Fig Onion Rosemary, um… It’s a Jam! It’s a Conserve! It’s a Very Thick Sauce!

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Destemed figs await being destiny.

It’s figgy! It’s oniony! It’s rosemary-y! It’s… Supercondiment!

When it comes to a project like this, seems to me there’s only two ways to go: 1) You can make just enough for yourself, and let’s face it, a little goes a fairly long way, or 2) If you’re going to bother with it at all, you may as well make a bunch, and share it with friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc. After all, you’re committing the same amount of time in either case, and in the latter mode, you can share the wealth. Sure, your cost of ingredients doubles, but by a back-of-the-napkin calculation, that came to about $12 in this case, less if you use red onion rather than Vidalia sweet onions, a cheaper wine, and can find a better deal on fresh figs than Whole Foods‘, all of which are well within pretty much everyone’s reach.

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.  (Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.
(Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

I’m going to say this up front, because food safety is paramount: THIS MUST BE REFRIGERATED. You can’t really preserve it in a standard water bath as you do other jams, because the pH isn’t low enough (or, put another way, the acidity isn’t high enough) to guarantee that our old pal Clostridium botulinum won’t rush in and ruin the day. The spore that causes botulism — and turns actresses of a certain age into Stepford Wife-looking creatures — is given a perfect home to reproduce in a fairly low-acid foodstuff that has been canned in an anaerobic (air-free) environment. You could get around this by adding a healthy dose of lemon or lime juice (or citric acid powder), but that would muck about with the flavour in a way that I wasn’t aiming for, personally. That said, if you do want to adjust the recipe and can it in the trad fashion, I’d recommend getting a pack of pH test strips and make sure you have the acidity at a pH lower than 4. Then the nasty little beastie is banished from the kingdom.

Now that I’ve frightened you, let me say that this is the same advice you’d get for canning meat, or asparagus, or mushrooms, or wax beans, or pretty much any veg that isn’t a tomato (and yes, I know a tomato is technically a fruit).

If, on the other hand, you have a pressure cooker/canner, you could do this no worries, so long as you get the canning temp above 240° F/115.6° C for a specific period (there are online guides), and it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to treat it the same way you do pretty much everything else: put it in the fridge, and use it within 10 days or so. [Since it isn't going to be in an anaerobic environment, botulism isn't an issue, but as you well know, nothing in the fridge keeps forever... except that box of baking soda that doesn't really absorb the odors the way it's advertised to do.]

On to the good stuff.

This jam/conserve/very thick sauce is most excellent when served with stinky cheese, or as a glaze/condiment for a pork tenderloin, chops, or chicken. [Of course, since it's vegan, it's also good with crackers and flatbreads, not to mention garden burgers.] I tried to keep the sugar content as low as practicable, favouring the umami as much as possible.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

FIG ONION ROSEMARY JAM/CONSERVE/VERY THICK SAUCE
INGREDIENTS:

45ml (3 tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil
3 large Vidalia sweet onions, sliced (about 1kg) (any onion can be substituted here)
5g + 1.25g (1 tsp. + 1/4 tsp.) sea salt or kosher salt
15g + 250g (1 tbsp. + 1 cup) turbinado sugar (white sugar works also)
1.25kg (2.75 lbs.) fresh Kadota figs (or whatever variety is convenient)
30ml (2 tbsp.) fig balsamic vinegar (or other balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar)
500ml (2 cups) red wine (2/3 of a standard bottle)*
15g (1 tbsp.) fresh rosemary, finely chopped

DIRECTIONS:

[Mise en place notes: Slice the onions and set then aside in a bowl; wash and destem the figs, then cut them in half (north/south) and set aside in a separate bowl. Chop the rosemary and set it aside. You can measure out your other moist and dry ingredients at this time if you want to, but nothing here is so time-sensitive that it's really necessary.]

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

Heat pan on high and add the olive oil; when oil begins to shimmer, add the sliced onions, 5g/1 tsp. salt, 15g/1 tbsp. sugar, and stir briskly, to coat onions with the oil and mix in the salt and sugar. Reduce heat to medium high and allow onions to caramelize, about 20 to 30 minutes. [Note: If you haven't done this before, it's a little tricky. Stir them too often, and they don't brown up. Stir them too infrequently, and they can burn. Don't freak out if a couple of the onions look overdone; not a big deal. Timing is approximate depending on the amount of onions, your pan, and the heat of your cooktop.]

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

When the onions are browned, add the balsamic vinegar and wine to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape any brown bits off of the bottom of the pan. Add figs and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and pressing the figs against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon to break them up. Add the remaining turbinado sugar and salt (to taste) and simmer for an additional 20 minutes. If jam/conserve/very thick sauce gets too thick, add more liquid (either wine or water) as needed until the desired consistency is reached.

Jam, condiment, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Jam, conserve, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Allow to cool until it is safe to handle, then spoon into clean jars and refrigerate. Makes approximately 1.5 liters/just over 6 cups. Should be just fine for at least 7-10 days.

Fancier than it needs to be?

Fancier than it needs to be?

* A note on wine: I used Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red, a blend of 28% Zinfandel, 27% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petite Sirah, 3% Grenache, and 2% Petit Verdot. Why? I’d like to tell you that I did because it was the perfect match for the Brix (sweetness) level of the figs, but in fact it was around, I wasn’t particularly interested in drinking it at the time, and it wasn’t so expensive that I’d feel bad about having used it for making jam/conserve/very thick sauce. Any dry red will do; I may try a Pinot Noir or some other wine for the next batch, just to see how that works. You’ve probably heard this before, but you should avoid using any wine in cooking that you wouldn’t drink. So-called “cooking wines” are about as appetizing as Drāno®.

ADDENDUM:
I gave away a pint of the you-know-what to my pal Lisa Jane Persky, who is an actress, writer, artist, and a damn fine cook in her own right; here’s the chop she made with it. Nice.

Mmmmmm.

Mmmmmm.

It Can Drive You Plum Loco

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A Rough Guide to Apricot/Plum Hybrids.

A Rough Guide to Apricot/Plum Hybrids.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

Stonefruit season is upon us (well, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and that generally means a dazzling — if short-lived — array of tasty choices in stores and at farmers’ markets. One of the most puzzling aspects of this seasonal bounty, for many people, is the variety of options found along the apricot-plum continuum. Pluots, plumcots, apriums, apriplums… aren’t they all just different names for the same thing, a cross between an apricot and a plum? Well, yes and no. Yes, they are all the genetically-crossed offspring of the two main fruits, but no, they are NOT all the same.

Ladies and gentlemen, the plumcot.

Ladies and gentlemen, the plumcot.

To find out where all this confusion started, let’s jump into the Wayback Machine, and set the date for, oh, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. Horticulturist Luther Burbank pulled off a trick that most folks thought was impossible: he managed to cross an apricot with a plum. As noted in the 1909 publication The Scientific Aspects of Luther Burbank’s Work, “[t]he plum-cot, however, has not yet become a fixed variety and may never be, as it tends to revert to the plum and the apricot about equally, although with a tendency to remain fixed, which tendency may be made permanent.” Unfortunately, this slipperiness between reversion and fixation, along with a bad rep among farmers for difficulty in harvesting and shipping, relegated Burbank’s science experiment to the fringes of the commercial spectrum.

The Pluot® (pronounced PLEW-ott, not ploo-OH).

The Pluot® (pronounced PLEW-ott, not ploo-OH).

Fast-forward to the 1970’s, and another gifted horticulturalist, Floyd Zaiger, built upon the foundation of Burbank’s original work to begin to develop the next-generation plumcot. [Actually, it was multiple generations, but that's a little beside the point.] By varying the mix from Burbank’s 50-50 to approximately 75% plum and 25% apricot, he developed a hardier and tastier fruit. Subsequently, he and his family fine-tuned their efforts, so that the modern version is closer to a 65-35 mix… more or less. To distinguish his cross from Burbank’s less successful effort, his company, Zaiger’s Inc. Genetics, registered the name Pluot® (pronounced PLEW-ott, not ploo-OH) in 1990. [Technically, the name needs to be capitalized and appear with the marca registrada after it.]

The Pluot®'s mirror image, the Aprium®.

The Pluot®’s mirror image, the Aprium®.

Subsequently, Zaiger’s firm flipped the Pluot® formula on its head and produced the Aprium®. While other horticulturists have done work in the same field, their fruits are not legally permitted to be called Aprium® or Pluot®, hence the somewhat inelegant moniker apriplum (more apricot than plum by varying degrees) and the commercial rebirth of the plumcot (more plum than apricot). Zaiger is still alive, incidentally, and is credited with having developed more than 47 varieties of stonefruit that are under cultivation in Calfornia alone. Not content to rest on their laurels, the Zaigers are breeding even more new kinds of hybrids such as NectaPlum® (nectarine/plum), Peacotum® (peach/apricot/plum), Pluerry™ (plum/cherry), white apricots, flat peaches and nectarines, albino selections, and fuzzy plums.

I’m not sure who exactly ever registered the complaint that plums just weren’t fuzzy enough, but if they’re out there, they haven’t long until their dreams come to, er, fruition.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, certain plums these days are being marketed as “fresh prunes,” a far cry from the recent past, when prunes were thought of as being used primarily for constipation relief — hence the appearance of “dried plums” in the marketplace. It can drive a person plum loco. Or crazy. Or insane. Which are not all exactly the same thing, but — like our stonefruit analogue — they all come from the same basic idea.

Unbeatable Beets

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Best. Beets. Ever. Sans the hard-cooked eggs, which Tanis said were optional.

Best. Beets. Ever. Sans the hard-cooked eggs, which Tanis said were optional.

“As Bokonon [actually the late author Kurt Vonnegut] says: ‘Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.'” And I’m sure, were Bokonon here, he’d be happy to include “peculiar dining suggestions.” A couple of weeks ago, my pal Dan Fredman sent me an email about a wine dinner happening at Lucques in Beverly Hills, celebrating both the loose confederation of wine producers known as In Pursuit of Balance and the release of chef David Tanis‘ latest cookbook, One Good Dish. It was on a Thursday night, which interfered with The Bride’s workout schedule, and it was to start at 7 PM, which is always a challenge in Los Angeles traffic. I knew of Tanis tangentially, but I was not deeply acquainted with his history, so my natural tendency was to give it a miss. But Bokonon spoke to me, as he often has before, so I made the reservation, albeit with some reservations. But not many: dinner at Lucques has always been delightful, and at the worst, I’d have a chance to hang with Dan, which is always edifying. Also, as part of the deal, I’d get a copy of the cookbook, which kinda made the whole thing a bit of a no-brainer.

When we arrived, Dan greeted us and bade us to sit at his table, where Tanis himself was ensconced, along with a couple of other of our acquaintances whose conviviality is highly evident. The author was, by design, supposed to circulate. In practice, though, he hung out mostly at our table, often serving the dishes that he himself created.

He cooks, he scores. He even serves.

He cooks, he scores. He even serves.

The entire menu was — and this is a technical term — really tasty. All of it came from One Good Dish, with page numbers thoughtfully included. No doubt I could wax poetic about the crostini, or the espresso-hazelnut bark, and perhaps I will after I have made them. But this time, I’m going to lavish my praise upon the beets.

A perfect meal.

A perfect meal.

I’ve never been a big fan of beets. I’ve tried roasting them, cooking them in soup, glazing them, whatever. It’s not like I haven’t tried to like them, but I never had a beet-eating experience that made me want more. Until April 3, 2014, when The Bride, with whom I have been paired for more than three decades now, heard these words pass my lips for the first time ever: “May I have some more of the beets, please?”

Tanis’ Red Beet Salad, at its heart, is grated raw beets served in a fancy vinaigrette. And the Bugatti Veyron, at its heart, is a motorcar. The ingredients aren’t hard to locate or particularly sophisticated, but it’s absolutely worth using the very best available to you, especially super-fresh beets, and really good Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and olive oil. I used some red wine vinegar that I had picked up at Turley Wine Cellars, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from Oliana.

A minor digression: The difference between $15 olive oil and $3 olive oil is often hugely significant. I highly recommend splurging whatever your budget can afford on a great bottle of olive oil for finishing soups and salads, serving on bread, etc. Oliana in West Hollywood and Beyond the Olive in Pasadena and Stonehouse California Olive Oil in the San Francisco Ferry Building all have tasting rooms, where you can select from a variety of olive oils with a wide spectrum of characteristics. Most major cities in America have some gourmet store that offers a similar experience. Do give it a go; if you haven’t done it before, you will be shocked — pleasantly, but shocked nonetheless — at just how different olive oils can be.

All you need to make this excellent salad.

All you need to make this excellent salad.

Basically, you need to peel and grate the beets (I used both red and golden beets for my version), being very careful not to give yourself a case of what I like to call “box grater rash.” Alternatively, you can julienne the beets with a sharp knife. You might be well advised not to be wearing your bestest white shirt while doing this. Fresh beets are juicy, n’est–ce pas?

A bunch of beets.

A bunch of beets.

After the beets have been cut or grated, season them with a little salt and pepper and set them aside while you prepare the dressing. [I put them in the refrigerator to give them a slight chill-down.]

Great grated beets!

Great grated beets!

From the shallot to the cornichons on the ingredients list, everything is diced and/or measured and/or whatever as appropriate and gets mixed in a bowl. [Please consider buying the book; while this recipe isn't complicated, it will do your karma good to support writers and chefs such as Tanis. And it's a really terrific book.] The finished dressing will look something like the picture below, except that I took the shot before adding the parsley. Idiot me. So imagine some chopped flat-leaf parsley. Pour the dressing over the salad, mix, and let it marinate for at least 10 minutes. [Again, I put it in the fridge for this step.]

Yummy dressing for yummy salad.

Yummy dressing for yummy salad.

Serve, eat, and eat some more.

The second-best part about this salad is that it still tastes terrific the day after.

Mmmmm. Still good the next day.

Mmmmm. Still good the next day.

The recipe claims to serve four to six people, but don’t be surprised if your guests (or yourself!) are keen on seconds.

Vegan Tomato-Dill Soup

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It's soup!

It’s soup!

Despite the widely-held belief that “it never rains in southern California,” it does, albeit not often enough. Tonight, for instance, was a prime example of the occasionally intemperate nature of SoCal weather; a much-needed downpour, most of which would wind up in storm drains on a quick trip to the Pacific Ocean, rather than into the aquifers and reservoirs that could make the best use of it. Rain, for me, signals an opportunity to make soup, which matches inclement weather the way pearls go with Sophia Loren’s exquisite neck.

In my youth, tomato soup meant a can of Campbell’s, made famous by Andy Warhol. My late and much beloved mom used to prepare it in high style, diluting it with milk rather than water for an instant “cream of tomato” concoction, which remained the gold standard for tomato soup in my estimation until well into my adulthood. One weekend in my thirties, though, on a trip to Lake Tahoe, I tasted freshly prepared tomato soup for the first time, and it was nothing short of revelatory. I’ve been spoiled ever since.

INGREDIENTS:

2 tbsp.olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. Cup4Cup gluten-free flour
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 oz.) San Marzano diced tomatoes
4 tbsp. stemmed and chopped fresh dill + 4 fronds for garnish
28 oz. vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if the vegan version isn’t sufficiently compelling)
1 bay leaf
salt
ground black pepper
dollop of cashew cream (for vegan version) or sour cream or yogurt (non-vegan version)

The humble onion.

The humble onion.

DIRECTIONS:
First, heat the olive oil in a soup pot, then add the diced onion at medium heat. Sweat the onion, allowing it to release its liquids, but don’t brown it. Add the Cup4Cup gluten-free flour, and stir, making sure to break up any lumps that might ensue (a whisk is good at doing this). Add the garlic and cook for about two minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the tomatoes, broth (a simple way to measure this is to fill up the empty tomato can), chopped fresh dill, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.

Adding the flour.

Adding the flour.

Cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, but you needn’t be particularly fussy about the timing; it’s just enough to let the flavours blend.

Spices added; stirring ensues.

Spices added; stirring ensues.

From here, you have a couple of options. 1) Allow the soup to cool overnight in the refrigerator, and serve it the following day as a rustic cold soup, garnished with a dill sprig (and remember to remove the bay leaf!).

A quick trip to the Vita-Mix.

A quick trip to the Vita-Mix.

2) Alternatively, you can remove the bay leaf, toss it in the food processor and purée it. Be sure to work in small batches, and DON’T plug the feeding tube unless you’d like your kitchen walls redecorated with a fine spray of tomato soup. [The steam needs somewhere to go; best bet is to drape a kitchen towel LOOSELY over the top of the feeding tube.]

You can add a delightfully silky texture by stirring a dollop of cashew cream into each bowl (or cup). Garnish with a dill sprig, and serve.

Serves 4-6

Sriracha + Salt = Success

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Everything you need to make this recipe. Seriously. Including the oven.

Everything you need to make this recipe. Seriously. Including the oven.

I love flavoured salts. Smoked salts, herbed salts, lemon, garlic, chili pepper, whatever. And I’ve happily been paying sums for them that my late pal John Wayne would call [and I should alert you to salty language here] “rigoddamndiculous.” Particularly in this case, when making it yourself is ridiculously simple.

It’s been my experience that no recipe is foolproof, because just as I find one that might fill the bill, along lumbers a bigger fool. But if you are incapable of getting this one for Sriracha salt right, you may as well convert your kitchen into a darkroom or a tool shed or a walk-in closet, because you have no business cooking in it.

Before I get into the particulars, I owe a shout-out to Let’s Give Peas a Chance, from whom I got the recipe, and Radical Possibility, from whom they got the recipe.

Salz, sel, salt, sal, tuz, gatza... whichever you prefer.

Salz, sel, salt, sal, tuz, gatza… whichever you prefer.

INGREDIENTS:
1 cup sea salt (or kosher salt, or fleur de sel)
4 tbsp./60 ml Sriracha sauce (or, as my Canadian homies call it, “Cock sauce” — because of the rooster on the label)

Add the sauce to the salt

Add the sauce to the salt.

Coated.

Coated.

DIRECTIONS:
Preheat oven to 350ºF / 175 (actually 176.67)ºC. Mix salt and sriracha in bowl. Transfer from bowl to aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet. Spread out with spoon or spatula to thin layer. Turn off heat in oven. Place tray in oven and allow to dry, about 2 hours, but it’s fine to leave it in overnight. You’ll want to give it a stir and a scrape every 20 minutes or so for the first hour, just to help prevent excess clumping and promote drying. Any crystals that remain clumpy can be broken up by shaking vigorously in a covered container, or separated mechanically, either with a fork in a bowl or in a small spice grinder/food processor (just a few quick pulses will do the trick — you don’t want to pulverize the salt!). [Of course, you could also spread your salt mix on the fine-mesh screen of your dehydrator as well, but I'm guessing that for every kitchen equipped with a dehydrator, there are about half a million that are not.]

Spread the salt on the cookie sheet.

Spread the salt on the cookie sheet.

Put it in the oven.

Put it in the oven.

After a couple of hours, it will look like this.

After a couple of hours, it will look like this.

Works great for dry rubs, or as a finishing salt for salad, or probably a hundred billion other things I haven’t thought of. But it’s simple, and inexpensive, and it makes a great gift. Heck, everybody uses salt. And any friend who receives a little container of this as a present will think you’re some sort of kitchen wizard, possessed of superhuman culinary powers. Don’t ruin it for them. Let’s just keep this our secret, okay?

Ready to rock.

Ready to rock.

Saffron Risotto with Peas and Langoustine

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No, I didn't make my own stock or grate my own cheese this time; please don't judge

No, I didn’t make my own stock or grate my own cheese this time; please don’t judge

In what passes for winter in Southern California, one may on occasion wish for a wintry dish, and nothing fills that bill quite like risotto. There are a million ways to make it, but I had a hankering for some peas, and I had gotten a great deal on some frozen (and pre-cooked) langoustine, so I cogitated on what spice might work well with the two of them; I settled on saffron. I had some that my brother had brought back from Turkey, and a little (slightly fresher, if not as exotic) Spanish saffron from Trader Joe’s, each of which made it into the final mix.

Risotto (or “little rice”) can be traced back to 16th century Milan, though rice’s role in Italian cooking predates that considerably, having likely been introduced by the Arabs who conquered Sicily in the 9th century. By many accounts, saffron arrived in Italy in the 13th century, though it’s not clear who brought it in. Why it took the Italians three centuries to marry saffron and rice in this dish is something of a mystery, but it just bears out the thesis that risotto is the great-granddaddy of the slow cooking movement. Arborio rice, which is central to the dish, is a short-grain rice named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown. [Some areas in Italy use other varieties of rice; Milanese chefs are said to prefer Carnaroli rice, while Vialone nano is more popular around Venice. Neither are as widely available in America as Arborio, though both can be found at Italian specialty markets or through Amazon.]

Two things about risotto: First, don’t be intimidated. It’s time consuming, no doubt, but once you get your head around that, it’s really not hard to make a very tasty, elegant dish that will wow your friends (or, in this case, endear me to The Bride). Second: There is no speed round when it comes to risotto making. Commit to stirring constantly for the better part of 45 minutes. Think of it as a kitchen meditation, where all the world’s cares drop away and you can focus on the gastronomical, physical, and spiritual union of stock and rice.

INGREDIENTS:

• 1 liter (4 cups) vegetable stock, maybe a bit more
• 75g (5 tbsp) unsalted butter
• 30ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
• 1/2 medium brown onion, finely chopped
• 1/2 celery stick, finely chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
• 375g (1 3/4 cups) Arborio rice
• 190g (1 1/4 cups) frozen peas
• 500g (1 lb) frozen cooked and shelled langoustine
• Pinch of saffron threads
• 125g (1 cup) finely grated Parmesan
• Salt & freshly ground black pepper
[Remember, grams are a measure of weight, and cups are a measure of volume, so there's a little room for movement here. We're not in a science lab.]

Stock warming nicely

Stock warming nicely

DIRECTIONS:
First, bring the stock just barely to a boil, then set it back to a simmer. If you have not yet defrosted the langoustine (they often to tell you to do it the night before by moving them from the freezer to the fridge, but I rarely plan that far ahead), take them from the freezer, put them in a sealed plastic bag, and set the bag in warm water. Since they will only be at this warming temp for about 40 minutes or so, you don’t need to panic about bacterial bloom or other fishy evils.

Butter and allium products bubbling

Butter and allium products bubbling

Next, heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over low heat until foaming. Add the onion, celery and garlic, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until onion softens. Add the rice and cook, stirring, over medium heat for 1-2 minutes or until the grains appear slightly glassy.

Stir until the rice is coated with butter and begins to turn glassy

Stir until the rice is coated and begins to turn glassy

Add a ladle (about 125ml / 1/2 cup) of the heated stock to the rice mixture and use a wooden spoon to stir until the liquid is completely absorbed. Why wood? It’s so much nicer than plastic, isn’t it?

Adding some stock, then stirring, and stirring, and stirring...

Adding some stock, then stirring, and stirring, and stirring…

Continue to add the stock, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next.

As the rice absorbs the stock, it gets creamier

As the rice absorbs the stock, it gets creamier

Cook until the rice is just tender and the risotto is creamy (this will take at least 25 minutes — DON’T RUSH).

Ready for the last little mix; langoustines, peas, and cheese all added

Ready for the last little mix; langoustines, peas, and cheese

Add the langoustine, peas, and saffron, and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until well combined and heated through. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Remember: the Parmesan brings its own saltiness, so have a light hand with the NaCl! You can always add more salt — even at the table — but you can’t take it away.

C'est fini! Or, more appropriately, è finito.

C’est fini! Or, more appropriately, è finito.

Spoon the risotto into bowls and serve immediately. Try not to consume it like a just-uncaged wolverine.

Building a Greater Grater

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Grating my nerves, mostly

Grating my nerves, mostly

I’ve never had a happy relationship with any box grater, ever. For the most part, they are designed for a child’s hand, are honed about as sharp as Carrot Top’s wit, and embody the confidence-inspiring sturdiness of single-ply bathroom tissue. Basically, they feature one marginally useful side (pictured), while the other three are for clogging, juicing, and… I never quite figured out what that fourth side was for. On occasion, I might be able to shred cheddar, provided it nailed the precise thermal sweet spot where it neither crumbled nor smeared, which, to the best of my ability to determine it, is 2.5˚C (36.5˚ F), or just slightly colder than the interior of my fridge. Accordingly, the potential gratee usually detoured briefly to the freezer while I tried to triangulate the stay required to arrive at la température idéale. Upon its removal, I had roughly 41 nanoseconds to complete my task before the warmth of my hand and the ambient temp turned le fromage into un blob gluant. Back to the freezer, 41 more nanoseconds, again and again and again.

During the holidays, I decided to buy a new grater for The Bride as a stocking stuffer, and I was determined not to repeat the same mistake I had been making for the better part of 40 years. Enter the Microplane 4-Sided Box Grater.

Size isn't everything, but it does count

Size isn’t everything, but it does count

If there is such a thing as the Maybach Landaulet of box graters, this is it. Strike that — they don’t make Maybachs anymore, and new Rolls-Royces are just plain fugly, which this isn’t. Call it the Bentley Flying Spur of box graters; not flashy, but meticulously engineered. To extend the metaphor, if the price of the average box grater in Target’s or Tesco’s housewares section were indexed to, say, a Kia, the Microplane is gonna cost you like a Cadillac. [I think I paid $35 USD + tax for mine at Sur la Table.] But oh, what luxuries it affords.

Who's the greatest of them all?

Who’s the greatest of them all?

Let’s start with the dual handle; nicely contoured for the palm of the hand, with an additional finger grip for added stability. The plasticised feet set the tool’s base about an inch above the cutting board/pan/plate surface, so you can actually see how much you’ve grated (used to be, one had to lift up the grater to peek, which meant carrot or parsnip or cheese shreds tumbled out, thereby making it impossible to set it level again without a pile of fuss). The blades, which are hella sharp, come in ultra coarse, fine, medium ribbon, and slicer sides, the latter of which provides a sort of mini-mandoline for cucumbers and carrots and the like. One of the sides even slides off so you can comfortably (and thoroughly) clean the grater’s interior. And maybe best of all, it comes with a protective plastic shield for storage, which keeps the blades sharp and your fingers safe (when reaching in the drawer for it, anyway; the usual safety cautions apply during use). No wonder it took the gold medal in the Kitchen Hand Tools category of the 2009 Housewares Design Awards.

This may not be the last box grater you’ll ever need, but it’s probably the first one you won’t regret having bought.

Such a Tool

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Everything put together can be taken apart

Everything put together can be taken apart

No cook or chef I know — myself included — ever seems to have enough storage space. The recently acquired Piment d’Espelette doesn’t fit into the spice rack, the deal you got on parchment paper at Costco means you’ll be keeping it in the garage (or worse, the back seat of your car), and measuring spoons often exhibit a sock-like knack for going missing unexpectedly, particularly at a mission-critical juncture. The folks at Progressive International have more or less solved this last dilemma with four sets of measuring spoons that have mastered the art of spooning, in that they nest — and remain — together in the drawer. No more hanging spoons off a ring like a jailer’s keys. No more trying to eyeball 7.5 mL’s worth of baking soda in a 15 mL spoon.

From a design standpoint, they are elegant and really thought through. First, they have measuring bowls at both ends, one narrow for digging spices out of small-necked jars, one round and well suited to liquids. How many times have you had to wash or dry your measuring spoon because you were moving from wet to dry ingredients? Problem solved. Second, they are flat on the bottom, so they sit perfectly on the counter or stovetop, making it easy to drizzle in a little liquid from the jug of olive oil or vinegar. Third, because the stems and bowls are flush, it’s easy to scrape across the top to level off dry ingredients. Fourth, they display both metric measurements and their archaic counterparts. And finally, they lock together, keeping them beautifully compact and always at the ready in the storage drawer. As a special bonus, any spoons superfluous to your current project can remain locked together, presuming you arrange them from smallest to largest.

Measuring spoons spooning

Measuring spoons spooning

The set I have (pictured above) are made of stainless steel and snap together mechanically at the mid-section, but you can also get a snap-fit set made from plastic, and both plastic and stainless versions with embedded magnets to wed them.

Brilliant. Simple. How ever did I get along without them?

Next up for this kitchen: Progressive International has adapted the genius bit to measuring cups. Gotta get those without doubt.

[NOTE: While many of these links send you to Amazon.com, Progressive International products are available through a variety of retail channels, both brick-and-mortar and online.]

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Special kudos to iheartorganizing.blogspot.com for their photo of kitchen drawer chaos. Makes me feel like I’m right at home. And to theoatmeal.com for the first coherent explanation on why socks can’t live together in peace and harmony. [They've also neatly outlined the difference between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip in an R-rated strip.]

Shepherdless Pie — or — Don’t Kvetch About Guvech

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Gyuvech: It's not only the container... it's what's inside.

Gyuvech: It’s not only the container… it’s what’s inside.


One-paragraph history and etymology lesson rolled into one: In Bulgaria (and throughout the Balkans), meat and vegetable casseroles are often made in beautifully decorated earthenware pots known by a staggering variety of names, including guvech, gyuvech, đuveč, ѓувеч, гювеч, ђувеч, and others. The word has become not only synonymous, but indeed coterminous, with the meal prepared within it. [In that sense, it's kind of the opposite of the word restaurant, which, back in the mid-18th century, was the name of a bouillon, later morphing into its modern definition of where that bouillon is served (when bouillon is served there at all, rarely the case these days).] By the time the word reached Turkey, it had become güveç, which more or less transliterates into guvech or guvetch, which is how we know it in North America.

Just like my great-grandma didn't used to make. But someone else's did.

Just like my great-grandma didn’t used to make. But someone else’s did.

As with any casserole/stew/hotchpotch, there are something approaching an infinite number of recipes for guvetch, but I’m quite fond of this meatless commercial variety, produced in Bulgaria by Konex Foods and marketed In America by Indo-European Foods under the label ZerGüt. It may be my favourite guvetch because it’s the only kind I’ve ever had (which is true), but it’s quite delicious on its own terms. According to a spokesperson for Konex, the commercial recipe is derived from one handed down by one of the company founder’s ancestors. The vegetarian guvetch they market (pictured above) is a simple mélange of aubergines, peppers, potatoes, carrots, water, sunflower oil, green beans, tomato paste, peas, salt, okra, onion, sugar, and parsley, with no preservatives, artificial flavours, or colours. At 250 calories per 19 oz. bottle, it’s easy on the diet, too.

A potful of potatoes.

A potful of potatoes.

Flash forward to earlier this evening. I’d had a hankering for shepherd’s pie, but there wasn’t any ground lamb to hand, and I decided to take a whack at a vegan version.

SHEPHERDLESS PIE

Ingredients
2 large Russet potatoes
4 smallish yams (about a pound or so)
3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tsp salt
1 jar ZerGüt guvetch

Directions
Set a pot of salted water on to boil. Peel potatoes and yams; cook in boiling water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain. Return to pot and mash with almond milk and salt; set aside to cool slightly.

Mashed potatoes, yeah.

Mashed potatoes, yeah.

Divide guvetch evenly into six ramekins. Microwave on high for about 2 minutes to warm.

Microwave me, baby!

Microwave me, baby!

Here’s where I got silly. The simple thing to do would have been to spoon the mashed yam-and-potato mixture on top, fluffing it with a fork to create those peaks that would brown underneath the broiler (about 8 minutes, and rotate the tray at 4 minutes). Instead, I pulled out a pastry bag and a star tip, and piped the potatoes in over the guvetch. Totally unnecessary, totally fun.

Sack o' spuds.

Sack o’ spuds.

If you decide to do it that way, work in a circular motion from the edge toward the center, finishing with a little peak on top.

Piped, but not yet piping hot.

Piped, but not yet piping hot.

Place the ramekins on a foil-lined baking sheet. Eight minutes under the broiler (or you can use a kitchen torch, if you wanna get fancy about it). Rotate the pan at four minutes, and have a care, because some broilers are more efficient than the one in my sixty-year-old O’Keefe & Merritt.

Good to go, after they've cooled a tad.

Good to go, after they’ve cooled a tad.

Allow the ramekins to cool sufficiently that you can handle them — albeit gingerly — with your bare hands. Serve while warm. Makes six.

[NOTE: Bottled guvetch is available at markets that cater to an Eastern European clientele, but it can also be purchased online. The big issue here is the shipping cost, which makes it kinda prohibitive to buy a single jar. If you are willing to purchase a six-pack, you can bring your cost down to about $6.50-$8 per jar (depending on where you live), which is about twice what you'll pay for it in an ethnic market. It can be ordered online from Salonika Imports in Pittsburgh, so the closer you are to them, the less you'll pay to have it shipped. Alternatively, you could chop and heat your own vegetable mélange; Google "guvech recipe" for ideas, or just go for it as the vegetable bin provides and the spirit moves.]

Potatoes au Gratin sans Fromage (Vegan-style)

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It's plane to see.

It’s plane to see.

We’ve been doing Meatless Mondays around the pad for years now, and that frequently means one of several standbys, often involving potatoes. [What can I say, I'm Irish.] My original intent had been to take a whack at Chef Thomas Keller’s Potato Pavé recipe, but time and energy conspired against me, so I opted for Potatoes au Gratin. As luck would have it, The Bride and I dined a few days ago at Crossroads, an excellent vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, and that inspired me to retool the cheese-oozing, cream-dripping, diet-busting fave of my youth.

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a fan of ersatz food products (diet sodas largely excepted). I’d much rather have a beautifully grilled portobello mushroom served like a burger than any sort of the Frankenmeats that often try to pass themselves off as beef patties. As a consequence, my first order of business was to strike off most of the over-the-counter vegan cheese substitutes available, as they more often taste like Firma-Grip paste with a side of FD&C Yellow No. 6 than anything resembling fromage. What I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, though, was the creamy, viscous, umami-laden mouthfeel of the real deal. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Gotta give some props here to Tori Avey’s blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen, which published a recipe for Dairy-Free Saffron Scalloped Potatoes that launched me in the right direction. Basically, there are two parts to the recipe: The potatoes and onions, and the sauce. Here’s a list of ingredients:

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DAIRY-FREE, GLUTEN-FREE, VEGAN POTATOES AU GRATIN

For the Sauce:
2 tbsp non-hydrogenated butter substitute (I used Earth Balance)
3 1/2 tbsp flour (I used Cup4Cup gluten-free flour)
1 can (13.5 or 15 oz) coconut milk* — NOT THE NON-FAT OR LOW-FAT VERSION!
1 cup Almond Breeze almond milk, unsweetened
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp finely minced garlic (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder)
½ tsp tamari sauce (gluten-free soy sauce)
1 ½ tsp mustard powder
¼ tsp Piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika or cayenne powder)
1 tsp celery flakes or parsley flakes (optional)

For the Taters:
4-5 lbs Russet potatoes (you could use Yukon Gold as well, but Russets are way cheaper)
1 large onion
several dashes paprika for colour and presentation, optional

You have a couple of choices here (more if you are not acting as your own sous chef, which I was). Either make the sauce first (which I did), or slice the potatoes and onions first. If you are slicing the veggies first, please feel free to skip ahead. [Do remember to put your potato slices in a bowl of cold water to keep them from going brown while you're working on other stuff.]

Making the Sauce:

Making the roux.

Roux the day.

Melt the butter substitute (or margarine, even if it’s not called that) over medium heat in a saucepan or pot, and whisk in the flour a tablespoon at a time, stirring more or less constantly to make a roux. Let it brown a bit, maybe two minutes or so, and then begin adding the coconut milk, about 1/3 of a can at a time. [The full fat variety of coconut milk will probably have a big fatty plug at the top of the can; this is a good thing. Smooth it as you whisk.] Then add the almond milk and spices, continuing to whisk all the while (nothing says “M-m-m-m, tasty!” quite like a thumbnail-sized lump of mustard powder in your finished dish). The reason I used tamari rather than regular soy sauce was to keep the recipe gluten-free; if you don’t care about that, your basic Kikkoman will work just fine. All that need be done from here on is to keep it at a simmer; it only has to be warm (and liquid) enough to pour over the potatoes. Cover it (to keep it from reducing) and turn the heat down low while you focus on the next task: preparing the potatoes.

Preparing the Vegetables:

Spud ends.

Spud ends.

First, preheat your oven to 350ºF / 175 (actually 176.67)ºC

The potatoes (peeled or unpeeled, according to the chef’s whim) should be sliced to a thickness of about 1/8″ or so. More skilled craftsmen than I can perform this task handily with nothing more than a knife, but I use a mandoline (as you can see at the top of the post), and because I am a manly and foolhardy man, I use it without the safety guard. [THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED!] Should you find the safety guard oppressive, one alternative is to wear a steel mesh or Kevlar glove. But in the true Anthony Bourdain spirit of recklessness, well, I don’t do either of those things. That being said, not only is slicing off your fingertips or shaving your palm — a real possibility! — painful and disfiguring, it also invalidates the recipe’s claim to being vegan. (Blood, even accidentally spilled, is an animal product.) When all the potatoes are sliced (and put in a bowl of water to prevent their discolouring), repeat the process with the onion.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion's.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion’s.

Layer the potatoes and onions into a greased large baking dish or Dutch oven (I used a 5 qt. Le Creuset Braiser, which worked magnificently). First set down a layer of overlapping potato slices, then scatter some onions on it, then ladle some of the sauce over. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the dish is full (I had about 1/2 lb of sliced potatoes left, which I put in the fridge, and will roast or fry later). Sprinkle some paprika on the top, if you so desire.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Cover with foil (or put on the lid), and pop it into the oven for 60 minutes at the aforementioned 350ºF / 175ºC. By then, the potatoes should be soft and yield easily to a fork. Give them another 10 minutes in the oven uncovered, and finish them off with about 5 minutes under the broiler to brown the top (be watchful during this process, because it can go pretty fast, depending on the distance between the dish and the flame).

Remove from oven, and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes.

Brown is beautiful.

Brown is beautiful.

Coda: I realized (a little too late) that some diced green chiles would be a terrific addition to the sauce; I heated some up and spooned them over top, but it didn’t have quite the same effect. Also, you may want to add some salt (or allow your diners to) at the table, as it was a tiny bit shy on the NaCl for my taste. And a little fresh ground pepper is also nice.

*The full-fat variety of coconut milk runs about 700 calories a can, which is a not inconsiderable amount, but don’t be tempted by low- or non-fat substitutions, because they won’t provide the same mouthfeel. And when you consider how many fewer calories it has than cream (52 per ounce vs. 103), it’s totally worth the “splurge.” [Also, the almond milk is only 7.5 calories per ounce, and given that you've also left out all the cheese, there's a pretty dramatic reduction in calories compared to the standard au gratin recipe.]