Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Food Perestroika

Food Perestroika is a blog written by Florian Pinel -- a Frenchman who resides in NYC and has a strong interest in the food and culture of the former Eastern Bloc. There are obvious reasons why I am his devoted reader.  Sure, Florian's cooking and writing are commendable, but there is more to it than that. I find him to be a strange inverse of myself. Both of us got an education in computer science so we have similar geeky tendencies. Both of us got serious enough about food to get professional training -- we worked in restaurants; Florian even went to culinary school. But while he is a Frenchman fascinated with Russian food, I am a Russian fascinated with French Food. Both of us lean heavily towards contemporary methods and that's where it gets interesting. Cooking contemporary French dishes is easy-peasy. It's handed to me on a silver platter by all the examples I see in restaurants, magazines, and cookbooks. I simply recreate dishes I already tasted and do variations on a theme. Compared to that, Florian's attempt at contemporary Russian cuisine is indeed a challenge of Herculean proportions. Russian restaurants are hopelessly stuck in the dark ages. The only innovation I've seen since the Soviet days is a liberal use of a squeeze bottle. Food Perestroika documents Florian's effort to modernize Russian food without losing its integrity. This lit my imagination and I decide to give it a shot.

My first attempt was serving red caviar in a way that didn't involve bread, butter, and pickled onions. Mild and creamy seemed like a good type of ingredient to pair with the salty roe. I made a savory panna cotta with sorrel leaves and topped it with the roe. How is that Russian? Bare with me here. My goal was to only use ingredients typically used in Russian food. Sorrel is a darling of Russian cooks. All my Russian students get a dreamy look on their face when I come back from my garden with a big bunch of this tart herb to use in class. The rest of the ingredients in panna cotta -- milk, cream, sour cream, and gelatin -- are nothing exotic even by the Soviet standards. Looks good, doesn't it? Shame it was a complete flop taste-wise. The first spoon of panna cotta was good, but it got monotonous very quickly. I was missing the sturdiness and earthiness of bread. The problem is that I love bread with butter and caviar. I love it the way an American child loves a brownie. This emotional attachment made it hard for me to judge whether the dish was indeed no good, or whether I couldn't accept it due to my preconceived notions, so I offered it to my students to taste. They all took one polite spoon and left it at that. So back to the drawing board I went. I could think of many alternatives for bread, but most of them involved traditional starchy things: potato pancakes, zucchini pancakes, buckwheat pancakes. All tasty, but neither original nor modern.

Since no inspiration struck me in the caviar department, I set my sights on Salad Olivier. My childhood version of this salad includes boiled potatoes and carrots, raw onion, hard boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, and boiled beef, all bound together with mayo. You really can't take potato and mayo out of this salad and still call it Olivier. Eggs and pickles are awfully good in it too. My Mom usually added a bit of pickling liquid to the dressing giving it more depth. I decided to keep that part as is. The ingredients that seemed outdated to me were canned peas, boiled carrots, and boiled beef.  Come on, it's 21st century! Surely we have better ways to deal with these ingredients. I used frozen peas to make a bright and refreshing pea puree, and combined lightly cooked carrots with carrot juice to make a carrot puree. I cooked a steak sous-vide, cooled it in an ice-bath and seared briefly to boost the flavor. Everyone in my family loved it except for me. It was much better than my misguided caviar attempt, but it didn't add up to more than the sum of it's parts. Soviet cuisine has this knack for bringing random ingredients together (I guess whatever was available) and making them work just by binding with mayo and letting sit in the fridge for a day to help flavors merge -- not unlike the life in a communal apartment. I was missing that unity in my Salad Oliver. Here is Florian's version.  He uses duck legs confit, sous-vide duck breasts, and king crab legs.  I think he is really onto something with duck legs there.  Crab sounds like good option too.  I just can't picture both the seafood and meat/poultry in the same dish together.  It might be great, but I've never had this combination before.

Perviy blin vsegda komom -- that's a Russian expression that means the first pancake never comes out.  I've learned many valuable lessons from my mistakes. Will report back as soon as I try more ideas.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kale Bean Soup

My 5 year old got mad at me tonight because I made her stop doing math homework and go to bed. We like studying a tad too much in my family. I hear there is therapy for people like us, but we haven't tried it yet.  Although formal studying has been my preoccupation for more than half of my life, the question of where I studied cooking never fails to stump me.  You see, cooking is the only thing in my life that I never felt like I studied. I was just playing really. Even when I was interning at a restaurant, I didn't feel like I was studying or working. I'd get home sweaty and achy at midnight, fall asleep, and dream about cooking.  These dreams involved textures, flavors, menus, and sharp knives.  Oh how I love those deliciously sharp knives!  The problem was that there was a huge omission in my obsession with food.  While I was spending the last few years closely studying the texture of beans, and optimizing the juiciness of meat, the smart food bloggers have been making their beans and meat look good.  They have been buying good lenses, reflectors, dishes, forks, spoons, boards, and napkins.

It was time to stop waiting for inspiration to strike my visually challenged brain, get off my lazy ass, and start putting some effort into my pictures.  Just like calculus homework.  Once you get into it, it's not that bad.  I felt a bit out of my element at stores like Home Depot, Home Goods, and Michael's.  But for less than I usually spend on one of my meat experiment, I was able to equip myself with the basics.  After the first few frustrating days of painting, plating, styling, and shooting, I was actually starting to have fun.  Maybe the Tiger Mom was right -- nothing is fun until you get good, and to get good you need to practice.  Of course, food blogging is probably not on her list of approved hobbies.  But who knows?  I can see her saying something like, "No piano practice for you, young lady, until food gawker accepts your roast chicken!"

I won't give you details on styling or photography. explains it way better than I could, but I'd be happy to share a Bean Kale Soup recipe.

Bean Kale Soup

If you are starting with dry beans, plan at least 2 days ahead.  The beans will need to be soaked overnight, then cooked and cooled overnight before you use them in the soup.  The liquid from home cooked beans is an excellent base for the soup, so save every drop of it.  To end up with 6 cups of cooked beans, start with 2 cups dry or about 1 lb.  If you are using canned beans, 365 brand from Whole Foods is good.  Make sure to drain and rinse canned beans since the liquid in a can tends to be starchy.  Instead of using bean cooking liquid from the can, use water or chicken stock.

Serves 8-12

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch kale (about 1 Lb), stems removed, leaves coarsely chopped
1/3 cup dry white wine
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes (preferably Muir Glen or Hunt)
4-6 cups cooked cannellini beans with their liquid (or 4 cans drained plus 8 cups water or stock)
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper (or chili powder)

Put olive oil, onions, carrot, and celery in a large heavy pot (at least 4 quarts).  Set the pot over medium-low heat, season with salt, and cook stirring occasionally until onions are translucent, but not colored, about 15 minutes.

Add the garlic, season it with salt, and stir to incorporate.  Cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes.

Add the kale to the pot*.  Season with a pinch of salt (go easy here since the kale will shrink tremendously) and a pinch of mild chili powder (or black pepper).  Add the wine.  Cover and cook on moderate heat stirring occasionally until kale is wilted, about 15 minutes.  

Stir in the tomatoes and cook uncovered until all the tomato juice evaporates, about 10 minutes.

Add the beans with 8 cups cooking liquid.  If you don't have enough cooking liquid, add water.  If using canned beans, don't use the liquid from the jar -- use water or chicken stock.  Measuring the cooking liquid is really not necessary.  Keep adding water until you reach your desired ratio of liquid to solid.  Add the bay leaf.  Turn up the heat and bring to a simmer.  Return the heat back to low.  Season to taste with salt.  Simmer very gently for an hour.  If the soup is too thick, add some water.  Taste and add salt as needed.

The soup can be served immediately, but will taste even better the next day.  Keeps in the fridge for up to 1 week.  Serve with bread fried in olive oil and rubbed with a garlic clove.

* Did you notice anything?  Yes, I changed pots.  Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.  I was cooking 2 different soups at the same time, and decided to start with all of my mirepoix (aromatic veggies) in one pot and then split it into 2 separate pots for 2 soups.  You'll just continue with the same pot you started with.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Soup, salt, acid, heat

As the mornings gets crisp and the days get short, every single food publication in the world will be writing about soups.  Sometimes I wonder if we need yet another recipe for butternut squash soup, or parsnip soup, or cannellini bean soup.  Have we improved them in the last year, or even in the last 10?  I have no doubt that you'll be making some sort of soup in the near future and I'd like to equip you with something better than a recipe. I'd like to demistify the phrase that appears so often in soup recipes: "Season to taste." You see, those 3 little words make or break a soup. Get it right and any soup recipe you'll make this fall will be stunning.

By seasoning, I don't mean adding something from your spice drawer, like cumin or coriander, or those horrific dry herbs.  In fact, I suggest you head over to your spice drawer right now, pick up that lifeless dry parsley and basil and put them in the trash.  Good!  Now that we got that out of the way, let's talk about real seasoning: salt, acid, and heat.


I'll start with salt because it's the most important and the most misunderstood.  I write about salt an awful lot.  Here is a one line summary of my salt views.  No table salt.  No fancy salt.  Use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.  Don't use salt shakers.  Use your hands.  Taste constantly.  Another important thing to understand about salt is that it's not just how much that matters, it's when.  Salt brings out the flavor in the ingredients, so you need to use it throughout the entire cooking process.  When you are sweating out your aromatic vegetables (like onions, carrots, and celery), you need to add salt.  It helps them release their juice and brings out their flavor by helping expel the volatile molecules.  As you gradually start to build up your soup, add salt to every ingredient that goes in the pot.  I prefer to add my root vegetables before liquids.  I season them generously with salt and cook them covered for 10-15 minutes to concentrate their flavor.  

When the liquid goes in, bring it to a simmer before tasting.  This will help the salt from the vegetables get distributed and give you a better idea of where you stand.  Unless you are using boxed stock (not the best move, by the way), your soup should need a lot of salt.  Not pinches, but spoonfuls (assuming you are making 3+ quarts of soup).  You want to season your soup about 80% at this point.  What 80% means will become clear with cooking experience, particularly if you do the following seasoning exercise.  Separate a bit of soup in a bowl and taste.  Add salt a little pinch at a time, stir well, and taste after each addition.  Concentrate and try to remember what the soup tastes like.  Keep on going until you make the soup too salty.  Now remember what it was like before that final pinch of salt?  That was perfect seasoning.  It was as intense as the flavors could get without salt dominating.  You want to bring your soup to that level of salinity at the very end before serving.  This will brighten up the flavor as the salt releases new volatile molecules.


You have probably seen recipes use white wine in soups.  It's not because we want our soups to be boozy.  Almost all the alcohol evaporates by the time you finish cooking the soup.  The reason we use wine is for acidity. The acidity the soup gets from wine is soft, mellow, and round.  Since it's usually added in the beginning, it dulls by the time the soup is done.  Adding wine at the end does't work.  It gives the soup unpleasant alcoholic taste.  That's where vinegar, lemon, or lime juice come in.  They go in at the very end, and make all the flavors come into focus.  It's really amazing what a couple of teaspoons of balsamic vinegar can do to a soup.  I use it in hearty fall and winter soups.  Spring and summer soups made with tender green vegetables go better with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime.

The presence of acidity influences how you experience salt.  You might need a bit more salt after the splash of vinegar or citrus.  Alternate between salt and acidity in the end until the soup comes into focus.  If you are worried about ruining the whole pot, practice on a small bowl first.


Piment d'Espellete is a fairly mild chili from Espelette region of France (on the Spanish boarder).  I learned about it during a couple of days I spent at Craigie on Main.  It's good on many things, but what it does to soups is miraculous.  I don't normally like black pepper in soups.  It seems out of place in liquids.  But a bit of chili might be just what your soup need.  I like to add it in the beginning along with my vegetables before the liquid goes in.  If you are averse to spicy foods, don't worry.  This gentle chili gives a soup a warm glow.  It makes it linger in your mouth after you swallow each spoon, like a wine with a long finish.

The question is where do you buy this chili.  I couldn't find it at any of the stores in the Boston area (including Penzy's spices), but it only took 1 click and $18.50 to buy it on amazon.  $18.50 for a 1 oz jar?!  Ok, don't panic yet.  Are you breathing?  Breath.  Good.  Think about it this way.  It's really no more expensive than buying fancy salts.  Salt might look cheaper per ounce, but you need way more salt than chili in a dish.  If you don't have it, use the chili powder of your choice in small amounts.

Taste.  Taste.  Taste.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Blendtec (after 3 weeks of use)

Kids, don't try this at home
Giving a woman a blender for her birthday can result in tears, someone sleeping on a couch, and even broken off engagements.  At least, that's what I was able to garner from Hollywood movies.  But in our family, a blender is not a symbol of outdated domesticity; it's a symbol of freedom.  A good blender means freedom to transform virtually any ingredient into perfect smoothness without the elbow grease of straining through a fine mesh, re-blending, and re-straining.  What can be sexier than that?

The question was not whether I wanted a blender or perfume for my birthday.  The question was Vitamix or Blendtec.  Every molecular gastronomy book I've read endorsed Vitamix.  Every professional chef I knew was happy using Vitamix.  Cook's Illustrated reported that Vitamix was indeed a super-blender and Blendtec choked on ice.  It took me months to decide that a mere blender was worth $400.  But I finally made my decision and asked Jason for a Vitamix.

How did I end up with a Blendtec after all that research?  I saw a demo of it at Costco.  It handled ice with no issues.  Raw kale was pureed smoothly enough that it masqueraded as mint in an ice-cream.  It seemed to do everything Vitamix was doing for $100 cheaper.  The only thing I found disturbing were the electronics and cycle buttons.  I was buying a blender, not a laptop.  From my experience, electronics in the kitchen don't last long.  Besides, who needs "soup," "ice-cream," and "smoothie" buttons?  Can't I just turn it on and adjust the speed?  The good news was that there were normal speed buttons, so I could just ignore the gimmicky cycles.  As far as that LCD screen going toast?  There was a 7 year warranty.  What was the harm in try it?  If I didn't like it, Costco would take it back; and if I did like it, we'd save $100.

After 3 weeks with Blendtec, someone would have to pry this machine out of my cold dead hands for me to part with it.  I love it and I have a confession to make.  Surprisingly, those gimmicky cycle buttons work better than my own speed adjustments.  My first test was a lentil soup.  Any blender can turn butternut squash into a smooth puree, but lentils posed a real challenge with their pesky little skins.  The soup button turned my lentil soup into a puree so smooth, I couldn't find even the tiniest specs of skin.  The parsley puree came out completely smooth with no straining required.  The plum "sorbet" I made with frozen peeled plums using the ice-cream cycle was a huge hit.  So that you don't get your hopes up about making real sorbet or ice-cream with a blender, let me explain.  The texture was like a thick slushy, not really like sorbet, but it was smooth, creamy, and cold.  To help it out in the smoothness department, I removed the skins from the plums before freezing them.  Since the friction of the blade heats up the food, it's good not to give it more than it can chew for cold preparations.  If I was making a plum syrup, I bet I could throw the skins right in.

Blackberries were my next challenge.  I dumped a pint of them into the blender with a bit of agave syrup to make a blackberry sauce.  The blackberry seeds got broken down into tiny pieces but were still noticeable and unpleasant.  After straining, most of the unpleasant grittiness got removed, but some bits were tiny enough to make it through a fine mesh sieve.  At this point the sauce wasn't gritty, but had a slightly muddy texture.  As long as the sauce was used as a garnish, this problem was not noticeable, but I wouldn't call it a perfect puree if I had a large spoonful of it.

The last test seemed a bit crazy, but since this blender should in theory be able to blend credit cards, I thought I'll give fish frames a shot.  I would normally strain them out when making a Provencal Soup de Poisson.  But in the interest of testing the blender and increasing our family's calcium consumption, I left them in.  Blendtec chopped them up into tiny bits making the soup very prickly.  That problem was solved relatively easily by straining through a fine mesh, but getting all those tiny pesky bones out of the strainer was not fun.  I don't think I'll be pureeing any more fish bones.

Any Vitamix owners out there?  How does Vitamix do with blackberries?  I doubt anyone out there is pureeing fish bones, but if you are, drop me a line and we'll start a fish head-to-tail eating club.

A few words about clean up.  Although it does take more space to dry Blendtec than my immersion blender, it doesn't take much more effort to clean it.  Just rinse, fill with 2 cups of water and a drop of soap and blend for 20 seconds or so.  Do that on low speed unless you'd like a soapy explosion on your counter.  Rinse and you are done.  Will I be getting rid of my immersion blender?  No way.  I still want it for tiny quantities of 1/2 cup or less, but for most applications, I am now using Blendtec.

So far so good.  The question is how will the electronics hold up.  I'll try to make follow up posts in 6-12 months to report how my Blendtec is doing.