Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brick Roux Magic

Vegetarian Gumbo
Save this one for a cold, drizzly day. I think that we've seen the last of those for a while here in Chicago. And even so, that won't be enough keep me from what remains of this gumbo. Have you ever had something made with a brick roux? It's what makes this gumbo. Like any roux, it's just fat and flour--the magic of it is in the extended spell it spends in the oven, getting dark and smoky, with a savour unlike anything else I've ever tasted. It permeates the gumbo and lingers on tongue, leaving you a little wide-eyed, a little desperate for more. Brick roux is a serious and heady affair.
But that doesn't make it difficult. Just lug out your trusty cast-iron dutch oven (or another heavy-bottomed, oven-proof vessel of your choosing), whisk together equal amounts of flour and oil, and let things work their magic in the oven. In about an hour and a half, you'll have a rich, dark red paste--the real soul of your gumbo. The rest is a matter of sautéing and simmering, as you might expect--a mirepoix of onion, celery, and green pepper (the Cajun trinity), creamy beans, some collards, if you like. Irresistible on a cold, dark day, (though I might not wait even that long to make this again--I have a friend who strongly hinted that he'd welcome some more soon, despite the heat).
A final note about brick roux and gumbo. Unlike the sort of roux you're likely familiar with--pale and prized for its thickening power in béchamel and the like--brick roux is all flavour and won't do any work when it comes to thickening your gumbo. For this, turn to filé powder, the ground leaves of the sassafras plant, which, I'm told, is the traditional ingredient for thickening gumbo. The powder also adds a slight lemony note to the gumbo and complements the savour of the roux. If you can't find filé, a handful of chopped okra is a good second. I actually prefer okra, even if it flouts tradition. Decide for yourself the next time you're in need of something to warm you.

Vegetarian Gumbo
Adapted from  Alton Brown and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Note: a few things--first, the beans. If you can find yourself a bag of Camellia Brand red kidney beans from Louisiana, good on you. According to Cook's Illustrated, anyway, they're the preferred bean of New Orleans cooks--thin-skinned and very creamy. Otherwise, you might try the more widely available Mexican Red bean. Personally, I like the Brown Tepary bean, which you can find at Rancho Gordo. It has a nice grassy sweetness that complements the smokiness of the gumbo (the beans pictured above are butter beans--also good but not particularly noteworthy). Second, I like to give my roux an extra 10 minutes in the oven. The one time I didn't, it didn't quite have its usual smoky intensity. Don't get too daring with it, though--you want brick roux not blackened roux. Also, please use care when handling your roux--it is, after all, very hot fat and flour. Finally, filé powder, the ground leaves of the sassafras plant, is the traditional thickener in gumbo, and you can find with the other spices at a well-stocked grocery store or at a place that specialises in Cajun food. Otherwise, okra is a fine substitute and will thicken your gumbo just the same.

8 oz dried beans, sorted and soaked (see note above)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

4 oz vegetable oil
4 oz all-purpose flour

4 cups good-quality vegetable broth
1 medium onion, diced
1 small green bell pepper, diced (about a 1/2 cup)
2 stalks of celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
2-3 cups collard greens, chopped
1 tablespoon filé powder or 2 oz okra, trimmed and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the oil and flour in a 5- to 6-quart cast-iron dutch oven and whisk into a smooth paste. Place the dutch oven on the middle shelf of the oven and bake, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours--give or take 15 minutes--whisking two to three times throughout the cooking process.
Meanwhile, place the beans in a 2-quart saucepan with enough water to cover them by an inch. Add the salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Leave them cooking at a hard boil for 5 minutes, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to low and gently simmer, covered, until beans are tender. Cooking times vary widely between bean varietals.
When the roux is done, carefully remove it from the oven and set it over medium-high heat. Gently add onions, green pepper, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring constantly for 7 to 8 minutes or until the onions are translucent.
Add the tomatoes, black pepper, cayenne, thyme, and bay leaves and stir to combine. Gradually add the vegetable broth while stirring continuously. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Then add the collards and beans and cook for 20 minutes more--if using okra, add 10 minutes in. Salt to taste (with the vegetable broth I use, I find that salt isn't necessary).
Turn off the heat. Add filé while stirring constantly. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Serve over rice.
Serves 6-8

Friday, May 20, 2011

When the vegetables won out

Braised collards
My parents are very different people. My mother is about as straight-laced and sensible as they come. She was the one who made sure I flossed, took me to the library on weekends, and drilled me on multiplication at the bus stop (before my class was even being taught multiplication, of course). My father, by comparison, is thoughtful and open-hearted but a bit of an oddball. He was the one who taught me how to ride a bicycle and to skate, helped me dig up the garden looking for worms (to my mother's chagrin), and let me watch films I probably shouldn't have at the time (what is a five or six year-old supposed to make of Tim Burton's Batman Returns?). As you might imagine, then, there were a number of deep and extended disagreements in our household about what would be best for me--not the last of which being what I should eat. My mother grew us string beans, tomatoes, and strawberries in the garden. My father came home laden with crisp-skinned, roasted pork shoulders, ice cream, and french fries. Call it a battle for my young palate (and my arteries), if you will.
The green things eventually won out. I grew up loving broccoli and determinedly continued to eat vegetables--and lots of them--even through my undergrad days away from home. And now, all through the winter here--a winter mostly of root vegetables and canned San Marzanos--my most frequent complaint to my boyfriend was this: "We're not eating enough vegetables!"
Now, a lot of this is just our laziness. When we're busy writing, which is most of the time, we tend to favour one-pot dinners. An extra side of vegetables on some nights is just too much to muster. But it's also that we live in the Midwest, and the winter produce just doesn't inspire. You can only braise so much cabbage and roast so many carrots. We've been trying to remedy this lately with a weekly delivery service that gives priority to regional produce. It's been working so far. Though the boxes are still partly supplemented with some Californian produce, we've been getting a good lot of regional stuff--overwintered spinach, just dug sunchokes, and, of course, the season's very first greens.
Here's something I cooked up from what we so happened to find in our produce box over the past couple of weeks. It's a preparation of collard greens, something I'd never had up until that point. I had been under the impression that collards would be tough and bitter and take a lot of cooking to be edible (collards aren't really a thing where I come from), so I was taken aback when I sampled a spoonful of them after a quick braise in some vegetable stock--so tender and with only the slightest hint of bitterness. I will definitely be eating a lot collards this way next winter. Tossed with a handful of creamy beans or crowned with a poached egg and with some crusty bread alongside, these make a meal.

Braised Collards
1 medium bunch of collard greens (about 10 leaves), stems removed
2 small onions, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup of good vegetable stock
Olive oil
Sea salt
1 cup of cooked beans

In a medium-sized pot, warm about 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Saute the onions in the oil until soft and golden, 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, roughly chop the collards, cutting them into ribbons first and then chopping those crosswise.
Add the garlic and greens a garlic to the pot and saute until the garlic is fragrant and the greens wilted, 1-2 minutes.
Add the vegetable stock--just enough to cover--and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer, covered for 25-30 minutes. Stir in beans and salt to taste.
Serves 2

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lucky Peach Sneak Peeks

My boyfriend and I started watching No Reservations one summer while visiting with his parents. There's not much to do out there but read, watch for the occasional deer poking around in the backyard, or sit in front of the TV. After the painfully long academic year, we opted for lots of TV. I caught the end of the `San Francisco' episode, where Bourdain is biting into a bloody burger and remarks with relish "Tastes like it died screaming." Not particularly put off by the humour (which, by the way, is typical of Bourdain, defying the likes of Alice Waters and shunning places like Chez Panisse to eat greasy diner meat), I kicked up my feet for the next episode and called for my boyfriend to join me. We were immediately smitten with Bourdain--his snark, his appreciation for local life and perspectives (street meat and all), his often cutting insight into the state of things. Tony Bourdain is a man whose hand I'd like to shake. And No Reservations is still our go-to when we want to wind down in front of the TV. So, I can't wait to see what Bourdain, David Chang, and their fellow editors have gotten up to with Lucky Peach, McSweeney's new culinary quarterly. The first issue is due June 14, and its theme is ramen. 
McSweeney's sent out this little excerpt of a grim conversation between Bourdain, Chang, and Wylie Dufresne yesterday, which will appear in the first issue. It's classic Bourdain (which is to say, it's sharp, bleak, and full of expletives--be warned). Find more teasers like the one above here, at McSweeney's.
Scene: Café de la Concha, 1 Mira Concha, San Sebastián, Spain.
It is nighttime, and DAVID CHANG, TONY BOURDAIN, and WYLIE DUFRESNE are gathered around a table. A January storm rages outside and keeps the café nearly empty. The three Americans—in town to speak at a conference—are catching up over hard cider and pintxos, and talking, at CHANG's behest, about culinary mediocrity back in their homeland.
TONY: So what about all these kids rolling out of culinary school now, with their $80,000 in debt? They're totally jacked there.
DAVID: We're all their fucking problem. We're sort of a catalyst for them.
TONY: We're inspiring generations of kids to go to culinary school.
DAVID: Could you have achieved your career without having gone to culinary school?
WYLIE: Sure. Of course I could have. I went to college, too.
DAVID: But now, what percentage of kids going to culinary school are actually going to contribute to a real kitchen? Like a two-Michelin-star, one-Michelin-star, whatever, a real fucking kitchen. Zero.
TONY: Man, that's such a dark worldview. I just spoke to a kid today who came up to me and said, "You came up to the Culinary Institute of America five years ago and gave a commencement address." I have no recollection of meeting this person. She asked me then, "What should I do after school?" And I said, "Do what I didn't do. Acknowledge the fact that you're not going to make any money at all, you're not going to get paid for two years, and go work for the best. I would suggest Spain, some place like Mugaritz." She's at Mugaritz now. Come on, man, that's a fucking awesome start.
DAVID: And if you didn't talk to her, she'd probably—
TONY: Oh no, don't do that. My point is that there are actually people who come rolling out of culinary school—maybe it's a tiny, tiny number, but probably proportionally more than during my time—who don't see the Hilton as a fantastic gig, or a cruise ship or a country club, and understand that if they wanna be great, if they want to be really good, then they have to start looking at places like Mugaritz or Arzak.
WYLIE: I disagree with that. I think unfortunately there is more of a mediocritizing of the average culinary-school graduate now than there was way back when. I think to a certain extent schools are selling them a bill of goods. "Come to culinary school, go through our program, and in six to eight months you could be the chef of this or that." Not "Come to our schools and we'll give you the absolute basics so you can go out into the world and work for pennies." But that's the truth. Today it's, "You could end up on TV."
TONY: Fuck, you're right. So we're part of the problem.
DAVID: We're part of the problem.
TONY: We suck. We are destroying what we love.
WYLIE: You more than me.
 Well, there goes my back-up, back-up plan.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The pursuit

Country loaf
Everyone--drop your wooden spoons and get yourself a copy of Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread. This man will instruct you in the making of some seriously magnificent wild-yeast loaves. Think blistered, burnished, and crackling crust. Think lush, open, and irregular crumb. I had never baked loaves quite so lovely (okay, my scoring needs work, serious work), and now there's no turning back.
If you're like me, baking bread for you isn't just a matter of putting food on the table. It's about nourishing the people who sit with you at that table and about carrying on a tradition as old as any. And just for those reasons, it's something you do in pursuit of the perfect loaf. You have a vision of what bread should be like, of what breaking bread with those around you should be like, and you constantly look for ways to get that much closer to it. Well, Tartine Bread might just be the thing you've been looking for. You get to drink deeply of Robertson's particular vision-- bread "with an old soul"--and to understand what goes into the loaves at Tartine, his bakery in San Francisco. And this, I must say, goes a long way.
More Tartine
One of the things I like best about the book is what you're to take from it--not just a recipe or two but a more immersive approach to baking. You're encouraged to bake with your senses--to smell your starter to gauge its maturity, to feel your dough's readiness for its first shaping, to recognise by its shape that you've developed its tensile strength adequately. Throughout, Robertson's voice is instructive and reassuring, but he leaves you to make and, therein, learn to make the right calls. It takes attentiveness and sometimes even a bit of courage, but, in the end, you're a better baker for it.
As with any such use of wild yeast, baking bread by Robertson's methods takes some dedication. There's the starter to maintain (though, I've been getting away with feeding mine about once a week since I only bake about that often), and proofing from start to finish takes a good 6-8 hours. But the bread is outstanding.
Open crumb
Robertson's method combines a lot of familiar home-baking wisdom, but I've never seen it all come together in one place and so beautifully. It goes something like this: (1) start with young leaven, that is, leaven still in a sweet-smelling and relatively immature stage of its development, (2) mix a very wet dough, at least 75 percent of the flour's weight, (3) to help along the dough's development, turn it in its bowl every half-hour during the initial proofing (much easier than conventional counter-top kneading), (4) shape the dough twice before its final proofing for better tensioning and oven-spring, (5) bake the bread in a pre-heated cast-iron dutch oven, which mimics a professional oven and gives the loaf the steamy environment it needs for its first 20 minutes.
French toast
And if you ever find yourself with leftover bread, there is a trove of gorgeous-looking recipes that call for day-old bread at the end of the book. The porchetta is certainly off-limits for me is crazy good (I've had a change of heart regarding meat-eating since having written this post), but the French toast? Custardy, caramelised, and buttery as it should be.

Baked French Toast
Adapted from Tartine Bread
Robertson suggests that you serve this with a very ripe Hachiya persimmon spread on top and maple bacon on the side, but blueberries and maple syrup are fine by me. I suspect that if you returned the skillet to the stove after baking and flipped the toast and let it caramelise for a minute or two, it would be even better. All the better to soak up more of that buttery goodness in the bottom of the skillet and get more crunch. I'll try this next time around.

3 eggs
1 oz / 2 tablespoons sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
0.5 oz / 1 tablespoon armagnac (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
8 oz / 1 cup milk
2 slices day-old country bread, each about 1 1/2 inches thick
1 oz / 2 tablespoons butter, salted if you like

To make the custard base, in a bowl, stir together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, vanilla, armagnac, salt, and milk.
Place the bread slices in the custard base and let stand until the bread is saturated, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Heat a skillet over medium-low heat. Melt the butter to coat the bottom of the pan. Lift each bread slice from the custard base and place in the pan. Cook the slices for about 3 minutes, occasionally pressing them against the bottom of the pan with a spatula so the bottoms cook evenly. This step seals the bottoms of the slices by cooking the outer layer of the custard base. It also prepares the bread for receiving more custard base.
Spoon or ladle more custard base into the center of each bread slice. If the liquid leaks out of the bread and onto the skillet, the bread slices are not quite sealed. Continue cooking for 1 minute, pressing the slices slightly to seal. When the slices are full of custard base, carefully transfer the skillet to the middle rack of the oven. Do not turn the toast.
Bake the slices for 12 to 15 minutes and then gently shake the pan. If the custard base is still liquid, continue baking and check again. Depending on the thickness of the slices, the custard may take up to 20 minutes to cook all the way through. The French toast is done when the custard seems solid and each slice appears inflated, as the custard souffles when fully cooked.
Using the spatula, remove the French toast from the skillet and place them, caramelized-side up onto plates. The skillet side should be caramelized and crisp.
Serves 2.