Monday, March 31, 2008

I was thinking about cream.
Ok, first off, let me say I love cream. Cream rocks. I mean, who doesn't love cream? Think about cream right now. Its' rich, unctuous pour. Its' pure opaque almost solid whiteness. Soft sliding peaks of whipped cream, dissolving coolly on the tongue into buttery air. The way, when dribbled into a sauce, the sauce becomes gloriously cohesive, all the disparate elements nestling closer, all the liquids amalgamating into a thickened, luxurious happy family.
It's really that last quality I was thinking about. I was over at Andrew's house, drinking Gato Negro and cooking dinner as he danced around the living room to some phatty grooves, and as I poured two pints of cream over my polish sausage, garlic and chard and turned down the heat to let it reduce, he broke off the rockin long enough to come over and take a deep tipsy sniff. 'MMMM' he said. 'That's gonna be good'.
Ten minutes later I tossed in some grated parm and half a box of cooked taglietelli, and yo, do I even have to tell you that shit was delicious? Andrew went, 'yum, yum'. Andrew's housemate said 'Hella good' or words to that effect. And they both pronounced general admiration of my sick culinary skills.
NOW here's what I'm saying. Not to dispel admiration, I love admiration, but all you cooks out there, don't you ever feel a flicker - well, partly of guilt, but more of a kind of silent smugness at your own cunning? Cream is such a cheat!!! People who don't cook CAN'T TELL that when you add cream you are really making the easiest sauce ever!! There's practically no skill involved! Can you think of ANYTHING you couldn't saute with garlic and reduce in cream that WOULDN'T be good??? It's like the crack cocaine of food. Like, some gibbering fiend in a Tuscon slum could cook that shit up over a bunson burner filched from the high school science lab and her gap-toothed crackhead date would ooh and ahh at her Emiril-esque talent. Or maybe that comparison also works as a metaphor, like, by cooking up lovely pure cocaine with a ton of dead babies or whatever they use, baking soda maybe, you get a primo high that's actually totally shit for you and no one's the wiser!! Not that cocaine's good for you. Goddamnit! Ok maybe I'll just say that sauces with cream are like crack. Impressively delicious and you want more. And bad for you. Although if you eat cream sauce one day and smoke crack the next you can offset the weight gain that accompanies excessive cream consumption.
That, by the way, is why I call shinanegans on French cooking. Ooh, yeah, Cordon Bleu, Mr. Saucier, you're so the top eschelon of great sauces, no one can beat you?! Nigga WHAT? Man put butter and cream on a pile of browned shallots, how could that shit NOT be good?? THERE'S NO WAY. It could be anything. But divine. So next time Julia Childs commands you to bend over and kiss the shoe of L'Escoffier, throw that Le Creuset up at her tall head and say 'You're done, Ms. Childs! Your technique may be superlative but I am hip to the secrets of your fabulous sauces, and that secret comes at the expense of my skinny jeans!!'

Speaking of cream and French stuff, I have been experimenting with an absolutely delicious but unfortunately unhealthy sandwich, the Croque Monsieur. If you aren't hip to this sublime food, it's typically thin French ham between two slices thin white bread, on the top slice of which is spread bechamel sauce and then grated Gruyere, which is then grilled to almost-crispy perfection. This sandwich is so good, crispy Gruyere providing a crunchy foil for the bland creamy smoothness of the layer of bechamel below, with the saltiness of the ham and the crumb of the bread providing a killer symphony of texture and taste, that it should really be American. With this in mind I have been making variations. Here is a good one:
Sage bechamel:
4 T. butter
2 cups milk
a handful flour
5 or 6 leaves of fresh sage, finely chopped
salt and p.
Make a roux by melting butter over low heat and whisking in flour and stirring till it has colored tan, like Giselle in summer tan. SLOWLY whisk in milk till it's a nice thick sauce, this is done in stages, a splash at a time. Add sage salt n p. cook over very low heat, whisking frequently, 20 min.
Take some nice good quality smoked turkey, very thinly sliced. Put a few slices, maybe 3, between two thin slices HIGH QUALITY densely crumbed white bread. No soft spongey shit. Butter a cast iron pan. Turn heat on med. While it heats, spread top of sandwich with two T. or so of bechamel. Sprinkle with grated Gruyere and Fontina mixed. Put in hot pan sauce side up (duh) and take the whole pan off the heat and put it under the broiler, kinda as far from the flame as you can get so the bechamel gets real hot as the cheese toasts.
That's it. Maybe a little parseley chopped on top. Cut in half and serve. Good with cheap dry wine and salad.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Initial Explanation

So what I want to know is, in terms of NYC food writing at large, is what's this burning obsession with restaurants?? I mean, we all like food, no shit; it's that the food writing I find seems so heavily weighted on the side of other people cooking for you. What they're cooking. How much it is. How the waiter offended you. The lipstick print on the 'clean' glass, etc. etc. Fucking effete babies! No, not really, but actually, really. Not interesting. What I find more constructive is actual discussions about cooking itself, as an experienced but decidedly unprofessional home cook. So, that's what I intend to focus on here; things I like to cook, musings about the qualities of individual ingredients, techniques, and food experiences I feel are noteworthy for one reason or another.
So you know what I think is a simultaneously overexposed but (yeah, yeah, I know, contradictory) underappreciated ingredient? Dude, for real. BALSAMIC VINEGAR. Now, I hear everybody screaming what the hell are you talking about that's like so mid 90's go eat some goat cheese and sundried tomatoes you dildohead. But listen, let me make my case before you make yet another salad dressing that tastes like a repeat of your ambitious and pathetic efforts at 'fine' cooking in art school - balsamic has been woefully under-explored. OF COURSE we are all sick of it in the following cliched contexts:
1. With olive oil and artisinal bread.
2. On a salad of fresh mozz balls, basil and tomato.
3. Or, more broadly, as dressing for salads of any kind.
4. Over summer berries. With mint, usually. Maybe some nuts. Pine. Walnuts. Whatevs, you know the deal.
Don't get me wrong, those ways of eating bals. vin. are reliably tasty and above reproach, OTHER than that they have become the de rigeur mode for consuming said vinegar and have become a culinary ball and chain for this ingredient. Balsamic has legs, man! Unchain that shit and let it fly!
Ok, so here's what I'm all about: BALSAMIC IN SOUP. Many and most soups. Ones with a variety of vegetables in particular. And not no pussy teaspoon or nothing, I'm talking like half a cup, kids.
Balsamic I find has a particular affinity for tomato-based soups. If you mix a large can of whole tomatoes - well, mash, with a masher -, into six or eight cups of chicken or vegetable broth, a half cup or more of balsamic creates a sour-sweet flavor of piquant intensity. Into which the intrepid chef can add many things. For a simple summer soup I add sliced chunks of zucchini, maybe 3 or 4 zucchini, and maybe some yellow squash, and simmer for 20 minutes. Then I add the corn cut off 5 fresh ears of corn, maybe a little finely diced jalapeno, and a ton of chopped basil OR cilantro. Maybe a splash of red wine in that shit. Some julienned green beans midway. OH and way back at the beginning, I forgot, it almost goes without saying - at the start? Saute 5 or 6 diced garlic cloves in a blop of oil, before adding tomatoes and stock.
DUDE, it seems simple, and it is, but rockin the vinegar really opens it up. The crisp sweetness of the corn (only cook 3 more minutes after you add the corn), the savory chunks of zucchini, and the tart, tangy, sweet rich broth just really kill it. I mean KILL IT.
Same basic broth but with a zillion veggies it more hearty. Last night, I made for Charley and I said soup WITH also:
Onion (fried with garlic at start)
Hot red paprika
AND if I'd had more time a big tray of roasted beets, parsnips and yams would have really made it a feast.
Look. I know this soup sounds elemental and frankly not that exciting. But I am TELLING you. It's the balsamic. Makes that shit exciting.
I guess although I hate to think it needs saying, but I'd better cover bases - add hell of salt. N pepper. Yo.

Also, more surprisingly - dare I say shockingly - balsamic has a way of waking up cream based soups. I would worry that it would create a sort of curdley flavor, if you know what I mean, but it's not as acidic as reg. vin. or lemon juice. It's full sweetness heightens more stolid flavors as a Marsala would, but with a touch more brightness. Cream of mushroom soup - obv. I mean made from scratch, not that canned sludge - really opens up, I mean it's not just the sharpness of the vinegar itself, it also seems to expand the mushroom flavor on the palate. Cream, which serves as such a delicious foil for the subtly flavored 'shroom, is more than adequate. but I find the roux I use to slightly thicken creates a deadening of flavor while improving texture. Balsamic balances that out. Kicks out the jams.