I had heard he was on the guest list: the cheese man. It was a fancy dinner party constructed around a set of expensive wines, finished off with a cheese platter. I was parceling out the salads when he rushed in out of the rain: a large guy carrying a paper bag, which he plopped on the kitchen table.
It was, naturally, an excellent selection, but I can only recall the equally excellent camembert which, in a rushed evening, was the only time saver: let it sit at room temp, slice off the top, stick in a spoon and serve. No precise portioning needed; like a steamed lobster, a camembert wheel is a self-contained unit, to be served as is.
The most important rule of cheese plate construction is mild to soft i.e. begin with a chevre and finish with a Roquefort. Opening a cheese plate with a pungent washed rind cheese like munster or taleggio, is like having a cigar before your soup. The taste is ruined.
Small portions is the only other rule; a little goes a long way. There’s nothing worse than staring at an enormous boulder of cheese; it takes me back to my days in the summer camp canteen scooping mayo from enormous tubs. Serve cleanly cut, reasonable wedges or-in the case of a hard cheese such as Parmesan-broken pieces.
Serve the cheese with a pile of plain crackers or crusty bread (my favorite), and one tangy element such as quince paste or some kind of fruit compote. But the cheese is the thing, which is why strewing the platter with nuts and dried fruit seems a pointless exercise.
We chose this condiment because it is both interesting and a snap to make. All you have to do is add the ingredients to a pot and simmer till dry. Because the highlight is mustard seed rather than raisins, it’s a welcome shift from the dried fruit obsession.
As for what cheeses to use, you have to taste. Find what you like and play around. A great reference book is Cheese by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. A variety of Robiolas, Roquefort, Montgomery Cheddar, and Hoch YBrig are especially succulent.
Or just flip open a wheel of Epoisses and start the spooning.
Mustard Seed Compote (from Anita Lo’s Cooking Without Borders)
¼ cup mustard seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons raisins
white wine vinegar
1. Combine the first three ingredients in a small pot. Add vinegar just to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook until dry. Serve with a soft, opened Epoisses.
Most cultures pride themselves on a particular food. They’ll say the ingredients are unsurpassed and the technique is uniform, almost military. Sushi rice and all of French food, for instance.
To get within a few yards of even touching a piece of mackerel, the sushi apprentice must spend years over a sink and running water, rinsing rice. French chefs also enjoy torturing the trainee, making him scrub potatoes or pluck chickens before even getting a whiff of “the piano” – or stove – according the biography of the late Bernard L’Oiseau.
All this is bound in a kind of national tradition and vocational pride; throughout the respective lands, rice and hollandaise are prepared in more or less the same manner, according to a grand rule book. In the States, ethnic variety mostly prohibits this kind of thing. Or maybe we just like to argue; neighbors war over the best hot dog, or cheese steak, and anyway, forced chicken plucking is probably a violation of labor laws. (But, slightly off-topic, so is a dishwasher salary in your average New York restaurant.)
We do, however, have a tradition of culinary fusion (some might call it dilution, others adaptation), to wit the California roll or spaghetti and meatballs.
The other day I whipped up a batch of blini from the French Laundry book, a tome that always makes me feel just a tad, well, French. And while blini aren’t necessarily French, whipping something to an unrecognizable smooth mush is. And so are canapés (note the accent mark).
Blini with caviar is classic, but as a plastic container of tobiko (the Japanese version) at Sunrise Mart costs 6 bucks I figured it would do. I also picked up a package of nori. Back home, with my little teaspoon measure and nonstick pan, I fried up the blini, tossed a few to the kid – sprinkled with sugar – and ate a bunch with sour cream, tobiko and a little crumbled nori for seaweed crunch.
As I polished off these tasty gems, spilling tobiko over the French Laundry book, I realized it was a moment of true culinary fusion. A little from here, a little from there and voila! Still, sushi rice is among my favorite foods; I’ll go tomorrow.
Blini w/ Sour Cream and Tobiko
Makes about 24 blini
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes
2 tablespoons flour
2-3 tablespoons crème fraiche
1 egg yolk
1 stick unsalted butter
salt and pepper
1 cup crème fraiche or sour cream
1 cup tobiko
1 sheet nori, snipped in thin ½-inch strips
- Add taters in a small pot, cover with cold water by a few inches and cook till tender.
- Remove and as soon as your fingers can stand it, run through a ricer or food mill.
- Measure out 9 ounces (this is a bit anal-it’s probably most of the potatoes), place in a large bowl. Whisk in the flour until combined then the eggs one at a time until thoroughly incorporated. Then whisk in the yolk. (A wooden spoon works better, actually.)
- Hold the whisk w/ some batter over the bowl. It should fall in a thick ribbon and hold it’s shape when it hits the batter below. If too thin, add some crème fraiche. The batter holds for a few hours at room temperature.
- Heat a large nonstick pan over medium heat. Add a few tablespoons butter. When hot, spoon 1 teaspoon of batter for each blini. It should take a minute or two on each side for them to brown. Let cool on a plate.
- To serve: lay a stack of blini on a tray accompanied by each of tobiko and sour cream and a pile of snipped nori.
Sweet and savory is a kitchen mantra of which no other food is a better example than peanut butter: peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and apple, peanut butter and chocolate, peanut butter and ice cream, peanut butter and honey, peanut butter and marshmallows, etc. Salty, earthy, and gamy, chicken livers (like duck and other rustic meats) are the peanut butter of the offal and game world, existing to be matched with something sweet.
I love chicken livers, especially turned into a pate, poured into a crock and set on the table before me with a large spoon and the newspaper. Maybe some bread. If I don’t make it myself I’ll hop on the bike and head down East Houston to Russ & Daughters for a pint of their semi-smooth chopped liver studded with bits of caramelized onion.
The browned onion is partly what makes the traditional deli version so rewarding: the sweet factor folded in with the livers, making for a perfect sweet-savory unit. It’s the Jewish version of a Reese’s cup. The traditional French mousse also has onions or shallots but is less sweet, which is why we came up with an accompanying fruit compote.
For obvious reasons, summer is a great time to fiddle with compotes. We chose black plums and strawberries for their acid/sweet balance, but other summer fruits would work. Set out a container of each with some country bread and enjoy.
(NOTE: If you’re not eating all at once, pouring enough olive oil to cover will prevent the surface from oxidizing. You’ll have extra compote, which is great with toast or ice cream or…peanut butter.)
Chicken Liver Mousse with Black Plum Compote
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for covering (see note)
¼ pound chicken livers, cleaned
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons chopped thyme
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
1 baguette, sliced or other crusty bread
Black Plum Compote
- Season livers with salt and pepper.
- Heat a medium pan with 2 tablespoons of the oil over high heat. When very hot, add the livers and cook 1 to 1 ½ minutes per side. Don’t overcook, which turns the flavor. They should be pink. Remove to a blender or food processor.
- Add the onions and cook 3 -4 minutes until browned then add the thyme, toss and add the balsamic. Scrape the pan until nearly dry then add to the blender.
- With the blender running, slowly pour in the cream until smooth. Season well with salt and pepper. Pour into a ramekin or similar vessel and refrigerate.
- If using later, cover with olive oil (see note). Refrigerate until cold. Serve w/ the bread and Black Plum Compote.
Black Plum Compote (see below)
Makes 2 cups
5 black plums
½ pound strawberries, stems removed, quartered
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup water
- Peel the plums: Make a small cross in the bottom of the plums and place the fruit in a bowl and pour boiling water to cover. Drain after ½-1 minute and peel. Run under cool water if necessary. If the skin won’t come off, carefully peel with a sharp paring knife. Remove pit and cut into chunks.
- Combine the fruit with the water and sugar in a small saucepan, cover, and place over medium heat.
- When the fruit simmers, remove the cover and lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cooking until thickened, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a ramekin and refrigerate until cold.
I remember the article that crushed my hopes of ever cooking decent Chinese food. The foundation of the Chinese restaurant, I learned, is the stove, a dragon-like box whose belly barely shackles a roaring flame. Unlike us with our namby-pamby Viking dial, the Chinese chef wrenches a steel lever akin to that on a rocket ship, unleashing enough fire to launch a cruise missile. Or obliterate Chinatown.
One of the great restaurant seductions is not the gorgeous food, but the confidence that what’s on your plate is easily transferred to your kitchen. Not only is it a breeze, but it’s cost-effective. I can beat these guys at their own game: recreate kung pao chicken, the smoky, yeasty crust of a Pulino pizza, or the unmatched crispiness of the bird at Peking Duck House.
But anyone who’s attempted to transfer such magic to the home kitchen has most likely spent the evening tearing his hair out, glumly staring at a wokful of dry meat, a soggy crust, or peeling off a sad layer of limp duck skin. Forget sushi. Having read two books on the subject, and the requisite three-year training in rice cookery, I’m happy to put myself in the capable hands of the local sushi guy.
Having once read that the duck chefs blow air into the ducks prior to hanging and roasting, in a fit of desperate inadequacy and self-loathing, I purchased an electric air pump the size of a large shoebox, and stuffed the nozzle underneath the skin. Unfortunately, like a beach ball pierced with a pinprick hole, air started hissing out of the sides. Shamed, I stored the thing in the closet, where it remained after we moved, for the next tenant who ever felt a similar urge to inflate a duck.
These days, every chef publishes a recipe for pizza dough. Some let it rise in a warm place for a few hours. Others prefer to retard the rising process and leave it in the refrigerator for a few days after which they knead or don’t knead (a heated debate among kneading purists), portion and let it rest a final time. Others prefer to let the yeast develop for days outside the fridge.
I’ve tested them all, and it seems a wash. Frankly, I’d be happy letting our cats make the dough if only the true test-the cooking-would work. This may be risking sacrilege, but in the end, the dough isn’t the issue. It’s the oven. Yes, we have a couple of great ovens guarded by a massive steel hood which shoots the fumes through a maze and out somewhere below the neighbors’ windows.
But we don’t stock wood or coal or enough gas to fill a Mobil. Yes, we heat the stones for hours in a 500 oven, and the product is crispy (if oblong), but it wouldn’t exactly draw customers. Neither would, I suspect, the whole hog barbecued by Brooklyn hipsters in their backyards. I’ve been all over the South, and…well, I doubt it.
I can make a decent Asian roast duck, letting it hang for days, but it ain’t the same. I could roast a naan or a spear-like skewer of roast tandoori lamb but I don’t own a tandoori oven, which is sort of an issue.
There is, however, one thing, which levels the playing field, a source frequented available to chef and cook alike: the grocery store. In New York, we have Kalustyan’s that marvelous market which stocks every spice, oil, paste, flavor concentrate, flour, scent, bean, leaf, powder, nut, dried fruit and pepper known to man. A dangerous place, you’ll enter in search of chickpea flour and perhaps a handful of spicy cashews and exit with sacks of star anise and mango powder.
Your pantry is your friend and your great equalizer. Great food begins with great dry goods: turmeric, mustard seeds, smoked paprika, cardamom, Chinese bean paste, sriracha, miso, and so on.
Dried chiles are among our favorites. They feel and smell authentic. They have a good shelf life, and when you toast them, the rich smoky flavor might make your house smell like a Mexican restaurant. Sort of.
We use the recipe from Mark Miller’s Tacos simply because it turns out the tastiest tacos we’ve ever tried. Since we have bags of chiles, we use a mixture of cascabel, guajillo, and pasilla, but any would work.
Skirt Steak Tacos (adapted from Mark Miller’s Tacos)
Makes 8 tacos
1 pound skirt steak
8-10 cloves roasted garlic chopped
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chile powder
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground to a powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
¼ cup corn or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Red Chile Sauce (see below)
8 (5 ½ inch) soft yellow corn tortillas (flour work as well)
fresh salsa (a few chopped tomatoes, cilantro, red onion, salt and pepper, a bit of
lime juice all assembled at the last minute)
- In a large bowl combine all the ingredients except for the steak, lettuce, salsa, and sour cream. Add the meat, coat well, refrigerate overnight.
- Preheat your oven to 200, wrap the tortillas in foil and warm for half an hour. Remove and preheat the broiler. (If you have two ovens, obviously, you’re luckier.) Line a tray with foil, cover with a rack, and lay out the skirt steak on the rack. Preheat the broiler. Place the tray on the rack nearest the heat and sear for 3-4 minutes, until browned. Flip and repeat. Remove, tent loosely with foil to rest 5-10 minutes. (To grill, cook over a high flame about 6 minutes and rest.)
- Get your condiments ready. Slice the steak thinly (1/8 inch). Serve in tortillas with condiments and eat hot.
Red Chile Sauce
Makes 2 cups ( you only need a few tablespoons for this recipe, but the sauce keeps and is a great marinade and freezes well.)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ white onion, chopped
½ pound tomatoes
10 dried chiles soaked
2 cloves roasted garlic chopped
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
salt and pepper
- In a pan, heat two tablespoons of the oil over medium heat and sauté until caramelized. Reserve.
- Stem and seed the chiles. Add to a large pan over medium-low heat and toast until fragrant, about 8 minutes. Place in a large bowl and pour boiling water over. To ensure the chiles are submerged we like to set a bowl over them. Let soak at least 20 minutes. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid.
- In a blender, add the onion, tomatoes, chiles, garlic, cumin, oregano, and salt. Puree with enough of the soaking liquid to get a smooth paste.
- In a large pan, heat the remaining oil over high heat. When hot, pour in the chile paste and refry for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Don’t let it become too thick. Take off heat and let cool.
I have a problem with the term “home cook”. Does it refer to someone who cooks at home? If so, I suppose my dad qualifies: he’s an expert at peeling carrots as well as burning bagels. Granted, he just eats said carrot raw. I mean, that thing isn’t a recipe ingredient. Also, too impatient to wait for the toaster, he balances a frozen bagel over the stove, charring the outside just enough to soften. He just wants something…anything to eat while he reads the paper.
In colonial times, people cooked out of necessity. There wasn’t anyone else around to make food for them. More important, they were close to the food source: pigs, fish, fruits and vegetables…orchards. Frankly, though, I doubt they savored braving the freezing dawn air to milk the cows, purify the maple syrup, churn the butter, press the apples into cider, or whatever else you do on a farm. If someone opened a takeout Chinese place down the cobbled road, there’d be a run on dumplings.
So were the settlers home cooks, or did they cook out of necessity? In the last century, we’ve been moving away from cooking. Food is prepackaged, pre-frozen, pre-fried, pre-dried, pre-sliced, pre-diced, pre-jarred, pre-canned, pre-rolled, pre-squeezed, pre-shredded, and the price is right.
Yet, the thought process is warped. A whole chicken with some side will feed a family for a reasonable cost and minimal labor. Though we’re obsessed with people who cook on tv, studies have shown that we cook less than ever.
So where are the home cooks? And I’m not talking about hipsters in Brooklyn who butcher pigs on their rooftops. I mean the family that cooks together every night, that enjoys putting together a bunch of ingredients and laying out a simple meal-people for whom it’s in their DNA. If you choose to make spaghetti with meat sauce from scratch a few times a week, you’re a home cook.
First generation immigrants have us all beat. They cook out of necessity, but also because they’re steeped in the tradition of the home country, where you can’t hop to Walmart, where families live together, and every grandmother plucks recipes from a copious mental cookbook.
I had an acquaintance whose parents were South Indian. The house was fragrant with toasted spices, curry leaves, and baking naan bread. Lunch was homemade chapatis (round flatbreads) with a simple cauliflower curry and mango pickle: scoop up the curry with the bread, add a little pickle. Dinner was whipped up in perhaps a half hour: baby eggplants stuffed with a curry mixtures, sambal (a delicate tomato chutney), yogurt rice (basmati rice with cashews, lemon and yogurt), a variety of dals (dried legumes stewed with ginger and spices).
Breakfast was dosai (a thin, crispy, torpedo-shaped pancake rolled around a mild potato, cabbage, or other curry. But most of the time for breakfast they ate upma. Upma is essentially cream of wheat, but like all Indian food, it’s layered with complex flavors. You fry cumin, mustard seeds, ginger, onions and tomatoes, add water, add potatoes, simmer, stir in the cream of wheat and season well with salt.
Make upma. For breakfast, lunch, dinner. It’s real home cooking.
(Note: this is an approximate recipe, jotted down on a stained piece of notebook paper, lost, and semi-recovered from memory. It’ll work out but it’s mainly by eye so pay attention. Read the recipe for moral guidance.)
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons urad dal
2 tablespoons black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 ½ inch piece of ginger minced
1 medium onion, diced
3 small tomatoes, diced
½ russet potato, diced
Cream of Wheat (see recipe)
A few chopped green chilies
- In a medium pot over medium heat, add the oil and spices. When the mustard seeds pop, add the ginger, stir until fragrant, then add the onion and tomato. Stir well.
- Add enough water to cover. The amount of water you add determines the amount of upma, but don’t add too much, as the upma will lose flavor. Add the potatoes and simmer until cooked through.
- When the potatoes are done, slowly whisk in the cream of wheat. You’ll probably need less than one cup. You want it to be sort of soupy, not too thick. Season with plenty of salt and serve hot.
I read something interesting in the Times the other day. And it wasn’t that the Knicks got killed again. Alinea, the restaurant in Chicago famous for its elaborate presentation, molecular wizardry, and an $800, 21 course meal for two, received three Michelin stars.
It’s one of those places where the chefs use tweezers to arrange your food on the plate: a tiny square of sous vide pineapple here, a sprig of candied bay leaf there, adjacent to a curling slice of compressed pheasant.
At Alinea, said pheasant is served alongside a pile of burning leaves, meant to conjure the aromas and sensations of fall. I don’t know what they do about the guy at the next table eating scallops: maybe a waiter drizzles seawater over his head. But I don’t think that’s on the menu…yet.
To me this seems a lot of nonsense, a misguided striving for a warped concept of perfection.
To read Thomas Keller’s cookbooks (the Alinea chef is a protégé) is to enter the mind of a chef obsessed with perfection. The photographs are inhumanly beautiful. A recipe for “Chestnut-stuffed Four Story Hills Farm Chicken with Celery and Honey-Poached Cranberries” accompanies a brilliant photo: two shellacked cherries perch on a white plate, dotted with three glistening cranberries, two celery slices, and two off-center cuts of meat each studded with a chestnut. Three tiny microgreens lean langorously about the arrangement. Each product on the plate is, supposedly cooked as nature intended, and Keller is there to guide us.
I’m sure Keller serves the most delicious carrots you’ll ever eat. In fact, I’m somewhat leery of eating his carrots for fear all others will pale and I’ll have to go to Per Se for carrots. However, this mindset creates an unfortunate divide between diner and kitchen. Back there in the kitchen lab, they preen with their tweezers and carrots, but in the dining room I’m ready to eat my chair.
There is an arrogance going on here: from the carrots to the heritage farm, the chefs assume an achieved perfection. But the diner may have a different notion of perfection. I’ve never heard of Four-Story Hills Farm, and I’m sure they breed a nice bird, but please refrain from appending their name to the dish. Once, we ate at a restaurant which served “This Morning’s Egg…” Thank God it was this morning’s: anyone who knows me knows I never eat yesterday’s egg.
To me, Chirping Chicken makes the absolute perfect bird. Cooks grill massive quantities of split chickens to a perfect char, fling them to cutting boards, whack into four pieces, and box them up with a few halves of warm soft pita, which eventually absorb the chicken juices. The meat is perfectly moist, but the key is the seasoning, which I’ve theorized results from the grill grates which are full of charred chicken flavor.
So, I do believe in perfection, or rather, that we all have our own idea of what is perfect. Perfect short ribs should be melting and accompanied by a richly flavored sauce, not oddly shaped cubes of meat tweezed onto a plate by a guy in a lab coat.
The exception is eggs. Eggs are always described as “unforgiving”. They’re so sensitive that an extra thirty seconds of heat can ruin them. And, of course, you can’t peek to see what’s going on in there. A hard-boiled egg yolk should be bright yellow and free of that unappealing sulphurous over-cooked egg odor. Once you’ve mastered them, you can create unbeatable deviled eggs or egg salad. Or slice them into a variety of salads and sandwiches.
I don’t care what farm produced your egg, and please don’t come near it with a pair of tweezers. It’s just an egg, and this is the way to make them delicious.
salt and pepper
- Fill a medium saucepan with plenty of water, bring to a boil. Place the eggs on a slotted spoon or ladle, and gently add to the boiling water, being careful they don’t fall and crack on the bottom of the pot. Set a timer for 13 minutes.
- Drain, rinse or soak in cold water until just cool enough to handle. Peel, slice in half lengthways. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve warm.
Today I spent the morning touring a nursery school for my little kid. It is an obnoxious process spared those who live in the ‘burbs, but I have an allergy to leaving Manhattan, and thus am forced to suffer the inconvenience.
The admissions lady directed the parent crew through bright classrooms with teeny chairs and an open yard strewn with giant green blocks and brilliantly tinged fall leaves. It was a stunning day. I was surrounded by nice well-dressed couples; happy kids; art projects and terrariums.
As she answered earnest queries about separation anxiety and student-teacher ratio, I found my mind wandering to the salmon fillet I had in the refrigerator. I was making gravlax, a lightly cured salmon. The fish is supposed to cure for a few days, but I couldn’t remember when I put it in the fridge.
As it happens, the fish was fine, thank God. If this were a heavily cured fish such as nova, or a smoked fish, which last far longer, I wouldn’t have such worries nagging at me, and I could have focused on the school and the future of our lovely child.
Gravlax, however, tends to be a more subtly cured fish, which is heavily coated in a mixture of salt, sugar and any other flavorings such as dill or lemon zest, coriander and so forth. The salt leaches out the moisture in the exterior of the salmon, which becomes firm, but the flesh inside is beautifully orange and silky, tasting faintly of both salt and sugar. If you have brown bread and sour cream lying around, spoon a bit on the bread and top it with a thin slice of fish. Or just have it on its own. It’s hard to beat.
Though equally delicious, gravlax, to me, is lox’s snooty relative. A Swedish tourist strolling past the pickle and knish vendors on the Lower East Side. With its delicate green crown of snipped dill, it seems dainty especially resting in the deli case beside a slab of nova or thick hunks of smoked whitefish.
So we decided to create a gravlax able to hold its own and maybe even outmuscle its cured and smoked relations. To that end we looked at other items in the classic Jewish deli and hit on borscht, the deeply red beet soup familiar to anyone possessing a Jewish grandmother. After the few days’ cure, we dunked the fish in beet juice for a while, and the result was truly dramatic. The fillet was the color of dark red wine, and the interior retained that lovely salmon hue. The whole thing brought to mind rainbow sherbet. And the fish took on an earthy beet flavor, which was also nice.
Maybe I should have been a nursery school teacher. Forget the blocks, kids, today we play with salmon.
1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup kosher salt
1 ½ pounds salmon fillet, skin on
2 beets, juiced
Pumpernickel bread, thinly sliced, quartered, and toasted
Chive cream cheese
- In a small bowl combine the sugar and salt. Transfer half the mixture to a small pan just large enough to hold the salmon. Lay the fish on top, skin down, Pack the top side with the remaining mixture. Wrap the pan in plastic and refrigerate for 48 hours.
- Remove, rinse and dry the pan and rinse the cure off the fish. Roll the salmon in the beet juice and refrigerate overnight.
- To serve, slice the fish as thinly as possible. Spread the toast with the cream cheese and drape a slice on top.