Friday, November 12, 2010

Dinner Lovesong

Tonight, as every night, Karen and I will share a home-cooked dinner.

Tonight, I will eat chicken. Of 365 dinners a year, I eat chicken about 350 times. Roast whole chicken. Grilled chicken legs. Roast chicken breast. Tonight, I eat roast half chicken.

On any given night, Karen might eat chicken for dinner, yet she might eat something else. Macadamia-crusted tilapia. White beans simmered with a Parmigiana rind. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass. Spaghetti. The "Florence" pizza from Arpeggios. Tonight, though, Karen will eat braised chickpeas.

Tonight, we will share mashed potatoes. Of 365 dinners, I eat potatoes about 180 times. Roasted red potatoes. Boiled fingerlings with herbs and olive oil. Mashed potatoes. Karen shares the potato habit, adding her own flourishes: she adorns roasted potatoes with thin slices of butter; to mashed potatoes, she adds a pat of butter.

On alternate nights, we eat sweet potatoes. Baked sweets. Mashed sweets. Roasted sweets.

Karen might eat rice. As I said, she might eat pasta, or pizza.

But for me, that's it--potatoes or sweet potatoes, every single night of my life. I enjoy eating the same things day after day, with small variances, and that's what vegetables and wine are for.

Tonight, we share coconut braised greens. Living seasonally, we experience variety in vegetables. Still, we eat coconut braised greens about 3 times a week. We eat steamed broccoli 3 times a week. Of course, I feel obliged to hand toss the warm broccoli with salt, fresh ground pepper, and olive oil. This is how you treat broccoli--with love. Summertime, I might pan-sear zucchini. Springtime, I might steam peas or asparagus. Autumn, I might split one acorn squash in half, dab the flesh with oil, and roast. Perhaps, feeling nostalgic for July, I'll pan-sear zucchini.

Most nights, we drink wine. Of 365 dinners, we drink wine 335 times. Weekdays call for something like Coppola Rosso. Weekends call for Coppola Claret or Rosenblum Syrah.

I'm finicky about food, refusing to eat what I deem to be lowly ingredients, but I remain a willfully oblivious wine-drinker. I simply cannot afford a refined wine palate.

As it is, I find most cheap red wines benefit from a jaunt in the fridge. I like wine nearly chilled. Karen likes wine room temperature. Nightly, we play the same game: I put the wine in the fridge, she takes it out. I put it in, she takes it out.

Each week, once a week, my wife jubilantly orders a small Florence pizza from Arpeggios. Sharing the festive mood, I'll make myself something special: chicken, maybe, and potatoes.

We've shared this small, strange life for 15 years. To me, marriage is not about growing old together. Marriage is about growing weird together.

The view from my seat: Karen and her pizza.

We invite others to share our weirdness. Friends and family come over all the time. Cogan, fresh from traffic, full of anxiety on a Tuesday. Charlie, cool and early, with a bottle, on a Friday. JJ, stoned and feast-ready, on a Saturday. My mom, decked in one of her immaculate coats, inquisitive and calm on a Sunday.

I place the wine, red or white in the fridge. I assign small tasks. I toss what seems like an excessive plume of salt into the greens. Then I'll throw open the oven, squint into the bellowing smoke, and jab a thermometer into the chicken. Friends have just come to accept: an invitation to my place means chicken.

I eat the same thing every night, and yet I look forward to dinner all day. To me, dinner is the point. Dinner absolves the day's hassles. Dinner redeems the day's failures. Without dinner, the day has no structure, no purpose. Dinner is not only food--it is communion, with others, with ourselves. Immersed in our daytime ambitions and jobs and twitter accounts, we might lose sight of those we love; we might lose sight of ourselves. Dinner saves us. When we sit down to dinner, we settle back into ourselves; we become human again.

Roast Half Chicken for One

My wife refuses to eat chicken every night, so often I enjoy roasting a half chicken for myself. This recipe accounts for two successive nights of half roast chicken.

6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar
One 3-4 pound organic or free-range chicken
2 teaspoons olive oil
Fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme

To make the brine: dissolve the kosher salt, sugar, and 4 cups water in a gallon bag. Place the chicken in the bag and brine for 2 hours (can be brined up to 8 hours).

Take the bird out of the brine, rinse, and pat dry. For crispier skin, allow the bird to air-dry after brining for at least 4-8 hours and up to two days.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place one of your oven racks one the bottom rung.

Working with kitchen shears, split the chicken in half. (Here's a nice tutorial). Save the other half for a successive dinner.

Rub the chicken skin with the olive oil. Sprinkle fresh ground pepper and dried thyme over the skin.

Place the chicken skin-side down in a grill pan and roast on the bottom rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Flip the chicken and continue roasting, skin-side up for 8-10 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the breast registers 160 degrees.

Let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes on a cutting board.

Cut it up, into pieces: legs, wings, breasts.

Serves 1.

Pan-Seared Summer Squash with Basil and Lemon Vinaigrette

I originally developed this recipe for Whole Foods Market. Thick rounds of summer squash seared in a piping hot pan — cast iron is best — until just blackened, then tossed with a fragrant fresh basil and lemon vinaigrette. This is a summer recipe that adapts easily to most seasons. In Philly, we get local zukes (hothouse) throughout the fall, even into the winter. 

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large green zucchini

For the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, mix together olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, fresh basil and salt.

For the zucchini, slice zucchini into large rounds. Warm a 10-inch skillet (cast iron is best) until very hot. Place zucchini in pan and sear over high heat, until blackened, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip onto other side and sear additional 2 to 3 minutes, until both sides are blackened.

Place zucchini on a large platter. Spoon vinaigrette over zucchini. Serve warm.

Serves 4.

Friday, March 05, 2010

"Well-Done" Steak? Please.

How do you like your steak? The answer is medium-rare. Maybe rare. There is no other answer. A well-done steak is a misnomer: there is nothing "well-done" about it; there is nothing steak-like about it. A well-done steak is no longer a steak. It's an "edible substance." Don't get me wrong. I do not consider a well-done steak edible. Some do, though. Dogs, for example.

Do you "prefer" your steak well-done? If so, you should know: cooks hate you. And happily, science justifies this hatred in several ways.

First, steak is prized, above all else, for its juiciness. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes:

"Food Scientists who have studied the subjective sensation of juiciness find that it consists of two phases: the initial impression of moisture as you bite into a food, and the continued release of moisture as you chew. Juiciness at first bite comes from the meat's own free water, while continued juiciness comes from the meat's fat and flavor, both of which stimulate the flow of our own saliva."

Well-done steak is almost devoid of what McGee calls "free-water"--or juices. McGee writes elsewhere: Well-done steak has "nearly all of its proteins denatured, is frankly stiff to the touch, little juice is apparent, and both juice and interior are a dull tan or gray."

Little juice is apparent. Quite simply, a well-done steak has no "initial impression of moisture" and "no continued release of moisture."

Second, steak is prized for its flavor. Cooking, of course, intensifies the flavor and aroma of food. Specifically, in steak, what is called the Maillard Reaction or "browning reaction" (the crust on a steak), might account for as many as six hundred flavor components. These components are present in well-done steak and certainly contribute to the "taste" of a well-done steak. And, in theory, because it is cooked longer, a well-done steak might have a deeper Maillard Reaction than a rare or medium-rare steak.

However, taste is very complex. The deliciousness of a steak comes from a variety of aromas and flavors, from the crust to the middle. Juiciness and tenderness are very important. Well done meat might have a deeper Maillard Reaction, but it misses many other flavor components. The ideal steak boasts tremendous flavor from a browned crust and a tender, juicy interior. This is why people who like the taste of food like medium-rare steak.

Third, it's a well-known fact that cooking meat at high temperatures creates unhealthy chemicals such as HCAs and PAHs. The longer you cook a steak the more unhealthy chemicals are produced. A recent study even showed that those who eat well-done steak are 60-70% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer then those who eat medium-rare steak.

The notion that "undercooked" meat is somehow unhealthy is nonsense. Yes, most meats must be cooked to 160 degrees or higher to guarantee the rapid destruction of bacteria, but bacteria do not exist inside intact steaks or chops. Bacteria exist on the outside of meat, and these bacteria are easily killed in searing. (Incidentally, ground beef is more risky because the interior and exterior have been commingled).

Of course, there are other, very important factors that determine the health value of steak, even beyond how it’s cooked. For example, conventional meat is loaded with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. A far better choice is all-natural beef; better yet, grassfed beef.

As a human, I know I should not condemn a person for a simple preference. But I will say, as a cook, I have a very hard time not strongly disliking the person who orders a well-done steak. Perhaps "hate" is a strong word. But if you "prefer" your steak well-done you really should know: some cooks really do hate you. Or maybe not. Anthony Bourdain puts it this way in Kitchen Confidential:

"So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been repeatedly pushed to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that's a total loss. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can "save for well-done"—serve it to some rube who prefers his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What's not to like?"

The Perfect Pan-Seared Steak

This recipe combines time-tested methodology with intuitive logic. The result: a perfectly seared steak, cooked to medium-rare. I wait until after cooking to add salt and pepper; salting brings moisture to the surface of the meat and might interfere with browning.

2 boneless strip or rib-eye steaks (1 to 1 1/4 inch thick; about 8 ounces)
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, for finishing
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or raw butter, for finishing

Remove your steaks from the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before cooking.

Heat a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over high heat until hot. Gently place the steaks in the pan, leaving a 1/2 space between the steaks. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until steak is well-browned, about 4 minutes. Using tongs, flip the steaks and continue to cook for 4 minutes until steak is medium-rare.

Transfer the steaks to a cutting board. Spread 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter over each steak. Let rest for five minutes. Before serving, season liberally with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Three Kickass Chickpea Recipes

When we lived in Barcelona, Karen and I visited the market every day. Our favorite destination, La Boqueria, was the pride of local Catalans. We loved to browse the stalls, to smell the imported fruits and vegetables, stopping at pleasure to sample a slice of carambola, a handful of plump red grapes, or a small piece of bacalao (salted codfish).

So Many Mushrooms

Karen and I, however, opted to do our real shopping elsewhere. For produce we stopped at the modest open air stalls just outside La Boqueria on the Placa de Sant Galdric, where each morning local farmers pulled their trucks right up to the curb and unloaded boxes of fruits and vegetables onto the pavement. At noon, when most of the food was eaten on the spot or bought by loyal customers, the farmers swept the refuse lettuce greens, onion peels, and fruit rinds into a big pile in the middle of the square. They left the green mountain for the birds and a set of healthy bums who seemingly subsisted on nothing but scraps.

For everything else we shopped at the market right across the street from our flat in Sant Antoni, the Sant Antoni market. Here we'd buy a pound of wild salmon, I remember fondly, for two dollars. At Sant Antoni, too, we found the world's absolute greatest chickpeas.

Walk into the market right off our street, Tamarit, and turn left: there you'll find the world's greatest chickpeas. I'd often buy a pound or more and eat them, simply dressed with olive oil and sea salt, for lunch. The chickpeas were cooked to perfection in giant pressure cookers: they were astonishingly creamy and every single chickpea tasted luxurious, as if each was lovingly enrobed in butter.

Sometimes I'd make a chickpea stew, with wild salmon or cod--still a staple of my wife's diet. Actually, the recipes below have been staples of me and my wife's diets for years. I use canned chickpeas. Home-cooked chickpeas are frustratingly hard to make. They can take hours to cook and sometimes they seem to never, ever cook through. A good pressure cooker is the best, but it's a bit of a pain in the ass. The best chickpeas I've found, besides Sant Antoni's, are Eden Food's. I use Eden's beans whenever I cook with any beans--they are FAR superior to any other brand. (Don't give me some stupid shit about Goya: Goya adds unnecessary additives to its products; Goya sucks).

Moroccan Braised Chickpeas and Chard

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon preserved lemon, chopped
1/2 teaspoon saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water
1 Parmigiano Reggiano rind, optional
2 15 ounce cans cooked chickpeas (do not drain)
1 cup water
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems and center ribs removed, and leaves coarsely chopped
Sea salt & fresh ground pepper

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion and a pinch of sea salt; sauté until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and sauté one minute. Add cumin and paprika and sauté one minute. Add preserved lemon, saffron, Parmigiano rind, and chickpeas with reserved liquid from the chickpea can, and water. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, about 15 minutes, until luxuriously fragrant. Add the Swiss chard leaves and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Season to taste with extra sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Serve warm with crusty bread, roasted potatoes, or rice.


Chickpea Soup with Saffron and Mushroom-Almond Garnish

I originally published this recipe

For Soup:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
½ pound Fingerling Potatoes, sliced into ¼ inch rounds
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups vegetable broth
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper
2 15 ounce cans cooked chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

For Garnish:

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups crimini or white-button mushrooms, quartered
½ cup toasted almonds, chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Add saffron and stir one minute. Add potatoes, increase heat to medium-high and sauté for 4-6 minutes, until potatoes are browned. Add wine and scrape any brown bits that have accumulated at the bottom of the pan.

Add vegetable broth, chickpeas, and parsley and bring to boil.

Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Allow soup to cool. In a blender puree two cups soup. Add puree back into soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for five minutes to warm.

Meanwhile, make garnish: Warm oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and lemon juice and sauté until mushrooms release their juices, 4-6 minutes. Toss with almonds and parsley, sauté for one minute, and set aside.

To serve soup: ladle a cup into each bowl and spoon a few tablespoons mushroom-almond garnish on top.


Cod and Chickpea Stew

I originally published this recipe
here. I make this dish for my wife almost every week.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 large yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 teaspoon saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water
2 cups canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 pound cod, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup vegetable broth or water

In a wide, heavy sauté pan, warm oil over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and sauté until onions are translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add paprika and cumin and sauté for 1 minute. Add wine and saffron. Stir well. Add chickpeas, cod and vegetable broth. Simmer until fish is just cooked through and just flakes with a fork, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve warm.