By the second bite of the first meatball I knew the mountain of perfectly sauced fresh spaghetti dominating the bowl was coming home with me for frittata. I’m actually lying: I knew before the menus arrived at the table. Continue reading
By Mark Bittman
I was in Des Moines this past weekend (wasn’t everyone?), in part for the Niman Ranch “farmer appreciation dinner” as, more or less, an observer. The weekend was interesting not only for that but for a number of other reasons. Continue reading
This summer my husband and I vacationed in Rhode Island with our friends Dolores and Steve. Dolores is a Long Island girl who knows her way around fish; she’s particularly fond of seafood boils, which I’ve enjoyed at their house several times. We talked about making a classic version but decided to do it on the grill instead: We’d try wrapping the ingredients up in individual-serving foil packets and let them steam over the fire.
It ended up being great fun. We started by placing a sliced red potato in the center of a large sheet of heavy-duty foil (about 16 inches long), then put crab claws on the top of that, followed by 5 to 6 shrimp, and finally a handful of littleneck clams. We broke shucked ears of corn and placed them on either side of the seafood. The whole thing got a generous sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning (Dolores kept telling me to add more, and she was right—about 1 teaspoon per packet), a tablespoon of butter cut into bits, a shot of white wine (again Dolores’s excellent suggestion) and two thin lemon slices. And instead of including sausage in the packets, we decided to put it directly on the grill (linguica, since we were in Rhode Island).
Next came the crimping of the packets. Dolores insisted that there needed to be good height over the center, so that there would be room for the steam to collect, then condense and fall back onto the food. We ended up with kind of a foil fan affair. (My goal for next year is to add a swan’s neck at one end!) We used a gas grill that had seen better days. We put the packets and sausage over direct heat, with the burners up as high as they would go, and it still took the better part of half an hour for the potatoes to cook through.
With the mingling of the seafood juices, the wine, butter, and Old Bay, the final flavor was fantastic—especially the potatoes, which soaked it all up. And the char on the sausage was a great complement. We did agree that the seafood got overcooked because of the extra time the potatoes needed, and next year we’ll parboil the slices for a few minutes before building the packets. And we might try Alaskan king crab legs cut into smaller pieces (to make them fit) instead of the steamed crab legs they had at the fish store—they’ll be a lot easier to eat, instead of messing with a cracker. Vacation cooking—especially with a friend like Dolores—doesn’t get much better!
By Emily Stephenson
Last week, when it was over 100 degrees outside, I had a pie baked by a professional, and even her dough was crumbly (warm butter means crumbly dough). I appreciate that there is a fabulous bounty of fruit available during the summer, the stuff of luscious pie fillings, but hot weather makes getting a perfectly flaky crust difficult.
I didn’t realize this until I started baking my own pies last summer. After more than a few less-than-ideal pie crusts, I did some research beyond the recipe at hand. I’m happy to report that, just like in school, extra-credit work really does pay off.
In honor of the last month of summer, here is the most useful advice I’ve found in pursuit of a perfect pie crust:
- After adding a little water to the butter and flour mixture, pinch a bit of it between your fingertips. If it holds together, the dough is ready. While the dough is resting in the refrigerator, the water will continue to hydrate the flour. This way, you’ll use less water than if you were expecting the dough to form a ball, and your crust won’t be tough. (If you have a vacuum sealer, you can see this in action: the difference in texture between when you seal the dough and when you take it out 30 minutes later is pretty incredible. Removing all the air expedites the process.)
- Many recipes say the butter should be no larger than pea-sized when cut in, but that doesn’t mean they should be exactly pea-sized. When I first started making dough, I didn’t cut the butter into the flour enough. I had pieces of butter that were too large, which meant I had to use more water to get the dough to come together, and my end result was very tough crust. When you’re cutting in the butter, you’re looking for bits of butter of a variety of sizes, none of them larger than pea sized. This doesn’t matter as much if you are using a food processor, but if you’re cutting in the butter by hand, keep cutting a little more.
- Don’t rush the resting time. You can’t over-rest dough (within reason) but you can certainly start working it too soon. Leave it for an hour or more in the refrigerator.
Any other tips I’m missing? I’d love to hear from dedicated summertime pie bakers.
By Kerri Conan
Witness the benefit of getting to the farmers’ market when the first stalls open at 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning: one-of-a-kind cabbage sprouts.
This is Lawrence, Kansas, in mid-summer and you never know what’s going to pop out of the ground. But if it’s edible, Avery’s Produce will definitely put a box on their table, even if only a handful exists. A quick chat with Avery reveals that no, they’re not anemic Brussels sprouts but rather baby cabbages that he calls “second growths,” sprouted spontaneously in the abnormal rain and cool weather after the larger heads were cut.
Standing at this fork in the road—do I treat them like cabbage and make slaw or cook them like Brussels sprouts?—the decision was easy. Let’s split and grill ’em, then dress to mitigate potential bitterness with my go-to Brussels sprout honey-mustard-shallot-olive vinaigrette. I tossed them with olive oil and salt and put them in a grill basket over direct medium-high heat; they were ready in just a few minutes, shaking now and then to roll them around.
And surprise, surprise, they were quite sweet, even in the spots where they were charred. (So Brussels sprouts aren’t little cabbages after all.) I changed gears and went with more olive oil, white balsamic vinegar—to play on the sweetness—and handfuls of chopped dill and chives from the garden. The resulting warm salad was the most memorable farmers’ market dish of the summer. Until now. I’ve still got a couple months of Saturday early bird specials left to go.
By Pam Hoenig
It seems like months ago but I spent last week on vacation on Point Judith in Rhode Island. This is our fourth year renting the same lovely house with our good friends Dolores and Steve, who are always up for my culinary explorations. Last year it was grilling cheeses, this year it was Eisenhower steak.
Setting perfectly good meat right on blazing hot coals was apparently Ike’s favorite way to grill steak.
I’ve always had serious qualms about this technique. How could it possibly not end up a burnt mess? Vacation seemed like the perfect time to try. I found three gorgeous strip loin steaks, each just over a pound and a little more than one inch thick. I blotted them dry, then seasoned with salt and pepper.
For us, cooking dinner on vacation ends up being a late night affair, after lingering at the beach and enjoying cocktails in the backyard while we chat about the day and watch the sun set over the water. By the time I went out to build the fire, it was pitch black. But soon I had a blazing fire going and into the flames went the steaks. Six minutes on each side, out they came. Five-minute rest and they were perfectly medium rare, with a delicious char crust, the flavor unlike anything I had ever gotten cooking above the fire.
If you want to try this, a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Use hardwood charcoal (or hardwood burned down to coals, if you have the patience): Your food will be sitting right on the fuel.
- You want your steaks to lay flat on the coals, so make sure your fire is big enough to accommodate the number of steaks you are cooking.
- You want a hot fire. Even though you blot the steaks dry, they still contain moisture, which can tamp down the fire. If you let the fire get a little past prime or haven’t made it big enough, your steaks might take a bit longer to cook.
So why don’t the steaks just don’t catch fire? My theory is that because they’re right up against the coals, there is less airflow, which keeps the melting fat from lighting up like a firecracker.
One final warning: When you turn the steaks, pieces of charcoal tend to stick to them. Just pull them off with tongs and be sure you don’t take one into the house with you by mistake or drop one into dry grass.
And if you don’t have a chance to sit by a campfire this summer, you can always enjoy this Virtual Campfire GIF of my strip steaks sizzling away.
I may not have my facts perfectly straight here, but hey, it’s my site and the story is as true as I can make it.
Michel Richard, who just died at 68, was a friend of mine. We met in the mid-’90s, introduced, I imagine, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with whom I started working in the early ’90s. (A whole ’nother story, which I’ll get to sometime.)
Michel was a joyful character, perhaps a lousy businessman (until he opened Central, he complained to me about money whenever we saw one another), but a much-admired chef and a great lover of life, corny as that is.
Unlike most chefs, he knew how to enjoy the things he cooked. He also knew art, he understood politics, he could talk articulately about current events—he was someone you looked forward to hanging with. We taped together for Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs in 2002, and it was as good a time as I’ve ever had doing television; we spent two solid days together, morning until night, and I remember laughing nonstop. (We were with my producer and good friend Charlie Pinsky—who called Michel “The Elf”—which helped. Somewhere—I’m not looking for it—there’s a picture of us, three fat men blocking a doorway, grinning like fools.) We made insanely good lobster rolls (well, he did; mine were, I would say, pretty good); his “breakfast for dessert”— a variety of nonbreakfast foods shaped to look like bacon and eggs—was a ridiculously clever tribute to Ferran Adrià-type food, what idiotically came to be called molecular gastronomy.
Two other outstanding memories:
I was in Citronelle in D.C., shortly after it opened, so, 20 years ago. It was a stuffy, not-especially comfortable place, but Michel was at the height of his powers and the food was terrific. (Now we’d think it was too fancy, or at least I would.) As about half the room was on the dessert course—and the desserts were fantastic; more on that in a second—Michel appeared from the kitchen, bearing a brown cardboard box of Eskimo Pies, handing them out at every table. A small gesture, but in those days there was no other famous chef who would behave so playfully.
Two or three years later, in 1997, there was a fundraiser for the Beard Foundation run by Jean-Louis Palladin, the man who brought modern French cuisine to this country and almost unquestionably the most revered and perhaps most talented chef in the country in the early ’80s, when I began writing about food. Palladin was running a restaurant at the Rio hotel in Vegas (he was the first great chef to do that, too), and he was beginning to suffer from the illness that eventually killed him. (He died two years later, at 55; unbelievable to me now.)
There were two nights of festivities, one for chefs and hangers-on only, the other for a well-heeled public; I was there, as a sort of cook and as a reporter for Delta Sky magazine. (If anyone can find that clip, please post it or tweet it or something, but meanwhile, here is a link to my original, unedited piece, which I think is worth a glance. It’s slightly embarrassing, but remember that this was 1997. And it’s only slightly embarrassing.)
Everyone there—seven or eight “name” chefs (Ripert, Boulud, Vongerichten, Daguin), plus some helpers like me, under the supervision of Palladin—was responsible for a dish, but only Michel was in charge of desserts. He was an anomaly, a pastry chef who went on to become a head chef (still rare, but even more so then), and, as I recall (my piece doesn’t do it justice), his dessert was astonishing.
What didn’t make it into that piece—I’m not sure why—was a comment Jean-Georges made to me as all of the chefs gathered to watch Michel work: “Everyone is in awe of him,” Jean-Georges said. “He’s a wizard.”
He was. And he even looked like one.
I was very fortunate to escape New York City for the summer, and I’ve been cooking in a minimally furnished house in the woods. It’s wonderful. But there is a downside: finding good-quality food.
The town I’m in has a deli, with little fresh produce, and the nearest grocery store is an international goliath with spotty quality (it’s also 13 miles away). So I’ve gotten into the habit of planning my week around farmers’ markets (generally at least 45 minutes away) and making do with the dry goods I hauled up with me.
It’s forced me to be creative, though there have been some weird meals I’m glad I didn’t have to serve to anyone other than myself. Things had gotten a little desperate before my farmers’ market run today. Thankfully, I was saved from any further experiments by a friend who had me over for dinner, though she also hadn’t gone shopping and was making do with what she had on hand.
She had some frozen pizza dough she let proof while the oven heated up. She had a lemon and two onions, and thinly sliced both to put on the pizza. She has a garden, which yielded up a couple ripe tomatoes and plenty of fresh basil, so we sliced those up too. We didn’t have any cheese, so she whisked some chopped chives from the garden into crème fraiche and generously spread that on the crust as the sauce.
It was delicious, and so adaptable to any bare fridge scenarios: you could use cream, sour cream, or mascarpone for the sauce, and any bits of herbs you have lying around. The lemons and onions were delicious, and something you are likely to have at home. The sliced tomatoes were lovely but it would have still been tasty without them. It got me excited for a few more weeks of very improvised meals.
– Emily Stephenson
Yes, beneath this mound of just-churned vanilla ice cream is a caramelized tomato. I am responsible for the missing bites but not for inventing such a remarkable dessert. That honor belongs to Guillermo Tellez and his wife Leslie, executive and pastry chefs for the magical restaurant at Flora Farms just outside San Jose del Cabo in Baja California Sur, Mexico. I couldn’t stop thinking about the place or the tomato so I wrote Tellez for the recipe, which he was generous enough to share.
Now, during peak tomato, let’s all make one. Or a dozen. Tellez says to start with large ripe specimens—any kind, any color—and remove the toughest stem end, leaving the rest intact. Put them cut side up in a roasting pan. Dissolve a little sugar in sherry vinegar and splash it around, then slow-roast in at 200° and don’t do anything but look at them and baste once in a while until they shrivel and release most of their liquid, about eight hours.
The tomatoes collapse as they cool, leaving behind a texture that’s part persimmon, part flan—in fact that’s how the waiter described it—but the characteristic caramel is enhanced in a way that defies explanation. Top them with a proportionate scoop of the best vanilla ice cream you know and spoon over the aforementioned nectar until the plate fills just shy of overflowing. And I bet you’ll take a bite before you take a photo, too.
– Kerri Conan
Inspired by recipe testing we’ve been doing, summer, and not wanting to turn on the oven, I made my first cake on the grill, with great success.
I used the Pineapple Upside Down Cake recipe in How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, subbing 2 cups pitted cherries for the pineapple. The batter came together in less than two minutes; I poured it over the brown sugar and cherries scattered over the bottom of a cast iron skillet, and I carried it up to the rooftop, where our barbecue was taking place.
We were using a standard Weber kettle grill, the one pretty much everyone has owned at some point. I tried to wait until the coals had ashed over, but I got impatient and put the skillet directly over the fire before it had hit its peak hotness. (Next time I’ll wait until the coals are fully “ready.”) I closed the lid and cooked it for 15 minutes, then checked on it; it was nowhere near ready, so I closed the lid and set my timer for 10 minutes. When I checked again, I’d say the cake was just slightly overdone, but I had been enjoying myself for those extra 10 minutes and I figured no one would notice.
They did not. The fruit mixture was bubbling around the edges and the crust was crisp and smoky. I flipped it out of the skillet onto a cake plate and let it rest while we cooked and ate the rest of our dinner (also cooked on the grill). In the end, it was the cake everyone was most impressed with. I’m now inspired to grill all my summer desserts: It’s easy, practical (you can do it while the grill is heating up), and delivers impressive results.
– Emily Stephenson