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.
About three Wednesdays ago I opened my New York Times to discover its new "City Kitchen." Written by David Tanis, the chef at the renowned Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, this weekly column declares itself as "… a new column dedicated to the small — even tiny — urban kitchens everywhere, and the cooks who inhabit them. As well as the daily quandary: what’s for dinner?"
I had a complicated reaction. On the one hand I felt vindicated. After nearly five years of The City Cook, both the web site and my book, and several letters sent to The Times (all unacknowledged) urging them to look at the unique needs and issues of urban home cooks, it was about time that our home town paper's food section made a little room for us. But on the other hand…. Well, how could I not feel that imitation is far from flattery?
Still, Chef Tanis is very talented and the kitchens at Chef Panisse are like high church in the culinary world, and I embrace the principles of the "delicious revolution" that Alice Waters launched there. I also support anything that helps home cooks become more satisfied and confident in our kitchens. But there's a big gap between the challenges of coming home to make dinner every day in our small kitchens and the kind of foraging and cooking Mr. Tanis is able to practice (going to a friend's organic garden to dig up new potatoes and then roasting them in parchment paper at 400°F for 45 minutes -- in a small kitchen in the middle of the summer -- huh?).
I'm hoping The Times' "City Kitchen" gets its groove because we can always use new ideas, new recipes, and new motivations to get us into the kitchen. So let's wish them well.
The Collected Traveler
Barrie Kerper is the editor of an exquisite and growing series of travel books called The Collected Traveler. These are paperback volumes, substantial enough to offer lots of information but not too big to fit in a carry-on bag. Or on a bedside table because these are books to be read before a trip, or taken along for the journey, or enjoyed as a way to become intimate with a place you may in fact never get to visit.
With black and white photographs and hundreds of tempting references, these are compilations of articles, interviews and reminiscences about history, art, culture, food, shopping, private moments, and public places from writers, visitors, residents and experts on places that typical travel books do not portray with such intimacy.
Barrie also writes a blog that is an engaging elaboration on the places that she so dearly loves where she recently wrote about The City Cook and our experiences in the food markets of Florence. See our link.
In addition to her books about Istanbul and Florence and Tuscany, Barrie's newest is about Paris: Paris: The Collected Traveler An Inspired Companion Guide, Edited by Barrie Kerper (paperback, 722 pages, Vintage Books, $19.00). And I am truly flattered to have been included with an essay I first wrote for The City Cook about French food markets, and radishes in Bayeux in particular.
If you're planning a trip to Paris, Tuscany or Istanbul -- or just want your imagination to travel there -- I encourage you to take a look at Barrie's very special books.
Beecher's Handmade Cheese
Beecher's Handmade Cheese started in Seattle, Washington and has just opened its first east coast store in Manhattan's Flatiron district. It's located at 900 Broadway, at East 20th Street, and it has a large selection of cheeses, as well as things you might like to eat with cheese, including fig jam, crackers, and cured meats from Alps Meats and La Quercia.
The cheeses are all domestic, including a California burrata by a dairy called DiStafano (priced slightly higher than imported Italian burrata). The cheeses are labeled by state of origin -- at least by the silhouette of the state; if you don't know your American geography you might need a little help -- plus whether the cheese is made with cow, sheep or goat milk. Cheese producers included are Cowgirl Creamery, Prairie Fruits Farm, Cabot, Holland Family Cheese, and others, and of course, Beecher's own collection of cow's milk cheeses which I'd put in the category of cheddar-like. The staff is generous with tastes and samples, essential when buying an artisanal cheese, especially at prices that rarely dip below $20 a pound. Although to note -- their samples have been pre-cut and are not from the actual piece of cheese you'll buy; I've never seen this done before at a good cheese shop where the point of tasting is to know what you're actually going to get.
At the rear is a take-out area that features, of course, grilled cheese sandwiches. Downstairs is "The Cellar" which is a wine-bar and café.
The store gives pride of place to its macaroni and cheese, offering samples and having the cashier make a pitch about its "world's best" status. I had a taste and thought it was rather average with a pallid Jack cheese sauce, although I liked that it's made with penne and not elbow macaroni. But is it worth $50.00 for four servings? No, that's no typo. You decide.
Seafood Watch App
The wonderful people at Monterey Bay Aquarium have created a fantastic free app for smart phones. With versions for iPhones and Androids, you note your location when downloading the app and it customizes the seafood that is typically available in your area.
With this app you can visit any seafood market or department -- or for that matter, restaurant -- and get up-to-date help on whether a fish or shellfish is smart to purchase or whether it is endangered per the Aquarium's sustainability criteria. You can find more information at MontereyBayAquarium.org.
-- Piña Colada Sorbet
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in a newsletter a favorite recipe for Piña Colada Sorbet but the context didn't prompt me to include it. Of course some readers demanded the recipe, and rightfully so. For those of you who love the sweet and tangy combination of pineapple and coconut, we've added the recipe (see our link). It's a year-round dessert because it's made with canned pineapple juice and coconut milk. All you need is a home ice cream maker and maybe a few coconut cookies to serve alongside.
-- Blackberry, Arugula and Feta Salad
An absolutely in-season dish is my new recipe for Blackberry, Arugula and Feta Salad. I read countless food magazines and blogs and somewhere in the past weeks I saw a photo of a salad something like this, minus the arugula. Despite an afternoon spent retracing my steps, I couldn't find the original. But working from memory and some ideas of my own about what makes a good salad, I've created this combination of flavors -- the pepper of arugula, the sweetness of blackberry, and feta's salty creaminess. I've also added thin slices of red onion that are first marinated in red wine vinegar to soften the onions' texture and bite. Finish with a simple vinaigrette dressing and it's perfection with pan grilled fish, cold chicken or sliced flank steak.
-- Easy Tapenade Crostini
Also a few weeks ago I wrote an article about tapenades, the simple French pastes made with puréed olives, asparagus, or sun dried tomatoes. Friend and food blogger Bob Levine sent me a note to say how he likes to make a simple topping for crostini by mixing a spoonful of sun dried tomato tapenade with another of milky ricotta cheese. You can combine the two ingredients in whatever ratio you prefer, making it more cheesy or more tomato, and use as a topping on toasted baguette slices, making an hors d'oeuvre that's perfect for easy summer entertaining.
Wisdom From Eric Ripert
Since I began this letter with the suggestion that a famous chef might not fully (yet) appreciate the soul of the home cook, I'll leave you with some words from the charming Eric Ripert, a culinary great and someone who clearly knows what it means to cook at home.
A chef, author and teacher, Eric Ripert is the recipient of a long list of culinary awards, host of the PBS series "Avec Eric," and chef of what is arguably the best restaurant in New York, Le Bernardin. In a recent TV episode in which he demonstrated in a tiny NYC kitchen how to make seafood paella, he said this:
"Home cooking is… soul food, food with flavor, not necessarily too refined but food that makes sense. In restaurants we take another step on top of that and we create a more refined kind of food, something more artistic [that is] presented in a different way, bringing combinations that are very complicated [and] we create an experience. But because [home cooking is] such a simple way of cooking, you have no safety net. Therefore the flavors will come from the quality of your ingredients. When you cook for friends or family on a daily basis, it's very important to have the right ingredients because you're doing very little with the food itself. So if the ingredients have a superior flavor, at the end, when they are cooked, you will have those flavors multiplied.
"I always say to my cooks [in my restaurant] that if you start with mediocre ingredients, it doesn't matter how genius you are in cooking, you end up with mediocre recipes at the end."
Something for us all to remember.