Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kale with Garlic Cream (inspired by Ribelle)

"This is what you do on your days off?" asked Craig Hutchinson, chef de cuisine at Ribelle.  He looked at me incredulously as I pressed the eggplant with all my might, which was probably no where near strong enough for his standards.  The box of eggplant was the size of a suitcase.  It was salted overnight before being fried for caponata.  Squeezing the water out of it one handful at a time was my kitchen initiation project.

Ribelle is a breath of fresh air in the stifling Boston food scene.  Most farm-to-table Boston restaurants have delightfully polished service, dietary restriction and picky eater friendly menus, and nicely plated, but timidly seasoned food.  But in comes Tim Maslow and takes our restaurant scene by storm.  In my opinion, Tim's forte, at both Strip-T's and the more polished Ribelle, is vegetables.  They are not a garnish, not an afterthought, not a safe vegetarian option, and definitely not repentance food.  They masterfully handled to show off their natural beauty, and then showered with luxury rarely bestowed on produce.  The refreshing salad of sprouts and herbs sits atop sumac honey butter.  If you've never had a salad with butter, you don't know what you are missing.  The emerald ruffles of flash charred kale are drizzled with oyster cream and topped with crunchy quinoa.  The caponata is sweet, tangy, and dense, every drop of wateriness removed leaving only the luscious eggplant with the richness and depth to rival a bone marrow or sweetbreads.  The bitterness of charred chicories is tamed by a whisper of cured ham grated on a microplane.

While lingering oven coffee at one of our many Ribelle meals, I suddenly realized what my next learning experience was going to be.  I was not going to go to Turkey or Mexico to take more tourist cooking classes that I find so infuriating.  I was going to do whatever it takes to spend a few days at Ribelle.  These internships are not usually easy to arrange, but to my surprise Tim answered the first e-mail I sent him and graciously agreed to let me chop some vegetables and torment his fabulous crew with my never-ending questions.  I didn't exactly put it in those terms.  Maybe that's why he agreed.

Why on earth I do these restaurant internships is puzzling not only to my students, but also to the restaurant staff, and sometimes even to me.  The students want to know if the restaurants are not nervous about giving away their "secrets."  I usually compare it to the Boston symphony worrying about giving away the score of Beethoven's 5th symphony with conductor's notes.  Good cooks don't have secrets, they have skills.  If you get skills like that, you can cook their food.  Craig asked me if he should expect half of their menu to show up in my classes.  I think he was kidding.  What home cook is going to smoke, braise, dehydrate, and then deep fry pig skin just to get a garnish for their pasta!

Ribelle cooks jump through many hoops to produce that idealized rusticity we are so fond of.  My job is to translate their culinary poetry into the language of home cooks without losing its essence.  Not all restaurant cooking is translatable.  Even Nabokov couldn't translate Pushkin into English and he was a master of both languages.  That's like translating Alinea into home cooking.  Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should.  But Shakespear's white verse is delightful in other languages, particularly in a masterful translation.  So is the cooking of restaurants like Ribelle carefully translated to use the equipment present in a typical home kitchen.  For example, the octopus at Ribelle is cooked sous-vide at 185F for 8 hours.  There are many reasons why this would not be the best method in 99.9% of home kitchens.  But it inspired me to try cooking octopus in oil in 200F oven for 3-4 hours.  The results were every bit as succulent as at Ribelle.

The kale dish seemed deceptively simple, so that's where I decided to start.  At Ribelle, the cooks put kale into a hot skillet for a few minutes without stirring.  Finish with salt and sherry vinegar.  The bottom ends up charred and crisp and the top juicy and bright green.  After having trouble achieving the same effect at home, I asked Jen Yang for advice.  Jen, the line cook who makes dozens of plates of this delightful kale every night at Ribelle, said she had trouble with it at home too.  A home burner just doesn't give you enough heat, she said.  This gave me an idea.  I preheated the oven to 500F.  Started kale in a preheated pan on the stove top and popped it into 500F oven for 2 minutes.  This provided that infernal ambient heat the restaurant cooks rely on, and I managed to turn the top of kale emerald green and juicy without letting it wilt.  After figuring out the foundation, I set to work on the garnishes.  I replaced oyster cream with garlic cream (no shucking skill required) and deep-fried quinoa with toasted bread crumbs (no deep-frying required).

There are many other ideas I am still digesting from the 24 hours I spent at Ribelle.  Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this kale recipe.

Kale with Garlic Cream and Toasted Bread Crumbs
Inspired by a dish at Ribelle in Brookline

Garlic Cream (can be done several days ahead and refrigerated)
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 garlic cloves, peeled, cut in half, green center removed (if any)
2-4 Tbsp whole milk

  1. Place cream and garlic into a small saucepan or skillet and simmer on low heat until garlic is fork tender, about 15 minutes. 
  2.  Take off heat, pour into a cup that can comfortably and snugly hold an immersion blender (2 cup glass pyrex cup works well).  Add enough milk so that the blade is immersed and puree until smooth.  Season with salt to taste.  You can also do this in a regular blender, but you might need to double the recipe since regular blenders are not good with small amounts.  Pyrex cup is also convenient for rewarming the cream -- pop it in the microwave -- and drizzling it over kale.

For 1 bunch of kale, you'll only need a couple of tablespoons of this cream, but the rest can stay in the fridge for up to a week and be used on all sorts of vegetables, meats, grains, and beans.  If the cream is too thick to drizzle, thin out with milk.

Toasted Bread Crumbs
1 slice high quality rustic stale bread, crust removed
1-2 Tbsp butter (depending on the size of the bread slice)

  1. Mince the bread into small crumbs.  
  2. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat.  Add the crumbs and cook stirring occasionally until evenly golden brown.

1 bunch kale, stemmed, cleaned, and dried
2 Tbsp high heat oil (grapeseed and safflower are good choices)
Sherry vinegar in a squeeze bottle

  1. Preheat the oven to 500F with a rack set in the bottom of the oven.
  2. Cut kale leaves into bite size pieces (roughly 2 inches on each side).
  3. Set a 12 inch skillet with oil over high heat.  When just starting to smoke, add the kale.  Do not stir! Cook for 1 minute and pop in the oven just until the top leaves turn bright green, about 2 minutes.
  4. Sprinkle with salt, drizzle with sherry vinegar and toss gently and quickly.  Immediately remove to a serving plate.  Drizzle with warm garlic cream and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Caramelized Onions

YouTube Link: Caramelized Onions
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

If I try to list everything caramelized onions go well with, this post will never end.  Grilled cheese, pizza, lentils, grains, beans, steak, kale, chard, broccoli rabe.  But caramelized onions with fish is not a combination I thought of until I went to Spain.  It was a revelation.  Here is some slow cooked tuna with Spanish parsley sauce (parsley, lemon zest and juice, garlic, walnuts, and olive oil) and caramelized onions on toast.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Seafood Paella

Let's continue our Spanish Seafood series.  Today's dish is so famous and infamous that it's almost scary to write about.  I am talking about Paella.  There seem to be two extremes when it comes to Paella makers: those who think that Paella can come out of a box and those who think that unless you've got yourself a huge paella pan, wood fire, and bomba rice, it's not the real deal.  But whether or not you meet all the requirements to qualify for an authentic paella in Valencia, you can use the techniques from good paella to make a lovely dish indoors, with a regular skillet, and risotto type rice if bomba is hard to find.  To me what makes a good paella is between a fluffy pilaf and a creamy risotto and it needs that awesome crust underneath that your guests will fight over.  To help keep family peace and harmony, I like to use a pan with the biggest bottom that I have in my kitchen.  The bigger the surface area, the more crust per serving.  Feel free to improvise with seafood and vegetables -- that's what makes paella so fun.

Serves 4

Peel and devein 1 Lb medium shrimp and reserve for use later. Set a medium saucepan with 1 Tbsp olive oil over high heat. When oil shimmers, add the shrimp shells and cook stirring frequently until aromatic, 1-2 minutes. Add 3 cups water and bring to a simmer. Cook gently uncovered for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, put 1 Lb mussels in a bowl of cold water and let sit for a minute.  Wash in several changes of water, scrubbing each mussel clean and changing the water until it runs clean.  Add mussels to the pot with shrimp shells, cover, increase heat to high. Check after 2 min and start removing as soon as they open. Don't wait for them all to open.  As some open, take them out and continue cooking the rest.  Cool mussels for 1 min and cover to prevent from drying.
Strain the contents of the pot reserving the liquid and discarding the shrimp shells. Measure 1/4 tsp saffron threads; crumble them, and add to the shrimp stock. Add water as necessary to equal 3 cups.  Salt carefully to taste. Set aside.
Set a large skillet (ideally a 12 inch stainless steel with straight sides) over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add 1 diced yellow onion, 3 finely sliced garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until translucent and golden, about 10 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) and cook stirring until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add 3/4 cup crushed tomatoes, and cook stirring until all the liquid evaporates.
Add 1 and 1/2 cups bomba, arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano rice and 1/2 Lb diagonally cut green beans (if possible, the flat Spanish variety).  Stir and distribute evenly.
Pour the stock evenly over rice. Don’t stir. Cover the pan and bring to a simmer on high. At the first hint of steam escaping, reduce the heat to med-low (on electric stove might need to move to another burner) and cook until all the liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 18-20 minutes.  While paella is cooking, sprinkle shrimp with salt and pepper and drizzle with 1 Tbsp olive oil.  Shell half the mussels.
Arrange the shrimp on top of rice and turn up the heat to medium-high to form the crust. Cover the pan and cook until the crust forms on the bottom and the shrimp are almost pink, 1-2 minutes depending on the skillet and size of shrimp. Check carefully and frequently. If the shrimp are cooked before the crust forms, uncover the pan and turn up the heat. If the crust forms before the shrimp are cooked, lower the heat and keep the pan covered.
When both the crust and shrimp are done, add the mussels with and without shells.  I also like to add roasted artichokes, but that's optional.  Cover the pan and let sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
Sprinkle with parsley and serve.  See that lovely socarrat (the crust).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Quinoa Cakes with Red Cabbage and Cherries

Rare is a food blog these days that hasn't written about quinoa cakes.  But these are a little different.  Not only are they the tastiest quinoa cakes that I've tried so far, but they don't use eggs, which has a number of benefits: my egg-allergic 3 year old and my vegan students can eat them.  I got this idea from Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York times.  Does anyone else love Bittman as much as I do?  How many times has food media made you feel that your food will never be this pretty, or this tasty, or this rustic, or this modern, or this complex?  But in comes Mark Bittman, and our confidence is restored.  He takes a failure, overcooked and mushy quinoa in this case, and turns it to his advantage.  When quinoa gets mushy, it holds together without eggs, but has the capacity to turn delightfully crispy on the outside when seared in a pan.  In his signature minimalist manner, Bittman keeps these cakes simple.  The only additions are cilantro, scallions, and hot sauce.  Not only does this recipe produce lovely cakes, but it also leaves you plenty of room for creativity.  I have successfully mixed different veggie leftovers into them with great results.  Here is an example made with red cabbage that I wrote about recently.

Quinoa Cakes with Red Cabbage, Sour Cherries, and Nuts

The recipe below is adapted from Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York Times.  After making these cakes a few times, I added a few tips that make them sturdier and easier to work with.  This makes the process a bit longer, but not harder.  All the additional time is passive, so I suggest you make these the day before serving.

Serves 4

1 cup quinoa
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp table salt)
1 and 1/2 cup red braised cabbage (or cooked veggies of your choice)
Oil for frying (grapeseed and safflower smoke the least, but you can use canola or olive oil too)
Sour-cream (or thick yogurt) 
Pomegranate seeds (optional)

The day before serving (or at least 3 hours ahead)
Put the quinoa, salt, and 2 1/4 cups water into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook on low heat, until no water remains and the grains are very mushy, about 30 minutes.  Stir thoroughly to release the starch.  This will make the grains come together in a cohesive mass and will make the cakes a lot sturdier. Cover with a damp towel and wait until quinoa is cool enough to handle.

Fold the braised red cabbage into quinoa.  Taste and correct salt and pepper. With your hands, form the mixture into patties that are around 2.5 inches in diameter and 3/4 inch thick.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

To serve
Put 2 Tbsp oil into a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cakes and cook until the bottom is nicely browned and crispy, about 4 minutes. Flip, and brown on the other side, another 4 minutes. Serve immediately with sour-cream (or thick yogurt) and pomegranate seeds.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Octopus inspired by the trip to Spain (Video)

YouTube Link: Octopus (poached and broiled)
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

When Igor and Diana (my very well traveled students) asked me if I knew how to reproduce an octopus salad they had in Italy, I took this cooking challenge a tad too seriously. First order of business was to taste the octopus worth reproducing. The problem was that I've never been crazy about octopus. It always seemed a tad rubbery and sometimes stringy, but that was in the US. I was sure that somewhere in this world there was great octopus worth eating and after doing a bit of research, I decided that Spain was the place to go. Italy, Portugal, and Greece would work too, but I had other culinary interests in Spain, so that's where I went. Oh, octopus! Where have you been all my life. If I ever step again on the Spanish soil, the first thing I'll eat will be my eight-legged friend.

As soon as I got back to the States, I got to work and am now cooking octopus successfully.  The bad thing is that I got my 3 year old addicted to it and it turns out to be more expensive than getting your kid addicted to raw tuna.

Buying Octopus
Octopus turned out to be quite simple to cook well, but very difficult to buy well. Let's start with the fact that all octopus sold in Boston is previously frozen. In theory that should tenderize it, but I've had some excellent frozen octopus and some terrible one too. The terrible one (bought at a really good fish market, by the way) refused to get tender no matter how long I'd cook it. I have a feeling that freezing alone is not enough. Most Mediterranean cooks know that in order to be tender, octopus has to be beaten into submission. I have a feeling that some of the octopus that I've tried was not beaten enough. That's just my hypothesis. By the time the octopus was in my hands, it was too late to ask it, and the fishmongers would often shrug their shoulders when asked about the provenance of their octopus.

The one place that consistently sells me excellent octopus is the New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge.  Their octopus cooks to perfect tenderness every time.  They are also very helpful with cleaning.  The head is usually already empty on a frozen octopus, but you still need to remove the beak that's located between all the legs underneath the head.  If you haven't cooked much octopus before, ask your fishmonger to do this for you.  If your fishmonger doesn't know how to clean an octopus, it's not a good sign.

Mar 7, 2014 update:  Just got an excellent octopus from A&J Seabra in Framingham.  It was from Portugal and sold frozen.  They can't take the beak out for you since it's frozen, but it's easy if you cut between 2 legs to help you get access to it.  Defrost in the fridge for a day or two depending on the size.  At $7/Lb, it's the cheapest octopus I've seen in Boston.

The Shrinkage Factor
When I bought my first octopus, I thought it was one of the cheapest seafood ingredients at $9/Lb.  But after cooking it, I realized it's one of the most expensive.  I can't think of any animal that shrinks more than an octopus during cooking.  A 5 Lb octopus yielded 1.25 Lb of usable meat after cooking and scraping off the gelatinous skin, so plan on at least 1 Lb of raw octopus per person.