Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Trip to the Market

I haven't been writing, but that doesn't mean I haven't been cooking! Over the last week I've made two meals (using new-to-me recipes) and spent one evening making homemade ice cream (and baked chocolate meringues to accompany it). I'll post about all of the above in the coming days, plus the more detailed description of our second visit to Goong I promised some time back, and a cocktail-related post I've had on deck.

But today I want to talk about finally making it to the Coventry Regional Farmers' Market. I've been hearing about the market from my friends, and I've in fact been following them on Facebook, but I haven't made it out until now. This was, of course, their Winter Market; I have to wait 'til June to see the market in its full glory. But even so, there was plenty to see. Produce was limited to hot-house and winter items, along with dried items like rice, beans, herbs, and hot peppers... but there was also a great variety of locally sourced, locally made prepared and artisanal foods, and locally grown meats from several farms.

I bought myself some Dragon's Blood Elixir hot sauce, along with a curry sauce from the Dragon's Blood folk's selection of small-batch sauces. They also had a wasabi sauce that tasted great, and a nice smokey chipotle sauce, both of which I may well pick up on a future visit. I got my Lovely Bride® some locally roasted Costa Rican coffee from Quiet Corner Coffee Roasters, and myself some Pleasant Cow cheese from Beaver Brook Farm. Lack of planning on my part — I didn't have a cooler or insulated bag with me; I had not planned to go straight home after the market; and I hadn't talked with the LB© about our dinner plans — restrained me from partaking of any of the frozen meat on offer, or of the lovely salmon The Fish Market (Willimantic) had, or of the prepared gourmet entrees-for-two from Zest Restaurant in nearby Tolland. Some forethought before my next visit — and there will be a next visit — is a necessity!

The cheese I bought is part of an ongoing project that I suspect will become a recurring topic here: My quest for the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich! Years ago, while on a business trip to Atlanta, I had a meal at the Buckhead Diner that proved to me a grilled cheese sandwich — one of my childhood favorites — could in fact be Serious Food™. Now that I'm trying to be all serious about food, I want to find and/or create seriously good grilled cheese sandwiches. To that end, I'll be sampling locally made artisanal cheeses, making or finding great sandwich breads, etc. I know of a regionally famous grilled cheese sandwich food truck, operated around Yale by the folks at Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro, and a similar gourmet grilled cheese food truck in California was recently featured on the "Hand-Held Eats" episode of Cooking Channel's Unique Eats. One of the "secrets" revealed on that episode involved coating the bread with, instead of just butter, a mixture of butter and mayonnaise. The idea of putting mayo-slathered bread into a hot pan goes against my every instinct, but I'm nothing if not experimental, so... watch this space for developments!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More on Craft... and a Bit of a Cheat

My post from yesterday about the Top Chef: All Stars Quickfire Challenge featuring Justo Thomas spilled over into a conversation at Pharyngula, and since I'm never one to let my mindless natteringsbrilliant ruminations go to waste, I thought I'd shamelessly recycleadapt what I wrote there for a follow-on post here.

A friend wondered if there was more to Thomas' story than the show hinted at, since she thought it was more a matter of highly developed skill than craft, which she thought of as more creative. I said it was possible we were working from slightly different definitions of craft (subtle differences in working definitions are frequent there), but in any case, yeah, there was much more to Bourdain's description than you got on the show.

What I called craft involves a great deal of creativity, but it's more of a functional, problem-solving kind of creativity that what I associate with art. But whether you call it craft or merely (merely?) skill, I'm in awe of what Bourdain described.

Pressed for details — perhaps an anecdote from the book — I had to admit that I actually "read" it on audio, and while Bourdain is one of the authors whose reading/speaking style definitely makes the audiobook a value-added experience, one thing about audio is that it's hard to just grab the book and look up a specific passage.

But I had actually been thinking about this distinction between skill, craft, and art. The short answer is that I see craft as a kind of creative mastery of skills, and art as the creative expression of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic ideas. In my mind, you can be an artist without being an accomplished craftsperson, and vice versa.

Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau, for instance, was always an artist (assuming you agree with me that satirical cartooning is within the realm of art), but in the middle of his career he made a conscious effort to improve his craft, when he took a year's sabbatical to work on his drawing.

In the case of Justo Thomas, I can remember one item: In Medium Raw, Bourdain notices that Thomas doesn't sharpen his knives as obsessively as many chefs, and asks him about it. Thomas says that if the knives are too sharp, they'll cut through soft fish bones without him being able to feel it, and thus bones will evade his notice and end up in the portioned fish. He has a very specific level of sharpness he maintains that's perfectly matched to the task he's performing. Now that might be simply a matter of skill... but to me, it's a level of mastery that transcends mere skills competence, a kind of zen genius for the task at hand. OTOH, no matter how perfect his output is, it's still just portions of fish, not Guernica.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Appreciation of Craft

I planned to post about cocktails tonight, and I'll certainly get to that later, but I'm in the middle of watching Top Chef: All Stars and I just had to stop and write about tonight's episode... and more specifically, about the Quickfire Challenge, which took place in the kitchen of Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert's great (or so I've read, and really, who the hell am I to question it?) seafood restaurant.

The guest/guest judge was ace fish prep chef Justo Thomas, the star of my favorite chapter of Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw... and perhaps the favorite thing I've ever read about food or cooking. I alluded to this chapter in my very first post here. It occurs to me that the reason I so love cooking "reality" shows is not just that I love food, but that I love craft, and I'm in awe of great craftspersons.

Bourdain clearly does, too: Beneath his crusty, punky cynicism is this: His most loving prose was left for this man, far from the glamour of the great restaurant, who is simply the best there is, in every way he can think of to be, at the humble but essential task of reducing up to 1,000 lb of fish per day into the perfect portions... the perfectly formed materials with which his fellow chefs will make their art.

The All Stars acquitted themselves well, both those who managed to cut their fish acceptably and those who humbly admitted they couldn't (you should pardon the expression) hack it. And the four finalists made dishes I wish I could've tasted... ironically, from the heads, bones, and other "waste" parts of the fish they'd just butchered. First craft, then art. What's not to love?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Catching Up

So I had every intention of doing some actual, serious cooking this past weekend, but it didn't turn out that way. Instead, we went out to eat a couple times, and then I did some very non-foodie, throw-it-together utilitarian cooking.

On Friday night, we went to a new (to us) Mexican restaurant in a nearby town. I haven't named the place (or even the town) because I don't have anything nice to say about it, and you know what Mama said, right? To be fair, there were a couple relatively uncommon dishes on the menu, which might've been house specialties. But the items we tried — steak fajitas for the Lovely Bride® and a pork burrito for me — were bland and uninspiring. Even the chips were obviously from a bag, and not particularly good. Suffice it to say that the little hole-in-the-wall places aren't always hidden treasures.

How pleasant, then, to return to Goong Asian Restaurant, with friends, to find it every bit as pleasant as we remembered from our previous visit. I'll try to get a fuller description of our meal up in a couple days.

The closest thing I did to real cooking was making myself a slightly-fancier-than-normal grilled ham and cheese sandwich for lunch on Sunday, a double-decker with chipotle jack cheese on one half and swiss on the other. Nothing to write home (or a blog) about, but tasty.

More to report soon, I promise.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Apres Soup

So, even though I tried to halve the recipe, the batch of butternut squash soup I made yesterday was vastly more than my Lovely Bride® could possibly eat. Even after I gave a bunch to the very helpful neighbor who helped dig me out of the snowpocalypse, and accounting for the pint I plan to take to work for lunch tomorrow, there was still plenty left over.

So naturally I fired up the thrift-shop Seal-a-Meal, and sealed up and froze three pint bags, each of which should be one full meal or two side portions. It feels good to be filling the chest freezer with home-cooked meals for the future!

In addition, while seeding and scraping the butternut squash yesterday, I noticed that the seeds looked like slightly smaller pumpkin seeds. This should've been no surprise to me; butternuts are so similar to pumpkins that Alton Brown suggested them as a potential main ingredient for pumpkin pie on a recent episode of Good Eats. So I reserved the seeds and toasted them (~25 minutes @325°F), tossed in a tiny bit of canola oil, some curry powder, pepper, and kosher salt. Just like pumpkin seeds, they make a great snack... and just like pumpkin seeds, I couldn't stop myself from eating them all!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It Cooks!

It was a snow day today in Vernon, CT, as a consequence of our snowpocalypse, and that made it a good day to cook. I took up the challenge by making a dish well suited for a snowbound winter day: curried butternut squash soup.

This is the soup I mentioned in a previous post, but I haven't reached my imagined nirvana of being able to make it up myself based just on a list of ingredients; I got a proper recipe from one of my Facebook friends. I'll post it here at some point, if I can get my friend's permission, but in the meantime, the ingredients include onion, curry powder, apples, orange juice, and (obviously) butternut squash. "Good size" ones, specifically.

I suspect I got a little overeager with the "good sized" business when I was shopping, because even though I was trying to halve the recipe, to cover the squash in the pot I ended up needing almost the same amount of stock as a full recipe. As a result, I think the onions and curry may have been somewhat less prominent flavors in the final product than intended...but no worries, the soup was absolutely delicious!

Making it was fun, too. There's something really wonderful about stirring a pot of simmering goodness while warm, spicy aromas fill the house. Of course, making home-made soup isn't exactly going to get me a feature in Food & Wine magazine; it's the sort of thing that people who cook do all the time... but of course, I'm not really a person who cooks yet; trying to become one is what this is all about. So forgive me if I take inappropriate, immoderate pride in some of the smallest things.

Speaking of which, my thrift-shop stick blender worked like a charm... and I take silly delight in that, too!

Friday, January 7, 2011

We Have Liftoff!

Just a quick post to note that I actually fired up the new mixer and made something this evening: chocolate buttercream frosting for the wheatless cake the Lovely Bride© made for guests who are on their way over.

It was overkill, I admit, sort of like driving to the end of the driveway to get the mail: The frosting could've easily been made by hand or with our old hand mixer... but I really wanted to play with the new toy. Can you blame me?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Gear Hunter

Yesterday I posted about the goodies I received as Christmas gifts, including the New England Soup Factory cookbook I bought. Well, it occurred to me almost immediately that cooking soups (esp. in large batches) would mean yet another piece of kit I'd need: an immersion (aka stick) blender.

In addition, the project that drove me to put Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food on my wishlist — DIY sous vide — requires a hackable slow cooker.

Feeling a bit tapped out, it occurred to me that these are precisely the sort of gadgets that show up in thrift shops, so I trundled off to my favorite local Goodwill store, just beyond the town line in Manchester, CT.

I didn't find a slow cooker, but I did find a stick blender (for $4.00!), and I also came across a truly serendipitous find: A Seal-a-Meal VS120 vacuum food sealing system... for only $8.00 !!. Not only will this be useful for the sous vide project, once I scrounge up a slow cooker, but it will also come in handy for the soups: As I mentioned yesterday, the NESF soup recipes are for larger quantities of soup than the Lovely Bride® and I can possibly eat at one — or even two — sittings... but the vac sealer will allow me to portion out the leftovers into single- or double-serving portions and seal and freeze them. Before long, we'll have a freezer full of homemade soup!

Tonight I tested the Seal-a-Meal on some frozen strawberries, just to make sure it worked (Goodwill has a 10-day return policy on electrics), and... reeee-sult!¹

¹ Note extra-classy thrift-shop pricetags!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Foodie Xmas Goodies: Cooking Subdivision

So yesterday I posted about the booze-related goodies I got for Christmas; today it's time for the cooking-related swag!

Most excitingly, my Lovely Bride© got me a KitchenAid Classic Plus stand mixer. This was No. 1 on my wish list with a bullet, and she managed to buy it right under my nose without me knowing, making up some cock-and-bull story about how they didn't have the right model in stock, and the rebate coupon she had wasn't valid, to convince me she hadn't been able to get it, when in fact it was nestled in the back of my car! Way cool! Plus which, even though an entry-level model, it represents a significant enough investment to serve as a "$100 tennis racket": a de facto commitment to actually cook. Now my big decision is whether I should paint hot-rod flames on it, like Alton Brown did his. Prolly not, I think.

But speaking of Alton, my next bit of foodie goodness under the tree was his Good Eats 2: The Middle Years.

Last under the tree — but definitely not least — was Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, which I blogged about after following an article about DIY sous vide cooking to the author's blog. I'm only halfway through reading it (look for a detailed review in an upcoming post), but already I can tell it's so much more than a hacker's guide to homemade gear (not that that wouldn't be great). Instead, it posits a whole science-geek approach to cooking: While it's full of recipes, hints, tips, and hacks, it's really about a kind of kitchen philosophy. Great stuff.

But wait! There's more!!

In addition to all those things, I got a Barnes & Noble gift card, which I used to purchase the New England Soup Factory cookbook. I'd looked at this in the store even before Christmas, but when I went back, I found it was sold out. During after Christmas shopping at another location, I found a copy and snapped it up. All the soups sound great; the only problem is that most of the recipes are for 8-10 12 oz. servings... which is quite a lot for the two (and occasionally three) of us. Not to worry, though; I think I've got a solution... about which, more tomorrow.

Goal Setting

OK, here's an example of the Emerging Foodie™ quest: A few days ago a Facebook friend posted about a curried butternut squash soup she made, and several of us (predictably) made nom-nom-nom noises and asked for the recipe. In response, she posted a simple list of ingredients.

Now, as it happens, this person is a real-world friend, too, so I know I can get a true, detailed recipe from her... but it occurred to me that this is part of what my hoped-for "emergence" is all about: I want to get to the point where I can take just a list of ingredients and understand the proportions and processes I need to turn them into the desired dish.

Or better yet, to work from the two or three key ingredients and understand not only the proportions and processes but also the needed secondary ingredients, herbs, spices, etc.

In other words, I want to be a cook, and not just an executor of recipes. That's where this is heading (however haltingly).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Foodie Xmas Goodies: Booze Subdivision

So, Christmas has come and gone, and Santa was good to the emerging foodie. I'll run down the food/cooking-related items in another post, but first, a couple little dollops of booze-related awesomeness (over and above the Maker's Mark mini Santa left in my stocking):

First, my wonderful sister gave me a Downunder Longneck, a very cool pint beer glass from Australia. Actually, it's literally cool: Because it's a sealed double-wall design, it's effectively a thermos mug, keeping the beer cold far longer than a typical single-walled pint glass. Ever since I unwrapped it Christmas morning, I've been using it to enjoy Anchor Steam's 2010 Christmas Ale and Innis & Gunn's Rum Cask Oak-Aged Ale. My old-style pint glasses are getting lonely, I'm afraid!

Second, my daughter got me a Gin and Titonic ice-cube tray, to make ice cubes in the shape of... wait for it... the Titanic and floating icebergs! It's too much fun, and cries out for some modification of the standard gin and tonic recipe to do justice to its macabre beauty.

All in all, a truly excellent haul... and tomorrow, the non-booze cooking stuff, which is even better!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spooling Up for the New Year

Hmmm... my New Year's post ended up timestamped as if it were an Old Year's post. Apparently somewhere in its guts, this here blog is on PST rather than EST. I'll fix it as soon as I can figure out how¹, but in the meantime, please believe that the last post was published minutes after the ball dropped, and not hours before.

Now to complete the dashed-off drink recipe that I posted there, I've decided I will call it the Ashford Tonic. Here's the backstory: Dale DeGroff would no doubt pillory me for specifying a prepared limeade rather than fresh lime juice, but I've loved Newman's Own limeade (and lemonade) ever since a loved one was a camper at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children dealing with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. This no-fee summer camp — founded by Paul Newman and the prototype for a growing family of similar facilities — is located in Ashford, CT.

Paul Newman provided much of the seed money (not to mention a vast amount of his personal energy) for the camp, and it is one of the many, many charitable causes that share 100 percent of the profits from Newman's Own products. But aside from its charitable value, Newman's Own Virgin Limeade is a great tasting drink in its own right. I'd been looking for a way to incorporate it into a drink for some time, and the lovely fresh sweet cherries my wife brought home for our New Year's celebration presented the perfect opportunity. To refresh your memory...

Ashford Tonic

In a mixing glass, place
5-6 fresh sweet cherries, pitted and sliced
2 oz. Newman's Own Virgin Limeade

Muddle cherries in limeade and set aside to macerate for ~30 minutes. Add...

2 oz. ice cold Hendricks gin

Shake vigorously and strain into highball glass over ice. Top with...

2-3 whole cherries for garnish.

¹ Fixed it... and apparently the fix is retroactive, so... <EmilyLitella>never mind!</EmilyLitella>

² I like locally made Hosmer Mountain sodas, and their Diet Tonic is my choice for this drink.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

RE-Emerging Foodie!

Well, it's now 2011 (in EST USA, at least) and my very first New Year's resolition is to reinvigorate this blog (not to mention my general-interest blog). It won't be hard, because Santa brought me plenty of foodie goodness for Christmas, but for tonight, it's late, and I've got kissin' and drinkin' yet to do... so I'll start with a recipe for a new drink I just concocted tonight. I don't even have a name for it yet, but I'm leaning toward Ashford Tonic (for reasons I'll explain in another post soon):

<Unnamed Cocktail>

In a mixing glass, place
5-6 fresh sweet cherries, pitted and sliced
2 oz. Newman's Own Virgin Limeade

Muddle cherries in limeade and set aside to macerate for ~30 minutes. Add

2 oz. ice cold Hendricks gin

Shake vigorously and strain into highball glass over ice. Top with...

2-3 whole cherries for garnish.

Enjoy!... and you'll be seeing a lot more of me here in the coming year!