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.
In case you haven't noticed the editorial pattern of its food coverage, The Sunday New York Times Magazine rotates a monthly roster of cooking features. My least favorite is one called "Cooking With Dexter" in which Pete Wells lets his young son make kitchen decisions. I'm a big fan of teaching kids how to cook but not letting their palates set the flavor course for a meal. Okay you can shoot me now.
But once a month we also get to read the wonderful Amanda Hesser. I love her writing, her cooking philosophy, her home cooking rigor, and her gentle curiosity. And I look forward to how she'll find something that intrigues her and then share it with us. Her monthly "Recipe Redux" takes a Times vintage recipe and gives it an update, often with the help of a chef. In her most recent article I found myself being drawn more to the original than the update: it was a 1977 "Asparagus alla Fontina" made with asparagus, eggs, prosciutto, and cheese. The updated version was from Brooklyn chef Carlo Mirarchi whose "Asparagus, Prosciutto and Egg" deconstructed the 1977 version and used duck eggs, heavy cream and LaQuercia's Iowa-made prosciutto.
The idea of combining in-season asparagus with Fontina, a tangy Italian cheese that has the texture of not-quite-ripe Brie, with shreds of salty prosciutto and eggs was very appealing to me. So instead of chef Mirarchi's modern version, which seemed like a tarted-up scrambled eggs with ham and asparagus, I tried the 1977 recipe.
The result? It was terrible.
I usually have good radar for spotting recipes in which ingredients add calories, fat, effort, and cost -- but little flavor, so I should have seen this one coming. This 30-year-old recipe uses a two-step process of par-cooking the asparagus and then adding the other ingredients to bake like a crustless quiche -- which is what it looked like in its photo. But instead it became a gloppy mess in which the delicate flavors of the asparagus and prosciutto were overwhelmed by the cheese and eggs.
So to avoid such disappointment (and wasted effort and cost) what should we look for before taking on a new recipe? First, read the recipe to find the ingredient with the starring role. The recipe title usually gives a clue and it may not necessarily be the ingredient used in the biggest quantity. For example, for a butterflied leg of lamb with a garlic herb rub, I'd say the garlic was the star, not the lamb. Given this, I'd still buy the best lamb roast I could find but I'd also fuss over choosing and preparing the garlic and I'd be sure to have every other ingredient (and other courses and wines served with the roast) complement the garlic.
Reading The Times' 1977 recipe through this lens should have tipped me off: according to the recipe, the asparagus should have been center stage but it didn't stand a chance with all the other more aggressive (in flavor and quantity) ingredients.
Another thing to look for: when is each ingredient added to a dish? Sprinkling grated Parmesan on a finished Caesar salad adds forward tasting saltiness that creates a party-in-your-mouth counterpoint to the salad's anchovies, lemon juice and olive oil; mixing it into the salad earlier may instead just muck up the dressing. Another Parmesan example: adding it to other types of cheese early in the making of a mac and cheese will create a more complex flavor; sprinkling it only on top to make a cheesy crust will create an entirely different taste and texture. Not better or worse. Just different. And different should be noted and considered.
Sometimes a recipe needs what fashion stylists advise: when you're finished putting your outfit together, take one thing off. It works for food, too. Do you really need those chopped hazelnuts on top of an already big flavored salad? Or will they only add a distracting crunch (and cost and work and calories) without making the other ingredients taste better?
Often we read the title of a recipe and look at a stylist's photo of the finished dish and we think, "oh, I'll love that." (Like I did with the asparagus.) Then we check the recipe only to make a grocery list and check the cooking steps. A little more careful reading may let us know how it's going to really taste in time to either skip the recipe or make a few changes or omissions of our own.
The appeal of Asparagus alla Fontina was the promise of tasting grassy asparagus along with sweet prosciutto and creamy scrambled eggs. In deconstructing the 1977 version, Chef Mirarchi was right to cook all the ingredients separately if only to have a chance to taste each of them.
- What To Do [When No One Has A Clue] is a new book by Stephanie Pierson and Barbara Harrison ($18.00, hardcover, Clarkson Potter). With a subtitle of "Advice for the Brave New World," this slim volume includes a chapter on the modern challenges of being a dinner host -- or dinner guest. It also has helpful and sometimes very funny solutions to sticky situations involving technology, parenting, business, and other matters of contemporary etiquette -- or lack thereof. The authors have sought advice from experts like chef Rick Bayless, event producer Colin Cowie, as well as at least one of the Housewives of New York City, should you care what she advises. It's a charming book but that it needed to be written at all is a statement on our times.
Last summer I had my first experience as a city canner and I know it will now always be part of my city kitchen. I still remember the pleasure of opening a jar of summer peaches as the snow fell on the streets of New York this past winter and adding them first alongside a pork roast, and then the next day to my breakfast yogurt.
While canning is a normal summer event for home cooks across the country, and around the world for that matter, in most city kitchens it's an unfamiliar task. So if this is your summer to become a city canner, it's time to get ready.
Like many things we do in the kitchen, canning is all about technique and method. You'll need some specific equipment and you'll need to learn how to do it correctly. For guidance on both you can look to Eugenia Bone, whose simply wonderful book, Well Preserved was a 2009 James Beard Award nominee. Put yourself in her hands and you will not fail. To help, we've added a link to our article from last summer's canning adventures.
On my list for this summer's canning -- sour cherries (yes, it's a bit of work to do the pitting and then the canning but a small jar of these with slow roasted duck legs is exquisite), peaches, whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, all of which I did last year. This summer I'm adding red pepper jelly. I'm also going to experiment with freezer fruit jam, an alternative to canning that I've been told is half the effort with the same big flavor. You know I'll share the results -- whether success or failure.
The other day I received Williams-Sonoma's latest catalog and its front half is devoted to grilling: you can buy monogramming steak brands that let you sear your initials into a New York strip, there's a pan for roasting individual stuffed jalapeños and another fine-meshed grill pan that lets you make a grilled summer salad. And to make something to go with all that grilled food there's also a $700 "Premium Margaritaville Trio frozen concoction maker." If like me you have no outdoor space and thus no grilling options, you may be feeling a bit deprived. Although I doubt I'd ever want to brand my food, grill or no grill, nor would I spent $700 to make a concoction.
So instead of grilling, in the coming weeks I'll try to give you some other cooking to look forward to with details about and recipes from three really terrific new cookbooks. David Lebovitz has a new dessert book, one of his Chez Panisse alums has an inspiring small volume about sausage, and chef/teacher Michel Roux has updated one of his classics, this one about sauces. Details on all to come, hopefully in time to help give you some new summer cooking inspiration -- maybe also getting you a bit out of your comfort zone, even if you don't have a grill.