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.
The English novelist Anita Brookner is a favorite author of mine. I had a devotion to her work for decades, reading each book immediately as it was published, and then hovering until the next. While some critics faulted her for being bleak, I loved the private emotional complexity and humanity of her characters. Her death earlier this year deeply saddened me not only because I felt an intimacy with her but also because I knew there would be no more of her rare insights into our interior lives. But when I read her obituary, I happily discovered I would have one more union with Ms. Brookner: It seemed that I had never read her first of 24 novels -- A Start In Life.
I bought a paperback at Amazon, paying only 99 cents for its shipping. The book itself was free. I welcomed the bargain but I was already feeling like I had won a prize.
So what does this have to do with cooking? As with other authors, Brookner would use food as a shorthand for class or mood or conviviality or loneliness. In A Start In Life, she wrote of a man whose domestic life had disappeared and whose loneliness was most profoundly felt at dinnertime, when he dined alone in small restaurants.
"He longed, with a fierceness that surprised him, to sit down at a decent table and have someone serve his food. He longed to eat a meal without knowing in advance what it was."
I thought this plaintive statement of longing conveyed a profound understanding of the feeling that many of us have when others cook for us. When we happily take a place at the table and ask, "what's for dinner," caring less about the answer and more for the kindness. Or love. I believe many of us cook not only for economy or nutrition but also the intimate communion of the table, absent the loneliness of the menu that makes us order food without ever knowing the person who would prepare it, nor they us.
Cooking is about so much more than what we eat.
The Continuing Disruption of Grocery Shopping
Today's grocery industry is like every other business sector: it's being disrupted, a bit de-stabilized, and transformed. The causes are not surprising: technology, demographic impacts (e.g., millennials), and the food/eating/cooking revolution of the past ten or so years. Still, it's stunning to me how grocery markets have changed just within the last decade, with more changes pending.
Here is a recent article from Bloomberg Business that does a good job of laying out what's going on, at least at Whole Foods and its new "365" stores.
Also in the short-term, and close to home for those of us in New York City, Fairway Group Holdings has won approval for a reorganization plan and is expected to emerge from bankruptcy as early as this week. Good news for folks in Brooklyn's Bergen Beach neighborhood is that Fairway is still on schedule to open a new store there on Ralph Avenue late this year. Here is Fairway's press release about their reorganization plan.
The City Cook already has an article in its archive about some of the more popular spice mixes from cuisines around the world. If you're not practiced at making and using spice mixes, it's easy and something to try because as cooks have known for millennia, you can use simple and inexpensive ingredients and basic cooking methods like roasting or braising (think of a chicken tagine) and add a fragrant and flavorful mix of spices to create something with extraordinary flavor.
While some of the mixes may seem almost identical, in fact the change of one or two spices can make a big flavor difference. As examples, here are two that are outstanding: Chermoula Spice and Lebanese Spice Mix (sometimes called Shawarma).
I discovered Chermoula Spice in City Harvest: 100 Recipes From Great New York Restaurants. It was published last year and I cook from it happily and often. The Chermoula spice mix is a North African dry blend that can be combined with fresh aromatics like garlic, parsley, onion and lemon. Rub it on roast chicken or fish, or add it to vegetables, when grilling or making kebabs, or to season a yogurt dip. There are probably as many versions of this mix as there are cooks in Morocco. In the City Harvest cookbook, the mix is used in a recipe for Chermoula-Rubbed Chicken With Couscous Salad.
Makes about 2 tablespoons. Mix the following spices together:
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
Pinch of mace
The Lebanese Spice Mix is similar but different. I found it in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in a banquet by chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi that included a recipe for Lamb Shawarma. Ottolenghi slow-roasted a leg of lamb seasoned with a blend of 11 spices that author Sam Sifton called a Lebanese spice mix but I'm certain that there are versions from nearly every family not just in Lebanon but also in Syria, Jordan, and throughout the region.
I made the lamb last weekend and it was outstanding, partly because of the roasting technique, but primarily because of this spice blend -- an absolute flavor bomb -- that Ottolenghi turned into a marinade. It was perfection with the lamb but you could equally use this blend with poultry, in salads like tabbouleh, with lentils, and on cooked vegetables.
You'll find Ottolenghi's Lebanese Spice Mix in this recipe for Jerusalem Lamb Shawarma.
The Katerings Show
If like me, you think that some of the food world's self-reverence is actually rather silly, you might enjoy watching some episodes of The Katerings Show. It's a hilarious send-up by two Australians -- "intolerable foodie, Kate McLennan, and her food intolerant friend, Kate McCartney." Many things culinary are an easy target for send-up, including food trucks, paleo, drinking out of jars, kombucha, costly gadgets, quitting sugar, raw food, and more. The list of food trends is long, which can sometimes make food magazines and blogs a bit precious, but in the hands of The Katerings, it's a riot.
The humor is refreshingly Australian, a bit goofy at times, and there's a generous amount of profanity, just in case that is not to your liking.
The show can be seen on various channels but the easiest way to watch is on YouTube. Here's the link.
Chris Kimball Launches Milk Street Kitchen
You've probably read that Chris Kimball, founder of America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Illustrated Magazine, and Cook's Country Magazine and television program, has announced his next venture -- Milk Street Kitchen. If you missed it, here are the details as reported by The New York Times.
I've always been a fan of both Chris and the ATK cookbooks (just last weekend I made an ATK's Caesar salad from The America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook, a recipe that I maintain is the best version of any I've ever made or eaten). Plus, maybe because I am a New England native, I appreciate his wit and sensibility. I also respect how he and his various media have taught millions of home cooks how to be competent and brave in the kitchen. As for what's next, in anyone else's hands his new concept about global flavors and cooking may seem either late or shallow. But Chris Kimball is both smart and thoughtful and he's spent more than thirty years talking to home cooks and eating.
I'm betting we're in for something exciting.
Food Industry News
- Good news for beef eaters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting that the price of beef will drop up to two percent in 2016 with ground beef prices hitting the lowest level in two years. The reason? Production is up for the first time since 2010 due to bumper grain crops reducing feeding costs and a rainy spring creating the best pasture conditions in six years.
- Another piece of good news: an egg shortage caused by an avian flu scare that spiked prices this past year, has ended. Prices are back down from their record high last August and are now returning to normal and even reaching five-year lows.
- Despite our healthy eating goals, candy sales are growing. Nielsen has reported that candy sales are up, with U.S. consumers spending $21.5 billion on candy in the year that ended April 30, 2016. It's not all from Halloween and Easter, although the consumption is highest among families with children. Chocolate is still the best seller, but non-chocolate candy is close behind and rising faster (up 4.7 percent) than chocolate (up 2 percent).
- Crain's Business reports that the owner of the popular and at times excruciatingly crowded Chelsea Market in Manhattan has plans to double the market's size. The expansion will be on the market's lower floor. It's already under renovation, adding 80,000 square feet of retail space and a restaurant. The expansion will take place over the coming five years, during which time the a tower will also be built on top, adding 300,000 square feet of new office space. Presumably occupied by lots of new customers.
Summertime Easy Cooking
Most of us cook differently in the summer than the rest of the year. It's not just to keep the oven off. Somehow those roasted and braised foods don't taste as satisfying as ones that are broiled, grilled or raw. But simple food doesn’t have to be plain.
With this in mind, I recently came across a recipe in Food & Wine magazine for Charred Lemon Salsa, which was superb with broiled swordfish. It made a simple piece of fish something very special.
It's a snap to make and the flavor of fresh herbs with the charred lemon elevated the fish's flavor to something good enough for company. I also love the texture from the finely minced celery and shallots. You can make the salsa an hour or so in advance but leave it at room temperature as a chill would dull its flavors. The lemony salsa is also nice with rice or orzo served as a side dish.
The original recipe used dried herbs but I made mine with fresh. This salsa would also be a good match to chicken, any other fish, or steamed or roasted vegetables.
Grilled Lemon Salsa. Adapted from Food & Wine
Makes about 1 cup.
1 large lemon, preferably thin skinned, very thinly sliced and seeded
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for brushing
1 medium celery rib, finely minced
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon each -- finely minced rosemary, thyme, and oregano (although you can use any of your favorite fresh herbs)
Generous pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper
- Heat a grill pan until it's very hot (I used the same grill pan that I then used to broil my swordfish).
- Lightly brush the lemon slices with olive oil and grill in a single layer over moderate high heat, turning occasionally, until the slices are lightly charred and the rind is soft. About 5 minutes.
- Remove the slices from the heat and when cool, finely chop. Try to chop on a board that lets you capture any remaining juices.
- In a small bowl combine the chopped lemon slices with the other ingredients. Stir again before serving.
(Cooking method learned from Fish Without A Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore, my favorite seafood cookbook.)
Swordfish steak, preferably in a single piece and about 1 to 1 1/4 inch thick, with the skin left on.
Paprika (hot or sweet but not smoked which can be too strongly flavored on the mild fish)
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
- Place a cast iron grill pan under your broiler and preheat for about 10 minutes until the pan is blazing hot.
- Lightly salt the swordfish on both sides.
- On the upper side, lightly sprinkle the paprika. Then cut the cold butter into chips and scatter over the top of the fish.
- When the grill pan is very hot, place the swordfish into the pan, butter side up.
- Cook for 5 1/2 minutes without turning the fish. The preheated grill pan will cook the underside and the broiler will cook the top. The fish will be medium, slightly pink in the center but fully cooked and juicy.
- Remove from the oven and remove the fish from the pan, otherwise it will continue to cook.
- If you prefer your swordfish more well-done, or if the steak is thicker than 1 1/4 inch, cook for 6 or 6 1/2 minutes.
- Serve immediately.
New Ideas For Fruit Desserts
Summer is also the best time of year for fruit desserts and if you're looking for ideas, take a look at a new cookbook by English cookbook author Annie Rigg called Summer Berries & Autumn Fruits. See our link our review and a recipe from the book for Plum Streuselkuchen.
I hope wherever you are that you're having a happy start to summer. Enjoy the gifts and flavors of fresh summer ingredients and the pleasures of sharing meals together.