Aside from the smart-assed comment at the end, this article, by Joel Stein in Time, is exactly what I think about the whole “eat local” crap that rich chefs (yes, Alice Waters, I’m talking about you) with too much time on their hands have been peddling to unsuspecting foodies for years and, recently, everyone else . I touched on some of these ideas in an earlier post that was actually critical of the global transportation system that can’t get me fresh tomatoes that actually taste like something other than soft baseballs. But Stein’s point is valid, rational, and pretty amusing too.
I will eventually write a real, but amateurish review of this lovely little restaurant, but for the time being, I had the best venison I have ever had outside of New Zealand. The meal was impressive, reasonably priced, and the tiny kitchen puts to shame some of the most highly regarded restaurants in New York.
One of the things that frustrates me when I try new recipes is the almost universal inability on the part of most cooking editors to gauge correctly the time it takes to complete certain steps in a recipe. I’m not talking about baking a cake, or roasting a chicken; they seem to be able to figure those times accurately. I am talking about the throw-away times like: sauté onions on medium-low until golden brown, 20 minutes. Or, Cook
until the pancetta is crisp and the fennel is caramelized, about 20 minutes (That one is from an otherwise wonderful recipe for a caramelized fennel and pancetta salad). The problem is that vegetables have wildly different amounts of liquid in them depending on season, length and method of storage, variety, and probably dozens of other reasons. And for them to caramelize, they first have to lose most of that pesky water. So writing confidently about how it takes twenty minutes to caramelize onions is just silly. And irritating. And unnecessary. Why not just say something like: sauté onions until caramelized. It takes me 20 minutes, but your mileage may vary. And the same thing goes for cured meats. One batch of pancetta for the fennel salad crisped nicely in 30 minutes. The second batch didn’t crisp as nicely in spite of nearly 35 minutes in the oven.
I understand that recipes are written for everyone, and that people need some sense of what they are getting themselves into before they start a dish. But by stating a seemingly inviolate number, aren’t they suggesting, at least implicitly, that you are a failure if you can’t sauté those onions in 20 minutes? I know that these cook book authors are, in many cases, accomplished and talented chefs. And I don’t cook their dishes to compete with them. So why don’t they appreciate that and write recipes that are closer to reality?
PS I am guilty of this laziness too. I reread some of my own recipes and, yes, I am an idiot.
Here is an interesting article by Lesley Balla at the James Beard Foundation about the sometimes violent, but always amusing culture of restaurant kitchens. I like the quotation at the end from the woman chef, who sounds like she misses the good-old days, before Human Resources witch hunts.
Who knew? A groundbreaking study has found that people are impressed by expensive things. And in other news, water flows down hill, and children like sweets.
This is an easy dish that can be prepared in advance. Just don’t add the spaghetti until you are ready to eat. Or do what I do when I am even more lazy than usual. Make the dish, stick it in the refrigerator, and then when you reheat it just toss some reserved pasta water in to smooth out the sauce. It’s great either way.
Pasta With Fresh Mussels And Bay Scallops
1 lb. Thin Spaghetti
2 lbs. Fresh Mussels
1 lb. Bay Scallops (I like scallops, but you can use less).
1 Small Tomato (cored, seeded and finely diced),
or 4 ounces of canned, chopped tomatoes
2 Small Onions (chopped)
1 Garlic Clove (finely minced)
3 Tbls. Chopped Parsley
12 oz. White Wine
Salt And Pepper to taste (Be careful. The scallops and the mussels are salty, so it doesn’t need much)
Sauté onions in a large heavy pot in two to three tablespoons of olive oil on low/medium heat until slightly caramelized (about 20 minutes).
Set a large pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti.
Place mussels in a colander and rinse them in cold water, checking for opened or broken mussels; allow the mussels to drain.
When onions are cooked, turn heat to high and add white wine and garlic. Reduce for a few minutes and then add the mussels. Cover and cook for two to three minutes, until all of the mussels are open. Remove from heat.
Heat a small sauce pan on medium/high heat for one minute. Add one to two tablespoons of olive oil and the tomatoes. If you used fresh tomato, toss them for a few minutes until they give up most of their liquid. Add the scallops and cook for two to three minutes, until the scallops are no longer translucent. Add the parsley and cook for about 15 more seconds.
Remove the mussels from their shells (use gloves; they will be hot), taking care not to discard any of the onions.
Add the tomato and scallop mixture to the pot with the mussels.
Cook the spaghetti until just al dente and drain, reserving some of the water.
Add the spaghetti to the mussels and toss until the spaghetti is coated liberally; add some pasta water if necessary.
Serve immediately, topped with grated Parmesan cheese.
As you no doubt know by now — and probably are sick to death of hearing — I like duck. But my attempts at brining the little critters did not do them justice, so I decided to try just once more. The problem with brining is that there are many variations, most of which will work well with some meats but not with others. For instance, my chicken brine doesn’t work well with pork chops, but is a rockin’ good way to make roast chicken. I did a bit of research, and discovered absolutely nothing of any utility. I just confused myself even more. But that has never stopped me, and I had a beautiful duck just waiting to be the subject of my grand experiment.
I try not to be wishy-washy in most things, and brining is no exception. I went the overkill route, with a 5:1 ratio of water to sugar and salt (or more accurately; 10:1:1). In retrospect, I used too much sugar, so if I ever brine a duck again, I’ll use just a slightly smaller amount of sugar and replace it with more salt. I also added some fresh thyme, sage and garlic, in addition to freshly ground black pepper and some juniper berries. What? I once had a juniper berry-cured pork chop that was spectacular, and because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing…Anyway, I mixed everything in a pot and boiled it gently for about ten minutes to dissolve the sugar and salt and to extract some extra flavor from the herbs and spices. I then stuck the pot in the refrigerator for an hour or so to cool, plopped the duck into its lovely and fragrant bath, and left it for four hours. After the brining I rinsed the duck in fresh water, dried it, and left in the refrigerator to dry overnight.
The roasting was simple. I stuffed the cavity with whatever I had floating around in the vegetable drawer (carrots, celery, onion, orange) and put the duck into a hot, hot oven (450°F) until the skin was crispy and before the rendered fat burst into flames. About 45 minutes into the roasting, I removed as much of the fat as I could.
Total time? I don’t really know, but the skin was nice and crispy, and the tips of the wings were just a bit charred. And the flavor? Very nicely seasoned, but the salt and sugar overwhelmed the herbs. I really liked the flavor, but it is certainly not a subtle dish. Interestingly, the most important part of this dish has nothing to do with the brining; it is the drying before roasting and then roasting it at a very high temperature. That, Grasshopper, is the secret to duck. I wish that the brine made a huge difference, but all it did was salt the duck and add a bit of sweetness to the meat. I think that I will continue to brine my ducks, but if I don’t have the time or energy, I certainly won’t worry that I am short-changing my taste buds. Maybe adding more herbs and spices to the brine will help, but I wouldn’t increase the time in the liquid. The duck was borderline too salty.
Now that I have driven both of my readers away with my incessant ranting about brining, I will console myself with a duck burrito.
No, I’m not running out of things to write; I just really like duck, and I roasted one today. But a few weeks ago, I left the whole brining question with a vague sense that I hadn’t quite beaten it to death. So, with apologies to William Shakespeare, once more into the brine, dear friends.
I’ll report, in excruciating detail, every drop of duck fat and each bit of crispy skin. But that will be for the next post. I will leave you with this photo, just to stimulate your salivary glands. And sorry about the huge photo file. I’ll fix that when my blood alcohol level is slightly lower. [Fixed!]
James Lileks is one of my favorite bloggers, in part because he has, on occasion, made me laugh out loud. He writes his own stuff on his blog, but also has a real job working for others. One of those is a blog on a site called Smartflix, which seems to be a large collection of instructional videos; stuff that probably can’t be found at the corner video store. Anyway, he wrote a review of a video called “Cooking With Aphrodisiacs,” and it is definitely worth a few seconds.
One of the things I find irritating about most cook books is the insistence upon using subjective measures rather than weight. For instance, I made onion soup over the weekend. Nothing special about that, but I used the Balthazar Cookbook, so I should get credit for choosing well. Anyway, the recipe called for four medium onions. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a chart with pictures of onions and their size category, although I am sure that it exists somewhere. The soup turned out very well (the chicken stock recipe in the book is excellent), and I am sure that I used approximately the correct amount of onion. But how difficult would it be to slap the onions onto a scale? I have an electronic scale in my kitchen that I use frequently. When I make hamburgers for the kids I will weigh the meat so that the burgers are of equal size. And because I know how much meat I started with, I can tailor the size so that I am not left with a tiny bit of ground beef. Yes, I know, that is a bit too close to OCD for most people, but the point is valid.
And just in case you thought that your measuring cups are wonderful scientific tools, many seemingly similar ingredients are of very different densities. Kosher salt is about half the density of table salt. And there are significant differences between brands of granulated sugar, so the bakers out there may want to start weighing their sugar for greater consistency. Or not.
I don’t want to sound like a ranting maniac (even though that is exactly what I sound like), but cooking, for many people, is intimidating enough without having to worry about whether the onions in the bag are medium or small.