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 receive New York Times Food Editor Sam Sifton's regular emails about what we all can be cooking (e.g.,"5 Recipes to Cook Right Now" or "10 Recipes for the Week"), you may, like me, wonder how the guy can be so darn enthusiastic all the time. I mean, I'm a resolute prefer-to-cook-at-home-everyday kind of girl and even I get days when the thought of turning on a kettle even for a cup of tea is just plain annoying and I'm digging out the take-out menu for my favorite sushi place. But Mr. Sifton is our inexhaustible cheerleader and when I see his emails arrive, I click on them sooner rather than later, knowing I want his push as much as his recipes. He's also writes his sometimes hilarious, tilted-male advice columns, Hey Mr. Food Editor, which include no-apology tips like how to make perfect ramen that add the flavor packet and slices of American cheese. Alrighty then.
But the actual reason I bring up Mr. Sifton is for something he recently wrote that proffered wisdom for any new or tentative home cook:
"Cooking is -- or ought to be -- a practice, no different from yoga, video games or playing the piano. It is an exercise that favors repetition, as anyone who makes pancakes or omelets can tell you."
If you manage to cook something new and the very first time it comes out great, be happy. Feel lucky. Because for most of us it doesn't. It might be okay, it might be good enough, it might be awful. But if you believe in the dish's promise and your ambition, please make it again. Most home cooks haven't spent time in restaurant kitchens so you might not know that your perfect steak from your favorite steakhouse is always superb because one guy stands at the grill station all night long flipping steaks. He's in complete control so that the steak you get is as good as the one he did before, and the one he'll do after.
I taught myself how to make pies and tarts by spending Sunday afternoons doing re-dos of pie dough. I had no food processor, a cheap metal rolling pin, and only the corner of a tiny table as my sole workspace. The failed dough often ended up angrily thrown against the wall of my stamp-sized kitchen. I would then take a walk around the block of my Boston neighborhood, smoke a cigarette (this was a long time ago), come back to my apartment to scrape the dough off the wall, and try again. I wince to think of those afternoons but eventually my resolve began to produce great pies.
Maybe you grew up with your dad making breakfast every Sunday morning. Perhaps it was the only thing he knew how to cook, but he was an egg virtuoso. Again, it was the weekly repetition, and a bit of love for anything your dad would make.
My point is, listen to Mr. Sifton and practice. Do your kitchen version of Czerny exercises. And like giving power to your left-handed trills, your cooking will improve and you will be a master.
Summer Food Travels
Are you taking a summer trip somewhere wonderful and hoping for some food adventures? Whether you speak the local language or not, getting acquainted with local gastronomy can be a challenge, even a risk. Trip Advisor may give you some tips for choosing restaurants, but if you want to really get close to food and culture, you'll need some help.
The folks at Culinary Backstreets proclaim "the stomach as the best compass." I first met them in Istanbul where my husband and I took two of their walk-and-eat food tours. I cannot overstate how superb these tours were -- fun, surprising, in-depth, and of course, delicious in a way that can make you dizzy from the unfamiliar flavors. Not to overstate how rich the experience can be, but on one of these tours I ate the best thing I've ever eaten in my life: an explosively seasoned kebab sandwich, cooked on a sword-like skewer over a shallow bin of wood embers implanted in the window of a tiny street food cookery. It was one of those palate-changing moments I never would have had without the local handholding. We took the tours early in our visit, which turned out to be the best possible introduction to the neighborhoods, people, history, and flavors of this exotic and exceptional city.
Culinary Backstreets now operates tours around the world and are in Athens, Rio, Shanghai, Tbilisi, Delhi, Cape Town, and more and more. Tours are in English and many of the guides are Americans, often graduate students who share your appetite for the delights and discoveries of an unfamiliar place.
If you're taking advantage of an improved Euro exchange rate and heading to Paris, I can also recommend Paris By Mouth. I've relied on them for grocery sources, markets, and restaurants with very good results. I have not taken any of their food tours but they've been recommended to me by folks who have.
Staying with Paris, please also pay a visit to the blog written by a friend of mine, Bob Levine, who lives the dream of having a part-time home in the City of Lights. Because Bob is also a New Yorker and a very practiced and adventuresome home cook, BobbyJayOnFood isn't only about his lucky-duck experiences in Paris. But there are many Paris food tips, especially restaurant reviews, throughout the blog so dig through his archive.
Food News and Trends
- The drought in California continues to cast a pall on future food prices. A stunning percentage of our fruits, vegetables and nuts come from the state, especially for those of us who live in colder climates and can't grown our own year-round. For example, ninety percent of our broccoli, 95 percent of our garlic, 69 percent of our carrots and a full 99 percent of our walnuts. A lot of people are trying to figure out the solution and we know that even when this drought ends, the longer-term water challenges will remain. For now, continue to expect rising prices, especially for walnuts and almonds.
- Also look for the price of eggs to rise, as much as 40 percent in some areas, with some places so hard hit that egg rationing has begun. The avian flu has hit egg producers hard, impacting 36 million hens, a loss of about 12 percent of the U.S. egg production capacity. Specialty News, a trade publication, recently quoted Maro Ibarburu, a business analyst at Iowa State University’s Egg Industry Center, as saying that this outbreak has caused "perhaps the largest short-term change the U.S. egg market has ever experienced." It will not only create problems for manufacturers who use eggs as a key ingredient, and raise prices for consumers, but it will take time for farmers to rebuild their lost egg-laying capacity. Remember, too, that since eggs are used in various processed foods (think mayonnaise) and baked goods, those are likely to cost more, too. As is breakfast, whether cooked at home or eaten out.
- Folks in parts of Brooklyn recently got excited to hear that a Wegmans supermarket is coming to their borough in 2017, but big market growth seems to be going against the trend. Nielsen reported that in the last year, smaller markets grew at more than twice the rate of large supermarkets and hypermarkets. The big markets still represent 80 percent of sales, but our increasing preference for smaller markets and simpler shopping experiences -- what Nielsen called "proximity retailing" -- is making an impact.
- I'm not a major fan of Swiss cheese so maybe those of you who are already know this, but the mystery of disappearing holes in Emmentaler and Appenzeller has been solved. The Associated Press reported that researchers at a Swiss agricultural institute discovered that the holes are created by "microscopically small hay particles" that form the holes when milk matures into cheese. But because our dairies are now cleaner, more industrialized and more automated than they used to be, the errant hay specks -- and the holes -- have been disappearing. Not to be outsmarted by tiny hay specks, researchers have learned how to regulate the number of holes in the cheese by adding different amounts of hay dust to the milk. So a little controlled dirtying is all that is needed. Even The New Yorker has been intrigued by the disappearing holes and you can read more on the subject from them here.
How To Peel A Head Of Garlic In Less Than 10 Seconds
More than once I have dismissed making the classic Chicken With 40 Cloves of Garlic simply because I didn't want the task of having to peel all those cloves. And I never would buy the ones already peeled. Why? Well, who peeled them? And when? And what did the garlic look like before it was peeled? Do they even taste like garlic any more? Et cetera, et cetera.
Many of my favorite recipe writers have versions of this French Provencal dish, including Julia Child, James Beard, Ina Garten and David Lebovitz. But none of these recipes offer shortcuts for peeling those 40 cloves. Finally, here's some help. From the folks at Saveur Magazine is a nifty video that shows how to peel a whole head of garlic in less than 10 seconds. Yes, you have to wash two metal bowls when you're done, but that's no more work than the mess you'd make of a cutting board and knife or two by peeling forty cloves by hand.
- If you are a regular gift-giver and do special wrappings so that the presentation counts as much as the gift, you might like Spoonflower, an online paper merchant. It produces custom wrapping paper (and wallpaper and other paper items) that can be from your design or one of the many witty and charming designs they already have. There is a large section of papers with images of food with not only the usual sweet berries and cute carrots, but also images of bacon, raw meat, mac and cheese, and toast.
- If you have a small kitchen and are thinking about doing a renovation, this collection of ideas and images from Houzz may inspire you. While I take issue with what in several instances they call "small," there are still some very clever ideas about storage and seating.
Finally, two recipes that are on my list for summer cooking. First up is a perfect meal for summer on a hot summer night from Fine Cooking. This Chopped Grilled Chicken Salad can be made even easier, and without a grill or turning on the stove, by using a store-bought rotisserie chicken and frozen grilled corn from Whole Foods.
And when local plums arrive at your farmer's market, make this Plum Frangipane Tart from the folks at Livin' The Pie Life. As they say, "fancy name, simple tart," and if you're afraid of pie dough, you can make it even simpler by buying a ready-made frozen crust, although please try to use a tart pan because it will not only look so much prettier, the depth of the tart pan will also help the frangipane puff up more successfully around the plums. The flavor combination of the sweet almond frangipane and the musky plums is summer perfection.
You could make them both for a special supper on a hot summer's night. Add a good loaf of bread, two or three farmhouse cheeses, and glasses of whatever cold beverage is your favorite. A chilled rosé would be nice. If you're lucky enough to be able to eat outdoors, kick off your shoes, feel the grass beneath your feet, and count the stars.
Happy July 4th.