Friday, January 28, 2011


Gratin doesn't mean "with cheese." It means "it's crunchy on top." That can be from breadcrumbs, from cheese, from both, from neither - my favorite gratin is gratin dauphinois, which can be made with just potatoes and milk: the starch and the milk protein makes a delicate crispy topping after a long bake.

But with lunch today I had Brussels sprouts gratin, which had both cheese and breadcrumbs. It started with quartered sprouts and chopped onions, sprinkled with Old Bay and cayenne:

Brussels sprouts, pre-gratin

Top with bread crumbs and a little grated parmesan, pour in a little milk and cream until the level of liquid comes halfway up the sprouts. Bake - I forget what, 350, 375? - until the liquid has reduced and the top is crisp. Super tasty.

Also on the plate, pimento cheese meatloaf and greens (3 parts turnip, 1 part collard, 1 part chicory):

Meatloaf, Brussels sprouts gratin, greens

Sunday, January 23, 2011

american tuna

I need to tell you about this tuna.


First of all, if you are happy with your brand of canned tuna, go away. Don't read this post. Stick with the tuna you have. Don't make yourself miserable.

Second, I got this tuna for free as part of a Serious Eats tasting panel which I don't think has ever been posted. It was one of several ingredients, but it's the best of them. They gave me two cans. I still have one.

Because I'm saving this tuna for a special occasion. It sells for $5 a can, which is $15 a pound. It's packed in neither water nor oil - the can is simply filled with tuna and a little salt. (It also comes in flavors apparently.) "Cooked only once in its natural juices." I don't know anything about standard tuna-canning practices, so I don't know if that's a surprising thing or not.

I don't like canned tuna. I really dislike tuna noodle casserole, Tuna Helper, tuna salad, and tuna salad sandwiches. I never liked them, not as an adult, not when I was growing up. I have only ever eaten them to be polite. This is just one of those little quirks you can use to impersonate me after my death, like how in my teens and twenties everyone I dated was 23 and in alphabetical order.

I like fresh tuna just fine, but I was still pretty skeptical of this canned tuna, until we made the most amazing sandwiches with them, based on the pan bagnat sandwich. I took the tuna, divided it among two pistolette-sized rolls, dressed it with sliced onions and chopped garlic and plenty of smoked olive oil, and made sure to salt it, and wrapped them individually in Saran wrap and let them sit in the fridge for a few hours to let the flavors mingle.

Holy shit.

One of the best sandwiches I've ever had.

Okay, sure, the smoked olive oil helps here. There are two brands of smoked olive out, one from California and the other one - this is the other one, smoked over pine. I haven't had the domestic, it might be great, but I know this one is (sorry I'm forgetting the name, but La Tienda sells it).

But the tuna!

I don't even know how to explain why it's so good. It tastes like tuna! Like real tuna. Not like canned tuna. And it doesn't have that cat food smell. But there's got to be more to it, because somehow I know using freshly cooked tuna wouldn't make the same kind of sandwich as the canned stuff did. It's like this can of tuna tastes to me like what other cans of tuna taste to people who for some weird reason love canned tuna. Like I finally get it.

$15 a pound sounds ridiculous, but it's $2.50 a sandwich, and I've made cold cuts sandwiches that cost that much, and steak sandwiches that cost considerably more.

But still.

I'm saving this can for a special occasion.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

amaro: campari, rabarbaro zucca

Campari, Rabarbaro Zucca

Like I said, on Okay Check It Out twenty-eleven is the year of the amaro. We've talked about amari before. I'm using it as more or less synonymous with "potable bitters," which some people object to - Campari isn't considered an amaro, for instance, and furthermore anything that isn't Italian shouldn't really be called one.

But there just isn't another good word. "Potable bitters" is a little bit shit, and it's a jargony term that only exists because there's nothing better. So I'll use amaro. The distinction between what technically really truly is and isn't an amaro will never ever be important, I promise.

What I mean by amaro, then, or by potable bitter, is, to recap, a liqueur with significant levels of bitterness -- or alternately, a low-proof bitter with added sweetness. It all depends which angle you look at it from. We're not talking about Angostura, is the point. You can use an amaro by the dash, the way you do Ango - and you can use Ango by the shot, the way you do Campari - but traditionally you don't.

There's a wide range of flavor in this category - potentially as wide as in "liqueur" itself, but in practice most amari are some combination of fruity, herbal, minty, anisey, or medicinal, in addition to their bittersweetness.

I mean to cover one a month, but we're starting with a doubleshot because Campari is the best known and most widely available amaro, and Rabarbaro Zucca is quite similar to it. Both are kind of fruity - not compared to Aperol, and not as much as the bright red color of Campari would make you think, but fruitier than many other amari. Though Zucca means squash/gourd/pumpkin, that's just the name of the family that's been making Rabarbaro since 1845, and rabarbaro means rhubarb. It's delicious stuff. Not exactly the same as Campari by any means, but closer to Campari than any other amaro I've had.

It's ridiculous the way you hear people describe the flavor of Campari - seriously, google it and you will find multiple cases referring to it as a cherry liqueur, with which it has nothing in common but its bright red color - so I won't add to that. Campari doesn't taste like anything else, really. Amari have so many different ingredients that you mostly wind up with something that tastes like itself. What does curry taste like, coconut? Yes and no - it may have coconut milk in it, but if you got "curry tastes like coconut" fixed in your head, you'd be awfully confused by your dinner.

What is true of Campari - and Rabarbaro - is that it's quite sweet. A lot of people, especially newcomers to the category, don't realize this at first, because there is this persistent notion that bitterness and sweetness are opposed. But the truth is that once you get used to the flavor of amari, the limiting factor on drinking something like Campari sweet isn't its bitterness - it's its sweetness. It's simply too sweet to drink straight up, as sweet as limoncello or maraschino.

You can drink any amaro with club soda or tonic, and that's my default for trying a new one out - it's the perfect way to experience the flavor of a new amaro without being distracted by whether or not it's working with the rest of your cocktail ingredients.

The most common Campari recipe is the Negroni - equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes is my favorite when using Campari; Noilly Prat and Dolin are both much superior to the Martini & Rossi in your supermarket). This was my gateway not only to Campari but to cocktails: I wasn't even sure I liked it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it, because nothing else had tasted like that. The age of Negroni novelty is ending, if it hasn't ended already; wiseass twenty year old kids will be mixing up cocktails in their dorm rooms that they read about on blogs now, instead of making do with rum and Coke or Canton and Sprite like I did, just like they're jumping into sous vide and mail order molecular gastronomy kits instead of wrestling with the Joy of Cooking for a few years. That's just how it goes. But for me, the Negroni was far outside my drinking experience, my tasting experience.

The Americano is a lower-proof Negroni, substituting club soda for the gin. Campari also works well with ginger (I love it with Buffalo Rock Southern Spice ginger ale), pineapple (you can't quite tell in the photo, but I often drop a pineapple core into my Campari bottle), all citrus juices, gin, genever, and whiskey. I've never really gotten it to work nicely with tequila, but I can't say I've tried too hard either - I don't do a lot of tequila drinks.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I had sauce leftover from braising oxtail. That's where dinner starts.

I had taken the braising liquid - stock, crushed tomatoes, carrots, and celery - and cooked it down with the last couple scraps of meat left from the oxtail, periodically mashing the vegetables as it all cooked down to the consistency of tomato paste. A few bits of rosemary went in as seasoning.

Well, I could put it on fresh baked bread, I thought, but hadn't made bread, and the oven has been braising a piece of beef shin all day, for dinner tomorrow.

It's the kind of thing that would be good on gnocchi, but I had used up my potatoes on a failed attempt at rappie pie (attempting to use a juicer to yield the nice dry potato solids that are the starting point for rappie pie had created only murky potato juice and no solids at all) and a gratin dauphinois.

Okay, so no gnocchi. But what about gnudi, which uses cheese (and sometimes greens) instead of potato? (The gn in gnocchi and gnudi is pronounced like the gn in jalapegno popper, not like in Gary Gnu.) I'd never made them. I'd never even eaten them. Sounded like a good Tuesday night plan.

Gnudi are pretty easy. A little fiddly but not a big deal. I eyeballed the dough to accord to the roughly 8 ounces of ricotta I had, so you want to check a real recipe, probably. But what I did was -

Beat 1 egg and 1 egg yolk.

Add roughly 8 ounces of ricotta, 1/2 cup grated hard cheese (mostly parmigiano, some aged gouda), and I think a little less than 1/2 cup flour. I seasoned it with a little oregano and a little smoked paprika, but the oregano comes through stronger than I'd like, and maybe herb flavors should be left to the sauce.

After chilling the dough until dinner, I floured my large cutting board and rolled the dough into logs, which I cut into bite-size pieces. (They'll expand quite a bit in cooking, doubling in size.)


Heat a pot of water, and when it boils, add the gnudi. Let them simmer for four minutes. Meanwhile, brown a pat of butter in a small non-stick pan. When the gnudi have cooked, remove them one at a time with a slotted spoon and add to the hot butter pan, cooking for another 2-3 minutes until a little browned.

Gnudi with oxtail tomato paste

Sauce with oxtail tomato paste. The gnudi are light, kind of fluffy, like dumplings. The sauce is rich and savory. It all works out.

200th post!

We had tacos with the Golden Globes Sunday night, and the salsa - which started out simply as "well, this is what I got at Market Basket, what can I do with it?" - was so good that I've been trying to find other things to do with it for the rest of the week. (The tacos themselves were centered around pork belly, which was cured with chili con carne seasoning, simmered to soften the skin, smoked, and then cubed and deep-fried before being put on warm pita - in lieu of flour tortillas - smeared with the salsa and some monterey jack cheese.)

Fry up one onion, chopped, until it starts to soften; add a large amount of garlic (20 cloves or so) and continue to fry until the garlic gets some color; add five medium to large tomatilloes, a little Mexican oregano, a little chile pepper (I used dried jalapeno), and just enough water for it to all simmer in until the garlic is soft. If you have cilantro roots, add them at the simmering stage.

Puree everything until as smooth as possible, put back in the pot, and cook down until thick - not quite as thick as tomato paste, but certainly as thick or thicker as jarred salsa.

Puree again, this time adding the leaves from one large bunch of cilantro, and the flesh of one ripe avocado. The cilantro will be the bulk of the volume, so with an immersion blender it will take a fair bit of blending to get the sauce smooth - with a Cuisinart you'll be scraping the sides of the bowl a lot.

Season with a bit of salt and a lime's worth of juice.

It may sound like salsa verde mixed with guacamole, but the cilantro and garlic are really the focus - everything else is in a supporting role.

Friday, January 14, 2011

They ruined your cream, your chicken, your pork, and your tomatoes. Don't let them take your grapefruit away!

The food industry believes that the only grapefruit you want is red grapefruit. The state of Texas - which contributes more of the world's grapefruit crop than most countries - adopted the red grapefruit as its state fruit, and incentivizes its growth, which makes it less profitable for Texan farmers to grow the original white grapefruit. Responding to the perceived popularity of the milder, sweeter, more insipid grapefruit, Florida growers developed their own red grapefruit varieties, reducing their white grapefruit output accordingly. You rarely even see pink grapefruit anymore - a lot of them have been rebranded as red.

Red grapefruit have more special magical pigments in them that cure cancer and shingles and rainy days and mean people, so fine, there's that.

But white grapefruit - the OG original grapefruit, originally called the shaddock, a descendant of the pumelo and the sweet orange - is tarter than the pinkos, giving you the best of all citrus worlds: sweetness, juiciness, acidity, and bitterness (which is greatly reduced if you don't eat the membrane). It is my favorite fruit.

If you don't live in the citrus region, it can be hard to find out of season - and sometimes even in season - as it's less likely to be imported, despite still being the default grapefruit in the rest of the world. But right now it's in season, and cheap! 39 cents each here, though I heard they were two bucks each at Whole Foods last week.

The classic grapefruit presentation is halved, with a knife or narrow spoon used to loosen each segment half from the membrane so it can be scooped out. This is how I grew up eating grapefruit, originally adding sugar - I grew up in white grapefruit days. You can also sprinkle a little white or brown sugar on top and broil the grapefruit until the sugar caramelizes.

But it's not terribly hard to cut supremes from a grapefruit, especially when they're cheap and you don't mind some waste. Put the grapefruit on your cutting board, and slice a thin slice from each pole (where the stem or navel dent is). Then slice the rind off in strips, longitudinally:


Wicked easy, guy.

Slicing the rind off makes it easy to see where the membrane is. You just run your knife along it, at a slight angle, and the segments practically pop out.


No big whoop. Sure, it's more work than peeling a satsuma. What do you want, a medal?

Now you've got some nice grapefruit supremes to put in a salad with avocado, mint, and nut oil, or a few flecks of Sechuan buttons, or on top of your panna cotta, or what have you.

And obviously there's grapefruit juice. White grapefruit juice is an extremely flexible cocktail ingredient - goes with gin, goes with tequila, goes with whiskey, goes with rum, and it's tart enough to hold up where orange juice is typically lost. Try it with any amaro (extensive coverage of which will be an ongoing thing on this blog throughout 2011, which I am now declaring The Year Of The Amaro).

Hop to it, get on those sales.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Well-organized joes.

Well-organized joes

Small chili-seasoned meatballs simmered in puree of chipotle, ramps, and culantro; pickled onions; smoked hunter's cheese; Martin slider-sized potato rolls.

Nothing sloppy here.


Yankees don't know about eating black eyed peas on New Year's for good luck. This is why they always start the year with such shitty weather and can't even grow strawberries until June.

I made a sort of red beans and rice thing, with lamb shank cured into ham and simmered with Rio Zape beans and bay leaves, and then shredded. Added some smoked chaurice - Louisiana's third best sausage, after boudin and fresh chaurice (sorry andouille, you're #5 at best, after green onion sausage).

Black-eyed peas

The black-eyed peas are deep-fried, drained, seasoned with Old Bay and hot sauce. The onions are pickled - red beans and rice always, always tastes best with a little bit of pickled onion or pickled garlic, don't ask me why. That's how you do.

Also, happy birthday to my brother! He turns 32 today.