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.
If you haven't taken a cooking class in a while, autumn is a wonderful time of the year to do so. Cooking classes are always fun, you can expect to eat and maybe drink well, and you're likely to meet like-minded people so it's easy to attend by yourself. Or sign up with a friend or spouse, especially someone you regularly cook with.
In Manhattan, Astor Center has a continually changing roster of hands-on classes, many with a wine angle, which makes sense because they also operate Astor Wine & Spirits. There are classes for cooking, making cocktails, learning about spirits and wine, and pairing foods with wine, a topic that many home cooks get flummoxed by. Visit their website to learn more about what's coming up.
In a different borough and with a different style and sensibility, The Brooklyn Kitchen offers an eclectic mix of classes. As they say, "… from basic knife skills to pig butchering to vegan tamales to mini cupcakes to Persian dinners." This cookware store and its companion butcher shop, The Meat Hook, are fun resources run by passionate people. Prices vary depending upon the length of the course and the cost of materials. Classes are listed at TheBrooklynKitchen.com.
Not in New York? Every city has cooking classes so check at your local cookware stores or Yelp to find one of the places and people from whom you can get motivated, more confident, and better in the kitchen.
Fall Fruits and Vegetables
Just because there's a chill in the air it doesn't mean we're done with in-season fruits and vegetables. Three of my fall favorites are figs, red grapes, and broccolini.
While there's little I love more than a raw pale green fig smeared with soft, fresh goat cheese, fresh figs of all colors can be made even sweeter when roasted. Wrap a thin slice of prosciutto around a halved fig and roast at 425° F for about 8 to 10 minutes until the surface of the ham begins to crisp. Serve warm as an hors d'oeuvres, or alongside a little stack of dressed mesclun as a first course.
Roasting also transforms red grapes. As they roast, the juices intensify and the grapes soften and if you add salt and pepper, they become a wonderful sweet/salty flavor that pairs really well with pork or chicken. Add a side like couscous or pilaf and the grapes can turn a simple roast chicken or pork tenderloin dinner into something unexpected and rather fancy. Choose fat, firm red grapes still on their stems, picking off any that might be spoiled. Rinse and carefully pat them dry with a paper towel; you want them to roast and not steam so try to get them completely dry. Place on a rimmed baking sheet that's been lined with a piece of parchment paper; as they roast the grapes will ooze some juices and you'll be glad to be able to toss the sticky parchment paper instead of facing a mess of a pan to clean. Drizzle with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, add a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper. Roast at 450° F for about 10 minutes until the grapes are soft, a little collapsed and are beginning to caramelize. If you prefer a slightly sweeter finish so to serve the grapes as a dessert or with yogurt, leave out the pepper but keep the salt and drizzle a couple of teaspoons of honey on the grapes before roasting.
Broccolini is an increasingly favorite vegetable for those of us who want the nutrition and flavor of broccoli but without broccoli's intensity and thick stalks. While I'm usually very happy with steamed broccolini with a drizzle of olive oil and a little of my best fleur de sel, the current issue of Fine Cooking magazine has an easy and very satisfying recipe that combines broccolini stalks with bacon and grated Parmesan. You can also add cooked pasta to this finished vegetable dish to turn it into a main course. See our link.
Dual Spice Shop
While the Curry Hill neighborhood's spice market Kalustyan's gets lots of attention, including by me, as a splendid resource for spices and international ingredients, I've been introduced to another one that is, as Michelin says, worth a detour or a journey.
Dual is an Indian grocery and spice shop in Manhattan's East Village, on 1st Avenue at 6th Street. It's smaller in size than Kalustyan's but the only thing I could see that's missing are some of the prepared foods and also the housewares section. But Dual has an outstanding selection of spices, dried fruits and nuts, grains and beans, incense, beers, teas, Indian grocery items, and other items that are often hard to find. Their prices are excellent -- to my eye, item-by-item it's less expensive than Kalustyan's.
Watch carefully for the packaging because sometimes things are packed in thin baggie-type plastic bags and if you're buying something that could absorb the shop's spicy fragrances, you may end up with some unintentional cross-flavoring.
A worthwhile grocery itinerary would be to head to the East Village and visit Dual on 1st Avenue, the Polish-Ukrainian East Village Meat Market on 2nd Avenue at 9th Street for kielbasa and pierogies and outstanding values on various cuts of pork, and finally Russo's on East 11th Street for mozzarella and roasted artichokes.
As for what kind of menu that would produce, instead think of it as a chance to add real treasures to your pantry and freezer.
I used up some end-of-summer tomatoes by making fresh tomato juice. I peeled, seeded, and cooked a few pounds of beefsteaks and puréed them, adding a little fine salt. I did the seeding because tomato seeds can be bitter and I wanted the bright sweetness that only a late summer tomato can provide. I placed the seeded tomatoes in a large pot and simmered them for about 30 minutes until everything was soft and then puréed until the tomatoes were liquefied. If the juice still seems too thick for you, pass it through a food mill or fine sieve to remove some of the solids.
Fresh tomato juice keeps refrigerated for about a week. Or you could freeze or can it, but I was out of storage room. Besides, I had plans for the juice.
You really can only make tomato juice at summer's end because it's the only time when tomatoes are good enough -- in their flavor and their juiciness -- to be experienced in this naked form. Naked, that is, until I turned the juice into a bloody Mary. I chilled the juice first so that I didn't have to risk too much dilution from having to add lots of ice. I mixed the cocktail in a big measuring cup, adding several drops of Tabasco, a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a pinch of fleur de sel de Guérande, several grinds of black pepper, a dash of celery bitters, a spoonful of Gold's white horseradish (a teaspoon per 6 oz. of juice), and finally a half-teaspoon per drink of the Worcestershire sauce I made a month ago. Actually not finally as it wouldn't be a bloody Mary without vodka. I added 2 oz. per drink of Stolichnaya Russian vodka.
A few cubes of ice, a tender stalk of leafy celery, and a pour into a pretty glass. Yes, it was fabulous.
Finally, here are a couple of little tips I learned recently I think you might like. From America's Test Kitchen's television program, the host was making deep dish pizza and when making a tomato sauce, instead of starting with a chopped onion, which is so often the case, she used a Microplane zester and grated onion into the sauce. I don't like coming across a little bit of soft onion in my tomato sauce but I love the sweetness it adds to the flavor. Grating lets the onion bits essentially melt into the sauce and I thought using the Microplane was an inspired choice.
And from one of Arthur Schwartz's cookbooks, when getting ready to sauté something in oil and you want to know the oil is hot enough, simply place the tip of a wooden spoon into the oil. If little bubbles appear, it's ready. Arthur doesn't explain how this works, but I imagine that because the wood is an organic material, the hot oil begins to "cook" the wood, and thus the bubbles. And if it will do this to the wood, it will do the same for your fish fillet, or potato latke, or chopped onion. Try it and you'll see it works.