When it comes to Middle Eastern dips, hummus hogs most of the love and attention. (The New York Times recently reported that hummus is "catching on" in America, where it dominates the $325 million-a-year refrigerated flavored spreads category). You see tubs of it everywhere, and for good reason: it's a great snack to have around.
But there's another beige spread (now doesn't that sound appetizing?) that gets short shrift when it comes to Middle Eastern dips. Baba ganoush has a similar texture to hummus--and an almost identical ingredients list--but instead of pureed chickpeas, the bulk comes from an eggplant. The eggplant is usually roasted or grilled, which gives it a smoky, rather intriguing flavor.
Now, full disclosure: I'm a very eggplant-suspicious eater. In fact, I have a fear of eggplant. All I can think about is when eggplant goes wrong: bitterness, slimy texture, and greasiness. I can tolerate it, even like it, in certain preparations--in curries and as apart of ratatouille--but I usually take some convincing. Probably because I've eaten so many bad incarnations of this often-mistreated vegetable. When it's good, it's very good--but when it's bad it's awful. Bad green beans, for example, are tolerable. But bad eggplant is about as terrible as food gets.
But I think just about every vegetable that people don't like is probably due more to the way it's prepared (boiled cauliflower vs. roasted cauliflower, boiled Brussels sprouts vs. pan-roasted Brussels sprouts--seeing a pattern?) than an intrinsic problem with the vegetable itself. The way you prepare baba ganoush, in fact, solves all three things I hate about eggplant.
By Nick Kindelsperger I'm not sure what else to call...
I'm not sure what else to call this thing. I know that burgers are supposed to have a decent amount of fat for flavor and such, but we just went too far. A few days out, and I'm still trying to recuperate.
The technique was first proposed by Harold McGee and made famous recently by Heston Blumenthal and his Blumenburger". Instead of flipping the burger a minimum of times like every other recipe I've ever read, this technique won't leave the patty alone. The idea is that the burger will develop a better crust and the inside will still remain medium-rare. Sounded just crazy enough to work.
And that it did. The outside had an unbelievable sear, and the inside was moist and luscious. It wasn't until later, when I could feel the oil swimming through my belly, that I realized that something truly sinister had happened and that I'd have to do a lot of sit-ups to make up for this one.
I'm pretty sure the word "gnudi" wasn't on anyone's radar until they were served at The Spotted Pig in New York, which was when they became a food dork household name. In Italian, "gnudi" means what it sounds like in English: naked. It refers to little pasta-like dumplings that are "naked" of their pasta wrapper, raviolis without anything to enclose them. Gnudi are a bit like gnocchi, but they have far less flour and so are pillowy in the way that gnocchi never are.
The Spotted Pig has gotten more press than it will ever need, and I don't feel the need to sing its praises too lengthily here. It's an outstanding New York restaurant serving food that has drawn crowds and accolades consistenty since it opened six years ago. I had more than a couple outstanding meals there when I lived in New York, the highlight of which was a night when Fergus Henderson had commandeered the kitchen, and I first tried his classic dishes like roasted bone marrow on toast. But as for the restaurant on a regular day, there are two dishes that it is especially famous for. A bloody burger topped with Roquefort cheese and the dish at hand.
The way the Spotted Pig serves them is typical of its cooking style: absurdly rich, in a bath of brown butter, with little regard for balance. As if molten balls of ricotta cheese weren't rich enough, they top it with brown butter and a grating of Parmesan.
Over on Serious Eats' Burger Lab column, Kenji recently reverse-engineered a Spotted Pig burger that looks pretty darn good. The gnudi is a bit more of a mystery. Though public versions of the recipe have surfaced, most have agreed that they aren't the "real" recipe. The process they use in the restaurant is hidden not only from the public, but from most of the kitchen staff, according to an intern who worked there.
So it was a little surprising to be flipping through Earth to Table, a beautiful cookbook of essays and recipes about slow food and seasonal cooking, and came across a recipe for gnudi. And not just any recipe. "We were able to take some of our staff [to The Spotted Pig] and discovered the secret to their 'naked pasta,'" they note casually in the recipe's headnote. Then they proceed to demonstrate how they're made.
I know that biscuits and gravy together don't make sense. It's meat, thickened with flour and milk, ladled atop a starchy biscuit. There is no balance, no acid, and no spice. Compared to the dynamic Szechuan food I've been making lately, it can seem safe and boring. But that's not how I think of it. Perhaps it's something that needs to be injected to your blood as a child, because I have a fondness for this dish that nearly eclipses all other breakfast foods. Pancakes, waffles, eggs benedict, bagels, croissants--I'd trade them all for a overflowing plate of biscuits and gravy.
I know that Blake never had that childhood sausage infusion, and he questions me regularly how a dish so heavy and gray could possibly be good (he's even threatened to write a post called "Against Biscuits and Grav. Well, I'll give it my best shot. To me biscuits and gravy tastes like lazy Saturday mornings in a diner, the smell of coffee heavy in the air, and the promise of a very busy day. It's heavy but humble, and you don't have biscuits and gravy on a regular old Tuesday. It's a special event, and my best memories of the meal always had this as the start to some crazy hiking adventure or day spent playing three baseball games.
That's the nostalgic look, but what makes for a successful version of the dish? It's my opinion that the secret to great biscuits and gravy is that there is no secret. There is no technique or method that will convert some mediocre breakfast sausage into something special. The milk and flour may give it texture, and heaven knows that black pepper helps wake the whole thing up, but it essentially comes down to the breakfast sausage and the biscuits. If either of those are off, you might as well walk away.
You have to make your own sausage, and luckily I found an incredibly good source. Michael Ruhlman's recipe for breakfast sausage in Charcuterie is remarkably balanced, pitting a heavy handful of grated fresh ginger against freshly chopped sage, to create something that is far from the greasy ground meat of Jimmy Dean. Honestly, this stuff could make anything taste good.
But the biscuits tripped me up at first. If the biscuits are too heavy or dry, they muck up the dish, weighing it down. As I detailed last week, my first round with biscuits didn't go to plan. They were tasty, and had a lovely buttermilk kick, but they didn't fluff up like biscuits should have. I had to figure those out before I could move forward.
I've started an experiment this year: how easy is it, really, to grow vegetables and herbs in a windowsill?
When I moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan three years ago, I was rather taken with the idea of urban agriculture, romanticizing the rustic life of the small producer who grows his own vegetables, raises his own livestock, and scavenges the seas for the rest. (This fantasy was fueled rather steadily by episodes of the River Cottage by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which, unlike his books, is more fun than serious and, for people who like food, perhaps the greatest television series ever created). I was lucky to have some plots in community gardens and a sweet backyard to experiment in. But now in Chicago my apartment really is like city living. All I have is a couple windowsills.
People always talk about windowsill and fire escape gardening as the solution for urban dwellers, but I was curious to see if it would actually work. So I bought some potting soil, a few windowboxes, and some herb and vegetables seedlings from the farmer's markets. I have been watching my plants grow for the last month.
So far--maybe I'm lucky with good plants and a solid 4 hours or so of sunlight--the experiment has been a wild success. I mean, I am growing strawberries outside my window. Have you ever eaten a tiny, just-picked strawberry? They make most others taste like flavored water.
I can't keep my basil small enough, I'm never buying clamshells of fresh thyme, I can scissor fresh chives over morning scrambled eggs, I have the mint whenever a craving for mojitos arrives, and perhaps most exciting of all, my two strawberry plants have taken root and are sending their tendrils crawling all over the place, hopefully to produce more berries.
For dinner last night I trimmed off the outside leaves (the way you're supposed to harvest lettuce, leaving the center intact so that the plant can keep growing) off of my 4 little heads of romaine. Then I turned to Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food for a recipe for Caesar salad. Lemon juice, red wine vinegar, mashed garlic, minced anchovy, Parmesan cheese, and an egg yolk--that's what's in a real Caesar dressing (which was invented in Mexico, by the way). Nothing gummy or white and no grilled chicken in sight. This was the real thing.
It's not too late to throw up a windowbox and plant some herbs. Don't bother with seeds--most farmer's markets and increasingly grocery stores will sell you a seedling for maybe a dollar more than it costs to buy a clamshell of the same herbs in the produce section. I'm pretty sure this is the secret to my success. The plants were in good shape when I got them and all I had to do was make sure they had water.
Get some potting soil for vegetables, which usually have enough food for the plants to eat for at least three months, and off you go. Water every day, since the shallow windowbox can dry out easily.
It's pretty much win-win: the herbs taste better when fresh, and you end up saving money by not having to buy bunches over and over.
By Nick Kindelsperger For the past few months I've been...
For the past few months I've been taking a more realistic approach to pizza making. Instead of obsessing over technique (though I am interested in Kenji Alt's idea) I have been reveling in the ease of what a few simple ingredients can do. With flour, yeast, water, cheese, and tomatoes I can now make a pretty mean pizza. Though my dough isn't quite as springy and as DiFara's, and my sauce isn't light and bright like Patsy's, it is immensely better than most of the pies I could buy in my neighborhood. And more importantly, much, much cheaper.
Which all means I know make pizzas at home about once a week using the broiler method Blake and I explored over at Serious Eats. Each week my wife and I have tried a different combination, from the standard Neapolitan pie, to ones topped with nothing more than good olive oil and salt. This time I wanted something meaty, but didn't want to resort to give up the "make it from scratch" ethos that has served us so well. We wanted to make it ourselves, but also be able to eat that night.
Pepperoni takes a little bit of time, like oh a week or two. Plus some question whether pepperoni is really a good topping for pizza in the first place. That led me, surprisingly, to Italian Sausage, which I've never really had an interest in before. On the overstuffed pizzas of my youth, the sausage usually just tasted overtly of fennel and grease and not much else. The idea of making it from scratch and choosing what ingredients went into it was appealing, but could I make it quickly from scratch?
By Nick Kindelsperger After initially not making the cut for...
After initially not making the cut for the Time Out Chili Cook-off, a spot suddenly popped up. "Stillinterested?" read the e-mail. "Yes!" I replied quickly. It was only after I gotten home and told everyone I knew that I realized the competition was three days away and I didn't have a recipe. I had some ideas, to be sure, but I didn't have a set-in-stone chili recipe that I could comfortably show off to a crowd. What should my chili taste like considering the thousands of variations? Should I be true to my roots? I grew up within a few hours of Cincinnati and certainly knew the pleasures of its chili-on-pasta ways (I personally enjoy it 5-Ways).
All I know is that the closer I get to what is classified as "Texas Chili" the more wistful I become. I quiver when I smell it, and get serious around its presence. Like great barbecue, perfect pizza, and the right hamburger, Texas chili is at once dead simple and maddeningly hard to find. It doesn't contain hundreds of ingredients, but does require patience.
It seemed to me the real key to Texas chili isn't necessarily a secret ingredient, but a humble dedication to the glorious union of beef and chilies. I could experiment with odd cooking techniques and the like, as long as I remembered that the beef and chilies were the most important component.
For my first step I took a look at the chilies that would haunt my dish and send my recipe over the top.
Once we had blanched and peeled the tomatoes we chopped them, strained the seeds, and simmered it for twenty minutes into a simple sauce. Then I made my gastrique, which involved no measuring -- maybe 1/4 cup of vinegar and 3 tablespoons of sugar -- and a quick boil into something thick and syrupy.
You can shave truffles over a dish and call it special, but it's not; it's just expensive.
- Rick Bayless
I've been a fan of Rick Bayless since this blog started over four years ago, but it wasn't until he blurted out the above statement during the Top Chef Masters finale last year that I really figured out why. I already knew that I loved so many Mexican dishes because they balanced fat with acid, and layered spices, vegetables, and chiles in a really dynamic way. But I never connected the dots that all the meals I made used some seriously cheap and humble ingredients. It's true from the tamales to carnitas. Neither of these required much cash, and yet I'd rather have an expertly made version of either of those dishes over a steak any day.
That divide behind price and dish is never more apparent than in Mexican cuisine's most inspiring transformation: mole. It's one of the most incredibly complex and involved recipes that I've ever made, and it's considered--if Bayless has anything to say--as the national dish of Mexico. Yet, it wasn't until a few months ago that I got into the dish at all. Most of my experience with the mole had been with an overly sweet chocolate sauce, which was fine for a few bites, but then became cloying and heavy at the end.
But I had a mole at Sol De Mexico in Chicago that completely changed my mind. The sauce was rich and fragrant, thick but not heavy. It was one of those sauces where you knew that a lot of ingredients were involved, and yet you couldn't even begin to place which ones. From the moment that I bit in, I knew I needed to challenge myself to making the most difficult recipe in Mexican cuisine. I just needed a way in.
At first, I flipped open Bayless's Authentic Mexican and went straight for the mole poblano with turkey, a massive undertaking that would have required a whole turkey and a few dozen guests to eat. I balked. Instead I went for this recipe, a rich red mole that was simply served with a chicken. It's an easier mole dish, and a great place to start, but I would hardly call it easy.
But like the best Mexican food, the most expensive ingredient here is the whole chicken, which I got from Whole Foods for $7. Unlike cassoulet, it's not an old peasant dish that is actually really expensive to make today. It's refined and complex, one that combines the best ingredients and techniques from Mexican and Spanish cuisines, and makes something totally unique. And honestly, besides the time involved, it's still remarkably cheap to make at home.
The River Cottage TV show begins with a ridiculously cheesy cartoon showing a curly haired driver fleeing a polluted city for an idyllic paradise, complete with jumping fish, smiling cows, and some friendly pigs. During the course of three seasons of River Cottage and the many years of spinoffs, host Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall manages to kill and eat every single one of those creatures and many, many more. This isn't some hippie feel-good series. The River Cottage is an exploration of living off the land, butchering animals, and trying to eat as well as possible.
Hugh is a bonafide food celebrity in Britain, but here in America, he's still relatively unknown. Well, we think there is no good reason for this disparity. Hugh is one of our food heroes, a man who has inspired us again and again to take our food game to the next level. This blog would be half as interesting and a lot less ambitious without him.
Why do we love Hugh? Because he puts our fantasies to the test. If you've ever dreamed of giving up city life and moving to the country, where you can grow your own vegetables and raise some chickens, this is the man for you. Because he's done it, and he's let us come along for the ride. But that doesn't really explain why watching is so much fun. He is goofy, charming, academic, patient, and honest.
Meeting another American fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is like a secret handshake. It shows you've got food chops. So we decided it was finally time to put this post together. Here is our little guide to Hugh and his television-show-turned-food-empire known as River Cottage--a guide to each season and links to where you can find them. May you fall in love with him just as we have.
The basic story of River Cottage is this: chef in London decides that he's tired of city life and moves to the country to grow and eat his own food and live "off the fat of the land." He lands a few green acres in the British countryside, along with a cottage next to a river, then sets out to learn everything possible he can to eat well: how to raise and butcher pigs, keep chickens for eggs, grow organic vegetables on a little plot, make jam from his fruit trees, trap eels in the river, dive for scallops, make champagne from elderflowers, and the list goes on. He meets and charms locals in Dorset and throws down on cooking contests. He trades and barters food for favors. And challenges them to drinking contests.
One of many toasts.
Here's why it works: the purpose of all this is pleasure, not preaching. A show with some guy moving to the country and blathering about the moral imperative to eat organic food and raise your own pigs would grow boring quickly. No, Hugh is a hedonist, not an idealogue. He never forgets that the pursuit of pleasure via good food is one of life's great pursuits. He's a chef at heart: one of the first scenes in the series shows Hugh digging up any and all flowers on his property because if it doesn't put food on his plate, he's not interested.
Hugh in his polytunnel.
We felt especially compelled to write this article because, quite suddenly, The River Cottage has become available on Amazon just in the last few weeks. You can buy whole seasons of River Cottage for $5.99 online, which is a screaming bargain. You can also preview a couple minutes of each, so you can see Hugh in action.
Make it a last-minute Christmas gift this year: give the gift of Hugh to your loved ones!