Monday, February 19, 2007

Paella Pretender

Ever since I got that great Spanish chorizo for Margy's empanadas, I've been looking for ways to slip the remainder of the sausage into our meals. A bastardized paella had been taking shape in my mind for weeks.

Tonight I gave it a shot. I cooked Arborio rice with chorizo, tiny pork spare ribs from the Asian market, shrimp, clams, peas, shrimp stock (didn't have any chicken stock), aromatics, saffron, and herbs. I definitely wouldn't call it paella, but I would call it dinner. The only bummer was the clams, which were rubbery, but at least they lent the dish a bit of briny sea essence, so they weren't a total washout. The highlights were the smoky, spicy chorizo and the tiny ribs, which were short on meat but long on porkaliciousness.

I should probably backtrack and attempt a traditional paella -- with that great crust on the bottom and all -- but for now this was a fun start. It was a little runny when compared to the real deal, so I'll just call it Spanish risotto and leave it at that.

Sticking with Sardines

Tonight, only sardines would do. Call it the need for oily fish.

Sardines aren't easy. Cheap, yes. Delicious, absolutely. But those little tiny bones, they can become a concern. Even the highly skilled guys at our Asian market's fish counter throw up their hands when you ask them to clean 'em. ("Only gut," is a common refrain.) So when I buy sardines, I feel the same way I do when I buy heads-on shrimp: excited, but a little guilty that I'm about to make Margy labor for her dinner.

Thing is, the bones are so small, in fact, that I'm pretty sure you can just eat them. The thinner, brittler ones, anyway. The pattern for me is always the same: I treat sardine #1 with kid gloves, gingerly excising each translucent little bone with the focus of a surgeon. I work hard for every omega-3-packed morsel I throw in my mouth. Then, somewhere, somehow, a bone or two gets through and I realize it's not the end of the world (as long as I make sure to chew). By sardine #2 I'm throwing caution to the wind.

Luckily, you can get in a rhythm of filleting the sardines and removing the majority of the skeleton in one motion, greatly cutting back on the bone crunching. And it's worth it -- there's nothing like a nice stack of freshly cooked sardines. Their flavor is related to that of their canned counterparts (which, let's be honest, have their share of little bones as well), but the fish are meatier, tastier, more succulent.

Tonight I cooked the sardines in hot oil for a minute and then poured in teriyaki sauce, which got nice and sticky and almost burnt in spots as it cooked along with the fish. Its potent salty sweetness was a good match for the strong-flavored sardines.

I adapted the side dish from the Crispy Vegetables that accompany Lemongrass-Crusted Skate (sounds good) in Dominique's Fresh Flavors. Margy, the mandoline expert, julienned daikon, carrot, broccoli stems, and celery root, and we tossed them in sesame oil with a little soy sauce and Sriracha hot sauce. Whenever we grew weary from the precision demanded by eating sardines, we could just tear into the rice and veggies with flagrant disregard for any consequences.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Murray's Cheese and an Italian Tortilla

Every month, Enzo and his wife receive a pound and a half of cheese from Murray's Cheese Shop. Whenever possible, they share the wealth. For example, when the band did our annual Vermont gigs in January, along came that month's fromage. The Gorgonzola was eaten heartily; the one nicknamed "Old Stinker" didn't have to be unwrapped to reveal its undesirability and spent the weekend shivering on the porch, only to be tossed altogether once it made it back to New York City. (I understand the latter variety to be an aberration. Apparently Murray's tends to ship edible cheeses much more often than "I dare you"-type selections.)

Tonight Margy and I attended one of Enzo's cheese parties. On the invitation email, he referred modestly to "light fare," but he and his wife presented quite the impressive spread -- three excellent cheeses of the month (Gouda and two softer Brie types), bread and crackers, fruit and crudités, olives, quince jam, assorted salumi, proscuitto-wrapped asparagus, and Enzo's terrific Spanish tortilla (pictured). Everything was tasty, as was the wine, which flowed freely and included guests' selections as well as bottles from our hosts' carefully chosen private stock. A little later on, someone brought baked Brie in a bread bowl, and Enzo made sliced-steak crostini. Long after our other bandmates had switched to Budweiser, it was kielbasa time. No one went home hungry... or sober.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shank Shack

We hadn't seen my parents for a while, so we booked them for a Sunday dinner at our place.

And so began the discussions of what to cook. Mom -- easy. Anything but soft-shell crabs and Brussels sprouts. (Weird, I know. In my heart I still believe I'll find a way to get her to like Brussels sprouts.) Virtually any nationality is fair game. Dad, though -- tough. He claims he likes just about everything, but I say there's a shade of distinction between eating everything and actually liking everything.

"I love Indian food," he'll say. "But only the best." First of all, it's hard to love Indian food if you can't stand cumin. Secondly, the idea of "the best" -- somehow, improbably, an objective standard in my father's mind -- can get pretty muddy outside the largely European concept of fine dining, where more stars often mean higher prices and more reliable quality. Is "the best" Indian food found in the most opulent restaurants? Not in my experience. Even after all these years it's hard for me to follow my dad's reasoning when he goes down this path. To his credit, it probably harks back to the time when there were only a handful of decent Chinese restaurants in New York City ("decent," I can work with). He hunted for them, and he found them, while all I have to do is open a Zagat's.

Anyway, Dad is actually pretty open-minded. He really will eat anything, which I greatly admire. It's just that when you're his son and daughter-in-law and you have him over for dinner, you're wise to stick pretty close to Italy and France. And if you make a salad, you should probably skip the balsamic.

Since we don't really do much French food around here, and since a visit from the food-savvy parentals is hardly the time to experiment, we settled on Italian, which led quickly and easily to the idea of osso buco. After all, I needed something that isn't in my mom's bag of tricks (not much to choose from there), and I don't remember her ever making osso buco, while I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's not hard to be comfortable with something that doesn't need much coaxing to melt itself into the most rich and velvety and tender and delicious substance known to humankind.

So yesterday morning I headed over to my favorite butcher to get the meat. I was a bit worried, because sometimes they're out of osso buco, and I didn't want to have to get it at the supermarket, where it's not as pristine. I tried to drag myself out as early as I could.

I walked through the door and made a beeline to the pork/veal/lamb case. Standing right there, holding an overflowing basket of assorted meats, was my mother.

We laughed, and hugged, and she said to the guy who was buying short ribs, "My son!" He remarked that the resemblance was clear.

"I'm shopping for you," I said to my mom, who of course protested. Wait till she sees what I have in mind, I thought. There was no point in hiding it. I told her, just as the guy in front of me said to the butcher, "I'll take those last three osso buco."

I nearly fainted. Then I saw another whole shank sitting in the case. Phew.

I asked for four pieces, and the butcher went to cut them for me. They were absolutely beautiful, and even he couldn't help but admire his fine product. He weighed them -- at $13.99 a pound, the quartet came to $52.75. Yikes. My mom had to be standing right there, didn't she? "You're worth it," I insisted.

We walked together to the register, and Mom, with her lamb chops, sausages, chicken, and roast turkey -- and probably a few other things I missed -- rang up around $40. She asked if she could pay for the osso buco. "Please, Mom, don't worry about it. We want to make you guys a nice dinner!" I was concerned that she would overcompensate by bringing a case of wine instead of the bottle or two we'd asked them to pick out.

Then I walked her to her car and said see you tomorrow.

This morning, Margy got to work on her incredible raspberry bars while I chopped vegetables and patiently browned the osso buco, which I first dredged in a little flour. Okay, not so patiently. But it's a crucial step, and I saw it through, all 40 minutes or so of it (I had to do it in two batches). Once those two things were out of the way, I was basically home free. I splashed some white wine in the Dutch oven I was using, and I scraped up the precious remnants of the browning process.

Then I added a bit more olive oil to the pot, threw in finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery, and let the vegetables soften. A few minutes later I added a minced clove of garlic and a minced chile, and I let that go for a minute. Then came the braising liquid -- white wine, chicken stock, and canned tomato, plus salt and pepper. In went the meat, and I adjusted the liquid so it came up about halfway around the shanks. I brought the stew to a boil, turned off the heat, and put the covered pot in a 375-degree oven for two hours.

The 53-dollar veal did not let us down. Sticking to tradition -- a most tasty tradition at that -- I served the osso buco with risotto alla Milanese. Broccoli too (no salad). My parents were impressed. But I tried to deflect the credit. Yes, I didn't mess anything up, but really I didn't do anything all that snazzy. It's the shanks themselves. The melting fat has a magical effect on the flavor and texture of the sauce, and who can resist meat that's so tender and juicy that it falls apart? Add the wonderful bonus of the luscious marrow -- spread it on bread, on a forkful of risotto, or, in the ultimate move of meaty audacity, on a piece of the osso buco itself -- and forget it. Osso buco rules. I'm just the middleman.

We all managed to save room for Margy's raspberry bars, which have a shortbread crust and a streusel topping. They're crumbly, chewy, and crunchy all at the same time, and they were the perfect end note to our operatic feast.

Oh, and my parents brought one bottle of wine. And a giant basket of assorted treats from the Italian store -- olive oil, dried beans, imported tomatoes, ladyfingers. Aw, my mother. No way was she coming to an osso buco party empty-handed.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Indian Griddle

One night a few years ago when I couldn't sleep and I'd repeatedly woken Margy with my sheet-shuffling rolling and tumbling, I decided to just get up and watch some 4am TV. (If television isn't the cure for insomnia, I don't know what is.) Jamie Oliver was on, and he was making tasty-looking Technicolor Indian food. One of his dishes was a pancake made with chickpea flour batter and filled with goodies like herbs, vegetables, and chile peppers. Before I finally drifted back into slumber, I took note of this clever little treat. I'm not sure what it would be called in India, if anything, but it seems related to bhaji.

Later, when I came to, I looked around for recipes for Indian pancakes, and I consulted my authority, the cooking-school wiz kid. And then -- once I finally located a reliable source of chickpea flour -- I just played around, going largely on my fuzzy memories of the Naked Chef. I thinned the flour with water and added spices and flavorings, and though some efforts were better than others, the results were usually pretty good. According to my associates, my pancakes were thicker than anything similar would be in India, but since I was experimenting, I didn't mind. And Margy loved these things. Could not get enough.

So this morning when I asked if she had any requests, she responded with two little words: Indian pancakes.

It will be done.

Not long into the process, I remembered my usual pancake pitfalls: getting distracted by other dishes, and having too much batter.

Distraction: Along with a nice chutney or two (in this case, and in most cases, a spicy cilantro-mint chutney recipe from Madhur Jaffrey and an amazing tamarind sauce from the book Mangoes & Curry Leaves), these chickpea pancakes could easily make a meal in themselves. But for some reason I insist on going further. Tonight I made a shrimp curry as the main course, and tending to it took some of my attention away from the pancakes. I need a controlled environment where I'm able to focus on just the one thing, so I can make sure I get it right. I say this every time, but writing it down might help. Next time I make only pancakes. (Well, and chutneys. But I get those out of the way first.)

Too much batter: These things (never to be confused with Those Things) are great reheated in the toaster oven. Add Margy's love of leftovers, and I know I have to make plenty. The problem comes when I set aside too much filling -- slivered onions and chilies, shredded spinach, chopped shrimp -- and then refuse to waste any, which means I have to overstuff that last batch of pancakes, which means they turn out too plump and not crisp enough. Next time I'm using one onion, one chile, four leaves of spinach, and three shrimp, and that's it.

The good news is that I can't lose. The batter is so easy to deal with and cooks up so effortlessly that even imperfect pancakes are still terrific. But, dammit, one of these days I intend to bring forth the pancakes of my, if not necessarily Jamie Oliver's, dreams.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Risotto Life

Whenever someone asks if I have a specialty in the kitchen, I scratch my head and say I guess it's risotto.

If my risotto is any good -- I hate to brag, but it is -- this is because I've paid my dues. I didn't just buy a bag of Arborio rice one day and instantly know how to tame that wild beast. No, no. I had to work at it; I had to domesticate the stuff, show it who's boss. Because, as I've said before, my early efforts had me stirring frantically for what seemed like hours.

But maybe the person who coined the phrase "practice makes perfect" was a cook, since all it really takes to get a dish right is a little familiarity. You can't immerse yourself properly in the details until you've gained some perspective on the general concept and readied yourself to dive deeper. Make risotto ten times, in a reasonably condensed period (so you're able to retain the lessons you learned during the previous run), and I bet you'll have a real handle on the process by No. 5 and will feel like a master by the time you're done.

It's easy.

There are only two kinds of people who should not make risotto:

* Those who are wholly, utterly, hopelessly devoid of patience
* Those who think store-bought broths and stocks are acceptable flavoring agents

I should probably add "Those who do not drink" to the list, since the risottatore's most trusty companion during the stirring process is a bottomless glass of wine -- hey, you've opened a bottle anyway; risotto itself demands a hearty drink of vino in order to cooperate with your spoon -- but that would be coarse of me. Do it dry if you must.

Now, I don't consider myself to have a specialty within my specialty -- that is, I prefer to switch it up. My most common choices are risotto alla pescatore, or "fisherman's" risotto, which I make with shrimp stock, and mushroom risotto, which I make with chicken stock. But the basic process is virtually the same for whatever kind you choose:

You gently cook a soffrito (always onion, sometimes along with other goodies, like leeks, celery, shallots, and anchovies) in butter and olive oil, add the rice and let it toast for a couple minutes, hit it with a splash of wine (see above), begin stirring, add hot stock, keep stirring, add more stock, do more stirring, and then, maybe 20 or 25 minutes down the line, you have the ultimate creamy, steaming, savory, delicious substance in front of you, begging to be devoured. (Some might call it the ideal comfort food, but I hate that term. I find all tasty food -- not just mushy stuff that doesn't require chewing -- to be comforting.) Near the end of the process, you might add precooked or quick-cook ingredients, like sautéed mushrooms. You may also add some cream and/or a bunch of grated Parmesan. I never work from a recipe, but if anybody wants one, I could whip something up.

Tonight it was morel mushroom risotto with leeks and pancetta (and cream and Parmesan at the end). Mmm! For my band's last Secret Santa, Enzo (Sant'Enzo) had given me a nice bag of dried morels from a specialty shop in NYC. I got comfy with them by using just a few in our spinach and mushroom empanadas, but this time I didn't hold back. I did also dispatch the last of the baby bellas that were in the fridge, but the morels dominated, with their pleasantly spongy texture and smoky, nutty flavor. The shrooms and the pancetta really brought out the best in each other. And since the morels had to be reconstituted before being cooked, I got to add their flavorful soaking liquid to the risotto.

I went for a loose texture. I know there is debate on this issue, but I'm pretty easygoing here, and my moods shift. One night I'll make it a little soupy, the next a little tighter. It's like I feel about pizza -- make me a good pie and I don't care how thin or thick it is. It just has to be good. There are so many lousy pizzas, and lousy risottos, out there that I'm not about to moan and groan about one being yummy but not the way I like it. I like it yummy.

Thanks to the morels, and to dicing the pancetta a little larger than usual so it could really be savored (and thanks to the leeks, and the cream, and the cheese...), this risotto leaped onto my personal top ten, and I told Margy so. But I don't think she heard me.