Monday, December 29, 2008

Risotto -- can a lazy method yield better results?

Our instructor at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) told us that risotto was his favorite dish to make for his mother-in-law. "I'd love to continue this lovely conversation," he'd say to her, "but risotto needs my undivided attention." This didn't provide him with the proper distance from his mother-in-law (that would require thousands of miles), but at least it put them into different rooms: her in the dining room, and him safely in the kitchen.

I have good news and bad news for you my friends. The good news is that I found a hands-off method that produces more consistently perfect risotto than the traditional constant stirring method. The bad news is that you might need a different excuse to put a little distance between you and the mother-in-law.*

Any purists, should stop reading this post immediately. Risotto by definition should be cooked in uncovered pot on the stove top, adding liquid gradually, and stirring constantly. The reason I was looking for an alternative cooking method is not because I don't enjoy masochistic kitchen tasks. It's because I was never happy with the results the stirring method produced.

There are two ways to stir a risotto: with a wooden spoon or by tossing the whole sloppy mess by jerking the pan. The first method is easy, but produces less than stellar results. Your spoon inevitably crushes some rice grains making them leak starch and resulting in a gluey risotto. It also doesn't rotate the grains from the bottom of the pot to the top of the pot evenly, so the texture can be a uneven -- either some grains end up too mushy or too crunchy. The jerk of the pan method is what most professionals use, but I've had trouble mastering it. I can toss dry things in a skillet with no problems, but I find soupy things harder to toss.

After a little experimentation, I found that an oven risotto is not a lazy man's compromise, it's better than any risotto I've ever made at home. Perfectly even doneness, intact rice grains, lovely sauce that's starchy, but not gluey. Simply delicious.

Here is the basic idea. You start the usual way. Sweat some very finely diced onion (I prefer to use shallots) in olive oil until translucent. Add rice and stir until the grains are translucent except for the center. Add wine and stir until absorbed. When it's time to add the stock, you have to make some adjustments. Since risotto will cook in the oven covered, the liquid won't have a chance to reduce (evaporate somewhat thus concentrating the flavor) as it does in traditional risotto. To compensate for this, I use slightly reduced stock to begin with. The beet stock is usually so intense there is no need to concentrate it further. If I use reconstituting liquid from dry porcini as stock (my favorite risotto in the world), I make sure to use plenty of mushrooms for the amount of liquid. To tell you the truth, I never bother making risotto with chicken stock, but if you were to do that, you might want to boil the stock uncovered for about 30 minutes before using it in the oven risotto. Don't use store bought stock for risotto no matter which method you use. Commercial stocks get too salty when reduced, and even if you get unsalted stock, its shortcomings will be too obvious in a delicate dish like risotto.

Now that you have that very flavorful liquid, pour it into your rice, season to taste with salt, stir until the liquid comes to a simmer, cover, and pop it in the oven. I let the oven do 90% of the cooking, but save the last few minutes for the stove top. This results in very even doneness, but lets me control exactly how al dente I wan the risotto to be. The last few minutes work just like a normal risotto. If the grains are still a little tough, add more liquid and stir the risotto on the stove top for 1-2 minutes. I prefer my risotto all'onda (on the liquidy side), so I add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of liquid once I reach the desired doneness to loosen it.

The beautiful thing is that now you can make fabulous risotto for company by making your stock and cooking the shallots in advance. When it's time to serve the risotto, it will only need your attention for the first 3-4 minutes in the beginning and the last 1-2 minutes in the end. The rest of the time, you are free to entertain your guests.

Oven Risotto

Note about liquids: this basic recipe lends itself to infinite variations through the use of different stocks and acidic ingredient. Here are some ideas:

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: Slightly reduced vegetable or chicken stock, only if home-made. Water is a fine alternative, but boxed stocks aren't.
Chunky additions: any tasty vegetable -- roasted butternut squash, blanched asparagus, green peas, etc.

* * *

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: Reconstituting liquid from dry porcini made by soaking 2 oz of dry porcini (if possible imported) in 3 cups boiling water for at least 30 minutes. Strain through a paper towel lined sieve to catch grit before using
Chunky additions: sautéed or roasted mushrooms (chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, portabellas, etc.)

* * *

Acidic ingredient: orange juice
Stock: beet stock made by boiling scrubbed, whole, unpeeled beets in water until tender (1.5-2 hours for medium beets). When beets are done, remove them from water, cool slightly, and rub the skin off with your hands. Then you can finely dice them to use in the risotto or make something else with them.
Chunky additions: finely diced beets from stock or even better -- roasted beets.
By the way, that's the risotto in the picture.

* * *
Acidic ingredient: Red wine
Stock: beef stock, only if home-made
Chunky additions: this one doesn't really need an addition, but the bone marrow from roasted bones, or seared sweet breads would not be out of place
The wine is the star in this red wine risotto, so you might want to replace some of the stock with additional wine.

* * *

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: shrimp or lobster stock
Chunky additions: shrimp, lobster, crab, scallops

* * *

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: corn stock (see corn soup for recipe)
Chunky ingredient: fresh corn kernels cut from the cob
Only make this with outstanding corn in the summer!

* * *

Serves 4 as the first coarse (or 2 as the main coarse)

1/3 cup very finely diced shallot (about 2 medium shallots)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano rice (do not substitute other rice!)
1/3 cup acidic ingredient, such as dry white wine (see note above)
2 cups stock, plus another 1/2 cup to finish risotto (see note above)
2 Tbsp butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 Tbsp finely grated parmesan, plus more for garnish (omit if making seafood risotto)
Salt to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Bring the stock to a simmer.
  2. Place a heavy medium oven-proof pot that has an oven-proof cover (about 3-qt) on the stove top over medium-low heat. Add the oil, shallots, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until shallots are translucent and tender, but no color develops, 8-10 minutes. If they are browning before they have a chance to soften, turn down the heat. While shallots are cooking, season the stock with salt to taste.
  3. Add rice, raise the heat to medium, and cook stirring constantly with a flat wooden spoon (or some other spatula) until the rice grains are coated with oil and are translucent around the edges, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the acidic ingredient and cook stirring constantly until most of it evaporates, 2-3 minutes.
  5. Add the hot stock to rice and stir well. As soon as the liquid simmers, cover the pot, and place in the middle of the oven for 18 minutes.
  6. Remove risotto from the oven, uncover, and taste. If the grains are still too tough to your liking, add more stock (or water if you ran out of stock), and continue cooking on the stove top over medium heat stirring constantly and tasting every minute or two. As soon as the risotto reaches your desired doneness (I like mine to lose all chalky crunch, but not get mushy), take it off the heat.
  7. I prefer my risotto all'onda (on the liquidy side), so I add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of liquid in the end to loosen it. Stir in your chunky ingredients (mushrooms, vegetables, seafood, etc). Taste and correct the salt. Stir in butter and cheese.
  8. Serve in warm bowls with extra cheese if desired.
* For the record, Jason and I have only the warmest feelings towards our mothers-in-law, which means that we never serve risotto when they come to visit. We want the opportunity to talk to them and don't want to be secluded in the kitchen stirring a pot of rice for 30 minutes. But this recipe does change things.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Dear students, readers, family, and friends!

Phew... I can breath a sigh of relief now. The gift certificate rush is over and I can finally wish everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy New Year. Hope 2009 brings you health, happiness, peace, and delicious meals to share with people you love.

2008 was a great year for Helen's Kitchen. I loved kneading pasta dough, roasting meats, slicing fish for sashimi, flipping crêpes, sharpening knives, and crying over onions with many of you. If we've never met in person, then thank you for reading my blog, asking insightful questions, and putting up with this opinionated and obsessive cook.

A wonderful thing happened to me last thursday. I went to a cooking class and actually learned something. It was a Bûche de Noël class taught by Leslie Wolf. It took me forever to find a baking instructor for Helen's Kitchen, but I am happy to say, I struck gold with Leslie. I find that most classes I've ever attended made people feel good about cooking or baking, but didn't make them good at it. Not so with Leslie. 3 hours in her kitchen actually turned me into a better baker. I didn't just learn a recipe, I learned techniques that I could apply to any cake.

I found the class so inspiring, I've decided to bake a Bûche de Noël for us this Christmas. I've used my Earl Gray Chiffon Cake with Earl Gray Whipped Cream recipe, but baked the cake in a sheet pan instead of a tube pan and rolled it up. To do this, you need to make half the batter recipe and 1.5 times the cream recipe and follow instructions for Chiffon Cake roulades in the Joy of Cooking 1997 Edition. Last time I've tried it, the cake cracked and the final result looked a little scary. But armed with Leslie's tips, I managed to get the cake out of the oven at just the right moment, and roll it up into a beautiful roulade without any trouble. If you use your imagination, it looks like a birch. Thanks for a great class, Leslie.

Happy and Delicious Holidays to all!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pomegranate Molasses -- To make or not to make

A few of my readers suggested that I try making my own pomegranate molasses. So I did. I got the recipe from Simply Recipes, got myself a bottle of pomegranate juice, and gave it a shot.

First of all, let me point out that I might have screwed up. The sauce thickens when it cools, but you have to judge when to stop reducing it while it's still hot. The instructions of "until the juice has a syrupy consistency, and has reduced to 1 to 1 1/4 cups" was a bit hard to follow. Just how syrupy? I guess that's what 1 cup measurement is for, but unless you pour the syrup into a measuring cup and then back in the pan, you won't really know how much you have. Normally, such exact measurements are not that important in cooking. But this is not cooking. This is more like working with sugar, which falls into the category of kitchen tasks requiring precision. My first attempt resulted in an over reduced sauce. I tried adding some water to thin it out, which got it too thin, and I had to cook the sauce some more. By this time, my stove was completely covered in tiny pink dots of splattered juice. "Why oh why am I doing this?" I thought. I kept trying to cool little spoonfuls and compare their consistency to the store bought molasses. I am still not sure if I got it quite right as my home-made version is still cooling.

Now about the flavor. The home made version is less complex tasting. The addition of sugar and lemon juice mask the pomegranate flavor some. The only ingredient in the store bought version is pomegranate juice. Of course, I could try just reducing the pomegranate juice. But it seems a little funny to me to take pomegranate juice from concentrate (that's what's in those POM bottles) and turn it back into concentrate. My store bought bottle says it's from Lebanon. I wouldn't be surprised if they have some pretty awesome pomegrantes there and it would be hard for me to compete with my POM bottle.

The US has gone through a culinary revolution in the past 3 decades. We went from Holandaise sauce in a packet and cake mix in a box to let's-make-your-own-butter (Gourmet had an article on that not too long ago). When should you make a condiment vs. buy it? Here is my take on it. If it's a pantry item that lasts indefinitely, you should buy it. Chances are someone figured out how to make it way better than you and freshness is of no concern here. Do you make your own mustard, or how about wine? If you do, that's wonderful. But let's get real. People do those things because they get a kick out of them, not because their mustards, wines, or blue cheeses are better than what they can buy.

I think I'll stick with the store bought version of pomegrante molasses from now on.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Pots and Pans

Nov 2014 update: The concepts in this post still hold true, but the links might be out of date.  For an updated and more expanded list of pots and pans that I like, check out my amazon store.

I got an interesting message on my answering machine the other day.

* * *
Hi Helen! I remember you telling us in the Fish class about your favorite skillet. I'd like to buy it for my daughter for Christmas, but can't remember its name. Would you mind calling me back?

* * *

For the purposes of this post, let's name this caller "Nancy", so that we don't ruin the surprise for her daughter in case she is reading this blog.

I called Nancy back to chat about the skillets. In the Fish class, I use 3 of my favorite skillets (stainless, non-stick, and cast-iron), so I asked Nancy which dish she was talking about.

"The expensive one. The one you used to make the sauce for swordfish," she said.

Ah! The All-Clad skillet. This is definitely my workhorse. It does almost everything. Sautés vegetables, sears meats, caramelizes onions, makes sauces, poaches fish, and makes a fabulous tarte tatin.

"Yes," said Nancy. "That's the one."

"But remember," I said, "It's not good at searing delicate fish. You need non-stick or cast iron for that."

"That's right. I remember," said Nancy.

"It will be a great present that will last your daughter a life-time," I said.

I wasn't being romantic. All-clad pans literally do last a life-time.

Nancy's call made me realize that I haven't discussed pots and pans on my blog before. At least not thoroughly. Since all you cooking enthusiasts might be looking for a good way to spend the Christmas gift money, or looking for good gifts to give to other cooks, I thought this would be a good time to discuss this subject.

First things first. No sets! Just because one company makes a great stock pot doesn't mean they make a great skillet. Besides, you want to have control over the exact pieces that you get. You don't want to get a 10 inch skillet if you really needed a 12 inch one.

There are two exceptions to this rule. One for very rich people and one for penniless, college students. If you belong to one of these categories, see the end of this post for some cookware options.*

Now, the cookware for the rest of us.

09/24/2009 update: I have recently tried Tramontina 18/10 TriPly-Clad cookware from Walmart as a cheaper alternative to All-Clad. It's just as good at about one third of the price.

Stainless Steel Skillet

That's the work horse Nancy and I were talking about. You'll use it so much, it's worth getting a good one. All-clad is unbeatable in this department. If you normally cook for 1-2 people, 10 inch skillet (around $100) is all you need. If you normally cook for 4, get the 12 inch one (around $130). All-clad makes different lines, like "Stainless", "LTD," "Master Chef 2," etc. The only difference is in the outside finish of the pan. It will effect the look, but not the performance of your cookware, so get whichever look you like and can afford. "Stainless" is the most expensive one. The important thing is that the interior of the pan is stainless steel, so don't get a non-stick by accident. Non-stick pans have very limited applications and only last a few years, so there is no need to spend the big bucks on them.

Medium sauce pan with straight sides and lid

I used to think that I could live without an All-clad sauce pan. I did until this year. It's one thing to spend $100 on a skillet that cooks expensive steaks and racks of lamb, but to spend $180 on a pot that cooks soup and boils potatoes seemed exorbitant. It wasn't until this year that I finally got a 4-quart all-clad sauce pan. I can confidently tell you that it was worth every penny. Even heat distribution, great conductivity, balanced design, the long handle that stays cool, and a little helper handle that helps me get the pan in an out of the oven -- everything I wanted in a sauce pan. My soup production tripled after I got this incredible sauce pan. Need I say more? Make sure to get stainless steel interior, not non-stick. If you normally cook for 1-4 people, 4-quart sauce pan is the perfect size.

Small sauce pan with sloped sides and lid

All-clad again. While I view the 4-quart all-clad sauce pan as a luxury, the 2-quart sauce pan with sloped sides (around $100) is a necessity. You'll need it to make sauces and if your pot is mediocre, it will take a miracle to produce a good sauce. I also use mine to warm up small quantities of soups and stews, make risotto, and cook small quantities of pretty much anything that requires wet heat. Make sure to get stainless steel interior, not non-stick.

A non-stick skillet

Most home cooks think of a non-stick skillet as a necessity. It's not, but it does have its applications: searing fish fillets, cooking eggs, and frying crêpes. There is no such thing as a non-stick skillet that will serve you a life-time. After a few years, the non-stick coating will get scratched and you'll need a new skillet. Luckily, it's possible to get a good non-stick skillet for about $30. I am currently in the process of replacing mine and have ordered WearEver Premium Hard-Anodized 12-Inch Saute Pan per Cook's recommendation. I'll let you know how it is once it arrives.

09/24/2009 update: I've been using the WearEver non-stick skillet for about 6 months now and I love it.

A large stock pot

A stock pot to a professional chef is like a non-stick skillet to a home cook: something they think they think they need to survive in the kitchen. But will you be making stock or huge amounts of soup on regular basis? For most home cooks the answer is no, so I would only buy this pot after you acquired all the all-clad pieces mentioned above. I would also not spend a fortune on this pot. 8-quart stockpot from Cuisinart works fine. It's price seems to range from $20 for "classic" model to $100 for "multiclad-pro" model. $20 seems like an amazing deal. I bought mine for $50. $100 seems too high. You can buy a whole Cuisinart set for $100 which includes the 8-quart stockpot.

That's a good starting list. I'll leave the dutch oven and cast-iron skillet for some other time.

How to clean your stainless steel cookware
If stuff got stuck or burnt, fill the pan with water and boil for 5 minutes. Most of the stuck stuff will come off easily when you scrub with a sponge. If that doesn't work, there is always Bar keeper's friend. This stuff will get anything off your pan.

Where to buy your cookware
Definitely not in a cooking store! They might not have all the lines or sizes of pots and pans and their prices are not any better than what you'll pay on-line. When spending hundreds of dollars, I want what I want. is my first choice. They have free shipping on orders over $50 and deliver in 2-3 days. If there is something they don't carry, go to Amazon. It's a good idea to check both sites to see who has the best price, but take shipping into account. The links I give for all-clad are for the "Stainless" line. Remember you can often save $20-30 by buying LTD, Master-chef 2, etc.

I suggest you use this post as a guide, but check with Cook's Illustrated as well. You'll need an on-line subscription ($35/year) to get their equipment evaluations, but considering how much money they saved me over the years with their excellent reviews (the winners of their tests are often modestly priced models), I find the subscription well worth it.

* For the rich and the poor

If you have money growing on trees, and enjoy wasting it, buy everything all-clad. Don't get me wrong, it's all fabulous, but do you really need to spend $250 on a stock pot or $100 on a non-stick skillet? Absolutely not!

If you are a penniless, over-worked college student, a set might not be the worst way to go. You haven't cooked enough to know what you want, you don't have time to research the subject, and you don't have any money. You are relying on a gift from your generous parents who are already paying your college tuition, so you have to be careful what you ask for. In this case, a set will work. But at least let's make it the best set $150 can buy: Tramontina 8 piece Stainless TriPly-Clad set. Before you get too excited, let me warn you that 3 of those pieces are covers, so it's really a 5 piece set. But for $150, you couldn't do better.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Beet, Prune, and Walnut salad

The way I write about beets you'd think that life was always rosy in my beetland. But believe it or not, there was a beet dish I spent my entire childhood disliking: a beet, prune, and walnut salad. Luckily, I didn't have to eat it much. It was reserved for holidays as part of zakuski table (Russian spread of cold appetizers similar to tapas). The funny thing was that this salad was made out of all the good stuff. There wasn't an ingredient in it that I didn't normally like. But the cooking method (or lack there of) was the problem. In all the other Russian dishes that we made, beets were cooked, but in this salad they were left raw. And let me tell you something -- raw beets are tough as a nail. They are not juicy. They are not sweet. They are just tough. After sitting in the fridge overnight with mayo, they softened some, but still never compared to the deliciousness of cooked beets. I always had a feeling this salad had potential, but it was't until today that I finally did something about it.

People often ask how I come up with my recipes. This beet salad seems like a perfect example to show you how it works. Welcome to my head!

It all started with leftover cooked beets. After staring at them every time I opened the fridge yesterday, I remembered the beet, prune, and walnut salad of my childhood. The part I didn't like about that salad were the raw beets. I was always curious to try that salad with cooked beets and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I picked up some prunes and walnuts at the store, chopped them up and added them to my grated beets.

Now the dressing... I didn't want to go the mayo route, and was looking for an alternative. To see where I was with the current mix of flavors, I added some olive oil and salt, then tasted my salad. Flat. It needed acidity. Some vinegar would not be out of place, but I had a better idea. How about pomegranate molasses*? It's a quirky ingredient. You can't throw it around willy-nilly, like preserved lemons. Those taste good on anything (I might draw the line at dessert). Pomegranate molasses are very particular: thick, very tart, barely sweet, and a little nutty. They either make a dish or break a dish. They work exceptionally well with red meats and nuts, but don't work at all with fish and seafood. I knew that pomegranate molasses would hit it off with walnuts right away, and was hoping they'd get along with beets (that's as meaty as vegetables come). I added the molasses and tasted again. I was on the right track. The salad was getting perkier and perkier with each spoon.

Now my salad needed a little sugar for balance. I added it in the form of honey. Taste again. The sweetness/acidity level was now good, but the salad lacked a certain savoriness. I added more salt. Taste again. Better, but still missing something. Onion! How could I forget that?! I minced a shallot and added it to my salad. A red onion would do in a pinch, but a shallot was more appropriate for this delicate salad. Another pinch of salt. Taste again. Yum! This was fabulous.

Creating a dish is like putting together a puzzle. You mess with the pieces until they fit. Taste, taste, and taste some more. Oh, and don't forget the salt. If you are an obsessive recipe follower, try improvising sometimes. You might like it.

This wasn't supposed to be a blog post. This was just supposed to be a way to use up old beets and make lunch while I was at it. But this salad turned out so well, I decided to blog about it to remind myself what I did for next time. While I was taking the pictures, the flavors had a chance to blend and the salad got even better. Next time, I'll make sure to let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Unfortunately, I didn't measure anything while I was making this salad. But it's pretty easy to adjust the ingredients to taste.

Beet, Prune, and Walnut Salad

Serves 4 as the first course

2 medium beets (3-4 inches in diameter)
12 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup minced shallots (2 medium)
1.5 Tbsp pomegranate molasses*
2 tsp honey
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Trim the beets and wash them well, scrubbing the skin, but don't peel. Dry with paper towels. Wrap each beet tightly in foil. Place on a foil lined baking sheet and bake until tender 1.5-2.5 hours. Pierce the beets with a knife through foil to test for doneness. When they are done, the knife should go through them relatively easily, but they'll never get as mushy as potatoes.
  2. Unwrap the beets and cool until warm. Peel by rubbing with your hands. The skin will come right off.
  3. Grate the beets on the large holes of a box grater or using the grating disk of a food processor. Cool completely. Beets can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and stored covered in the fridge.
  4. Add the prunes, walnuts, shallots, mollasses, honey, oil, a generous pinch of salt, and a small pinch of pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more mollasses for acidity, more honey for sweetness, and don't forget the salt or the flavors will be out of focus. Let sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. Can be stored in the fridge for 2 days.
* Pomegranate molasses are available at middle eastern grocery stores. If you are in the Boston area, Russo's, Eastern Lamejun Bakers, and all the other Armenian stores in Watertown carry it. I wouldn't be surprised if you can find it at Whole Foods and even regular supermarkets. Look for it in the middle eastern section of ethnic foods. It is also known as "concentrated pomegranate juice," not to be confuse with pomegranate juice from concentrate ;) The molasses one is very thick and is sold in the pantry isles. Another option is ordering it from amazon. The good news is that it never spoils, so once you find it, you can use it for years.

If finding pomegranate molasses is tricky, you can substitute balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, or lemon juice. You'll have to play around with the quantities. Start with a few teaspoons, taste, and add more as needed.