I've been thinking about the earth lately. Not so much on a global scale. Just a 2 acre slice.
Living in the foothills means that I get to experience a sense of protection provided by the mountains that loom in the background. It also means that in early spring, as the melting snow runs off the mountains, there will inevitably be a wet bog that forms in a hollow in my backyard. In the nearly 10 years that I have lived on this property, I have alternately celebrated and waged war on Mother Nature. Just when I dare to believe that I have one-upped her, she reminds me, every spring like clockwork, that I chose that hollow to plant a vegetable garden.
Gardening has taught me many things, not least of which is patience and hope. Patience is what gets me through 4 long months of winter and hope that when I can finally get a shovel in the ground that it will scoop up a glorious mound of loose, friable earth instead of a clump of sodden mud. Both patience and hope is what it will take to get me to try again next week. And the next.
Digging is to gardening what dishwashing is to cooking; ineluctable. Earth must be moved and displaced, there's no getting around that. I've moved vast amounts of earth around here with nothing more than a shovel, wheelbarrow, and the willingness of my back. Now, I'm beginning to imagine what a machine will do.
I've been on construction sites and watched backhoes at work. It amazes me how effortlessly they slice into the earth and reveal striations of soil, peat, rock and clay, like the layers of a cake. It makes me consider the mysterious world that lives under our feet. After all, treasure is found by digging. And so is history.
This morning, as I walked around the yard, I took note of how much of the earth is uncovered and exposed. I thought about all of the tubers, crowns, and roots that lie dormant just beneath the surface. I wondered if they have survived the winter; if they were protected and insulated and are now rested and ready to leave their subterranean home and emerge into the layers of light and air.
Soon, my attention will waver to the life that will occupy the space above the ground, but for now, I'm thinking about the hidden, underlying landscape beneath the earth.
Spring onions begin to appear in late February. They look like pregnant scallions but are actually immature onions, harvested before the bulbs are fully formed.
The best spring onions are of the sweet Vidalia variety. Their sugar content mimics that of an apple; sweet enough to eat raw, but infinitely better when caramelized with just a bit of butter and a sprinkle of salt.
Because of their high water content, my preferred method of caramelization is dry heat. I split them in half lengthwise, lay them out in a single layer--but crowded together--on baking sheets. A sprinkling of salt draws out their moisture, while a brushing of melted butter keeps them from drying out. After a half hour or so in a 350F oven, and a few turns, they come out as a contrast of textures: soft and unctuous at the bulb, crisp and brittle at the tops, all of it sweet as candy.
Sometimes, when I want a more melting texture, I cook them on top of the stove, slowly sweating them until they release their moisture, then turn up the heat to caramelize the sugars.
This time, I've combined the methods, starting them on top of the stove until soft and golden, then spread them out on silicone and baked at 200F until they dried into nutty-sweet clusters and flakes that can only be described as granola-y.
My kitchen is beginning to look like a dairy lab with containers of cream at various stages of infusion and ripening. Fortunately, the local grocer stocks pasteurized cream, so I don't have to go far when inspiration strikes.
lemon thyme beurre monté
The first of the infusions-- lemon thyme, was made by gently warming the cream to 125F/52C to more readily allow the release of essential oils from the herb, then chilled and infused overnight before culturing. It occurred to me while churning this butter that I could perhaps have saved a step by letting the infusion take place simultaneously with the culturing. It's back to the store to test that idea. Of course, I could have skipped the ripening stage and churned the butter directly from the chilled, infused cream, but I am currently enamored with the plangent and resounding flavor of cultured butter.
Infusing at the cream stage is, so far, turning out to be an effective way to introduce other flavors into the butter. Here, lemon thyme, whose terpenes can be assertive and overwhelming to more delicate flavors, mellowly haunts in the background of the finished butter, which is turned into a beurre monte for this dish.
Beurre monté was brought into modern cuisine by Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. It is an emulsion in which cold butter is gradually whisked into a small amount of hot water and can be heated up to 180F/82C without breaking. While it is typically made with water, I've used a lemon thyme and wine stock in a 1:4 (stock:butter) ratio to reinforce the flavor and lighten the richness of the sauce.
This dish also reflects another current fascination with pliable Parmesan , an emulsion of cheese
sherry, and sodium citrate. In the Umami burger, I used sake to boost the glutamates. Here, sherry was used to test Heston Blumenthal's groundbreaking discovery of diketopiperazines (DKPs), a compound unique to sherries that are produced by yeast activity during secondary fermentation and enhance glutamate-rich foods. Anyone who has nibbled on a well-aged cheese while sipping sherry will recognize and appreciate this symbiotic relationship. As always, flavor is what grabs my attention, but the consistency of this product also appeals to my sense of play. At room temperature it is as soft and malleable as playdoh. I can tell you about the restraint that it took to roll these pea-sized balls, but I'll spare you of the inner-child-induced 'sculptures" that took place after.
The effect of salt on dry-cured meats such as prosciutto di Parma or serrano ham is purely chemical but the transformation is so profound that it seems supernatural. Opaque muscle filaments are rendered translucent, flavorless proteins break down into concentrated glutamates, and muscle fats fragment to form a kaleidoscope of aroma compounds that range from fruity, herbal, grassy, floral, to nutty and buttery. Again, one couldn't ask for more in terms of flavor, but these hams also possesses a silky suppleness that allows it to be molded by compressing finely chopped or thinly sliced pieces. One advantage to breaking down and restructuring prosciutto is that it can be presented in playful forms that retain a resilient bite without all the chew.
Prosciutto di Parma and Parmesan cheese share not only an indelible terroir, but also similar aroma compounds. Another connection is that the pigs, whose hind legs are destined for prosciutto, are often fed the whey from the production of Parmesan. The trinity of cheese, ham, and peas is rooted in the advent of spring, when the harvest of peas marks the end of lean winter months and the beginning of the celebratory feasting season, an apt time to break out ripe-and-ready hams and cheese.
I can't say that my winter months have been lean, but I'm ready for some celebratory feasting.
In early January, the seed catalogs begin to arrive en masse. They appear unrequested as if the word has gotten out--the word that one of my great pleasures is to pore over these catalogs; dreaming, scheming, and planning. But there is also agony involved. The kind that comes from having to choose among a dizzying array of varieties within the constraint of limited time and space.
Each year, I attempt to grow something entirely new. Last year, it was garbanzo beans and artichokes--both failed miserably. But the Italian Annelino beans, red shiso and green Envy zinnias were magnificent. This year, I am casting my hopes on asparagus peas (aka Tetragonolobus, or winged bean), black kale, hops, and if all goes as planned--a brand new rose garden!
Of course, there are the standards--the vegetables and flowers that I can't do without--but which ones to choose? Do I stick with the tried and true? Go with the nostalgic heirlooms? Or try one of the new and improved?
Some things are no-brainers.
Radishes are the most generous of plants; they give so much more than they get. The seeds readily germinate within 2-5 days, even in tepid soil, freeing up premium space on the warming mat. Within a week, the thinned sprouts liven up salads and sandwiches. The rest are left to grow to maturity and are harvestable within a month. All this can even take place indoors if the weather doesn't comply and they are given plenty of light and kept moderately moist.
In the garden, radishes can be planted in the smallest of spaces or interplanted between slow-maturing crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers. They are natural cultivators, as are all root vegetables. When they are harvested, they leave a hole in the soil, allowing for aeration.
Radishes also make excellent companion plants because they contain glucosinolate--an organic compound that produces the sharp, pungent flavor of mustard, horseradish, and many members of the cabbage (Brassicaceae) family. Glucosinolate is a natural pesticide that keep the radishes, as well as their neighbors, free of most harmful pests.
Doesn't such a humble and giving plant deserve a little love?
To show my appreciation, I've fashioned these tiny, dime-sized orbs a little pot from luxurious cultured butter and sprinkled them with salty, aromatic douchi. Although this cue was taken from the French, who love their radishes with butter and salt, it's only logical...after all, what vegetable is not loved by a little butter and salt?
Last fall, I enjoyed a memorable meal at Eleven Madison Park. I would be hard pressed to tell you what I had for breakfast, but I can remember every last detail of that meal, right down to the butter. In part, that may have been because the server made a ceremony of presenting it and pointing out that it was unsalted butter from Vermont. I can't deny that it was good. In fact, it was very, very good. But I would have been more impressed if it had been made in-house.
I distinctly remember wondering, as I ate the olive-studded baguette spread with the very, very good butter, why restaurants aren't making their own butter for table service. It seems a missed opportunity for customization and bragging rights.
Is it cost, time, labor, skill? The cost is on or below par to an artisanal butter and the time and labor are negligible. Making butter is such a basic skill that a five-year-old can produce an excellent product from fresh cream, a jar, and some elbow grease. Anyone who has ever over-whipped cream (raising hand) has unwittingly made butter. What is often viewed as a disaster is, in fact, a small, everyday miracle.
Butter is essentially the fat of the milk. It is an water-in-oil emulsion, composed of 80-82 percent milk fat, 16-17 percent water, and 1-2 percent milk solids. Transforming milk into butter will take place faster and the the yield will be higher if you start with fresh, pasteurized (preferably raw, but not ultra pasteurized) heavy cream. Agitation, whether in a jar (15 minutes of constant shaking), or in a food processor (30-60 seconds), incorporates air, forms bubbles, then fat globules collect in the bubble walls. At this point, whipped cream--a light, stable foam-- is formed. If agitation continues, the friction warms and softens the fat globules to a near-liquid state, causing the walls to rupture and the fat globules to cling together, forming larger and larger masses. Knowing this is not necessary to make butter--the miracle will still happen.
After churning, the buttermilk is drained off. This buttermilk is the real deal--light, tangy, refreshing--and to some, the reward of churning your own butter. Ice water is then added to the fat crystals and they are worked together with a paddle or spatula until they are creamy and homogenized.
Making butter is rewarding to those of us who are thrilled by watching matter transform from one state to another, but anyone would be won over by the flavor of freshly-formed, sweet butter. In her new book "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through The Ages", culinary historian Anne Mendelson describes the taste of homemade butter as " the taste of cream to the nth power, cream newly translated to some rarefied spiritual afterlife." Chemically, the flavor of butter is comprised of over 120 different aroma compounds that include: fatty acids, lactones, methyl ketones, diacetyl, and dimethyl sulfide.
Aside from the inherent flavors in butter, fat has long been recognized as a flavor carrier; a vehicle to deliver whatever flavors and aromas that are put in contact with it. This is why butter is wrapped and isolated in its own compartment in storage. But this capacity to absorb can be seen as an opportunity to infuse flavor. Truffles are often buried in porous foods such as rice or eggs to infuse them with their aroma--why not store them with butter? Or other aromatics: citrus, herbs, porcini, cheese, coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans? Can garlic butter be made more efficiently by storing cut garlic cloves in a closed container with butter? Similarly, a compound butter is made by blending a flavorful or aromatic ingredient into finished butter, but this can sometimes interrupt the texture. What if flavor was introduced into the cream before churning it into butter? The infusion would have to take place at a temperature below pasteurization (185F/85C in the US) or through cold vacuum infusion. One final interesting developement with fat is that it is being studied as the sixth taste, although the actual receptors are still undiscovered.
I've made butter many times (some times, on purpose), but this is my first attempt at cultured butter, which is simply cream that has been soured (with buttermilk) and allowed to ferment or "ripen" at room temperature prior to ageing in the refrigerator. As with all fermentation, bacterial action develops acids and aroma compounds. One in particular, diacetyl, when superimposed with the compounds already present in fresh butter creates a noticeably fuller flavor that carries over into the buttermilk, which is the thickest, richest, and most flavorful that I have ever tasted. If you can resist drinking it all or turning it into amazing biscuits, it can be frozen to ripen the next batch of cultured butter.
Wait, wait, don't go...you're at the right place. Really, you are.
I know...I'm giving you a burger. But it's a special burger. Let me tell you why.
First, this is no fast food burger. It's about as slow as it gets. The hangar steak for the burger was marinated for 12 hours, then dry-aged for 3 days. The shittake buns needed to rise (twice) before being baked into soft pillows. The tomatoes were slowly roasted in a low oven to concentrate their flavor, then reduced to a paste on top of the stove. The onions were slowly caramelized, then dried until crisp in a slow oven. Even the cheese was transformed.
But the whole point of this burger is flavor. The kind of synergistic deliciousness that comes from the layering of glutamate-rich foods that produce the taste of umami.
Umami--the fifth taste--is a chemical reaction that takes place on our taste receptors to produce a pleasant savory taste. As far back as 1825, Brillat-Savarin described the taste of meat as "toothsome" which is similar to the Japanese interpretation of "deliciousness". Brillat-Savarin also sagely foretold that the "future of gastronomy belongs to chemistry". As it turns out, it was chemistry that led to our understanding of glutamates, a type of amino acid, and the discovery of the synergy that occurs when foods containing glutamates are combined, the resulting taste is increased and magnified exponentially. [Does that make umami a fractal taste?].
Recently, scientists have uncovered the way that glutamates activates the nerves on our tongues. Referred to as the "Venus flytrap" mechanism,"Glutamate lands on your tongue and nestles into a glutamate-shaped depression on an umami receptor. Upon contact, the receptor--an enormous, folded protein--changes shape and grasps the glutamate. That shape change also activates the neuron that tells your brain you are tasting umami. Inosinate(compound found in meat) and guanylate(compound found in mushrooms) can bind to a seperate part of the umami receptor. Once bound, they tighten the receptors grip on glutamate, increasing its ability to taste up to 15-fold before the receptor relaxes its grip."
To understand this principle, we have only to examine the intuitive use of umami in world cuisine and how it has led to the foods that we crave. In Italy there is the popular trio of bread, tomatoes and cheese that takes on many forms. In the US, we have the burger and fries--an umami symphony of beef, bread, cheese, tomato, and potato. Mexico has its tacos and wide use of cornmeal and black beans. England loves its fish & chips and Australia knows the secret of Vegemite. Every culture has its versions of charcuterie and fermented beverages. But it is perhaps Asia that has the most extensive and refined applications of umami with their use of fermented soy products, seaweed, cured fish, and mushrooms--all sources of highly-concentrated glutamates.
Interestingly, we have glutamate receptors in our stomachs as well as our mouths. When the receptors in the stomach are stimulated, they send a message to the brain, which then sends an order back to the stomach to start digesting. Latest studies show that glutamates may play an important role in our digestion of protein. Wouldn't it be nice if, for once, something that tastes good turned out to be not only good for us, but essential to our health?
Breads are a good source of glutamates because of fermentation, a process that unbinds protein molecules and allows the release of bound-up glutamate.
Dried shittakes (used here) contain 1060mg of glutamate(guanylate) per 100g as opposed to fresh, which contain 71mg/100g. The dough also contains soy sauce and fermented black beans to produce an incredibly savory and fragrant bread with a soft texture attributed to the addition of milk and eggs.
Ripe tomatoes have 10 times more glutamates than unripe. Roasting tomatoes also concentrates the glutamates and deepens the flavor. Kecap manis (sweetened soy sauce) is added in the reduction stage to increase the umami and mimic the ripening.
Most of the umami in tomatoes is concentrated in the seeds and inner membranes, so be sure to leave them in when cooking and strain out later.
Parmesan has the highest concentration of glutamates among cheese with 1680mg per 100g. As a general rule: the older and drier the cheese, the more umami. Because Parmesan is very dry, it doesn't make a good "melty" cheese--a requirement for a good burger--yet there had to be a way to make it work. Digging through online science journals, I hit on the secret to making processed cheese. It's as simple as using sodium citrate as an emulsifying salt. With just two ingredients--sake (for umami) and sodium citrate-- it became possible to turn dry and crumbly Parmesan into a soft and supple sheet.
Pre-cooking potatoes with dry heat is the best way to achieve a crackling-crisp crust with soft, fluffy innards and the microwave is much quicker than an oven.
Scoff if you want, but I make my fries at home in the microwave. On second thought, don't scoff until you try it. The process is so simple and the results so satisfying that you'll wonder why you never did it this way before:
Every time that I eat osso bucco, I think of Billy Collins' eponymous poem:
"I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine."
charred artichoke lemon garlic
crisp artichoke blossoms
It's a shame that osso bucco isn't found on more fine dining menus-- what with its angel-soft meat and secret marrow. I suspect that the clumsy bone is part of the problem. Removing it makes for a more refined presentation and controlled portion.
As much as I love the cross-section of shank, I'll admit that my favorite cut of veal is the breast. The long-fibered brisket, when slooowly braised between layers of fat with the rib bones attached, is pure nirvana. The only thing missing is the marrow... until now [thank-you Activa].
Today was probably not the best day for this dish.
Earlier in the week when I purchased the oxtails, there was a fresh blanket of snow on the ground and I was craving a rich, hearty braise. There was still a chill in the air when I put them in a low oven and braised them late into the night, falling asleep to the comforting smell of malt and meat.
But today, as the snow quickly melted on this unseasonably warm day, my appetite wavered to peas and radishes and young, fresh food. So I wrapped it up and put it away for tomorrow, when the cold will return along with a craving for slow-cooked meat.
oxtail braised in malt
Oxtails are full of connective tissue that contain collagen proteins. When cooked at temperatures above 65C, the collagen breaks down into gelatin. The shredded meat can be shaped and compressed and the gelatin will help it hold its shape. This technique can be applied to any hard-working cut of meat that is cooked long and slow such as pulled pork or lamb shanks.
Almonds and nuts can be treated like grains if they are first cooked until tender. This can take a long time by conventional methods. A pressure cooker will tenderize nuts in under an hour, depending on the variety and age.
To make almond risotto, chopped slivered almonds are toasted until golden and fragrant, then cooked in stock until tender. The stock is reduced at the end of the cooking until syrupy. Drained yogurt or labne is stirred in at the end to round out the flavor with a bit of tartness.
I didn't decide to pair beef heart with beetroot because it made a catchy title. That was just a bonus.
The inspiration was a salad that featured thin slices of grilled heart with chopped beets and spinach. It was a fine salad but it was lacking something to cut through the sameness of it. That something, I decided, was a kick of horseradish.
A mayonnaise seemed an appropriate vehicle for the horseradish and I was intrigued by the one that Chad made from a fluid gel. The concept was sound: the fluid gel provided texture within a flavor base of horseradish-infused milk, and the addition of oil gave it a creamy roundness.
heart of palm
The beef with a heart of beet was an opportunity to try out Activa GS. The GS differs from RM in that it contains gelatin which is synergistic with transglutaminase. A thick slurry (3 parts water, 1 part GS, salt, pepper) was brushed onto thin slices of raw beef heart, then wrapped around a cylinder of pre-cooked beet. It was left to activate overnight, then sous vide at 60C (140F) for 35 minutes.
My very first SLR camera-- a Nikon EM-- was a wedding gift. It was the perfect camera for me; small, lightweight, and reliable.
At first, I used it to record the markers in my life that I thought I might someday want to look back at. I was never good at documenting with pen and paper, it was a struggle to make words behave the way that I wanted them to, but somehow the camera always knew what to say. And just as importantly, what to leave out.
I was glad to have a reliable camera when the kids came along. No parent realizes how fleeting childhood is when you're knee-deep in the business of it, until you look back at the markers. In the blink of a shutter, they grow up and buy their own cameras and take their own pictures and you find yourself filling up rolls of film with photos of pets, plants, and flowers (which grow up fast too, but don't make faces when you point a camera at them).
A few years ago, I set aside my Nikon for the instant gratification of a digital camera. I lusted for a Digital Rebel, but ended up buying a Powershot. For the money, it took fine pictures of pets, plants, flowers and the occasional teenager. Before this blog, I never really photographed food before. I quickly learned that, like plants and flowers, food likes to be shot up-close and in diffused natural daylight. Not having to pay for film and processing really shortened the learning curve.
Recently, I noticed that my Powershot had developed a blurry spot that I couldn't get rid of. I wondered if you noticed it too. When it became obvious that I would have to replace it, the time seemed right for the Rebel XSi. I decided to forgo the kit lens and invested in a 50mm 1.4 for its shallow depth of field and buttery bokeh. I went a little shutter crazy this past week, snapping hundreds of photos of objects, inside and outside of my house. I've posted some of them on my new Flickr page, if you care to look. There aren't any photos of teenagers, or any food just yet. But there are some of pets, and the plants and flowers will come soon enough.