Mirepoix -- From the French, a mix of aromatics that provide the savory foundation of a recipe. From The City Cook, a periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
Bring to boil. Reduce to Simmer.
I haven’t written in a while about cooking "technique," a word that when used in a kitchen can seem intimidating or to some, even elitist. But the fact is that any good cook, whether classically trained or a well-practiced grandmother, uses technique all the time. When I was in culinary school and the chef would say something was "technique," I heard him to mean "learn this skill and you'll cook better." The word really just means knowing how to do something for the best result and having consistent control.
One technique is "bring to boil, reduce to simmer." Whether you're making a stew, strawberry jam, chicken soup, green beans or anything cooked in liquid, when you bring things to a boil you're getting the food to 212° F/100° C (at sea level), the temperature at which water boils. This is as hot as water can get because beyond this temperature, it evaporates.
One reason for bringing to a boil is food safety; boiling will kill any molds and yeasts that can contribute to bacteria. But molds and yeasts are destroyed at lower temperatures, as well. More than food safety, I think the reason for this technique is, to use food scientist Harold McGee's words, that the boiling point is "a reliable landmark." What you may think is a simmer could be ten degrees different than mine, but boiling is boiling. So for consistent results in a recipe or cooking method, first bring a pot of liquid to a boil and then adjust down to the temperature you want.
In matters where food temperatures really matter, such as in canning and other forms of food preservation, food scientists define simmer as 180° F/80° C. This is at sea level -- the boiling point of liquid will vary depending on atmospheric pressure. This may be getting more complicated than you're interested in and I'm sure that if you live at a high altitude you're already practiced at adjusting recipes.
But back to "bring to boil, reduce to simmer." By bringing a pot of soup or any other liquid to a boil, you can be sure you're at maximum heat and from this point, you can reduce the temperature to that which gets you the desired result. Obviously boiling isn't the best way to cook delicate foods like a poached salmon or a gently cooked chocolate pudding, but you will have more control if you get to the optimum temperature by going down from boiling than up from a cold pan.
That said, some foods, like potatoes, cook more evenly if you start them in cold water and then bring to a boil, instead of adding them to a pot of water that is already boiling as you do with pasta. That way you won't end up with potatoes that are overcooked and falling apart at the surface but still hard and undercooked at their core.
A final point about boiling: if you're making a braise or stew and you want to start the dish on the top of the stove (browning the meat, adding the vegetables, etc.) but mostly cook it in the oven or a slow cooker, you'll often see the instruction to bring it to a boil on the stove top and then put it in a pre-heated oven. With a slow cooker, you may need to bring a stock to a boil and then pour it over the meat and vegetables. Here's why you shouldn't skip these important steps: the time it can take for food to come to its target cooking temperature in a cold slow cooker or even a pre-heated oven will be far longer than bringing the liquids to a boil on the stove top. During the time it takes for the pot of beef stew to get to its target cooking temperature, the food will cook unevenly and more important, you'll have raw food in a semi-hot stage long enough for bacteria to develop.
So when a recipe says "bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer" it's an essential instruction. And it's a technique that's one of the best for any home cook to practice.
Whole Foods Isn't Always Whole Paycheck
The other day I was reading a food blog in which someone dismissed Whole Foods as being too costly. It made me wonder when the last time they had actually been in one of the Whole Foods stores. While any grocer will do what they can to make a profit (the grocery business has the smallest profit margins of any retailing sector), Whole Foods used to seem like the Bergdorf Goodman of supermarkets.
But something has changed. Their prices are notably better so if you avoided shopping at Whole Foods because of the sticker shock, you should take another look. I've seen notable improvements in the prices of meat, poultry, and fish, and they've added a robust approach to weekly specials. Their house "365" brand for things like canned chickpeas or olive oil can be excellent deals. Their web site has a new value vibe to it with a weekly sales flier pdf for each store, plus new iPhone apps with recipes.
In recent weeks I've bought wild caught salmon for less than $14.00 a pound and beautiful pieces of beef for less than $5.00 a pound (no, that's not a typo). Some of the prices are such bargains that it's worth stocking up and filling your freezer. As with any food source, check and compare prices and be selective in your purchases, but it may be time to put Whole Foods back onto your shopping route.
If you live in New York there's a new Whole Foods coming to Manhattan's Upper West Side, to a new building at West 97th Street and Columbus Avenue. The target opening is the end of August.
The City Cook On Facebook
The City Cook now has a fan page on Facebook. I don't have the time to do Twitter and I must admit, it doesn't hold my attention for very long. But if you are a Facebook user, we'd be happy to have you at our fan page. Come say hi.
New Gourmet Garage, Brooklyn Fare
A few weeks ago I wrote about the end of Balducci's in New York, including the closing of their store on West 66th Street near Lincoln Center. Well now we've learned that Gourmet Garage is taking over this space. The store is schedule to be opened Friday, July 17. Prices can be high but the quality of their produce and grocery items is very good so keep an eye out for specials.
Another new merchant has opened in Brooklyn, the borough that seems determined to be the food innovation capital of the country. Brooklyn Fare has opened in Brooklyn Heights, at 200 Schermerhorn Street at Hoyt Street. Meats, seafood, cheese, bakery, grocery, beer and a café. Free neighborhood deliveries for orders over $75. Another reason to love Brooklyn.
A Taste of Scandinavia
I was sent a copy of a new cookbook called The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Hahnemann ($ 29.99, Andrews McMeel Publishing, hardcover with color photography). It's a large format, very beautiful book with gorgeous color photographs by Lars Ranek of Nordic food and countryside, and 115 recipes organized by season for cooking through the year. This is a cuisine I knew little about aside from its love of fish and game. But the food is eclectic and diverse with many strong and vibrant flavors as well as irresistible sweets like Ms. Hahnemann's recipe for a Danish sweet yeast bread called "Brunsviger" that's topped with brown sugar and butter. They've been generous in giving us permission to share the recipe.
I like how several of the book's recipes use rye flour. For example, rye focaccia. But it also uses rye flour to dust a simple piece of fish, such as flounder, and then sauté it in butter. The flour helps hold the delicate fish together while it cooks and adds a subtle rye tang. You can find rye flour in both grocery and health food stores.
If you have an interest in Scandinavian countries, cultures and cuisines, this is a special and inspiring book.