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Obligatory beauty shot of  ramps.

Obligatory beauty shot of ramps.

A few months ago when we were in the throes of absolutely miserable weather, I had this feeling that ramp season would be embraced even more fervently than before, if only because it was definitive proof that spring was finally here and the long tyranny of this winter had come to an end. There had been some backlash against the ramp’s trendiness over the last few years, with some sniffing that while good, the hype surrounding them had ballooned out of control. Even by the time I had first gotten my hands on a few bunches back in 2010 the eye-rolling had already begun, but thankfully that hasn’t stopped the influx of ramps into the Union Square Greenmarket. As J. Kenji López-Alt rightly pointed out in 2011, part of what makes the ramp special is that we do have to wait for them to come every year and when they are available we have to make the most of them—in our increasingly on-demand society, it’s kind of refreshing to exercise some patience when it comes to food.

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Wild Shrimp with Roasted Zucchini, Fennel, Shallots and Couscous

Why can’t we just call this Shrimp and vegetables over couscous?  Anyway…

I’m going to keep this one brief, as I think Elizabeth’ great photo speaks for itself.  This dish isn’t a traditional preparation, per se, but a movement I’ve been trying to make towards what I will call a floating approach to dinner prep (especially weekday dinners).  To me,  floating conjures up images of my scientific instruments operating without a lock-on signal.  I apply this to mean cooking not tied to (or locked onto, get it?) recipes or specific ingredients which may or not be appropriate/available/etc. on a given day or in a certain situation.

Perhaps this is one of those zen things that every enthusiastic cook is moving towards without necessarily realizing it.  As your skills develop, you need to rely less on external references.  Here, the existential conditions of that day/week dictated the outcome.  The Fairway was (and indeed, still is) carrying wild USA shrimp for the amazing price of $8.99/lb.  They are beheaded, but not de-veined or peeled, but the purchase is still very much worth it despite the extra work.  Add to this to a increasingly serious personal mission to eat more veggies (a common desire, especially this time of year I think), I added what vegetables I knew I could get away with and that I thought would go well together.  I oven roasted the zucchini with lots of salt, pepper and cumin (I also roasted the shrimp in the oven, separately, of course) and sautéed the shallots and fennel on the range.  I added some Parm to the couscous and piled on my ingredients.  Done and done.

As much I wish I could, I still can’t quite freestyle like this every single night.  I plan meals too, and unless I want to quit my job and spend everyday going to Fairway and Westside market, things will stay that way.  As a person gains confidence in the kitchen, a small amount of audacity should surreptitiously follow.  There’s nothing wrong with throwing caution to the wind.  The fear of ‘clashing flavors’ isn’t as real as we think and if you’re focusing on what’s in season and looks good instead of what a recipe demands, the benefits to the taste from freshness alone should more than make up for it.  PLUS, food purchased in season is cheaper and more environmentally sustainable.  So there you go, win-win-win.  So be bold, treasured readers- take small steps if you feel timid but above all, cook on!

Roasted Chicken with Cara-Cara/Chayote Salad

Sometimes, I get this feeling.  I just get this yearning, this urge.  Insane vegan women handling out pamphlets on the subway notwithstanding,  I get an inescapable urge to roast a chicken.  Roasting a chicken is a simple,  straightforward and rewarding exercise, absolutely perfect for a chilly Saturday.  It only takes about 90 minutes from truss to table and the bird comes out delightful.

Roasting a chicken is simple and best set forth in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook.  To me, the most important decision is what to coat the birdie with before he goes for his trip down the high-heat highway.  My favorite is still a mixture of dijon mustard, salt, red pepper and cracked grains of paradise.  This time I tried for dried chipotle and Fox Point found at Penzey’s in Grand Central Market.  It was good, but in order for the coating to really take charge, it needs to be sterner stuff.

I found a few chayotes at Whole Foods on 97th street and after a few Top Chef flashbacks, I decided to give a simple salad a whirl.  It’s special citrus season, and instead of making my standard fennel/grapefruit salad, I mixed the chayote, shaved very thin with some Cara Cara oranges, their juice and some olive oil.  I let the whole affair sit in the fridge for a few hours before dinner and the result was a crisp salad that paid well with the sumptuous poultry.    One great thing about all the food on TV these days is that it can turn us on to ingredients we’d never even had heard of otherwise.  So fear not the unknown, readers, and until next time, cook on!

Whole Chicken on Foodista

Chateaubriand with Stewed Lentils

Chateaubriand with Stewed Lentils

Elizabeth and I could think of no finer meal to commemorate our 100th post than the one snapped above.  Neither of us makes any claims regarding our ability as photographers, but amateur or not, sometimes the subject matter speaks just fine for itself.

I expect I probably watch too much food-related TV.  I suspect it colors my opinions about eating and cooking and all the trappings that follow.  Food is such a massive topic, though, that maybe the only way to examine it’s many facets is the info-onslaught that is television.  If I had five or six extra lifetimes at my disposal, perhaps it’d be a different story.  My only hope, I guess for me and all the food-TV junkies out there, is that we take away the factual material, the benefits of the presenters’ experience and that we don’t get snared in the nets of faux-celebrity devotion/hatred or entertainment-for-its-own-sake.

Any reader of the site will know of my devotion to Good Eats.  They will also know that I have twice undertaken the butchery of a whole tenderloin into its constituent filets, etc.  Here we see that I reached deep into my fridge to liberate the small center-cut roast born of this process, the chateaubriand.  Prep was really a snap, all I did was dust the guy with salt, pepper and cumin, sear on all sides and cook in a relatively cool oven (250 F) until rare.  In the photo you can see how rare I’m talking about.  That’s the way we like it at TBYK, but with your trusty meat thermometer, you can leave it in until any doneness you like.  Really, elegance in simplicity.

The lentils were equally TV-inspired.  I picked up a great trick from Anne Burrell’s show.  I never thought to saute my veggies separately from my lentils and add everything together once it all was done in its own time.  It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a good cautionary tale about following cookbooks carte blanche without giving the matter any extra thought.  Still, I changed a lot of what she did: I used different vegetables and herbs, I omitted the bacon, but still, there’s no shame in following some guidance from the boobtoob so long as you’re still standing on your own afterwards.  This is always something I try to stress- a recipe is a beginning of a good meal, not the end of one (this obviously is not true in baking).  Inspiration and technical data don’t typically mesh well, yet this essentially is what a recipe is.

Some final words at the end of Post #100:  The important thing is to just keep cooking.  Repetition leads to comfort, comfort leads to confidence and confidence in the basics leads to creativity.  With a ownership of the basics and a willingness to experiment you’ll master that room of the house that’s such a cause of dread, drudgery and consternation in others.

Recipes mentioned today:

Chateaubriand and Lentils

French Green Lentils on Foodista

Greetings one and all.  Today we (finally) get around to posting the next installment in our foreign film-inspired-dinner series.  This time, selected Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (originally la nuit américane).  Set in the French countryside, this movie-about-making-movies is a modern classic.  To mirror the flick that night, we opted for a French Bistro menu, straight out of Anthony Bourdain’s modern classic, The Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking.

There are plenty of clips from the movie available on the youtube, but below please find a loving tribute to the ideas and style of the film in the form of a hilarious AmEx ad by Wes Anderson.

We began with a simple mushroom soup consisting of little more than the beloved fungus, some onions,  butter, finished with a touch of sherry.

Mushroom Soup with Sherry

Mushroom Soup with Sherry

We found another pork shoulder recipe in this beloved tome, and dissatisfied with my first attempt, we struck out again (Avid readers may remember this trial being referred to already in the Cuban Sandwiches post.  Yes, this was the shoulder that born those self-same cubanos, consider this exposition for the sake of completeness or perhaps ret-conning, if you like.)  This shoulder wasn’t slow-roasted via oven, but rather simmered in our dutch oven for several ours with a crust of homemade breadcrumbs and mustard.  Pork Shoulder is a bit fatty, and a little on-plate surgery may be required when the finished product finally makes it to the table, but it’s completely worth it.

Pork Shoulder, browned and ready to stew.

Pork Shoulder, browned and ready to stew.

Breadcrumbs...before they were breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumbs...before they were breadcrumbs.

Pork Shoulder resting...

Pork Shoulder resting, breadcrumbs cooked on. Ah, the circle of life...

 

Pallette de porc à la bière, avec du couscous et des légumes braisés

Pallette de porc à la bière, avec du couscous et des légumes braisés

Above is the finished plate (consideration for authentic French titling provided by Elizabeth).  Onions, carrots and garlic from the roast pot decorate a little couscous, a holdover idea from the first attempt.  I highly recommend Bourdain’s book, Truffaut’s  film and any pig’s humble shoulder for a Saturday night that’s humble and exotic, relaxing and exciting.

Leek and Lentil Soup

Leek and Lentil Soup

Lentils are marvelous things. Extolling the health benefits and relatively low cost of these little guys seems almost redundant these days, so I won’t dwell on lentillian virtues, except to say that there’s plenty of reading material online regarding the inherent culinary greatness therein.

Lentils are delicious and hearty without being overly dense. Of the three types, I have to say that I prefer the French variety, they’re smaller and darker than normal or red lentils and I think they tend to hold up better to lengthy braising/stewing whereas the others get a touch mushy. All are certainly worth a try- all are available at the gourmet grocery and at our local health food store they have them loose in hoppers so you can take as much or little as you need.

I’ve made lentil soup before, but this by far is a superior preparation. It has one or two humble embellishments which, of course, are optional but I think they transcend the soup from ordinary to ker-aaaazee-good. The first enhancement agent is pancetta, no surprise there, lentils and bacon pair famously.  The second is the used rinds of old Parmesan cheese wedges. Italians have a soup preparation they call ribollita where they throw these guys in (along with the entire contents of a tired refrigerator). You get a cheesey flavor in the soup that’s just amazing.  Plus, you’re using what is essentially waste. (If you haven’t been saving your rinds, you can always mix in some grated fresh parm at the end of cooking, but I wouldn’t recommend the canned stuff). The recipe, finally, follows:

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 oz pancetta, chopped into very small pieces (optional)
  • 1 small or 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 leeks, halved then cut into thin semi-circles
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
  • 6 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 1 can of petite cut tomatoes
  • 1 lb lentils
  • 2-3 Parmesan cheese rinds (optional)
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • parsley/cilantro/something green to garnish, chopped fine

Heat the optional pancetta in the olive oil on medium-low heat for 10 minutes until the fat renders. Next, add the veggies up through the leeks and the salt (if you chose to eschew the pancetta, simply add the veg to the oil) and sweat for 5-10 minutes, until the leeks soften. With a minute or two to go, add the garlic.

Next, add the stock, tomatoes and lentils, then bring to a boil. Next, reduce to a simmer and add the cheese rinds and spices. Simmer this lovely concoction for 35-45 minutes, until the lentils are cooked to your liking (this will involve testing them every few minutes after the 35 minute mark). Normal and red lentils will probably be on the short side of the cooking time, Frenchies on the high side.

At this point, remove an amount of the soup to your blender and blend until smooth. Add this back into the pot to thicken matters slightly. I do not recommend an amount to remove because this is contingent on how smooth/thick/chunky you like your soup. I’d say around a cup is a nice balance. I don’t use my precious stick blender here; it leaves behind little half-blended soup pieces and lentil shrapnel unless your puree the entire pot. Using the blender allows you to completely pulverize a small amount of the soup, leaving no fragments. Remember- always be careful transferring and blending hot liquids.

I was very pleased with this recipe and recommend trying it out ASAP. Until next time, true believers. Ciao!

Zuppa di Pasta e Fagioli

Zuppa di Pasta e Fagioli

When I was but a tyke I remember my grandmom making Pasta Fagioli for my Grandfather all the time. Her version was very Italian-American (and so was she, for that matter), and I have read about or tasted dozens of variations. that’s what makes a recipe classic I think- endless diversity therein through endless variations.

Lately we have had been slacking in the vegetable department. Elizabeth has always been a hard sell on veggies, although over the last decade I have slowly gained ground in this matter. Above is a vegetarian preparation of a delicious Zuppa di Pasta a Fagioli that we have come to love. The recipe follows:

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 large (2 small) carrot, chopped
  • 1 bulb of fennel, chopped- fronds reserved! (see below)
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 6 cups of stock- Vegetable or chicken stock is nice- get the good kind (we like Kitchen Basics)!
  • a few springs of fresh thyme and one or two of rosemary, tied together if you like
  • 14.5 oz can chick peas, drained and rinsed
  • 3/4 cup orzo
  • chopped parsley
  • (at least) 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese to top

Those of you well-studied in the soup method know that the first step is always sweating the veggies.   Add the onion, celery, carrot and fennel to a pot with a tbsp of olive oil over low heat for 5 minutes until the onion is translucent.  For the fennel, cut off the stalks leaving only the bulb.  Remove the outer layer and the core at the bottom and chop like an onion.  Keep the stalks handy.  When the veggies are almost done, add the garlic.

The next step is adding the liquid and bringing to a boil.  Since the chick peas are pretty hardy you can add them now too along with the thyme, rosemary and fennel stalks.  Tie the herbs together to make fishing them out later easier, if you want.  Sometimes I get weirded out by the idea of twine simmering in my soup.  The fennel stalks are too tough to eat but they’ll infuse the soup with anisey essence.

Once a boil is attained, turn down the heat to medium-heat and keep a strong simmer going.  Add the pasta and cook for 8-10 minutes, until your desired pasta doneness.  If you’re feeling very intrepid, lower the heat slightly as the pasta cooks to keep form losing too much liquid from the pot during boiling.  Remove the spent herb twigs and the fennel stalks.  Top with parsley, perhaps a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

One final note:  Soups, like stews, are usually better in the days following cooking.  Therefore, this is an excellent meal to make ahead and keep throughout the week for consumption on a busy night or making your co-workers jealous at lunch.  Remember to reheat thoroughly.  I recommend 6 cups of stock because as the soup sits, the pasta slowly absorbs additional liquid.  However, you still may find the need to add a splash of water upon reheating.  Moreover, if you’re making it solely to eat later in the week, shave one of two minutes off the pasta cook time to prevent water-logging it later on.  Good eating!

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