Friday, July 31, 2009

Sauteed Mahi Mahi with Okra and Citrus Vinaigrette

I recovered from my failed attempt at making pique and chose another dish from A Return to Cooking to follow the crab salad. I should say, I eventually chose another dish. It took some time to decide with options like paella, curried napa cabbage bundles, monkfish with sofrito, and seared tuna with ratatouille all in the Puerto Rico chapter. In the end, my choice was sauteed mahi mahi with okra and citrus vinaigrette because okra is in season and abundant in Texas right now. I realize okra isn’t for everyone, but I’m a fan. I like it just slightly cooked with a little crunch, I’m happy with it fried, it’s always good stewed in gumbo, and the pickled version is a delight. Kurt, however, is a little more iffy about this vegetable. He’s not completely opposed to it, but he always needs some convincing.

For this dish, the okra was cut into half-inch pieces, and then it was simply sauteed in canola oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. The fish was seasoned with salt, pepper, and curry powder, and it was sauteed in canola oil. The vinaigrette required the most ingredients with dijon, lime zest, orange zest, lemon zest, lime juice, sherry vinegar, shallot, ginger, and canola oil. Once the vinaigrette was whisked together, seeded and diced tomatoes were added. For the presentation, the fish and okra were placed on a plate, the vinaigrette was poured over them, and tomatoes were spooned on top. I didn’t realize cooking like Eric Ripert could be so easy.

The pan sauteeing gave the fish a nice crust, and the citrus vinaigrette was a good match for the flavor of mahi mahi. Unfortunately, the curry powder got lost along the way. I didn’t taste it at all once the sauce was on the fish. However, another good match was the vinaigrette and tomatoes with the okra. The okra’s slime factor was nonexistent because the cut ends browned just slightly in the pan. Also, the brief cooking time prevented the okra from becoming mushy. I was shocked that such a simple preparation inspired Kurt to proclaim it the best okra ever. The only change I would make next time would be to sprinkle a little extra curry powder on the fish before cooking it, but this was an easily repeatable success of a dish.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crab Salad with Chilled Gazpacho Sauce

A few years ago, I decided I had to have a copy of A Return to Cooking. As luck would have it, it wasn’t easy to find a new one, but I finally located one online. Earlier this year it was released in paperback with a new cover. I’m not sure if the this new version contains updated information or a new intro or if it’s just a paperback version of the original. The book is about Eric Ripert getting back to what he loves about cooking as he prepares meals away from the restaurant in four different locations. For the winter segment of the book, he cooked in Puerto Rico, and the tropical influence on those dishes made them very appealing to me. At the beginning of the chapter, Ripert described pique which is a sweet, spicy condiment made from fermented pineapple stock, chiles, and garlic. He mentioned it’s used on fish at Le Bernardin, and he planned to use it in several dishes while cooking in Puerto Rico. I had been thinking about pique and had wanted to try making it since I first the read the book. I never found the time or worked up the courage to try it until recently. I’ve never seen pique bottled, and I’ve never heard other chefs or food writers mention it, so all I knew was what was in this book. Two weeks ago while shopping at Whole Foods, I spotted a pile of organic pineapples and decided it was time to make pineapple stock for pique.

I followed the instructions exactly. Pineapple skins were boiled and then strained. That stock was added to a jar with hot Thai and habanero chiles, garlic, oregano, and peppercorns. It was topped with a barrier of olive oil and was left to ferment for one week at room temperature with a cheesecloth covering. Bubbles should have formed and then subsided after a week. No bubbles formed in my pique. It sat, did nothing, smelled like garlic, and the chiles started looking less than appetizing. I decided to play it safe and dump the pique. So, I still don’t really know anything more about this condiment. I had hoped to use it as suggested in the crab salad with chilled gazpacho sauce, but rather than risk a nice bout of food poisoning, I made a substitution instead. Maybe I’ll find a source to purchase pique one of these days, or I might just have to hop on a plane to learn more about it.

In the book, this dish is a lovely, light-colored, delicate-looking thing. What I created is far more garish with a vivid, red sauce, and the darkest green avocados I’ve seen for a while. The topping on the crab salad was supposed to have been finely diced, peeled, green tomatoes. Unfortunately, I arrived a little late at the farmers’ market last weekend, and not only did I miss any chance at finding green tomatoes I almost didn’t get tomatoes at all. One farmer was kind enough to offer me his over-ripe ones that no one else wanted. They were red, juicy, and perfect for pureeing into gazpacho, so I took them. For the topping, I finely diced some seeded, yellow cherry tomatoes and combined them with finely diced, seeded cucumber. It might not have been exactly the flavor that was intended, but the color contrast and the taste of cucumber worked nicely with the dish. Those vegetables were added to finely chopped, preserved lemon, lemon oil, a spicy vinaigrette which I used instead of pique, and salt and pepper. For the sauce, chopped, very ripe in my case, tomatoes were pulsed in the blender. Ripert suggested pulsing so as not to incorporate too much air. The puree was passed through a strainer, and it was seasoned with sherry vinegar and salt and pepper, and that was the sauce.

For the crab salad, mayonnaise was whisked with some vinaigrette, chopped chives were added, and lump crabmeat was gently stirred into the mix. To match the presentation in the book, a ring mold was needed, but I used a biscuit cutter. The crab salad was molded on the plate inside the biscuit cutter with the yellow tomato-cucumber mixture on top, gazpacho sauce was poured all around, the biscuit cutter mold was removed, and sliced avocado was added. Despite how fussy it sounds and how pretty it looked in the book, it was actually very easy to prepare. Because each part was chilled before being plated, it made a refreshing first course for a summer night’s meal.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Spaghetti alla Trapanese and Funghi Ripieni di Ricotta

The other day, I mentioned cooking a few things from Jamie's Italy and then went on to mention a black bean mango salad and a meal in San Antonio before finishing the story. After making the farro salad, I found a couple of other items to try. The funghi al forno ripieni di ricotta became the first course before the spaghetti alla trapanese. The stuffed mushrooms were filled with ricotta mixed with oregano, lemon zest, parmigianno reggiano, and finely chopped red chile. It was so simple but a little different than a usual stuffed mushroom. The lemon and chile were great accents to the smooth, mild ricotta.

The spaghetti couldn’t have been easier to prepare, and if you have homegrown or locally grown tomatoes, this dish highlights them perfectly. The sauce is a raw pesto of sorts to which chopped tomatoes are added. Because they’re not cooked at all, the dish is really all about the freshness and flavor of the tomatoes. This was a fun meal to make, and as noted in the recipe, the prep work can easily be finished while the pasta water boils. Jamie also notes that he prefers cherry tomatoes for this, but any good, ripe tomatoes will work fine.

I used a food processor, but a mortar and pestle are recommended. I’ve always heard resulting textures are better with a mortar and pestle, but I’ve never had the patience to try it. So, while the pasta water was brought up to a boil, almonds were chopped to a coarse, powdery consistency in a food processor. That was placed in a large mixing bowl, and then garlic and basil were chopped in the food processor and added to the ground almonds. Parmigiano reggiano was grated and added to the other ingredients, and olive oil and salt and pepper joined all of that. Last, one and a half pounds of tomatoes were chopped, placed in the bowl, and then they were squished and smooshed to break them up and release their juices. The pasta was cooked, drained, and placed in the bowl. While stirring the sauce into the pasta, a little more olive oil was added.

The ingredients don’t actually form a proper pesto. The amount of olive oil was not as much as that needed for pesto, and the tomatoes provided most of the sauce liquid. Instead, the ground almonds added mild, nutty flavor and substance to a basil- and garlic-inflected sauce that was really a vehicle for juicy, ripe summer tomatoes. I pulled this out of the refrigerator for lunch the next day and was faced with a dilemma. I didn’t think the sauce on cold pasta would be as good but I also knew that heating the tomatoes and basil would be disappointing. I went with a half-way approach to re-heating. I got it just warm enough to loosen the olive oil on the pasta but not so much that the tomatoes would start to cook. It was still good, enjoyable, certainly not a bad lunch. However, it simply could not compare to the range of textures and bursting-forth tomato flavor it had when first made.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Neapolitan Pizza in Texas

There’s pizza and then there’s pizza, and for some reason the topic of authentic Neapolitan pizza keeps coming to my attention. In May, I took a stab at creating a homemade version with the help of the A16 book, and that was great, but it was nothing like sitting back and letting the pros create the real thing in a wood burning oven. Last year, while in Phoenix, we were lucky enough to dine at Pizzeria Bianco whose pizza has been called the best in the US. All the praise this place has received is well-deserved. I would happily go again and wait outdoors in the Arizona warmth for the doors to open and scurry forth in hopes of getting one of the coveted tables next time we visit the area. Now, here in Austin, we have some excellent restaurants and some fine options for pizza, but I’m afraid there’s nothing quite like that. That’s why I was excited to learn of a particular pizzeria located just down the road in San Antonio. In the June issue of Food and Wine, there was an article about pizza artisans from different parts of the country. One of those was the restaurant Dough. Not only do they make Neapolitan-style pizza, they are one of only 32 US restaurants with a certification from L’Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana. I had to check it out to see what we had close to home. I wanted to find out how it compared to Pizzeria Bianco, and sample as much of the menu as possible. We don’t often find ourselves luxuriating over an Elizabeth David-esque three hour lunch, but if you can skip breakfast and work up a good appetite, it’s a lovely way to spend a Saturday.

We chose a bottle of Fattoria Rodano Chianti Classico Riserva 2001 which was nicely dry and tasted of blackberries. It was a good, sturdy red but not one that dominated the palate. We quite enjoyed it with the starters and pizzas. One of the specials was an imported Puglian burrata di bufala served with heirloom tomatoes, balsamic, basil pesto, and roasted garlic. The bread that came alongside was crunchy-crusted, house-made sourdough. We also sampled the smoked salmon rollatini in fett’unta with red onion and capers sitting on locally grown arugula. Then, the flatbread with oregano, thyme, and sea salt which is made from the same dough as the pizza, came with the antipasto platter that was filled with warm olives, roasted summer vegetables, three types of cheeses, and three types of cured meats. At my next dinner party, there will be warm olives. Last was the arugula salad with green beans, sliced potatoes, and parmigiano reggiano. There was nothing to complain about among these starters. The imported burrata was heavenly. That was the most difficult item with which to show restraint. We knew a lot more food was coming and that we needed to pace ourselves, but that cheese made it very difficult. So did the flatbread. The warm olives on the antipasto platter were buttery and irresistible, and the vegetables were not the afterthought they sometimes are on such platters. These were freshly roasted, warm, and perfectly seasoned. The salad was dressed with lemon juice and truffle oil, the arugula was incredibly fresh, and I could have continued eating that all day. It was a little aggressively seasoned as was the arugula under the salmon rollatini, but not to an extent of disappointment.

We moved on to the pizza. First was the pizza napoletana margherita with house-made fior di latte, heirloom tomatoes, parmigiano, and basil, and it was a beautiful thing. The ingredients were simple but perfect, and this was my favorite of the three we tried.

Next was the pork love pizza with tomato sauce, fior di latte, salami, sausage, pancetta, and speck. Based on Kurt’s reaction, this was one fine pizza. He enjoys meat from time to time but isn’t a huge pork fanatic. This pizza may have changed all that as he raved about this more than any other thing we sampled.

Last, we tried the puttanesca pizza with tomato sauce, fior di latte, rapini, garlic, olives, hot pepper flakes, anchovy, and extra virgin olive oil. This was a spicy, full-flavored pizza that wasn’t shy about the anchovy component. I like anchovies though, and the mixture of big flavors worked well. This was the opposite of the restrained margherita, but delicious in its boldness.

The parade of desserts started with panna cotta made with house-made creme fraiche, cream, and vanilla bean. It was served with raisins and bing cherries that had been cooked in marsala. We learned the restaurant had experimented with other panna cotta recipes before settling on this one which came from an employee’s Sicilian mother. There was also a scoop of peach gelato made with Fredericksburg peaches and a polenta cake with strawberry puree, creme anglaise, and whipped cream. There was, again, nothing to fault here, but it was the panna cotta that stole the show. The texture was perfect, the flavor was lovely vanilla cream, and the fruit in marsala added a nice, sweet-sour accent. Our espresso and cappuccino with dessert were both well-made, and I can be picky about my cappuccino.

The owners, Doug and Lori Horn, have created something exceptional here. They use local sources for the greens, basil, tomatoes, and as much of everything else as they can. They also have a mozzarella bar near the entrance where diners can watch as cheeses are made throughout the day. The restaurant sits in a quiet, little strip mall just off the expressway, but nothing about the outside matters once the food starts arriving at your table. In the end, I’m not sure I can do any useful comparing and contrasting with Pizzeria Bianco. Both serve Neapolitan pizza, and both are doing something special, but they do it in slightly different ways. Dough’s menu offered a few more options than Bianco’s. We visited Dough at an off, mid-afternoon time, so I can’t comment on the dinner-time rush, but I know the setting and very limited seating are a big part of the experience at Bianco. I can tell you that here in Austin, we don’t like driving more than about 20 minutes to get to a destination, but we left Dough feeling like the hour and twenty minutes getting there in the car was well worth it. We now know that we do have authentic, delicious, Neapolitan pizza in Texas, and we’ll be back for more.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Black Bean, Mango, and Jicama Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette

Ok, yes, this is another black bean recipe, and another salad, but I have a new book to talk about today, and it’s a really good one. Back in May, I learned of this book on the excellent Dana Treat site. Dana always has beautiful and delicious-looking vegetarian food to share on her site, and she highly recommended this book and the author’s other books as well. I wasn’t familiar with the author, Jeanne Lemlin, but I was instantly intrigued and soon thereafter added Vegetarian Classics to my collection. Lemlin explains that by ‘classics’ she means popular dishes that have become favorites in the vegetarian realm. Rather than referring to ethnically or historically accurate meatless cuisines, these classics may have been adapted from traditional recipes including meat but are now well-loved as vegetarian dishes. Because of a small back-log problem, I only just recently got around to reading the book and cooking from it. I always say this, but every recipe looked like something I’d like as I started reading the book. The first chapter is Basics, and the roasted red pepper and walnut pesto and sun-dried tomato pesto instantly had me planning meals for both. In Soups, the vegetable chowder, the Armenian barley yogurt soup, and the thick corn and vegetable soup with herb dumplings are on my list. Then came Salads, and I headed to the kitchen to try this black bean and mango salad before even finishing the chapter.

I used the last of my freezer stash of cooked black beans. They were rinsed and drained and added to cubed mango, jicama, finely diced onion, and chopped jalapeno. A citrus vinaigrette was made from lemon, lime, and orange juices, red wine vinegar, minced garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper. The chopped salad ingredients were mixed with some vinaigrette, and it was left to become a little happier for 30 minutes or so. Just before serving, cilantro was added to the salad. I scooped the chunky salad onto a bed of baby spinach leaves and garnished with sliced red, cayenne chiles. It occurred to me while making this that it would also be a great wrap filling with some spinach and some cotija or monterey jack cheese.

As we were eating this for dinner, Kurt inadvertently gave me one of the best compliments he could have. He mentioned something about how canned beans tend to have that particular taste about them, but they seemed different and so much better than usual in this salad. He went on to comment on how he enjoyed all the ingredients and flavors in the salad and that he thought it worked really well. I let him know the beans weren’t from a can and agreed that the salad was a hit.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Insalata di Farro con Verdure al Forno

I looked through my copy of Jamie's Italy last week in search of dinner ideas. I’ve cooked from it a few times before. All of the risottos are tempting, the pasta dishes make me hungry every time I look at them, and then there are a few really simple dishes that just combine a few ingredients. For instance, there’s a sticky fig dessert that just involves slowly baking fresh figs for a couple of hours and serving them with honey and pecorino. Obviously, I got caught up in the dessert chapter wondering why I hadn’t tried anything from it yet and then finally remembered I had opened the book in search of dinners. This farro salad seemed like a good choice for July as it brings together all the usual suspects of summer’s vegetable bin.

Summer squash, zucchini, fennel, onion, bell pepper, eggplant, and garlic were all chopped and roasted. Then, they were simply tossed with cooked farro, lots of fresh herbs like basil, flat leaf parsley, and fennel fronds, and lemon juice and olive oil. I like the way Jamie writes a recipe. The quantity for the herbs is “a good bunch,” and when the roasted vegetables are removed from the oven, you’re instructed to “sprinkle a little vinegar over” them. That works for me considering that I rarely measure out ingredients for a dish like this anyway.

The colorful vegetables give the salad a summery look, and the fresh herbs and lemon wake up all the combined flavors. I was already a fan of farro and its nutty taste and the hearty feel of it. So, I was delighted with the result here. This makes a very big bowl of salad, and I cut the quantities (that were provided) in half. It’s the kind of salad that can sit at room temperature while the rest of a meal is prepared, and it’s the kind of salad you can pull out of the refrigerator and enjoy as a meal by itself, cold the next day. I found a couple of other dishes in the book to try this week too, so those will appear here soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

BlackBean Waffles with Tomatoes, Chiles, and Eggs

I started with a Michael Chiarello recipe and took it in a whole Bobby Flay direction. I hope they don’t mind. You see, the other day on Twitter, Chef Chiarello posted a link to what he prepared that day on the CBS Early Show, and that was white bean waffles with heirloom tomatoes and olive oil basted eggs. I thought it sounded great, and then I remembered the leftover black beans in my freezer. I started mentally re-engineering this into a southwestern-influenced dish. I have to explain right up front that although this is a savory waffle, the flavor isn’t beany. The beans are pureed into the batter and lend a nice texture while not affecting the taste in any negative or even noticeable way. The original dish was suggested as breakfast for dinner, but I served it as breakfast for brunch.

I also cut the recipe in half and still ended up with enough waffles to store some in the freezer for a future use. To begin, I weighed out 15 ounces of thawed, fully cooked, black beans. I brought them to a boil with a half cup of water, a big pinch of cumin, a smaller pinch of cayenne, and a generous sprinkling of ancho powder which made me think of Bobby Flay. The beans simmered for a few minutes, and then they were removed from the heat and allowed to cool. Once cool, they were blended with eggs, milk, and olive oil. That blended mixture was whisked into flour, baking powder, and salt. Then, waffle production began. I always let just enough time pass between waffle preps that I forget if it’s five minutes, six minutes, or seven minutes. Five is definitely not quite long enough to get a nice toasty surface on both sides. Six is ok, but seven seems to be just right for my machine. Once the waffles were finished and placed in a warm oven to wait, I fried some eggs as suggested in the recipe. Chopped chiles were added to olive oil in a saute pan, the eggs were placed in the hot pan, and the oil was used to baste the egg whites as they cooked.

To finish the dish, I strayed again from the Italian flavors intended. I left out the prosciutto and used cotija cheese and some crema instead. The waffles were topped with the eggs, a mix of chopped fresh yellow tomatoes, red cherry tomatoes, sliced red and green serrano chiles, and some cilantro. A nice, runny egg provides a sauce of sorts, and the fresh, juicy tomatoes and crema work in that way as well. It was a plate full of contrasting textures and colors. Of course, the waffles didn’t turn out at all black from the beans, but I wondered if their color would have been more interesting if I had used some blue corn meal. I’ll try that next time. I’m always a fan of spicy toppings with eggs, but this melange was above and beyond my usual southwestern breakfast fare.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Eggplant Gratin

This is such a great eggplant dish, I wanted to update the photos from the original post. The following text is in its original form, but the photos have been replaced.

For my week of French food, I chose one meal from Ina’s Barefoot in Paris. This is easy French food, as the subtitle rightly claims. Eggplant gratin was Ina’s husband’s favorite meal the first time they visited Paris. I can see why. I had an eggplant from my CSA, and in this richly flavored gratin, it made quite a meal. I also served Ina’s green salad vinaigrette and some toasted sourdough baguette with the gratin. The only problem with this meal was that it ended up happening one day later than planned. While prepping the parts of the gratin, I pre-heated my oven or thought I did. Just when I was ready to pop the dish into it, I noticed that it had pre-heated to nothing. This is the same oven that had just baked baguettes the day before, and it sat there, literally giving me the cold shoulder, mocking my dinner-making efforts. Into the refrigerator went the gratin. A pasta meal was prepared instead, and the next morning I set about finding an oven repair person. Unbelievably, I found a repair service that came an hour and a half after being called, fixed the oven quickly, and charged exactly what was quoted. I had forgotten what it’s like to receive such good service.

With the oven back in working order, the gratin was baked at last. It’s really a simple dish. You do have to fry the eggplant slices before layering them into the dish, but that’s the most difficult part of the preparation. The recipe suggests using a store-bought tomato sauce, but I had some left-over, homemade sauce in my freezer. That was thawed and poured over the fried eggplant slices in a baking dish, a second layer of eggplant was added, and a mixture of ricotta, eggs, half and half, and parmigiano reggiano was spread on top. These were supposed to have been individual gratins in separate dishes, but I used one larger baking dish instead. A little extra parmigiano was applied, and it was placed in the once again fully functioning oven.

This is similar to eggplant parmesan, but the ricotta mixture puffed into a nice, custard-like layer making it a slightly different dish. I could see making a larger version of this with several other vegetables included as well, but it was an excellent way to highlight eggplant. The tomato sauce and the cheese mixture were delicious together, and the humble eggplant was made into something really special. With the salad and bread, it was a great meal. I can also highly recommend the green salad vinaigrette made with an egg yolk. Because of my oven issue, I learned that the gratin can be made in advance and baked when you’re ready. Good to know. This was another successful meal from Ina, and clearly Jeffrey has very good taste.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Biscuit au Beurre

When I finally opened Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. One and got cooking, I couldn’t stop with just one dish. I wanted a dessert from the book to serve after our meal of coquilles st. jacques. I looked through the desserts and cakes chapter and paused at the flan des isles but decided I’d rather try a cake. The babas and savarins I will definitely come back to in the future, but they weren’t exactly what I wanted for this meal. Then, I arrived at the biscuit au beurre described as a “fine, light spongecake [which] may be served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and goes well with tea, or with fruits.” A nice, simple cake with fresh, summer fruit sounded perfect. At the end of the recipe, there are three optional toppings. The first, which I chose, is to simply shake powdered sugar over the cake. The second was an apricot glaze with almonds, and the last was a buttercream icing which could be made chocolate. There are actually suggested variations for serving all of the cakes in the chapter which shows how versatile they are.

This is a classic sponge cake and contains only egg whites for leavening. You begin the recipe by melting butter and letting it cool. Sugar and egg yolks were then mixed together, and vanilla was added. Egg whites were whisked with salt, sugar was added, and they were whisked to stiff peaks. Then, the folding and sifting began. Some egg whites were added to the yolk mixture and some cake flour was sifted on top. This was folded until partially blended. Then, the same process was repeated with more egg whites and more flour. It was repeated once more, but before completely blending everything together, the melted butter was added. That seemed odd to me. I wanted to add that butter much earlier, but it went in at the end and I’m not sure why. The cake baked in a ten inch pan for about half an hour and then cooled on a rack. It was a little difficult to wrangle it out of the pan, but I managed to do so without destroying it.

As promised, it was light with a springy airiness about it, and the butter and vanilla gave it nice flavor. The sprinkling of powdered sugar was just enough embellishment. I served the cake with fresh cherries, and that was a happy combination. It’s also mentioned that this cake works well as strawberry shortcake, and I’ll definitely use it that way too. Like so many recipes in this book it’s simple, classic, versatile, and most importantly really good-tasting. Why did I wait so long to start cooking from this book?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale

My copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. One and Vol II have been sitting on the shelf, waiting patiently for years for me to cook from them. I’ve referred to The French Laundry Cookbook as kitchen scripture belonging on a pedestal, but I think I had mentally placed Mastering the Art on an even higher perch. A month or so ago, I read My Life in France which tells the story of the making of Vol I. The hard work and dedication involved in creating that book, not to mention the patience with getting it published, was staggering. This book contains the first published recipes for hollandaise, mayonnaise, and beurre blanc. No one had written them down for the home cook before. Reading about Julia’s life was just a treat, and after finishing that book I had to finally crack open Mastering the Art. You may have heard about a little movie that’s coming soon to every theater near you, Julie and Julia. With news of that popping up everywhere, and with Bastille Day this week, I was inspired to prepare some French cuisine. I chose a couple recipes that seemed pretty straightforward for my first time with this book, and scallops gratineed with wine, garlic, and herbs was one of them.

Now that I’ve actually cooked from this book, I realize how well-written the recipes are. I appreciated how the ingredients are grouped for each step of the preparation. Rather than looking back to the top of the page for the quantity of an ingredient, it’s right there next to the instruction for using it. I should point out that although I have the utmost respect for the book, I of course made a change to the dish. The scallops were supposed to have been cut into one-quarter inch thick slices. I couldn’t do it. I love a nice, tall, plump scallop like nothing else, and I left them full-sized. Other than that, I followed the instructions nearly exactly and resisted the urge to garnish with some parsley or something at the end. I cooked minced onion in butter and added shallot and garlic and then set it aside. I seared the (whole, unsliced) scallops but removed them from the pan to prevent over-cooking. They were to have remained in the pan while the sauce was prepared. I made the sauce with white wine, half of a bay leaf, and some thyme and added the reserved, cooked onion mixture. I returned the scallops to the pan, topped them with grated Swiss (Gruyere) cheese and pieces of butter, and gratineed them under the broiler.

To sum up the flavors, there was butter, onion, shallot, garlic, butter, scallops, wine, herbs, butter, and a little cheese. Delicious. It was somewhat rich, but I kept the portions small and served a simple salad on the side. The sauce was nicely put together, and the intention of pre-cooking the onion mixture was, I believe, to prevent the scallops from cooking too long in the sauce. I have a thing about scallops and wanted to completely avoid an over-cooked situation; hence, I didn’t cook them in the sauce and waited to put them back in the pan before broiling. The cheese and butter topping was extravagant both in taste and calorie-count, but I’m so glad to have followed the instructions for that. This dish was just a pleasure to experience. I think that Julia Child might have known a thing or two about cooking, and I’ll be learning more from her and both volumes of the book.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sourdough Starter and Bread Adventure: 7 Sourdough Baguette

Last weekend, with Bastille Day approaching, I made a plan to prepare some French food and decided to give the baguettes from the Breads from the La Brea Bakery book a go. This is the one bread that had me completely intimidated. It’s such a simple thing. They’re everywhere. Why so scary? Well, I had read about how tricky it can be to create a great baguette with the right crust, a good texture, and some flavor, and I had no idea what kind of results I could hope to expect. In the intro to this recipe, Silverton describes in detail what she believes makes a good baguette and the difference between fluffy ones and the rustic sourdough variety. Her recipe, and what you see here, is the latter. The classic, airy baguette is made with commercial yeast, but many of those contain added conditioners and extra yeast in an attempt to prolong their shelf life. Rustic sourdough baguettes have a caramelized brown exterior and pointy, irregular ends rather than smooth. The crust is slightly thicker and should shatter when you bite into it. The bread should compress as you bite it and then slowly rise back into shape. As usual, I followed the instructions in the book exactly, with a lot of uncertainty, and winged it.

This happens to be the same dough recipe that I followed for my first ever use of sourdough starter. There is no additional commercial yeast, just sourdough starter, bread flour, raw wheat germ, water, and salt. It was February when I made that first bread, and the house was several degrees cooler. Since then, my starter has developed better flavor, and the warmer temperature in the house this time around had a great affect on the dough rising. It worked so much better this time I was amazed. After the first rise, the dough was split into four pieces which were allowed to rest for 15 minutes. Then, each piece was folded and then rolled and shaped into a baguette. The rolling was actually easier with no flour on the board. It’s necessary for there to be some friction for the dough to be lengthened into the proper shape. Speaking of the proper shape, these are not skinny, classic baguette batons. Silverton points out that you should create the loaves to fit your oven, so for most home ovens, they will have to be shorter than commercial baguettes. I actually made mine the length of my baking stone, so they weren’t even quite the full size of my oven. The shaped loaves were nestled into a floured cloth, covered with another cloth, tucked into a plastic garbage bag, and left to rest in the refrigerator overnight.

The usual baking procedure was followed the next day. The loaves were removed from the refrigerator and allowed to come up to room temperature while the oven was heated to 500 F. The loaves were slashed, and I really need a good razor to do this because a knife just doesn’t work very well, the oven was spritzed, the temperature was reduced to 450 F, and in went the loaves. More spritzing ensued during the first five minutes, and the total baking time was about 30 minutes.

I was almost afraid to look in the oven at the end of the baking time. What if there was no caramelized brown crust? What if they were pale, sickly, distant cousins of a rustic baguette? And, then, I opened the oven door. And, then, I started dancing around and screaming about how pretty they were, and then I had to wait before I could taste them. Finally, I picked up a bread knife. The crust seemed good as I cut a piece. After a hurried photo shoot, I finally tasted it, and I realized this was the best bread I’ve made yet. All of that information about how the crust should shatter and the bread should compress was exactly what I experienced. I couldn’t believe it, and I think I have the weather to thank for it. I’ll definitely be baking baguettes year-round, but I have a feeling the summer bread will be hard to beat. This bread alone is worth the effort of maintaining a starter. I almost forgot, most importantly, I have the French to thank for inventing baguettes. Happy Bastille Day!

I’m submitting this to Yeastspotting, hosted this week by Nick at imafoodblog, where you’ll find some seriously well-made bread.

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