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.
No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow. So says the proverb. Since it's become difficult to gauge exactly when that's going to happen, changing the foods we want to cook and eat is as good an indicator as any.
A few days ago I had a sheet pan filled with carrots. I was roasting them for a weeknight dinner to serve with a pan cooked duck breast that I was glazing with the last of a jar of blueberry hot pepper jelly I bought last summer in Maine. It was then that I knew that winter was over because by the time the carrots were in the 450º F oven for 20 minutes (with another 20 minutes to go because I like them charred on the edges), my kitchen was over-heated and I had all the windows open, craving a breeze. Does that mean no more roasted vegetables until October? Maybe.
Every year when the seasons turn, I am inevitably bored with my cooking. It's also when I confront a completely stuffed freezer, currently filled with strip steaks bought on sale in February and quarts of chicken stock I'd make whenever a snowstorm had been forecast. Seems it's time to food shop from the freezer, if for no other reason than to make room for summer treats, like fruit ice pops, and later in August, the tomato sauce I always make from NJ tomatoes.
But before then, I'm just trying to stay interested enough to make dinner. I'm sick of romaine and radicchio salads, stews, and the above-mentioned roasted vegetables, and I'm impatient for the Greenmarkets and CSAs to kick back into action. Maybe this is why cookbook publishers do their big releases in the spring and fall, knowing that's when those of us who cook often could really use some inspiration. More on new cookbooks in a moment.
First, a bit of politics. When there are seismic political events, everything gets affected, including food policies, making what we eat one more thing to add to the national indigestion. For example, the proposal to increase tariffs on European Union food imports as a punishment for its long-standing ban on hormone-treated American beef has re-surfaced. This could mean 100% tariffs placed on such items as Roquefort cheese, Spanish hams, and Perrier.
The first time tariffs were used by the U.S. in retribution for the beef ban was in 1999, but in 2009, the U.S. and EU signed a "memorandum of understanding" to eliminate the tariffs if the EU would create a duty-free quota for accepting non-hormone beef. But now the U.S. beef industry is saying that the EU hasn't fully complied and the Trump administration has vowed to take a tougher position on trade rules. The matter is now with the World Trade Organization.
Here's an article from Marketwatch.com with more detail. But if Roquefort is on your list of favorite things to eat (it's on mine), anticipate it becoming so expensive that most cheese mongers won't even carry it. So enjoy it while you can.
Are there more important things to be concerned about in our national turmoil than having to pay twice as much for an already expensive cheese because people who live in other parts of the world don't want to eat hormone-tainted beef? Of course there are. But it's a reminder of how a big industry (the beef industry) gets more influence over what we can eat depending upon who's sitting in which chair in Washington. We also need to remember that here in the U.S., we always must be very attentive to who is raising our food and what's in it because we don't want those hormones in our beef either.
- Speaking of what's in our food and where we get it, I was surprised to see the results of a recent Harris Poll that reported one in four adults had purchased a meal kit (from companies like Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Plated, etc.) last year and 70% of them are still actively buying them. The reason for the kit popularity was less surprising: the kits save time in meal planning, shopping and cooking and they'd be used even more if they cost less. Harris also found that consumers think that the kits are healthier than the prepared foods that grocers are increasingly offering (think about how much of Whole Foods' square footage is taken up by steam tables and salad bars) and two-thirds of Harris' respondents said that they eat seafood more often with a kit than with conventional grocery shopping and cooking (maybe we need more fish stores). So the trend continues.
- More food company mergers and acquisitions with Land O'Lakes purchasing Vermont Creamery. Vermont Creamery will remain as a brand and an independently operated subsidiary, including running their farms in Vermont.
- Coffee consumption continues to rise. Reuters recently reported that in 2017 62% of Americans are drinking it daily, which is up from 57% last year. The biggest jump is in what is called "gourmet coffee," with 24% of coffee drinkers having espresso-based drinks, e.g., cappuccino. This trend has no doubt helped provoke a new effort to offer good coffee at $1 a cup (what took them so long?!). See more in this NY Times article.
- I've written before about a favorite travel site, Culinary Backstreets, which showcases food tours in food-centric cities around the world. So I was delighted to recently see that these folks, who routinely feature places like Istanbul, Shanghai, and Naples, have added our own Queens, New York to their top roster. Many of us think that Queens has the best food in New York, certainly the best grocery and food shopping. And that it has a global kitchen. So if you're looking for a fun outing and either live in NYC or are coming here for a holiday -- take a walking food tour. Here's more information.
ATK's Essential Kitchen Tools
A recent issue of America's Test Kitchens' Cook's Illustrated magazine had an interesting list of what they call "must-have tools." They had compiled the list after "decades of testing taught us what every well-equipped kitchen should have." The list excludes knives and baking tools.
I agree with most of the 21 items, except for the bench scraper, which I don't own and have never missed, the garlic press (I threw mine away years ago; I prefer to make garlic paste with my chef's knife or grate it with my rasper); plus given how often I use mine, I'd quibble over the ladle being essential. I'd instead add to the list a large metal spoon instead of the ladle, wooden spoons, and a wooden reamer, which I use almost daily for fresh lemon or lime juice.
Here's their list. It's fun to compare it to what would be your "must-haves." And if you have a graduation or wedding shower coming up, a collection of these would make a great gift for the new home cook. Wrap them in a pretty dish towel.
- Bench scraper
- Can opener
- Coarse grater
- Dry measuring cups
- Garlic press
- Instant-read thermometer
- Kitchen shears
- Liquid measuring cup
- Measuring spoons
- Metal spatula
- Pepper mill
- Rasp grater
- Salad spinner
- Silicone spatula
- Vegetable peeler
If it's spring, it's time for new cookbooks. I've been receiving lots of them and when this happens, I'm always amazed at the variety and volume of new ones that are published every year.
The most exciting of the new ones is Sicily: The Cookbook by Melissa Muller. I'm going to write a separate feature on this book, which I've been cooking from in the past couple of weeks. I try not to use hyperbole, but I must say that this is one of the best new cookbooks in a long time. It is genuine, it is beautiful, and it is delicious. The book is rich with information about Sicily as a place, a culture, and a cuisine. The recipes are accessible and can integrate into real cooking without being a precious culinary postcard, as many country or region-specific cookbooks are.
It's new this month and if you love Italian and Mediterranean cuisines, if you've ever been lucky enough to visit and eat in Sicily (or want to), and if you're looking to make a leap in understanding its ingredients and flavor, it's worth a close look. I'll have more about the book, plus some sample recipes in the coming days.
Next is Egg Shop The Cookbook (William Morrow Cookbooks, hardcover, 338 pages, color photography, $35) by Nick Korbee, the chef and a partner in Egg Shop the NYC restaurant, which is located in the NoLiTa neighborhood. Known for its appealing food, long lines, and a celebrity veneer, Egg Shop built a culinary experience based entirely on eggs. Is this a gimmick? Not if you consider the diversity and flavor that chef Korbee has created at both the restaurant and in this hugely fun cookbook.
The egg is an excellent protein. It can be simple or complex to cook. It has wonderful flavor on its own and mixes irresistibly with other ingredients. And it works for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It's no wonder that Korbee came up with more than 100 terrific recipes.
There's advice, e.g., how to buy eggs (there is much to know). And technique, including how to practice flipping an egg or omelet in a skillet (impress your friends!), and how to make a beautiful Japanese omelet called Tamagoyaki: The Final Frontier, which comes with the quote, "Those who seek perfection from an egg will find only the depths of their own foolish human nature." So be warned.
There are recipes for both go-with-eggs things (sauces, breads, bacon, coffee) and others for foods made with eggs, such as 17 ham and eggs sandwiches, bowls, entrées, salads, and dishes like the California Breakfast Burrito, Eggs Caviar, and Pop's Double Stuffed, Double Fluffed American Omelet, which we've been given permission to publish. See our link.
This is a book for folks looking to eat eggs for protein instead of red meat, for family meals, for budget cooking, to entertain your friends, for breakfast lovers, or to enjoy by yourself on a rainy night when an egg and ham sandwich would be a perfect supper.
Another new cookbook that I really like is Perfect Plates In Five Ingredients (Kyle Books, hardcover, 208 pages, color photography, $29.95). When I first received it I didn't give it too much attention. The "five ingredient" approach has been used on and off for a number of years and I frankly thought it was an unnecessarily limited approach. So I put the book aside. But my husband picked it up and started scanning it and did something he does rarely: he brought the book to me with several pages marked and asked, "would you make these for me?"
Clearly I needed to take another look at John Whaite's new book, which I found (or rather, my husband found) is filled with appealing, flavorful ways to cook and eat. Whaite is the winner of The Great British Baking Show, and if you haven't seen it, it's a charming but rigorous test of a cook's ability, palate, and imagination. More than a baker, he's gone on to be hugely popular in the U.K., has a cooking school, and a big profile on British television.
Despite his celebrity, clearly the guy can cook. And he also seems to have an acute understanding of the home cook and the challenges we face -- of time, budget, and appetite. His introduction suggests that the five-ingredient angle wasn't his idea but he certainly has made it work, turning the ingredient limit (which doesn't include water, oil or butter, or salt and pepper) into the basis for creating appealing dishes that are not costly or prohibitively complex. He adroitly uses spices and single ingredients, like grapefruit marmalade to flavor and glaze pork belly; shows how to use simple technique over complexity, as with a Five-Hour Lamb With Potato Gratin in which potatoes line the bottom of the roasting pan and form a gratin as the garlic and anchovy-seasoned roast slowly cooks on top; and offers dishes that could be an everyday dinner, such as Cheeseburger Quesadillas, or else special for company, as with his Harissa Minute Steak Kebabs and Nutella Pudding with Caramelized Pretzels.
After spending time with Whaite's book I completely forgot the five-ingredient thing. Instead I came to regard it as the kind of recipe collection from which you could find a number of dishes that could become part of your personal repertoire -- affordable and simple to make and memorable for their flavor.
Here are two examples. Good enough for company is his Ginger and Lime Spatchcock Cornish Game Hens and for a family or potluck supper, Taleggio and Sausage Mac 'n' Cheese. See our links.
I'll leave you with two pieces I recently read that you may have missed. They are worth reading for completely different reasons.
The first makes an amusing case for the foolishness often found in today's restaurant world in this cheeky article by critic Jay Rayner in The Guardian.
And to bring you from our vanities and foibles to our true selves, by chef and writer Michael Ruhlman, whose work, and now his humanity, I so very much respect, is this heart-piercing essay about friendship, soup, loss, and love.
Happy spring, my friends. It's always worth the winter's wait.