Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pasta con pomodoro

What an exciting time of the year! I love the summer solstice. The excitement of the coming growing season reaches its fever pitch right now, at least for me, just as the days reach their longest. Today, I took perhaps the last chance I'll have for a while to spend a few hours in the kitchen making dinner. I've been working on homemade pasta for a while, and it finally came out the way I wanted it.

Fresh pasta's a wonder to make, super simple: a cup of flour, two eggs, mix into a dough and then knead for ten minutes until it becomes like silk. Let it rest for ten, and then roll it thin (I mean THIN). Cut it into strips, then cook in salted boiling water for a few minutes. The pasta comes out delicate, with just enough bite. For this, i cut very wide strips, more than an inch. In the future, I'd probably cut it a little narrower, but the wide noodles worked well for this sauce.

Speaking of sauce, it couldn't have been easier. Into a hot pan, I put a few tablespoons of olive oil, chili flakes, salt and three cloves of garlic, sliced thinly. I cooked that for a bit, but before the garlic browned, I added a can of San Marzano tomatoes. For me, the flavor of that tomato was really key for this dish, so while Romas or Beefsteaks, or even fresh tomatoes, would work, they wouldn't work as well. I seeded them, too. The sauce simmered while I made the pasta, probably about half an hour. The tomatoes softened enough that they could be broken up with the side of a spoon, and then I finished the sauce with torn fresh basil.

Finally, because pasta with tomato sauce, as delicious as it may be, does not a full meal make, I made tonno e fagioli. Using canned cannellini beans, I made a dressing with about three tablespoons of very good extra virgin olive oil and a tablespoon of lemon juice, two minced cloves of garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper. I mixed in the can of beans, and then added a can of tuna. After resting in the fridge for the flavors to meld, it made a perfect accompaniment, although it could have used some parsley (if for nothing else than color) and honestly the lemon juice would maybe have been best replaced with red wine vinegar.

So that was the meal.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Black Bean Chili

Usually, I'm not one to care about the presentation of my food. Well, that's not exactly true, but I usually go for a rustic esthetic, which reflects the flavors of my food: bold dishes, even when they are light (like risotto), the food could be easily found at a restaurant called Peasant Food.

But, Gordon Ramsay made a soup on a show a few weeks ago and it gave me an idea for tonight's dinner. One of my favorite dishes to make, because of its simplicity and almost boundless deliciousness, is black beans. Slowly cooked with onions, a large amount of cumin and an even larger amount of chili powder, I often render fat from bacon to soften the onions in and add it all to the pot. It creates a savory and aromatic dish worthy of a cattle ranch in southern Texas. Seeing the Ramsay bean soup, however, made me wonder: could I turn that bean dish into a delicate soup?

The first step was to cook the beans. Since I wanted a lighter flavor than usual, I softened the onions (about one and a half small yellow onions) in olive oil (instead of the rendered fat of salted pork belly). I added some beans, not a lot as you can see from the finished soup picture below, and then covered them with sufficient water to end with a fairly thick soup. I'm not sure how much of either, but it was probably two and a half cups or three of water, and maybe three handfuls of black beans. They were dry is all I know. I brought the mixture to the boil, dropped it to a light simmer, and then added about a tablespoon of cumin, four teaspoons of chili powder, and a bay leaf, then simmered until the beans were done, which took about the second half of the Mexico-France World Cup match.

When it was done, the beans were soft without any hard bits inside, I spooned out maybe two tablespoons of the beans, trying to make sure they were whole and their skins hadn't ruptured. Then, I pureed the rest, with cooking liquid. I added some salt (since this is a posh dish, I went with Kilauea sea salt, the black one with a deep flavor), and drizzled in high quality olive oil until the mixture was smooth and looked satiny (probably a tablespoon or so). And then I put it back in the pot to await dinner. Below, you can see a picture of the soup base. I should note, I took out the bay leaf before pureeing.

So, on to the garnish. I wanted a contrast of flavors between the soup and the garnish, but not something absurd like strawberries and cream or even fried plantains (although that would be great as a garnish!). Instead, I wanted some flavors that I would normally include in beans and rice, but decided not to include in the soup base to maintain its lightness. I fried some pancetta, and crumbled it, then carefully diced a large shallot (I think the pieces of shallot should be smaller than the black beans, but you don't want a mince). Finally, I mixed in a little lime juice, salt and pepper to taste. Below, you can see the garnish in its little bowl.

However, since this whole preparation, which I've been making for years, was inspired by my mom's vegetarian black bean chili, and that is always served with cornbread, the dish wasn't finished. Anyone who's eaten at a top restaurant knows that there has to be some ridiculous, crunchy accompaniment to a soup, one which is supposed to add a flavor note of nostalgia, bringing the whole dish back to its humble roots, but usually just ends up being a rather flavorless piece of an otherwise brilliant soup. So, I made crispy cornmeal pancakes, which were awesome when I tried them on their own, but probably weren't nearly as awesome with the soup as I wanted them to be. It was fairly simple: I poured hot water over cornmeal to hydrate it, then mixed in salt, some honey, melted butter, then turned it out on a hot griddle and cooked them until they were browned on both sides. It was a brilliant piece of a...oh, whatever. Here's a picture.

And it did taste almost exactly like the cornbread my mom used to make without taking any real amount of cornmeal or time.

To serve, I reheated the soup base, ladled it into a bowl, then topped it with a little mound of the garnish, as you can see above, it came out quite beautiful. Unfortunately, it tasted horrible. (Psych!) Honestly, this is probably the most balanced dish I've made to date. The soup base itself had a rich texture, with a strong foretaste of black beans, accented with cumin and a small taste of chilies. The olive oil left a nice buttery feel on the palate, and there was a lingering bitterness, too. All in all, fabulous!

There isn't much that could improve it, either (well, save the cornbread). Some hot pepper would have been nice in the garnish, and it would also have been nice to have more garnish than I made (read: save more beans before pureeing), but it was still an excellent meal. Of course, it would be easy to make vegetarian (or even vegan), since the only meat in the entire dish was the pancetta in the garnish, and a garnish of onion, pepper, cilantro (or epazote!), and beans would go just as well. The lime juice really brightened it up, too, although I'd probably leave that out on a day colder than about 75.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Caldo de Res Revisited

One of the few joys of unemployment (entering its third month now) is that I now have the time to spend 20 hours on one dish. This is the sort of luxury usually left for those either too old or too busy (read: restaurant cooks) to fully enjoy it.

Here is the stock, minutes after adding the mire-poix, cilantro, jalapeño, and tomato paste (but after the meat bone had simmered for about 10 hours).

That wonderful mess of fresh vegetables, with a noticeable red hue (well, maybe not that noticeable), would become (some four hours later) this masterpiece of Mexican simplicity.

My favorite soup, made from scratch.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Onion Soup

Wow, only a month and a day since my last post! There's been a lot of cooking going on, and I have some exciting stuff going on right now, but that'll have to wait for a later post. Hopefully, though, I will have more pics like this to share

So, the point of this post is to go over one of my absolute favorite dishes: the bistro classic French onion soup. The standard preparation is to caramelize onions in butter, then add beef stock and perhaps a little red wine and cook. Occasionally, in American recipes you'll find the soup thickened with flour, but the classic dish has a thin broth given body by the gelatin in the stock. (A well-made stock, using bones, is one of the most amazing things I know of to cook with, but that is a completely different post for another day.)

However, years ago, when my cooking skills were nascent at best, I read a brief mention in a Cook's Illustrated recipe of a French chef once preparing onion soup for the test kitchen where the only ingredients were onions, salt, pepper, and water. He spent hours building up a fond on the bottom of the pan, then deglazing with water, and repeating until the onions had softened to a dark color. The simplicity of the preparation really appeal to me, and I've made it a couple times. Let me tell you: the results are spectacular. The depth of flavor gives nothing away, but it is a time-consuming dish and requires - REQUIRES - a thick-bottomed pan: cast iron, copper, All-Clad. If you don't have a pan that strains the wrist when lifting it, don't even bother attempting this.

Because the key to this dish is low heat and patience.

Today, I experimented with a few things: pancetta, white wine deglaze, red wine deglaze, and tomato paste (aw yeah!). But I want to stress that what follows can be done using only water and onions, with some butter, and therefore can be an incredibly hearty and entirely vegetarian winter soup. Never mind that it's June 5th. With that, let's get on with it.

The first step, done last night, was to slice three pounds of onions. Then, I cut lardons from about a fifth of a pound of pancetta, rendered their fat, then removed them from the pot and added the onions. Below is a picture of the pancetta browning, with the onions in a bowl behind.

The onions were added, and softened over medium-low heat until a fond had formed. This takes a while, since the onions have to soften and their moisture cook out before the Maillard reaction can occur and develop that beautiful fond. Fond, in case you don't know, refers to the brown bits that form on the bottom of a pan. Le fond, in French, refers to stock, though, so don't act like you know anything now.

Once the first fond formed, I deglazed with six ounces of white wine. Deglazing just means pouring a liquid into the pan and boiling it to dissolve the fond in the liquid. At this point, I refilled the glass with six ounces of water, set it next to the pot, and waited until a fond formed again. I then added just enough water to deglaze the pot and a generous pinch of salt. In all, the six ounces of water allowed for eight deglazings. That took about two hours, but since my pan is a thick-bottomed cast iron masterpiece, it took very little attention from me. I'd check the pan about every five minutes and when the fond looked like the one below, I'd deglaze it.

Just before the final deglazing, I added about two teaspoons of roughly cracked black pepper and a bay leaf. Then, I deglazed with six ounces of red wine. This, as with the white wine before, is completely optional, although both wines do add a lot of flavor and some body.

I boiled off the alcohol, then added enough water to make it look like onion soup along with a tablespoon of tomato paste (aw yeah!), brought it to the simmer, and let it go for about half an hour.

The harsh flavor mellowed and came together beautifully and the broth gained body during the simmer, but my final tasting (or what I was hoping would be my final tasting) told me that the sweetness of the onions was way too strong and the salt had done as much as it was going to do. So, I squeezed a little lemon juice in to cut that sweetness, then let it simmer for five more minutes so the soup didn't taste like I'd just squeezed lemon juice into it.

Top it off with a broiled crouton with Gruyère on top and there it is: three-hour, four ingredient (five, six, seven, whatever, they're optional) onion soup.