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.
Talking about the weather is often just a way for strangers to have a conversation, but this summer has been a shared misery. It hasn’t been surprising to hear friends say that it’s been too hot to cook, but I don’t agree. Sure there are days when we’ll make adjustments, like using an Instapot instead of a three-hour low and slow oven roast of pork ribs if it’s over 90°F and you’ve got window air conditioners. But we need to eat and the summer is when we have the year's most inspiring ingredients.
Case in point, as I write this, it’s a mid-August afternoon and I’ve just put a sheet pan of huge red and orange peppers into a 400°F oven for 30 minutes to blister and char so to remove their skins and have them cooled and ready to toss with a little olive oil, red wine vinegar, and a crumble of French feta, to partner with a swordfish steak and a She Wolf baguette I bought this morning. Peppers are gloriously in season and if I waited until the sun was lower in the sky, they’d not be half as delicious as the ones we’ll have for dinner tonight.
So of course we cook.
In case that makes me sound a bit cocky, it doesn’t mean that my summer cooking choices are always wise. As when Bastille Day (July 14 for you non-Francophiles) was approaching and I decided to celebrate with a French dinner. My husband had bought a gorgeous Bordeaux, which set the menu’s direction to red meat. We don’t have steak that often but I wanted something worthy of the wine, so I splurged on a NY strip and decided to accompany it with Béarnaise sauce.
Béarnaise sauce is a “child” of Hollandaise sauce, one of the five French “mother” sauces. The other four are Béchamel, Espagnole, Velouté, and Tomate. And who anointed these five with motherhood? The tradition of sauces in classic French cuisine evolved over centuries, but it was Auguste Escoffier, the great chef and author, who narrowed the field to these five in 1903 in his still-influential book, Le Guide Culinaire.
Should you think that making one of the five mother sauces is old-fashioned cooking, any time you make a classic mac and cheese, you’re adding your grated Cheddar to a Béchamel, which is a milk-based sauce. If winter ever returns, you may want to make short ribs or Boeuf Bourguinon again, and if you do, you’ll probably unwittingly use an Espagnole, which is a brown meat stock-based sauce, as the dish’s foundation. A sauce Tomate uses more aromatic vegetables than a typical Italian tomato sauce but they are otherwise closely related. And if you make gravy for your Thanksgiving dinner by combining turkey drippings with a little stock and some flour, you’ve essentially made a Velouté.
But the sauce Hollandaise is tricky because butter and lemon juice (or vinegar) are thickened with egg yolks and as when making mayonnaise, achieving this combination can “break” or separate along the way. Still, if you’re patient and follow the process, sometimes helped with a blender or a microwave, you’ll usually succeed and produce a beautifully yellow, buttery, luscious sauce. To transform it into Béarnaise, you simply add a strained reduction – sort of like a tea – of vinegar, white wine, tarragon, sometimes chervil, shallots, and peppercorns.
I have made Béarnaise sauce before, although not recently and not on a hot July night. So I was feeling cautious but not anxious. I looked at the recipe from my culinary school textbook, plus perhaps six cookbooks (Julia, of course), and The New York Times cooking site because I remembered that Melissa Clark had included it in her special collection of what she called the “new essentials of French cooking.” I noticed that the technique for making Béarnaise was the same in every recipe except for one – Melissa Clark’s, which was unlike any I had seen before. I read the reader comments, which were mostly positive, and thinking that her method was a bit simpler than Julia’s and everyone else’s, and ignoring when Melissa wrote that the finished sauce would resemble mayonnaise (whoa; I’ve never had a Béarnaise that was that thick), I took a chance. No Julia this time. It was Melissa’s way.
While my beautiful two-inch NY strip steak rested, and with my mise en place at the ready, I began to make the sauce. Maybe it was my hot kitchen, or my constantly re-checking Clark’s recipe with growing doubts that I should have stuck with the method I learned in culinary school, but the sauce quickly broke. Nothing came together. It couldn’t be saved. All that prep. All that butter. It was a glorious failure.
Instead of a successful Béarnaise what I got was a lesson in why we should stick to what we know works unless we have a good reason for doing otherwise. And to beware when someone takes a true and proven classic and thinks they know a different way when there is no reasonable explanation for re-invention unless it will, in fact, be better. I mean, how could anything improve upon Judy Garland in “A Star is Born”?
But still, that summer night won out. I had bought some paté campagne at Zabar’s and partnered it with cornichons, mustard, a Orwasher’s baguette, and glasses of cold Crémant to start our fête. The steak was cooked on the red side of medium rare (or À point, as when the French order theirs) and rested to room temperature (it got extra rest while I was shrieking at my pot of ruined butter and eggs). The steamed haricots verts were tender. And the Bordeaux was soft and lovely. I put Edith Piaf and French piano music into rotation, cranked up the A/C, and Googled the words to La Marseillaise. The competitor in me will make another pass at sauce Béarnaise, but not until this beastly hot weather fades to a cool autumn when I’ll go back to Madame Julia’s recipe instead of betting on something nouveau.
A Flash In The Pan by John Whaite
As I was preparing this newsletter and thinking about oven-free summer cooking, I remembered how a few months ago we had visited with Mary Ann Esposito and she made an aside of how most Italian cooking is done on top of the stove, not in the oven. Think about it: most pastas, all risottos, cioppino, chicken cacciatore, Caprese salad, veal piccata, shrimp scampi, minestrone, panzanella, and so on. So when the weather is steamy and you’re boycotting your oven, look to your favorite Italian cookbook.
But great stovetop cooking is not limited to the Italian canon. I’ve just received in the mail a copy of John Whaite’s new cookbook, A Flash In The Pan: Simple, Speedy, Stovetop Recipes. (A Flash In The Pan: Simple, Speedy, Stovetop Recipes, by John Whaite, photography by Nassima Rothacker, Kyle Books, an imprint of Octopus Books, distributed in the US by Hachette, © 2019, hardcover with color photographs, 192 pages, $24.00).
John is also the author of Comfort: Food to Soothe the Soul, a cookbook that I really enjoy and cook from, plus three other cooking titles. If you’re a fan of The Great British Bake Off, you might remember him as the winner of season three. A professionally trained pastry chef, he now writes cookbooks and food articles, appears on television, and most recently, launched his own cooking school, "John Whaite’s Kitchen," located in rural Lancashire, England.
The point of Whaite’s new book is how stovetop cooking can be easy, modern and delicious. He starts with desserts; this fall I will absolutely be making his Apple, Panettone and Carameliszed Walnut Panzanella, and his deconstructed Apricot, Whisky and Honey Cheesecake is perfect for dinner guests who are gluten intolerant. There’s a chapter for cooking for one that includes an inspired Lancashire e Pepe in which he substitutes the classic Italian pecorino with his local Lancashire cheese, and he proves that cooking for one doesn’t sacrifice flavor with his Steak with Pak Choi and Ginger Chimichurri. There’s a vegetarian chapter with fresh ideas such as Beetroot and Freekeh Salad with Tangerine and Tahini Dressing. His chapters for dinners include recipes that you start in the morning with easy preps such as marinades, seasonings, and pickling, as well as dishes that are made all at day’s end, in quick time, such as a spicy Drunk Thai Tagliatelle and Moroccan-spiced Pan-fried Chicken and Chickpeas. The book ends with breakfast, including Marmalade Brulée French Toast and Brunch Burritos that have a bit of an English breakfast riff combining spicy chorizo with baked beans and eggs.
John Whaite’s books have great photography, global flavors, and are beautifully written with an earnest and candid voice. In this one, he writes about the problems with the meat industry from a perspective of his having been raised on a cattle farm in rural England. He contemplates how cooking for just one person – ourself – should be celebrated, but without the narcissism of social media: “What we choose to eat when alone reflects how we care for ourselves.” And there is an inspiring essay entitled “An organized mind” that introduces his chapter about prepping dinner in the morning by telling of his volunteering to help a struggling farm in British Columbia. He seems so very likable.
This terrific book won’t be available until October 1 so it’s too late for this current hot summer (but not too late for any Aussies). But consider it a year-round resource and inspiration. As a preview, see our link to his recipe for Apricot and Cardamom Upside-Down Pudding -- no oven needed and apricots are still in season!
New Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen Lists
Since 2004 the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has produced annual lists of which produce have the most and the least evidence of pesticides. The 2019 lists are out and although some of the fruits and vegetables have moved their positions, it is notable that for the first time since 2008, kale has made the Dirty Dozen list in third place.
Here's an article from Greenmatters.com about the lists, as well as another from the Good Housekeeping Institute that offers some analysis and opinions. And here are the 2019 lists:
The Dirty Dozen
The Clean Fifteen
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melons
My friend Todd Rengel, who is the genius web designer and consultant who designed and built The City Cook website, recently alerted me to a new cookware and kitchen tool company called Misen. Using the slogan, “Affordable Luxury Meets Kitchen Essentials,” and with a company name inspired by the culinary expression, mise en place, or to put in place, they manufacture and sell knives and cookware. The company was launched with a Kickstarter campaign and today manufactures knives in Japan and cookware near Shanghai, selling only online and managing their distribution through an east coast U.S. warehouse. The company presents itself as earnest and helpful, with lots of transparency about their design, manufacturing, and service ethos.
I have a well-used collection of All-Clad that I slowly acquired, piece by piece, over several years, buying on sale and at outlets. I love the stuff. The exceptions are my 10 and 8-inch non-stick skillets. For these I’ve never been brand loyal and shop on price because I replace them often, as soon as the non-stick surface shows any wear. I also don’t use them as much as I do my All-Clad pans and I’ve never put a non-stick in a hot (above 350°F) oven believing high heat can compromise the finish (I cannot remember where I read that and if it is even true so I am cautious). The non-stick pan that gets used the most is my 8-inch skillet as this is my husband’s pan of choice for the breakfast eggs he makes two or three times a week.
About a month ago it was time again to replace it and so I bought a new 8-inch non-stick fry pan ($45 plus shipping) from Misen. It arrived on time, was intelligently packaged, and the pan itself is substantial, easy to clean, and has a blue silicone handle. The egg chef in my family has said he’s pleased with it and happily read all the helpful tips that Misen included with the pan. I haven't loved the number of follow-up marketing emails they've been sending but you know how these things work -- once a company has your address, they will drown you in emails until you opt out. It will take some more time to see how the pan wears and if my egg chef remains happy with it. I’ll let you know.
I love finding new answers to old problems and I love it even more when there’s some science behind a solution.
Have you ever forgotten to take something out of the freezer, like a steak or chops or a package of boneless chicken thighs, but still need to defrost it in time to make dinner? More than once I’ve resorted to putting the item into a baggie and then submerging it in warm water, over and over again, until it softens enough to cook. Or else you count on the “defrost” button on your microwave, which for me has always ended up producing something still half-frozen but also half-cooked. Both methods are imperfect.
But I found a new way which to me was magic but in fact is science. Using a two-inch steak as an example, place the frozen steak (still in its freezer plastic bag) on a rimmed sheet pan. Then on top of the steak, balance a saucepan that's large enough to cover the steak, and fill the pan partially with room temperature water. If you’re concerned about the water spilling, do the entire operation in your sink. Let it remain like this for about 15 minutes (even less if your meat is thinner) and VOILA – the steak will have perfectly defrosted but will still be cold.
My very smart engineer husband explained to me how it works: metal conducts heat and by sandwiching the frozen meat between two metal surfaces and from the pressure from the weight of the saucepan, made heavier with the addition of the water, heat is conducted and penetrates the meat so to rapidly defrost, but not cook it.
This is not my invention. Chef Google had the answer. Here’s a website that details the method, plus it has photos so you can see how really simple this is to do. It really is like magic.
While we’re on the subject of things that are cold, The Guardian has done an article about how we can get maximum performance from our refrigerators. They seem to have been inspired to do the piece after Marie Kondo declared on Instagram that our refrigerators should always be 30% empty. The Guardian explains why, plus adds quite a few more useful tips. Such as you shouldn’t store fruits and vegetables in the same bin because the ethylene the fruit produces spoils vegetables. Who knew?
While I’m not a Marie Kondo acolyte, I am a rather neat person (not to the degree of being OCD, although my husband might disagree), an admitted advocate for occasional excess, and I am certainly all for increasing joy in my life. But at the risk of sounding snarky, my favorite way to get joy from my kitchen is to have a stuffed refrigerator and people I love to cook for, orderly fruit bins be damned. As for The Guardian’s article, unless you live alone or you’re the only one in your household who ever uses the refrigerator, I can’t imagine their shelf management rules keeping order in my fridge for even a day.
Still I think it’s useful and worth reading.
Enjoy August cooking!