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.
"Simple is the hardest thing to do."
I recently came upon this comment by Thomas Keller and thought it both astute and daring. I'm thinking Ellsworth Kelly, Bill Evans' solo recordings, an YSL le smoking, or the Pantheon. But in this case, Keller was actually referring with admiration to a friend's cooking (chef Larbi Dahrouch at Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico).
As it is for some of our best chefs, this challenge is also ours.
Many of us already strive to cook and eat this way, at least when the seasons let us. It's certainly not a coincidence that I do my more elaborate cooking during the winter months, when in-season ingredients are few. This is when I make my most complex daubes and desserts and when I'm also more inclined to fuss with a pan sauce or other add-on. But once the weather shifts and our farmers markets get going, our best and freshest ingredients let us turn simple cooking into a triumph. For you grillers out there, or folks who spend the month of August eating meals centered on raw tomatoes, you know exactly what I'm saying.
So it's happy news that spring is on its way and has already arrived in some parts of the country. Still, I thought it curious that two national cooking magazines just featured biscuits on the covers of spring issues -- both Saveur and Cook's Country (published by America's Test Kitchen). There is much to love about a well-made biscuit. Still, I had to get past the covers to find some inspiration because the magazines hit my mailbox just at the time -- which happens to me every March -- when the mere notion of comfort food is an immediate appetite killer. I am full-up of stews and gratins and no, I do not want a biscuit with clotted cream. Instead I'm craving unadorned dishes served at room temperature that have at least one raw element that isn't romaine lettuce. Gazpacho would be nice. Or little spring onions puréed into a pesto for steamed local baby beets.
That said, I've recently made a few new things that are keepers. Seeking some variation for breakfast, I've become the latest fan -- and there are many -- of Nekisia Davis's Olive Oil and Maple Granola. It's one of Food52's "genius" recipes and it also appears in the cookbook of the same name. While the recipe is near perfection, for my taste I reduced both the maple syrup (from 3/4 to 1/2 cup) and the brown sugar (from 1/2 cup to 2 tablespoons; don't leave it out entirely as the sugar helps the granola brown and crisp). For sheer luxury, I left the pecan halves whole. And don't leave out the salt! A generous portion of this exceptional granola scattered over a bowl of plain yogurt and some sliced strawberries and you will be happy all morning.
Another recipe that got a fervent "please make this again" from my husband is cod cakes, made with fresh cod, from The New York Times. I sometimes find that Sam Sifton's recipes need adjustments on technique but this one worked really successfully and I loved that it doesn't need the usual mashed potato to hold the cakes together. Instead, chilling the mix before cooking keeps it together. I upped the chill time from 30 to 60 minutes, then formed the cakes and briefly chilled them again, which really helped keep the cakes from falling apart. If you don't want to use cod, I think the recipe would work well with any other flaky fish, e.g., tilapia or salmon.
Old Dog. New Tricks. A better way to bake a sweet potato.
Who knew there could be a far better way to bake a potato? In this case, sweet potatoes.
Being an Irish girl, I do love my white potatoes, but being a New York woman I do my best to keep white carbs at bay. Still, sweet potatoes are a healthy favorite in my home. Forever I have roasted them at high heat for about 45 to 60 minutes, depending upon the size, then split the now paper-like skins open, add a dab of unsalted butter and grinds of black pepper.
A recent issue of Saveur, maybe the same one with biscuits on the cover, featured James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov. While he can be seen taking star turns for his crazy-popular Philadelphia restaurant Zahav and eponymous cookbook, in this article he hearkened back to his native Israel for inspiration and flavors. One of his wonderful recipes was a simple sweet potato topped with garlic labneh. More on labneh in a moment.
Here we have a good example of Thomas Keller's point about how simple doesn't mean easy. Solomonov turned my potato baking method upside down. Here's his way: first, rub the potatoes with oil and salt and pepper, and then roast them at a LOW temp of 275° F for about two-and-a-half hours until soft. The difference in texture and flavor is amazing. The skin stays firm, and the potatoes get sweeter, softer, and fluffy. Once slit open, some of the surface salt and pepper sneaks inside, although I think you'll find that the skin is too salty to eat.
This recipe is a reminder that once you commit to only buying good-to-great ingredients, technique -- even something as simple as how you bake a potato -- makes all the difference. It also makes Thomas Keller's point: that it doesn't take a lot of cost, trouble, or hardware to get the most flavor and satisfaction out of your cooking. Like much in life, have less but insist on quality.
Here's Solomonov's recipe. The original also called for dill seeds but I leave them out for no other reason than I typically don't have any on hand. He also briefly broils the finished potatoes but I found it overly charred them without adding to the flavor or texture.
4 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean and patted dry with a paper towel; trim off the tips if they're gnarly or hard to clean
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt (you can use 2 teaspoons kosher salt but I find the fine salt adheres better)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dill seeds (optional)
Preheat oven to 275° F.
Rub the sweet potatoes with the olive oil not to wet them but to moisten their surfaces. Add the salt and pepper, and the dill seeds if you're using them, to a large bowl. Working over the bowl, one by one rub the oiled sweet potatoes with the salt and pepper until completely coated. The oil will help the seasonings adhere.
Arrange the sweet potatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake until very soft, about 2 1/2 hours (more or less depending upon their size). Remove from the oven and let rest for about 10 minutes, then split open for serving.
While I haven't tried it yet, this slow roasting method should work equally well with white russet baking potatoes. Once I give it a try, I'll let you know, but these sweet potatoes are so wonderful it might be a while before I bake a white potato again.
Solomonov topped his roasted sweet potatoes with labneh, a creamy and faintly salty cheese made from yogurt, into which he grates a clove of garlic, then tops with snips of fresh chives. I found the garlic to be a bit overwhelming for the potatoes' sweet flavor so use a light hand when doing the grating as a little raw garlic can go a long way. The labneh, however, was an outstanding alternative to sour cream, a traditional topping to white baked potatoes. I think that labneh has more flavor than sour cream and a smoother texture and less sour-tang than Greek yogurt. It also contains a little salt, which makes a big flavor difference.
You can buy labneh, which is also called kefir cheese, at Middle Eastern and Israeli markets, at specialty shops like Zabar's, and at many urban grocers, including Manhattan's West Side Market. An easy-to-find brand in the New York area is Victor's, which at Zabar's costs $3.98 for a 16 oz. container.
In Brooklyn, the beloved Sahadi's on Atlantic Avenue sells their own house-made labneh, both plain and also with their own mix-ins like za'atar. It's not low-fat; two tablespoons is about 70 calories, 50 of which are from fat, but that's because it's made by slowly straining whole milk yogurt in cheesecloth or other fine fabric.
If you're interested in making your own labneh, which is not at all difficult to do, Maureen Abood's splendid cookbook, Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, has both instructions and lots of recipes that use labneh. David Lebovitz has also written instructions at his blog.
The esteemed chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi makes his with both goat and cow's milk yogurt and in this recipe tops it with olives, pistachios, and fresh oregano. (While at the site, take a look at Ottolenghi's other very appealing recipes.)
His labneh recipe would make a superb topping for the slow-roasted sweet potatoes. Or the first baby carrots found at our spring farmers markets. Or actually on just about anything.
- It may seem like the baby steps being taken to improve our food supply are always painstakingly slow, but progress is being made. This week it was announced by some of America's largest retailers, including Albersons and Kroger, that they will convert to 100 percent cage-free eggs in the next ten years. With U.S. egg sales totaling $7.3 billion last year, this is a very big deal that will make major shifts in the egg farming industry. Why not do it faster? Bloomberg has reported that changing the egg supply chain is a lengthy process and it can take up to ten years for farmers to establish a cage-free system. Some of it, however, should happen faster and with major grocers making some noise, perhaps it will.
- There is an intriguing new book about photos of food from around the world. It's by photographer Martin Parr, who has been taking photos of food for 25 years, long before today's photoshopped or iPhone pictures that make everyone a documentarian. Called Real Food, it's a show-me version of Brillat-Savarin's "tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are."
- Finally, whether we're celebrating cage-free eggs or the end of winter, demand for Champagne in the U.S. rose for the third consecutive year, increasing 6.6 percent from 2014 to 2015 and last year 312.5 million bottles of bubbly were sold around the world.
It doesn't seem like we need another reason to raise a glass, but I'm happy to toast the first weeks of spring. May they be a tonic for these complicated times.