Sunday, July 31, 2011

baccala mezzalune

This was my first time working with salt cod, and all I can say is that I anticipate that future endeavors will go better.

I soaked the salted fish for two days, just like it said.

I cooked it with the potato until it all mashed together, like it said.

Then I put it in pasta circles, like it said.

Then I sauteed it with tomato sauce, teardrop tomatoes and olives, like it said.

I will say that the tomato sauce, the teardrops and olives were delicious. And the pasta itself might have been the best pasta I've made. But the filling was … weird. I've had baccala before, and liked it. So I was optimistic here. But this had a weird texture. It didn't taste bad, but the texture was oddly grainy. Not pleasant at all. Not sure if i got bad baccala, or didn't soak it long enough, or what.

And since I was using salt cod, I was careful about adding more salt. That was a mistake, because it needed more salt. But that wouldn't have saved it. The texture was a dealbreaker.

For photographic purposes, it looked sort of awesome, anyway.

Shrug. Next time.

Up next: snapper in cartoccio

Monday, July 25, 2011

grilled quail with "scorzanera" alla romana

Ed. note: You'll notice the title of this includes a word in quote marks for no apparent reason. This is a trick used in both menus and journalism to suggest that the word in quotes isn't actually true. Now you know.

"How many more dishes do we have to eat with weeds?"

I'm not saying who asked that question, but they might live here.

I'm not the only one in the house who isn't necessarily down with the bitter green thing. And this one called for quail, which I thought would also go over real well with the asker of that question, as that person may be predisposed to boneless, skinless white meat chicken. Quail is pretty much all dark meat.

So as an insurance policy that someone who liked bitter greens would be eating one of the bitter greens dishes, we invited our pal Lawrence over. He is an actual Italian, and loves bitter greens. And dark meat. So this would only go well.

Except for one thing. I was so busy being all smart and growing my own dandelion greens -- which you can buy in every store on the planet -- that I forgot to make sure I could get salsify somewhere. Remember "scorzanera" in the title? That's salsify.

Well, crap. I went to all my stores, a couple of produce stands and called a farm. I was most stunned and amazed when I called a fairly huge purveyor of, um, whole foods, and they didn't even know what salsify was. Not naming names here. It was then that I figured I better start looking for alternatives.

So I went to a site which suggests substitutions for ingredients. It suggested artichoke, asparagus or parsnip. Which immediately made me curious about this magical vegetable that would put those three things in the same sentence. I passed on the artichoke and asparagus, because they wouldn't look right. I considered the parsnip, because at least it was a white root vegetable, which, after you peel it, is what salsify is. I think. But when I got to the supermarket, they had white carrots. That sounded different, and looked like it would work. So I got them.

Here they are.

And here they are naked.

And this link goes to a picture of salsify. I'm calling this a win.

The other cool part about this dish was that the glaze for the quail -- aren't they cute all lined up up there? -- includes saba, which is a sweet grape syrup. The quail were quickly grilled and glazed, then put on top of the what we are now calling carota bianco alla romana and greens. The quail were amazing, the sweet glaze playing well with the liver-y nature of the meat. Also, that sweet glaze was the antidote for the bitter greens. Total success.

Up next: baccala mezzaluna

Thursday, July 21, 2011

bitter feast: bitter green ravioli and halibut in cartoccio

I'm not big on bitter. My Starbucks barista will attest to this. So when I saw all the recipes in the book that called for bitter greens, in my mind I was substituting spinach. I like spinach. It's easy to find. And it's not bitter.

But that seemed like a cop out. So I did the next-best thing, and I tried to make the bitter green dishes as close together as possible.

There was actually a logistical rationale behind that, too. I was growing the greens, and when they were ready, it was go-time on the dishes that called for them.

There are two dishes in the book that called for dandelion greens, and one that called for puntarella. The book gives a description of puntarella, but while I knew I had seen dandelion in every store I shop in, I'd never heard of puntarella. I plugged it in to the search on Johnny's Selected Seeds website, and got nothing. That concerned me. So then I Googled it, and learned that it is also known as "catalogna." So I searched Johnny's for catalogna, and they had that. So that became my default dandelion for all the dishes in the book.

Here is my puntarella early on (that's it on the left) …

And here it is at harvest time …

I knocked two of the dishes out on the same night. First the ravioli, which, in addition to the escarole and the dandelion I grew, required extra bitter from chard and sorrel. Here they are in a team picture:

The sorrel took me some time to find. No markets had it, so I ended up finding it at a nursery.

That's sorta like growing it, right?

Then, because that wasn't going to be bitter enough, I practically burned the greens during the saute step. At this point, I wasn't hopeful.

But I made the pasta, and sauced them with butter, and they were decent. Not my fave, but a decent dish.

I credit the butter, in large part.

The halibut was the dish that specifically called for puntarella. It amounted to a beautiful piece of fish wrapped up with some stock, wine, greens and grapefruit and baked.

A little bit of the puntarella goes on the paper ...

Then the fish and everything else ...

Then it gets wrapped and baked ...

And cut open to reveal cooked stuff ...

It's a dramatic presentation, with paper, and cutting, and steam. And again, it was good, but not a favorite. If I were doing it again, I might make it with spinach and orange and be happy. But I can be boring like that sometimes.

Up next: grilled quail, and the end of the bitter greens.

Friday, July 15, 2011

montauk lobster salad

I brought two lobsters home, Kitterey and Ogunquit. This is Ogunquit.

Then this happened.

Then this happened.

And ultimately this.

I won't go into anymore detail on that process.

After all that, this was an easy one. I knew that I could get the flowering chives at any of a number of Asian markets. And I new I could get mache at … wait … where's the mache?

I knew I had seen mache at many markets before, so I never considered it a problem. Yet there I was, with Kitterey and Ogunquit in the car, and I couldn't find any stinking mache. So I substituted a mix of field greens. I read the ingredients, and it suggested that it was possible that mache might be one of the greens included. Win.

It was beautiful, and delicious.

Oh, but I didn't get Montauk lobsters. I wanted to wait until next month and get Florida lobsters, but I wanted to use the sungold tomatoes I grew, and they weren't going to last until lobster season here. And while the tank at the store said these were Maine lobsters, the bands on the claws said they were from Canada. Who knew outsourcing was getting this bad?

Postscript: Two days later, I was in Whole Foods. They had mache.

Up next: a bitter feast

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

tilefish with tomato and cucumber gazpacho

I had never heard of tilefish. So when I set out to do this recipe, I assumed it was some rare fish that is only found in the northwest Adriatic during the fourth week of October on Leap Years, and that I would have to figure out what tilefish was like, so I could make an intelligent substitution.

So, I type "tilefish substitution" into Google, and the first hit comes up as a food reference site. It says that tilefish is a firm, white meat fish. OK, that's easy. I can substitute a million things for that. Then it says that lives in tropical waters, and is caught in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico is way closer to my house than the Adriatic. Things are looking up.

In the weeks leading up to my sungold tomatoes being ready for harvest, I was in my favorite seafood store and asked if they had tilefish. They said no, but they can get it anytime. They'd order it and let me know.

Then my sungolds ripened, and it was go-time. So I called my favorite seafood store and asked if that tilefish was in.

Never got any.

So I return to Google and ask it for the names of seafood markets in Pinellas County. It came back with 20. I'm sure there are more, but this was a start. I called 19 of them and got answers ranging from, "No," to "Not today," to "What's that?" And a few didn't answer at all. Stupid economy. And oil spill.

The last one on the list was the one farthest from my house, Pelican Point Seafood. "Sure. We have five. How many you want?"

So I drove 25 miles to Tarpon Springs.

When I got all the way to the end of Dodecanese Boulevard, there was Pelican Point. I went in and told the woman I needed tilefish. "You want them fileted?"

I've fileted fish before. Hell yes, I want them fileted. It doesn't cost extra, and if it did, it would be worth it.

"You want the skin taken off?"

Here, I made a strategic blunder. I'm not a huge fan of fish skin. And I didn't recall it being mentioned in the recipe. And I didn't have the book on me.

"Yes, please take the skin off."

Babbo Cookbook, Page 185, ingredient list for Tilefish in a Sungold Tomato and Cool Cucumber Gazpacho, reads in part:

… 4 6-ounce tilefish fillets, SKIN ON …

And then in the directions, we skip to step 2:

"… Score each fish fillet on the SKIN side … and place in the pan, SKIN side down. …"

My memory clearly sucks.

Anyway, even in its skinless state, the fish was good, and the gazpacho came out really well. It has been averaging about 350 degrees around here, so a cool dish was perfect.

Up next: montauk lobster salad

Friday, July 8, 2011

jellyfish salad

"Have you ever cooked with jellyfish before?"

The clerk at Oceanic Market in Tampa was looking at me with such a goofy grin that for all intents and purposes, her question was rhetorical.

"Nope," I said with confidence in an effort to hide the fact that I was sort of weirded out by the prospect. "You?"

"No, I don't cook much," she admitted, almost embarrassed. "But I've had it before. It's crunchy."

So I now know at least that much about what I'm in for.

There are a lot of dishes in the book that are going to present some challenges, either to cook or to eat. I'm not looking forward to the calf's brain much. Or even any of the livers, really. But I'm not really worried about those. They'll be fine. May not be my thing, but they sound like food.

I just don't know that I feel the same way about jellyfish.

When I started this project, I made a list of the ingredients in the book that I wasn't sure where I was going to get so I could start researching. Tops on the list: salted jellyfish for this salad. It so happened that I was at Oceanic that week for something else, and I was looking at its selection of eggs, and I noticed right next to the eggs was a vat of weird looking blobs floating in water. I looked for the sign, which was buried under something else in the case. "Jellyfish $8.99/pound."

So, that was easier than I thought it would be.

The book says to rinse it off, and I rinsed it off for a good long time. Then it says to cut off the tentacles. Mine didn't seem to have any tentacles, at least not in the classic horror movie sense. Just to be sure, I cut off the area where I thought the tentacles may have once been. You can't be too sure. Here's what it looked like to that point.

Sort of like something you get as a souvenir after surgery. Moving on.

Then I sliced it into thin strips. The book says to slice it thin, but I sliced it thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin. I don't know. I wasn't getting more excited about this.

So, once the jellyfish is sliced, it's easy. Put it into a bowl with the greens, yellow teardrop tomatoes -- preferably that you grew yourself and harvested from the back yard -- olive oil, opal basil and sherry vinegar. It will look like this:

Then toss it and put it on top of a piece of toasted bread and take a photo.

And maybe a second photo …

Wait, the light was bad on that one. Try again …

Oh, damn shadow. Here's another …

Truth is, I took a lot of photos. Mostly because I knew that when I was done taking photos, I was technically going to have to eat it.

And if this post got picked up by a jellyfish Twitterbot, boy are they going to be disappointed in this next part.

Not my favorite dish in the book.

Funny thing was, as concerned as I was about the texture, the texture wasn't the problem. It was kind of cool, actually. The problem was that it was like eating straight salt. I tried getting more greens and tomato and bread in a bite to counteract the salt, but there was never enough.

But I feel better for having tried it.

Up next: tilefish

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

maple and mascarpone cheesecake with walnut shortbread

I did everything I could to mess this dessert up, and I was unable to.

First of all, the recipe says to reduce some maple syrup by two-thirds over low heat. I decided to try to do this despite the fact that maple syrup is basically straight sugar, and anytime I apply heat to sugar, bad things happen. Bad, burned, bitter things.

But I decided I was going to follow the recipe, and not my better judgment.

I put the maple syrup on the stove, over low heat, for the prescribed amount of time. And what happened?

Bad, burned, bitter things.

I got more syrup and decided to skip the reduction step and just accept that it might be a little less maple-y, which I am sure is a word.

Next, I tried to decide whether I wanted to halve the recipe or not. We were going to need four, and the recipe said it made eight. I thought about it hard, consulted a Magic 8 ball and decided that it would probably not be a problem having some extra mini cheesecakes around the house. Full recipe it is.

The recipe said it makes eight cakes cooked in 4-ounce ramekins. My "ramekins" were 8-ounce muffin trays. I thought this might tend to lower the yield. Maybe I would only get six? Maybe karma was taking care of me?

I got 17.

I went back to the recipe to figure out what I had done wrong, and figured out a mistake I made that accounted for part of that whacked yield.

The recipe called for 1 1/2 pounds of mascarpone, and 1 1/2 cups of cream cheese. I missed the different measures, and used 1 1/2 pounds of each, and it turns out 1 1/2 pounds of cream cheese is way more than 1 1/2 cups. I decided not to start over after that mistake, and just accept the cakes in whatever messed up, distasteful state they came out in.

But they were awesome.

The maple that I didn't reduce was used to flavor heavy cream, that was the sauce for the cake, and it tasted fine. I suspect my flubs impacted the texture of the cake, but not in a way that led to complaints.

The cookies were standard shortbreads, except that much of the flour was replaced with ground walnuts. To serve, I cut some up and sprinkled them over the cheesecakes.

This is one of the desserts we had in the great NYC Dessert Blizzard of '11. Despite all the screwups I made, I thought that the flavors were dead on. The texture was a little different. Mine was a little more dense. But I would make this again. And again. Maybe I'll even try to make it the right way.

Up next: jellyfish salad

Monday, July 4, 2011

new york trip

Our recent trip to New York was planned around the James Beard Awards and fell around our anniversary. But here is the meal-by-meal breakdown:

-- We arrived on Sunday morning, with Jeremy in tow, and went to Momofuku Noodle Bar for lunch. Variations on pickles and bowls of noodles, all great. New thing was smoked brisket buns with horseradish mayo (above). Seemed unfair. Also, for dessert, we had cake balls. Make your own joke.

-- Sunday night we met with old pal Wayne and went to Casa Mono, which is the Batali empire's Spanish tapas place. The place was tiny, but we got the choice table in the front corner, possibly because we know someone. We had an embarrassing amount of great food, my fave being the videos with chorizo and clams.

-- Monday afternoon we went to Kin Shop for lunch, where we were blown away. I figured it would be good, but it turned out that I now have another place that I'm going to want to go to every time I go to New York. It is Thai food as interpreted by an American chef, Harold Dieterle, who won the first season of Top Chef. While we were there, Stephanie Izard, who won the fourth season, and Lee Ann Wong, who was also on the first season, were having lunch. But we were too busy tearing into duck laab and beef madtarbark to stargaze. Ok, we stargazed a little. But only after we were done eating. I later found the recipe for the laab online, and I think I'll be making it often. Bonus: In the photo on that link, Harold is sitting where Jeremy was when we were there.

-- We said goodbye to Jeremy, who had to go back to DC to work or something, and I went to the James Beard Awards. What I learned at the James Beard Awards: I am every bit as awkward in a tux as I presumed I might be.

-- Tuesday we had coffee at Bouchon, then walked around and had ok dim sum in Chinatown. Will study the dim sum options and do better next time. Then for dinner we went to Torrisi Italian Specialties, which was one of the finalists for Best New Restaurant at the Beard Awards. Tiny dining room, and we were sitting at a table with a poster of Billy Joel, circa The Stranger, watching over us. Pretty freaking cool. Its one of those places where there is no menu, they just bring you what they are serving that night. Turns out, everything they were serving that night was awesome. So that worked out.

-- Wednesday we went to the Bronx to walk around a botanical gardens on the Hudson River, then had a slice of pizza while waiting for the train back into the city. Then dinner was Mexican near the hotel. it was all fine. It can't all be Torrisi and Momofuku and Kin Shop and Babbo, I guess.

-- Thursday we had planned to go to Ma Peche, the newest link in the Momofuku dynasty, but we got sidetracked and ended up at Lupa, which is Mario Batali's Roman osteria. We took it easy, because dinner was at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship and mecca of culinary hedonism. But we tried the antipasto sampler (above, I loved the beets) and the bucatini alla Amatricana, because I knew I would be making that when I got home. Theirs was awesome. Would mine be?

Then at Babbo, we sort of devised our own tasting menu, and let the pros pair wines for us. Then we ordered one dessert. After a little commotion at the kitchen door, I knew something was going on. One by one, every waiter in the place walked past our table, and set down a dessert. They brought us the whole dessert menu. It was a scene. People were staring. It was hilarious. They didn't all fit on out table, so they pushed a little auxiliary table next to ours to hold the last plates. There were nine, including a plate with all the gelato flavors available that day. (There were seven of those.) "This is something Mario likes to do for his friends," the maitre d' told us. (I think he meant Pam.) Then I tried everything on the table. Didn't finish anything, but tried it all. The banana crostada was my favorite. That's it on the far left. Several of the desserts are things that are in the cookbook and I'll be making, so it was fun to have a baseline to compare it to. One is one I've already made, and I'll post that one next. (Hint: It is sitting right behind the wine glass, on the left side of the photo.)

-- Friday morning we went back to Eataly to stock up on provisions and get something to eat at the airport.

Up next: maple and mascarpone cheesecake