A City Cook Mirepoix, 2.0
Mirepoix. It's the French name for diced carrots, onions, and celery sautéed in butter and used as the foundation of a recipe. A "holy trinity" is another name for combining three aromatic vegetables, cooked in butter or oil, to give a signature to flavor. Think of the Indian trinity of garlic, ginger and onion. In Sichuan food it's green garlic, ginger and chili peppers. The Spanish sofrito is garlic, onion and tomatoes. And Cajun and Creole dishes begin with celery, bell peppers and onion.
I'm going to take a literary liberty with the term to describe a mix-up of items that have been gathering on my desk.
In My Kitchen: Cheesecloth
I have only three drawers in my kitchen. One is dedicated to wooden spoons, tongs, measuring cups, whisks, etc.; the second is for flatware, plus the spillover from the first tool drawer including a can opener, corkscrew, scissors and other clunky-shaped things; the third is stuffed with dishtowels, potholders and slim boxes of plastic wrap, foil, and freezer bags. When I wander cookware stores I am always tempted to add a new toy but the fact is I just don't have room.
Besides, I like the challenge of solving many problems with few tools. For example, you can easily peel fresh ginger with the tip of a teaspoon, needle-nose pliers are best for pulling bones out of fish, and a flat-bottomed measuring cup shapes a pie crust into its plate. But I have a few items that I once thought extravagances -- for their storage and for their cost -- but now they're essentials. One is cheesecloth.
Cheesecloth is a loose mesh cotton fabric that's usually sold in large sheets, usually about 36-inch squares. Despite its fine weave, cheesecloth is very sturdy, adds no taste to your cooking, comes bleached or unbleached, and you can cut the large pieces into any size or shape you need. Here's how I use it:
I mostly use it to create a little sack of herbs and spices called a bouquet garni which gets added to soups, stews and other wet dishes. By putting the flavorings into the little mesh bag as if it were a tea bag, the food gets seasoned but you can remove the little bag when the cooking is done. You save a tooth from biting an errant peppercorn and the appearance of your dish is nicer without naked sprigs of thyme.
Just cut a five or six-inch square of cheesecloth, place your seasonings inside, and tie it into a knot or else with a length of cotton butcher's twine. We use this method in a splendid new recipe we've just published called "Split Pea Soup With Pork Three Ways."
I also use cheesecloth when roasting a turkey. Using a method I learned from Martha Stewart's website, I soak a large piece of cheesecloth -- large enough to cover the whole top of the turkey -- in a mixture of melted butter and white wine. This gets draped over the turkey and as you baste the bird while it roasts with more of the butter and wine or pan juices, the cheesecloth holds the liquid so that the breast meat doesn't dry out. Remove the cloth toward the end of roasting to let the skin gets brown and crisp. This method restored my belief in the possibility of roasting a moist turkey and I wouldn't make a Thanksgiving turkey without it.
In another use, cheesecloth can be tied around lemon halves, letting the juice escape but shielding any seeds from your food. This may seem a bit fancy to do, but if fresh lemon juice is an important finish to a fish dish you're serving to company, it can be an appreciated detail.
Cheesecloth is also essential when you need to strain an ingredient. For example, straining beef or chicken stock, yogurt or sour cream for coeur à la crème, or making tofu.
A tip: cheesecloth is all-natural, fine woven cotton and being fabric, it may have dust or fine fibers. Plus when it's dry, it will be extremely absorbent, soaking up large quantities of whatever you're wetting it with. So before you use your cheesecloth, just give it a rinse in cool water and wring it out. This will rid it of dust and reduce its absorbency but not its utility.
I've never tried to recycle used cheesecloth and with most uses (roasted on a turkey, simmered in a soup) I doubt it could be done without compromising its next use. A packet costs about $4.00, for me an essential splurge.
Update: The Politics of Food
Switching to food politics, last November Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Columbia University sponsored a bold public policy conference called The Politics of Food. It was encouraging to see this one-day event be oversubscribed, attended by academics, elected officials, and a wide variety of food activitists and if the agenda was relevant four months ago, the acceleration of the economic crisis is only making it more so.
The conference report is now out, called "Food in the Public Interest." Despite the bounty from our extraordinary merchants here in New York, the fact is that we have a complicated food crisis with a shortage of grocery stores, rising prices, neighborhood "food deserts," and many New Yorkers going hungry with little to no access to affordable and quality food. Borough President Stringer's call for the creation of a "foodshed" and food enterprise zones are just some of the smart recommendations to come out of last fall's conference.
You can visit Mr. Stringer's website at MBPO.org for a press release that includes a PDF of the final report: Let's give him our support and thanks for initiating this essential public policy initiative that has only just begun.
Founded On Oyster Shells: New Amsterdam Market
As Mr. Stringer's conference report makes clear, improving our food supply will take the work of many players -- our elected officials, farmers, food merchants, and also passionate individuals who have the drive and focus to make a difference. Robert LaValva (see our Media & Podcast area for our podcast interview with him) and his colleagues at New Amsterdam Market have a dream to create a permanent, year-round purveyors market dedicated to regional produce and other foods.
This Saturday, February 21, 2009, you can support their efforts to launch a monthly market by attending a benefit called "Founded on Oyster Shells." It's from 5:00 to 8:00 pm at f/ocus Rental Gallery at 599 11th Avenue, at 45th Street. Tickets are $50. There will be oysters, beer, fish chowder, pickled eggs and turnips, a few speeches, lots of music, an online auction, and a chance to meet others who are dedicated to the idea that New York can once again have a year-round indoor food market.
For more information visit NewAmsterdamMarket.org.
Time to Sign Up for a CSA
It may be gloomy February but our area farmers are already signing up shares in this year's Community Supported Agriculture. If you've never been a CSA participant, you can learn more about how you can buy a share in a farm's season from one of our articles and by visiting JustFood.org, a non-profit group that links consumers with farmers.
Joining a CSA is a commitment -- you pay in advance and must volunteer to work several hours during the program -- but the rewards are big. You get excellent produce at a good price and you get to support a local farmer.
Last year nearly every CSA in New York City (there are about 55 of them) were all completely subscribed. So if you're interested and haven't yet signed up, it's time.
Last week I spent part of an afternoon with Mark Russ Federman, of the very special Russ family that created and runs Russ & Daughters on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Mark's grandfather began with a pushcart over a century ago and today this store, still on Houston Street, is crowded every day with fans looking for smoked salmon, herring, black bread, whitefish salad, chocolate covered jelly rings, and other favorites. And members of the Russ family are still behind the counter.
We recorded a podcast interview with Mark on the subject of smoked and cured fish (there is much to know!) and we'll have that published within the next two weeks. But in the meantime you may enjoy reading an essay he wrote called "Soul of a Store" that appears in a new book called Gastropolis: Food & New York City. Published by Columbia University press (hardcover, $29.95) and edited by Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch, the book is a collection of 18 essays by academics, merchants, cookbook authors, and other "food voices" that tell stories about food as an essential part of New York's identity. The book is scholarly in places and there are no recipes. But if you are interested in food as culture and love New York stories, this book is very satisfying.
Finally, a passing. Unlike in many other places,New Yorkers are comfortable talking with strangers. We live on top of one another, sleep inches from our neighbors, and every day jostle against people we'll never see again. Sometimes we have brief and remarkable encounters, experiencing acts of kindness or fury, meeting individuals that remain in our memories.
If you're a regular at the Union Square Greenmarket, you may have had one of these moments with Joe Ades. Always wearing a crisp shirt, tie and sports jacket or suit, Mr. Ades would sit at the northwest corner of the park, seated on a little stool, selling vegetable peelers for $5. By the end of the day he would have sprayed bits of grated carrots over the sidewalk, convincing anyone who'd listen that this was indeed the best vegetable peeler in the world. No matter if you had already bought one, or never even cooked or peeled a vegetable, you would give him your attention.
Mr. Ades passed away early this month at the age of 75. Tributes were held at the Greenmarket for this spirited man called the peeler peddler. We've since learned that he had an adoring family and lived on Park Avenue. To those of us for whom he was another of the big personalities that fill New York, we know the city is dimmed by his loss. So next time you peel a carrot, think of Mr. Ades, a city cook.