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.
I'm periodically reminded how difficult it is to cook food that we don't particularly like to eat. I often tell the story of how a girlfriend and I tried to treat our husbands by spending a day and a small fortune trying to make bouillabaisse, the famed fish soup from Marseilles. We made our own fish stock; bought gorgeous fish, mussels and lobster, and a bottle of Pernod; made our own rouille; and after 8 hours of work, ladled into warm bowls what was probably the worst thing I've ever made.
What's important in this tale is that while my husband adores bouillabaisse, I really don't care for it and neither did my co-cook. This was a costly way to learn that it is very hard to cook something that we don't want to eat.
Sometimes we don't like a dish's flavor or texture. Other times we're just don't have an experienced palate and thus can't achieve the pitch-perfect flavor that we all strive for. I'm like that with some Asian cuisines and so I avoid cooking many Chinese or Thai or Vietnamese recipes. That said, fish sauce is one of my all-time favorite ingredients and I use it frequently, especially in marinades and salad dressings; I take two buses to get to a favorite Asian food store for Chinese toasted sesame seed paste (it's a fabulous tahini substitute), and I love the heat from chili-garlic paste and sriracha sauce. But even when I carefully follow a recipe for an Asian dish -- it's like I'm driving blindfolded. I just don't know where I'm headed.
I've made some peace with the fact that I can't cook well all types of food. By well I mean to play the chord of the five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) that's needed to reach that elusive "I'll know it when I taste it" high note known uniquely and intimately by each of us as delicious. After decades of cooking, I remain curious about new things and will sometimes venture out of my comfort zone, but for the most part I keep to my culinary last.
I write this because I know many of you get stressed by the constant bombardment of new recipes, cooking techniques, trendy ingredients, and unexpected taste combinations. It doesn't take much to make us feel like we're coming up short. My advice is to trust your palate, master cooking the things you want to eat, and stay open-minded to new things that suit your appetites. Much of today's food world, like everything else, is conducted in public whereas for most of us, cooking and eating remains a private pleasure. So cook what you love.
Sauces for Seafood
If you cook fish you have probably learned that the best way to prepare it is simply. Fish and shellfish are our last truly wild foods. While some fish (tilapia, salmon) and shellfish (shrimp, in particular) may be farmed -- with mixed quality and success (salmon -- yes; shrimp -- no), much of the seafood we buy is still captured in the wild. It is always amazing to me, standing before an ice-filled case topped with precious fish, to think how this food will come to my kitchen only days after swimming in the ocean. Even though some farming innovations have brought down the price of good quality seafood, e.g., farmed tilapia, much of the fish we buy is costly. All the more reason to cook it simply so we can really taste it.
Still, it can get boring to eat plain sautéed or roasted fish. Sometimes adding a coating of panko can add crunch, or cooking a filet along with some herbs and maybe a slice or two of lemon, wrapped together in a sheet of parchment paper cooked en papillote will add flavor (it's a method that sounds fancy but is so simple to do; here's a recipe that shows how.)
Other times what I do is cook my fish in a plain way -- poached, sautéed, or roasted -- and then add a sauce. A sauce can turn something simple into something fancy enough for company, and the sauce can also compliment a simple side, like boiled potatoes or steamed jasmine rice. You can make most sauces in advance, cooking the fish just before serving. I particularly like salsa verde (my recipe is made with parsley and fresh mint, not cilantro) with roasted halibut, sour cream and cucumber sauce with poached salmon, and for something fancier but truly luscious, a French sauce called sauce choron with broiled swordfish. Recipes for all are at TheCityCook.com.
I do much of my grocery shopping at Whole Foods both because it's good quality and because it's my neighborhood grocery store. The one I shop at has a very good bulk department with bins of nuts, grains, dried fruit, rices, flours, and other such items. But one section is dedicated to grains and other items labeled "sprouted." I've also noticed that some snack, pasta, and cereal products now say that they are made with sprouted ingredients.
What does sprouted mean?
This is a complex, emerging topic and research on benefits and risks is still nascent, but simply put, sprouted means a food -- grains, rice, lentils and other plants -- has begun the germination process. It's believed that the germination or sprouting process increases the bio-availability (it's more easily absorbed by your body) of some vitamins and minerals and thus can help fight specific diseases and diminish risks for others. It's also a way to help vegans and vegetarians improve their intake of important minerals that otherwise might be lower. Here are two pieces that can tell you more about the subject from WebMD and from a nutrition website called Precision Nutrition.
Eating sprouted foods is common for those who eat a raw food diet, although sprouted grains are eaten both raw and cooked, and also used in processed foods like cereals. If you remember a childhood science experiment when you sprouted beans on a damp paper towel, you'll know that it's easy to do sprouting in your own kitchen. But be aware that if you decide to sprout your own beans, it's recommended you only eat them cooked because the humid conditions needed to home-sprout can breed bacteria and thus lead to food borne illnesses.
If you're interested in cooking with sprouts, in most cases it's easy to just substitute a sprouted ingredient for one that isn't, like using sprouted almonds instead of conventional ones in a cookie. There are a growing number of websites, blogs, and cookbooks on the subject, but if you want a quick introduction to sprouted grains here is a link to information from The Whole Grains Council.
In case you missed it, I recently added an article about canned piquillo peppers, plus a recipe for how to cook with them, to TheCityCook.com. Piquillos are small and sweet in the way bell peppers are sweet. I keep a can of them in my pantry because they can quickly become an hors d'oeuvre by filling them with goat cheese and baking for 10 minutes until the cheese melts. Or zapping a few in a food processor with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt creates a beautiful (what a color!) and tasty sauce for any otherwise plain ingredient (fish or vegetables in particular).
We've added a link to the article and a recipe for seared tuna with sesame seeds and piquillo peppers from Spanish chef and author José Andrés that's one of my favorites.
New York Times Cooking
The Times has finally launched its new Cooking website section, which had been in beta testing for most of the past year. It's also released a companion app (available at iTunes), which at this point is only for iPads and not phones, something I hope they soon amend as it would be great to be able to be in a market and phone-check an ingredient list.
That shortcoming aside, I think The Times has created something terrific. Its navigation is sleek, it's got the whole Times recipe archive, the photography is both gorgeous and useful (you see the actual dish, not some art directed close-up of a wooden spoon), they offer up thematic recipe collections, and there are links back to related articles and when available, videos. You can create and organize your own recipe box and can search and sort by any number of preferences, including your favorite Times food writers (I'm partial to Sam Sifton and Martha Rose Shulman).
If you sign up for their newsletter, you'll hear from them just often enough. Like on Monday morning when we're facing a week of making supper, and on Fridays when weekend time in the kitchen can be more fun.
If you haven't yet taken a look, please do.
Speaking of The Times, a few weeks ago Sam Sifton wrote about Buvette, a new cookbook from the chef of a tiny and hugely popular NYC restaurant by the same name. Chef and author Jody Williams, who has also opened a Paris branch called Buvette, has produced what some might complain as who-needs-another French cookbook.
There are things about Williams's book that don't work. First, she uses a ghostwriter and I am of the mind that if someone is going to do a cookbook, I want to hear from THEM, not someone else who is approximating the author's voice. I've never met Ms. Williams but the text of this book rings inauthentic as I just don't think someone who cooks as she does would write in such a slick way. Second, the book is annoyingly precious; Ms. Williams is only photographed in profile (both sides so I don't think she's hiding anything) and the recipe organization is unconventional -- it's by time of day, making it really difficult to find anything (there's no recipe list anywhere in the book). Third, there are too many high-handed pronouncements, like you must squeeze your lemons for fresh juice right at the moment you'll add it to the recipe and not a moment before (give me a break; I don't have a sous chef in my city kitchen). And there's an elite mandate to use all organic and local ingredients, without acknowledging their cost or availability (you do not need fancy ingredients to cook well). And there are far too many of those art directed still life photos that only add decoration and no information. People -- this is a cookbook! Don't make it so hard to use!
So why even mention this book? I bring Buvette to your attention for the food, which is superb.
After you ignore the over-production and get to the actual recipes, you will find a pitch perfect palate and recipes, any number of which can, and should, become part of your regular repertoire. Many are simple in method but big in flavor; others are French classics; still more are modern takes on the way we want to cook and eat today, featuring eggs and vegetables and fish in irresistible ways. For me that includes Radicchio with Pine Nuts, Currants, and Aged Balsamic (forgive me but I must say OMG), Scallops with Brown Butter and Capers, and a recipe that Sam Sifton included with his Times piece, Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Pecorino and Walnuts. If you don't yet own a mandolin or slicer, this revolutionary recipe alone is worth the purchase. I am already planning her versions of Cassoulet and Choucroute Garnie once the temperature settles below 60 degrees.
Cookbooks are ephemeral. Great home cooking, like Jody Williams's, is not.
I leave you on a mixed note. The drought in California is not getting any better and as you probably know, when our local growing season ends, a huge amount of our produce, not to mention wine, comes from there. Have you bought a lemon lately? Expect to see food prices continue to rise.
But with a tilt back toward the pleasures of cooking, a change in season is always inspiring. So we give up raw tomato salads and return to satisfying soups, long cooked braises, and roasts -- whether it's a roast chicken or one of my new favorites, a roasted whole head of cauliflower. Happy autumn cooking!