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.
It seems more than ever that when it comes to buying food, we're on our own. My line between skepticism and cynicism had already become blurred for most things in our complicated world, but recently it seems increasingly so when it comes to groceries.
I was thinking about this the other Sunday afternoon while watching Sara Moulton's PBS program, "Sara's Weeknight Meals." In finishing a recipe, she emphasized she was adding "… homemade club soda…". I perked up because trying to save both plastic and money, I have long been turning New York City's very fine tap water into seltzer with a siphon and little CO2 chargers. But I've had mixed success (I'd like more bubbles) so I was curious to see what she used. Instead of using a siphon, Sara took a branded bottle out of the refrigerator and poured. I didn't think much of it until I happened to see in the program's closing credits that the same brand of homemade soda was one of her corporate sponsors. I suddenly felt like I had been watching ET eating Reese's Pieces.
Of course PBS programs need corporate sponsors, but still, I felt played. Is it so difficult to acknowledge that a show sponsor makes this new product (which may very well be fabulous) and that she has tried it and likes it? Paula Deen's diabetes disclosure aside (I'm shocked…), transparency is useful because then you know what you're dealing with and can make up your own mind.
We need to remember that the food world is like any other business, which brings me back to my point that we're on our own and before making food-buying choices, we must stay informed. This is not so difficult when there is a label to read, but what about produce, fish and meat? And how do we balance food safety and nutrition with cost and convenience?
A recent article offer some interesting data and insights. "The New Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods To Eat Organic" is about a list from the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog group that analyzes USDA data about food and pesticides. If you're trying to make choices about where to put your organic grocery dollars, this article details fruits and vegetables found with a worrisome excess of pesticides, plus some unexpected information and buying tips for wine, coffee, milk, meat and chocolate. It's not all grim as there's also a list of what they called the "Clean 15," plus alternatives for safer food choices. See our link to the article, which appeared at The Daily Green.
The Intolerant Gourmet
As if cooking isn't challenging enough, for many of you there's the added hurdle of food allergens and intolerances, especially gluten and lactose. How ironic that done of our best and most loved food writers and cookbook authors, Barbara Kafka, discovered that her childhood food intolerances had returned, requiring a huge change in how she cooked for herself and her family.
Learning that 30 to 50 million Americans are affected by food intolerances, which can come and go at any age, Barbara Kafka knows that she is far from alone in wanting ways to make food she can eat that doesn't compromise flavor. Her changing kitchen has produced a gift to others in The Intolerant Gourmet, her newest cookbook.
We've published two recipes from her book. See our links.
I had the pleasure of recently visiting her at her New York home and we talked about what it means to live with food intolerances and how to not let them get in the way of being a good and versatile cook. See our link so you can listen to that conversation.
Zuni Café Chicken
I was recently reminded of a very popular recipe from Zuni Café, the San Francisco restaurant that has been a beloved city fixture for more than 30 years. "Roast Chicken With Bread Salad" is one of the restaurant's iconic dishes and about ten years ago, chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers included it when she wrote The Zuni Café Cookbook.
SmittenKitchen.com later published the recipe with a simplified instruction for the bread salad, which for some reason is easy to make but complicated to describe. I made both the chicken and the salad last weekend and suggest that Zuni Café's triumph is something all chicken-making home cooks should try because it produces a superbly perfect roast chicken in less than an hour of cooking. And the companion salad is (unless you're gluten intolerant; sorry Barbara) very flavorful and satisfying. The chicken needs a little easy prep -- a dry salt and pepper rub is added, as are some fresh herbs under the skin, and the chicken should sit, refrigerated, for at least a day. Then it's placed in a pre-heated ovenproof skillet (with no added fat) and roasted at 475° F, turning it twice.
My chicken was just over 3 pounds and I used the lesser cooking times in all the ranges given in the recipe. As I took the finished chicken out of the oven I panicked a bit when my instant thermometer showed the meat well above 165° F, the usual goal for chicken, but it was fabulously juicy and the skin was divine.
This was clearly the best roast chicken I had ever made. Leftovers eaten the next day were just as juicy and almost as flavorful as right out of the oven.
A few added tips:
If your oven isn't clean and if your chicken is fatty, the high temperature will mean your smoke alarm could go off; you might want to open a window in anticipation of some kitchen smoke.
- Don't skip the step for the dry brine as this is key to the recipe's success, as is the instruction to pat it dry.
- I don't think this high temperature cooking method would work as well for a bird much larger than 3 1/2 pounds because you'd have to cook it longer to get it entirely done, causing some parts to get dry.
- The bread salad is tasty but I thought it was a little over-oiled and over-heated and thus too limp, with the seasonings (all that salt, vinaigrette, and pan drippings) overwhelming the greens, which I prefer to have more vibrancy. Next time I will hold back the pan drippings, hold back salt, and not bake the dressed croutons, leaving them at room temperature when added to the greens. But you may prefer the original.
We've added a link to Smitten Kitchen's Zuni Café Roast Chicken.
Kitchen Equipment and Gadget Seduction
Over the holidays, while in the midst of cookie baking and menu planning, I got distracted into reorganizing my kitchen tools. I began with one drawer filled with wooden spoons and spatulas and before long I had unloaded most of the cabinets and drawers dedicated to pots, pans, spoons, thermometers, spatulas, measuring cups, and my other tools of the trade. It was like one of those times when you're looking for a book and end up deciding to alphabetize all your novels by author. Or your CDs by genre instead of artist. Or when the task of putting away laundry turns into dumping your sweater drawer out on the bed and an hour later, the laundry is still sitting, unfolded and in disarray.
The time I spent reorganizing my kitchen tools had me thinking about writing a newsletter about all the tools we gradually accumulate and which of them we truly need. But a few days later I was listening to Leonard Lopate on WNYC and there was Melissa Clark, the wonderful New York Times columnist and cookbook writer talking about the very same thing.
What is abundantly clear both from the interview and the comments posted by listeners (you can find both at WNYC.org's archive) is that what may be an essential tool for me may be useless to you. And visa versa. Looking at this though the lens of city living, I used to use space as the first criteria when choosing kitchen tools. But you can have tons of storage and if you fill it with stuff you don't use, it will get in the way of being a better cook. So buy the tools you will use and love. Indulge having the right tools even if it's only for something you make a few times a year. For example, I have a well-seasoned cast iron skillet I use only to make tart tatin; I wouldn't dare risk its perfect-for-caramel-and-apples surface with a piece of fish or a sliver of garlic and I credit the pan for my flawless tarts.
Is that pan a luxury or an essential? You must first taste my tart tatin to decide.