Saturday, June 26, 2010

Me and Dr. Scholls -- Gellin’
What’s cooking? Strawberry-Watermelon-Cucumber Salad

The thermometer here in Austin has been in the 90s almost every day for the longest, and all I could think of was... gelatin salad. I’ve been a molded salad snob for years, disdaining the green wobbly squares with floating bits of  pineapple and celery that would invariably appear on the menu at my mother-in-law’s house. She’s a wonderful woman and way too fond of Jello salad.

But in the midst of this summer heat wave, I was desperate for something cool that didn’t involve a lot of calories. I looked around my cupboard but had too little powdered gelatin for a salad, so – against all my better instincts – I made do with a package of sugar-free orange Jello. I mixed it with a heavy cup of grated carrots and an orange that I peeled, sliced and chopped into small segments, then added the juice of half a lemon to balance the sweetness of the Jello. Quite tasty – cool with crunch, and a dollop of creme fraiche took away even more of the sweetness.

Still, I yearned for the clarity of a plain gelatin base. So the next time I went to the store, I picked up a couple of boxes of Knox, and wandered the produce aisles for what to put with it. Strawberries are still in season, so I started with those. To add crispness or crunch, I chose an English cucumber – less bitter than the standard garden cuke, and with a thinner skin. And in a moment I can only describe as inspired, I discovered some seedless watermelon in the frig. I cubed everything – half-inch cubes for the fruit and quarter-inch cubes for the cucumber – to give it a more attractive presentation. For flavor and the hint of sweetness, I included minted simple syrup in lieu of some of the water. Wow. It tasted light and fresh, and it looked like jewels suspended in champagne.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I may be in my own little world, but it’s okay, they know me here...
What’s cooking? Salad Monique

I spent four days last week at the beach, writing with another woman who is both a lifelong friend and a writer. We drove to the Texas coast, to a tiny fishing village named Port Aransas. Basking in relative obscurity, Port A lolls at the far north end of Mustang Island – a home to as many deep-sea sport fishing boats as crusty shrimpers. A place so laid back that dressing up mostly means a clean pair of flip-flops. And running south from the town, 18 miles of broad creamy beaches. The BP disaster hasn’t reached this part of the Gulf Coast, but early June is still seaweed season, so the crowds are minimal. For the past 10 years, my friend and I have been going there to write for a week, and we typically go in the spring, when the place is really deserted, so just seeing others on the beach was a bit of a shock. But what really hit us was the heat – the index was 105 one morning, and that was all it took for me to decide that a view of the ocean was all I really needed.

My family took a house on this part of Mustang Island every summer when I was growing up, and I guess when you are a kid and the bottom line is that you get to go to the beach, the heat becomes less of a factor. But when you’re an adult who has spent the past 30 years in New Jersey, I can tell you it makes a difference.

There’s something remarkable about how just watching the waves stirs up the creative juices in my head, and even though I’d been feeling completely blocked, it took less than a day for the ideas to start flowing. The Texas coast between the mainland and Mustang Island is an amoebic pattern of vast shallow bays – more green than blue – home to herons and whooping cranes and roseate spoonbills, and the flatness of the land begins to draw the tension out of me long before we can actually see the ocean.

By the time we got home, I’d had my quota of fresh seafood for about a month, so all I really wanted to eat was a salad. I remembered a recipe I’d found when I was reviewing the famous chefs’ cookbooks, an amazing concoction at the front of Eric Ripert’s Return to Cooking. It’s sort of a Kitchen Sink Recipe – it takes a good hour just to assemble the ingredients. But I promise it’s worth the trouble. And while this recipe says it serves 6, my husband and I shared it as our dinner and were fighting over the remains.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Disaster Dinner

I made a certifiable disaster for dinner a few nights ago – lovely artichokes that didn't get completely done, and some fish that stuck to the pan and tasted "bland" (my husband's word). To his credit, he was very cautious with this criticism, not wanting to have me stop cooking altogether; but in a preemptive strike, I had already said I didn’t think the fish was a success.

Winging it is always a bit dicey, and I had definitely been winging it with the fish. Having already been to the store that day, and neglected to get an entree (what was I thinking?), I looked for something I already had, that would go with the artichoke recipe (which I really wanted to make). I found a package of tilapia filets in the freezer, which seemed like a nice combo of textures.

I didn’t really have a plan, just figured if I threw it in the skillet with some herb butter left over from a garlic bread I made not long ago that it would work out. I will definitely plan better next time.

The artichokes were too big for the recipe, which called for medium artichokes cooked in butter and chicken broth. And the parts that actually got done were really tasty, so I will figure this one out at a later date.  But you know, you get what’s in the grocery store, and my store had only fairly large artichokes. So even though I nearly doubled the cooking time, they were undercooked. And at some point, with your husband pacing the area around the kitchen like a mountain lion, you say to yourself, “It’ll be fine by now.” Which of course it wasn’t.

Hey, these things happen. And I think the healthiest approach is to announce the awfulness and get on with your life. So we went for ice cream instead.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tiptoeing through the Chefs’ Cookbooks – Part 2

For my next life, I want to come back as Michael Ruhlman. Among his dozen published books, you will find collaborations with Eric Ripert (of Le Barnardin), Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations” on the travel channel), and at least three books with Thomas Keller, the self-taught wunderkind of The French Laundry in Napa, and Per Se in NYC. It’s the sort of stuff I dream about.

Cooking from these books is another issue altogether. Ripert’s A Return to Cooking is a sort of journal with recipes and art – the reader (if you ever actually take the time) follows him and a group of his friends on outings to Sag Harbor, Puerto Rico, Napa, and Vermont. One of the friends is an artist, so the text is interspersed with vibrant, full-page,Van Gogh-esque paintings of the food and the chef, which makes this tome an excellent coffee table book. But there’s virtually no organization to it – other than by geographic site – and Ripert seems to have uncanny access to foods that are either bizarrely specific (Vialone Nano rice and the Pebeyre brand of truffle juice – truffle juice, really...) or way too exotic for my kitchen, like pibales (baby eels – still alive when you buy them!). On the other hand, in perusing the book for this review, I came across an interesting salad that I made for dinner last night, and both my husband and I were wowed. Look for that in my next post.

Painstaking and fussy are two of the words that come to mind in describing the dishes in Thomas Keller’s first opus, The French Laundry Cookbook. Of course, the photography alone will make you pick up the phone for reservations – you just want the dining experience. Like the food, the book is elegant and spare, airy and precise. And impossible to reproduce. Yet there are discourses on basic processes – like Keller’s Big Pot Blanching method for cooking vegetables – that are simple enough for the least aggressive home kitchen and will produce amazing results. And if you actually want to reproduce the restaurant’s signature cornets of Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche, Keller takes you step by excruciating step through the process. To his credit, Keller recognizes the impossibilities, and suggests being flexible – attempting a sauce, for instance, while simplifying the meat or fish that it goes on. There’s some highly instructive and helpful material here on tools and techniques that could make a real difference for normal cooks, as well as some encouraging advice about using common sense.

Common sense and basic techniques recur as themes of Keller’s newest work: ad hoc at home. (Did you think I’d forgotten? Oh, ye of little faith...) And it turns out that the man actually now has a restaurant called Ad Hoc. The focus here is on the uncomplicated – iconic American dishes like creamed corn and fried chicken and strawberry shortcake. A perfectly marvelous section toward the back gives simple recipes for a wide range of what Keller calls “Lifesavers” – tapenades, flavored oils, chutneys, pickled fruits, and preserved lemons – that, reading through the section, you feel will on their own elevate all sorts of preparations.