Friday, October 30, 2009

Sunday Jam Session: quite an ordeal

This is one my longer entries, but I think it’s worth reading.

This year was the second annual concord grape hoedown (recipe below) in my apartment, hopefully the second of many.

Making the jam itself isn’t really that complicated, but making a lot of it and canning* it can be time consuming, but a lot of fun if you do it with the right people. A couple of weeks back, me and some great friends spent a Sunday making and canning jam.

With the exception of a few homes, it is a lost art. Not just that of jamming, but a tradition of spending time together chatting, eating, laughing etc., over the preservation of a favorite seasonal ingredient. Nowadays any ingredient is available almost anytime, so the thought of making an effort to keep those flavors around in the offseason is a foreign concept at best.

As a child in Missouri my anticipation for Christmas morning was nearly unbearable, the excitement was too much for my little heart. I couldn’t wait to see what items I could cross off my wish list. To make matters worse, as Christmas day drew to a close, I couldn’t imagine how I might survive another year. Strangely enough I can’t really remember what any of those things I wanted so badly are (with the exception of the Ninitendo Entertainment System) or; as much as I wanted those toys, they had no real significant impact on me.

One thing I do remember well from childhood is fresh corn in the summer. We would go pick a bunch, parboil it and flash freeze it. While maybe I didn’t pine to harvest corn in a field all day, I couldn’t wait to get home and eat it. In my old age, my Christmas comes quarterly, with every season. I can’t wait for apples, strawberries, tomatoes, squash, corn . . . . and concord grapes. These ingredients, from the right sources, are far far better than the ones available in your conventional supermarket, and let me tell you they are worth preserving.

I scored a bus tub full of grapes at the farmers market (for $80) and around noon we sat down over bagels and Bloody Mary’s to start the process. By this time I had already sterilized all the jars and lids by simmering them for 20 minutes. In batches it took me about an hour and a half. Separating the skins from all of the pulp took about another hour and a half.

We processed the skin with some sugar and put on the jam to cook. We refreshed Bloody Mary’s and cracked open beers. Now all we can do is chat, taking turns stirring if you should pass the stove. Reducing the jam to the preferred consistency took about four hours of good company or not very long. We transferred the jam to the jars, closed the lids (but not too tight or a seal won’t form) and gave them another 20 minutes in simmering water. This re-sterilizes and forms a vacuum seal on the jar. Again in batches this took about an hour working together.

This smiley face just formed, it was a happy day.

How was the jam? Freaking amazing, it is the essence of the Concord Grape with little kick, or as Boo puts it “It's grape jam dressed up in its best pair of sassypants”, and I can enjoy it all year.

But what I really have is a good day with great friends that I will always remember, and I can’t wait to create the same memories next year.

Concord Grape & Habanero Jam

2 Qts Concord grapes, stemmed

3 Cups Sugar

1 Habanero Chili Pepper, lightly crushed

· Separate the pulp/seeds from the skins.

· In a food processor, chop the skins with one cup of sugar, In a large pot simmer this mixture over low heat

· In a separate pot, simmer the pulp with the remaining sugar until completely broken down. About 20 minutes

· Strain out the seeds, pushing the pulp through with a ladle. Add the strained pulp to the skins.

· Boil this mixture, stirring often, and carefully, until thick and jelly like.

· Kill the heat and toss in the habanero to steep, it will quickly give off it’s great aroma and some of it’s heat. Lightly stir, monitoring the heat by tasting, remove the chili when the spice level is to your liking.

Tip: You can test the jam on a cold plate in the fridge, It gives you an idea of what the final product will be.

* canning refers to the process of preserving in sterilized jars, so that they are shelf stable for some time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Massaman Curry with Pumpkin and Sunchoke

This is a great hearty cold weather curry. Some other ingredients that might go well in this dish: potatoes, pineapple, practically any meats. Sweeter sea foods like shrimp or lobster and maybe some sturdier fishes like swordfish or catfish.

4 cups Winter squash (chopped into roughly 1 inch dice)

2 cups Sunchokes sliced in ½ inch coins

1 large Onion, julienned

4 cloves Garlic, grated

4 inches Ginger, grated

1 can Coconut Milk

2 cans Maesri Massaman Curry Paste

½ cup Nuts, roughly chopped( I used almonds, but cashews and/or peanuts are great too)

½ cup Herbs, chopped(I used cilantro, but Thai basil and Kaffir lime would be great)

If you have them, Thai seasonings: fish sauce, palm sugar, etc.

1. Heat a four qt. heavy bottomed pot over high heat, once it is hot, add enough oil to lightly coat and give it a few seconds to heat up. Once it just starts to smoke add the onions and sauté until slightly translucent. (about 3-5 minutes)

2. Add the curry paste along with the grated ginger and garlic. Saute a little longer until some of the paste starts to turn slightly brown.

3. Add the squash, sunchokes and coconut milk, bring the whole thing to a simmer and season with a little palm sugar and fish sauce (salt and brown sugar are fine here if you don’t have these specialty items on hand.)


Last minute

this is their flier.

So for any of you that are interested or available.
There's gonna be a dinner a great dinner-club-type meal. Here's the catch, it's tonight.
I normally don't do this sort of thing, but this is being put on by the best of the best.
It's sure to be an incredible meal.
If anybody can make gets the chance to go please let me know.
I'll tell you in advance that jealous.
I'd love to hear how it goes.

The email on the flier is:

Monday, October 26, 2009

How to make thai sticky rice

Sticky Rice, also sold as sweet rice or glutinous rice, is actually a completely different variety of rice, not rice prepared in a different manner. (like I had always just assumed for some reason.) So if your gonna take the leap, you'll probably have to go out of your way to find some, it should be available at any Asian market. By the way, sticky rice doesn't actually contain gluten, "glutenous" simply refers to the properties of the rice.

Take a second too read all the labels on this bag . . . it's kinda funny.

Sticky rice had always been an anomaly to me, something I had always thoroughly enjoyed, but never taken on in my own kitchen. Until I went to Thailand, where it just seemed to make sense all of the sudden. There, it is soaked overnight, placed in a cone shaped basket, covered with a cloth and steamed, suspended over simmering water. The shape of the basket actually seems to be very advantageous in preparing sticky rice, as it provides a lot more surface area for the rice to absorb the steam. Unlike with most rice preparations, sticky rice doesn't actually come into contact with the cooking liquid. Once ready, it's usually mixed well, (presumably to redistribute moisture) and then placed in a small serving basket with a lid. (which would also serve to absorb/release moisture as needed)
{{{there was a paragraph here about incorporating used sticky rice, but I misremembered parts of it, so I removed it}}}

In the middle is the rice cooker, with the serving basket to the right.

However, if you don't have these specialty tools, it can successfully be made in rice cooker. You just have to keep a few things in mind: There is no real recipe for this, you make as much as you need (1/2 cup per person is plenty). A good soak is key, at least 12 hours is needed, any less and the rice just doesn't cook evenly.

Most rice cookers come with a steam basket, simply place the pre-soaked rice in the basket, cover either with the lid or a tea towel, I don't find that one works better than the other. Press the button and once the water boils, time it for about 25 minutes, once you can nibble some rice off the top and it is cooked through, it's done.

No here's the key, you HAVE to remove it from the cooker when it's done, and ideally you have a wooden bowel to put it in covered with a tea towel, if not maybe just wrap it completely in the towel (anything but terrycloth). If it's ready and leave it over the water, it will continue to absorb water and turn to an unpleasent mush.
I love sticky rice with curry, and it's a great addition to any Thai salad like som tum (green papaya)or a larb gai (ground chicken). It's also enjoyed as a desert, mixed with coconut milk and palm sugar, it is the perfect compliment to a ripe mango and a squeeze of lime.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Truly a thing of beauty

Let’s take a second to talk about one of the standards in my kitchen:

The quart container.

In most of life I advocate embracing chaos and variety. Appreciating each thing for exactly what it is at that time, whatever it may be. Each apple from the same tree falls a little bit differently; maybe it’s sweeter or sourer, crunchier or mealy. One steak could take heat completely differently than another, requiring more or less cooking time. A recipe may yield different results every time. The premise is to step back and be aware of the diversity, and accept it for what it is. If you want the same soup every time, you’re going to have to open a can.

But if I could take ALL of this variety and stuff into one thing, it would be the quart container and its derivatives; truly an example of utilitarian and functional beauty.

Forget the metric system, I’ll take four cups . . . 32oz.

Somewhere, somehow, someway, it became the universal storage vessel, and that’s why I like it. It’s my anchor in a world of changing ingredients and preparations. It’s ideal, with interchangeable sizes (quart, pint, half pint) and UNIFORM lids. (I can’t stress the lids thing enough, because I hate spending time matching lids to containers.)

On a base level, it’s very functional. It’s easily stackable(empty or full). The height/size breakdown makes sense (two 1/2pitns=1 pint, 2pints=1quart). I know this seems to go without saying, but in what other storage container can you stack two smaller sizes next to the larger size, and it takes up the same space (height/width/volume). And as they come in one cup, two cup, and four cup sizes, it can be used roughly as a measuring cup.

Because they are so prevalent, I have solid rotation of quarts coming in (full of takeout) and going out (with friends, full of leftovers) It’s almost like a communal system of shared tupperware, making them more environmentally friendly. Not to mention they’re free.

So if you’re tossing out your to go containers, reconsider. You could build your own collection and never have to worry about buying storage containers again.

Some squash, like the acorn squash, are a tricky shape, what's the best way to process these for cooking?

Some pumpkins come in very funny shapes. They are tough skinned, bumpy, divoted and tricky to prepare for cooking.
If you do have to hack through a winter squash for a recipe there are a few go to techniques to cut through this trouble. (for a how-to on butternut squash go here)
I'm slicing up a muang squash here, a varietal from thailand, it's a little different from the acorn squash, but the principle is the same.
First half the vegetable, and scoop out the seeds.
From here you have two avenues to choose from.

1. Peeling with a paring knife: it requires a little more skill, but is maybe a little quicker for the adept.
Quarter the squash. Gripping the paring knife in your hand, use your thumb to push the squash gently over your knife. (not pulling the knife towards your finger, that can lead to problems) I find it works best to remove the "peeks" first, then go back to remove the "valleys" by making an incision on each side and wedging you knife under to pop it out.

2. Peeling each segment with a vegetable peeler: This takes a little more time, but is better suited to the less experienced hand.
Start by breaking down the squash into its own wedges, cutting out half moons where ever the indentations dictate. Then peel each wedge with a peeler. Another perk to this method is you might actually loose a little less meat from the squash, something that's more of an issue with smaller squash.(like the acorn squash)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More thoughts on Extra Virgn Olive Oil

A very common question I get is regarding the use of Olive Oil in the cooking process.
For some, it seems to be the only thing they use. The same 20 dollar bottle used for salad dressings and drizzles is also used for sauteing, roasting and even frying.
But where does this trend come from?
Italy? NO!
The Mediterranean? NO!
How about TV? . . . . Most likely, a few very influential television personalities (who shall remain nameless{but her initials are RR}) cook with only extra virgin olive oil.
How do I feel about this?
I'll tell you reader, I don't feel very good about this at all.
It's just not chemically suited for high heat. Extra Virgin Olive Oil smokes at around 375 degrees. (meaning it literally breaks down in glycerol and free fatty acids) Maybe reach for an oil with a higher smoke point like grapeseed (420) or avocado oil (520)**. Even a vegetable oil (peanut, canola, corn/all around 450) will do the job a little better, though go for organic if you can, most conventional oils are made with genetically modified crops.
For me, mainly its a poor value. You're paying extra money for a great tasting oil that comes with the added perk of health benefits. When you overheat extra virgin olive oil, it loses a lot of these taste properties, and while it doesn't become unhealthy per se. Along with the taste, some those beneficial properties are lost.
So reserve that Extra Virgin Olive Oil for the special applications where you can really appreciate it.

**For a list of oil smoke points go here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I need a new way to prepare kale, any ideas?

It's good to eat your greens, and a lot of people are trying hard to, but unless you find a way to mix it up, it's hard to stay interested.
Most people go for stewed or steamed, but you have another option: roasting.
It lets you appreciate greens in a whole new manner. Leaving you with tasty, darker, even crispy tidbits.

Roasted kale and root vegetables

1 Bunch Kale
1 lb. Potatoes (I used a mix)
1 lb. Root vegetavbles (I used rutabaga, but carrots, parsnips, sweetpotato, etc. would do)
1 Medium onion
1 tbsp. Garlic powder
Vegetable Oil (I used grapeseed oil)

1. Roughly chop the kale, and dice the root veg into 3/4 inch cubes.
2. Toss everything together. Coat with oil and season liberally with salt.

3a. Preheat your oven and a metal sheet pan to 450 degrees. Spread the kale and vegetables evenly over the pan. It should not pile up, if it does, start a second pan.
4a. Roast, tossing every eight minutes or so, for around 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked and nicely browned.


3b. Heat a large heavy bottomed skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium high heat.
4b. Using this same heat, brown slowly (like homefries) tossing every 3-5 minutes, being sure to scrape the bottom, until nicely browned.

5. Enjoy it!

Shown with roasted broccoli and crushed kabocha (from the newsletter)

Friday, October 16, 2009

I make thai curry using Maesri panang curry paste, the end product is not creamy like in restaurants but watery. Any advice?

I love that Maesri paste, it's good stuff.
I have a few suggestions, the first is simply cornstarch, just a little bit goes a long way, and it's a solution sometimes used in Thai (and Asian) cooking. However, some of us westerners are kind of avoiding that stuff.
The second is to add a little bit of roux (cooked flour and butter).
Keep in mind both of these options don't really thicken until the sauce boils. (and the starches explode)
The third is what I do if I can . . . When you buy coconut milk, it's usually separated into solids and water. I just use the solids, and reserve the liquids for something else (soups, sauces . . . . or cocktails). Shake the a little when you're picking it out. It won't slosh around very much if it's separated.
And avoid Lite Coconut Milk, its nothing but coconut milk with a different solid to liquid ratio.

Pretty huh? I know, but I just wanted you to see what you're looking for. I will only use the coconut solids.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I love squash and cook it a lot in the fall, but what can I do with the seeds?

This is a great question, I go through a lot of winter squash this time of year too, and you can eat the seeds from pretty much any squash, barring any mildew or other sickness in the cavity.
This is a great recipe from my friend (and past-chef-to-be-grilled) Ori Cosentino. Good in salads, or just with beer, these seeds are delicious. (She's got a great blog too!)
After scooping out the seeds, separate as much of the pumpkin pulp out as you can. You'll need to dry the seeds out a little bit in the oven before they're ready for toasting. This should run you about 30 minutes in a 325 degree oven.
Now they're ready for this recipe . . .

Smoky Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

1 cup pumpkin seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimenton de la vera)

1/2 teaspoon paprika

pinch cayenne pepper


In a large skillet toast pumpkin seeds over a medium heat, tossing every few minutes until mostly golden brown and fragrant. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and coat with oil. While stirring or tossing, dust with the paprikas and cayenne. Season with salt to taste.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Let me tell you a story . . .

I'll keep it short.
I spent a few years working in Italy. In restaurants there it's common to have a few Extra Virgin Olive Oils (EVOO) of varying quality for different uses: A run-of-the-mill for bulk uses like salad dressings, pasta doughs, etc, a nicer but still basic finishing EVOO for risottos, pastas, and general drizzles, There is usually a great olive oil, for super fresh, special applications, like over the perfect tomato, or with amazing figs and ricotta, etc. etc.
and then . . . . there's a Very VIP Olive Oil, reserved only for those who can appreciate it (usually the cooks).
I was introduced to one of these VIP.EVOO's (stay with me) in my first posting in Bergamo, Italy. Ardonino olive oil, with a subtle but very distinct fruity flavor, it lacks that kick that some oils have. It was my first revelation on the value of a really good olive oil. It changed how I thought about the application, and like everyone's first, I fell deeply in love.
I left Bargamo with a few bottles, which I went through relatively quickly, and then I pined for months. When I returned to Italy to work in Imola, (Emilia Romagna) I looked everywhere for Ardonino. Finally I found it, hidden in a small store in Bologna.
Before my return to the states, I made a special trip for a lone bottle of the stuff. (it's expensive and I was broke) Waiting for the last train back to Imola, I set my bag down and heard a muffled clunk. After a quick coffee I looked down to see my back pack in a puddle of olive oil.
I had to return home empty handed.
Back in New York, I wandered listlessly, scanning every shelf in hopes of spying the Ardonino label. Finally, after literally 3 years of searching, on my way to work, I saw it. Liquid gold, my old love, at Garden of Eden on 23rd st. Strapped for time and cash, I returned a few days later, and it was gone!! They had pitched it because it wasn't selling!
I was devestated, but with new found hope, I continued to scan olive oil selections around the city. Where did it finally turn up? . . . . .Food Eporium on 14th street, of all places, $34 a 500ml bottle, ouch.
Still, I sprang for one, eight years after our introduction. Was it as delicious as I remember? Of course not, but it's very very good olive oil. The price is just a little steep.
Yesterday, I spotted that same 34 dollar bottle marked down to $3.99, Hot damn!
I bought 4, and I'm thinking about going back for more.
If you're in hood, you should definitely pick some up.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

6 Tips for beginning cooks

I hear a lot from people who want to get into cooking, but don't know where to start. In general, the question is a very broad one, and one I put a lot of thought into considering the goal of this whole operation is to help people cook more.
Over time I've come up with a few key concepts to keep in mind when getting into cooking. The more I consider these tips, however, the more they influence my own practices. So while they are intended to help people fall in love with cooking, they might help others rekindle the flame.
Here they are.

1. Keep it simple
When jumping into any preparation, keeping it simple will go a very long way.
- You buy less ingredients, spend less money, and are left with fewer specialty ingredients that sit in your pantry for ages
- the process is easier: less prepping/chopping, cooking, and clean up
- Less room for error. A botched effort can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.

2. Stick to what you know
When you understand what the final product of your efforts should be, the process somehow is more intuitive. When your mind understands the particular flavor profile of say . . . a tomato sauce, or a Vietnamese salad (depending on your upbringing) and it will make make more sense to you why a dish might not work out. Maybe it needs salt, sweetness, or a squeeze of lime.
Staying in a familiar arena will help you develop a method for understanding taste, and how to adjust it to your liking. As opposed to when a recipe foreign to you doesn't work, it's much harder to understand why.

3. Adjust as you go
Monitor the process! Every kitchen is different, tools are diverse, and ingredients will vary a lot. As you cook, taste a lot and be aware of changes throughout the process: react accordingly. Many people simply execute a recipe and expect a result, but it just doesn't work that way. You have to learn to adapt as you cook.

4. Do it for you
This kind of relates to keeping it simple, I find a lot of peoples' first efforts are for groups of people. This is a risky undertaking. It distracts from the process, and introduces a lot of variables, meaning it's more likely to bomb. It could be embarrassing. All things that might prevent one from cooking more.
Cook for yourself (and maybe a friend/partner/spouse/etc.) It makes it more enjoyable, and let's you take more away from the procedure.

5. Buy quality
I say it over and over again, better ingredients translate to better food. Of course you have to prioritize this a little. A very common question is "How do I make great tomato sauce?" and the answer is simply, "With good tomatoes." Whatever the recipe, it wont be great with mediocre tomatoes. Again, this is much easier to do when keeping it simple.

6. Screw it up
You're going to fail. New to cooking or not, you'll bomb from time to time. It's the best way to learn and hone the practice moving forward.
You'll realize your boundaries and how to test them. You'll find your groove and develop a true love for cooking.
Just don't miss the learning opportunity that failure presents.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A new beast in the kitchen

So about a week ago I dropped and broke the glass pitcher to my $20 blender. I've had it for around seven years and she's served me well, but she was the last of a long line of crappy kitchen appliances that once lined my shelves.
My new love, found in a restaurant supply store, reinforced my belief in commercial tools.
As usual, I spent way too much time researching blenders, looking for performance and value, and this is what I came up with. The Waring BB150S. (Catchy name right?)
Here's why?
For 99 dollars (less than most decent consumer blenders) This baby has 1/2 horse power! A 2 year warranty, and above all, a stainless steel one quart pitcher. So it won't break when I drop it, but even if it did, I could just go online and buy the parts! (another perk to buying commercial). If it has a draw back, it's the aesthetics. Personally I don't mind how it looks, when I shop for kitchen tools, I do so with almost purely utilitarian restrictions.
So above all else it has to blend well. You shouldn't have to jiggle and shake it to get the contents to move. It should just grab it and puree. This blender does just that, and I expect to do so for a very long time.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ready for fall

I'm not even sure if I'm ready for Autumn. I'm reluctantly waiving goodbye to my favorite summer ingredients, but like a kid getting over the family dog, a new puppy has me in a different mindset.
Fall puts a whole new paint job on things, and despite the cloudy, colder weather. I'm looking forward some changing leaves and tasty fall delicacies.
Keep your eye peeled for some entries on:
Fall and winter squash,
All things cabbage
- Brussels sprouts
- Broccoli/ Cauliflower
- Greens like: collards, chard, rabe and others
How to eat your center piece.

Don't pitch that decoration just yet! Hold out for some ideas for a great snack!
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