad greens dressed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette, then spoon the marsala sauce over the chicken. And that's how I paid the photographer. Thanks, Dad!

June 8, 2009

Technique: Breaking Down Poultry

Chicken 1

Photos by Donald L. Mark

There was a time when every home cook knew how to break down whole poultry into parts, because they didn't have a choice. Then we learned to pay exorbitant amounts of money for other people to do it for us. Well that's just silly. It only takes a small amount of instruction and one chicken to learn how to break down poultry, and you get to eat the chicken because YOU CAN'T FAIL.

Whole chickens are usually less expensive than their parts. The day I bought this one it was 99 cents per pound, wings were $1.29 per pound, legs and thighs were $2.39, and boneless skinless breasts were $3.29. If I had purchased just the two breast halves I would have spent about six dollars, but instead I bought the whole chicken for $4.27. You can get a quart of good chicken stock and four entrée portions from one chicken. That's about a dollar a serving plus a few cents for chicken stock.

Okay, so what do you need to break down a chicken? A cutting board, a knife, a plate for the parts, and some paper towels. I use a boning knife because I happen to have one, but any sharp knife you're comfortable with will work.

Start by rinsing the chicken in cold tap water, cleaning out the inner cavity where you'll find the neck, gizzard, liver, and heart, and patting it dry with paper towels. Save everything except the liver for chicken stock. Use the liver for paté, a quick snack, or pet food.

Lay the chicken on its back on the cutting board. Pull the leg and thigh away from the body and make an incision in the skin to give yourself room to work.

Chicken 2

Feel around to locate the joint between the hip and the thigh, then snap the thigh downward to pop it out.

Chicken 2a

Using the tip of your knife, remove the leg quarter from the body.

Chicken 3

Now, feel along the breast centerline with your fingers and locate the breast bone. Using the tip of your knife, make an incision along one side, keeping the tip of the blade against the bone and cartilage.

Chicken 4

Carefully scrape the tip of your knife along the rib cage while pulling outward on the meat to separate the breast from the bones.

Chicken 5

Cut along the wishbone, then pull the breast away from the rib cage, scraping the meat away from the rib cage as necessary, then cut it free.

Chicken 6

If you wish, remove the wing by first dislocating the joint, then cutting through the cartilage. Note how I've curled my fingers to keep them away from the knife. I want to cut the bird, not myself!

Chicken 7

Repeat these steps on the other side, and you're done. It's just that easy, and since all poultry are constructed the same, the instructions work just as well on duck, goose, turkey, or any other edible poultry. Makes you wonder why you paid so much more for those parts than you did for the whole bird.

June 7, 2009

Pantry: Caramelized Onions

Caramelized Onions
Caramelized Onions

When sweet onions are on special I set aside half a day to make caramelized onions because they add an incredible amount of flavor to any dish. Most recipes call for several minutes of cooking. I take at least four hours.

June 5, 2009

Candy Cap Gelato

Candy Cap Gelato

Gelato is the truly ethereal version of ice cream that originates in Italy. Most important to a gelato is to start with a good base and to finish with low-speed churning that incorporates as little air as possible.

There are two standard gelato bases, white and yellow. The white base is made without eggs, the yellow with. Precise proportions vary from maker to maker, however. Here is the white gelato base I use.

White Gelato Base
1½ cup/12 oz./340g whole milk
1½ cup/12 oz./340g heavy cream
½ cup/3.5 oz./100g granulated sugar
½ cup/6 oz./170g honey or glucose

Mix together in a saucepan over medium-low heat and bring to 176-180°F/80-82°C, stirring frequently. Infuse with flavorings for 30 minutes, covered. Strain into a stainless steel bowl in an ice bath, then refrigerate overnight. Process in a gelato or ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.

Glucose tastes neutral, honey tastes like honey. If the flavoring you intend to use will be masked by or conflict with honey, use glucose.

If you aren't familiar with candy cap mushrooms, read my first post on this mushroom. To make candy cap gelato, I used about ¼ ounce/7 grams dried candy cap mushrooms and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon to infuse my white gelato base made with honey.

On the palate, it begins with a slightly fungal honey nose, then the candy caps spring to life. This year there is a strong maple syrup-butterscotch blend. The taste of honey lingers on the palate. The deep, rich flavor of the candy caps really shines in gelato.

June 4, 2009

Xocoatl Sorbet

First Place Winner in the Zupan's Chocolate Decadence Contest!

Xocoatl Sorbet

The Mayans turned cacao beans into a drink, but it was the Aztecs who added vanilla and honey to make it sweet. If they had invented sorbet, I'd like to think they would have made something like this.

I've added cinnamon for spicy-sweet tones, ancho chile powder for sweet-hot notes, and chipotle powder for smoky heat. The Scharffen Berger Chocolate doesn't contain any dairy, but isn't labeled vegan, so a substitution might be necessary. Glucose is a viable substitute for the honey I've used, and it will produce the same texture. Pernigotti is a very fine Dutch process cocoa powder, but it isn't labeled vegan either, so a substitute might be required.

A bite of this sorbet is an interesting experience. The cinnamon appears first in the interior nasal passages, followed by a rich, deep chocolate flavor. Then the cinnamon appears on the palate, followed by the heat of the chiles just about when you swallow. I found that the heat became much more intense if I ate faster.

Xocoatl Sorbet
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups Pernigotti Cocoa
2 ounces Scharffen Berger Bittersweet 70% Cacao Chocolate
1/3 cup honey
pinch Australian pink flake sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon Mexican vanilla extract
3/8 teaspoon chipotle powder
1/4 teaspoon ancho chile powder

Mix the water, sugar, and cocoa powder in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. As soon as the sugar and cocoa powder are completely absorbed into the water, remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate. Stir in the remaining ingredients after the chocolate melts. The mixture will thicken as it cools, so strain while still somewhat hot.

Refrigerate at least six hours, or overnight, to let the flavors develop completely. Process in an ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer's directions.