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Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

I just finished reading Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook pretty much back-to-back. Once you’ve read the first, you can’t help but be curious about the latter. The author of both is Anthony Bourdain, an in-your-face guy who somehow provoked in me simultaneous reactions of “Just shut up!” and “Tell me more…”

Kitchen Confidential essentially tracks his crazy career as a good-but-not-great chef, though not in a linear way – there are plenty of asides, advice, rants, and reminiscences. Throughout his tales of drug-fueled kitchen adventures, I kept thinking, “This guy is kind of an asshole,” but the book is saved because of two things. First, you get the sense he would be the first to tell you he’s kind of an asshole. And second, he writes in a truly engaging way about the world of food, from a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a chef, to a chapter on “how to cook like the pros” (butter and shallots are necessary, a full set of specialized knives is not) to bigger-picture descriptions of how the restaurant industry works. He has an eye for detail that makes you really feel what it’s like to work the line, and this is what kept me turning the pages and tolerating the over-testosteroned tone.

Kitchen Confidential was written when Bourdain was in his mid-forties, recovering from heroin addiction and nearly burned out after decades in many different kitchens, an unknown chef.

What a difference a decade makes.

The book was a hit, and Bourdain is now a celebrity chef with his own TV show, guest judging spots on Top Chef…basically, he’s a star. Case in point: in Kitchen Confidential, he writes about how uber-famous chefs like Eric Ripert wouldn’t be giving him a call anytime soon. In Medium Raw? Ripert is described as his best friend in the world.

Medium Raw is composed of stand-alone chapters covering a wide range of topics, including reflections on Bourdain’s life since Kitchen Confidential and his thoughts on “selling out,” his heroes and villains in the cooking world, and changes and trends in the industry. I found this book to be much more lazily written, with a lot more gratuitous sexualized language (how many times do you really need to compare a food experience to a blow job, getting laid, etc.? Or use the word “clusterfuck?”). And yet…there are still plenty of juicy tidbits and beautiful descriptions of the pleasures of eating and cooking. My favorite chapter, titled “My Aim is True,” profiles the meticulous work of Justo Thomas, who cleans and prepares 700 pounds of fish a day for renowned seafood restaurant Le Bernadin.

If you’re interested in the musings of a man who relishes ripping on everyone from wait staff to vegetarians to food world gods (and of course, “bastard” food bloggers), but still has a true love and reverence for the culture of cooking, I recommend Kitchen Confidential. On the other hand, I’d wait until Medium Raw comes out in paperback. Or save your money entirely and borrow my copy – I’ll put Post-It notes on the good chapters 🙂

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We are off to Michigan today to squeeze in a little beach time – a delayed 4th of July vacation, if you will. One of my favorite things about escaping the city for a few days is the almost instant sense of relaxation, which also means a relaxed approach to cooking. Our local market (where we always pick up a couple jars of our favorite tomato sauce) is stocked to bursting with fresh goodies, and we just grab whatever looks good. Dinner on a recent trip was:

Beautiful fingerling potatoes

Broccoli sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper (prepared by our friend Kris)

Grilled burgers (meat purchased from the butcher down the street)

While preparing the meal, we like to turn on some music and pour out some drinks (as evidenced in the broccoli photo). Quality ingredients, simple preparation = more time to sit on the porch and watch for hummingbirds.

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Ah, Spain. Land of tapas: plates small enough that you can try a million different dishes in one sitting. Well, maybe not a million. Last night we opted for a more realistic count of three.

With my sister as a third chef in the kitchen, she, J, and I each chose a recipe from the “Tapas Deck” by José Andrés. No need to make a grocery list – just take the individual cards with you to the store! It’s said that tapas originated when Spanish sherry drinkers came up with the ingenious idea of keeping fruit flies out of their glasses by covering them with tiny plates bearing snacks. While we didn’t need to cover our drinks last night with small dishes, we did enjoy plating our creations on larger platters.

Justin’s Roasted Vidalia Onions with Cabrales Cheese

This dish initially stalled a bit as the onions didn’t brown as expected (we think it may have had something to do with the type of baking dish we used), but they came out  deliciously soft and sweet regardless, topped with creamy cheese crumbles, pine nuts, and chopped chives. Note: rather than make the extra trip to the Whole Foods cheese counter, we used the recommended substitution of gorgonzola.

Rachel’s White Mushrooms with Garlic and Parsley

This is the perfect dish for mushroom lovers (which all three of us are): a simple saute with olive oil, garlic, fresh thyme, and sherry, finished just as simply with salt, white pepper, and chopped parsley. The recipe notes that this preparation is common in Logroño, the capital of the northern Spanish province of La Rioja.

Lily’s Crab-Filled Cherry Tomatoes

The most complex dish of the evening is probably also the most appropriate for summer given its minimal cooking time. The tomatoes are quickly blanched and skinned, then stuffed with lump crab meat which has been dressed with mustard, mayo, parsley, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and crushed toasted nuts. For a finishing touch, a sprinkling of hard-boiled eggs added a pretty yellow color to the plate. While the tomatoes are small, they are quite rich and pack a good punch of flavor.

We rounded out the meal with a mixed green salad and bread, and some good family chat time. The three of us have been to Spain together before, and I think we’ll be cooking tapas together again!

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After our labor-intensive Indian meal, we were eager to prepare something a tad easier for our fourth day around the world. Simple but delicious? We knew we need look no further than Mark Bittman. He’s well-known for his New York Times column “The Minimalist,”  which showcases his signature straightforward cooking style. He also has the cojones to write cookbooks with names like “How to Cook Everything” and “The Best Recipes in the World.” It was the latter in which we found a variation on beef lo mein which had on the table in about 15 minutes: saute Chinese chives and shiitake mushrooms until browned…add garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a little water, and cooked lo mein noodles…toss, and serve!

For such little effort, we were rewarded with big flavors. The satisfyingly chewy noodles provided the perfect stage for the mild onion taste of the Chinese chives (about two feet long before you chop them) and the subtle meatiness of the mushrooms. Bittman notes that this is a traditional dish at weddings and New Year’s parties, but the ease of preparation has earned it a place in our repertoire for much more humble occasions!

Almost as good as the meal itself was the trip to the Asian market for ingredients. I spent much longer there than necessary, taking in the giant sacks of rice and aisles full of fragrant spices and produce. The candy section made me feel like a little kid, and I couldn’t resist bringing home some chocolate “burgers” for dessert!

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I think my love affair with Indian food started in college. My friends and I ate it about once a week, most commonly in the form of a Sunday morning buffet at our favorite restaurant following a late night out. We still laugh about how we would wait outside for the doors to open, and once at our table would order saag paneer in addition to the many all-you-can eat dishes on offer.

I had always wondered about how to recreate the complex flavors of Indian cuisine at home. In one of our few attempts many years ago, this involved grinding MANY different spices with a mortar and pestle. But when I recently took an Indian cooking class with my mom, I discovered another magic ingredient: ghee, or clarified butter. Our instructor had a large jar on hand and kept adding bright yellow scoops to seemingly all the dishes he was teaching us to make, resulting in an incredibly rich and creamy texture.

In our third (and most ambitious) night of world cooking, two of the three recipes called for the use of ghee as the cooking fat. Unfortunately, even a special trip to a market on Devon Avenue didn’t turn up the jarred version. I could have made my own by simmering unsalted butter until the moisture evaporates and the milk solids settle to the bottom, then spooning off the cooked butter…but I chickened out. The dishes were already complex enough without attempting a new technique, so I used the recommended substitution of vegetable oil. Next time!

All of last night’s recipes came from Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” This is a really well-written cookbook, and I especially like how Sahni provides ideas for accompaniments for each dish. Using these suggestions, we prepared masala jheengari (shrimp laced with mild spices) served with gobhi sabzi (glazed cauliflower with ginger) and hari chutney ka pullao (mint pilaf).

Sahni notes that masala jheengari is the most widely eaten shellfish dish in India, and I can see why. The shrimp are first heated through in turmeric-spiced water, and the cooking liquid then forms the base of the sumptuous sauce consisting of onions, cumin, ground coriander, paprika, yogurt, salt, green chilies, and ground roasted white poppy seeds (I couldn’t find these at the store, so substituted sesame). After reducing to a thick gravy, the shrimp are added back in along with a swirl of heavy cream and some chopped fresh cilantro. The mouth-watering intensity of the finished entree was perfectly complemented by the more subtle flavors of the stir-fried cauliflower and rice studded with potatoes and infused with a mint and coconut puree.

Our Indian meal. Tip: When making basmati rice, factor an additional 30 minutes into your prep time to allow the grains to soak.

All in all (and despite a false start with the shrimp sauce in which I burned the onions and had to start over!), preparing this meal gave me more confidence with cooking Indian food, and I’m looking forward to creating some of our traditional take-out items at home (some favorites: butter chicken, samosas, malai kofta, and my old friend saag paneer!).

Because these recipes yielded a lot of food, we’ll be enjoying the leftovers tonight…but check back soon for our next international meal!

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I love Middle Eastern food, but I have to admit my attempts to cook it at home haven’t extended too far beyond falafel! Last night, we branched out to a main dish and dessert from two different cookbooks.

Up first, we prepared mihshi malfuf (cabbage rolls), a dish native to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The recipe comes from “Middle Eastern Home Cooking” by Tess Mallos, a beautiful cookbook with full-color photographs of each dish. We opted for the vegetarian filling, a mixture of fried scallions, rice, chickpeas, parsley, tomatoes and olive oil seasoned with allspice, salt, and pepper. The stuffed rolls are drizzled with a garlicky mint sauce, then simmered in water for 45 minutes to allow the rice to cook. Served with yogurt and warm pita bread, the finished product was quite tasty, but the flavors didn’t have the “wow” factor necessary to justify the intensive prep and cooking time, not to mention the 30 minutes the rolls had to rest before eating! Maybe we’ll try the meat filling if we make this meal again?

For dessert, we had burnt honey ice cream from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s “Artichoke to Za’atar: Modern Middle Eastern Food.” We were intrigued by the technique of caramelizing honey to the point that it becomes slightly bitter, then adding it to a custard base and letting the ice cream machine work its magic. The result was very rich, with an intriguing flavor that we weren’t sure about at first, but turned out to be very “more-ish” (my mom’s term for when you can’t stop eating something). The ice cream is pictured here topped with almonds and lingonberries (I know, not Middle Eastern at all! But a nice tart antidote to the richness).

Off to the grocery store…what country will we be visiting tonight?

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You might think that all salts are created equal, but I’d have to humbly beg to differ. Salt is often essential to bringing out the flavors of a dish, but the flavor of the seasoning itself can vary widely. Over the years I’ve built a preference for different salts for different uses, with the result that we now have a number of types on the go. Currently on our salt spectrum…


From left to right:

Table Salt ~ The old standby has the least delicate, most metallic flavor of all the options. On the plus side, it’s cheap to buy in large quantities, and often has added iodine (which helps prevent hypothyroidism). Favorite uses: flavoring pasta water, or in baking.

Sea Salt ~ Pictured here is French grey sea salt with a handy grinder for breaking it up into more edible bits (while retaining the characteristic crunchiness), but sea salt comes in a huge variety of textures and colors. A delicious – though expensive – version is fleur de sel, which is hand-harvested off the top layer of ocean water in several areas in France. Favorite uses: topping finished dishes from salads to pastas to seafood.

Kosher Salt ~ Another inexpensive choice, but with a more pleasing texture than table salt. Because of the larger, flat shape of the grains, kosher salt dissolves less quickly than table salt (hence the name: it’s used in making meat kosher because it stays on the surface longer, helping to draw out fluids). Note – you typically need about twice the amount of kosher salt if substituting it for table, but grain sizes differ so check the box for conversion guidelines. Favorite uses: adding to veggies before roasting, or tossing with edamame.

Specialty Salt ~ I use this title loosely to describe all of those salts you see in gourmet stores which you’re tempted to try despite the ridiculous price tag. Pictured here is a jar of white truffle sea salt flakes, which J put in my Christmas stocking two years ago. We savored it all year and ran out just in time for me to get another holiday treat last year! With that time frame in mind, I say go ahead and splurge on those smoked chipotle salt flakes…

Not pictured but also a part of our salt collection are seasoning salts: my favorite is Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoing, while J prefers Lawry’s. Both contain salt mixed with other spices such as garlic, but Tony’s main secondary ingredient is red pepper, while Lawry’s is (perhaps surprisingly) sugar, which gives it a milder taste. Either adds a nice little kick to foods like eggs or potatoes.

Guess I better get to work on a post about pepper…

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