Thursday, October 29, 2015

Just a recipe, no blather

way too much blue cheese in this shot
I'd never try to persuade you that the celery and blue cheese bruschetta from River Cottage Veg Every Day is one of the world's great sandwiches because it so obviously isn't. But if you're looking for a tasty new lunch that takes about 3 minutes to make and involves ingredients you might actually have around, here you go. Don't be put off by the centrality of boring celery. This open-faced sandwich is salty, zesty, refreshing, crunchy, a little creamy, a little sweet. Yum. I've been eating it every day.

Celery and blue cheese bruschetta

1-2 inner stalks celery (i.e. not big, stringy ones)
slice crusty bread (i.e. not soft sandwich bread)
clove garlic
olive oil
small amount of blue cheese (I'd say about 3/4 ounce depending on strength of cheese)
salt and pepper

Thinly slice the celery at an angle. Toast bread. Rub garlic over rough surface of bread. Drizzle with olive oil. Pile on celery. Crumble blue cheese on top. Not too much! The recipe as printed in the book calls for far too much. Drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. You won't think you need the salt and pepper, but it really makes a difference. Kind of messy, but good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The pause that refreshes

I think extreme close-up photos of food will become my trademark.
I od'd on Gabrielle Hamilton and had to go cold turkey. A couple of weeks ago I made her ratatouille sandwich (yummy, oily), dandelions braised in olive oil (pretty good, oily), and the eggplant parmesan (a monumental pain in the ass, delicious, quite oily) and was suddenly tired. Tired of fats, tired of strong flavors, tired of Hamilton's mind games. I took time off from Prune. I'm still taking time off.

Have I turned on the book? Not at all.

But then I've never said Gabrielle Hamilton was pleasant. She's not. She's impossible. One minute she's dictatorial and highly specific ("6 Forelle pears, 1 day short of perfectly ripe") without explaining why or offering alternatives. The next, she is oddly vague, assuming you know what she means by "a rather generous hunk" of salted French butter for dressing the cold tomatoes. Is that two tablespoons? Four? Six? Well, yes, you can make a good guess and things will work out fine. It's the casual imperiousness of it all that bugs me. Her voice is crisp, super-smart and and original, but also snippy, scolding, and verging on contemptuous. I love it. I also hate it. I think she's brilliant and a total bitch.

Random House sent me a copy of Ruth Reichl's new My Kitchen Year and if she is brilliant, that brilliance does not show itself in this cookbook/memoir, which is warm, genial, confiding, and familiar. Reichl writes: "To me, recipes are conversations, not lectures; they are a beginning, not an end. I hope you'll add a bit more of this, a little less of that, perhaps introduce new spices or different herbs. What I really want is for my recipes to become your own."

You will never hear Gabrielle Hamilton say something like that.

Prune is a more interesting, visionary cookbook by far -- and I'm not done with it. But the spinach-ricotta gnocchi and applesauce cake I served for dinner last night from My Kitchen Year were lovely, and cooking from Reichl's recipes was restful. More on both books coming soon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Like a cold, sticky, semi-solid black jelly bean

I don't know about you, but I think my food photography is improving. 
Prune success, Prune failure. 

Success: roasted onions with onion butter sauce and seeds A good dish with the odd twists I’ve come to expect from Gabrielle Hamilton’s odd cookbook. You trim onions (she calls for several varieties), toss with a little oil and salt, and roast. 

As you would predict, the scallions were done before anything else.
Meanwhile, you use the trimmings to make an onion “tea.” When the tea is dark brown and oniony, you mix some of it with butter to create a superrich, superflavorful sauce that you pour over roasted onions. Sprinkle seeds -- poppy, sesame, flax -- and some millet on top of everything. The idea is to replicate the “uncanny” (her word) flavor of an everything bagel. I didn’t taste that, exactly, but what I tasted was plenty delicious. I'd make this again. If you have a magnifying glass and want to try this recipe, it is here.

Failure: black licorice granita. I don’t love black licorice, but every time I flipped past this recipe I grew more curious. I started imagining how it would taste: intense and tar-black, but icy and refreshing. Yum. Had to make it.

You boil 1 cup sugar and 2 cups water for ten minutes to form a syrup, "flavor with" (quote marks there for a reason) 1 cup blackstrap molasses and a tiny bit of anise extract to capture the “uncanny” (GH's word again) flavor of black licorice candy. Put in freezer, scrape with fork periodically to create coarse, icy granita. 

Well, in theory. This was like trying to freeze lava. The mixture got colder and colder and denser and denser, but it never got icy or even completely firm. Completely smooth. I figured I’d made a mistake. Maybe I didn’t put in the second cup of water at the very beginning? Because it was so easy I made it again right away. This time it got a little bit icy, but nothing close to a granita or even a rough sorbet. It was weirdly sticky. 
Second batch: you can see it was a little icy, but the texture was more like brownie batter. The most disgusting brownie batter ever.
And the flavor was horrid -- way too sweet. Overpowering. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to use the full cup of molasses she calls for? She does say to "flavor" the mixture with molasses and anise extract, so does that mean you shouldn't use the full cup she calls for? Then why specify a full cup? Maybe 10 minutes is too long to boil the syrup? I don’t know. If anyone makes this, tell me what happens. I'm done.

I put the pans from the freezer straight into the dishwasher without rinsing because I figured the goo would rinse right down the dishwasher drain. And it did. I opened the dishwasher this morning and the dishes were sparkling clean but holy hell, the licorice fumes! All the other dishes had to be rinsed in the sink because they smelled of licorice.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Remember SnackWells? Dry baked potatoes? Rice cakes?

I’ve never worked with a more buttery cookbook than Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune. Everything swims in butter, but especially the vegetables. 

This raises some interesting questions. Most of us can agree that it is healthy to eat vegetables but not so healthy to eat huge amounts of butter.  But what if butter helps you to eat more vegetables? (And what constitutes a "huge" amount of butter, anyway?) What if butter makes vegetables so tasty that your son who goes weeks without consuming a plant actually eats a (buttery) tomato and says, “This is really good?”  What if a mountain of butter contributed to a pumpkin dish so indescribably salty/sweet/nutty/butterscotchy and delicious, that you drove home to reheat leftovers today rather than getting a frozen custard for lunch?

Obviously, I'm talking about actual Prune dishes.

Beefsteak tomatoes with warm French butter: Peeled, sliced, juicy tomatoes topped with sizzling salted butter. Not so appetizing when the butter eventually congealed all over the cold tomatoes, but so damned good when first brought to the table. 

Pumpkin in ginger beer with nutritional yeast: You slice pumpkin (I used red kuri squash) in wedges and pour over some ginger beer, sprinkle with nutritional yeast,* top with gobs of butter, and roast. How much butter? A third of a pound for a recipe that serves six. Does that seem like a huge amount of butter to you?  More than a stick? It seems like a huge amount to me. That’s just under two tablespoons per person. So many calories.

But then is that really so bad if it gets you to eat the pumpkin? And then after you eat the pumpkin (and the buttered beefsteak tomatoes and small pork chop) you are completely contented and full and don’t have any urge at all to see if there are Eskimo Pies in the freezer? 

I have no answers.

Ok, I guess I do have an answer. I think there’s too much butter on Prune's vegetables for everyday eating, but there’s probably too little butter on a lot of other vegetables. Habits of the fat-phobic1980s die hard.

 *Gabrielle Hamilton uses the terms “nutritional yeast” and “brewers yeast” interchangeably, but I have read they’re not the same thing. I used nutritional yeast.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Mastic fondant

The dish I most wanted to make from the minute I got my copy of Prune was the mastic fondant in ice water. The photo is so mysterious: a plain glass of ice water containing a blob of white paste and a spoon. Here’s a lovely picture of some fondant that resembles the shot in Prune. Can you see why it was intriguing?

Gabrielle Hamilton's vision for Prune didn't include headnotes explaining her recipes, so I had to turn to the internet to learn about mastic fondant. Mastic fondant comes from the apparently vast world of Greek spoon sweets: intense, sugary confections that are served in tiny portions with a glass of ice water.  Spoon sweets can be syrupy preserved fruits, eggplants, nuts, even olives, in addition to the fondant, which comes in different flavors. Mastic, in case you were wondering, is the resin from a Mediterranean evergreen tree; it emerges as sap, but by the time you buy it will look like very small, beige chunks of rock candy. Its flavor is faintly piney.

The other day, I made the mastic fondant. You grind your mastic, cook a syrup of sugar and glucose to 240 degrees, add the ground mastic, cool the syrup to 110 degrees, pour it onto a cold countertop and push it around with a bench scraper for a minute or so until it turns opaque and becomes so stiff that you can’t move it anymore. You then maneuver it into a jar for storage. When you want to serve it, you scoop up a spoonful and put it in a glass of ice water.

It all came off perfectly. I wasn’t going to serve this to anyone in my family so there was no point in waiting. I scooped myself some mastic fondant immediately, for breakfast. It was supersticky and dense with a barely discernible piney flavor. Mostly it tasted like the fondant you might find on a wedding cake, except wet and creamy.  Eating it is fun -- you sort of nibble at it and lick it and dunk it back in the glass where it softens a little more and every tiny bite comes with a refreshing film of cool water. Irresistible, though it wasn’t exactly delicious. It was more like having a delightful new toy.  I couldn't stop eating it. I ate mastic fondant all day and little else, pausing every few hours for another scoop of glucose.
just so you know I'm not making this all up
I felt like bloody hell by 5 o'clock.

Obviously, I love mastic fondant. I knew I would the minute I saw that photo of the white goo in the glass. You can probably tell from what I've written whether mastic fondant is your thing or not. I'm guessing it won't be.

I have to say, I love that Gabrielle Hamilton just threw this super-weird dessert in there between recipes for lemon panna cotta and pear tarte tatin, no context or explanation. Seriously, I love it. It makes the book more exciting, somehow.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Longest, foodiest post ever

pizza rustica
There are four categories of food in Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune
  1. food I would never make because it sounds revolting 
  2. food I would never make because the recipe is too complicated and/or the ingredients a huge hassle to find
  3. food I would happily make make because it looks tasty in a familiar way and the recipe seems manageable 
  4. food that looks so fascinating and weird that I absolutely MUST make it even though there’s a strong possibility I won’t love it. I don’t care how hard the recipe is.
The dishes in Prune are fairly evenly spread between these four categories, which is rare. Most cookbooks have a lot of dishes in categories #2 and #3 and few, if any, in categories #1 and #4.  Categories #1 and #4 are fellow travelers with vision, boldness, and arrogance, all qualities GH has in abundance.

I should say here that category #4 has always been my favorite category. There are category #4 dishes that I've been wondering about for decades, like Marcella Hazan’s tonnarelli with cantaloupe.

Here's a more detailed breakdown: 

I put GH’s recipes for veal heart, tripe, tongue, et cetera, into category #1. 

Category #2 is larger than it should be. Maiale tonnato -- thinly sliced pork blanketed in tuna mayonnaise -- looks great, but GH directs you to braise the pork in octopus broth. Not happening.  Likewise, a rice dish calls for duck stock and another dish for duck cracklings. Nope. Suckling pig is a nonstarter and I’m not asking the butcher to special order me pigeons. Also in category #2: banana bread. GH gives restaurant-scale pan measurements for the banana bread. So irritating and imperious. Screw that.

I’ve worked my way through Category #3 with fairly good results. I made her basic pork chops and oven-roasted cauliflower last winter and wrote about it. The fennel baked in cream was unbelievably rich and delicious.  I made her pancakes and that is one very obnoxious recipe. Hamilton has nothing to teach you about pancakes unless you want to be told to “measure out the dry ingredients and sift through a tamis” or “crack the eggs into a china cap set over a large metal bain.”  

I’ve made the spaghetti carbonara (good) twice and the dreamy kouign amann between five and ten times.  The poached peach with toasted almond cream was fine. I wouldn’t make that one again. The burgers were great, but I probably won’t make them again either because you can do good burgers without GH's time-consuming, cheffy twists. The smoky eggplant was lovely, but the accompanying sesame flatbread didn’t work. There’s a bona fide error in the recipe (the "1 1/4 cups water" should be 1/4 cup water), but even after I adjusted for that: problems. 

Her pan bagnat -- a version of the classic Provencal tuna-tomato-olive sandwich -- is insanely good. I made it twice in September. Recipe at end of the post.

But category #4 is the true glory of Prune. A cold pate sandwich on white bread slathered with mayonnaise and mustard? Never had one, but I’m on the case. Nor have I ever eaten bread heels and pan dripping salad. You roast two garlicky, lemony, mustardy chickens, tear them apart in the pans so they give up all their flavorful juices. Then you “put a few leaves of torn Bibb lettuce in a wooden salad bowl and slightly overdress. Set in a hot spot on a shelf above the grill until the salad looks sad and wilted. Set a couple of torn heels or crusts of bread on top of the salad in the bowl and spoon over a generous soaking of chicken pan drippings and a spoonful of vinaigrette.”


More category #4 dishes I haven't made, but plan to: Fresh Jersey tomatoes dressed with melted French butterMastic fondant -- a mysterious blob of sweet white goo that you serve in a glass of ice water. Fried mascarpone with fennel sugar. Black licorice granita

Of the category #4 dishes I've actually cooked, most have been sensational. Braised lamb shoulder with lemons. Peaches on buttered toast. Strawberry milk. Bacon and marmalade sandwich on pumpernickel. Grape Nuts with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. I blame that last dish for at least three pounds of weight gain in 2015.

I don't think I got the salt-packed cold roast beef with bread crumb salsa quite right; I might have to try that again one of these years. The slushy frozen milk punch was too sharply alcoholic to make again, but was definitely category #4, as was a short-dough pizza rustica that contains nothing but flour, egg, butter, mozzarella, salt, and pepper. How could that possibly be anything but bland? It couldn't be. It is bland. Buttery, cheesy, floury, white, and bland. I liked it the first time I made it, but not all that much. And yet as the months passed I kept thinking about it. I made it again last night and it was exactly as remembered and I was so happy. I love this dish. The right kind of floury, buttery bland can worm its way into your heart.

I put the zucchini with green onions and poblano peppers in category #4 because I couldn’t imagine how poblano peppers (Mexican) would marry with a whole mess of sweet butter (French). The dish started to preoccupy me. The other night I made it and it was amazing. 

In conclusion, there is a lot of amazing in this cookbook. There is definitely some annoying, but there is more amazing.

I have now told you about every single dish I have cooked from Prune.

Two recipes for you. Banner day.

Zucchini with green onions and poblanos, slightly adapted

Slice 1 1/2 pounds firm, smallish zucchini into 3/4 inch rounds. Slice 1/4 pound scallions (yes, that's a lot) into 1/4 inch rings, using all of the vegetable -- don’t stop when you get to the dark green part. Thinly slice 3 cloves garlic. Chop 1 poblano into 1/2-inch pieces. Melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a dutch oven over moderate heat. Add scallions, poblano, and garlic, season with salt, and let sweat for a few minutes with the lid on. Add the zucchini, season again to taste, add 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. Stir to coat the zucchini with butter and let cook for a minute or two. Add 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and cover tightly. Cook 20-25 minutes until soft and almost falling apart. This needs to be served with bread to soak up the juices, which are delicious. As you have probably surmised, it is not a diet dish.

Pan bagnat isn’t a diet dish either, but if you omit the bread and eat it as a salad, it works on almost every diet I can think of. I highly recommend trying it at least once with the bread.

1 pound fresh tuna 
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (I use fancy kind per GH’s instructions) 
1 pound ripe tomatoes cut into 1/2 inch dice (she says to peel and seed; I haven’t and wouldn’t)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 lemon, supremed and chopped
2 tablespoons jarred capers 
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup pitted, sliced kalamata olives
1 red bell pepper, chopped 
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced into half moons
salt, black pepper

4 ciabatta rolls (Safeway carries them, though you can improvise with a loaf of ciabatta.)

Lightly brush tuna with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, sear in a very hot cast-iron skillet until medium rare. (Or grill the tuna -- that’s what she says to do.) Use your hands and tear the tuna into 1- or 2-inch hunks and strips. Combine all the other ingredients except the bread and nestle the tuna hunks in the mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Slice ciabatta rolls horizontally, hinging, without cutting all the way through. Set on a sheet pan. Fill with the tuna -- really heap it in there and make sure you use plenty of the liquid. (You’ll have extra tuna so you could make another sandwich or two, but the tuna is good the next day on its own.) Cover the sandwiches with some parchment and weight down in the refrigerator for a few hours with something heavy, like an unopened box of kosher salt. Flip after an hour if you remember. These are messy, wet, and absolutely great.