Saturday, December 30, 2006

Margy's Pizza

I've waxed rhapsodic over Margy's pizza many times now, but it would be irresponsible of me not to commemorate each and every appearance of this magical food.

It's always the same, yet it's always different. Temperature and humidity surely play a part in the behavior of the dough, and who knows how many other subtle factors are at work. Water salinity? Margy's body temperature? The shifting moods of fickle flour?

Tonight the crust was a little thicker and a little more pale than usual, but it cooked up perfectly and, as always, tasted fantastic. I've been experimenting with sprinkling Maldon sea salt over the white pies -- we alternate red and white -- once they come out of the oven, to great results. The large, flaky salt crystals really wake up fresh tomatoes (especially ones bought in December). The difference in flavor with and without the salt is illuminating.

Margy, you've done it again.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Nice Butt

For Margy and me, the last few days of the year have traditionally been all about cooking, and this year is no different.

Yesterday, we stocked up on supplies at the Asian market. We replenished some pantry staples, like green tea and mirin, and we got lots of fun produce -- long beans, Chinese leeks (the root ends look like garlic bulbs), insanely hot Thai chilies. We had a whole red snapper filleted, which I cooked last night, and we got a pork butt for this evening.

Boy, does that place have some good butt.

The fish and meat guys at the market really know their stuff. Over at the seafood counter, they clean fish quickly and thoroughly, and of course they sell good specimens. I never go to this place, Kam Man, without stopping in for some seafood. But I'd only bought meat a few times before today. That's going to change. Everything looked fresh and firm, and when I saw the pork butt I was hit by the thunderbolt. (The oxtails must wait for another day.) I asked the butcher for something around three pounds. He poked around for a second, grabbed a piece, and threw it on the scale: 3.00. Wow -- practically a parlor trick. I wonder if he does it at parties. "Gimme some meat, and I'll guess its weight within an ounce!"

I had to be sure to treat such a perfect piece of pork with the care it deserved, so, since I was going to braise it, I resolved not to cut corners during the browning process. With a decent-size cut that has many uneven surfaces, browning can take forever, and I've been known to lose my cool during this step and flip meat before its time. No, I wasn't going to do that today. Browning took 30, maybe 40, minutes, but when it was all over I had an even finer-looking butt on my hands than I had started out with.

By the way, pork butt actually comes from the shoulder. Go figure. According to the book How to Cook Meat, "It got its name because in colonial times this type of pork was packed into barrels called 'butts' for shipping and storage."

Meanwhile, I deglazed the pot with a splash of white wine, and then I gently cooked onion and, eventually, garlic until it was nice and soft. Adding a hint of Mexico to what I consider my all-purpose Italian-style braise, I tossed in one chopped canned chipotle and a spoonful of its adobo sauce. Then I put back the pork and covered it halfway with liquid -- canned tomato, white wine, and chicken broth. I covered the pot and popped it in a 325-degree oven, and we waited, less than patiently, perhaps.

Two hours later we had on our hands what seemed like something of a magic trick itself. I never tire of the wonder of slow-cooked pork, its formerly chewy meat now falling apart in tender chunks and strands, its ample fat melting into the other flavorings to form a rich and delicious sauce. In this case, the chipotle really made its presence known, adding a good holler of heat and just a whisper of smokiness.

It's a good thing we get such a kick out of stuff like this, because the butt will be feeding us for days -- and it may even taste better the next time around. I see a taco night in our immediate future...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sweet (and Slightly Salty) Relief

"I need sushi. It's been long enough."

Margy had been hearing some variation on those words for a couple weeks now, and it was time to do something about it. So we made a reservation at Shumi, our favorite Japanese restaurant in Jersey.

I was ready to go all out. We took a seat at the bar, and, with Margy's permission, I asked the chef/owner, Ike, to just start feeding us. "We like everything," I said, and I meant it. After a soft-shell crab salad took the edge off ever so slightly, Ike presented us with a magnificent plate of sashimi as a prelude to the sushi that would follow.

Each fish made us swoon. Clockwise from top left: white tuna; toro; Japanese horse mackerel, or aji, dressed with a wonderful mince of ginger and scallion; tai, a sea bream that's somewhat similar to red snapper; sweet shrimp from Maine, the first of the season and tonight's special; and squid that Ike scored with a knife and rolled around seaweed, spicy tuna, and cucumber.

What followed were greatly conflicting impulses to devour it all on the spot and slow down to a crawl in order to savor every morsel. I didn't want the moment to end. After the sashimi, as a parade of sushi began, with Ike handing Margy and me two pieces each at a time until we reluctantly asked him to stop, I was struck with one of the reasons why a meal of sushi and sashimi is among my very favorites: It's an ephemeral experience.

And in so many ways. Take, for instance, the pieces of seared salmon with spicy cilantro dressing that Ike gave us near the end of the feast. These hit just about every note that sushi can sing, and in perfect harmony -- the char on the border of the fish gave it wonderful smoky flavor, while the uncooked interior was briny tasting and refreshing, with the perfect meaty but tender texture. The dressing tingled on the tongue. And the rice was just right, meaning it wasn't tightly packed and had a presence of its own. One piece of sushi offered all this -- but there was only one piece for each of us. Sure, we could have said, "Ike, do that again!" But what would we have missed? Seared white tuna with sriracha sauce? That would have been a crime.

So the pleasure of each incredible bite was fleeting, and the wonder of the whole meal was fleeting too, since it's just not possible for us to eat like this every day, or even every week. And though a good sushi meal is supremely satisfying, it also comes with a certain lightness when it's all over, which only contributes to the bittersweet feeling. After I eat a good steak, I feel full and don't want anything more than maybe a nip of brown liquor and a couple bites of dessert. After I eat a good sushi meal, I'm thinking, I could do that again RIGHT NOW. I know it's time to stop -- my wallet knows, at least -- but I want to continue, and the feeling lingers. I would say my number one, taken-for-granted eating rule is to keep things varied, yet for years I've noticed that when I have a memorable sushi meal, I invariably wake up the next day wanting to eat the stuff again. I think it's addictive.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Oh, Snap!

I felt like cooking fish fillets. Margy was in the mood for a whole fish. Guess who won?

The Asian market provided another fine specimen, a red snapper, which I adorned with herbs, lemon, and olive oil and then slipped under the broiler. The fish was moist and succulent -- the "cheek meat," as my parents would call it, was especially delicious -- but the crispy skin was the best part.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Duck Fat Dinner

I did not leave Paris empty handed.

At our friends' place on my last evening in town, the mommy-to-be slipped me a hefty can of duck confit, to my great delight. Tonight I opened it up and made a meal designed to remind us of our little European sojourn.

Inside the can was one big ol' breast suspended in thick, milky white duck fat, not a drop of which will go to waste. Using our pals' Paris home cooking as my inspiration, I attempted something akin to a quick deconstructed cassoulet. I bought a nice French garlic sausage at the nearby luxury-consumables megastore Wine Library, which I sliced and browned and served with white beans cooked in duck fat. I also sautéed potatoes in duck fat and dressed them with parsley when they were done.

And I crisped up the duck skin by cooking the breast fatty side down in a pan, with a little... you guessed it... duck fat (it didn't take much -- that sucker was self-basting). I'd never before brought a duck into our home, so this part was big fun. It sizzled and sputtered and got all nice and brown. When we eventually cut into it, a perfectly brittle crust gave way to the silky richness of the fat beneath and, finally, to the dark and tender meat itself. Margy, normally monolingual, spoke a few happy words in French.

And now the rest of the fat is sitting in a container in the fridge, biding its time until we need it again. It won't be long.