ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

A toast to Bittman and the final "Minimalist" column

I'm not sure when it happened, but there was a certain period in the late 1990s when I began to religiously read Mark Bittman's Minimalist cooking column in the Times. I had already been cooking avidly by then, but the column opened up new horizons. I can't even begin to count the number of times I read the column and tried the recipe -- that same day. His approach was liberating, since it demanded little more than what you already had in your kitchen. Bittman explained the approach in his final column:

I refused to buy into the notion that there was a “correct” way to prepare a given dish; rather, I tried to understand its spirit and duplicate that, no matter where I was cooking. For months I lived with a hot plate and a combination convection-microwave oven. When I needed to roast something I borrowed a friend’s kitchen. For years after that I cooked in others’ kitchens more than my own; the column never missed a beat. Thus I have no patience for “I’d love to cook but I have a lousy kitchen.”

For guys especially, this was liberating. They didn't have to cook like their mother  -- or anyone else for that matter, though you could cook your way around the world. Again, Bittman:

To me the question was not, “Would I cook this as a native would?” but rather, “How would a native cook this if he had my ingredients, my kitchen, my background?” It’s obviously a different dish. But as Jacques Pépin once said to me, you never cook a recipe the same way twice, even if you try. I never maintained that my way of cooking was the “best” way to cook, only that it’s a practical way to cook. (I’m lazy, I’m rushed, and I’m not all that skillful, and many people share those qualities.)

So thanks, Mark, for all your help. I even ended up using a recipe of yours tonight, but took it in my own direction, combining soup, lentils and brown rice. It riffed off your ideas but in the end it was mine. Which is how I think you'd like it.

For those who are interested, here are his top-25 favorites.

- Samuel Fromartz

Bread Baking Posts

A Cook, Not a Foodie, with a Taste for Onions

Among friends, I've been called a foodie because I'm into food and love to cook and bake. But I don't think of myself that way -- I'm not really into following the top chefs, don't watch the food shows on television and am not on a perennial search for the latest hot restaurant. I do enjoy a good meal once in a while, but I'm very careful -- I've had too many experiences where you lay out a big chunk of change for a meal and then wonder what you've spent it on.

I just like food, simply made, that tastes good. So I rate a couple of ethnic places near DC, like Hong Kong Palace, as the most enjoyable places to eat (with the best value), along with a couple of fine dining places, like Palena. But mostly, I've found I like to cook at home. Ingredients can count for 90% of the result. Like the cucumber I picked from the garden yesterday, sliced up and sprinkled with a pinch of salt. Or the Copper River sockeye salmon I recently had the pleasure of eating up in Alaska, fresh out of the water. "With fish like this, the only thing you can do is screw it up," a chef said. Visiting a fisherman's house, we ate the fillets off the grill with a bit of seasoning and not much else. Perfection!

I've thought about this reading Michael Pollan's essay in the Times magazine, "Out of the Kitchen, onto the Couch," which points out that people have forgotten how to cook. Food has become largely about entertainment, rather than engagement. You watch, rather than participate. This doesn't apply to everyone, but it is the story for many. More and more people are buying prepared foods, eating sandwiches, not cooking.

How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

I take Pollan's point. As an avid bread maker, it's clear to me that most people have forgotten what real bread tastes like, if they've ever had it. But once they do, especially kids, there is an element of shock and awe. Now bread making is viewed as an arcane craft, but once people made bread regularly at home. It doesn't take a lot of time or work (the bread rises on its own). It's just intimidating.

I often tell people interested in baking that you have to make a few bad loaves to learn how to make good ones. In baking though, the bad ones are usually edible. So you eat them and try again. But that applies to anything worth doing. Make mistakes, eat the bad stuff -- if you can -- and do better next time. (Sometimes, mistakes can even turn out quite nicely as they did for Susan at Wild Yeast, when her baguettes became ciabatta). 

You can also make really great stuff easily (and cheaply). That was the point of my previous post on home-made ice tea for 6 cents a glass. Cucumbers with a dash of salt is another. And here's another dead easy recipe, onions with vinegar, from Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. It's especially good with fresh onions now in season at the farmers' market.

Bassal bel Khal (onions with vinegar)

2 sweet  onions, red or white
2-3 tablespoons vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon mint (optional)

Peel and cut onions in half. Slice thinly. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar and salt. Stir. Cover and let sit for at least one hour. As Roden says, the onions "will become soft, lose much of their pungency and absorb the other flavors." I've made them with the mint and without. Both are good. This dish is especially good with grilled meat or fish or tofu.  (To avoid crying while cutting onions, cut them on a counter next to your stove and turn on the flame. It will burn the gasses that make you tear. Then turn off the flame!)

This isn't about being a foodie. It's about making good, simple, food. 
- Samuel Fromartz

A 75th Anniversary: I'll Drink to That

By Clare Leschin-Hoar

As if our current economic woes weren't enough to remind us of the 1930s, this Friday, December 5th, marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. It lasted 13 thirsty years until 1933. That's reason to celebrate -- even if you might be feeling a bit pinched lately.

While I've never had to imbibe in any bathtub gin or homemade hooch, it's exciting to see some of the country’s best bartenders bringing back some authentic vintage-era cocktails made from ingredients like rye, applejack and plenty of gin.

In Boston, cocktail guru Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard brushed up on his Prohibition history, and has been reviving cocktails like the Jack Rose, El Presidente, The Scofflaw Cocktail and the Monkey Gland in a year-long celebration. It culminates in a roaring Twenties-themed costume dinner and party Thursday night.

Speakeasy's have also sprung up. In New York City, there's cozy PDT, which stands for “Please Don’t Tell”. Don’t know where to find it? Head to hot-dog joint Crif Dogs on St. Marks Place and look for a vintage-style phone booth where you pick up the receiver and press the button. If you measure up, you’re buzzed in through a secret door where bartender Jim Meehan slings era-appropriate cocktails in a low ceiling room.

In Chicago, Violet Hour and their famed bartender, Toby Maloney are where locals go for speakeasy cocktails. At San Francisco’s stylish Bourbon & Branch, patrons can nurse whiskey mash in a room with red velvet walls, or they might hop over to 21st Amendment which is holding a "repealebration celebration" on Friday.

For the aspiring mixologist, here's a couple of recipes below the fold.


Scofflaw Cocktail
Courtesy of Jackson Cannon

1 ½ ounces rye whiskey
1 ounces dry vermouth
¾ ounce grenadine
¾ ounce lemon juice

Shake, strain into a chilled lowball, channel knife lemon twist over the glass, no garnish.

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& (yes, it’s called the “&” cocktail.)
Courtesy of Jackson Cannon

1 ounce Old Tom Gin
1 ounce brandy
1 ounce sweet vermouth
Dash of orange bitters

Shake, strain into a martini glass, no garnish.

Talkin' Texas Shrimp (with Recipes)

Shrimp Photo from Flickr

By Clare Leschin-Hoar

I attended the New World Food and Wine Festival in San Antonio this past weekend, and was able to see first-hand what some of the best local chefs had to offer. As you might expect, there was a slew of tasty Texas beef dishes that had more than a dash of regional Mexican influence. There’s a burgeoning wine scene, so many dishes were paired with local Texan wines too. But what actually grabbed my attention more than once was the Texas white shrimp.

It’s hard (but not impossible) for me to find American wild or farm-raised shrimp here in the Northeast, but in San Antonio, chefs like Moses Cruz of Oro Restaurant and Bar, and John Brand of Pesca on the River have easy access to both sustainably farmed and wild caught white shrimp, which I found to have a sweet yet delicate flavor.

Russ Miget, environmental quality specialist for the Texas Sea Grant Program and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, says boasts about the sustainability of Texas white shrimp are sound. Shrimp reach sexual maturity at six-months and spawn at least once, and more often twice a year, laying 250,000 to 300,000 eggs each. And while bottom trawling is used, the shrimp boats are fishing off a mud-bottom floor, and are not dragging heavy nets over coral reefs. Bycatch is about three pounds of non-shrimp to every pound of shrimp, but much of it, like crabs, can be used.

Brand especially is a fan of the local wild stuff. “Unlike a lot of farmed shrimp from overseas which can be frozen and refrozen many times, this shrimp is frozen only once, on the shrimp boat, with the heads still intact, and it’s a bit sweeter like the sea. The flavor is so good, you don’t have to fuss with it much,” he said.

We agree, and tapped the chefs for a couple of recipes for you, because we know what it’s like to scramble for that showy holiday appetizer. And if you're searching for a mail-order source, this list of Texas Shrimp suppliers has several that sell retail.

Recipes below the fold

Cold Poached Texas White Shrimp With Oven Dried Cranberries Kalamata Olives - by Executive Chef Moses Cruz

Serves 6

3 medium sized carrots peeled, sliced ¾-inch rounds
1 whole stalk celery cut into ¾-inch slices, washed
2 medium Texas yellow onions
1 bottle dry white wine
2 quarts cold water
3 ounces kosher salt
1 ounce coarse black pepper
In heavy pot bring all above ingredients to a boil for 10 minutes.

2 pounds large Texas White Shrimp peeled and deveined.

Add shrimp to boiling water (above), remove when it reaches a boil again, Let sit for 2 minutes Drain shrimp and chill in ice bath. Once cooled, remove and let air dry.

2 wheels of herbed Boursin cheese
2 ounces dried cranberries, finely chopped
1 ounces pitted Kalamata olives, finely chopped

Soften cheese add cranberries and olives. Mix well and let rest for one hour. Form into 1-inch balls. Split cooled shrimp and arrange on platter, tail up. Place cheese mixture in middle and serve. (Clare notes: the shrimp sitting on the plate fanned out tail up, and then the cheese is in a ball, stuffed on the back of the shrimp, under the tail, so you lift the shrimp and pop the whole thing in your mouth, minus the tail. It was surprisingly good.)

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Grilled Texas White Shrimp with Saffron Garlic Chimichurri, Grilled Bread and Serrano Ham - by Executive Chef John Brand

Serves 4-6

2 teaspoons saffron threads
8 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 bunch parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Juice and zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper

One dozen large White Texas Shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ pound shaved Serrano ham

Blend chimichurri ingredients in a food processor. Toss with shrimp. Thread shrimp onto wood or sugar cane skewer and grill both sides. Remove shrimp from the grill and toss in Aioli sauce (below). Arrange on a platter with grilled baguette, shaved Serrano ham and garnish with frisee or arugula.

Garlic Lemon Aioli
6 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons garlic oil
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cup  light olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly chopped chives
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley

In a large bowl whisk together yolks, Dijon, lemon juice, and red wine vinegar.
Slowly add the oils to form an emulsion. Add chives and parsley, season with salt and white pepper. Refrigerate.

And the Winning Tomato Is....!

I don’t fess-up to this very often, but being a food-writer really has its perks. This was definitely one of them. I got to squeeze, smell and taste some seriously stellar tomatoes. That big boy up top was an entry in the heaviest category at the 24th Annual Massachusetts Tomato Festival where I was judging.  (The actual winner in that category was a gnarly 3.23 pound Striped German grown by farmer Jim Ward.

I love their names almost as much as I love eating them – Black Prince, Striped Germans, Big Zak, Supersweets and Green Zebras. They sound like million-dollar racehorses, and for some local Massachusetts farmers, the bragging rights are nearly as good.

But here in New England, the weather’s been fickle. By now, we’d normally be up to our elbows in flavor packed tomatoes, but it’s been too cool and wet. Farmers I’ve spoken with say there are plenty growing on the vines, but they’re just late to ripen, or worse, are suffering cracks from too much rain. I’m just hoping that this week’s forcast of sun means I’ll be doing some canning by Sunday. If not, I’ve got a couple of recipes on the following page worth trying from Jamie Bissonnette, chef de cuisine at KO Prime here in Boston. 
Clare Leschin-Hoar

Heirlooms Romesco Sauce 
Serves 6-8
1  Spanish onion, julienned
4  garlic cloves, crushed
1  red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3  dried red jalapenos, chopped seeds intact
2 lbs heirloom tomatoes, chopped seeds and skin intact
3/4 C  Marcona almonds, toasted
1 C Spanish extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C Spanish cabernet wine vinegar
Espelette pepper to taste

Cook onions in 1 cup olive oil until translucent.  Add garlic, and cook until tender.  Add peppers, and cover with a lid.  Cook the peppers completely tender, then add the tomatoes.  Stew for 45 minute on low heat with a lid.  Add almonds, cook 10 minutes.  Puree in blender, adding the remaining olive oil. Season with Espelette and cabernet vinegar to taste.  This sauce can be served hot, cold, or room temperature. (Jamie says it’s especially good over striped bass.)

Roasted Heirloom Tomato Soup
Serves 2-4
10 lbs heirloom tomatoes (or plum tomatoes), cut into quarters
6  shallots, peeled and sliced thin
3  garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 C  chicken or vegetable stock
1 C  extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste
10  basil leaves (Thai basil or regular basil)
1  fresh bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme

Salt the tomatoes and let sit in a deep roasting pan for 2 hours. Add remaining ingredients and cover tightly (air tight with plastic wrap then tin foil). Place pan in pre-heated 220 degree oven for 2 hours. Remove top, and puree in a blender until smooth. Pass through a chinois and season with salt as needed. Serve cold or hot