Friday, January 30, 2009

Henry James wrote about the pleasure of travel (visiting Paris specifically) in terms of "looking...with eyes attuned to a different pitch" (Portraits of Places, 1883). My father and I will be in Paris in two weeks, and it is precisely the different pitch--of language, colors, flavors, attitudes--that I look forward to. The idea that there are a million different ways to do the same thing, and that by looking through a slightly different lens or from a slightly different angle we might expand our understanding is one of the basic joys of stepping out of one's own life.

When my father and I travel together, we think mostly about food. What we'll eat, where we'll eat, and when we'll eat. Last time we were in Paris together, we went all over the city sampling baguettes. The time before that, we sampled financiers (small, rectangular almond cakes). Before that it was sables (butter cookies), and before that, tartes au citron (lemon tarts). This visit, I will be stocking up on my supply of Valrhona chocolate chips, so the search may well be focused on Things Chocolate. (Photo above of a chocolate "criollo," from the Stohrer website. Stohrer is an elegant patisserie on the rue Montorgueil in Paris. It's been around since 1730 and has one of the best display windows in town. Click on this link to see what the Paris Breakfasts blogger has to say about patisseries in Paris. It's a Jamesian feast if I ever saw one!)

Friday, January 23, 2009

SJG and I haven't cooked much since my last post, and here's why:

Barack Obama was inaugurated on Tuesday January 20 as our forty-fourth president, the first African American to serve as the nation's leader. We've been glued to the television and the radio for several days, and I think I've finally, happily reached my saturation point.

I loved the inauguration, its pageantry, its awareness of sacred duty, the fun of the closing prayer, Aretha's hat and oh that voice, and dare I say it, the patriotism of the whole affair. Along with many, many Americans, I wept, as much for the historicity of the event as for the hope it has engendered. It's such a brave thing, hope. And I know I haven't felt much of it these last eight years.

And then Buddy had knee surgery last week. He's recuperating well and his mood is good, but imagine the effort involved in restraining a dog from running, jumping, playing, and walking. And we still have five more weeks of it! But by then, spring will be in the air and it won't be long before the daffodils on our table will be from my very own garden, not from a greenhouse.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Our longtime friends G and M came over for dinner last night to ring in the new year. SJG and I made our pork dish with juniper berries (see the recipe) and served cooked carrots for contrasting color on the side.

For dessert, I made a chocolate tart (above) garnished with sugared pistachios from an Alice Medrich recipe in this month's issue of Fine Cooking. Raving about the successes I've had so far, I showed the magazine to M, and she asked if I had yet made the chocolate cake on the cover. It's gorgeous, with a shiny chocolate glaze and garnished with bright red pomegranate seeds. (See the photo and recipe.)

I laughed heartily, because I had indeed been tempted, but in reading the recipe, it had become obvious that it was more of a chemistry experiment than anything else. And the chocolate glaze is a cooked, candylike affair, for which I am known for...well, let's just say that everyone knows my 7-minute frosting slides off any cake.

The chocolate-pistachio tart is a stunner, with an intense, smooth chocolate mouth experience enhanced by the saltiness of the nuts and the fleur de sel. Below is the recipe, adapted to my methods).
For the tart crust:
1 stick unsalted butter (at room temperature)
¼ cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
4-1/2 ounces (1 cup) flour

1. In a medium bowl, cream the butter, sugar, and salt. Stir in the orange zest and vanilla. Add the flour and mix until blended.
2. Press the dough into a 9-1/2-inch fluted tart pan (the kind with the removable bottom). Start with the sides and press the rest of the dough evenly over the bottom. At first, it will seem as if there’s not enough dough, but there is. As you carefully work the dough, using your fingers and palms, it will eventually fill the pan.
3. Let the crust sit for about 30 minutes while you make the filling.

4. When ready to pre-bake the crust, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the tart pan onto a cookie sheet and bake in the lower third of the oven until the crust is golden brown (15-20 minutes). Check the crust at about 15 minutes and use a fork to press down any puffiness. Shortbread cooks more slowly than a regular pie crust so this isn’t too long to bake it.

For the chocolate filling:
1 cup half-and-half
2 tablespoons sugar
pinch of salt
7 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped or in chips (I used 70% cacao, but you can use a lower percentage for a less intense chocolate experience)
1 egg

1. In a small saucepan, slowly bring the cream, sugar, and salt to a simmer over medium low heat. Take the pan off the heat to add the chocolate, whisking until melted and smooth. (A whisk really does work better than a spoon.) Keep the chocolate warm (by covering it rather than heating it) until ready to pour into the pre-baked crust.
2. Just before you’re ready to take the crust out of the oven, add the egg to the chocolate and whisk well.
3. Take the crust out of the oven when done and reduce the heat to 300 degrees. Pour the chocolate into the hot tart crust and return it to the oven (still on the cookie sheet).
4. Bake 10-15 minutes more, until the edges of the chocolate filling have set but the middle still moves a little in the center when you tap the pan. Cool completely on a rack before taking the ring of the tart pan off.
5. Serve the tart at room temperature with a spoonful of the sugared pistachios and a light grinding of fleur de sel on top. The salty-sweet combination really works.

1/2 cup salted, roasted whole pistachios (shelled)
¼ cup water
½ cup sugar
pinch of sea salt

1. Line a cookie sheet with tin foil.
2. Heat the nuts in the microwave for a minute or two. You want them to be warm when you add them to the hot, melted sugar.
3. Pour the water into a 3-quart saucepan. Add the sugar and the salt to the center of the pan and pat down until evenly moistened. There should be a ring of water around the sugar when you’re done. (It'll happen naturally.)
4. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves (about 4 minutes).
5. Uncover and cook without stirring until the sugar syprup begins to color a little (2-4 minutes). Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking, swirling the pan if necessary for uniform coloration of the syrup.
6. When the sugar is a pale to medium yellow (a matter of a few minutes), add the warm pistachios. With a spatula, stir gently to coat the nuts. Continue to cook until the sugar turns an amber color. (This is supposed to happen within a couple minutes, but it never happened for me, even though I cooked it for almost 5 minutes. It’s still delicious if the color isn’t perfectly amber.)
7. Quickly scrape the sugared nuts onto the cookie sheet and spread as thinly as you can before it all hardens.
8. When slightly cooled but still warm, slide the foil with the nuts into a plastic bag and seal. Cool completely, then chop or crush or otherwise break apart. You can make the nuts a couple days ahead of time; store them in an airtight container until ready to use.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

I knew I had hit a new level of culinary endeavor when I began making my own curry pastes. It's extremely rewarding to know that you've roasted and ground your own spices and shopped at your favorite Asian grocery store for fresh lemongrass and shrimp paste. We have a large Vietnamese population where SJG and I live, so we usually shop for our Asian specialty ingredients along one of the streets that has a high concentration of Vietnamese groceries and restaurants.

Our New Year's dinner plans fell through this year, so SJG and I are ringing in 2009 this evening with a Thai dish of pork and butternut squash, the base of which is coconut milk and the red curry paste I made this afternoon. If you have the right ingredients and the right equipment, it's easy to make.

Below is the recipe for red curry paste, adapted from Nancie McDermott's Real Thai: The Best of Thailand's Regional Cooking (Chronicle Books, 1992). I also like her Quick and Easy Thai: 70 Everyday Recipes (Chronicle Books, 2004) for when I have less time to cook. However, these quick recipes do sacrifice complexity of flavor by leaving out certain ingredients and time-consuming steps. If you have the inclination and the time, the recipes in Real Thai are somewhat more involved and, in the end, more satisfying to the palate.

Red Curry Paste
3 large dried New Mexico chile peppers
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
10 whole peppercorns (I use a French mix of black and green peppercorns)
4 stalks fresh lemongrass
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (with roots if you can find it)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (the brand I buy is packed in canola oil)
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Stem the chile peppers and shake out the seeds. Tear peppers gently into pieces and set in a medium-sized bowl. Cover with hot water (I bring a kettle almost to the boil) and let soften while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. In a small frying pan, dry-fry the coriander seeds for about 4 minutes. You'll know they're done when you can begin to smell the distinctive coriander scent and the seeds have begun to brown a little. Place in a small bowl to cool while you do the same step for the cumin seeds. The pan will be hot by this time, so it may only take a minute or two to roast the cumin seeds. Set aside to cool.

3. The roasted spices will cool fairly quickly. Transfer them to a spice grinder, a food processor, or a mortar and pestle. Add the peppercorns and grind to a smooth powder. I don't have a spice grinder, and my mortar isn't fully seasoned yet, so I took a compromise approach by grinding the spices in the food processor first and then finishing off with a small bowl and my pestle. Set aside.

4. Prepare the lemongrass by chopping off the root stub and all but the tenderest 3 inches or so (much of the top part of each stalk is too tough to use). Peel off a layer or two of the tough outter part of each stalk. Chop each stalk crosswise into small slices and put in the bowl of a food processor.

5. Add the chopped cilantro, ginger, garlic, shallots, and lime zest. Process until well blended.

6. Drain all but about 1/4 cup of the soaking juice from the chile peppers. Add the pieces of pepper and the 1/4 cup soaking juice to the food processor and process until you have a smooth paste.

7. Add the shrimp paste, ground spices, and salt and process again briefly until blended.

8. Store the curry paste in a glass jar in the refrigerator, where it will keep for about a week. It freezes well too. The curry paste recipe makes enough for three or four of your favorite curry recipes, depending on how generously you use the paste.

Happy New Year!