Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Kitchen Essentials: The 411 For The Newly Kitchened

“The stove, the bins, the cupboards, I had learned forever, make an inviolable throne room. From them I ruled; temporarily I controlled. I felt powerful, and I loved that feeling…but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” 
― M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
― Marshall McLuhan



"June Bride" immediately connotes all that is youthful, hopeful, and pure. Blushing damsels wearing orange blossoms, gossamer veils and white confectionary gowns; taking their vows beneath the beams of a silvery moon, while doves coo and choirs of angels sing some Taylor Swift tune. June is traditionally the month in which loving hearts opt to become united in sacred wedlock, holding huge ceremonies to celebrate the fact that they will be building happy little idylls all their own for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of their lives. But why June? A quick internet search yielded a tradition dating back to Roman times - to the festival held on the first day of June honoring Juno, goddess of connubial bliss, hearth and home. It was believed couples who married in June would be blessed with prosperity and happiness. In fact, many of the wedding traditions we still celebrate from bridal veils to wedding cakes originated with the Romans.
The tradition continued through the Middle Ages. The reason was less superstitious and a bit more practical: a person’s annual bath usually fell in late May or June (whether they needed it or not), flowers were more abundant by June, and brides - wanting to smell their sweetest for their wedding day - carried a bouquet of flowers as a precautionary measure - to hide their body odor in case they missed their annual douching - thereby creating the Western civilization's time-honored tradition of bridal bouquets. It was also hoped by those crafty feudal lords, that the bride would be less likely to be in advanced stages of pregnancy with a June wedding, thereby allowing her to be an extra pair of hands for the autumn harvest.
(Of course, I got married in March, not June -what with having access to freely running water, indoor plumbing, and, sadly, being sans the requisite crops that one requires to qualify as a pair of helping hands come harvest-time, but I digress...)
To this day, June remains the month when many a happy (and hopefully clean-smelling) modern couple begin building their new nest together. Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” This construction of wedded bliss requires certain specialized tools if one is to live and dine well - I should think kitchen utensils must rank high among them.
The way humans forged and used sophisticated tools is perhaps principally what set our species apart from the rest of the planet. Our kissing cousin, Homo Erectus, evolved by finding innovative ways of getting access to meat, and devising methods of digesting that meat more efficiently. Beast protein created larger brains, larger brains created better tools for hunting and eating more beast. This doesn't mean that early stone tools were restricted to processing animal carcasses, or that meat became the primary factor in their diet, since by all indications, from chimpanzees to tropical hunter-gatherer people today, plants were and are the staple. It just demonstrated an increased interest in meat and the tools to process that meat was essential to keep the larger brained amongst us well-nourished and cogitating.
The kitchen, then, becomes a strong impetus for the ascension of man. I consider it the primordial petri dish. First the grub, then the morality. We eat to live. This is an ineluctable fact. The brighter and the more convivial among us live to eat. (Put that in your random Darwin generator and smoke it. Preferably with mesquite). And for that we require specialty tools. Tools like spatulas and kitchen timers...
From time to time (even for the savviest, most happily married cook) the proper implementation of these utensils can cause their own grounds for turmoil, because how one cooks is a matter of individual preference: there is more than one way to peel a potato (though I prefer leaving the skins on mine, but that's a bone of contention we can gnaw on another time); one's technique is often a result of one's unique upbringing. I had an abuelita who never owned a cookbook, she let her experience be her guide. Her wooden pilon (mortar and pestle) was her favorite kitchen appliance. My husband's mother, on the other hand, painstakingly wrote family recipes on index cards, everything neatly filed in alphabetical order, according to category. The archives which now fall into my improvisational hands. She was a firm believer in gadgetry, a cook who felt naked without her electric eggbeater and barbaric without a garlic press.
I don't use mixers, or garlic pressers, a smash of a garlic clove with the back of the knife takes care of all my garlic pressing needs. I don't even have a lemon squeezer, I enjoy rolling citrus on the countertop to release its juice & then cutting & squeezing the halves with one hand, while using the other hand as a sieve to strain out those pesky seeds; though I do love food processors for making crusts, grinding meats, etc. and immersion blenders are a godsend for creamy soups, so much better than transferring them into the pitcher of a stand alone blender. I keep forgetting to buy a rolling pin, so I often roll out dough with a chilled bottle of our wine instead. It rolls it out pretty well. The pastry doesn't stick to the glass (no extra flour required). I'm not a big gadget gal, but it's astonishing how many little things one takes for granted that are indispensable like different graters, strainers, spatulas, etc. I bet if you started enumerating the number of tools you actually do have to use, you'd be flabbergasted. To me the hands are the most essential kitchen utensils, of course. Nothing tosses a salad better, or tests for meat doneness better than mine, though we do have utensils for both tasks, because my husband takes after his mother in this respect.
I never use a timer. I use my olfactory senses, I can smell when the oven is heated, or when the water is boiling, or when the sauce needs to be stirred. My better half prefers me to use a marine chronometer.
"Sweetie, can you please stir the sauce at 8:43?"
"Sure, honey, just give me a minute, I have to synchronize my neurons to the NIST-F1 atomic clock first to make sure that my synapses are firing at your command."
I love my husband. He is the kindest, most generous person I have ever met. He is brave, affectionate, playful and has many other wonderful characteristics (can you hear the BUT coming?) B-U-T if he ever gives me another directive to do something or be somewhere by 8:43 or 12:51 or any other sub-fraction of an hour again, I will crown him the king of all timekeepers with his grandfather's clock right on the frontal squama of his cranium!
It's a serious culture clash. This. He comes from a German/Dutch family who believes it's rude if you don't show up 39 minutes before the appointed hour because showing up early means you are really looking forward to being there. If you show up on time, you're late!
I come from a Puerto Rican tribe who thinks it's beyond inconsiderate if you show up earlier than 15 minutes late, nevermind on time, because you know no one will be ready, and you are obviously being a judgmental prick trying to make your host feel inadequate. I thought we were over this particular cultural hurdle.
I thought wrong.
El Esposo also has the objectionable habit of not allowing any remnant of anything he's eaten remain on his plate while he's still eating. For instance, when he eats ribs, he places the pile of discarded rib bones on the actual table, instead of leaving them on his plate. It's completely alien to me since I was taught to keep everything on a plate at all times, including eating implements. Being the dutiful homemaker, naturally I always call him on this distasteful practice of his, but he can't seem to help it. I don't know which culture thinks a pile of bones by your plate is more polite than a pile of bones on your plate, so I don't know who to blame. Chicken bones, asparagus ends, potato skins all receive the same treatment. Last night when he did it with the corncob, I told him to take the damned thing off the table. He did. He put it on top of his head, and left it balanced there. We both laughed.
However, his need to make me aware of every fraction of an hour that falls on a prime number has become his latest 'thing'... 'thing' being loosely defined as an idea that he is trying to negotiate into an edict in our household, he calls these informal entreaties The Unfair Treaty of Nanjing and evokes them constantly and it is fucking driving me BONKERS! So, in a plea for tolerance, I try to explain to the man that all this punching of psychic timecards is unnerving me and he says, 
"I tell you this so that you will be more aware of time. And you were. A little organization won't hurt you."
"You told me to stir the sauce at 8:43."
"Actually I said 8:33. I will eat in 12 minutes."

Suffice to say, we did not eat in 12 minutes, but we still had a delicious meal, sans spousicide. On the surface, this is an amusing anecdote. Frustrated wife releases steam, but upon closer inspection, it is an exposition on social constructs. Both parties in this story are subject to their individual cultures, both are acting appropriately in accordance to their unique upbringings. Time, in of itself, has no specific or absolute value other than the perceptions that humans endow it with. Bones on the plate, bones off the plate can be seen as points of contention, but the correctness of each viewpoint depends on whose eye is casting the judgment. The only variable is the dominant culture whose values are ingrained in each individual until they practically become an autonomic process - like indigestion.
This is also true of language, and social mores. Differences in cultures are as abundant as the number of people in them. There are no universally recognized absolutes in these matters. The conflict occurs only when people of differing cultures meet and fall in love; still, in many instances love them sees through it all. Be that love platonic, romantic, or any of the other classifications that philosophers feel the need to define and demarcate. Understanding and accepting the differences rules the day. 26 years of cohabitation with the same man has taught me this much. The truth is, I mostly ignore his time strictures... and he mostly ignores my ignoring it, and so joy reigns supreme... Luckily, we both like to eat the same foods.
This is paramount for any successful marriage. Here is where each couple creates their own family culture, habits and traditions. The way to a spouse's heart is through her stomach. The sacred bonds of matrimony can withstand many things, but if you like your meat rare & he's a vegan, I guarantee it won't last.
Enjoying the same foods creates conjugal harmony, and those foods require certain indispensable tools for our singular culinary conquests. So whilst my intention here today is to suggest a few kitchen essentials, the truth is there can be no perfect starter set for any individual or family, there are too many variables that factor into the equation. If I suggest a raw-food vegan buy a wok, (s)he would think I was being sardonic. (S)he'd probably be correct.

Note: I have included photos of my own culinary arsenal, just for laughs.



There really is no one-kitchen-fits-all. This is my dilemma with this month's column. I so hate writing generic advice. It's an impossible task. I need to know who I am suggesting this to. I can presume it's meant for Middle America, but what does that even mean? I don't know... I've never lived in the quintessential American household. I'm not sure such a thing exists. The essence of cooking is about modifying things to suit one's abilities and sensibility as well as one's taste. It's impossible to recommend an ideal kitchen without some familiarity with the cook-to-be. This was arduous for me and we're not even halfway through. My sweet editor will probably hate it, no reader will actually read it all, but I have hemmed and hawed enough. Now that I am done carping we'll get to the "meat" of the matter. (And no, I won't ask you to forgive me for the pun.)
Glassware, flatware, dishware, serving dishes, storage containers are all essential, as are napkins & placemats, but I am excluding them from this already too long article. Toasters, blenders and toaster ovens were left off the list. I have the first two, but so do you and while I adore my Dualit toaster, I hate most others. If you are someone who enjoys steaming food then a Chinese bamboo steamer is also useful. I have one, it's not essential because a microwave does a grand job of steaming food, but it smells lovely and looks pretty. I don't believe in crockpots, a Dutch oven makes an admirable slowcooker, but I understand crockpots are their own institution amongst many an American bride. You'll never find one in a Puerto Rican kitchen. In compiling the list, I am assuming the newlywed couple enjoys eating goods that are baked, grilled, roasted, boiled, and sauteed. Each item recommended could actually use a book's worth of description. However, here we go:
1) Range - stove top with oven. In a perfect world, it would be a 60" gas-fired La Cornue, with a double oven, French-top and 6 burners, but I live in reality (& a rented shoebox), so mine is a cheap 28" Crosley with 4 lousy electric burners that don't work half the time & one chintzy oven/broiler... I still manage to make great meals.
2) Refrigerator - unless you live in an igloo. Preferably a 48" Subzero with side by side freezer/ refrigerator. The dual compressor (one for the freezer, one for the fridge) keeps your ice from tasting like onions. (My tiny galley kitchen is outfitted with this. Yay!)
3) Microwave - yes, it's essential for re-heating, better than your oven or stove top because it retains moisture, particularly, if  you cook a lot of casseroles, stews, soups, and wish to reheat leftovers, or want to quickly steam up some tortillas. It's also a quick way to melt butter, as well as steam vegetables, though I rarely steam vegetables, preferring to eat them either raw, roasted or sauteed. Just don't heat bread or pizza in it. It wreaks havoc on gluten.
4) Coffeemaker - simple, straightforward purveyor of hot water over grounds. No need to spend a fortune. Cappuccino makers are a mess and unless you can afford to buy a truly industrial one, don't bother. A french press is lovely, too. You can always heat the water for the french press in the microwave, though I prefer using the Alessi tea kettle that was gifted to me 20 years ago.
5) Coffee grinder - grinding your own beans not only gives you fresher tasting coffee, but is also a supremely satisfying way to workout any tension due to anxiety you may have about the course of your day. It's truly zen-like and mediative to slowly count to twenty as you grind something into near oblivion. You can also use it for grinding spices, pulverizing granulated sugar when you need powdered sugar, etc.



6) Knives - a 10" Chef's knife, a paring knife, a bread knife, a sharpening steel. You will also require something to store them in. A wooden block is best, but you can get fittings for a drawer, if you prefer having them concealed. Buy the best forged knife you can afford. A good knife will last you a lifetime. Literally. But only if you take care of it. Mine have. The best come with a lifetime guarantee Wüsthof or Henckels are always quality. Solingen, Germany is a German knife mecca and that is where you will find the history of the major and more popular German knives. Japanese knives are also wonderful. I have four Kanetsune Seki knives - they're like mini- Samurai swords. Lighter, thinner, & sharper than the German knives - they are also easier to cut yourself with. Whatever knives you buy keep them sharp. A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in your kitchen. You apply more force to what you're cutting & invariably a dull knife's edge will slip off what you are trying to cut & plunge into you.
7) Two cutting boards - One for meats, one for fruits, veggies & cheese. The idea behind them is to keep you from cutting your countertop, so you don't have to spend a fortune, but they also can do double-duty as service trays. Wood & plastic are best. Something with a grip on the edges is always nice to keep from slipping. I have several of each. I love a brand called Epicurean which is made from recycled materials by a manufacturer of skateboards. Those boards are indestructible.
8) Vegetable peeler - You need one. Trust me. Unless you only eat meat, or leafy greens, in which case, then you don't.
9) Can opener/ Bottle-cap opener/ Corkscrew - See #8 for the first two items on the list, and allow me to assure you that if you wish to open any bottle of wine that does not come in a box (unless it's champagne, which you just open with your fingers), you will need a corkscrew. Remind me to tell you of a Frenchwoman who came knocking on my door in desperate search of a corkscrew one evening. 
10) Box grater & a finer cheese grater for hard cheeses - get both. Don't get all fancy with it, get something straightforward & made of stainless steel with a rubber grip for stability. I would also invest in a very fine grater, one that grates nutmeg & can be used to zest lemons. I realize food processors have attachments that do all this, but you'll never use those attachments. Mandoline slicers are wonderful, too, better than box graters, but they cost a fortune. Unless you are the sous-chef for Chez Panisse, you don't need to invest in one.
11) Pans - A 10-1/2 inch wide, 2" deep saute pan with a lid, a 12-inch saute pan, a cast iron grill, and a small 9" saute pan.
For overall use, get a 12-inch stainless steel skillet. You can cook almost anything in a 12-inch skillet, whether you want to sauté, shallow-fry, pan-roast, make paellas, risotto, or even stir-fry. I prefer a skillet with a traditional, rather than nonstick, surface because (except for eggs) I want the food to adhere slightly, in order to create the caramelized, browned bits called fond that are the foundation for great sauces. What’s more, while even the best nonstick surface will wear off eventually, a well-made traditional skillet should last a lifetime.
Skillets are simply frying pans with low, flared sides. Their shape encourages evaporation, which is why skillets excel at searing, browning, and sauce reduction. Traditional versions come in three main materials: stainless steel, anodized aluminum, and cast iron. I'm not a fan of anodized aluminum, as it makes it hard to judge the color of fond. Cast-iron skillets have their uses, but they are cumbersome and can react with acidic sauces, but if you have a small apartment, no balcony & enjoy grilling meat and vegetables, also invest in a high quality cast-iron grill. Mine are Le Creuset. They go from stove-top to oven admirably, give your food a beautiful sear, are durable, relatively inexpensive and provide you with even heating and a little workout just lifting them out of the appliance drawer.
Traditional skillets made of stainless steel sandwiched around a core of aluminum are best. Aluminum is one of the fastest conductors of heat, but it reacts with acidic foods and is overly responsive to temperature fluctuations, making cooking harder to control. Stainless steel is nonreactive, but, by itself, it’s a poor conductor of heat (in fact handles made of stainless generally won’t get hot on the stovetop); a marriage of the two metals makes the ideal composition for a skillet.
You will also need a smaller saute' pan for those times you are alone and are scrambling a couple of eggs, making an omelet or a quick beurre blanc, or any other light simple sauce. Invest in the best you can afford. I like All-Clad. 
12) Pots - You only need two: a large pot and a small pot, both should have lids. I recommend a Dutch Oven as the large one. A 6 quart Dutch oven is extremely versatile both on the stove and in the oven. You can boil pasta and cook rice, brown & braise meat, and steam or boil vegetables. Make stews, pasta sauces, etc.
Get a 3 quart pot for making a couple of cups of rice, couscous, boiling eggs, small amounts of vegetables, etc.
Now I have several pots and I use them all: a stockpot for turning bones into broth, enamel-coated cast-iron braisers from Le Creuset that are both deep & shallow, a designated pasta pot, a 14" carbon steel wok (which by the way, may be the most versatile & economical pot in the kitchen, if you don't mind the incessant care it requires) & many more, but I am obsessed with pots & pans. You don't have to be.
13) Salt & Pepper Mills
Consider the size of the mills and the ease of operation, whether you want to use them with just one hand, two hands. Is the coarseness of the grind adjustable? How easy or difficult is it to fill? If you don't care whether your salt and pepper are freshly cracked and ground, disregard this entry. I have a block of pink salt that is gorgeous, looks like quartz. I use a fine grater to grate what I need for cooking. I don't add salt table-side.
14) Oven mitts, pot holders, dish towels
Oven mitts protect your hands, wrists, and arms from - you guessed it - hot dishes, hot cookware, and hot ovens. Cloth mitts may not be as heat-resistant as the newer silicone ones, but they tend to be easier to bend and grab containers with. Try them on for size before purchasing. If you don't plan on storing the mitts in a drawer, look for those with a loop for hanging. 
Ditto on pot holders which are baby oven mitts, sometimes you just need something insulated to grab a pot with, especially important for the new cook. Battle-hardened cooks might be more cavalier and boastful about their asbestos fingertips, but new cooks need the protection.
Dish towels are eco-friendly and very useful for everything from wiping things dry to protecting countertops from heat, to absorbing excess moisture from veggies, to keeping things damp and/or covered. Paper towels are not always a good substitute. Get good quality cotton dish towels.


15) Tongs - Need to fish something out of a pot of boiling water or flip a steak over on the grill? Want to better incorporate your linguine into its sauce? You need a pair of tongs. Look for tongs that are long enough for your purposes (I recommend 12 inches) and have a locking mechanism so they stay closed while stored. Although you can find tongs made of plastic and wood, tongs crafted from metal are the strongest and most versatile. Something with silicon pads on both ends for better grip & comfort.
16) Colander - For washing vegetables and greens, and draining pasta. I also have a smaller, finer strainer that I use to wash berries, cherries, and occasionally sieve flour & sauces with. Stainless steel. No plastic.
17) Mixing bowls - Metal mixing bowls are indispensable to toss salads, make pancake batter, marinate meat & vegetables, make dressings. Absolutely essential. Get a nested set of stainless bowls. They'll last a lifetime. I still use the ones my husband bought as a bachelor in the 80s, well before he met me.
18) Measuring cups (wet/dry), measuring spoons - Get them in stainless steel, they are essential for baking. Baking is chemistry, chemistry is science, science demands precision. You can get away with eyeballing ingredients for other types of cookery, but not baking. Enough said. One glass or liquid measuring cup with a four-cup capacity will be very useful. We measure dry ingredients differently than wet ingredients because of the volume, unless you use a metric scale to weigh everything in grams or liters, that is. Then it won't matter, but you better be sure the recipe you're using for that pate a choux is written to reflect it.
19) Whisk - Make it stainless steel wire. Yes, you can live without it, but if you want whipped cream, whip egg whites into meringue, or even just make really good fluffy scrambled eggs, a whisk is THE tool to incorporate air. A fork won't do it as well, though a handheld blender is another option, but I prefer using my own muscle for these tasks.
20) Food processor - a marvelous tool for pureeing, making quick pie crusts, creaming butter, turning cream cheese & sugar into a smooth cake batter, grinding meat and innumerable other uses. Kitchen Aid 9-cup capacity is ideal for most uses. Bigger is better here, so if you want to splurge or regularly cook dinner for a Kardashian-sized clan go for the 14-cupper.
21) 9″ by 13″ baking pan - If you want to bake a lasagne, brownies, or even roast a chicken you need a 9x13" baking pan — maybe the most called-for pan size of all time. Invest in something sturdy & durable. I have baking dishes and pans of all shapes & sizes, most of them are stoneware from Le Creuset, Stoneware maintains even temperatures and prevents scorching, it has peerless thermal resistance – safe for freezer, microwave, oven, broiler and dishwasher. Dense stoneware blocks moisture absorption to prevent cracking, crazing and rippling, its impermeable exterior enamel resists scratch... & they are so pretty they double are serving dishes.
A large heavy-duty aluminum-base, steel-clad roasting pan is also handy, if you roast big birds like turkey or hunks of beast on a regular basis.
22) 9" pie dish / 11" tart-quiche pan - A good old Anchor Hocking Glass Deep Pie Dish will last a lifetime & accommodate any style of pie you like, I have my mother-in-law's from the 60s or 70s.
I also have a few tart pans that I bought 15 years ago from a professional kitchen supply shop on Polk Street that very sadly closed its doors. They are coated with a non-stick surface, the bottoms are free-floating & the sides are easily removable, making serving the tarts a cinch. If you like making cheesecakes then you should add a deep springform pan to your arsenal, too.
23) Baking/cookie sheet pan - essential for cookies, croissants, roasting veggies, freeform tarts, toasting nuts, even making bacon. I like non-stick surfaced ones, but plain old metal works.
24) Loaf pan - great for baking everything from banana bread to meat loaf, it's also a wonderful mold for pates, savory napoleons. Buy a cheap glass one. Though I, of course, have them in glass, stoneware & metal.
25) Wood spoon - They are inexpensive, heat resistant, and won't scratch non-stick surfaces. I prefer spoons with flat angled heads for sauteeing and anything that requires a bit of scraping of the pan, but I use the round kind for stirring liquidy sauces and soups. They are cheap enough that you can afford to buy both the round & angled kind. So do.
26) Spatulas - you will need three: a slightly flexible Rubbermaid scraper for getting every bit of deliciousness out of a bowl or jar; a flexible "pancake" turner with an offset head for flipping pancakes & omelettes, a stiffer, thicker, longer metal turner for fish or removing slices of lasagne from a pan. To slot or not to slot, that is the question, depends on how much you really need to drain what you are removing from the pan. I'm not a huge fan of slotted spatulas.
27) Immersion blender - The Cuisinart® Smart Stick® 2 -speed Hand Blender is the perfect kitchen tool to have on hand when you want to quickly puree ingredients in the pot for soups, blend cocoa for frothy hot chocolate, make fresh fruit smoothies, make your own whipped butter from cream, turn veggies you accidentally overcooked into creamy delicious purees. It's less costly than comparable brands but it works. Comes in lovely colors, too. Mine is tangerine!
28) Potato masher/ricer - I prefer the good old-fashioned wire masher for my smashed potatoes with skins, but ricers are grand when you are concocting something more delicate that requires a finer drier fluffier texture for mashing of potato sans skin (ricers act like potato peelers) in the making of blinis and gnocchi.



Here's looking at you, kids. Thanks for reading! Cin! Cin! 


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Spring Renewal: Slow-roasted Salmon in Lemony Yogurt Sauce with Sugar Snap Peas & Shaved Pecorino Salad





It is Springtime in San Francisco.

A time for rebirth, renewal.

Young slender green shoots are sprouting everywhere.

The sycamore trees at the front of our apartment complex that have spent an entire autumn and winter looking barren and forlorn are springing into life again with tender young leaves.

Ah if only our tired human bodies would undergo the natural metamorphosis that transforms winter's ungainly caterpillar into spring's floating butterfly.

Alas, Nature has cruelly dealt us a bad hand by making us the world's most self-conscious, metabolically-challenged creatures. I mean, a snake doesn't look at itself in the mirror & say "Jeez, this skin is looking a little ragged; better head to Sephora & find a good exfoliator."

Nope, without so much as a thought of its sex appeal or a glance at its reflection in the nearest waterhole, your average reptile is miraculously relieved of its dry scaly skin by Mother Nature; while humans, if we're lucky, have to head to the nearest health spa for a minimum 6 weeks of intensive beauty boot camp just to shed five lbs. after punishing ourselves with days of the most pitiless, rigorous self-scrutiny in every surface that happens to reflect our sorry images. (I shudder to think of the extremes taken for shedding some of that wrinkly skin!).

Let's face it: we've been rooked!

However, Hope (with all its capital H, Emily Dickinson-inflected beauty)  springs eternal in the human breast... and with the intent of taking over where Nature neglectfully left off---I offer this overture to that time-honored Spring tradition of getting our bodies into some semblance of condition for bikini season. A lovely meal chockfull of skin-enhancing, body nourishing, soul-stirring yummy goodness with the King of Spring in the starring role.


Pacific King Salmon is truly royal... get it wild and whilst in season , if you can. The controversy about eating farmed versus wild salmon is complex, and reports available in the media, online, and in scientific publications often seem contradictory. Issues fall into three main categories: environmental concerns, contamination, and omega-3 fatty acid levels in edible portions. The good news is both wild and farmed salmon have low levels of mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are derived from plants (algae, leaves, grass).

Here's a quick salmon primer:


In wild salmon, the amount and type of omega-3s found are based on the algae and plankton found in their diet. In farmed salmon, the omega-3 levels are dependent on what type of feed they eat, which is made from plants, grains, and fishmeal.  Farmed salmon fillets contain as many grams of omega-3 fatty acids as wild salmon because farmed salmon are fattier than wild salmon. New feeds are being developed with less fishmeal in them and more protein derived from grains and oilseeds, such as soybeans. Fish oil is also being partially replaced with plant-derived oils.

In general, the more plant-based ingredients, the lower the level of long-chain omega-3 fats in the salmon. However, fish are fed feeds containing enough fish oil to maintain omega-3 fatty acid levels equivalent or higher than most wild fish. Health professionals recommend that we increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for nervous system, heart, and brain health. Fish, especially oily fish such as salmon, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Those of particular importance are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentacenoic acid, docosopentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid. Research has shown that eicosapentacenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid in seafood provide health benefits for the developing fetus, infants, and also for adults.

Wild salmon is the preferred choice, but its availability is limited and seasonal. I'm sure it would be preferable if we could all go up to some lovely stream where they are spawning and catch them bare-handed, like bears do, but this is not always possible, even for the most conscientious eater, so we have farmed salmon, and much of it is quite good.

According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (a globally trusted resource for those concerned about sustainable seafood practices), virtually all Atlantic salmon is now farmed rather than wild-caught, anyway. Atlantic salmon farmed in closed tanks is a "Best Choice." Closed tanks often have less effluent, disease, escapes and habitat impacts than other aquaculture systems.  Currently, only 0.1% of farmed Atlantic salmon is farmed in closed tanks. These sources will be labelled as "land-based" or "tank-based" salmon. Atlantic salmon farmed in Maine and Verlasso® and Blue Circle® brands are "Good Alternatives." These sources have reduced some of the impacts that typically occur when salmon is farmed in net pens. Atlantic salmon farmed in Canada, Scotland, Chile (excluding Verlasso® brand) and Norway (excluding Blue Circle® brand) is on the "Avoid" list.

About 60% of Chinook salmon is farmed. Chinook salmon caught in Alaska, farmed in New Zealand and farmed in closed tanks is a "Best Choice." In Alaska, management of salmon fisheries is highly effective. In New Zealand, the industry operates on a small scale and has few environmental impacts. Closed tanks often have less effluent, disease, escapes and habitat impacts than other aquaculture systems. Chinook salmon caught in Washington's Puget Sound is on the "Avoid" list because a significant portion of the catch is from stocks that are threatened. All sources of Chinook salmon from California, Oregon, and Washington (other than from Puget Sound) are "Good Alternatives." The fisheries are managed to avoid endangered or threatened stocks as much as possible. However, most fisheries undoubtedly impact these at-risk stocks, and Seafood Watch considers this a high concern. Some sources of Chinook salmon are certified sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Now that you are experts, you can wow (or annoy) your local fishmongers with your knowledge. Be ye mindful and fishify! Fresh salmon is a glorious and flavorful way to springboard into healthful dietary habits, and so pretty too. There are a variety of ways to serve it, here's one:




Spring Renewal: Slow-roasted Salmon in Lemony Yogurt Sauce with Fresh Sugar Snap Peas And Shaved Pecorino Salad








Note:



This recipe will serve 4 relatively fit hopeful diners or 8 frantic, worried dieters.
It's really an excellent dish for people who don't usually enjoy fish because the slow-roasting & the marinade tame the volatile oils in the salmon, avoiding the "fishy" smell that can make this healthy delicious protein so unappealing to the uninitiated.

Pitted olives are fine to use in the salad, but I prefer mine to be less handled by a grocer, so I use whole olives. I like releasing the tender meat from the pit with the perfect tools for the job - my lips and teeth... so primal. The Arabequina olives I chose are meaty, buttery, highly aromatic... bringing you a taste of the Mediterranean with every bite, but there are other tongue-pleasing varietals. 
Almost every supermarket here in the U.S. has a huge variety of olives from oil-cured to brined to seasoned... experiment, see what you like. 

You will need to trim the sugar snap peas, here's how:  Using a paring knife, with the inside curve of the pod facing you, sever the top of the pea and pull off the tough string that runs along the length of the pod. (Sometimes stores have already trimmed the string.) It’s not necessary to remove the other end, though you can if you’d like. (This also works for snow peas.) You can also, of course, avoid the pea pod trimming altogether and substitute haricot verts (small young green beans), fava beans, or even asparagus. It's your kitchen... you reign supreme. I just like the contrast of the sweet pea with the salty Pecorino. 


Ingredients:


For the salmon:


4 six oz. skinless center-cut salmon fillets, preferably wild king salmon
1 tsp. madras curry powder, or any other tumeric-based seasoning
1 Tbs. olive oil
freshly ground salt & pepper, to taste (I keep a basalt-like hunk of Pink Himalayan Sea Salt with its own grater on hand at all times...)

For the sauce:


1 cup Greek-style yogurt (or plain yogurt that has been strained in the fridge for at least 3 hours and brought to room temperature)
1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded & coarsely chopped
1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1 lemon, juiced and zested (Meyer's lemons are the best, a cross between orange & lemon in flavor)
1 tsp. chopped chives
1 tsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
1 Tbs. mint leaves, finely chopped
freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste

For the snap peas:


4 cups fresh sugar snap peas, trimmed
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (preferably Meyers lemons, about 3 or 4)
1 shallot, finely minced (you can use garlic, if you prefer)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped leaves only
4 oz. thinly shaved pecorino romano or other sharp tasting cheese; parmigiano-reggiano works fine, too, if you prefer something mellower

1/2 cup of black olives (I used meaty Arabequina olives, but use what you like)
1/2 pint of small tomatoes (grape or cherry), sliced in half  
2 cups fresh baby arugula leaves (optional)




Directions:


Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place salmon on a cutting board, remove any pin bones with a tweezer. Whisk olive oil and curry powder together in a small bowl. Rub mixture all over the surface of each fillet. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. While water is heating, fill a large bowl with equal parts ice and water. Set aside. When pot reaches the boil, add snap peas and cook until tender 2-3 minutes. Drain peas and add to bowl of ice water. Drain again. Pat dry with paper towel. Place peas in large shallow serving bowl; set aside. (Snap peas can be prepared to this point 1 day ahead, if desired). In a small bowl, combine lemon juice, garlic, olive oil whisking until well combined and an emulsion forms. Pour dressing over snap peas toss well. Sprinkle in cheese, parsley, tomatoes, olives; toss lightly. When ready to serve, add arugula,  gently folding ingredients into one another. 



Cook salmon:


Place curry marinated salmon fillets on a large lightly oiled oven-proof non-stick pan. Do not overcrowd pan or salmon will steam not roast. Use 2 small pans if you do not have 1 large enough to accommodate all the fillets. Roast salmon without disturbing for 10 minutes then with a sturdy spatula carefully turn salmon over & roast 10 minutes more. Remove from oven and serve with a dollop of the lemony yogurt sauce on top. Serving additional sauce at the table, if desired (recipe for lemony sauce follows).

While the salmon roasts, make the sauce. Add all the ingredients for the sauce except the lemon zest into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth & creamy about 30 seconds to a minute. Place in serving bowl, stir in lemon zest, taste to adjust seasoning, adding pepper to taste. Serve on the side with fish. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead but should be brought to room temperature before serving).

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

For The Lazy Gourmet: Wild Alaskan Halibut "En Papillote" with Truffled Tarragon Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Yam "Gratin"



“The quality of life is determined by its activities.” ~ Aristotle

Far too often I hear friends say they never have the time or energy to cook for themselves or their families which I think is a terrible shame. Eating is something we do everyday. The fact is we must eat to survive. Though, personally, I prefer thinking of survival as a reason to eat - the so(u)l(e) purpose of life is to cast a light on good eating (but I am terribly biased, as well as ridiculously unreasonable). 
The London Times once did a few quick calculations and reported that the average person spends 6 years and ten months eating in his or her 70 year life time. That's approximately 3 681 641.36 minutes (YEP, over 3 MILLION minutes) or 1/10 of the average lifespan spent in this activity, why fill it up with foods generated by ConAgra and increase their already huge coffers?
At the risk of sounding like a Stepford Wife (remember them? *shudders*), cooking can be F-U-N!!! You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to luxuriate in a good meal shared, even if only once a millennium. And yes, I know... I know.... in this go, Go, GO!!! day and age, spending such time together seems to have become so rare that it is a luxury. However, nothing is more convivial than sitting around the dinner table, eating a delicious meal and enjoying each other's company. The family that dines together shines together (yes... I know... I know... but you catch my drift - make the time. It's your life - live it, damnit!). High quality ingredients cooked with very little effort make for very satisfying meals. These are the kind of meals I find myself making more and more lately. In fact, why not make it a regular feature of this column? Recipes with modest effort and maximal flavor. I call them cooking the Lazy Gourmet Way. 

Defining a "Lazy Gourmet" meal gets a little tricky because certain meals require minimal effort but a few hours of time (braises, large cuts of roasts etc.); other meals require minimal cook time but much more prep work and/or ingredients (stir-frys, salads, tartares, etc.) How to choose, how to choose? I finally decided that a "lazy gourmet" entree must have the finest ingredients you can afford, not much more than a handful of them (10 max), minimal prep, minimal cookware and take no longer than 20 minutes from start to finish, the maximal amount of time a starving woman (or man) can bear to wait before sinking their teeth into their nearest and dearest.

Folks, it doesn't get any yummier than this for a light, simple, elegant meal. Seriously, in the time it takes to order in a meal, you could have something fresh and delicious that will impress anyone for a special occasion, or just a nice treat for yourself. You deserve a break today and it sure as hell should NOT be from McDonalds!
For those of you less inclined to using those little heat-emitting appliances known as ovens, this meal (sans aluminum foil, unless you are looking to rival the Large Hadron Collider in generating a possible worldwide cataclysmic event horizon, ending all life on earth as we know it) could also be easily adapted for the microwave by wrapping the ingredients in paper towels, Glad plastic sandwich bags, or any microwave-safe plastic wrap.
I am going to make it even easier by providing little more than a basic outline in pictures. You get to color between the lines or outside the lines of this "recipe" yourself. With only about 20 minutes of active cooking time, you will have a meal that is delicious, nutritious and looks pretty on your plate! Now THAT is what I mean by quality of life and I bet good old Aristotle would agree.
Cooking "en papillote" is a classical cooking method in which you seal the food in a pouch and bake. The food essentially steams in the oven in its own juices, though you can add ingredients to flavor the food as I will here with just a few splashes of flavored liquids, herbs and aromatics. Various cultures use grape leaves, banana leaves, cornhusks, parchment paper, and other materials to encase tender, mild foods, which then take on the character of the seasonings they are bathed in. 
The keys to the technique are: 1) use fresh ingredients; and 2) preparation or mise-en-place which is very simple. Instead of parchment paper which is the traditional European method, I will use aluminum foil to wrap the fish, not as pretty, but very easy to do. It works beautifully with fish. My husband has a bit of cooked fish phobia, far too many Mrs. Paul's fish sticks were served to him during his formative years, putting him off the slightest whiff of "fishiness". While he has always adored sushi and sashimi for its pure pristine silken unctuousness, getting him to eat cooked fish has been a challenge, but the moist heat of the pouch keeps the fish's volatile oils from diffusing in the air. It really is the perfect way to foil the finicky eater's antipathy to all things cooked that are piscine. 
Let's talk a little bit about mise en place. When you're in a hurry to get dinner on the table, it's tempting to just turn on the stove and start cooking. But you'll save time in the long run if you spend a few minutes getting organized. Professional chefs call this mise en place, which literally means "put in place."
Mise en place is the secret that enables a restaurant to take your order and, ten minutes later, serve your meal fresh and piping hot. It all boils down to advance preparation. In a professional kitchen, the carrots are peeled, sliced and blanched. The stocks and sauces are made, the garlic is chopped, the meat is marinated and the water is boiling for the pasta. All that's left to be done is cook the meal. Once the prep work is done, the dish comes together easily. This concept translates well into the home kitchen. No matter how simple the recipe, taking time to organize your equipment and prep the ingredients will streamline the cooking process. That way, you won't be chopping the parsley for the sauce while the steaks burn, or rummaging around for the cheese grater (and the cheese) while the pasta overcooks. If you're preparing several dishes at once, mise en place is essential to prevent last-minute chaos in the kitchen.
Before you start chopping and dicing, read the recipe through twice to familiarize yourself with all the steps. The list of ingredients specifies simple prep work, such as zesting the lemons or melting the butter. The directions alert you to any tasks that must be done well in advance, such as chilling sugar cookie dough before rolling it out.



Wild Alaskan Halibut "En Papillote" with Truffled Tarragon Butter, Roasted Asparagus, Yam "Gratin"




Notes:

I have given directions for microwaving everything, but really nothing brings out the sweet caramelized goodness of veggies like roasting them in the oven & it really takes very little effort, plus you can cook everything into a regular oven at the same time. Not so when microwaving. Not only is it tastier to roast but it also retains the vegetables nutrients. The small amount of  fat actually helps your body absorb vitamins and minerals more effectively.

Substitute any fish of your choice for the halibut. The only fish I wouldn't use is a dense steak fish like tuna. Fresh tuna is far better eaten seared. Preferably rare. Well done tuna is good only between slices of bread after being mashed with mayonnaise.  
Truffle Salt can be found in specialty markets that purvey yummy grub or "upscale" supermarkets like Whole Foods. Yes, it is expensive (about $20 per 3.5 oz ), but a little goes a long way and it will last you for at least a year. It's unbelievable in mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, macaroni & cheese or just a little cappellini, parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese) & olive oil. Open the jar and breathe it in: earthy, musty, intoxicating. Highly prized white (or black) truffles are delicately blended with sea salt to bring rich umami to your cooking and dining. Just a small pinch is all it takes to impart flavor
Pure decadence was never so affordable.

Here are the ingredients, you can determine the quantity of each depending on how many people you wish to serve.

  • Vegetable broth, a couple of splashes
  • Dry white wine (or beer), preferably a couple of splashes from your own glass
  • Fresh Tarragon, a few sprigs, stripped and chopped
  • Halibut fillets (any white fish will do. Salmon and chicken also works nicely here. Times need to be adjusted for thickness of fillets. Generally if you can smell it, it's done, but allow about 15 minutes for a 1-1/2 inch tick fish fillet and 20 minutes for a chicken breast.)
  • Truffle salt (plain sea salt is fine) and freshly cracked pepper, to taste.
  • One large shallot, finely diced ( finely diced red onion and a minced garlic clove can be substituted for the shallot)
  • One fresh lemon, a couple of squeezes per fillet for seasoning the fish.
  • One bunch of fresh asparagus, tough ends snapped off (you can substitute any veggie you like obviously. Though for roasting nothing beats asparagus, seasoned with a bit of truffle salt, black pepper and olive oil)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, enough to drizzle over the fillets & asparagus
  • Butter, 4 Tablespoons, unsalted
  • 1/4 cup of half & half or heavy cream with a 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract added and well combined
  • Sweet potato, cooked (one per person), roasted for an hour in a hot oven or microwaved for 15 minutes on high and sliced into coins
  • Parmigiano reggiano, for grating over asparagus & yams.
  • Aluminum foil, if using oven; Plastic wrap or baggies, if using the microwave
  • Preheated oven, 450 degrees
  • Hungry people you love


Assemble all of your ingredients (your mise-en-place, as the pros say), like so:








Directions:


The Yams:
  • Preheat your oven at 450 degrees
  • Roast or microwave your sweet potatoes or yams (or other tuberous veggies) until done. (Can be roasted well ahead of time up until the day before).
  • Slice into 1/2 inch thick rounds and arrange them in either a roasting pan or heavy skillet.
  • Season with truffle salt & pepper, pour half & half/vanilla mixture over it & a couple of tablespoons of butter, cut into small dice & dabbed evenly over the potatoes.
  • Then set aside, while you prepare the fish and roast the asparagus.





The Fish: 


  • Place the fillets in a little pouch of their own, using either aluminum foil for baking or plastic wrap (or baggies) if you plan to microwave your fish or poultry.
  • Season the protein with truffle salt & freshly ground pepper to taste.
  • Add the aromatics: shallots, splashes of lemon juice, wine, fresh tarragon, a drizzle of olive & a 1/2 TBSP of butter per packet








  • Then wrap the little bundle up & pop into the middle rack of your preheated oven for about 15 minutes for a 1-1/2 inch thick fillet (Or about 3 minutes if microwaving. Remember to seal the baggie but leave a little room for air to escape; venting the baggie by poking a little slit through the top & placing the fish packet on a microwave-safe dish.)












The Asparagus:
  • Now prepare the asparagus by lining a shallow baking sheet with aluminum foil and seasoning with salt, pepper, fresh juice quickly squeezed from a lemon & tossing it all with extra virgin olive oil using your hands which are the best tool for tossing veggies and salads ever invented!





  • Add the asparagus and the yams to the top rack of the oven. Roasting the asparagus for about 7 minutes & the yams for about 15 minutes. (Or microwave them instead on a microwave-safe dish for 2 minutes after the fish is done).
  • The asparagus will be done before the fish. Remove them when you can smell them (about 7-10 minutes, depending on thickness of stalk) then grate a little parmigiano-reggiano over them, dusting them lightly.



When the fish is done, remove it from the oven, set the oven on broil, dust the yams with a little bit of the parmigiano reggiano and cook the yams under the broiler for a minute until they are nicely browned.


Arrange on a plate prettily and  eat it!
Will serve four very lucky-to-be-related-to-you family members.