Mirepoix -- A periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
I heard her before I saw her. A voice that had the authority of a teacher in command of a classroom. I turned toward the voice and saw a local television reporter, gripping a handful of string beans and doing a stand-up in the produce aisle of a grocery store.
"Greens are in season and today the greens we're talking about are green beans." Of course I had to look to see who would say something so, well, confused. The camera continued to roll and she continued to talk. "Green beans are very versatile. You can cook them in pasta. Eat them raw in salads. You can even eat them by themselves. But these are very lucky green beans because we're going to buy them and take them to Lidia Bastianich who will use them in a special dinner."
The cameraman finished and as she tossed the beans back into the bin from which she had grabbed them, I approached her and without even mentioning her unappealing idea of raw string beans in salads, I gently said, "you know that green beans aren't greens." She seemed nonplussed and said, "well, I was talking about how they're green." I explained that the term "greens" has a meaning in terms of produce and it doesn't include every vegetable that is the color green. Obviously I had insulted her because she sniffed, "I know that. It means lettuce." I should have minded my own business.
Pity anyone who saw her piece and doesn't know that greens refers to vegetables like Swiss chard or kale, and that being in season doesn't mean that it's simply available. Like those green beans which in this store happened to come from Mexico. This is how ignorance gets passed on, when everyone's an expert.
This small New York moment also reminded me how there's so much to know when it comes to buying ingredients, let alone cooking them. And it's not just new cooks who don't know. More experienced ones still have big gaps in our knowledge about produce, spices, grains, seafood and meats, and for that matter, just about anything that can go into the meals we prepare. This is why I often write about single ingredients. What they are, how to buy them, store them, and prepare them. There's just so much to know.
I, too, have big gaps in my food knowledge. I'm particularly ignorant when it comes to hot chili peppers, which is why I tend to limit myself to jalapeños and thai chilis for fear I will mistakenly chop up a Scotch bonnet. I also know little about the ingredients and spices used in Asian and sub-continent cuisines since my palate tilts toward European and Middle-Eastern dishes. Cooking is like most other competencies in our lives: we know best what we do often.
I strongly suspect that the television reporter promoting string beans as greens doesn't cook. She probably also didn't eat her vegetables as a kid. Or now.
Hello Mayonnaise. Goodbye Mozzarella.
The comings and goings of food shops are as good a measure of our food world as any. Empire Mayonnaise is a new single-product specialty market in Brooklyn. Located in Prospect Park, it sells 4 oz. jars of mayonnaise for $6.00 to $8.00 in flavors like white truffle, lime pickle, bacon, saffron, preserved lemon, and vadouvan, the newest trendy flavor, which is a French take on an Indian spice blend.
The first time I heard of this store I thought it was a story from The Onion. Besides the fact that a 30 oz. jar of Hellman's costs less than $6.00 -- and you can add your own bacon or lime pickle -- for about fifty cents you can make your own. With a local free-range egg. And get amazingly luxurious flavor. See our link for how.
But my reaction to the news of Empire Mayonnaise didn't entirely have to do with its price. It's more that I think it has a kind of emperor's-new-clothes ridiculousness to it. When a quotidian condiment gets elevated into a luxury product, it's a sign that a market correction is due. Since so many of us wrestle every day with how to have daily cooking in our lives, not to mention feeding our families affordably, healthily, and with pleasure, a store that sells artisanal mayonnaise is a bit of a, well, an insult.
I know that many of us have food indulgences and buy ingredients that someone else might consider a costly luxury. But I like to think that unlike mayonnaise, most of these require either skill to produce or rarity to source. Things like smoked salmon or morels or aged Armagnac or Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.
Or hand-made smoked mozzarella.
Joe's Dairy was an Italian cheese shop in SoHo that since 1977 made plain and smoked mozzarella. Piece by piece. All by hand. The pillowy white cheeses -- or toffee brown if it were smoked -- were sold from their bath of cloudy milk-tinged water. But earlier this summer, Joe's Dairy closed. Owner Vincent Campanelli didn't give the usual rising rent reason: instead it was due to a drop in demand. As the neighborhood lost its Italian character and adjacent shops began to sell clothing instead of ingredients, and as the few new food markets that did open were more lifestyle than authentic, Joe's business dropped off until it couldn't be sustained.
The loss is ours to no longer have immediate access to Joe's amazing mozzarella, but it's also a loss of what Joe's represented. You could walk along Houston Street and sometimes, as you'd approach Sullivan Street especially on a summer day, you could smell the smokehouse. Once inside the tiny old shop, as your turn would come, you'd be handed your still-warm boule of soft cheese by someone involved in its making, and by evening the whole thing would be gone. Some with a slice of good tomato and a drizzle of olive oil. But the rest, irresistibly bite by bite.
They say Joe's will still make its mozzarella from a factory kitchen in New Jersey and sell wholesale to New York grocers. But we all know what that means. It won't taste the same, and we will have lost the experience of eating something within minutes, not miles, of when it was made. And we will have lost that connection between the food we buy and the hands that make it. Unless you want mayonnaise.
It's one of nature's challenges that just when our fruits and vegetables couldn't be better, it can get so hot that no one wants to cook. But I'm up to the challenge and here are some of the things that I've recently cooked in my hot city kitchen with a wheezing window air conditioner lending a hand:
Cold Shrimp Salad With Israeli Couscous. This is a combination of cold cooked shrimp with large Israeli couscous, tossed with a creamy lemon and chive dressing. You can buy the shrimp already cooked or give peeled and cleaned shrimp a quick boil for about 3 minutes until opaque. I last made this on one of our hottest days but cooked the shrimp and the couscous (which cooks in about 7 minutes) in the early morning so to let them both chill (separately) all day, assembling the salad at suppertime. This also let me avoid boiling water at day's end when my kitchen is at its hottest due to its west-facing window. See our recipe.
Fish Tacos With Tilapia. Assemble layers of sliced avocado or guacamole, shredded cabbage (or buy Dole coleslaw mix), a slice of tomato, and pieces of tilapia, dusted in flour and sautéed until it flakes, all in a warm flour tortilla. Top with a dab of low fat sour cream, a shot of hot sauce, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
Miso-Glazed Salmon With Radish, Cucumber and Scallion Salad. From America's Test Kitchen's Menu Cookbook. An outstanding and simple way to turn broiled salmon into something with big flavor. See our link for the recipe.
Broiled Chicken Thighs with Green Beans and Tomato Vinaigrette. I've written about this chunky and versatile vinaigrette before. I discovered it in a precious, small cookbook by the great Lee Bailey that's all about tomatoes, just as he wrote similar ones about berries and corn. Whether you're a novice cook or a practiced one, you should have at least one Lee Bailey book in your collection. Of course, once you start with one, you will be trolling used bookstores to collect everything he wrote. He was a master. See our links for the recipes.
Vietnamese Marinated Flank Steak. A recipe from the great Melissa Clark in The New York Times. The flavor of the beef after this marinade is hugely flavorful. You could pair it with any kind of salad, coleslaw, or a room-temperature pasta. Even before finishing it, my husband was pleading with me to make this again. See our link to The Times and the recipe.
Broiled Swordfish With Spaghettini With Basil Pesto. It's hard to resist summer's fresh basil so I make double batches and freeze some for winter eating. My favorite recipe is Marcella Hazan's, although sometimes I reverse her ratio of Parmesan to Pecorino and use more of the vibrant sheep's milk cheese from the south and less of the north's more mellow Parmigiano.
Salade Nicoise With Pan-Grilled Fresh Tuna. This is a summer standard for me, especially when I'm cooking for company on a day that's not only too hot to cook but almost also too hot to eat.
Hors D'Oeurves: I only make them when I'm cooking for company and recently have started serving fried olives, a very simple hot antipasto that is fabulous with a drink. The recipe is from Arthur Schwartz's outstanding cookbook -- one of my all-time favorites that I keep on the shelf above my desk -- The Southern Italian Table. Here's how to make them:
Break one egg into a bowl and beat until blended. Place 3/4-cup all-purpose flour on a plate or in a shallow soup bowl. Do the same with 3/4-cup fine dry unflavored bread crumbs in another shallow bowl. Using about 30 PITTED large green olives (I also like ones that are pitted and stuffed with pimento or garlic), set up an assembly line rolling the olives first in the flour, then the egg, and finally the bread crumbs, coating each olive entirely. Place the breaded olives on a large plate and refrigerate them -- uncovered -- so that the coating sets and dries a bit, at least 30 minutes. Pour about 1/4-inch of canola or vegetable oil in a large skillet and place over high heat. When the oil just shimmers, add the olives, without crowding (you may need to do this in 2 batches), and fry on all sides, turning them over with tongs and maybe a wooden spoon or chopstick. Drain on a paper towel and serve immediately. Do not salt as the olives are already salty.
Desserts: As much as I've wanted to make fruit pies, I've avoided the fights with the pie dough in this hot summer. So instead the desserts I've made have included peach kuchen with local NJ peaches; rustic fruit tarts when the shape of the tart can be messy and imperfect as long as it holds its filling of sliced plums or apricots; pound cake with fresh berries and whipped cream; and because this season is one of the best in years for cherries, big bowls of them with a little dish to collect the pits.
To drink, it's been prosecco, vodka tonics with lots of lime, or various dark craft beers, although Sam Adams is still good to me. What matters is that everything be really cold.
- I've been making lots of hummus lately, especially since I calculated how cheap it is to make your own versus the store-bought. If instead of canned chickpeas you use dry ones, it's even less expensive and all it takes is an overnight soaking of the peas in water plus two to three hours of simmering to make them fully tender and ready to use (you can also cook them in a slow cooker or pressure cooker). If you use chickpeas often, it makes sense to resuscitate several cups as you can keep them refrigerated in their cooking liquid for up to two weeks, or put cup-sized portions into baggies with a little liquid and freeze. If your hummus or any chickpea recipe calls for ones that are canned or otherwise already resuscitated, here's how to compute what that means in dry terms:
1-cup of dry chickpeas will become 2 to 3 cups resuscitated
One 15 oz. can = about 1 1/2 cup chickpeas
- I've noticed that some of the companies that make boxed chicken broth are also making chicken stock. Some will have a photo on the front that shows that the stock is a darker color than the broth and they're doing this for a reason since the two products are not the same. As a reminder, stock is made with bones and thus is richer in flavor. Broth is not made with bones and will have a paler color and taste. If you make your own and you use a whole chicken or else a combo of chicken backs and wings, you're making stock. If you poach chicken breasts and then save the poaching liquid to use in a risotto or pilaf, you've made broth. As is often the case, price is another clue: boxed stock costs more than broth.
- What's In Season? This is it, everyone -- peak market time for local fruits and vegetables, so we should get them while we can. The first NJ field tomatoes are in at our greenmarkets, along with peaches, collard greens, cucumbers, plums, sweet corn, beets, Swiss chard, fennel, garlic, spinach, green and yellow beans, and more.
Last week I found the most delicate radicchio from J&A Bialis Farm at my neighborhood Friday morning Greenmarket. Unlike the purple radicchio we buy year-round, these had loose leaves in shades of rosy red, pale pink, and Lilly Pulitzer green. I bought three heads and used them to make a salad adding only thin slices of red onion and a dressing made with balsamic and red wine vinegars (half each), a bit of Dijon mustard and also hot English mustard, plus salt, pepper and olive oil. It was so good that it made me almost forget the heat wave.
Enjoy your summer cooking!