Archive for February, 2008

The Trying Game

February 28, 2008

p1010347-1.jpg

I think I make decent risotto. But who the hell knows. The only risotto I’ve ever had is my own. A fundamental reality of living in Charleston is that if you want to eat well here — or any other cracker-assed town for that matter — you better learn to cook. The good news is, I enjoy it. And it sure beats the other 2 options:

1. Eat at the same 4 or 5 places ALL THE TIME. There are good places to eat in this town. Just not very many of them.

2. Throw down big bucks to eat with the coal heirs and doctors in South Hills. Believe me, if I had the cash, I’d consider it. Stuffy atmosphere be damned. If the food’s good, I’ll deal.

And again, option 3: DO IT YOUR DAMN SELF.

Now the problem with this is, if you’re trying to hold yourself to some sort of standard of quality, it’s hard to get it right when you’ve never experienced the standard yourself. My family ate hamburgers and soggy spaghetti slathered with jarred sauce when I was growing up. When we did go out to eat, it was usually someplace Mom had saved coupons for. And last I checked, Pizza Hut still doesn’t serve risotto. But the ‘Hut is hardly alone in that distinction.

But you see where confusion might arise. What if I’m making the culinary equivilant to Durer’s Rhinoceros? But hey, fuck you, I at least get points for trying.

I can say this much — I know for certain that my risotto is better than Gordan Ramsey‘s. Allow me to explain. The whole point of risotto is cooking the rice in such a way that the outer layers of starch melt away to form the most velvety, creamy, silky sauce you’ve ever imagined. But there’s no cream. Butter, yes; cheese, maybe — but no cream. The rice does all the work. It’s the whole point of risotto. To add cream defeats the purpose in a fundamental way. Or. At least that’s what I think.

Ramsey par-cooks the rice, cools it on a sheet pan, then reheats it with cream at the time of service. It’s a major time saving method, and lots of chefs at lots of restaurants do it. And it might taste great. If Gordon makes it, I’m sure it does. But it’s not risotto. If the waiter doesn’t warn you that the risotto takes 30 minutes to prepare, well. I know what I would do.

So. The really great thing about learning how to make risotto is, once you get the method down, it’s a blank canvas upon which infinite variations are possible. The one at that top was mushroom, topped with mushroom.

And here’s one from the vault:

100_0697-1.jpg

Butternut squash with pancetta and…dear God, is that fried sage on there? If only I could put the amount of motivation to work in the rest of my life.

FYI, I’ve found that I prefer the flavor of basil to sage with the squash and pancetta.

Advertisements

Because Chili Doesn’t Have Beans In It

February 25, 2008

p1010341.jpg

I make chili. It’s probably a lot better than the chili you make. But that’s sort of the point in making chili — it can taste exactly the way you like it. While my recipe continues to evolve, there are few things I’m totally settled on:

1. I don’t use ground beef. That stuff is for amateurs. I buy some sort of cheap, lean roast — the leanest I can find — and cut it up into pea-sized chunks. It takes a while, but it’s totally worth it. Be sure to actually brown the beef in a hot pan. You’re missing out on an entire layer of flavor if you don’t.

2. I use as many different kinds of chili peppers as I can stand to chop up. This time I used Anaheim, poblano, jalapeƱo, habanero, chipotle green and red bell peppers. Why? Because it tastes better that way. The variety of peppers act on different areas of the tongue. Or something like that. Go easy on the chipoltle — a tablespoon can change the flavor of the entire pot. I like lots of little uniform chunks of veg in the chili. “Competition” chili, this ain’t.

3. Lots of roasted cumin. And a little homemade curry powder, or better yet, garam masala. Not to much. Keep it in the background.

4. And I always serve it under a big pile of cheese, with chopped green onions. Always. After I take the picture, of course.

Sometimes I make my own chili powder. Sometimes I throw in crushed up stale corn chips. Sometimes I even put chocolate in it. And sometimes, I top it with a fried egg. But no beans, please.

French Onion Soup

February 24, 2008

p1010345.jpg

1. If you make this stuff with any regularity, which you should, you owe it to yourself to get some ovenproof crocks for proper service. Which means properly gooey cheese and crunchy bread. It’s just more fun this way.

2. Onion soup is, unsurprisingly, all about the onions. It takes a while to get them caramelized, and it’s worth it. I hear Thomas Keller spends 8 hours doing it. Fuck yeah.

3. Don’t be afraid to periodically deglaze with good ol’ water. Caramelization good; burning bad.

4. French onion soup requires booze. It really doesn’t taste right without wine in it. I tried.

5. Gruyere is where it’s at here. If you use mozzarella, just save yourself the trouble and go to Bennigan’s.

6. Most soups taste better after they sit in the fridge for a day or two. This isn’t one of them. Which is just as well, because I don’t advise eating French onion soup two days in a row. Just don’t. Your friends, pets, neighbors and Air Quality division of your town or municipality will thank you for it.

Cobb Salad Daze

February 22, 2008

p1010343.jpg

Ah, the Cobb salad.

The original creation of Robert Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Los Angeles, California. The story’s out there if you want to read it. There are many subtle variations, but Cobb salad the way I like it has:

1. Not too much blue (or gorgonzola, or roquefort or whatever kind of blue you like) cheese. I love the stuff. I really do. I just don’t like too much of it on a Cobb salad.

2. Chives are great, dude, but I have no reason to pay 3 dollars for sub-standard chives when I can use really great green onions that cost $.79. It’s a cost / benifit thing.

3. No overcooked eggs with gray, powdery yolks. I mean really people. Eggs are wonderful. Hard boiled eggs are wonderful. HOW TO BOIL A FUCKING EGG: 1) Boil water. 2) gently place egg into boiling water; let boil for 10 minutes. 3) Remove egg and let cool. 4) Enjoy.

4. Avocado: I love the things, but I don’t find them entirely necessary on this salad — especially if you can’t find nice ones.

5. The dressing. It’s really important. it is not a standard vinaigrette. Recipes are out there. Here’s a clue: Worcestershire sauce is not optional.

You Chose…Poorly

February 19, 2008

We ordered Papa John’s tonight.

It’s kind of weird. Once upon a time, whenever I ordered pizza, I felt like I was really living the good life. Not so much anymore. “Fuck it,” it usually goes, “Let’s order pizza.”

Little known fact: the quality of delivery pizza all depends on what happens to it as it steams in the box. The big chains all design their pizza from the ground up for that — they’re designed to steam in the box.

That’s why local pizza joints — and real pizza, for that matter — don’t hold up well when delivered. It’s like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: once the pie moves past the Great Seal, bad things start to happen.

V-Day

February 18, 2008

p1010323.jpg

Guess what — I fucking hate Valentine’s day.

Local restaurants (the real ones, not the chains) usually offer a pretty good V-day special — the Bridge Road Bistro comes to mind — but this year I decided to stay in, because 1, I can’t really justify dropping that much change on a fancy dinner this year, and 2, I don’t really like leaving the house after 5 p.m. on Valentines day.

So I made us some steaks. There’s really no easier way to feel like you’re eating well than cooking off 2 well marbled, expensive cuts of beef.

You can still fuck it up though. Which I’ve done enough times to learn how to not do it anymore. Pepper. Salt. About 3 minutes on each side in a dry cast iron skillet on medium-high heat — but that’s AFTER the skillet is already hot. And that’s only for the typical grocery store issue 3/4 inch thick steak. Much thicker than that, and the method changes if you want a medium-rare steak.

And since I didn’t burn the steak, I went ahead and made a pan sauce with, among other things, some red wine and shallots. Yes, it’s OK to do that in cast iron after it’s well seasoned.

There’s some polenta on the plate. I didn’t make that, which is probably why it turned out so well. Honestly, much prefer mashed potatoes with steak — but goddamitt if mashed potatoes aren’t fussy to make sometimes. I’m not always in the mood. Polenta, on the other hand, is luxurious, creamy starch that you can throw together in minutes.

Witness also, my first attempt at leeks vinaigrette. Not a winner. To start with, I fucked the leeks up. Forgive me, leeks aren’t something we really ate — EVER — when I was a kid. If I try this again, I won’t make the mistake of cutting them all the way apart, and I probably won’t be boiling them. And most importantly, I won’t be topping them with sauce gibriche — a downright dinosaur of a sauce that’s the classic vinaigrette for leeks vinaigrette. Hey, I thought I’d try it as written in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook just once to see what I thought. I do that a lot.