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  • cucumbersandwich 18

    I feel like I finally understand the cucumber sandwich. After weeks of thinking about it, and trying to recreate the most authentic version I could muster, it finally sunk in. The taste isn't rich, indulgent, spicy, acidic, comforting, salty, or fatty. It's cool, calm, and collected. The strongest reaction I had towards one was a contented sigh, a sort of momentary delight.

    So why was I breaking a sweat trying to make one? I had been driven to the edge by an old post about cucumber sandwiches that just wouldn't go away. I had written the post as a joke about three years ago, but that old clunker still pops up as one of the most visited posts on the site. It bugs the absolute hell out of me because I had given out an inauthentic recipe. So this past week I attempted to atone for my past cucumber sandwich sins.

    The sad fact behind all of this is that I've never actually had an authentic cucumber sandwich before. Though I spent about six months in England during college, the closest I ever got to the real English tea experience was when when the doorman at the Ritz Hotel in London kindly told me to shove off. The hotel is famous for their tea service (around 37 pounds a person these days) and also for their strict dress code. Me and my sneakers were not getting by. I couldn't have afforded the pleasure anyway.

    I've been trying to construct a recipe based on second hand accounts, fuzzy pictures from the internet, and comments made on my failed post. I think I have it. From what I could discern, a cucumber sandwich is made up of a trinity of bread, butter, and cucumbers. Those are the most important components and if I could get them right, I'd at least be close.

  • By Nick KindelspergerThe inspiration came from a wine glass, though...

    butternutsquashravioli1

    The inspiration came from a wine glass, though the wine surprisingly had nothing to do with it.  I was in the midst of a second bout with ravioli, and I was once again losing. I had all kinds of new tricks, but the stupid little pockets of filling still looked atrocious.  I was cutting the ravioli smaller, trying to keep the edge as thin as possible, and even making little indentations with a fork.  Yet, they managed to look even worse than the last ones.  We cooked one, this time for only 4 minutes, and were let down.  They still weren't good. 

    I needed a way to make each pocket the same size, but they were so small that no glass I had would have worked.  I took another sip of my wine and then looked down at the rim of the glass.  For some reason I like to drink wine out of smaller glasses, and not big honking ones the size of vases.  I noticed that it was exactly the same size as the ravioli that I was trying to make.  So I downed my glass, flipped it over, and carefully cut out the raviolis into perfect little circles.  They cooked up perfectly in 4 minutes.  And when paired with a little butter and sage sauce, were some of the best bites I've had in the New Year.  It was so easy. 

    butternutsquashravioli2

    What a difference.  My last batch was so unremarkable, I'm sure some frozen ones from the local grocery chain would have beat them.  I had read a lot about ravioli before making the first batch, but afterwards I went into a ravioli reading frenzy.  The biggest thing I noticed is that there was no standard ravoili, no specific dimension for its shape, or even kind of shape.  I had worried so much about the cooking time, but perhaps I needed to start at the very beginning. 

  • pineapple vinegar 2

    When I think of Mexican cuisine, I think of balance. Mexicans love acidity in their cooking, and that's what makes it so appealing to eat. Though it's a function of living in a warm climate--the same reason Thai cuisine is also fond of citrus, it's a necessary form of preservation--the culinary benefit has outlasted the necessity.

    When you have something rich and heavy in your taco--like, say, hunks of pork shoulder that have been slow-cooked in lard to become authentic carnitas--it is always accompanied by a bright, refreshing salsa to counterbalance it. That's something that's unfortunately lost in translation with so much Americanized Mexican food: the acidity. Americans aren't as fond of it. The typical Mexican restaurant, like the one in my college town of Greencastle, Indiana, serves rich, heavy food that sits in your stomach for hours. Cheese, beans, ground beef, all of it flavorful but nothing to set it all in relief. Your tongue just gets tired.

    A well-made guacamole is a perfect example of this necessary balance. Avocados are wonderful things, creamy and rich, and when you add salt their flavor deepens and becomes round.  But a guacamole really sings with a proper squeeze of lime juice. I've written before about the importance of acidity in seasoning, as important as salt itself, and Mexican cuisine intuitively understands this.

    I'm taking a cuisine of Mexico class right now in culinary school, and one of the things chef continues to refer to is the frugality of Mexican cooking. The frank reality is that most of Mexican cooking was developed by people who didn't have a lot of money. They made use of everything, including the seeds from dried chiles (they can be charred until black and crumbled into salsas to add a complex smokey flavor). And one of the biggest surprises was that the acidity in their cooking doesn't always come from limes.

    Limes and Mexican food seem inseparable, but the reality is that a lime tree can be a luxury, and most families didn't traditionally have more than one. Yet every dish needed that crucial acidity. So what did they do? They made fruit vinegar.

    pineapple vinegar 1

    At the start of our class chef brought in a huge plastic bucket full of homemade pineapple vinegar, and we have used it for many of the dishes as a seasoning. The process of making it is simple: you simply combine the peels of a pineapple with water and brown sugar (actually, the tradition is to use a Mexican sugar called piloncillo, but brown sugar works just as welll) and allow it to become vinegar over the course of a couple weeks. Once you have the "mother," which is the good culture that has hence developed, it can be used to transform more water/sugar into yet more vinegar. It becomes an ever-replenishable well of acidity to be used without much worry of cost.

    My own homemade back of vinegar has just finished, and I just bottled it up. Here's a documentation of the very simple process...which is basically to dump everything in a container and wait around.

  • sliders 1

    What is a slider? A slider is a particular thing. It's particularly American. It's a small subset of our great culinary tradition, the hamburger. But as I explained last week, it's not just a mini-hamburger. To be a slider, it cannot be perverted with expensive ingredients like foie gras or tuna tartar, a cutesy version of a burger for a chef to play with. A slider consists of a thin layer of beef, American cheese, a soft bun, and way more onions than seem necessary or right. At some point in the cooking process, the meat should steam above the onions, turning the patty richly aromatic and strangely beefy considering its small stature.

    That's the secret about the slider, and why I am infatuated with them. It's that strange dichotomy of being petite yet robust, flavorful, and meaty despite its littleness. I can't think of many other dainty foods that have such a seedy reputation.

    And, yes, sliders are rather seedy. The slider joint has a stigma, booths haunted with the funk of cooking onions, a smell that seems to follow you out the door and all the way home. To get right to it, cooking these at home will make your place smell like White Castle. Perhaps this is why there aren't many recipes online for how to do it correctly. "Leave it to the take-out place," seems to be the message, or use just a little onion (or even onion salt). But these recipes are not authentic, nor as delicious.

    sliders 2

    But as I found out, making sliders at home is easy, cheap, and produces one of the best hamburgers I've ever eaten. By the end, it seems like a noble trade off. To be perfectly honest, I kind of like the aroma.

    I could easily show you how sliders are made at a White Castle, where most people have probably encountered them. But you could also find out for yourself, since the whole griddle is showcased behind glass. They just place ultra-thin frozen patties atop a bed of chopped onions. But I wanted to make the burgers from fresh meat. I wanted to do it how White Castle probably used to make burgers, before they switched to frozen patties.

    The question became: how do you get the patty so thin? Luckily, there are some places in New Jersey that still keep the slider flame alive and make them the real way. I need to point out the excellent coverage Nick Solares has done over on A Hamburger Today about this subject. One of his favorite places is White Manna, and that's where this video came from of the griddle man in action. This was my ticket. To my surprise the technique showcased in the shaky YouTube video was backed up by a comment that I got from George Motz, who wrote Hamburger America. I figured he'd eaten a few sliders in his day.

    Don’t pre-cook the onion. Use Vidalia (the way they do in Oklahoma), slice paper-thin on a mandoline so they cook faster, and never use a grind higher than 80/20. Smash the onion into the patty first – don’t wait to flip before you add the onion.

    And that's pretty much exactly how to do it. For the burger aficionados out there, it's like a modified Smash Burger. A small ball of meat is placed on the cooking surface, topped with thinly sliced onions, and then flattened with a spatula to the desired thickness. When the bottom is done, it's then flipped onto the onions to finish cooking. The second part, where the burgers steam on top of the onions, is the genius of sliders and why I love them so much.

  • galbi01

  • cold oatmeal 1
    Oatmeal at Cafe Fanny in Berkeley

    I think I've always loved the idea of oatmeal for breakfast: it's simple to make, it sticks to your ribs until lunch, and it's economical. I don't always put a lot of time into breakfast, or much thought, save the occasional calm morning of a slow-fried egg on toast or scrambled eggs with chives from the windowsill garden. Oatmeal seems like a good, honest solution. Though I've occasionally had some wonderful bowls of oatmeal in cafes, when it hasn't been gluey, and drizzled with just enough maple syrup and floated with a cream, I've never developed an oatmeal habit. It struck me a few weeks ago when I was in San Francisco, and had what could only be considered a transcendant bowl at an Alice Waters place called Cafe Fanny in Berkeley.

    This was Platonic Ideal stuff, the best an oatmeal lover could ask for, each grain its own distinct pearl of flavor, the entire bowl just creamy enough. But all I could think about was a line from one of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedburg, describing the importance of starting out a comic routine strong and finishing just as well. "You can't be like pancakes: all exciting at first, but by the end you're f***ing sick of 'em."

    Obviously, the instant stuff sucks, and though I've read about steel cut oats cooked a dozen ways (in rice cookers, slow cookers, and quickly over high heat morning-of, etc.), I've never been convinced that the hassle is worth it. Maybe you could convince me? Do you have the best way to prepare oatmeal?

  • Sirloin_1

  • nick and blake

  • By Blake Royer Ever since writing about New York pizza...
  • Dashi is the base of Japanese cuisine, and crucially important in making a simple miso soup.

    insearchofdashi15

    I just wanted to make a bowl of miso soup.  That's all. It was going to be the first course of a casual dinner party, something that wouldn't require too much attention so I could focus and pull off the main course in a reasonable amount of time.  I figured all I needed was some miso paste, a hunk of tofu, and a seaweed or two to make it look right.  I was wrong.

    This perturbed me to no end. Japanese cuisine is not one I've indulged in that often, feeling far more comfortable across the Straight of Korea in, well...Korea. I find that cuisine brasher and more gloriously hedonistic. I certainly respect Japanese cuisine, but it's not one I've wanted to really figure out. Or at least not right now. Now I have no choice.

    To make a proper miso soup I needed to make dashi.  To make dashi I needed water, konbu, and bonito flakes. As for those last two ingredients?  I had no idea.  I just set off for my local Asian market figuring I'd run across them at some point.  There I spent well over thirty minutes trying to decipher labels with my nonexistent grasp of any Asian language. Finally, after a good 10 minutes sprawled out on the floor looking at the bottom shelf, I got the nerve to ask someone where I might find these things. She just laughed.

    insearchofdashi01

    Konbu is dried kelp, which means my miso was going to have dried kelp and seaweed. Who knew?

    insearchofdashi02

    As for the bonito, it's skipjack tuna that has been smoked and dried into something called katsuobushi.  This resulting wood-like block is then shaved into flakes and sold in plastic bags.  Of course, the bags of them were on the top shelf.

    insearchofdashi09

    What about the miso?  In my mind miso was miso, but it turns out there are various kinds which vary in color and strength.  The recipe I was using called for shiro miso and aka miso.  I have much more to learn about this as well.

    As left the market with a bag of wakame (seaweed), dried kelp, two kinds of miso, a bag of bonito flakes, two packages of tofu, and scallions, I wondered how long this new obsession of mine would take and whether I'd ever get that first course out before the dinner guests got hungry.