Gifts for cooks, part two.

When I posted my list of gift recommendations for cooks last year, it was supposed to be part one of two, with the second part including more expensive kitchen items. That somehow never happened, but I figured there’s at least some symmetry in producing the second half of the post almost exactly a year later. That first list includes items at $30 and under, including the Victorinox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife that America’s Test Kitchen always recommends. (I own a more expensive Henckels, but it’s not worth paying the premium just for a better handle.)

These items range from $13 to $299, and range from “I couldn’t cook without this” to “I just love waffles.” I’ve included basic recipes with most of the devices to give a sense of how I use them.

Cuisinart 7-Cup Food Processor

This is the big one – if you’re going to purchase one major kitchen appliance for yourself, or want to purchase something for a friend who’s just starting out that will get him/her ten or more years of heavy use, you want a food processor. It’s the only way to make a decent pesto genovese, as well as roasted red pepper pesto or any other pesto you desire. It’s great for any sauce requiring an emulsion, like mayonnaise or harissa, or for hummus or homemade nut butters. It can convert stale or dried bread into bread crumbs, almonds into almond crumbs. I made a slightly easier version of sauce aux champignons recently (with brown stock rather than demi-glace – sorry, purists), then pureed the rest in the food processor the next night and used it for bruschetta.

I use my food processor every year to make pumpkin pie – the filling (from Baking Illustrated) is a cooked custard, after all. And I use it to make the pie dough for that and any other kind of pie – I’m sure some folks swear by the manual method, but you get much more even distribution of fat throughout the flour with the machine; the same applies to biscuits and scones any other baked good where you need to work the fat into the flour. I’ve used it to grind regular sugar to make superfine sugar (rather than buying superfine sugar specifically) for meringues.

Any decent food processor will also come with disc attachments to replace the blade for slicing or julienning; I only resort to this when I’ve got a lot of vegetation to plow through, preferring my Kyocera hand-held mandoline when I need a finer slice. If you don’t cook because you hate the prep work, though, a food processor may eliminate that obstacle.

We got our food processor fifteen years ago and it still runs; it’s also a Cuisinart and is a 7-cup model like the one linked above, which is nearly half off at $100. The one application where I wish I had a larger model is the pumpkin pie, which always ends up leaking because the recipe produces more filling than one crust can hold anyway.

* Season a trout fillet with salt and pepper, press it into almond crumbs, then pan-fry for two minutes per side. Add a little more butter to the skillet and a chopped shallot, let it brown, season with salt and pepper, and there’s your sauce. Bonus: deglaze the pan with white wine or – with the flame OFF, please – Chartreuse liquor.

KitchenAid Professional 5 Plus 5-Quart Stand Mixer

The model I own is slightly smaller than the one in that link, and the motor is substantially weaker (275 watts vs 450 in the 5-quart), and those “slightly” modifiers make all the difference; if I was in the market for one today, I’d spend the extra $100 and get the one I linked here. The 4.5-quart model tends to walk on the counter when working something strong like bread dough, and the bowl is a little too small for some applications – I made a genoise years ago that threatened to spill out of it and take over the counter like ice-nine.

Why do you need a stand mixer? Its primary benefit is in baking. If all ingredients are at room temperature, I can use my stand mixer to get cookies in the oven inside of ten minutes*. It’s great for meringues or anything built on egg foams, like buttercream – you really don’t want to stand there for ten minutes while you incorporate a pound of butter, one tablespoon at a time. (That’s 32 Tbsp.) I’ve made Alton Brown’s brownie recipe in here many times; it starts with beating four eggs until well-combined, after which you’re gradually adding various ingredients to build the batter. It’s a huge benefit to have both hands free while the machine is mixing.

The stand mixer is also invaluable for making breads with very wet doughs, like pain francese, or breads that require substantial gluten production that would be hard to achieve by hand, like pizza dough. You can also purchase attachments for the stand mixer to turn it into a pasta maker (I have this one; works well, bit tricky to clean) or a meat grinder (on the wishlist). The lone negative of owning a stand mixer is that there’s a good chance it will live on your counter, because it’s too tall to fit in most cabinets and heavy enough that you won’t want to store it in a difficult-to-reach place.

I’ve hesitated to recommend stand mixers before because of their cost – that model is a steal at $299, but three bills is a lot of money to most people. And that’s why I haven’t upgraded the model we’ve had for sixteen years (it was a wedding present).

EDIT: A reader explained in the comments that newer KitchenAid mixers don’t hold up as well as the model I own, and recommends the Cuisinart SM-55BC 5-1/2-Quart 12-Speed Stand Mixer, Brushed Chrome instead.

* Basic cookie formula: Cream two sticks (½ pound) of butter with ¾ cup each white and dark brown sugar for four minutes. Add two eggs, 1 tsp vanilla, with the mixer running. Turn the mixer off and add (in two installments) 300 g flour premixed with 1 tsp each baking soda and salt. Mix, stop, add the remainder, mix again. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Stir in mix-ins by hand – chocolate chips, dried fruit, toasted nuts, whatever; I think 1½ cups of mix-ins works for this batch size. Bake at 375 until the edges just start to brown.

Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Slow Cooker

I just got a slow cooker last month and have used it four times – once for short ribs, twice for carnitas (pork shoulder that ends up poaching in rendered fat), and once for dried canellini beans (which overcooked, so the magic time is under six hours, clearly). Based on that limited sample, I am kicking myself for not getting one sooner; not only is using it easy, but it frees up a burner or the oven to make something else, which, unless you’re rocking a six-burner professional stove, is a key consideration. I can fit a 3-pound pork shoulder in this one comfortably, and could probably have cooked 2 cups of dried beans. One suggestion I’ve read in several places is to line the bottom of the ceramic insert with aromatics, like sliced onions, when cooking meat, so that the meat doesn’t burn or stick to the bottom. I’m toying with the idea of braising duck legs in there for Thanksgiving, freeing the oven up for the duck breasts. (No point in making turkey when no one here really likes it.) The one thing I particularly wanted in a slow cooker was an electronic timer; lots of purists, including Alton Brown, recommend older models that have analog dials, but I like computers and wanted one that would shut itself off and free me to leave the house if I needed to, say, pick up my daughter from school just as the short ribs were done.

* Short ribs: Trim excess fat. Season ribs with salt, pepper, and dried thyme and sear on all sides in Dutch oven; remove to slow cooker. Add one onion, diced; two carrots, diced; two celery stalks, diced; pinch of salt. Saute to deglaze pan. Add one bottle/can of good quality beer, scrape bottom to finish deglazing, then pour the entire mixture into the slow cooker. Cook six hours on low until ribs are falling off the bone. Remove ribs, tear into large chunks (removing bones), season again with salt, pepper, and thyme, and bake ten minutes at 450 degrees. Use a fat separator to strain cooking liquid; reduce liquid (after removing the fat) by half to form a sauce.

Kitchen Scale

Again, not the exact model that I have, but it’s the same manufacturer; my model is discontinued, but I’ve been very happy with it and with Salter, who honored the ten-year warranty with a brand-new model when mine malfunctioned about four or five years ago. If you want to cook, you need a kitchen scale – it can be a cheap one if you’re not baking, but baking is chemistry and chemistry requires precise measurements, at which point you’ll want a good digital scale like this one. If you want a different model, look for one that does metric as well as archaic English measurements. The glass top isn’t necessary – and of course it makes the scale more fragile – but it looks awesome.

Black & Decker Grill and Waffle Baker

How much do I love this thing? I bought my first one in 1998. It died this spring and I went online and ordered the same model. The grids are reversible – one side flat for pancakes (or, I suppose, pressed sandwiches), one side for waffles, not Belgian-style, but thinner and better suited to conventional batters that get lift from chemical leaveners but not yeast or an egg white foam. And once you buy one of these (currently half off at $29 through that link), you might want to check out the Waffleizer blog and get creative. (I tried to waffle some polenta once. Took me two days to clean the grids.)

Basic waffles: Preheat waffle iron. Beat 3 eggs and combine in a bowl with 1½ cups milk, ½ tsp vanilla, 1 stick (8 Tbsp) melted unsalted butter, and 4 Tbsp vegetable oil. In another bowl whisk together 220 grams AP flour (roughly 1¾ cups), 1 Tbsp baking powder, ½ tsp salt, and ½ to 1 Tbsp white or brown sugar. (You can also mix the sugar with the wet ingredients, which is slightly easier for brown.) Dump the wet stuff into the dry stuff, whisk just to combine – no dry stuff visible, but not smooth. Pour by ½ to ¾ cupfuls on to the waffle iron and cook until the steaming slows, about four minutes on this iron. Serve immediately, keep warm in a 200 degree oven directly on the oven racks, or cool on cooling racks and freeze. Adapted from Joy of Cooking.

Lodge 12-Inch Cast Iron Skillet

Lives in my oven. Used four nights a week, at a minimum. I buy Dobie non-abrasive pads to clean them and generally just use hot water. I own several nonstick skillets – including this one – but the cast iron skillet is the workhorse. Nothing holds or distributes heat as well, and if you season and clean it properly it will gradually acquire a non-stick or at least less-stick surface.

I do own a Krups La Glaciere ice cream maker, but Krups is out of the ice cream maker business, unfortunately. For a home model, it is excellent, as long as you accept you won’t get anything as smooth as you get from a commercial machine. I also have a Le Creuset Dutch oven that I received as a birthday gift a few years ago and love; you can buy the exact model on amazon but if you live near a Le Creuset outlet you can get it for $100 less, and even cheaper than that if you choose a color they’re discontinuing. It’s a splurge, far from necessary, but it’s great for stews and slow braises and easier to clean than traditional cast iron. No-knead bread recipes often rely on Dutch ovens to allow the bread to steam itself and produce a crispier crust.

One thing I don’t own: A double boiler. I had one for years, but it just took up space, wasn’t good for anything else, and took more effort to clean because of the groove in the top pot. I just sit a bowl above a pot of simmering water, or a smaller skillet inside a larger one.

I don’t think I have anything else in the kitchen, other than the espresso maker, that costs over $100. If you don’t bake, you may not need anything (other than major appliances) in your kitchen that will run you more than $60-70 to prepare pretty sophisticated meals. A good knife, three good pots/pans, some knowhow, and the right ingredients will go further for you than all of these toys. The toys just make everything easier.

Pressure-cooker carnitas with blue corn pancakes.

Pressure cookers cook foods faster by utilizing the fact that water boils at a higher temperature when it’s under higher pressure; the typical pressure cooker works at 15 psi, a pressure level at which water boils at 250 degrees. For stews or other long braises, this can reduce cooking times by 75% or more, yet you don’t lose the braise’s power to break down connective tissue or extract gelatin (or its precursors) from bones, and of all my pressure-cooking escapades only beans come out substantially different when cooked under pressure. (It causes beans to pop out of their skins, which is fine if your intent is to mash or puree them.)

Cooking with pressure requires no special skills or other equipment beyond the cooker itself, and unlike your mother’s (or grandmother’s) pressure cooker, today’s models aren’t likely to explode and leave your dinner on the ceiling. The model I use is no longer in production; this Presto 6-quart model seems to be the best starter cooker available, although I can’t tell from the item description if it has two pressure settings or just one.

Somehow, I got the idea the other day to try to make carnitas, which I had often in Phoenix and now miss, via the pressure cooker. Pork carnitas refers to a pork butt (really the shoulder), the same cut you would smoke to make barbecued pulled pork, but braised low and slow in a slightly salty liquid with aromatics and spices, especially cumin. A quick Google search for recipes that might tell me how long to cook the meat turned up this recipe, which didn’t require much modification. After thirty minutes under pressure, the chunks of pork held their shape but could pull apart easily with a fork, and the oven finish brought out the flavors you’d ordinarily get by browning the meat before braising or roasting it. You could take the meat, wrap it in a tortilla with some rice, beans, and salsa, and make a burrito; you could serve it with guacamole and rice as a main course; or you could do what I did: Toss a bunch of it on some blue corn pancakes as a sort of Mexican/New Mexican take on chicken and waffles. A recipe for those pancakes follows.

Pressure-cooker carnitas

One 3-4 lb pork butt (shoulder), trimmed of exterior fat and cut into large (two-inch-ish) chunks
1.5 Tbsp salt
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 Tbsp ancho chili powder
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1 bay leaf
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and stem removed, chopped
3 cloves garlic, bruised

1. In a large bowl, toss the pork with the salt and seasonings.
2. Add the pork, bay leaf, and aromatics to a pressure cooker with enough water to cover – it took just over a liter for me to cover 3.3 pounds of meat.
3. Close the cooker, turn the valve to its maximum setting, and put over high heat until the cooker begins hissing loudly. Reduce the heat to bring the cooker to a faint hiss and cook for 30 minutes. With about ten minutes to go, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
4. Release the pressure according to the cooker’s manual – usually that means turning the dial down a level at a time – and remove the pork. Transfer it to an oven-safe skillet or rimmed sheet pan and lightly press each piece with a fork to expose more surface area to the oven’s heat. Re-season with more salt, cumin, etc.
5. Roast the pork with a very thin layer of either the braising liquid or hot water for about 15 minutes, until much of the exposed surface has turned brown. Do not let the pork burn or dry out – check it at the ten-minute mark. Serve.

Blue corn pancakes

I find these sweet without sugar because of the corn, but if you want to make these more breakfasty, you could add 1 Tbsp of sugar, agave nectar, or maple syrup to the mix.

2 cups blue corn flour, preferably whole grain (I like Arrowhead Mills, available at Whole Foods)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup AP flour
3/4 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder (more if you want thicker pancakes, but for the pork, I like them thinner)
4 cups milk, 2% to whole
2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, melted and cooled slightly
4 eggs

1. Mix the flours, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
2. Whisk the milk, butter, and eggs until well combined. Pour over the dry ingredients and beat just until moistened with no visible lumps. Cook on electric griddle or skillet as you would regular pancakes, on one side until brown at the edges, then flip and cook roughly half as long on the second side. If the pancakes aren’t cooking through, you can thin the batter slightly with a little more milk, or reduce the heat on the griddle.

Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio + whole wheat pancakes.

Ratios liberate you – when you know the ratio and some basic techniques, then you can really start to cook.

That’s the final line of Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, a cookbook that’s also part anti-cookbook in the way it attempts to separate you from your 1/8-tsp-this-and-1/2-cup-that recipes by addressing the underlying relationships between ingredients that make the recipes work. It’s worth buying even if you never get out of the Doughs and Batters section that opens the book, including master formulas for bread, pasta, pie crust, biscuits (his are rolled, but unrolled they are as tender as can be), cookies, pâte à choux, pancakes, muffins, fritters, crepes, and more. I’ve adapted his master pancake recipe to use 100% whole wheat flour* below, but if you do decide to buy the book, I suppose you might want to delve into later sections on stocks, roux, brines, vinaigrettes, hollandaise, and custards. I’m just saying the first section is the part I’m wearing out.

*I love white-flour pancakes, but let’s face it – you feel like crap after eating a whole stack of them. Pancakes have a high glycemic load, and good ones contain a fair amount of fat, so to me, they function more like dessert than breakfast. If I’m making pancakes for the family for breakfast, it needs to be a kind that won’t put us all in a food coma for the rest of the day. It reminds me of a line in the very silly too-good-to-be-true travel memoir Pasquale’s Nose, where a crazy old man has just one sentence to say: “Nobody ever feels good after eating pancakes.”

Whole wheat pancakes

Ruhlman’s recipe is identical to this one save an extra half-ounce of flour, since he’s using white all-purpose flour instead of whole wheat. These freeze and reheat well – cool completely on a rack, freeze in a flat layer (if you stack them in a bag before they freeze, you’ll need a jackhammer to separate them), then reheat in the microwave for about 40 seconds, or reheat for 30 seconds, top with cold syrup, and give it another 10 seconds to heat it through.

Wet ingredients:
8 ounces milk (anything but skim)
2 large eggs
2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract

Dry ingredients

7.5 ounces (by weight) whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

1. Preheat your griddle. It has to be completely hot or the first batch of pancakes won’t brown.
2. Whisk the wet ingredients together in a bowl, making sure the egg is thoroughly broken up.
3. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a second bowl.
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir briefly to fully hydrate the flour and eliminate any huge lumps. Small lumps are okay.
5. Lightly grease the griddle and immediately begin pouring the batter on to the griddle once any sizzling (of butter or bacon fat) has stopped.
6. When the bubbling on the top becomes firm and the bottom is nicely browned, flip and cook for roughly half the time it took for the first side to cook.

These pancakes are strong enough to handle anything you’d fold into ordinary pancake batter, but I haven’t found a better partner for the nutty, grainy, slightly cardboardy taste of whole wheat than sweet blueberries.

Yeast-raised Belgian Waffles.

I’ve mentioned before that the problem with “Belgian waffles” as currently served by most American restaurants that offer them is that they are only “Belgian” in shape – it’s a regular waffle batter poured into an iron with deeper ridges, creating a dense, greasy, cakey waffle that bears no resemblance to the lighter, crispier waffles that earn the Belgian moniker. I’ve even seen recipes in reputable cookbooks that make no allowance for the different shape of Belgian waffle irons and assume that your straight-up chemically-leavened waffle batter will do the trick. Of course, it won’t.

It’s not clear to me whether there is a single waffle style that qualifies as an authentic Belgian waffle, but everything I’ve read points to the inclusion of one of two methods of introducing lightness into the final batter: yeast or an egg white foam. This recipe, adapted from The 1997 Joy of Cooking, uses both to create a waffle with a light texture and crispy exterior and that brings the virtue of on-the-fly extensibility.

A quick note on equipment: The model I have, from Hamilton Beach, has been discontinued – I got it four or five years ago for $10 on clearance. It has a 7-inch diameter and nonstick grids; they’re not removable, which does make cleanup tricky, but for ten bucks I wasn’t going to be picky. The heat setting runs from 1 to 5, and I found somewhere between 3 and 4 was perfect for this recipe. If you decide to buy a Belgian waffle iron, look for nonstick grids and a variable temperature setting; I vote for a circular grid since it’s easier to spread batter on a circle than on adjacent squares. Always preheat your iron before the first waffle, and after removing each waffle close the lid and allow it to come back up to temperature.

3 cups milk, warmed to 105-110 degrees
3 eggs, separated
11 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled to lukewarm
1 Tbsp vegetable oil*
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour*
2 1/4 tsp instant yeast*
a pinch of cream of tartar

1. Whisk the egg yolks, butter, oil, and 1/2 cup of the milk together in a bowl.
2. Whisk in the sugar, salt, and extract.
3. In another bowl, stir the yeast into the two flours.
4. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the remaining milk (3 installments of flour, interspersed with two installments of milk), whisking thoroughly to combine each addition.
5. In yet a third bowl, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until you achieve soft peaks. Fold the foam into the master batter. Seal with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for about an hour, until roughly doubled, although any healthy rise will suffice.
6. Preheat your waffle iron about 45 minutes after you finished making the batter.
7. Stir the batter to deflate it, then pour enough batter to make one waffle on to the hot iron’s grid. For my 7″ iron, it took about 3/4 cup of batter; Joy says about 1/2 cup, which probably assumes a 6″ grid. Use an offset spatula or heat-proof silicone spatula to spread the batter quickly to the edges, then close the iron and cook until the steaming starts to subside and the waffle is golden brown; this took about two and a half minutes on my iron. Serve immediately; hold in a 200 degree oven; or cool on wire racks before freezing.

* Notes:

  • The vegetable oil will help keep the waffles from drying out. It’s a tiny sacrifice of flavor for greater shelf life.
  • I’m sure this recipe will work fine if you use 4 cups of AP flour, but I like whole wheat flour for both its flavor and nutritional benefit. Not that these waffles would qualify as health food. Pastry flour is lower in protein than regular whole wheat flour and is usually ground more finely.
  • Instant yeast is infinitely superior to the crap they sell in packets as “active dry” or “rapid-rise” yeast. Instant yeast lasts longer – I’ve taken instant yeast that was in the fridge for over two years and baked successfully with it. It doesn’t require you to bloom it separately in liquid. And it uses less packaging than other kinds. Whole Foods sells a brick of the stuff for $5, so if you use yeast even a dozen times a year it’ll save you money. Just dump the contents of the bag into an airtight container and stick it in your refrigerator.
  • If you decide at any point you want to add something to the batter – nuts, berries, dried coconut, chocolate chips (I’d grease the hell out of the iron before that one, though), even crumbled bacon – you can just drop it into the master bowl or even into one waffle’s worth of batter, stir quickly, and pour. Unlike a chemically-leavened batter, this one bounces back quite well from agitation and the resulting waffle won’t be heavier or denser for the intrusion.

Bryan V’s short ribs, take one.

I mentioned on Twitter the other day that I took a shot at Bryan Voltaggio’s short rib dish from the Top Chef semifinal, where he braised them with figs and then used the figs in the finishing “glaze” (which may have been more of a sauce). Several of you asked for the recipe for it, but I wouldn’t say what I did was quite ready for the dish – I need to alter it and preferably make it twice successfully before posting it. However, since you asked, here’s a rundown of what I intend to do the next time.

The actual cooking of the ribs themselves went pretty well. I started with just over two pounds but probably could have gone up to three without too much alteration. I deboned them (but froze the bones to make a little stock later on) and trimmed the excess fat; seasoned them with salt, pepper, and crumbled dried rosemary (my own – fresh rosemary in a dry kitchen for a week is dry enough to use here); then browned them on all sides in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

After that, I drained all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat and sweated one diced yellow onion, two diced carrots, three diced celery stalks, a smashed and chopped clove of garlic, salt, pepper, and another pinch of rosemary, scraping the pan bottom as they cooked. So far, I haven’t deviated from my basic short rib technique.

Next, I returned to the ribs to the pan and added ten dried figs that I’d halved, a cup of red wine, about ¾ of a cup of chicken stock, and two bay leaves. I brought it to a boil, covered it, and stuck it in a 350 degree oven for two hours.

At about 90 minutes, I had to add more braising liquid to the pot as the pan was starting to get dry. Alcohol, of course, boils at a much lower temperature than water, and I managed to cook too much of it off too soon. Next time around, I’m going to drop the temperature to at least 300 degrees and start with three cups of a half-and-half mixture of red wine and stock. (For the wine, I went with a very cheap Italian merlot and it worked just fine, although it met my desire for a wine without too much character so well that drinking it was a somber experience.)

Even with the loss of the liquid, the ribs reached the desired fall-apart texture and they acquired a faint tangy-sweet taste from the figs and wine. I took the pot from the oven, cranked it up to 450 degrees, threw the ribs into a roasting pan, and browned them for ten minutes.

The lost braising liquid also meant that I didn’t have much of a sauce at the end of the braising process, and pureeing what was in the pot produced a paste that had exactly the flavor I was looking for – strong, hint of sweet, more than a hint of acidity, a little earthy, very savory – but the wrong texture, even after I thinned it out with some added boiled stock. Next time, I’ll strain what’s in the pot, pressing the solids, and then thicken what comes out with some of the pureed solids until I reach the thick but pourable consistency I want.

This method sits on an extensible foundation that looks like this:

  • Trim, season with salt/pepper/herb, and brown
  • Add aromatics with more of the same herb
  • Braise in stock, wine, beer, or some combination of liquids
  • Re-brown at a higher temperature

You can use just about any dried herb; I’ve done it many times with thyme and always had success. Too much alcohol in the braise will result in too little liquid before the process is through, so if you want to use wine (or spirits) cut them with stock or broth or even water if you must. (I admit to wondering whether ginger beer has too much sugar for this task, as Dark-and-Stormy Short Ribs sound, in theory, quite appealing. The resulting glaze would probably be to die for.)

Removing the bones before braising is the key to making successful short ribs in my experience. They cook more quickly without the bones, and removing the bones means there’s a lot less fat in the pan at the end of the braise – you don’t that fat in your sauce, and you don’t want the ribs to braise in that fat unless you’re trying to make a short rib confit. If you debone them, brown them, and don’t overheat them during the braise, your finished product should be very good even if you flub the details as I did.

And a Bottle of Rum.

Wayne Curtis tries to downplay the ambitions set in the title of his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, implying that he’s not going to credit human existence or history to rum the way other authors have to cod or salt or other mundane foodstuffs. That’s all to the good in my opinion, as he sticks mostly to the history of rum and various people and products associated with its rise from “the distilled essence of industrial waste” to a top-shelf liquor commanding premium prices for aged varieties as you might pay for whiskey or brandy.

Rum is, of course, distilled from molasses (or, rarely, sugar cane juice), which was originally discarded by plantation owners as the unwanted, unsaleable waste product of sugar production and refining. It gained popularity among sailors, even becoming part of a daily grog ration for members of the Royal Navy (a practice that was only discontinued in 1970), and then became the main liquor in colonial America, first as an import from the Caribbean and later as a homemade product, playing a role along the way in the Sugar and Stamp Acts. (Curtis also attempts to dispel the myth of the triangle trade, with a few references, saying that there’s no evidence any ship actually sailed those three legs or that the trade was as simple as the middle-school story indicates.) Rum faded from view in the U.S. only to regain popularity during and after Prohibition through Cuba tourism, the song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” and the rise of the tiki bar. It is a tumultuous history with plenty of associations with major world events, even if rum itself wasn’t always the cause of them.

Along the way, Curtis provides digressions about the real Captain Morgan and his namesake rum (which wasn’t always spiced), the American temperance movement against “demon rum” even though rum was rarely consumed at the time, the history of the mai tai and the tiki bar trend, Coca-Cola (and the Andrews Sisters’ song about the two), and Paul Revere’s ride with its possibly-apocryphal stop for a dram of rum. He weaves these stories into ten chapters, each covering a specific drink, including planter’s punch, the daiquiri – not the frozen sickly-sweet concoction, but the original rum-lime-sugar-crushed ice beverage that was the libation of choice of Ernest Hemingway – and the mojito. To his credit, he has proper scorn for flavored rums, pina coladas, and Coca-Cola, since all of the three take the focus of the drink off rum by inserting a dominant alternate flavor.*

*Curtis hits on a distinction I’ve been thinking about between cocktails and mixed drinks. If you read about the history of alcoholic drinks, you’ll come across two kinds – those that try to enhance the flavor of the central liquor or push it to the front of the drink, and those that cover it up because the liquor is of low quality or because the drinker can’t abide the taste of alcohol. The former group, what I think of as cocktails, comprised drinks that were seen as masculine, like you might find a Bertie Wooster drinking at the club, while the latter, simply mixed drinks, were seen as either girly or just déclassé. Curtis even mentions the rise of vodka, a liquor devoid of character and nearly devoid of taste, and its rise as younger male drinkers in the 1950s refused to acquire the taste for strong drink. A true daiquiri remains an acceptable drink in this dichotomy, as the rum is the star ingredient with the rum and sugar as supporting players. A pina colada isn’t, as Curtis explains, because “pineapple and coconut are the linebackers of the taste world,” obliterating any indication that there’s rum in the beverage. A dark-and-stormy (dark rum and ginger beer) works because ginger and rum are complementary flavors, much like mushrooms and onions or haricots verts and almonds, but a Cuba Libre doesn’t work because it’s just a Coke with a higher proof content. I’m not quite sure how a mai tai passes muster with Curtis – I think that’s only an acceptable drink if you’re on a tropical island, and even so, there are likely better options – but in general he’s pretty consistent.

Curtis also includes recipes for modern drinks as well as brief recipes for ten classic (or just old) drinks that lead into the ten chapters. One of them, just called “punch,” looked familiar, and after making it I realized it’s the drink called “planter’s punch” in Bermuda, where my wife and I honeymooned and to which we returned for our fifth and tenth anniversaries. It’s strong and the predominant flavor is rum (Gosling’s Black Seal in Bermuda), and while you can garnish it with all manner of garbage, at its heart it’s a daiquiri with some water and maybe a pinch of nutmeg, the latter a nod to the classic punches of Britain. And it’s very easy to assemble:

Juice half a lime into a glass. Add one tablespoon of sugar, simple syrup, or agave nectar; 1 1/2 ounces of rum; and two ounces of water. Mix well and add ice.

The end of the book has a brief selection listing Curtis’ favorite rums from a cross-section of countries and multiple price ranges. I found most of them at a nearby liquor store (the one at Fresh Pond next to Whole Foods, for those of you who live around here). They’re sipping rums rather than mixing rums, for more serious drinkers than myself.

Next up: Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Alice Adams.

Macaroni & Cheese with Gruyère and Thyme.

Before I get to the recipe, I wanted to point out that is selling a one-year subscription to ESPN the Magazine for $5 this week. I believe that this will also get you a year of Insider.

One of my wife’s friends from “moms group” made this recipe for my wife and daughter, and it was a hit … but I can’t help tinkering, and since I can’t abide cheddar cheese, I decided to reboot it with Gruyère, a milder cheese that’s also one of the best melting cheeses I’ve ever used.

Gruyère also happens to be the classic cheese at the heart of a sauce mornay, and mac and cheese is little more than cooked pasta covered in a sauce mornay with extra cheese and baked till semi-firm and golden brown on down. A sauce mornay is built on a sauce Béchamel*, one of the “mother sauces” and a somewhat secret ingredient in dishes like lasagna. A Béchamel starts with a flour-butter roux to which one adds milk (the traditional method is to steep an onion studded with a bay leaf and a few cloves in the milk first) and then simmers very gently until thickened. Add Gruyère and Parmiggiano-Reggiano to a Béchamel and you have a mornay.

*So one of the Food and Wine pavilions at Epcot this year had some dish served in a Béchamel sauce, and while I was walking by, I overheard a female tourist from somewhere in the northeast yell to her family that the dish was in a “buh-KAM-el” sauce. Granted, not everyone knows what a Béchamel is or how to say it, but if you saw that word and didn’t know it, how far down the list of potential pronunciations would “buh-KAM-el” be? Twentieth? Eightieth? A hundred and twelfth?

Since Gruyère is a French and Swiss-French cheese I went for one of the Frenchiest herbs I could think of, thyme, which pairs very well with Gruyère, and added parsley for some background music. Tarragon is probably the other herb I most associate with French cooking, but it’s too assertive for this dish in my opinion, and it’s more of a spring herb than a fall/winter comfort food flavor. Chives might work. I guess what I’m saying is that you can and should play with the herbs in this dish, just bearing in mind that the cheese flavor is on the soft side and you don’t want the finished product to taste like grass or licorice.

I’ve tried the dish with and without bread crumbs in the topping and I prefer it without, but it’s just a matter of taste. I also cut the mustard (!) in half to keep it in the background; it’s also a very French flavor but not everyone likes a mustardy smack in the mouth.

Whole Foods has organic whole wheat elbows under the 365 label for $1.99. I found a Swiss Gruyère at Trader Joes for $9.99 a pound; a roughly 10-11 ounce brick should give you enough for two batches.

1 1/2 cups elbow-shaped pasta (whole wheat works fine; you can try other shapes but it may alter the cooking time in the oven)
3 T unsalted butter
3 T all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp dry mustard
2 cups milk, anything but skim
1 1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups (about 5 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese (nothing too fancy like “cave aged for 20 years” or anything)
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp Parmiggiano-Reggiano
salt/pepper to tastes

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a saucier (if you have one) or deep skillet or sauté pan, melt the butter and allow to foam but not brown. Add the flour and whisk constantly until a small paste forms. Add the mustard.
3. Gradually add the milk (you may choose to heat it first for faster cooking), still whisking constantly to create a smooth liquid.
4. Allow the mixture to simmer gently for 5-7 minutes until it’s visibly thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Add the herbs, then begin adding the Gruyère in small handfuls, whisking each addition into the sauce until it’s fully integrated. (If you add it all at once and whisk, you will end up with a big congealed clump in the center of your whisk – a hot mess if ever there was one.) Add 1/2 cup of the Parmiggiano-Reggiano and kill the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper (white pepper works well here for aesthetic reasons).
5. Cook the pasta in several quarts of salted water and drain. You don’t want the pasta sitting and waiting for the sauce, so I usually put a small pot of water on high heat when I start the roux.
6. Grease a casserole dish and add the pasta. Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss to coat. Spread the remaining Parmiggiano-Reggiano over the top and bake until the top is golden, brown, and delicious and the center is slightly firm, 20-25 minutes, 30 if you want to be able to cut firm, stable wedges of the dish.

UPDATE: Reader Steve asked about adding leeks and/or bacon. I haven’t tried this variation, but here’s how I’d approach it:
* Chop the bacon finely and crisp in a skillet, rendering out as much fat as possible. Remove the bacon to a paper towel, then add to the casserole right before it goes in the oven.
* Pour out all but maybe 1 Tbsp of the fat from the skillet and use that to sweat the leeks. Slightly browning them is optional but would add more flavor – just don’t burn them. Add with the bacon to the mix right before baking.

Sear-roasted chicken breasts with orange-brandy sauce.

Chat today at 1 pm. Yesterday’s hit on the Herd is now online (and already out of date!).

I’ve adapted this recipe from the February 2009 issue of Fine Cooking – my favorite cooking magazine, and the only one I’ve received over the last five years – with a few tweaks and fixes, although the core concept is the same. It helps to brine the chicken ahead of time, but I don’t think that’s strictly necessary, since the sauce itself has so much flavor. The dish is excellent over couscous (we use whole wheat), which soaks up any excess sauce on the chicken. With about five minutes to go in the oven, I’ll throw some asparagus spears, sliced into two-inch lengths, into the pan and toss to coat in the pan juices and rendered chicken fat, then let the asparagus finish roasting with the chicken.

The recipe would also work great with salmon; skip the brine, sear 3 minutes on the flesh side, then flip and roast until cooked through.

1 whole bone-in, skin-on chicken breast, split into two halves*
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (navel or Valencia)
3 Tbsp salt
1 cup water

1 medium shallot, minced (about 1/4 cup total)
3 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp brandy or cognac
1 (more) cup orange juice
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 orange, peeled and sliced into segments

*Yes, your butcher can split this for you, but if you own a chef’s knife, just flip the whole breast over and do it yourself to save a few dimes.

1. Combine 1 cup orange juice, 1 cup water, and salt, stirring until dissolved. (You can also heat 1/2 cup of water, dissolve the salt in it, then cool it down with ice to end up with a cup of water.) Place the chicken breasts in the brine for one to two hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the chicken breasts from the brine and pat dry. Season with salt and black pepper. In an oven-safe skillet or saute pan, heat about 1 Tbsp olive oil until hot but not smoking, and sear the chicken, skin side down, until well browned, 4-5 minutes. Flip and sear on the second side until lightly browned, 2-3 minutes. Place entire skillet in the oven and roast until 160 degrees in the center, 15-20 minutes.

3. Remove the skillet from the oven and place on a stove burner. Take the chicken out of the pan and place on a plate, under tented foil, to rest. Drain all fat from the pan and add 2 Tbsp butter and the shallot to the pan. Cook over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pan (I use a wooden spatula) to remove all browned bits.

4. When the shallots have softened, turn off the heat and add the brandy. Return to medium heat and cook until most of the brandy has disappeared from the pan. Add 1 cup orange juice and cook over medium-high at a brisk simmer until thickened and reduced by half, then add the chicken broth and cook until thickened again.

5. Turn off the heat and add the parsley, 1 Tbsp butter, and orange segments, swirling to mount the butter in the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve sauce over sliced chicken.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp.

I’ve got a short piece up on Georgia Tech infielder Derek Dietrich, who’ll be a consideration for the first round next year..

My recipes are usually precise based on multiple attempts to make a dish, but this one is an exception, since I threw it together based in part on what I had left of ten pounds of strawberries and about a pound of rhubarb. The amounts in the fruit base are approximate, and the quantity of sugar you use is going to depend on how sweet your strawberries are. The result was a huge hit, and I thought it was better than the damn good strawberry-rhubarb pie I made on Thursday morning. Next time I do this, I’ll weigh the topping ingredients and I’ll revise it.

Fruit base:
1 pound strawberries, hulled and sliced in half
1/3-1/2 pound rhubarb, chopped into inch-long pieces
Roughly 1/2 cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of your strawberries
1 Tbsp rum, preferably black or dark
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 tsp fresh lemon juice
3-4 tsp arrowroot or corn starch
Pinch salt

Crisp topping:
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, softened
3/4 cups flour
3/4 cups dark brown sugar, packed*
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp rolled oats
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch freshly ground cloves
1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable/canola oil**
1/4 tsp salt

* I used half muscovado, a natural dark brown sugar that has a pronounced molasses taste, and half standard brown sugar.
** Anything that’s neutral in flavor would work here. Ergo, not olive oil.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

1. Toss all fruit base ingredients together in a large bowl or directly in the baking dish and set aside for 10-15 minutes. This is really a pie filling, although most strawberry-rhubarb pies go for a 1:1 ratio of fruits, while I prefer a 3:1 ratio here, so that the strawberries are the star and the rhubarb is justa backup player.

2. Cut the butter into 1/2″ pieces and combine all crisp topping ingredients together in a large bowl. With your fingertips – or, if you’re a complete wuss, a pastry-cutter or two knives – work the butter into the remaining ingredients until it’s combined but not homogenous, with large clumps of dry ingredients around pieces of butter.

3. Move the fruit mixture into the baking dish of your choice – I used an 11x9x2 corningware dish – and top with the crumb mixture, covering the entire surface. (The fruit mixture will bubble through and submerge parts of the topping, creating a pan-dowdy-like effect.) Bake for about 30 minutes and check the dish. You’re looking for a nicely browned top and thick juices bubbling up from the fruit mixture. If you don’t have those two things happening, drop the temperature to 325 degrees and bake until it’s done. (Mine was done at 30 minutes.) Allow to cool to room temperature or close to it so that the starch/liquid mixture can set, after which you can reheat it if you want to eat it warm.

Brown rice pilaf.

I don’t consider myself a healthy eater per se, since I tend to choose foods for taste first rather than nutritional benefits. One exception to that rule is rice – I’ve switched almost completely* from white rice to brown. White rice packs very little nutritional punch, while brown rice has fiber and nutrients that are removed with the outer husk, although for a whole grain it’s still on the light side nutritionally. (Barley, which can be roughly substituted in almost any rice recipe as long as you increase the liquid content, is significantly better for you, but in my opinion doesn’t play quite as nicely with other ingredients in a pilaf.)

*The exception to the exception here is in risotto, which must be made with white rice. Most risotto recipes call for arborio rice, although I’ve had excellent results with carnaroli, a slightly more expensive variety that I think produces a creamier finished product. If there is such a thing as brown arborio rice, I haven’t seen it, and I’d rather not know about it.

The rule of thumb for brown rice is that there is no rule of thumb, really. Rice is idiosyncratic, and each variety has to be treated differently. I work primarily with two varieties: long-grain American, and short-grain. (Short-grain is sometimes labelled “sushi rice,” although they’re not the same thing, and supposedly the Japanese hoard all the real sushi rice for themselves, just like they buy up the world’s best coffee and control the world banking market. Or maybe I’m confusing my conspiracy theories again.) Long-grain American brown rice (“LGA”) requires two parts liquid to one part rice; short-grain requires only about 1.5 parts liquid to 1 part rice. LGA has an earthier flavor; short-grain is “sweeter,” although it’s not higher in sugar. LGA is ideal for under-dishes – the rice you serve under gumbo or red beans. It also works well in soups, although I always cook the rice separately from the soup and add it at the end so that I have more control over how much liquid is in the finished product. For pilaf, however, I prefer short-grain.

Cooking brown rice on the stovetop* is simple, but brown rice pilaf is only a little more time-consuming, and if you know how to dice an onion, you have the requisite skills.

*We got a rice steamer as a wedding gift and gave it away when we moved to Pittsburgh two years later and were trying to reduce how much crap we were toting to a small apartment with a tiny basement storage space. Therefore, I’ve been steamer-less for over a decade and am not sure that I’ll switch. Besides, I like pilaf, and you can’t make that in a rice steamer.

Brown rice pilaf with shiitake mushrooms

1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small/medium onion, diced
1/2 poblano pepper, minced*
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4-5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, washed, stems removed, sliced into 1/4″ strips
1 cup short-grain brown rice
1.5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp minced fresh thyme
1/2 cup toasted pecans (optional)

*Poblanos aren’t that hot to begin with and the cooking process will eliminate much of what’s left, leaving you lots of flavor without a kick. If you want a moderate kick, feel free to substitute 3 habaneros, seeds included.

1. Heat the oil and butter together in a medium saucepan until the butter starts foaming. Add the onion and pepper and a pinch of salt and sweat until translucent, 5-7 minutes.
2. Add the mushrooms and raise the heat slightly, cooking until they have released their liquid and the bottom of the pan has only fat and not water.
3. Add the garlic and saute for one minute until the garlic is fragrant.
4. Add the rice and stir on and off for three minutes to toast the rice and coat it with a small layer of fat. If your pan is dry after the last step, add a teaspoon or two of additional fat and wait for it to heat up before adding the rice. This is a good time to pop the chicken broth in the microwave for two minutes so that it’s hot when you add it to the pan.
5. Add the chicken broth to the saucepan and stir once to make sure all ingredients are submerged in the liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste – 1/2 tsp of salt is a good start; stir it to dissolve and taste the liquid to adjust.
6. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a mild simmer, and cook covered on medium-low heat for 40-45 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed. You can also finish it for the same amount of time in a 350 degree oven.
7. Let the rice sit for ten minutes off heat before uncovering. Add the thyme and pecans if desired and stir to fluff.

Substitutions: You can make the same dish with LGA brown rice or pearled barley by increasing the liquid to two cups for LGA and two to two and a half cups for pearled barley.

The basic formula here is 2 Tbsp fat, sweat the onions, toast the rice, add liquid, boil-cover-simmer, let rest, fluff. It’s extensible; for example, you can also add more mushrooms of any variety, but should add at least a teaspoon of fat for every additional handful of fungus. You can add peas, dried fruit, different nuts (walnuts are also popular) or herbs, or other vegetables, but when to add them is the key – anything you add at the beginning is going to cook in liquid for 40-45 minute and could become soggy. Some vegetables, like bell peppers or asparagus, are better cooked separately in a sauté pan or skillet and added after the rice is cooked.