Sunday, August 12, 2012

Breaded and frozen

I tweeted about this a few minutes ago, but it is perhaps worth a bit more than two dozen words.

When I was a kid, one of the few frozen foods my mother kept in the house was breaded fish sticks (I wonder what they were made of back in the 1950s and ’60s). They were a favorite of mine, charred to a cinder and laid three abreast onto white bread for an appallingly dry sandwich. I liked dry sandwiches in those days.

I thought of this a couple of weeks ago, when I’d breaded a couple of slices of excellent Tamworth-breed pork with a view to a schnitzel dinner. Just before I put the frying pan on the fire, Jackie and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Not tonight. A meat dinner is too much to contemplate, so let’s just have spaghetti with some of those ripe tomatoes.” Or words to that effect.

So, wondering whether breaded food could be frozen at home, I put the schnitzels onto a sheet pan lined with waxed paper and slipped them into the freezer. When they were frozen solid I sealed them in a bag with a sheet of plastic between them to keep them from sticking to each other.

Some days later we were able to face a pork dinner with equanimity, so I unwrapped the breaded schnitzels and put them on a rack to defrost, which didn’t take long, given their 3/8-inch thickness – I hadn’t pounded them too thin. Happily, almost no breading fell off as they thawed and there was no sign of moisture beneath the rack: good signs, I felt. 

I then cooked them in the normal way, in abundant neutral oil with a little clarified butter for flavor. They behaved very much like freshly breaded schnitzels in the pan. 

On the plate they were convincingly crisp and tender too. I felt that the flesh had a very slightly “steamy” quality to it, presumably owing to water artifacts in the defrosted meat, but I doubt that I’d have noticed this if I hadn’t been looking for it. It could be that industrial pork would have exuded enough moisture to spoil the crispness, and I wouldn’t do this with meat from anyone but a trusted farmer or butcher.

So, at least with high-quality meat, you can indeed freeze pre-breaded schnitzels / escallops / cutlets without any special ingredients or techniques. Useful to know. Maybe I’ll try making frozen fish sticks next time. Or maybe not.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Linguine with raw tuna: Beautiful but blah

In today’s “Cooking Off the Cuff” at, I write about a really delicious tuna dish made in a kind of Sicilian style – including the doneness of the fish, which is cooked through but still nice and moist. Prepared this way, the fish stands up beautifully to the very flavorful garnish/sauce of tomatoes, garlic, olives and herbs.

A week or so later, I had what seemed like a brilliant idea for dinner using similar ingredients, this time in a pasta dish. But it turned out to be not so brilliant: I ignored my own advice about using cooked-through tuna with these strong flavors.

The idea was to make a pasta sauce very much like the garnish for the tuna dish I wrote about in The Post, then to add, at the table, diced raw tuna, which I figured would cook a bit in the heat of the linguine. It looked gorgeous, like little jewels (or maybe diced gummi bears). 

But the little points of blandness among all the higher flavors were almost disgusting. Dressing raw tuna with big flavors is one thing; putting it in a standalone environment of equally big flavors is quite another. An interesting lesson: Next time I’ll give the diced tuna a quick sauté, then add it to the sauce.

One successful thing about that dish (which was lovely apart from the tuna) was that I "filleted" the tomatoes beforehand and cooked the goo and seeds with herbs, garlic and lots of oil, then pressed this through a strainer and added it to the sauce when the time came. 

Delicious – I could have dressed pasta with this on its own or spooned it onto grilled bread. It reminded me of a lobster sauce base but without the lobster, if you see what I mean: viscous, concentrated, flavorsome.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Another salsa verde variation

Last month I made an Italian-style salsa verde using the season’s first field-grown local arugula (rocket) and described it on line in my Washington Post “Cooking Off the Cuff” column.

Last night, after that non-Chinese non-scallion scallion pancake, we had plain pan-fried fish - and peas, which continue to appear in our local farmers’ market. As a condiment, I made a similar salsa verde, but with a great market find: celery leaves. “Cutting celery” is a variety grown specifically for its leaves rather than its stalks. It is very powerful stuff on its own – the flavor of even a single leaf can be pretty mouth-filling, and not in an especially pleasant way. But food-processed into salsa verde it was excellent and aromatic. Even with all the anchovies and cornichons and capers and garlic and mustard and lemon juice and olive oil, its herby celery flavor sang through. Distinctive, and a great success. Surprisingly, it was very wine-friendly, perhaps more so than classic versions of this green sauce.

As other flavorful greens come my way in the course of the summer, I’ll be trying new variations. If any are worth mentioning, I’ll not fail to provide an update.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A scallion-less scallion pancake taken even further from its Chinese roots

In my Washington Post “Cooking Off the Cuff” column last week, I wrote about a Chinese-style scallion pancake made with spring garlic in place of the scallions: I said there that by tinkering with the fat/oil used to make and fry the pancake you could move it further from its Asian roots.

Here’s an example that we had with drinks earlier this evening. The dough is the same, but I brushed the rolled-out surface with olive oil rather than lard, and I seasoned it with sage and black pepper in addition to the chopped spring garlic and crunchy salt.

And of course I fried it in olive oil too; otherwise, it was the same as the pancake I describe in the column. It smelled great as it cooked (but then it did in peanut oil and lard too – it’s the aroma of caramelizing alliums is what it is), and - although it evoked a normal scallion pancake - it did indeed taste not-Chinese.

It reminded me of a crisper, flakier version of the fried dough – gnocco fritto – they serve in Emilia-Romagna with prosciutto and other cured meats. In fact, it would be a pretty good alternative to that if you wanted something crunchy and greasy to accompany a salumi platter. Though it would take pretty amazing salumi to hold their own against this treat.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Leftovers + leftovers = cannelloni

Today I peered into the refrigerator and found leftover potatoes from this and leftover turnip greens from a dish that will eventually be featured in “CookingOff the Cuff” over at The Washington Post. We’re going away for a couple weeks, and if I’d put those things into the freezer neither would have been worth defrosting. Just imagine a container of grainy, watery frozen boiled potatoes. What a thought!

I didn’t want to throw them away, of course, and I got to thinking about variations on bubble and squeak: We could have had something like that with fried eggs. Or I could have combined the vegetables with beaten eggs and made a frittata or a Spanish tortilla, which I could have topped with a spoonful of tomato sauce (a little of which remained in the fridge too).

The tomato sauce, however, made me think of pasta; the problem would be to integrate the potatoes without pushing the resulting dish over the top. Then I recalled that one (though by no means the only) way to make a sensible pasta dish with both potatoes and greens is to roll them up into cannelloni – which could be topped with the tomato sauce and baked.

So that’s what I did: I made an egg and a half’s worth of pasta dough, rolled it out, cut it into squares (well, more or less squares) and parboiled it. I put the turnip greens and potatoes (and some leftover arugula salsa verde) into the food processor and pulsed until everything was broken up. To that mixture I added a handful of grated pecorino, tasted the result and added some more pecorino. The cheese also tightened the mixture, which had inherited a fair bit of liquid from those greens.

I spooned portions of this onto the partially cooked pasta squares/rectangles (which I’d dried on a towel), rolled them up, laid them into an oiled baking pan, topped them with tomato sauce thinned with vegetable stock and baked them, covered with aluminum foil, in a 360 F (180 C) oven for half an hour.

Then I removed the foil, sprinkled the top with grated pecorino and a few slivered sage leaves and baked for another 15 minutes.

This turnip and potato filling made delicious cannelloni, and the few tablespoons of salsa verde in the mixture lent an unusual tart/savory dimension. And we ate them all up: there was not a leftover in sight.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ignoring my own advice: the wages of stubbornness

Earlier this month, in The Washington Post’s “Cooking Off the Cuff,” I wrote about a nice way of cooking potatoes – here. In that posting I warned, “I don’t recommend doing this with potatoes that are less firm than my Russian bananas [fingerlings]. Something like a russet potato cut into chunks would too readily fall apart, not that it wouldn’t taste good.”

Well, a couple of nights ago I ignored my own sage advice and took a chance: I used russets for what could have been a nice variation on that dish. I’d been to the farmers’ market and bought some of that charming spring garlic whose pearly white cloves have not yet formed the papery skins that separate them in the mature heads. I thought it would be lovely quartered and butter-glazed along with potatoes.

Those firm-fleshed fingerlings were no longer available, and I stubbornly went forward with the plan using cut-up russets from the supermarket, to which I added the garlic heads, quartered, and then cooked with chicken stock, butter and rosemary.

As I’d known perfectly well, the potatoes couldn’t stand up to this treatment; they were just too fragile by the time they were tender. So I took a fork and mashed everything up, coarsely. It looked like hell, but tasted fine. I can’t say I was disappointed, because I knew just what was going to happen. But I felt silly for having hoped, even for a moment, that my original advice had been over-cautious.

Here’s what I ought to have done: I should have glazed the garlic separately, then added it to potatoes I’d cooked in a different way.

Next time, perhaps I’ll pay attention to my own warnings.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Another asparagus season, another asparagus pizza

At some point each spring, Jackie and I have asparagus pizza, most often with ricotta. Here’s an example from a couple of years ago. That one used little lengths of asparagus strewn over a buffalo-milk ricotta mixture.

Tonight – in mid-April, no less, very early for local asparagus – I did it differently: having used the top third of my asparagus stalks for another dish, which you’ll soon read about in The Washington Post’s “Cooking Off the Cuff,” I briefly boiled, then pureed, the other two thirds (barring a few tough and woody segments). Seasoned with salt and pepper, spread over pizza dough and drizzled with olive oil, this was baked for five minutes at 500 degrees F (260 C), then was topped with blobs of well drained sheep’s milk ricotta mixed with some grated pecorino, salt and pepper. The pizza went back into the oven and cooked for another six or seven minutes. If you have a real pizza oven, you’ll cut the 11- or 12-minute cooking time by two thirds, no doubt.

This worked very well: the asparagus puree was moist enough that it did not dry out during baking, and it made a more pizza-like dish than the scattering of asparagus tips had in my earlier version. And fluffy ricotta is a great topping, so long as you remember to season it well.

Yet another good way to use the rest of your asparagus (apart from just eating it, of course).

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pasta portions: Don’t go by the book

In today’s Washington Post "Cooking Off the Cuff," I describe a cauliflower-tomato pasta dish, and mention that I more or less halved the standard portion of dried pasta because there was lots of cauliflower and tomato sauce to eat. What did I mean by this? In the US, because pasta is sold in one-pound packages, a main-course “portion” is four ounces: too much, frankly, unless you’re eating it almost plain. In places where pasta is sold by the kilo or half-kilo, which is to say everywhere else on Earth, the standard portion is a little less: 100 grams, still a pretty healthy quantity if there’s something more to eat on the plate.

Anyway, whatever a portion of pasta is in your house, consider using it only as a starting point. If you’re eating your spaghetti with oil and garlic, or with a light tomato sauce or a few clams or mussels, by all means boil up the full quantity. But if you’ve devised a dish using a whole bunch of broccoli rabe and an onion or two and diced mozzarella and toasted croutons, believe me: you don’t need 100 grams, much less four ounces of pasta.

Visualize how much food you’re cooking and adjust the amount of pasta accordingly. If you miscalculate and aren’t full, then have a piece of bread or reach into the freezer for that pint (or 500ml) of ice cream.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pane alla parmigiana: Bread for dinner

I try to be scrupulous about giving credit for recipes – even, when possible, for ideas for recipes. But I cannot for the life of me think where our dinner this evening came from. I know I didn’t make it up. It could have been Bastianich. Or Batali. Or Hazan. Or some regional Italian cookbook. I tried googling, which I’m usually quite good at, but I couldn't find the dish anywhere.

So I apologize. To someone.

This great dinner was bread alla parmigiana: I cut excellent bread (baguette from New York’s Tom Cat Bakery), crust and all, into slices nearly 3/4 inch (2cm) thick, brushed them with olive oil and put them into a 375 degree F (190 C) oven for ten minutes to dry out and get a little toasty. I then used them as I would have used eggplant/aubergine slices for melanzane alla parmigiana: tomato sauce on the bottom of the baking dish; a layer of bread; sauce; mozzarella (not too much); a sprinkling of parmesan; more bread; more sauce. Et cetera, ending with mozzarella. If it had been summer, I’d have added basil.

Thirty-five minutes in that 375 oven, covered; another 10 or 12 minutes uncovered; 10 minutes more out of the oven to cool a little and to come together.

The bread soaks up liquid from the tomatoes and mozzarella and becomes bread-pudding-like – almost soufflé-like, in fact. It is much lighter than eggplant parmigiana, since bread is mostly air and eggplant is mostly eggplant (water, actually, but so is nearly all food).

The amount that half a baguette, half a quart/liter of sauce and half a mozzarella made was perfect as a one-dish supper for Jackie and me. It would have made six or more appetizer portions, and believe me, at some future dinner party it will.

Friday, February 17, 2012

An old friend returns to active kitchen duty

The other night I revived a delicious chicken dish that Jackie and I used to eat a couple of times a year but had completely forgotten about: poulet sauté au vinaigre, which in my version uses a whole cup of vinegar (and lots of other things) for one cut-up chicken. Just as good as I remembered it. Maybe better. I wrote something about it in today’s “Cooking Off the Cuff” over at The Washington Post.

We always used to eat it with a simple rice pilaf. I tried to think of another accompaniment, just for the sake of change, but couldn’t come up with anything better (though couscous or rösti potatoes were plausible candidates). So I reverted to rice, made with butter-sautéed leek, tarragon and dilute chicken stock. As I thought back to the days when we frequently ate chicken with vinegar sauce, I remembered the old brown Le Creuset saucepan in which I always – always – cooked this kind of rice dish. Since then, I’ve moved on to other pans and have gone through a phase of microwave rice-cooking (and still use the microwave from time to time). 

But that heavy, stubby old saucepan worked so well. I knew it was around the apartment somewhere, so I got a flashlight and peered way into the back of two or three closets until I found the pan, sitting atop a little pile of even older steel frying pans – a crêpe pan among them – coated in dusty grease (or was it greasy dust?) but at least not rusted away. The rice pan itself also had a similar … patina, shall we say? A scrubbing pad and some soap got it off in short order – an advantage, no doubt, of the enamel coating.

Gosh, it made a good batch of rice! Welcome back, old friend.

Friday, February 3, 2012

More on Onion-Mushroom Tarts

Today’s Washington Post “Cooking Off the Cuff” (here ) tells of an onion tart that became a mushroom-onion tart. When figuring out how to incorporate the mushrooms into the filling, I’d felt that the most obvious way was to sauté them and combine them with the pre-cooked onions. But because of the particular mushrooms I had (excellent-quality hen-of-the-woods) I took a different route, the one described in “Cooking Off the Cuff”.

A few days later, more guests were coming and I thought I’d repeat the tart as a first course: it had been exceptionally well received the first time around. But the mushroom situation was quite different: it wasn’t a farmers’ market day, and I was feeling too lazy to trek all the way across town to find what I really wanted. One nearby store sometimes has a decent selection of mushrooms, so I strolled over there, to find only cellophane-wrapped hen-of-the-woods (they looked nice) and some good oyster mushrooms. I bought some of each, but when I got home was disappointed at how little fragrance the hen-of-the-woods had – and at how much moisture they’d retained in their sealed package.

Clearly, just laying them atop the onions would be risky: because of the excess moisture they might not get crisp in time, or they might exude too much water. And their lack of aroma suggested that they might not even taste all that good. So I reverted to the more obvious approach, first cooking the hen-of-the-woods in butter alone (so that if they were awful I could throw them away without tainting the oyster mushrooms). In fact, they were fine. They didn’t fill the kitchen with that woodsy aroma of the excellent ones I’d had from other sources, but they tasted mushroomy and pleasing. So I added the oyster mushrooms, which I had torn lengthwise, and continued to cook until they were all done.

For the tart filling, I combined these with more of those pre-cooked onions I mention in the “Cooking Off  the Cuff” post, but to make up for the blander mushrooms I used more sage, more black pepper and a handful of freshly toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped. The nuts were a good innovation: their crunch replaced the crisp edges of the mushrooms in the earlier version of the tart, and they were delicious.

The outcome was the same: everybody had seconds, and there wasn’t a crumb left for a bedtime snack.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Chickpeas: Just One More Dinner

My last two “Cooking Off the Cuff”s for The Washington Post - here and here - have featured chickpeas, for which Jackie and I developed a new fondness on our recent visit to Barcelona. In addition to the dishes I talk about in those posts, I used chickpeas the other day in a paella-like rice dish which is also worth mentioning.

I try to keep little balls of sofrito in the freezer (see here), so starting these rice dishes doesn’t require any planning; if it did, we wouldn’t eat so many of them. For this one, I browned some chunks of Spanish chorizo and batons of lightly smoked pancetta in olive oil (not too much, as the meats have their own fat), then added a spoonful of onions (also pre-cooked, by the way), a sliced Serrano chili and one of my sofrito balls. 

Finally, I added chickpeas and liquid – a light mixture of chicken stock, chickpea broth and water – a sprinkle of pimentón and finally the rice (the Spanish bomba variety). It cooked, uncovered, until done; then I covered it with a towel and left it for twenty minutes before serving.

It could have used a nice juicy sweet red bell pepper for extra moisture, but it was very good nonetheless. I often use pre-cooked dried beans in my Catalan-type rice dishes, but the chickpeas are an excellent, perhaps even better, alternative.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Doublethink and Hot Dog Buns

George Orwell could have coined the word “doublethink” just for me. Holding two conflicting ideas in my mind is one of my special talents.

Take today’s dinner. The oven is set to 325 F (160 C) so that I can slowly braise a beef brisket for tomorrow evening, when company is coming. I know that the meat is going to be in there until about 7 p.m., yet I simultaneously decide that this would be a good night for pizza; I’ve even bought a nice fresh mozzarella. This, of course, means (since we tend to eat early) that I need to put the oven up to its maximum at around five-thirty, which would spoil the brisket.

So there’s this ball of pizza dough a-rising and there’s this 325-degree oven. I can’t save the dough for tomorrow to make some sort of first course for our dinner party, because I’ve already done the preparation for a totally different dish. And I suspect we’ll be eating leftover brisket for several days to come, so pizza is not in the offing. I could freeze the dough, but then I’d have to plan well in advance to defrost and use it.

When I bought the brisket (at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market) I also bought a pack of their hot dogs, which Jackie and I had never tried. Hot dogs are nice when eaten in buns, and it occurred to me that a low oven would be a good place to bake such buns, which don’t need to have a crusty exterior – quite the contrary. So, I divided the pizza dough (which I’d luckily made with some olive oil, giving it a particularly nice flavor and texture) into circa-2.5-ounce (70g) balls and formed hot-dog-bun-like shapes.

I let them rise a good 45 minutes and baked them for 35 minutes, checking their internal temperature to make sure they were cooked through: at this temperature they didn’t brown much so it was hard to judge visually (I could have glazed them, but why?). Some would say that breads are done at an internal temperature of 195 degrees F (91 C), but that doesn’t work for me, as breads at that temperature can be clammy and doughy when cool. I prefer them to be at least 10 Fahrenheit degrees (18 C degrees if I’ve got my calculation right) hotter than that at their core.

I left them to cool under a cloth (so the outside would remain soft), simmered and griddled the hot dogs and rang the dinner bell.

To my mild surprise, they worked perfectly. They were tasty; they were cooked through and didn’t compress to dough balls as we ate our hot dogs, as lots of commercial buns do; they were soft, but sufficiently substantial.

I’ll do this again, perhaps for hamburger buns – and even if there isn’t something already braising in the oven.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On vacation

I'll be away for the better part of two weeks and almost certainly will not be doing any cooking. That's not to say there will be no new posts, but they are unlikely to report on kitchen activities.