Monday, April 28, 2008

Lasagna My Way

I think lasagna is a great dish to make for a dinner party. It can be made ahead of time and it stays warm for a long time so there is some built-in flexibility. It is really easy to make and most people like it.
Start with a simple marinara sauce: Canned plum tomatoes; garlic; olive oil; salt and pepper. You can add a few anchovies if keeping it vegetarian isn't a concern. The filling is a mixture of 3 pounds Ricotta cheese, 4 eggs, 3/4 cup Parmesan, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1-1/2 Tbsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper. Just mix it all up in a bowl and set aside. Then shred about a pound of mozzarella and 3/4 pound of provolone.
To assemble the lasagna, use a deep pan and start with sauce on the bottom. Then a layer of lasagna noodles, then ricotta mixture and a sprinkle of the shredded cheeses. There is no need to cook the noodles, if the sauce is wet and loose they will cook perfectly in the oven. Repeat layers until the pan is almost full. Be sure to end with sauce and cheese, not noodles.
Cover the pan with 2 layers of Saran wrap and 1 layer of foil. Bake at 350 for 1-1/2 hours, then let it sit, covered for at least 30-40 minutes or up to 1 hour. If you make it ahead of time, refrigerate before cooking and allow an extra half hour cooking time.
That's it. This is an easy dish. All of the work can be done anywhere from 2 hours to a few days before you want to serve it and it will taste just as good either way.

In defense of Parsley

Parsley seems to be universally accepted as a garnish, but almost ignored as a flavorful herb. I think part of the fault lies with curly parsley which doesn't lend itself to cooking so well. It really must be chopped to be used as an ingredient and its flavor leaves much to be desired.
Flat leaf or Italian parsley however is very flavorful and can be simply picked into small pieces, sliced with scissors or cut into a chiffonade. Any one of these techniques will yield much more flavor than pulverizing the poor parsley to death in a food processor.
Parsley has a clean flavor that complements many different dishes. It brightens up the earthy qualities of roasted vegetables or meats. It softens the sharpness of vinegar or lemon juice and it can of course add visual appeal to a dull looking dish of just about any kind. It is one of those ingredients, like salt and pepper, that doesn't really seem to clash with anything savory.
Parsley is a great herb to grow yourself. It is really low maintenance and growing your own means that you can pick just a few sprigs without having to buy a whole bunch to wilt in the bottom of your produce drawer. While it will grow just fine in a sunny window, the flavor will be much better if grown outside.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Attention Cheese Lovers

I just discovered that my favorite cheese shop has a blog that I think is very informative. Check it out.
And if you are in Philadelphia, don't miss their store in the Italian market. It is a family owned customer friendly place with the best selection of cheese and Italian specialties you'll find in the area.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Campfire Cooking

Tonight I'll be heading for the Catskills to do some tent camping. One of the best parts of a camping trip is cooking on a hardwood campfire. The flavor imparted from real wood can't be beat. It has a purity that even natural lump charcoal, my preferred charcoal of choice, can't match. I think being outdoors in the fresh air of the Catskills definitely gets the appetite going. Hiking, wood cutting and swimming help too. But a thick sirloin steak cooked on a hot hardwood fire is probably the tastiest steak that there is.
In the Summer I like to grill corn right in the husks. One Summer while camping on North Hero Island we grilled local butter and sugar corn on driftwood collected from Lake Champlain. It was THE best corn I've ever had in my life and I live in a state renowned for its sweet corn.
Besides my boys favorite campfire foods, hot dogs on a stick and s'mores, I like to grill chicken parts, fish and chops too. In short, anything that can be grilled seems better grilled on a campfire.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Why knife skills matter

 Sometimes when reading a recipe you come across words like chop, dice, mince and slice. If you are making a puree of broccoli soup you might wonder what's the difference how I cut my onions since they're all eventually going into the blender anyway. In short, the answer is that it matters quite a bit.
 Most soups and sauces call for a mirepoix in the beginning, which is essentially a mixture of some aromatic vegetables which build the foundation of flavor for the final product. Paying close attention to detail here really is important because it can have a profound impact on the flavor at the end. Minced onions might taste burned if they are included in a mirepoix with big pieces of carrot and celeriac. Conversely, rough chopped vegetables might give too much of a raw vegetal taste to a sauce.
 Recipes should indicate how to cut the vegetables for the mirepoix, but if they don't a good rule of thumb is that they should be somewhat uniform in size and shape. You might want to cut hard vegetables like carrots and parsnips slightly smaller than softer ones like onions and celery.
 Now the reason why I titled this post "Why knife skills matter" is because how you get the mirepoix cut is probably more important than why you cut it to begin with. The First Commandment of mirepoix cutting is "Thou shall not use a food processor". Even a brand new one with a razor sharp blade will tear and crush the vegetables instead of chopping or dicing them. This is really important because vegetables naturally have a high water content. If they're crushed the water weeps out of them immediately, contributing off-flavors which won't cook out.
 Think about waking up in the morning and having a delicious glass of celery juice. Is this the flavor that comes to mind when you taste Coq au Vin or Ratatouille. These dishes both depend heavily on how the vegetables are cut. No machine can do it properly.
 Hand cut vegetables also make a big difference in things like coleslaw. Machine chopped cabbage is so watery that even a thick dressing will result in soupy coleslaw.
 Try chopping, slicing and dicing by hand the next time you make something that calls for vegetables to be cut and you will see what I mean.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Reading Between the Lines

 Humor me for a minute if you will. You are going out for dinner tonight to a new place that opened a few months ago that you have been meaning to try. No one has been there yet so you really don't know what to expect, but you've decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a go. After all, it's only 1 meal in your lifetime, right? What's the worst that could happen? 
 You sit down and are handed a menu. This is it! How do you know if something will taste good? When reading a menu for the first time, you have to try and get a feel for the place. Sometimes it's so easy. Everything sounds great. Things just seem to go together naturally. Your biggest dilemma is that you are expected to narrow down your choices to maybe 1 or 2 appetizers and 1 entree. Great problem to have.
 But wait, what's that? Seared Diver Scallops with a Huckleberry Pilaf and Pomegranate Emulsion.... What? You're in for trouble.... Why? Because unless the restaurant you are eating in happens to be named Jean Georges, the chef probably has no clue what they're doing. So few chefs understand how to pair fruit with savory items. Generally you get a highfalutin pancake topping. 
 The reason some fruits pair well with some rich foods is because of the fruit's natural acidity. But for some reason too many restaurant chefs take the fruit and bring it right to the edge of tasting like sundae topping, or in the worst case, over the edge. I have been disappointed so many times that unless I really know the chef I will steer clear of any dish that sounds like it might be suited for a pie crust and a glass of milk to wash it down.
 I don't know why this trend is so prevalent. Is it fear of rejection? Do people not understand the role that acidity plays in cooking? I really like Steak au Poivre. I really like Peach Cobbler, but please don't pair them with each other! They won't enhance the other one. Keep dessert as a separate course.
 I'll take a good Duck a l'Orange any day. But hold back on the sugar. I want to taste the duck.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Roasting Asparagus

 Over the past few years I have fundamentally changed the way I cook asparagus. I no longer steam or boil it, ever. I roast it in a cast iron skillet with a little olive oil and salt. Try it once or twice and you'll never go back. I like to roast it to the point where some of the tips are black, just before burned. The flavor is incredible because of the smoky taste that the roasting imparts as well as the fact that you aren't boiling away flavor. The roasting really concentrates the flavor and enhances the texture.
 The same results can be obtained on a grill as well. I wouldn't light a fire just to cook asparagus, but if you are grilling anyway, why not? Just toss the asparagus with a little olive oil and salt and lay it on the grill perpendicular to the bars. Leave it on the grill until it gets really dark then flip it once and cook for another minute or two. 
 Regardless of which way you choose, don't blanch it ahead of time. Even thick asparagus works really well with this method. Just cook it a little longer over a slightly lower heat. I like to take it out of the pan or off the fire and cut the lower half of the spears in  1/8 inch slices, then just leave the tips whole. It's all delicious!
 Other vegetables like cauliflower and carrots are truly transformed this way too. Try it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Blue Cheese

 One of my favorite things to cook with or to just eat is blue cheese. The endless variety of blue cheeses means that you can always find the perfect one for any application. They may be sharp, mild, dry or crumbly and mostly they're all delicious.
 First of all as you probably know, most blue cheese isn't really blue! It is usually white or pale yellow with blue/green veins running through it. Blue cheese can be made from cow's milk, goat's milk, sheep's milk or any combination of them. It is injected with micro-organisms like penicillium roqueforti, penicillium glaucum or other mold spores which are related to the antibiotic penicillin. Blue cheese mold spores actually may have mild antibiotic properties which prevent pathogens from developing during the cheese making process. 
 The most well known, and therefore probably the easiest to find, blues are Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton and Danish Blue. Each one of these has distinct properties as well as a distinct heritage.
  Young Gorgonzola is very creamy, known as Gorgonzola Dolce (Sweet). Aged Gorgonzola is firmer and crumbly and is known as Gorgonzola Piccante (Spicy) or Mountain Gorgonzola. It is usually made at higher elevations, thus the name Mountain. Mountain Gorgonzola has a more complex flavor profile because the forage that the cows graze on is more diverse than the sweet meadow grass of the lowlands. Gorgonzola is perfect for melting on burgers or blending into a sauce because of it's creamy texture.
 Roquefort is a French blue made from sheep's milk and is widely believed to have been the first blue cheese ever made. It is spicy and creamy and has green veins running through it. It makes a great table cheese but also can be added to salads for a little "Je ne sais quoi". Roquefort was originally made by grating the mold collected from stale bread right into the cheese before aging. The cheese would then be aged in caves, alongside the bread for the next batch. These days the bacteria are cultured in a more controlled environment to achieve consistency.
 The famous English cheese, Stilton, is very firm and anchors my favorite Autumn lunch with local apples and some good crusty bread. Stilton is mild compared to Roquefort or Gorgonzola, and it can be used in any number of ways.
 Danish Blue is perfect for crumbling into salads. It's crumbly texture and salty tang make it a perfect cheese for salad. 
 An American cheese, Maytag Blue has a similar texture to Danish Blue with a flavor a bit closer to Stilton.
 Spanish blue cheeses like Cabrales and Valdeon are also delicious and worth seeking out. Cashel Blue from Ireland is another notable standout.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Cooking Birds

 Probably my favorite thing to cook is a bird. Be it a chicken, duck, squab, wood pigeon, guinea hen or pheasant. There is nothing more satisfying then cooking a bird properly. Part of the fun is that every type of bird is a little different, so the technique varies with each one. Chicken, which we all cook so many different ways, is the perfect bird to roast whole. Duck benefits from using two techniques, one for the leg and one for the breast.
 The lifestyle of the bird is probably the best pointer to how it should be cooked. Pheasant walk around quite a bit, so they develop muscular legs. They are also very lean birds, so the breast can't endure too much high-heat cooking. I have found that pheasant also benefit from using two cooking methods. Braising the leg in sauerkraut and slow-roasting the breast makes a succulent dish. The sauerkraut seems to help keep the leg moist during the cooking, while adding incredible flavor. Slow-roasting the breast insures that it will be tender without drying out. Never bone out a pheasant breast before cooking. It is a sure way to make a dry tasteless meal.
 Scottish wood pigeon on the other hand is the only bird I know of that actually benefits from being cooked off the bone. It has such a strong taste that cooking it off the bone, wrapped in cabbage leaves, makes it moist and delicious.
 The two techniques to cook a duck are confit for the leg, and pan roasting for the breast meat. This results in a tender and tasty dish that offers the best of what each cut has to offer. Slice the breast meat after pan roasting it medium-rare, and serve it with the confit leg. Creamy polenta makes a great side dish with this, as does roasted root vegetable risotto.
 Birds offer a chance to employ many different cooking techniques, including making stock from the bones. A simple reduction of the stock with some wine and aromatics makes a great sauce to complement the meat.
 Try cooking a bird that you haven't cooked before, or cook a familiar bird with a new technique. Post a comment beforehand if you want a pointer, or afterwards to share your experience with other readers. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Would You join a Supper Club?

 I am soliciting feedback for a concept that intrigues me. Several years ago my restaurant expanded a bit, adding 2 dining rooms and converting an existing  one into a bar. One of the new rooms is a small room with 1 large table, and has the feel of a dining room in someone's home. Before it opened for business, we floated the idea of forming a private supper club every Wednesday night for 8 to 10 members. The idea would be you must join the club and pay upfront for a weekly meal. The menu would change week to week, but there would be no choices. A 3-course meal might be something like Tomato Bread Salad, Coq au Vin with Spaetzle, then Chocolate Pot de Creme for dessert. The price would be reasonable, maybe $30 per person. If you can't attend one night you can send a friend in your stead. But there are no cancelations, and no refunds. 
 I think the dynamics could be really interesting. Most weeks the group would be roughly the same, but occasionally there would be some "new blood" thrown in. While I understand that this concept isn't for everyone, I think there might be 10 people out there who would enjoy such a thing. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Eat your (bitter) greens

 Did you ever wonder why some people like broccoli rabe, mustard greens and Swiss chard so much? It's because they are bitter! Why would someone seek out bitter vegetables you may ask. Contrast. Think about roasted garlic, roasted chicken or grilled steak. What do they have in common? They're all sweet. 
 Bitter greens complement the sweetness and I think actually enhance the foods that you serve with them. Diced ham or other cured meat lends an added bonus of saltiness to go with the sweetness. Grilled steak has caramelized bits on the outside that really add sweetness. Roasted garlic of course can taste like candy, as can roasted root vegetables and caramelized onions. Any or all of these things go really well with sauteed greens. 
 Last night at dinner I taught my son Zack a little trick. He was complaining that he didn't like broccoli rabe so he shouldn't have to eat it. He had already eaten his miniscule portion of roasted chicken and was staring at the broccoli rabe, pleading for clemency. I told him if he eats a little more chicken, shredded with the broccoli rabe that it wouldn't taste so bitter. I cut him a piece of chicken and he cleaned his plate. I figure if it works for a 7-year old, it might work for you.