Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Praise of Great Cooks

I think we don't give enough credit to the "great" cooks of the world.  We seem to get distracted by celebrity cooks, by chefs of famous restaurants, by people who can make bubbles of flavored air using technology, and by bloggers (Heavens forfend!).  Are any of these people great cooks?  Maybe.  Their fans certainly claim that status for them.  And some of them claim it for themselves. However, some of them also seem to have forgotten what great cooking is. So, what do I mean by a "great" cook? 
How many times have you heard some modern foodie say (or write) something to the effect that "great cooking starts by selecting the finest ingredients and then cooking them simply so you don't interfere with their quality."  This sentiment, if not the actual wording, is often laid at the feet of Alice Waters, although she seems too wise a cook to have ever said such a thing.  My response to this definition of great cooking is that it is not great cooking, it is great "shopping."  It seems to equate great cooking with an ability to find extraordinary raw ingredients. The cooking involved seems to be merely basic prudent cooking. Not that a certain amount of restraint in the kitchen isn't part of what makes a great cook, but to say that it is the very definition of a great cook leaves out a lot.
A great cook is so much more than top quality ingredients.  In fact, I would say that the hallmark of a great cook is not what they do with the finest ingredients, but what they do with the less than spectacular ingredients.  A moderately well-trained cook, with a bit of restraint, can take an exquisitely fresh wild salmon, just gleaming from the waters it lived in, and create a delicious salmon steak.  They can take a handful fresh flawless organic baby vegetables, shining like jewels, prep them and toss them with a light vinaigrette, and produce a lovely salad.  They can take beluga caviar, Italian white truffles, foie gras, and Sauternes wine and create an appetizer that costs more than an SUV.  But what happens when all that's on hand is a box of frozen cod filets and some supermarket veggies of dubious age? when there are no over-the-top super-luxe ingredients? That is where a great cook shows their colors.
The great cooks of the world are not the celebrity chefs working with the finest and freshest ingredients.  The great cooks are usually found in more humble situations.  They are the home cooks in average families who can take what is on hand, even if it isn't the finest quality, and turn it into food that is so good it makes you grateful to be alive and there to eat it. All the grandmothers and mothers, fathers and uncles, friends and co-workers, and what-have-you that fill our lives and turn out amazing food from ordinary ingredients. There are great cooks in professional situations too.  The cook at your favorite little diner who somehow manages to make diner ingredients into something delicious and worth eating.  The little old guy in the back of that roadside shack who turns out fried chicken and the trimmings and makes you realize why fried chicken became so popular in the first place.  The local caterer who performs miracles with ordinary ingredients.  These are all examples of great cooks.
Personally, I'm grateful to have come not just from a line of great cooks, but from a broad tradition of great cooks. Both sides of my family are rooted in a rural area of northern Pennsylvania.  Both sides had farm and small town folk in the family.  As a kid, while we lived in that area, I was surrounded by great cooks. Mostly the women, given the time and the place, but even some of the men, knew what they were doing in the kitchen. They experimented and swapped recipes and tweaked and perfected, and all the time worked with ingredients that were just the ordinary available things.  Okay, and yes, sometimes they had perfect, jewel-like tiny baby veggies fresh from the garden, the sort that the "shopping chefs" would sell their own mothers to get. But they also worked with canned and frozen veggies.  And as the growing season wore on, they had to do something with the over-grown and blemished produce too. You don't throw food away because it's not perfect; you eat it! And the great cooks of that time and place knew how to make you glad to eat it.
When my family left that area to embark on our peripatetic life, we took that tradition with us. Thrift and care were basic values. Don't spend all your money on over-priced premium ingredients when you can get delicious meals out of under-valued thrifty ingredients. Don't let things go to waste. Put the effort into cooking what you have so that it tastes wonderful and you'll never miss the "luxuries."  Most of all, don't turn up your nose at something of humble origins, just because it has humble origins. Spam may have become a bad word in English to a lot of people, but my mother managed to make a scalloped potato casserole with spam that was always a favorite.
So, who are the great cooks I would like to praise? Well, the ones in my life, who have helped me become the cook I am are my grandmothers, Ellen Weeks and Orva Hyde; my great-grandmother, Nora Thielges; and my mom, Barbara Hyde.  My maternal grandmother, Ellen Weeks, lived a life that demonstrated the values of great cooking.  When she could, she grew her own food.  She preserved food.  She didn't waste.  And she never, ever scorned the less-than-perfect. She was famous for her pies.  Handmade and fresh, they were made with humble ingredients. Apples from her backyard tree, or berries that she picked herself. A smidge of the usual spices, but balanced in a way that just hers.  Her kitchen was never without a pie, waiting to greet visitors.  When she passed away, recently, the whole family remembered her cooking.  And the things we remembered weren't the unusual things.  They were the things like her pies and her pot roast, her baked beans and her liver and onions (okay, maybe not all of the family liked liver, but those of us who did thought highly of hers).  The things she made frequently and which everyone loved.  This was the legacy everyone wanted to make sure got passed on.  I am fortunate that I learned these things from her and was able to get her advice before she died.  She taught me how to cook the "bones" out of my beans so that they would turn meltingly soft and creamy.  She shared the secret of a her pie-crust (one of the secrets is "if you forgot salt, start over.  You can't add salt to pie crust.") And she taught me that the best apples for pie are often the worst-looking ones.
The legacy of my paternal grandmother is different.  She passed away when I was a child, so I never got to cook with her. But I grew up hearing stories about her.  She was famous for her desserts.  Her sugar cookies, kept in a giant Num-Num pretzel jar, were especially good.  Her pickles and other canned foods were a legacy I did get to taste.  Every year, she would work all summer to preserve the harvest.  She always made more than the family could ever use and so, years and years after her death, we still were enjoying the bounty of her kitchen.  The year we opened the last jar of her mustard pickles was a worrying one.  Could we possibly manage to make pickles to match hers? Between a hand-written recipe, memories of watching her work, and a few sneak peeks in old copies of the Ball Blue Book, the pickles were recreated.  Still much seemed lost. Then, when I was a teen-ager, I found a couple of steno-pads full of hand-written recipes from her. She'd originally written them for my father, but they'd slowly drifted to the back of the shelves and been mostly forgotten. It was like I now had a chance to cook with my grandmother. I found a copy of her sugar cookie recipe and worked with it until even my father said I'd recreated them. Working through her recipes for mincemeat, slaw, beef birds, sour-cream raisin pie, and others, I learned her lessons (be generous, cook with love, put things by).
My great-grandmother, Nora Thielges, left me another legacy.  One of patience and quiet caring.  She didn't say a lot, and what she said was in her own time, but she shared her love with her family and no-one ever was hungry around her.  Every week, she made her bread fresh.  She made a rhubarb custard pie that remains my favorite dessert in this world.  And when she knew I would be visiting, somehow, coincidentally, there was always a fresh one on her counter.  From her, I learned timing.  She would be sitting at the table, just watching as my grandmother, aunts, and mom (and later I) busied ourselves in the kitchen cooking a big holiday meal, or just a family dinner for everyone who was visiting, and she'd get up and wander over to the stove and poke something just at the perfect moment to turn it and keep it from over-cooking or bubbling over, or whatever.  Maybe it wasn't just timing.  It was an awareness of the food and timing both. A caring and a watchful eye.
And then there is my mother.  She'll probably laugh to hear that she is a great cook.  She doesn't even like cooking. Maybe that's why she's great. If she is going to cook, the results better be worth it.  And she is the one who first taught me to cook. I still have some treasured notes from when I first started cooking for my family and my mom would leave me instructions in the morning so that I could cook in the afternoon.  My mom's cooking is simple.  She doesn't like fussy preparation or abstruse ingredients.  She certainly doesn't sneer at pre-made food.  And yet, nothing she prepares is less than delicious.  Her herbed baked chicken is always perfect: savory, aromatic, crispy and tender.  Her lasagna is rich without being heavy.  Her cheesecake is a family legend.  And while she will quite accurately tell you that the recipe came from the Philly Cheese package, I've tried that recipe and it doesn't come out like hers.  There's a bit of a turn of the hand there that makes hers come out creamy and luscious and out-of-this world.
And there it is, the difference between a good cook and a great cook.  The turn of the hand that changes an ordinary recipe into something special. From my grandmothers, from my great-grandmother, and most especially from my mom, I've learned that lesson and I've applied it to my own cooking.  Of course, I've done so in my own fashion.  My mom teases me about my obsessive precision in chopping and prep work.  Her exact words are "ditsy little pieces."  For me, it works.  Take something as simple as cranberry relish at Thanksgiving.  The recipe is on every bag of Ocean Spray cranberries ever made, I think.  So, what's the difference? From my family, I learned: use a food grinder, not a food processor.  And my own turn of the hand is to peel the zest from the oranges and mince it until it is almost a powder.  Then, I discard the pith, and use just the zest and orange flesh rather than putting the whole orange in. The result: a relish that is bright and sweet and tart and never bitter. Every one of the great cooks I know has it.  Every one has their own personal little turn that elevates their food to a higher state.  And so, I think they are owed the praise they often don't get.  The acknowledgement that while food fads will come and go, celebrities will flicker by, and "shopper chefs" will strut in the foreground, the true great cooks of the world are the ones who feed us and bring joy and sustenance to our tables, day after day, year in and year out.  For the true foodies, these are the cooks we should aspire to be.

Note to my sister: you are a great cook too.  If I ever learn to make pralines like yours, I will consider myself to have accomplished something.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Eggs and Stuff

Recently, I've been re-exploring the possibilities of tortillas (or frittate, if you are Italian).  One immediate conclusion I have made is that I need another name for them.  Tortilla is confusing to most Americans, who immediately assume I'm talking about a delicious corn or wheat based flat-bread.  Even for those who recognize that a tortilla from Spain is a different thing entirely from a tortilla from Mexico, the name tortilla has certain limitations.  It suggests, first and foremost, that incredibly yummy basic tortilla espanola, made with potatoes, onions, and enough olive oil to make a diet-obsessed lipophobe slip into a catatonic stupor (a side benefit that no-one mentions, but should not be undervalued).  If one can manage to escape that tasty image, the variations are still constrained by images of Spain: tortilla with chorizo, with tomatoes, with calabacitas, with eggplant, with shrimp or squid or other seafood.
So, what about the other name: frittata.  Now, the limitations are Italian and there is less olive oil involved, and that means your diet-obsessed lipophobe is now awake to natter on and on about how bad eggs are and how bad fat is and how bad food is in general and wouldn't it be better to just gnaw on some non-digestible cellulose sprinkled with left-handed sugar that provides no food value at all.  Whoops, sorry, that's a rant for another time.  Back to our frittata.  Here, instead of potatoes, the primary starch is usually leftover pasta (the kind made with good durum wheat and water that Italians might still call maccheroni).  And the accompaniments are, surprise-surprise!, Italian: a little bit of left over ragu bolognese, a few delicious slivers of mortadella, a little garlic (why not?), maybe some broccolini, a bit of fennel sliced paper thin, etc.  However, there is still that implied limitation: if it's a frittata, it's supposed to be Italian.  Stick to Italian flavors.
So, what's a poor cook to do?  Call it an egg pie?  No, that implies a crust and, besides, is already taken by nice people in England and the rural areas of the the US.  An egg tart (or worse, tarte)?  Still have that pesky crust hanging about and it's starting to sound a bit highbrow.  We could call it "eggs and stuff in a skillet," but that's rather vague.  Still, perhaps we can embrace the vagueness, concentrate on the method, and call the dish "skillet eggs."
So, the name game being resolved, here is my basic method for skillet eggs:
Start by considering your "skillet."  If you are like a lot of people, your skillet will probably be a non-stick frying pan.  Or, if you are like me, it will be a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.  Whatever you do, do not try to make skillet eggs in any kind of pan that has a plain stainless steel interior. You will be trying to get the eggs off the surface for days.  If you want to do things the easy way, make sure that your pan can be used in the oven, under a broiler (one reason to go for the cast-iron option).  If it can't, you'd best prepare yourself for the complex, but fun, method of flipping your skillet eggs.
Now, pick your ingredients.  Begin with a nice starchy ingredient to give it body and structure.  For this, you could use potatoes, pasta, noodles, fresh veggies (especially the spongy kind like summer squash or eggplant).  Now, think of something to give it flavor.  Any food with a strong flavor would work for this, but especially consider things like sausage, mushrooms, onions or garlic, herbs, etc.  Don't go overboard, though.  Pick one or two flavoring components (and consider that, if you are using veggies for the substance of your skillet eggs, they will already be contributing their own flavor).  As you are picking your ingredients, keep looking back at your skillet.  Think about this: will they all fit?  Maybe you had better put in a few less potatoes or a smidge less diced ham.  Finally, of course, get out your eggs.  I usually use four eggs for my 10-inch skillet.  If the eggs are fresh, you don't have to do anything for them.  If they've been sitting in the fridge losing water for a couple weeks (and yes, eggs will keep for weeks and weeks if they are cold), you may want to consider adding a tablespoon of liquid to them.  It could be water, but why not make it something tasty that mixes well with your other ingredients?  Perhaps a bit of clam juice if you are going the seafood route, or maybe a bit of milk?  Mmmmm, what about a splash of lemon juice to complement some Greek vegetables for an avgolemono riff on skillet eggs?
In any event, you've got your ingredients assembled.  Now, proceed.  Heat a bit of oil or fat in your skillet and saute any aromatics that need to be cooked and softened.  This would include things like onions, garlic, carrots, celery, etc.  Once they are cooked, remove them from the pan (here's a trick: use a perforated spatula or spoon to lift the ingredients out of the pan and use another spoon to press down on them slightly so that you leave most of the oil in the pan, not with the food), and add anything bulky that needs to be cooked (for example, the fresh veggies or potatoes).  Once they are cooked, remove them to the same bowl with the aromatics (use the same lift and press technique as mentioned above) and stir everything together.  If your bulk ingredient doesn't need to be cooked (for example, pre-cooked pasta), just combine it with the aromatics as soon as you remove them from the skillet.  Add any spices or herbs that you want, and any other flavoring components, but don't salt them.
At this point, you should have a bowl full of delicious goodness, a skillet over medium (not high) heat with at least a couple of tablespoons of hot oil in it (add some more if you think the pan looks skimpy), and four eggs, sitting in all their splendor.  Into a separate bowl, crack each egg.  Add your liquid (see above).  Toss in a pinch of salt. Use a fork to whisk the eggs lightly until they are well-mixed but not terribly airy (in my experience, the salt helps with this, but that may just be my imagination).  Now, pour the eggs over the other ingredients and stir/toss them lightly to make sure the eggs coat everything.  Pour the whole glorious mess back into the skillet (did you remember that it is supposed to be on medium heat, not high?), distributing it evenly and pressing it flat.  Cook it on the stove top for a few minutes until you can see the edges are set and the whole mass holds together fairly well when you jiggle the pan.  There will still be some liquid egg on the top. 
Now, the easy way to proceed from here is to stick the pan in the oven on the middle rack with the broiler on and let it finish cooking the top that way (this might be a good point to sprinkle a little cheese on it, too).  Or, you can go old school and flip the skillet eggs in the skillet.  If  you really want to flip the eggs, PRACTICE beforehand using a wet sponge in a cold skillet.  Do not try this for the first time with a skillet full of hot, partially set eggs.  Trust me when I say, from personal experience, that this is a recipe for disaster.  And by the way, if you decide to use a different skillet from one time to the next, practice again with the new skillet.  Just because you've mastered flipping in one skillet does not mean that the trick will work with a different one.  If you have to flip the skillet eggs and you don't want to actually throw them in the air and hope they hit the pan, you can always use this little "cheat":  put a oven-safe plate over the pan (pick a plate that will cover the pan completely, i.e., is bigger than the pan) and hold it firmly in place with a pot-holder against the bottom of the plate.  Flip the whole ensemble (plate, pan, ingredients) over and return the pan to the stovetop.  Use a spatula and a little jiggling to encourage the skillet eggs to slide off the plate and back into the pan and let them finish cooking that way.
Finally, when your eggs are done (you can check by sticking the tip of a knife into the eggs and looking to see if they are fully set), bring them to the table.  Eat them with a glass of wine, if that's how you roll, or any other beverage that seems good to you.  Possibly accompany them with a salad or some pickles or some bread.  Whatever you like.  The important part is that skillet eggs will be the delicious centerpiece of the meal.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Summer begins...let's get salady!

Well, summer is definitely here!  The temperature is in the high 80s and the humidity is somewhere near...oh...water.  It's time for some great summer recipes.  Here are a couple of my favorites:  potato salad, macaroni salad, and cucumber salad.

Traditional Pared-Down Potato Salad from the Hyde Family


1 pound waxy potatoes
1 tsp. salt
1 tbs. vinegar
1 big scallion or 3 small scallions
3 medium stalks of celery
3 medium carrots
1 tsp relish
1 cup of mayonnaise
ground black pepper to taste

For the potatoes, I've recently discovered cute little red fingerling potatoes.  The biggest ones are less than four inches long and all of them are between three-fourths and one inch thick.  I cooked them in water with salt and vinegar added.  It helps if you pierce the potatoes a few times so that the flavored water infuses the potato flesh.  When the potatoes are soft but still holding together (the timing varies with how high the heat on which you cook them is), remove them from the water and cool them in the fridge.
Chop the onions.  If you are working with a big thick scallion, cut it in half lengthwise and then make a few cuts down the length of the white part from the greens to the base. Now, cut across the onions to chop them into very fine slices, including the greens.  Put the chopped onions in a bowl.
Now, moving on to the celery and carrots, wash the celery stalks thoroughly.  If you have the time, let them soak in cool water for ten to twenty minutes and then scrub them with your hands (no brushes).  Trim the branches at the top and the white bases and either throw them out or save them in your freezer to flavor stock.  Peel and trim the carrots (unless you really like soaking and scrubbing carrots, don't bother saving the peelings for likes dirty stock).  Chop both the carrots and celery into one-eighth inch dice and add to onions.
Take the cooled potatoes out of the fridge (they should be completely cold all the way through).  Cut them into half-inch dice and add to the bowl.  Add a rounded teaspoon of your favorite relish--just use one of the small spoons from the silverware drawer and scoop a nice generous blob of relish and add it to the bowl with the veggies.
Now the mayonnaise is a bit tricky.  Use your favorite brand, as long as your favorite brand is Hellman's.  For heaven's sake, don't use Miracle Whip or salad cream or anything else of the sort.  And definitely don't get iron-chefed into making your own mayonnaise.  Just a nice big pillowy scoop of Hellman's Mayonnaise.  Start with a little less than the full cup (say maybe three quarters of a cup).  Add it to the veggies and mix them gently (reverse fold them together by running your spoon down the edge of the bowl and then bringing it up and out in the middle of the bowl, lifting the ingredients and letting them fall back against the side of the bowl while rotating the bowl so that you are folding all the ingredients evenly).  If the salad seems moist and coated enough, you don't need the remainder of the mayonnaise.  If the salad looks a little dry and the dressing seems skimpy, add a bit more of the mayonnaise and stir again.  When you get the right amount of dressing, add fresh ground pepper to taste.
Ideally, this salad should then be stored in the fridge for a while to let the flavors mingle just a tiny bit.  Say, maybe a half hour?  That sounds right.  Check for salt and pepper before serving the salad.

And now on to the macaroni salad.  This is a recipe from a friend of the family.  Very unusual and very delicious:

Kathy Krise's Delicious Macaroni Salad

2 cups of elbow macaroni
lots of salted water
1 large scallion or 3 small ones
3 medium carrots
1 large green pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise

Cook the macaroni in the water until it is a little past al dente.  This is not an Italian recipe and the macaroni will firm back up when it chills later.  What we are looking for here is a slightly spongey texture, but still able to hold its shape.  When the macoroni gets to the perfect degree of doneness, drain it in a colander and then plunge it into a waiting bath of ice water.  Swish them around until they are cool and then drain the noodles again.  Shake them in the colander to get as much water as possible out of the macaroni.  Stash them in the fridge while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
Chop the onions using the same technique described in the potato salad above.  Peel and trim the carrots and cut into chunks.  Quarter the pepper and remove the core, the seeds, and the veins and discard.  Chop the pepper quarters into chunks also.  Put the carrots into the bowl of a food processor and pulse the blade to chop the carrot into very fine crumbly pieces.  Add the peppers and pulse the blade again until the pepper and carrots are mixed together as very fine crumbs.
Combine the carrots and pepper mixture with the chopped onions and the mayonnaise.  Mix the mayonnaise with the chilled macaroni.  If you need to add a little more mayonnaise, go ahead.  You want a slightly wet sauce to coat the macaroni and ooze inside the elbows.  Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper if you like.

And finally, for the last component of the summertime salad trinity, cucumber salad:

Cool and Cooling Cucumber Salad

3 medium cucumbers (or more if you are using smaller cukes)
1 medium onion
pure water
Cider vinegar

Prep the cucumbers.  If you have purchased typical supermarket cucumbers (the kind with the smooth dark green skin), you'll probably want to check the seeds.  Cut the cucumber in half crosswise.  If the seeds are large and well-developed, try one between your teeth and see if it's tough.  If it is, cut the cucumber lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.  If the seeds turn out to be tender and digestible you can skip the de-seeding step and slice the cucumber into rounds.  If you've deseeded the cukes, then you will have to give up on the idea of round slices and resign yourself to crescent slices.  Make the slices as thin and consistent as possible.
Cut the root end and the top end off the onion.  Look at the exposed rings of the onion and establish the best way to divide the onion in half so that it will form nice half-rings when sliced (most onions have at least two centers and you want to get through both of them with one cut).  Lay the divided onion down on it's cut side and slice it into as thin slices as possible.
Put the sliced cucumbers and onions in a bowl and cover with cold water.  Add one to two tablespoons of cider vinegar (just enough to faintly color, and more importantly flavor, the water).  Sprinkle with a teaspoon of sugar (more or less, use your judgement and taste) and salt.  The water should have a faint sweet and sour briny flavor.  Stir everything together and let sit in the refridgerator for at least a half-hour to let the flavors meld.
After the salads have all had time to meld their flavors, take them out and serve them to hungry friends and family.  But...of course...leave the cucumber salad away from me. =)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Food Rant: Balsamic Reduction

Wow, a second post in the same month!  This poor undernourished blog might survive after all.  So, what inspires this second bout of writing, you ask?  Well, once again, I have been confronted with those words so ludicrous and unwelcomed to the foodie soul: "it comes with a balsamic reduction."

The first time I encountered the concept of a balsamic reduction, I giggled to myself and said, "no, thank you."  Of course what I was really thinking was something more along the lines of "how sad!  They probably think they are actually being trendy and cool by offering that."  As I was confronted with more and more offers of balsamic reductions, always as additions to the most inappropriate and otherwise blameless foods, I start to lose my equanimity.  What in the world, I thought, is possessing these people?  Don't they know better?  Do they have any idea how ludicrous and completely "non-gourmet" they are making themselves?  My conclusion, of course, was "no, they haven't the least suspicion."  So here are my thoughts on the matter to help them (hehe, being pompous is fun!  Try it some time, but not where other people can actually get to you and slap you--that's why I'm doing it here.)

Okay, where was I?  Oh yes, my thoughts on the matter of balsamic reductions.  In the area around Modena in Italy, there is a tradition of vinegar making that produces, after an improbably long period of time, an unctuous, rich, complex nectar of the gods called "balsamic vinegar."  If you are Italian, or like to throw Italian words around, you can call it aceto balsamico.  Please, however, don't call it aceto balsamico tradizionale (in English, traditional balsamic vinegar) or "aged balsamic vinegar" or "authentic Modenese artisanal traditional barrel-aged special really-truly balsamic vinegar" or anything else that implies that something more than "balsamic" is needed to identify the vinegar as the good stuff.  Using all those other adjectives just encourages the people who take wine vinegar, toss in a little caramel and some artificial nonsense and call it "balsamic vinegar."  Balsamic vinegar already tells you what it is.  Just by being itself, it tells you that it is barrel-aged, it was made using a traditional method, that's it's authentic and from Modena.  What you learn when you first taste it is also something in the name: it is a balm, a nectar, a healer of the soul and a nourisher of the spirit.  As balsamic vinegar dances across your tongue and sends curling vapors of scent and taste to your nose, you get the impression of something that is rich and syrupy without being either of those things.  You get hits of sour that isn't sour, sweet that isn't sweet, and a hundred other flavors that all scream "summer!"  In other words, it's yummy.

So what, you may ask, is wrong with making a reduction?  Well, two things immediately spring to mind.  The first is simply that heating vinegar does not improve its flavor any more than cooking with wine improves the wine.  Why take something that is already at a state of perfection and then boil it down into submission and defeat?  I realize that there are some people in the world who actually define cooking in this way (think of that delectable roast that someone you know boiled for hours until it finally gave up and turned into a flavorless, grey piece of rubber, or the wonderfully crisp fresh string beans that were boiled for a couple hours until they also gave up and turned into flavorless, grey-green pieces of not-much-at-all).  Nevertheless, the fact that some people define cooking as "boiling things until they are flavorless and un-threatening, with no vestige of their former glory" doesn't mean it's right!  Just so, boiling balsamic vinegar to reduce it to a sweet-sour travesty of itself is just wrong.  And then, there is my second reason: balsamic vinegar is already a reduction!  That's what the whole "barrel-aged" and "traditional" method are about.  The vinegar makers of Modena take a rather insipid and uninteresting vinegar and over many years, age it in open barrels where it gradually is reduced and concentrated by evaporation.  This method of reduction has the exact opposite effect of the on-the-stove method: it adds flavor.  All those hundreds of flavor elements that makes balsamic vinegar the treasure it is are there because they crept into the liquid as it sat quietly in its barrels and got thicker and richer and more delicious.  Balsamic vinegar has been reduced by time and nature; it doesn't need a cook to help the process along.

So what is a good cook to do with this treasure?  Well, there are several things that come to mind.  The most obvious is the widely cited technique of drizzling a few drops on fresh fruit.  In the middle of the winter, when the strawberries are more white cotton than juicy redness, a few drops of balsamic can evoke memories of summer and pull out the rich true flavors of the strawberry.  I know people who love balsamic vinegar on melons, and I say "God bless 'em" and leave them to it (usually at a far enough distance that I don't have to smell the melons--more on that later).  Can you put it on salad?  Sure.  Can you put it on prosciutto slices? Why not?  Can you utterly enrage hundreds of years of national rivalry by drizzling a bit of balsamic vinegar onto the crispy, slightly-cracked, golden-brown skin of your perfectly sauteed bratwurst?  Well, I do!  Does it make your mushrooms happy?  Well, in my kitchen, the fried mushrooms and onions got up and danced an entire Disney medley when I added a little balsamic vinegar to them right at the end of cooking as I took them off the heat (since I bought the mushrooms at the supermarket, I'm reasonably sure the dancing and musical number was not their fault, but bear it in mind if your use of balsamic vinegar has less terpsichorean results).  As you can see, there are hundreds of ways of using balsamic vinegar that do involve the words "reduction."

Oh!  Here are some more ideas:

Fatoush my way:
3 large, juicy, flavorful tomatoes (Mt. Holy's are good)
1 green bell pepper (large and heavy for its size)
1-2 zucchini (heavy and young, none of this oversized seedy marrow business, you might only need one but buy the second one anyway)
a bunch of basil leaves (I leave it up to you to decide how much, basil is a pretty personal choice)
enough parsley to make a quarter-cup loosely chopped.
1-2 cloves of garlic (you know your taste--me, I prefer 2 cloves)
1 medium yellow onion or a bunch of scallions (with perky fresh green parts)

Now: here's how to proceed.  Cut the tomatoes into irregular bite-size pieces, discarding any pieces that the tough stem roots in it and scooping up all the juices that run over the cutting board and adding them to the big salad bowl where you are putting the pieces.  Quarter the pepper and discard the core and seeds and scrape out the white cottony parts, and then chop it into bite size pieces and add it to the bowl with the tomatoes.  Wash the zucchini again (I assume you have already washed it at least once by letting it sit in cold water for twenty minutes and then scrubbing it lightly with your hand...not with a brush!) under running water.  Trim the ends and discard them.  Cut the zucchini in half lenghtwise like you were splitting a log to make a canoe.  Check of for seeds.  If there are lots of them and they have started to toughen up, scoop them out and discard them (you'll now need two zucchini...aren't you glad you bought that second one?)  If the zucchini halves are very thick, cut them down their length again and then cut them crosswise into bite-size pieces. Put them in a non-reactive strainer and sprinkle them heavily with kosher salt (or whatever kind you use).  Leave them to drain over the sink while you rinse and chop the basil and parsley.  Make sure you don't chop them into fine pieces; stop when you've got pieces that are about a half-inch wide.  Add the herbs to the salad bowl.  Peel and mince the garlic and add it to the salad (it's starting to look more like a salad now, isn't it?)  Chop the onions, using either the single yellow onion or the scallions.  If you use the scallions, use the green leaves as well as the white parts.  At this point, you can check the zucchini.  If it appears to have sweated out a bit of juice and is a bit soft to the touch, go ahead and rinse it under cold water, shake it dry and then add it to the salad.  Otherwise, wait a bit longer until it has given up some more of its liquid.
Now, you are ready to dress the salad.  Sprinkle the salad with salt (I like to use sea salt at this point, but pickling or kosher will also will table salt, if that's what you've got...just be careful because the anti-caking agents in table salt can give it a bit of a bitter flavor).  Taste as you add, since you can't really take the salt out once you've added it.  When it tastes good to you, add some good red wine vinegar, tasting as you go.  Dribble a bit of balsamic vinegar in at this point too.  Doesn't it taste like a bowlful of summer now?  Finally, drizzle it with your favorite extra-virgin olive oil (something rich and buttery with a powerful "green" flavor).
Finally, the fun part: serve the salad over shards of broken dried pita bread (or other dried breads that you happen to have laying around) and dig in.  If you can manage to do this on a hot sunny day, sitting outdoors under shade trees with a light breeze blowing, so much the better.
Oh, and if you want a delicious vegetarian meal, add bite-size chunks of cheese (I like extra-sharp white cheddar, but I'm sure that mozzarella or feta would also be nice) at the same time you add the tomatoes.  And the longer the salad sits, the better it gets.

Okay, that's my balsamic rant.  Until the next addition...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

My perfect storm

Everyone keeps telling me, "you should have a blog!"  I, of course, immediately wonder, "how many dead or moribund blogs are floating around in cyberspace because of those words?  Do I really need to add one more to the list?"  Really, how many people have started a blog with high hopes, encouraged by their friends and acquaintances (and possible taking note of the financial success of such blogs as Orangette, Chocolate and Zucchini, and the Julie/Julia Project)?  And how many of those blogs, like the 19th century journals they replace, have slunk ignominously into the dark, trailing a sad little tail of short "I can't think of anything today; I'll write something later" posts that finally end in nothing? Does human culture, not to mention the "blogosphere" need yet another one of those tragic abortive beasts?  I've always thought not.

And of course, there's always the question: "what do I have to say to the world?"  Or perhaps, more accurately, "what do I have to say to the world that the world really wants to hear?"  Anyone who knows me (and that would include those people who keep urging me to start a blog) knows that I have a lot to say.  I'm fairly opinionated. In fact, as I write that phrase, due honesty compels me to admit that I probably go far beyond "fairly" and have, by now, merrily danced my way into the realm of "frighteningly" or at least "annoyingly" opinionated.  It occurs to me that perhaps some of my well-wishers are simply hoping that a blog will divert some of my opinions and make me a more charming and agreeable conversationalist.  I have one thing to say to that:  "HA!"  From scorn, I am laughing.  Have you ever met any blogger who got less opinionated as they wrote?  I certainly haven't. 

So, let's consider my trepidations.  Prime: there is the commitment to the blog.  Do I really have it in me to keep writing over a long period of time (for example, will I actually post something tomorrow or even next week?)  Seconde:  Will anyone care to read what I do have to say?  Tierce: What in the name of all that is holy will I write about? I guess I could do a sort of Joycean stream of consciousness approach and just write about whatever crosses my mind at the time, but that seems like the easy way out (and possibly also the easy way to join the slithering hordes of dead blogs out there in the darkness).  I can write about specific topics, but my obsessions tend to be oddly unrelated.  Is the world really ready for a blog that is dedicated to the culinary arts, architecture, language, and religious philosophy?  Especially if I throw in the occasional field trip into modern etiquette, book reviews, non-architectural art, traditional handicrafts, and my occasional bouts of pseudo-nostalgia for things that I never actually got to experience the first time around.  Gods!  I'm starting to look like someone who has managed to combine Attention Deficit Disorder with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and thrown the combination into the academic world.  Oh, wait, that is me!  Well, now you know.  Be warned.

So, by now, if you are still with me, you are no doubt asking, in tones that hint at varying degrees of dwindling patience, "Okay, so what does this have to do with a perfect storm."  Okay, here's the answer:  it's snowing.  Actually, that's misleading.  Outside my window right now, the snow is coming down at what the weather service estimates is a rate of one to three inches per hour.  It is landing on the twenty-one inches of snow that is already there. One phrase that has been bandied about in the news reports is that we are experiencing a "historical weather event."  So, on a Saturday, when I could be out shopping or doing other fun things, I'm sitting on my comfy Ikea loveseat, looking out the window at the--oh god, it's actually falling faster now--snow.  I just got off the phone with my dad where we were joking and talking about his many attempts at maintaining a blog (he's a brilliant software engineer and has no problem maintaining the blog in the technical sense, but he's one of those "every three years, I add a post, whether it needs it or not" type of blog writers).  He's always telling me that I should write a blog (yes, he's one of "them!")  At the same time, I've been reading some great books and, as I usually do when I read great books, I've been having opinions about them.  Plus, I've recently had several culinary experiences that have left me with more than a few mental diatribes.  Suddenly, a blog seems possible.  I have topics to write about, people encouraging me to write, and a weather system that is determined to keep me from doing anything else.

So, avanti!  Let's see what the future brings...