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.
My husband and I just got back from a trip to Spain's Basque region, also known as the Basque Country, or Pays Basque if you cross into France. This Spanish/French region abuts the Atlantic Ocean and the western Pyrenees, and its green and lush landscapes contain temperate microclimates that produce products like the soft but piquant red pepper known as Piment D'Espelette, named for a tiny French Basque town about 30 minutes from Biarritz.
The region's two best-known cities are Bilbao, home to the Guggenheim Museum, and San Sebastián -- or Donostia as it's known in Basque -- which has three beaches, a major film festival, and more Michelin three-star restaurants per square meter than anywhere else in Europe. The Basque take enormous pride in their gastronomy and while some of the food is very simple, there are also the often perilously structured pinxtos (pronounced "pinch-os"), which are large and complex tapas. Plus there are all those Michelin-starred restaurants like Arzac, which are primarily in the style of chef Ferran Adrià's disruptive molecular gastronomic el Bulli, which closed six years ago.
Whether simple or three-starred, the cuisine is dominated by local ingredients, especially cod -- both fresh and salted, octopus, hake, sardines, anchovies, tuna packed in oil, Serrano ham, beef, mushrooms, apples, cider, peppers, and idiazabal, a salty sheep's milk cheese.
I took a fancy to the best-known pintxo called "Gilda," named for the 1946 film and its bold and independent character played by Rita Hayworth. A Gilda combines two green olives, an anchovy, and a guindilla, a mild green pepper, all on a large toothpick-like skewer, which in Basque is called a pintxo, and thus became the name of the whole snack category.
When we travel I always hope to bring back some new flavors or inspiration for my cooking. My Basque souvenirs included jars of Piment D'Espelette for myself and for gifts, plus some tins of Ventresca de Bonito de Norte which is the belly of line-caught tuna, prized as the most tender and tastiest part of the tuna. Packed in olive oil, this is the kind of tuna to reserve for a Salade Nicoise or to include in a summer pasta (as opposed to mixing with mayo and celery for a sandwich although I supposed you could do that and have the best ever tuna salad sandwich).
In general it's become easier to buy Spanish ingredients in the U.S., including jars of guindillas, available at La Tienda, Donostia Foods, Amazon, and in NYC at Despaña which has both an online shop and stores in SoHo and Queens, plus Princeton, NJ.
If you are planning a visit to anywhere in Basque Country and want to go deeper than the guide books, I highly recommend you engage Basque guide Aitor Delgado who gives custom tours throughout the region. We wanted a four-hour introduction to San Sebastián and Basque culture, including a pintxos crawl in the old town, but Aitor can equally design a tour for larger groups and for anywhere in Basque Country.
AI For Dinner
Good news for all you Instagram fans. Some of the many smart people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an artificial intelligence, or AI, system called Pic2Recipe that can look at a food photo, cull its ingredients, and then find you a recipe from a one million+ recipe database called Recipe 1M. It means we may soon be able to completely skip search engines and go direct from photos to our dinner plates.
This invention may end up being useful when we want to figure out what's in our food without the help of a nutritionist, or to replicate a restaurant meal in our own kitchens. Here's a link to more details about the new system in MIT News.
This article includes an online demo, which I tried with two recent photos from The City Cook, one for Salade Nicoise and the other for a classic cherry pie. The system had no response to the salad photo but it came up with five recipes for the pie. It doesn't look like the database includes master recipes like those by Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, or James Beard, maybe because their cookbooks don't have photos. Still, it's an impressive breakthrough and it merits watching.
What Am I Cooking
Summer may be the best time for ingredients but the heat -- jeez, who wants to cook? So I'm on my usual summer repertoire -- lots of salads, broiled or pan grilled fish and meats, simply cooked platters of vegetables with little more than a slick of olive oil or vinaigrette, bread instead of cooked rice or pasta, burratas with everything, charcuterie platters, and for dessert, bowls of sliced peaches or fat red cherries, both of which have been excellent this year. Soon I'll be adding tomatoes to the mix as field tomatoes are just arriving now in the NY area.
Our trip to Basque Country pulled me back to José Pizarro's wonderful cookbook, Basque: Spanish Recipes From San Sebastian and Beyond, and since we've been home I've returned to his salad of charred baby romaine (cut the heads in half top to bottom, brush with olive oil, and lay cut-side down in a hot grill pan until the edges blacken) topped with slices of piquillo peppers (the jarred kind with no cooking needed, just drain and slice them thin), a crumble of blue cheese, a few good anchovies, and a drizzle of olive oil. I've served this with pan cooked pork chops (on the bone, seasoned with only salt and pepper -- Espelette if you have it), and cooked in a hot cast iron pan for 2 to 3 minutes a side until medium or medium rare.
And new for me -- I've just made my first fresh pasta. I had a birthday not long ago and my sweet husband gave me the 3-piece KitchenAid pasta attachment as my gift (I've wanted it forever). My ambition is to master making ravioli so that I can fill them with things like puréed beets and goat cheese or shredded brisket. But to start, I used David Tanis's pasta dough recipe in The Times to make fettuccine. Not a bad beginning and I'll continue to report.
Fancy Food Show
If it's July in New York City it's the Fancy Food Show, the gigantic trade show held each year by the Specialty Food Association at NYC's Javits Center. This year had more than 3,500 exhibitors from around the world showcasing their wares to grocers, retail stores, restaurants, caterers, school food services, and others who are in the wholesale market for food products -- meaning just about everything except fresh produce, meat and fish.
It took me about six hours to walk the show and it's always amazing to see the range of foods that Americans eat, keeping in mind that specialty foods make up a $127 billion industry. A few things stood out. First, gluten-free/No GMOs/organic are all now absolutely mainstream and it's clear that we're trying to eat healthier but still want our treats. Next, there was coconut in everything: beverages, snacks, sauces, chutneys, crackers, and others; the only way I like coconut is in pie or a piña colada so this didn't pull me.
I saw lots of pickles and other fermented foods, fewer jams and jellies, lots of jerky, more snacks that combine chocolate with other ingredients such as chocolate-coated potato chips or from Biena, excellent chocolate-glazed chickpeas (see our article). There were many salts -- pink, sea, gray, smoked, and flavored -- and there was a notable rise in unusually flavored soft drinks, a number of which tilted more savory than sweet. And contrary to the beliefs of the current occupant of the White House, there is a growing globalism in the flavors, ingredients, and marketing of all types of food, especially snacks.
I left the show with a short list of appealing new products including an excellent new bouillon cube called Bou, a new and really well balanced peri peri spice mix, those Biena chocolate-covered chickpeas, a line of outstanding small batch organic sauces and pestos from a company in Barcelona, and due in stores this autumn -- from Gaea, the excellent Greek olive producer: Dirty Martini Juice. Developed in association with the Bartender's Association of Athens (Greece), it comes in two versions, -- for vodka martinis, it's made with brine, hot red pepper, and sweet pepper, and for gin martinis, with brine and coriander. More details to come once the product ships so I'll be able to tell you where to buy it.
Have you ever made a recipe that called for kosher salt, only to substitute regular table or sea salt and then over-salting the finished dish? That's because the smaller the crystal the more volume it has so if you use the same measuring spoon, you won't get the same amount: a teaspoon of one is not equal to a teaspoon of another. To make it even more complicated, not all kosher salt brands have the same size crystals.
Kosher salt became popular in cookbooks when chefs started to have more of an influence in our recipes. That's because professional kitchens use kosher salt. Why? Based on what I learned in culinary school, kosher salt -- which has larger crystals and is clean and without caking agents or any other additives -- is easier to grab so you can use your fingertips instead of using a spoon. It's common to see a recipe written for a professional kitchen call for a two-finger pinch, or a three-finger pinch of salt (three fingers grab more grains than two fingers) for a dish. Pinching from a dish of kosher salt is faster than spoon-measuring and professional kitchens need speed. Please don't ask me what happens when cooks have different-sized fingers; maybe restaurant kitchens only hire cooks with the same size hands.
From a flavor perspective, kosher salt is not better. Or worse. What matters is to use good salt -- meaning sea salt or another made in nature, not in a chemistry lab. And without iodine or any other additives. It can be as fine as powder or as coarse as a large piece chipped off a block of Himalayan salt -- what matters is its quality, its clean flavor, and your control of its quantity.
In general, I don't use kosher salt. I find that fine sea salt is more versatile and easier to control -- I can use it to season vinaigrettes and sauces, add to water for cooking vegetables or pasta, in baking, and on the surface of fish, meat or poultry. I know it's not as easy to pick up by hand as kosher salt, but it's easier to sprinkle evenly and if I need to be precise, I just use a measuring spoon. Moreover, kosher salt comes in big boxes which I don't have room for, is trickier to use in certain cooking -- in my experience kosher salt simply doesn't dissolve or distribute as efficiently as table salt -- and if I'm going to have to buy and store more than one kind of salt, I'd rather choose a flaky sea salt, e.g., Maldon's, which I love on chops and steaks, and sel de guerande which is heavenly for finishing a dish. The one exception is on those rare occasions when I roast a whole fish in a salt crust. For this I absolutely buy a big box of Diamond Crystal kosher salt but I use the whole box with a single fish so there's no storage to fuss about.
In a recent issue of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Magazine, there was a handy chart about salt equivalencies by volume:
- Table salt: 1 teaspoon
- Fine sea salt: 1 heaping teaspoon
- Morton coarse kosher salt: 1 heaping teaspoon
- Diamond Crystal kosher salt: 2 teaspoons
- Flaky sea salt, e.g., Maldon: 2 1/2 teaspoons
If in doubt, use less, add more gradually, and taste as you go.
Cleaning Your Spice Grinder
If like me you use a Krups single-button grinder to grind spices (and another one to grind coffee), you know it can be difficult to clean. But there was a handy tip rather buried in a caption in the July issue of Food & Wine: run raw rice through it to clean it and prevent flavor buildup. Add a couple of tablespoons to the grinder, give it a few pulses, and brush out all the debris with a clean, dry pastry brush. Perfect.
Booming Meal Kit Industry
The meal kit market has grown to $5 billion in annual sales according to a new report by consumer market research firm Packaged Facts which went as far as calling the emerging industry a "disruptive force." Despite its recent IPO being a disappointment, Blue Apron is the industry leader with 17 percent market share with Freshology, Green Chef, Hello Chef and Home Bistro joining the top five. Adding to the prospects of continued growth, Amazon is making moves into this market (it recently trademarked the phrase, “We do the prep. You be the chef.”) and its plan to acquire Whole Foods makes for compelling synergies.
The report also found that customers are loyal, sticking with the company they first signed up with, and that saving time is why they use the kits. Not surprisingly, younger consumers -- both millennials and Gen Z -- are key to future growth as signs point to these generations showing a greater interest in learning how to cook at home, even if it's with a kit.
New Butcher on UWS
Hudson & Charles has opened its second outpost on Manhattan's Upper West Side, at 555 Amsterdam Avenue at W. 87th Street. The butcher shop, known for its locally sourced grass fed meats, has its flagship in the West Village at Hudson and Charles Streets (thus its name) and in 2015 was named the city's best butcher by The Village Voice.
Whole Foods Opens New Harlem Store
NYC's latest Whole Foods has opened at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. With 39,000 square feet, the store is featuring more than 100 local products, including some prepared by businesses in the Hot Bread Kitchen Incubator, such as The Harlem Pie Man, plus a Cuban coffee walk-up window and even better -- a Cuban sandwich counter. Here's more information about the new store.
Changes at Food & Wine
In case you missed it, there are changes going on at Food & Wine. Owned by Time, Inc., the magazine is closing its NYC operation and moving south to Alabama and its editor, Nilou Motamed, who has been in the job for little more than a year, is leaving its helm. Here are more details from an article in The Times.
I think the move is provocative, not because I think great things can only be done in New York, because I don't. But creative businesses need easy access to stimulation and creative people, and it's short-sighted to think that technology can bridge all distances and make any place a magnet. I've liked the changes and voices that Ms. Motamed has brought to the magazine after Dana Cowin's 20-year tenure. I thought her February 2017 issue that focused on healthy eating was superb in how she captured, elevated, and serviced the ambition of home cooks who want to cook imaginatively and eat better. After wanting to rip out about half its pages, I decided to just keep the whole glorious issue. It reminded me of how I saved the last Thanksgiving issue of Gourmet, just a few months before Condé Nast abruptly shuttered it in 2009.
I understand the money case made for the move to Birmingham, just as I knew the arguments when Condé Nast put its chips on Bon Appétit instead of Gourmet. But I think it’s a failure of management, and a failure of vision and nimbleness, when publishers shunt aside both talented staffs and devoted readers, only to throw their hands up and blame market trends. It's not as if change, new technology, and new competition aren't always in the road ahead. American economic history has shown that the easy choice of moving an industry to a cheaper labor market may buy time but it's never the solution because you will always be eying a lower paycheck somewhere else.
But we need and want cooking and wine media that inspire us with editorial prowess instead of simply being huge reader-generated recipe databases or celebrity-stoked click bait. So let's wish them luck.
Stay cool and enjoy the best of summer cooking and eating. New Jersey tomatoes have just arrived!