Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Deb's Herbs inspired dinner

Our friend Deborah sent over some chives and rosemary. There was half a bottle of White Loire kicking around from Sunday's festivities. Kathy brought home some chicken breast fillets. I decided to poach the chicken as follows:

Prep breast fillets. (I trim and butterfly to achieve a consistent thickness.) Rub very sparingly with kosher salt, just a bit of pepper melange du jour (tonight's - white pepper, coriander seed, allspice, nutmeg, clove), and a tablespoon or so of EVOO that's had a clove of garlic bruised in it - but not chopped up. No more than a pinch of rub is used for each side of a piece of chicken. The garlic should be well back in this preparation - not too much. Set fillets aside, loosely covered, on a counter away from heat - no refrigeration is needed providing that you'll be cooking them soon enough. In fact, given the way we're going to cook these it's very helpful to allow them to come up toward room temp (again, providing they don't spend much time like that.)

While the chicken is tempering toward room temp, place about 1 teaspoon kosher salt, the leaves from a 3" sprig of rosemary, finely chopped, 3 TBS chopped fresh chives and a teaspoon or so of dried fines herbs (or substitute fresh if available) in an oven-proof casserole. Use one large enough to accommodate all your fillets lying flat directly on the bottom, without overlapping. (But - lest there should be any confusion on this point - do not add the chicken yet.) Add a stick of butter (or less if you can't stand the idea of so much) and place the casserole into a hot oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile, bring about 10 ounces of the wine to simmering temp and add a little pepper melange.

When butter has cooked off most of its moisture, remove casserole from oven, arrange the the chicken fillets on the bottom and turn over to coat both sides. Pour the simmering wine in and agitate the fillets just to incorporate the wine with the butter and spice mixture. Cover and let sit (off heat). Providing that you've used a heavy enough casserole, the residual heat in the casserole and wine are sufficient to poach the chicken. If not, place the casserole back into a low oven. The best result, though, is obtained with the passive - i.e. residual heat method. As the chicken cooks, the pan and liquid lose temperature to the meat and the entire thing comes to equilibrium at the perfect temperature for the chicken - resulting in a velvety smooth texture that can not be obtained with higher temperature cooking techniques.

Serve the chicken with some simple rice and spoon some of the cooking liquid over the top. More wine along the lines of that used in the cooking works very well as you might imagine.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Prepared Foods - Any Good?

It's no secret that people are buying ever more ready-to-eat foods. They come in many forms - prepared ready-to-eat meals from take-out restaurants or supermarket catering departments, store-bought heat-n-eat, frozen, boil-in-bag, refrigerated, shelf-stable and more.

Because restaurants today are also buying more items prepared elsewhere, I choose to divide the market not between restaurant (or specialty store) and major store - but rather between items produced locally and at small scale and those which are commercial products in mass-manufacture and wide distribution. And the question I want to pose today pertains to mass-produced and widely distributed products.

I confess I have sometimes enjoyed commercial prepared food items. When I was a kid, I recall enjoying the occasional meal at my next-door-neighbor's house because I could indulge in what was - even then at 10 - the guilty contraband pleasure of Campbell's soup or Chef Boyardi ravioli. What salty or mushy bliss respectively. But I digress.

So yes, then and since there have been commercial products I've enjoyed. But I don't recall any that were really very good. When I've enjoyed these things, there's always been an element of the perverse about the experience - even at 10. Have I missed something really great? Is my recall faulty and perhaps I've had, but forgotten something important? Can you point me at any mass-produced ready-to-eat main-dish products that are better than OK? Products you seek not because of their convenience, but because of their quality?

I'm asking for two reasons. First, it's just part of my charter here to record great tastes and keep the memory alive. And second because I want to know if it's possible, and how. This is an important question because I'm interested in the envelope of possibility for prepared food products. If a producer has something really great at small scale - is it possible to scale up and reach a large audience while retaining quality? Are there practical limits that always get in the way? What are they? And so on. If there are examples of true greatness at large commercial scale, I want to understand how they've done it and whether their success has broader implications for other producers.

Please call out deserving products in comments.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Endangered Specialty Food Retailer

Supermarkets are selling more specialty foods than ever before. Supermarkets - especially up-market stores - are encroaching on the traditional turf of the small, independent specialty foods retailer.

Of course there are flourishing specialty retailers, but the general trend for the industry is to sell more through supermarkets over time. Even in perishables like fine cheese - up-market supermarkets are coming on strong. Coffees, teas, spices, preserves, pasta, cheeses - you name it. Connoisseurs may be less than completely satisfied when shopping there - but still, more of our specialty food dollars are siphoned off in the supermarket over time. You're there, you need it, you buy it.

Convenience is extremely important to shoppers today, so specialty retailers must offer something compelling to draw customers. They are under great and constant pressure to stock unique offerings people want to maintain their differentiation. But inevitably if people want these products they will find their way into the supermarket sooner or later. And increasingly it's sooner.

Certainly the supermarket cannot compete where personal touch and "neighborhood feel" are concerned, but will that be enough? Ask the butcher, the baker, the produce man and fruiterer. Where have they gone? Outside the city - they have mostly gone the way of the dodo. And this, despite the fact that where meat, baked goods, produce and fruit are concerned - the categories involved were daily necessities and the quality and variety advantages of specialists were dramatic.

So, what's to become of specialty retail outside of urban centers? If it's true that their appeal requires an ongoing supply of distinctive (and non-trivial) products - how are they to sustain that advantage? After all, if you were a manufacturer of some wonderful new product, while you would no doubt be delighted to sell to specialty retailers, I doubt you'd be inclined to turn down a deal to sell, for example, to Whole Foods. That one deal with Whole Foods could (likely would) mean more business to you than any specialty store you serve - and perhaps more than all your other customers put together. It would be unnatural to pass on the supermarket deal.

So, there goes one more product the specialty store can't call unique in his trading zone. And so it goes. Breaking into Whole Foods - or into brokers who merchandise specialty departments in many supermarkets - has practically become synonymous with success for new specialty product companies.

Now, to be fair, the market on the whole may, in some important respects, be better served as more diverse and interesting products gain improved distribution and exposure to wider audiences through supermarkets. The old pattern in which supermarkets didn't have any of these products, and specialty retailers enjoyed a relatively safe niche, was by no means ideal. The world is better now that buying a piece of Parmesan to grate over your pasta doesn't absolutely require a special trip. And not every specialty retailer should survive. I have no problem waving goodbye to poseurs who have never provided great service to their customers or great leadership by seeking out and evangelizing wonderful new products.

But what of the good-guys (and gals) - People who really contribute to the market, their communities, and to our quality of life. How can they survive? What can we do to preserve them? I so miss the butcher, the baker, the fruit man. I am noshstalgic.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Danish, Thy name is Danish Pastry House

This is important -
At 330 Boston Avenue, in Medford, MA - just a short walk from Tufts University they make real Danish pastry. That's all. Go there, get some.

Oh yes, I'm told they have a location over in Watertown too. And I note also that they serve other things besides Danish - but honestly, if you're still reading this instead of traveling to 330 Boston Avenue then I guess I didn't properly convey the importance of the first suggestion above. It's a real Danish. You must go and get some. It is real Danish pastry. You must go and get some. There's some sitting in my kitchen as I write this. I brought some home. It is real Danish pastry too. I must go

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pastrami again - Niman's Ranch this time

We've been enjoying the much-lauded Niman Ranch navel pastrami at Chez Noshstalgia this week. My cousin Jon ordered it for us from Niman's web store. I have to say, as others have, that Niman's meat is of notably high-quality vs. most other pastrami. They supplied two navel plates in the order - both packed in a single vacuum sealed wrap.

They provided no cooking or heating directions in the package, but their website suggests steaming for "up to two hours". I steamed a whole plate for about 100 minutes, flipping the piece once around 20 minutes before the end. Then, of course, I hand slice. I do it on a steaming rack in a thermostatically controlled electric skillet that does a good job of providing gentle steam. Mine has a glass lid, so you can - if you wish - stand mesmerized by the sight of fat running out of the meat in many places as it cooks. I am reminded now of the fascination one experiences on visiting a geologically active area with steam vents, geysers, and the occasional volcanic event - except the pastrami smells much better than that. And even at $60 with shipping, the Niman's pastrami purchase was comparatively economical.

So, is it any good? You betcha. Not a classic New York flavor and aroma profile. Certainly not Romanian-style. But very good. Very aromatic, strongly peppered, tender, gently processed texture, and a prime-like (and perhaps actually prime) degree of marbling contributes to a very satisfying mouth-feel. I liked the product, although while I found the spice profile distinctive and appealing - it is very present and struck me as a bit monolithic - very over-all, very homogenized. A deli expert I consulted (from whom I've not yet obtained permission for direct attribution on this - but I will seek it and amend the post when obtained) said he thought the product had seen too much bay leaf. I confess, I couldn't pin it down to that myself - but he's a real expert so perhaps that was it. But whether classic NY-style or not, it was very enjoyable. Thank you, Jon.

One more note on this over-all-ness, this homogeneity. Is this a bad thing? Generally? Maybe not - certainly where commercial pastrami is concerned I can't point to any counter examples. So why even mention it? Maybe this observation comes to me because I'm thinking of - yearning for - a more Artisanal product - one that's got more edges and spikes - flavor and aroma variation throughout and around the product. By way of analogy, consider the difference between Artisanal and industrial cheeses. The best of the farm-house products present at least a chamber work and sometimes even a symphony of related but distinct bodies, textures, aromas, and flavors. And the industrial products? Well, you know...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Errata in re: pig,pig,pig,pig, not pig

I wanted to correct two errors in my prior post on the recent Beauty of the Beast Dinner at Southborough's Tomasso Trattoria.

Error of omission: I neglected to mention Chef Tony Bettencourt's salami - a late addition to the first course. The salami was amazing - melt in your mouth, fabulous flavor - really terrific. I gather he's been working on perfecting this salami for about a year now and if he's not done perfecting it, I don't know why not. This was the crack of salami - instantly addictive. I asked him to pack a pound of it to go, but this proved not possible. Maybe he was trying to protect me from overdose? I have to have more. He says there's no supply at the moment. He's going to make more. I hope the process used for that batch proves to be repeatable because honestly folks, it was great. I mean, if he can't do it again, what's the point in going on?

Error of commission: I am informed - by Tomasso himself (Proprietor Tom Prince) that the substitution of guanciale for trotters was a late breaking development but was duly documented in the menu presented to diners at the event. I was consulting the online menu when I wrote my previous posting and so was in error to call out any discrepancy between menu and actual dish. I plead salami intoxication and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Breadcrumbs with Secondo

We had been staring at a rather impressive loaf of stale crusty bread for a few days when some eggplant found its way here from the farmer's market. Temperatures had fallen into the 60's this evening, so using the oven seemed within reason. And then Secondo came into the kitchen and wanted to cook with me. This doesn't happen every day, so when he asks, I try to make it work.

Time to make some bread-crumbs. He wanted to wield the knife in cutting up the stale bread, but I couldn't go along with that request. Instead, I got Secondo seated on the island and instructed him in how to "drive" the Cuisinart's pulse switch. I've already posted on making fresh breadcrumbs here so I won't go into the procedure again. I just wanted to say that Secondo loved making them. And they were great - redolent of garlic, herbs, and freshly grated Parmesan. He has been eating breadcrumbs raw - right out of a bowel - ever since. And taking samples to other family members all over the house. He's evangelizing breadcrumbs. Just like dad.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Definitely not Kosher - but Pig, Pig, Pig, Pig, not-Pig

Had a wonderful time and great eats last night in Southborough, at Tomasso Trattoria's Beauty of the Beast dinner , a 5 course meal built (almost) entirely around a single Six-Spotted Berkshire pig sourced from Heritage Foods USA GOOD PIGGY! Patrick Martins and Sarah Obraitis of Heritage Foods were in attendance.

The menu and wine pairings may be seen here. Chef Tony Bettencourt, (brief bio here), and Sommelier Lorenzo Savona, (brief bio here), did that pig proud.

I had such a good time that I'm going to defer any nit-picking and instead mention only the things that were most outstanding.

Second course pasta dish with house cured pancetta, mushrooms an sage was a knock-out dish. Absolutely nothing unexpected in its composition - but the ingredients and execution were superior - so much so that dish rose to very rarefied heights. A profound mouthful. Wow!
Salad dish with crispy trotters (said the menu, but it seemed to me, maybe guanciale?). - good piggy strikes again.
Bettencourt's Porchetta with lemon-zest and fennel pollen was beautiful - presented skin-on and with all the fat-back our late six-spotter had until so recently carried around. Thank you, Tony and Ferdinand.
Wines throughout were delightful with a couple of especially good pairings to call out -
The Bio-Dynamic Chianti Classico (not as listed) with the salad; the aglianico driven Molise with the porchetta; and the (believe it or not) Soave recioto with dessert were terrific. In terms of take-home wine buying thoughts - for me, the Molise and the Recioto were finds.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Seamed good to me

Yes, I know that seems to be misspelled - but I meant it.
I had an excellent Restaurant Week meal last night at Pigalle (Charles Street South in Boston). The entree was described on the menu as follows:
Olive Crusted Leg of Lamb with Braising Mint Jus, Cucumber Salad, and Moussaka
But what I wanted to particularly bring to your attention was the way the meat had been cut and prepped before cooking. I didn't speak with the chef, but what I saw on my plate looked like they had employed a procedure I often use and which I regard as highly commendable.

They seemed to have seamed the lamb. This means that they dissected the meat from the leg of lamb to break it down into individual muscle bundles and removed from each any fat, connective tissue, and silverskin.

It is a labor intensive operation. But when you prep the meat in this way, each and every bite will be the tenderest and tastiest it can be. What's more, it will take the flavor of your spices more quickly and more deeply; and ultimately it will exhibit a greater clarity of focus than otherwise possible. Time/cost aside, the trade-off is that it will present much less of lamb's characteristic gaminess - a trade off that I find vary favorable. If you're one of those that particularly crave a gamy, sheep-y taste - don't bother.

If you have a real butcher, you can certainly ask them to prep your lamb in this way - and they'll probably accommodate you. But they will not do as complete or clean a job as I require. Nor will they get the yield that I go for. It's simply too painstaking and laborious a process to go through for any reasonable price. So if you're handy with a knife and have the time, I encourage you to try this yourself. The results can be startling.

And at Pigalle, last night - that entree was really very good. Not to quibble, but perhaps a bit saltier than necessary - but the lamb, and the eggplant were fantastic.

The other item I particularly enjoyed there last night was a dessert. A chocolate/coconut cream in a crispy shell affair. The depth, length, and extremely gradual unfolding of the chocolate and coconut flavors in succession were enchanting. Really good effect.

Bravo Pigalle

Caveat: Order a good bottle of wine. The Bordeaux we opted for - by the glass - was not what it should have been.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Peanut butter, rye bread, deli, and two blogs

If you've been following my rantings, you know I've been thinking about pastrami. So naturally, New York, Jewish rye bread can't be far from my thoughts. I don't know where to find the real thing around here. I've tried making my own - so far without great success.

So there I was chasing down leads in the web when I came across a 6 year old story from Buffalo about the demise of a once great rye. I started corresponding with the author and found my way to this story about peanut butter at his blog. He got me thinking again about Planter's Peanut Butter - once truly great and sadly long off the market. I was originally introduced to this amazing product by my boyhood friend (now Rabbi) Steve Vale. Does anybody else remember this stuff? Planter's Peanut was so good, it was best enjoyed with a spoon. Forget the bread, eschew the jam...I'm noshstalgic.

And then there was this morning's startling discovery of the truly impressive body of work at Save the Deli. I can't believe the work this guy, David Sax, has done. Since the start of 2007, he's ventured forth from his home base in Toronto to sample and document the wares of delis all over North America and even into Europe. What a Herculean effort and (of course) what a worthy - make that vital - cause.

Words from his opening post last January -
"...Save the Deli, a space dedicated to the preservation of the finest salted, cured, fatty Jewish treats to grace the world’s tongues.

I write with an urgency in my first post, because we are living in desperate times. The Jewish delicatessen, that treasured temple of scuffed formica, sawdust floors, and nose ticking garlic aroma, is dying. Where once Jewish delis numbered in the thousands, today there are scarcely a hundred scattered around the Diaspora. Just look to New York, the once teeming capital of deli. Barely a dozen remain in Manhattan. A handful in Brooklyn. A mere pair in the Bronx.

From Paris to Montreal, Chicago to Antwerp, London to Miami…the deli is dying. Recent casualties have included Ben’s in Montreal, the 2nd Ave Deli in New York’s East Village, and soon Rascal House in Miami Beach. Restaurants which were anchors of stability in cities have been uprooted and expelled, paved over by the bulldozer of history. They have been felled by increased rent, slim margins, a health conscious (and slightly maniacal) eating culture, and assimilation. Delis now serve sushi and spring rolls, while items like rolled beef, braised ribs, and schmaltz herring have fled from menus.

At the current rate, the Jewish deli as an institution is facing the very real possibility of extinction. In ten, twenty, or fifty years, how many delis will your city have? Where do you think you’ll go for a pastrami sandwich, a bowl of matzo ball soup, and a few full sour kosher dills? Friday’s? Sizzler? Wal-Mart? Forget it.

And so, the arduous march begins…a grassroots campaign of love and preservation with the aim of saving the Jewish delicatessen from extinction."

That young man, David Sax, is my hero.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I wish there were a diner

Growing up in New York, we would occasionally visit a diner. There were several within striking distance of home and innumerable others by the road if you traveled farther afield. Many of these still exist today - in New York.

I confess I haven't been lately, but back in the day these were simply remarkable places. They somehow managed to bake (at least many of) their own pastries, cookies, and pies - generally at a high level of quality. These baked goods were real treats. I knew people who would travel to their favorite diner just for a cookie and a cup of coffee. And, believe me, it wasn't the coffee they were drawn to.

These diners tended to have remarkably, improbably, outlandishly broad menus and yet somehow, against all odds - the quality was generally good. And they did breakfast food worth paying for. French toast - thick eggy challah triangles. Hash - once upon a time even this was real. Pancakes with homemade and sometimes even interestingly distinctive batters. The people who owned and operated these temples of simple food done right were people of integrity and spirit. They delivered miracles at all hours for a few bucks.

As I said earlier, I haven't been back lately - and maybe things are as they were - albeit certainly more expensive. But who cares - if they're still turning out the real thing I salute them.

But outside New York - at least here in Massachusetts - I've never seen anything even approximately like the diners I remember. There are places that make a point of styling themselves as New York Diners, but - in my reliably traumatic experience - where food is concerned they have always failed in every respect.

I am noshstalgic - I wish there were a diner.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pastrami again - Sam La Grassa this time

The folks over at Chowhound (and elsewhere) have discussed the relative merits of various Boston area pastrami offerings. Here, for instance is one thread on "romanian pastrami" in and around Boston:
That discussion and other references left me curious about Sam LaGrassa's pastrami, so when a friend told me she wanted to take me to SLG for a pastrami I jumped at the opportunity. There were three of us in the party so we tried three different pastrami sandwich offerings and shared them around - A basic hot pastrami on (light) rye with mustard, a pastrami ruben, and another grilled sandwich they call a Traveler.
I may have missed something , but it seemed that at SLG, pastrami is exclusively "romanian". In my previous Brookline pastrami post I spoke to what makes pastrami "Romanian" at least here in Boston. The short version is that Romanian around here is distinguished by the addition of a heavy sugar rub in the final cooking. Other spices may be involved - as with the cinnamon used on the "Romanian" at Rubin's in Brookline. The pastrami at SLG is decidedly sweet. The meat in all three of our sandwiches was sweet. It was also tender, lean, and mildly spiced.
Now of course there's an element of the subjective about such matters - but for me, and for both of my companions today, the sweetness was off-putting. Insipid, actually. And the relative lack of spice didn't help there either. If you like sweet pastrami, then I suppose the basic sandwich could be to your liking. But in the two other cases, even if your preference runs to the sweet, the combinations did not benefit from this treatment. For example, the combination of sweet meat, Dijon mustard, and tomato - panini grilled on dark rye in the Traveler - not good. The sweet meat on the Rubin likewise. Of course in fairness to SLG, their Rubin standardly includes the canonical corned beef and not pastrami so one can not hold them responsible for the recipe there. We requested the offending sandwich specifically.

Other notes - the pastrami seemed to have been thoroughly cooked, but on the sandwich line it was not held in a steam cabinet. Of course, they're going through the stuff pretty fast in there, so maybe it doesn't spend long out of the steam before it's used up. They're slicing the meat to order on a rotary slicer - very thin. It was quite lean. I regret to say that I'm not sure whether they were slicing brisket or plate - but if pressed to guess without a return visit, I'd say brisket.
We also got a side of potato salad. It was a bit sweet too.
I came away from the visit feeling that SLG may be a better than average sandwich shop, but it is neither a pastrami destination of importance nor even a proper deli. Sweetness aside, the composition of their signature sandwich - the Traveler - for me constituted irrefutable evidence that they simply don't understand the ingredients they are working with.

Alas, I'm still noshstalgic. Next outing, I have to make my way over to Michael's in Brookline - I've heard good things about the place and I'm looking forward to it. I sincerely hope it will be great. To this point, the best publicly available pastrami experience I've had in Boston has been the regular (not Romanian) at Rubin's - if requested hand sliced, not lean. And they're very nice people over there.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Breakfast - too good, so simple

I've got to get going so can't do this justice right now but I wanted to at least begin because
it was that great

Such a simple thing. No explaining how good it was - ok - what's all the fuss about?
A simple omelet.
Thinly slice one medium yellow onion. Saute in a heavy-bottom pan with fresh unsalted butter and little olive oil, some fresh ground pepper and fine herbs. Saute to a golden brown. This takes some time and attention - don't let them burn, and don't stop til they're really "there". When done, remove onions from pan and reserve.
If you're going to use the same pan for the omelet, it will have to be cleaned thoroughly at this point - or just start with another if you prefer. I used the same one for both phases - a 10" calphalon hard anodized - NOT NON-STICK. That's important - no non-stick. If that's all you've got - go out for breakfast then buy some real cookware. Cast iron, allclad, hard-anodized, but nothing non-stick. OK, rant over...
Meanwhile, gently beat 3 jumbo or 4 large eggs with a couple of tablespoons heavy cream, salt and pepper to taste.
Heat pan with fresh unsalted butter and a little olive oil until foam subsides and add scrambled egg mixture. The pan should be quite hot and you should be seeing bubbling around the edges throughout - don't let the pan fall off this level of heat.
When things have begun to set on the bottom, but with considerable liquid still on top, work your way around the 4 corners of the pan, pushing the set egg toward the middle to expose hot pan area and tip the pan to flow egg onto the hot surface.
If you've done this properly, after the 4 corners you should have very little depth of unset egg on the top.
When the top surface is still moist, distribute the onion mixture over one half of the omelet and fold the other half over to cover. Turn off heat. Let set for about 1/2 minute and then slide out of pan onto heated plate.
If you started with a clean pan and used proper temperatures throughout there will never be a problem with sticking. The bottom (now outer) surface of your omelet should be beautifully browned and with deep wrinkles and furrows from your 4 corners operation.
No reason this should hit so hard - omelets everywhere and all the time should be as good. Every diner and greasy spoon should be able to turn this sort of thing out. But they don't. And you can. And it will save the world - at least a little bit.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


The breadcrumb business fascinates me. People buy these round cartons of plain and seasoned breadcrumbs in supermarkets. You know - not Whole Foods - regular supermarkets. Price points run a couple of dollars or more. Depends on location and brand. At Whole Foods, they buy plastic clamshell containers of bread crumbs - various textures like Panko or plain. Prices here probably vary too, but it's in the $5 ballpark. For a pretty small quantity, mind you - probably one or two uses. Panko aside, I'm tempted to suppose that the breadcrumbs must come from processing leftover breads in the bakery department. I don't know this - but it's tempting to think so. Actually let me confess that I haven't even tried the products in question so I can't even offer an educated guess. But, if they were using up their unsold bakery breads, this would be a good thing, not a bad one.

But back to the main point. People pay money for these breadcrumb offerings in supermarkets. This is a powerful demonstration of the state we've come to. Who needs breadcrumbs? People who cook. If you're not cooking - what possible use for breadcrumbs? You must be frying fish or making meatloaf or something. You're cooking. You're in the select minority - people who still cook.

And you're eating food that includes breadcrumbs. You aren't gluten averse. You eat wheat based bread products. So (I've got them on the run here....) AHA! You must buy bread from time to time. Do you always eat it all up before it goes stale? That would be a remarkable feat. In the alternative, are you always throwing out any bread that isn't perfectly fresh any more? Why not make breadcrumbs with these bits of leftover bread?

Fresh breadcrumbs, made at home, as needed. So easy. And the difference in quality is remarkable. You can save money, waste less food, and have a better outcome so easily.

Here's a quick Italian style mix we make up:

Grate leftover bread into crumbs. (I sometimes use a grater disk in my Cuisinart food processor).
Grate Parmesan cheese (or substitute hard cheese of your choice) and mix in with bread crumbs.
Add grated bread and cheese to food processor bowl fitted with regular blade.
Add a clove of garlic, some flat parsley. These fresh items should be used no matter what you do in the optional herb category below. I also regard the addition of some fresh ground pepper as essential here.
Add any other fresh or dried herbs you like. If you want an easy dried mix that works well for Italian, try Penzey's "Pasta Sprinkle".
Pulse in the processor to get the garlic broken down and then process to the not quite the desired consistency. NOW TASTE AND CORRECT SEASONING. BE CAREFUL WITH SALT - THE CHEESE IS ALREADY CONTRIBUTING THERE. Finally, depending upon the use for which the crumbs are intended, you may want to moisten the mixture with a little good EVOO in the last moments of processing.

This whole project takes about 2 minutes and will yield a life altering improvement over anything you can buy at the supermarket. Life Altering.
I don't care if it's fried fish, meatloaf or whatever. You will be amazed at the difference.

2 minutes - using up leftovers. Saving non-trivial money. Profoundly improved results.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Death by soap

//rant on
Please explain this to me - How does a steak house, a restaurant that's practically all about high-ticket wine sales, put that soap in the men's room? And, I assume, the lady's as well? If you wash your hands in there, all you can smell for the rest of the night is the soap. Sometimes it's almond, or floral. But often, it's a kind of antiseptic smell. Maybe the same scent they use in toilet bowel cleaner. And you cant' get away from it. If you raise a glass - it's not your wine you smell - it's the soap.

Have they lost their minds?

And what of the customers? Why am I having to rant about this on a blog that almost nobody's discovered yet? Why do their customers not complain? Why do they keep coming back?
//end rant

What's for dinner (part 3)

So how did it go? And a bit more on exactly how things were prepared:

Melon and Shinkenspeck (squeeze of lime)- what's not to like? A minor variation on the old classic Proscuitto and melon. The fruit was exquisite and the smoky speck (just one slice per portion) worked great. I draped the speck over one side of the melon slice and onto but not covering the top. Pretty contrast between the meat and fruit and also easier to slice since you could get the knife started in the fruit before negotiating the ham. Primo was very excited about this item.

Shaved fennel in EVOO, sea salt, fresh lemon juice, and my pepper melange du jour.
Field greens - organic mesclun and frisee dressed simply in EVOO, sea salt, pepper melange, and Balsamic.

Roast Cod: Cut into (6 oz) portions and marinated in EVOO, with one crushed but not chopped clove garlic, sea salt, pepper melange, two drops pure lemon oil, two dashes orange bitters (couldn't find the orange oil - but it's pretty much the same thing), a pinch of saffron threads, and a tablespoon or so of the brine from the Sicilian Olives (wierd, huh?) Then dredged - one side only, in flour with a little salt, pepper melange, and sugar. Then seared in very hot cast iron pan, then finished in 400 degree convection oven (still in cast iron pan) for about 5 minutes.

Fresh Tomato Coulis:
Peel, seed, and chop fresh tomtoes coarsely. I made about 3 pounds. Add a couple of tablespoons EVOO, six Sicilian Olives pitted and chopped, and salt and pepper melange to taste. Let it sit at room temp. In my case yesterday it sat for about 4 hours before use. I corrected the seasoning along the way. Ended up adding a little bit of the olive brine along the way instead of punching up the salt.

Balsamic Glazed Sicilian Eggplant:
The Sicilian Eggplants are genuinely different from other types, sweeter and creamier, so use them if you can. I cut 1/2 inch round slices across the axis of the fruit. Oiled a sheet pan with olive oil and sprinkled the pan with kosher salt. Set the slices on the pan, sprinkled the tops with kosher salt and sugar and then put about a teaspoon + of balsamic vinegar on top of each. (I had run out of good aged balsamic and so cheated by using the cheap supermarket stuff with the added sugar). Put them in to a 375 degree convection oven until the tops were glazed and the fruit was soft. Took quite a while. Take out of oven and reserve - still on sheet. The whole thing goes back into the oven in the last couple of minutes of cooking the fish later. Of course you could do the whole thing last minute but it's hard to predict the timing of the eggplant and you might prefer to be socializing with your guests. The eggplant does not suffer for being prepared ahead. Primo, once again, very excited with this item - and I have to say I agreed. The textures - crispy top-glaze and skin, creamy soft interior, and the complex flavors were very rewarding. This was easy cooking with a dramatic result. (Be careful when removing these from the sheet for service - They will be a bit stuck to the sheet especially if the balsamic has spilled or otherwise migrated underneath during cooking. Use quick movements with a sharp square edged spatula to cut them off the sheet intact.) And the big rounds looked wonderful on the plat too. Sorry I didn't take pictures last night.

Rice - Nothing special to say.

Wine: Not too cold for this wine. Never had it before, and I was surprised when I first tasted it. I knew it was from Sicily - and thus southern - but it was much more tropical than I anticipated. Lots of glycerine mouth feel, rich - but not in the usual Chard malolactic overtly buttery way - apricots, pineapple (further back), a little sicilian garrigue-like herbal finish. I thought the product was good, but before dinner I also thought I was not thrilled to be into the bottle for $50. BUT - I have to say that when you put it together with the glazed eggplant and also when paired with the fish and coulis, the pairings were magical. Either I got lucky with my pairings or this is just a much better food wine than it is on its own.

The cake sucked. I bought it and I'm taking what's left back. And ...oh never mind.
The Double Rainbow ice creams (available at Trader Joes) were fabulous. Don't eat their ice cream if you don't tolerate milk-fat well, and stay away from their coffee and chocolate flavors if you're sensitive to caffeine at night. They will keep you up. And don't eat the blueberry if you don't want to feel like you've been to Maine. Really good store-bought ice cream.

Oh yeah - the pepper melange for this dinner: (proportions approximate)
In a spice- (or coffee-) grinder, process 4 parts whole black peppercorns, 1 part white peppercorns, 1 part allspice, a little fresh nutmeg (I cut a 1/4" slice off a nutmeg and use about 1/2 of that slice), a couple of cloves (if they're fresh - more if older)
OK - so my procedure is generally to make up a pepper melange for the meal and to use it throughout wherever I'd otherwise be using straight pepper. Of course there are exceptions - but I find that mostly I get away with this. The idea is you develop a spice signature that's subtly different from basic pepper (and hopefully appropriate to whatever you're doing that night), and then by using it throughout in place of regular pepper you connect the dishes in a manner that's impactful but not obvious.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

What's for dinner (part 2)

Fish store had some very nice fresh local cod loin.
Produce store came up with (of all things) farm fresh Sicilian eggplant, nice fennel, salad greens, and a two kinds of tomatoes in the "seconds" category and thus reasonably priced for what I had in mind. I have a real problem paying 4, 5, 6 dollars a pound for tomatoes under any circumstances, but as I was planning to use them for sauce, I was particularly price sensitive. So I was in luck buying "seconds" at .99/lb.
I also lucked out with a melon you could smell at 5 paces - ready to go!
Cheese store came through with Sicilian Olives and Pepato cheese (not my first choice but ok)
Here then the menu:

Melon and Italian Speck

Shaved Fennel and Field Greens

Roasted Cod Loin
Fresh Tomato Coulis with Sicilian Olives
Balsamic Glazed Sicilian Eggplant
Rice with dusting of grated Pepato

Wine: (as originally contemplated) 2004 Planeta Chardonnay IGT Sicily

Black & White Mouse Cake
Choice of Vanilla, Chocolate, & Blueberry Ice Cream

Comments on how things worked out tomorrow. Gotta go walk the dog.

What's for dinner?

We're expecting guests to join us for dinner tonight. What shall we serve? Who's dining? Kathy, Primo, and I will enjoy anything good. Secondo, our six year old is more selective. Our guests include Kathy's aunt, a senior, Boston-area, Irish Catholic who will try most anything I serve, but will more readily enjoy simple mainstream selections. (Kathy reminds me that I've served goat rogan josh to her aunt - but it seems to me that perhaps that occasion was not her favorite visit here.) And finally we have Kathy's cousin - a resident of New York City and instructor (professor?) at FIT. I don't really know this fellow, but as he has been a New Yorker for some time, and is in the fashion business I expect he'll have more sophisticated tastes. And finally, finally, there's the fact that I'd like to enjoy some nice, seasonally appropriate wine tonight.

To review the forces in play then:
  • Six year old - keep it simple, not too spicy, clean (unsauced) protein or pasta is best

  • Aunt - keep it simple, not too spicy, avoid unfamiliar protein items

  • NYC Cousin - ?Since I'm supposed to be some kind of cook, and in any case I'll grasp at any straw of justification for doing something other than the usual, Secondo preferred, lowest common denominator, maybe something sophisticated?

  • Try a good bottle of wine (or two)

  • And as we've been drinking Alsatian Pinot Gris and Riesling, and Loire whites throughout the summer, it's bound to be something other - perhaps even a chard for the first time in who remembers how long. Yes - why not. There's a reputedly good Planeta Chardonnay down in the cellar that I've been meaning to try.

  • Who's afraid of a little cliche? OK - I'll say it. It looks like it's fish tonight. Have to see what's available at the fish market (and green market) before nailing this down - but given Aunt and Secondo - it's probably some sort of white fish preparation where it's good without the sauce for Secondo and where the sauce and sides make sense given the wine and the season.

    I'll post the market findings, the further decision process, and the resulting menu later.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    In Iceland summers, the lambs roam free

    When in Iceland with Primo several years ago we saw sheep and lambs everywhere. The way it was explained to us, since the growing season in Iceland is short and winter is long, farmers must make hay while the sun shines. To get their flocks through the winter, the farmers have to save everything they can grow in the summer for winter use. So, as soon as the growing season starts, they chase all the sheep off the farms. In summer, the sheep can go anywhere they like - as long as it's not a farm.

    Now in Iceland, the prevailing wild forage is a unique mix of lichen, moss, scub, wild-flowers and so on. Iceland is volcanic and the earth there is very young. Between the soil conditions and the latitude (although moderated strongly by warm ocean currents) they don't have lush pasture to graze. And the land offers some dramatic topology - it's not unusual to see steep hills rising out of otherwise flat land - and to see sheep all over the slopes (and roads, and...)

    Come fall, people all over Iceland round up all the roaming sheep into long-used round-up pens surrounded by rocks as I recall. Then they sort them out and get them sent back to wherever they belong by examining ear-marks. It's not unusual for sheep to be found a hundred miles or more from home. The young lambs are numerous at this point and some go home with their mothers - but many do not. The herd is culled and the cull is sold for meat. Really good meat. Icelandic lamb is, in my opinion, a terrific product. Leaner than other lamb on the market and with a unique flavor because of their peculiar diet. And while it's not provably organic since nobody's certifying the entire island where they roam, it is a free-range product and as good as organic as far as I'm concerned. To top it off, it is generally sold at very reasonable prices - or at least it was.

    In the couple of years after that trip, I would look forward to fall when the Icelandic lamb would, for a brief season, become available here in the US. At that time, it sold for reasonable prices even here at my local Whole Foods. Now I don't know this next bit for sure, but it seems to me that Whole Foods may have an exclusive on this product in the US market now. But whether that's true or not, one thing is for sure - Somewhere along the way, Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods got much more expensive. The price last year was well more than double where it started - and maybe as much as triple. Not sure if this reflects Iceland having established higher prices, Whole Foods taking advantage, or both. But one thing's clear - while still a wonderful product - Iceland lamb sure isn't free around here.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    It will be cold again someday - so Brisket

    Hard to believe at this time of year - but I'm thinking about brisket. This is one of those comfort foods for which many families have their own cherished heirloom recipe. The basic technique is usually similar, but the sauces and flavors vary broadly. Sadly, this once regular feature of home cooking has become a special occasion item in many families and virtually disappeared for many others. It's too good and too easy to let it slip away. And the leftovers make amazing sandwiches. Here's one version based on my Mom's instructions:

    Brisket, onions, salt, pepper, garlic, paprika (and many optional additions)

    Buy a good "first cut" brisket she says.
    Make a rub of kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, minced fresh garlic, and paprika and rub the brisket all over. (a little oil in the rub makes this easier. And many other spices or herbs can be included if desired.)

    Slice a lot of yellow onions fairly thin. How much is a lot? More than you think - enough to completely surround and heavily cover the entire piece of meat once you get things going. Generally this puts your weight of onions on the way to that of the meat.

    Find a heavy bottomed pan (one for which you have a tight-fitting lid) big enough to lay the brisket down in with some room around the edges, put in a little oil, and set over a medium-high burner.

    Once the pan is up to temp, brown the meat well on all sides. (some would argue that this procedure can be improved by omitting the garlic from the rub so as to avoid any burned garlic. This is a reasonable point although it varies from Mom's approach. Come to think of it, in the good old days, she was probably using garlic powder rather than fresh so maybe that's why she put the garlic on early. Anyway, if you omit the garlic at this point, add crushed cloves to taste in with the onions later.)

    Once browned, add the whole pile of onions to the pot. Surround and cover the meat completely with onions. Cover the pot and reduce heat to simmer.

    The time required will vary with the size of your brisket and so on - but in any case it will take quite a while to cook - certainly 90 minutes and likely more. I suggest carefully flipping the brisket after about an hour. As the brisket and onions cook, the onions will create moisture and your brisket will braise. Eventually the onions will become very soft. Eventually your brisket will be done. There's a fairly broad window between done enough and really too far gone. Better to give it a bit more time if you're not sure. If you pull it too soon, it won't be tender.

    That's about all there is to it if you want to leave things basic. Taste and correct seasoning in gravy along the way and again close to the end. When done and briefly rested, slice thin to medium across the grain and serve with gravy (and something to soak up gravy like rice or good bread).

    Add some diced carrots along with onions - or later on if you prefer them to retain their identity.

    Additional spices or aromatics in rub or later - use your imagination.

    Wine in the pot at any time after browning - a good dry, but not too dry, white with some "bottom" to it. What's bottom? The point here is you don't want something too squeaky clean, steely, edgy, showing fruit only. You want some wood, or some malolactic, or some lees or something.

    Puree the onion gravy just prior to the end. If necessary, correct color (as the resulting slurry can be unappealing in tone) with e.g. some added paprika.

    Braise in the oven instead of on the stove-top.

    Mushrooms? Sweet peppers? Shallots? Hots? Sour cream? You name it. Brisket is a great platform for playing around - brown, braise, and binge.

    Sunday, August 5, 2007

    bialy report and I am given a clue by Rick

    So as to the Brookline bialy (sic) - need I say more? A good piece of bread with onions. Not a bialy. Still searching. Please - send leads. Truly noshstalgic.

    Speaking of which - my friend Rick, when trying to find this site, used what seemed to him the obvious spelling and found his way not here - but to another blog - Their blog has been going for years, and there's lots of great content there. I honestly never thought to spell it that way and so this came as a welcome surprise to me. The sentiments they cite in their introductory comments are very close to my own. I'm excited to find others working this beat. Their editorial emphasis is very different from my own and I hope that they'll find my jottings as interesting as I've found theirs.

    Thursday, August 2, 2007

    cruisin' Pastrami - in Brookline

    It's 94 degrees out, so of course today was the day to head for Harvard St. in Brookline and sample 3 different pastrami sandwiches for lunch. In case my doctor is reading this, I want to make clear that I didn't actually eat 3 sandwiches - I "sampled". OK - disclaimer firmly in place here's what I found:
    Rubin's Deli, barely into Brookline from Allston offers by far the best I saw today. They offer two varieties - one called simply pastrami and the other they call Roumanian.

    I've seen posts on other blogs and boards trying to clarify what's meant by Roumanian pastrami in the Brookline micro-culture - but both taste and the help at Rubin's made it clear enough today. In their case at least, both products start out the same. They buy their pastrami from a source in New York.

    The regular pastrami is received from NY, steamed, sliced, and served. It seems their general approach is to put the product on the slicer, and slice it thin, but they will happily hand carve it at proper thickness upon request. The machine cut sample they first offered me, by the way, was quite lean. When I asked if they could cut by hand and find some with some fat on it they were pleased to comply - and the result was very good. Their regular pastrami product, like all they sell at Rubin's is Kosher, seems relatively minimally processed and mildly spiced. Not too aggressive a cure, not too much smoke, spice, or salt. The texture - at least in the fattier product they supplied upon request - was very good. The bread was indifferent plastic bag rye. Never mind the bread, though - the meat was good.

    The Roumanian pastrami at Rubin's, as I said above, comes to them as the same product discussed above. The only difference is that before they steam it, they rub it with brown sugar and ground cinnamon. The effect is not subtle. Either you'll like it or not. Personally - Next time I'm at Rubin's, I'll order the regular pastrami. But that's just one man's reaction.

    While on the topic of Rubin's let me say that the service was gracious. The waitress was friendly. The counter man who offered me a slice was happy to do so. The other counter man came out to see how I liked it and engaged me in discussion. When we got to talking about pastrami manufacture, preparation, their process for "Roumanian-izing" and so forth, he volunteered to bring me a 1/2 sandwich of the Roumanian - and followed up afterward to see what I thought. The manager at the register was proud of his people. In every way, a delightful experience. And Doctor, I left with what amounted to a whole sandwich wrapped and packed on ice.

    Now down the way toward Beacon St. I stopped in at Zaftig's Delicatessen (sic). It was busy. This proves the importance of location. Rubin's was not busy when I was there. Zaftig's was busy.

    How 'bout the pastrami? Since nobody at Zaftig's was interested in talking about it, I don't know for sure where they're buying their product. But if pressed to guess, I'd say probably Pearl. Not a bad product for supermarket pastrami - but not in a league with what Rubin's had to work with. And handled the way they did it today at Zaftig's - well read on. As at Rubin's, I asked if they'd be willing to hand cut. Answer - NO (and seeming annoyance). OK, I asked if the product was steamed. Yes, they said (and definitely annoyance). And they went on to inform me that "We sell a ton of it" (which seemed to come with some derision in addition to the aforementioned annoyance). OK says I - bring it on. I was seated at the counter and so watched as their sandwich guy took an absolutely lean piece of meat out of a warm, moist holding cabinet - not to say a really steamy one - and put it on the slicer. He cut very thin slices of product that appeared to be pastrami single brisket, not double, not plate. He cut until his scale demonstrated that he'd cut whatever their portion control called for. Not a small quantity - not Carnegie or Katz's - but a good count for a sandwich in Boston. Then he put the meat on a plate and covered it over with plastic wrap. Then he popped the plate of meat into a microwave and nuked it. When the bell went off, he slid the meat onto the waiting (plastic bag) rye and sent it my way. Disgraceful. No pride. No knowledge. No hospitality. No pastrami deserving of the title. No deli. And the fries were lousy too. I am embarrassed by their mere presence in our fair city. And the many patrons they somehow attract and seemingly satisfy.

    But I'm still noshstalgic. I'll get back to you all later on the bialys I picked up down the street. Although if you've seen my previous post on that topic, you know I'm not optimistic.
    Later -

    Wednesday, August 1, 2007

    Brief rant on form and function

    Putting up a few photos last night, got me thinking again about what was the most important improvement in our kitchen. We did many things, so this might seem a difficult question. But it's not. When we moved in to this house, you could set off the fire alarm by boiling water - or at least that's how it seemed. It got so before dispatching the truck, the fire chief would call us up and ask what was for dinner. By far the most important improvement was in ventilation. We now have terrific ventilation.

    The point of this post, though, is not to admire our own work - it is to pose this question -
    Why do people make, sell, buy, install, and tolerate the hood-shaped, but functionally deficient products generally available to homeowners?

    Certainly there are many people spending big money on kitchen renovations today who do not actually cook. And for these, the functional deficiencies of their hoods will be no problem. But if you cook? What then? How is a hood offering coverage little or no larger than the underlying range supposed to capture the plume of vapors rising from the stove? How is a hood set so far above the range-top supposed to work - especially on an island? How are those flat-bottomed items without any enclosed circulation space supposed to handle a grill? How are any of these fans (if high-CFM) supposed to work without make-up air? How do people designing, manufacturing and selling such hoods for thousands of dollars sleep at night? Beats me.