Saturday links, 10/13/12.

Fall League coverage has tied me up all week, but I’m stuck around the house today waiting for a mechanic to finish $1500 in repairs to my car’s A/C, radiator, and catalytic converter assembly (the latter rather important with an emissions test looming), so here’s a mess of links I’ve collected over the last three weeks. Enjoy.

  • Monsanto and other major manufacturers of synthetic pesticides are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat California’s Prop 37, which would require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle are also listed on the Yes on Prop 37 site among companies that have spent at least $1 million to defeat this basic pro-consumer law, which doesn’t ban genetically modified foods, but merely enables consumers to make informed choices.
  • With the Orioles’ unlikely season ending yesterday, it’s a good time to revisit Wire creator David Simon’s podcast with Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch. Speaking of Simon, he also did an interview with Salon a few days before that podcast in which he revealed that HBO turned down a Wire spinoff that would have followed Tommy Carcetti’s career in a new series.
  • Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan wrote a great piece on former A’s prospect Grant Desme, who retired from baseball to join a seminary after a breakout Arizona Fall League performance in 2009. I didn’t see Desme as a potential star or even a solid regular, but that doesn’t make his story any less interesting.
  • What your beer says about your politics. More fun than meaningful, although I think in my specific case it’s pretty spot on.
  • Via mental_floss: Why does sex make men sleepy? Amazing how you can explain things with science.
  • Bill Shaikin of the LA Times did a wide-ranging Q&A with Bud Selig. I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction between the Dodgers’ and Padres’ situations that Selig tries to make.
  • I haven’t tried this recipe yet, but I did bookmark it because it sounds and looks so good: crackly banana bread, using whole wheat flour and whole-grain millet to add a crunchy texture.
  • Michael Ruhlman on the fallacy of “follow your passion” advice. He meanders a bit before getting to the crux of the post, but I enjoyed following his train of thought, and I certainly agree that passion and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.
  • I usually avoid straight politics here, but I’m linking to this David Leonhardt piece on ”Obamanomics” because I like the underlying story of how a poor evaluation at the start of a rebuild can negatively affect policies for several years afterwards and lead to further incorrect evaluations that support the first erroneous conclusion. It could just as easily apply to teams like Houston and Colorado at the beginning of long rebuilding processes, to teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore that had unexpected successes this year based partly on individual performances that aren’t likely to recur.
  • Maybe self-esteem is the wrong buzzword for improving happiness – experimental social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson argues that self-compassion is the real key. I first came across her writing in this July piece on success that argues (I admit without much evidence in the article) that believing in your own ability to learn and improve is a key to increasing job performance and finding happiness in your work.

Pasta alla carbonara.

I’d made pasta alla carbonara many times, using the recipe from Joy of Cooking or similar recipes that all worked primarily the same way – beat some eggs and toss the pasta in that mixture along with a little reserved pasta water, then adding the grated cheese and some cooked bacon. Even using all the right ingredients – Pecorino Romano and either pancetta or the harder-to-find guanciale – didn’t solve the basic problem of texture. No matter how quickly I moved or how carefully I managed the heat, the sauce would cook unevenly and I’d end up with some bits of sauce scrambling on the bottom of the pan.

As I tried to figure out a reason this might happen aside from user error (always a possibility in my kitchen), I had a small breakthrough while frying eggs for breakfast. The egg white cooks more or less the moment it hits the hot pan, while the cook can control the cooking of the yolk and keep it runny for quite some time. The sauce in pasta alla carbonara might have cooked too fast because I was using the wrong ratio of yolks to whites – instead of one to one, why not use more yolks and fewer whites? It turns out that it’s wrong to think of carbonara as a sauce. It’s a custard, and the texture of the finished sauce should be comparable to slightly melted gelato (itself a custard, just with a small amount of air beaten into it).

This turned out to be a one of the two major adjustments I made to the recipe while experimenting with the ratios. The other involves the pasta water. Most recipes that call for pasta water use it for its thickening power (it contains starch from the pasta itself, as well as some of the salt you added before adding the pasta), or to thin out a sauce that might otherwise be too thick. In this case, however, I decided to reserve twice as much of this water as the various recipes called for, and then used some of that to deglaze the pan in which I rendered and crisped the pancetta, imparting substantially more bacon-y flavor to the finished sauce.

Pasta alla carbonara is often served in the United States with long, thin shapes like fettuccini or spaghetti, but I prefer to go with shorter tube-shaped pastas with ridged exteriors. The tube shape allows the pasta to grab some of the smaller pieces of bacon in the sauce, and the sauce clings more easily to shapes with ridged exteriors, like penne or rigatoni. You can use whatever kind you like, of course, but I do think the shape and the sauce need to work together, and long, smooth shapes just leave too much sauce at the bottom of the bowl.

So, the summary:
* Use more yolks and fewer whole eggs
* Use real pancetta (or the similar guanciale) and Pecorino Romano
* Deglaze the bacon pan with pasta water
* Choose the right pasta shape
* Work quickly once you begin constructing the sauce in the pasta pot
* Don’t add anything else – that means no cream, no butter, no chicken, no vegetables, nothing. The sauce is the star and this is a one-man show.

And, finally, I don’t want to hear about how unhealthful this dish is. I’m not suggesting you make this every night. This is peasant food for the soul.

½ pound penne, rigatoni, or similar shape
3 egg yolks
1 whole egg
¾ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
About 75 grams of pancetta or guanciale, finely chopped for rendering (this was about 3 thick slices for me)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Hardware: Pasta pot, saute pan, tempered glass measuring cup, strainer, long-handled wooden spoon or heatproof plastic tongs

1. Render the bacon in the saute pan. I prefer the method from the indispensable Ruhlman’s Twenty, in which you just barely cover the meat with water in the pan, put the lid on, and heat it on high until the water’s gone, reducing the heat as the bacon sizzles and browns. You can do this as you cook the pasta as long as the pancetta is done ahead of time. Drain and reserve the rendered fat, and reserve the meat, but do not clean the pan.
2. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, making sure to use plenty of water and salt it aggressively before adding the pasta.
3. Beat the eggs together until homogenous.
4. Here’s where things speed up.
a) When the pasta is just barely al dente, use the measuring cup to remove a cup of the pasta water. Use ¼ to ½ cup to deglaze the hot saute pan, scraping the bottom to clean it. Hold this water in the pan for now; it can simmer but don’t let it boil.
b) Drain the pasta and return it to the pot, off heat, tossing with enough of the bacon fat to just barely coat the pasta and keep it from sticking together.
c) Add the eggs to the pasta along with the deglazing liquid and stir or toss aggressively. Don’t let the sauce sit at the bottom of the pan. You want this to get warm, about 160 degrees F, but never hot.
d) Once the pasta is coated and the egg/water sauce is warm, add ½ cup of the cheese and toss. Then add the bacon, toss again, and season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve with the remaining cheese as an optional garnish.

The remaining pasta water has two purposes. One is to thin the sauce in the pot if it’s looking too thick. The other is to thin the sauce if it’s been sitting for a few minutes before anyone can get a second helping; this sauce thickens (or maybe just contracts) as it cools.

Pasta with mushroom sauce.

Amazon has Inception – which I know many of you loved – on sale today for just $8 on Blu-Ray. I liked it, but thought the film made too many sacrifices to the mainstream demands of Hollywood to make it truly great.

I’ve grown increasingly fond of using mushrooms as a major flavor in all kinds of dishes now that I’ve learned to prep and cook them properly. Mushrooms are high in compounds that trigger the umami (or savory) taste, which is intensified when the mushrooms are dried, while browning the mushrooms caramelizes the sugars but produces a flavor profile much more similar to seared meat than caramelized vegetables. This recipe takes advantage of both techniques to produce a rich, hearty sauce, thickened with pasta water and a little cream, for a filling side dish or a potential vegetarian entree if made with whole-grain pasta or served with some fresh mozzarella dressed with an herb vinaigrette.

(You will hear and read that you shouldn’t wash raw, fresh mushrooms because they are like “sponges” and will absorb the washing liquid. This is nonsense; raw mushrooms are already pretty well saturated, and when Alton Brown tested this on “The Fungal Saute” episode of Good Eats by weighing the mushrooms before and after washing, he found the mushrooms absorbed only a minimal amount of water. So wash them in a colander, then spread them on paper towels, rolling them in the towels to dry.)

I make the sauce for this dish in a stainless steel saute pan that can handle high heat, but I also run the exhaust fan and cover the smoke detector because I’m pushing the oil to its smoking point. High heat is key to browning the fresh mushrooms and I’m not giving that up just because the smoke detector is too damn close to the kitchen.

Pasta con Sugo ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushroom Sauce)

½ ounce dried porcini or other mushrooms
8 oz fresh cremini (“baby bella”) mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed*, and sliced
1 small shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tsp minced fresh thyme
1 pound tagliatelle or pappardelle
Grated Pecorino Romano and chopped chives, to taste

1. At least a half hour before you begin cooking, pour 1 cup of boiling water over the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl and allow the mushrooms to rehydrate. Strain through a fine-meshed strainer or through damp cheesecloth, but be sure to reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the rehydrated mushrooms, discarding any particularly tough stems.

2. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box, making sure to heavily salt the cooking water, pulling the pasta when it’s still very al dente. Do not overcook the pasta. When draining, reserve ½ cup of the pasta water.

3. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan over high heat until shimmering. Add a handful of sliced mushrooms, taking care not to crowd the pan – you should still see plenty of the pan’s bottom through the mushrooms – as well as a pinch of salt. Leave the mushrooms until they are nut-brown on their cooked sides, then flip and brown the second sides. Push these mushrooms to the sides of the pan and repeat the process (adding oil as needed) until all mushrooms are added and browned.

(Don’t panic when the mushrooms appear at first to soak up much of the oil in the pan. They’ll release it as the cell walls break down during cooking.)

4. Add the rehydrated dried mushrooms and cook for about a minute, adding more oil if necessary. Add the shallot and garlic and cook for another 60 seconds.

5. Deglaze the pan with white wine, cooking until the pan is almost dry, and add the strained mushroom soaking liquid, cooking until reduced by half.

6. Add the cream and simmer (do not boil) until thickened. Thin as desired with the reserved pasta water (I add about 2 Tbsp at a time, heat through, and check for consistency). You want this sauce to coat the pasta, but not to pool in the bottom of the bowl.

7. Add the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Add the pasta and cook for sixty seconds or until the pasta reaches the desired texture, adding pasta water if the sauce becomes too thick or dry. Serve with the pecorino romano and top with the chives.

Variation: Before adding the heavy cream, add one small can of diced tomatoes with about half of the can liquid and allow to reduce slightly. Omit the pasta water.

* “Baby bella” is a marketing term, as is portobello; those are just oversized cremini. To remove the stems, just pinch the stem right where it meets the underside of the cap, and gently rock it back and forth to loosen it. You should be able to pull it right out. The tips of all mushroom stems become woody and tough, so you at least need to cut off the final half inch, but I find it’s faster to just remove the stems entirely, and it makes them easier to slice.

Cauliflower steaks … and I Want My Hat Back.

Before I get to the recipe, I have to talk about my favorite gift from Christmas this year – one I gave, not one I received. I’m not even sure how I first heard about Jon Klassen’s book I Want My Hat Back, which has apparently spawned its own online meme, but it is one of the most clever, sneakily macabre childen’s books I have ever seen, one that my daughter and I both loved on first read. It’s about a bear who has lost his hat, asks various forest animals if they’ve seen it, and eventually realizes where his hat is, a few pages after the reader has figured it out. It’s dry and a little twisted, but also perfectly captures how kids lie even when they’re caught red-handed. I’d put the vocabulary level at age 3 or 4, but the subject matter might make 5 a better minimum age. My five-year-old daughter wasn’t disturbed, and she asked to read it again last night, which is good, because I wanted to read it to her again anyway.

As for this peculiar side dish, I got the idea from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit, a magazine with which I’ve had pretty mixed results over the years. (The original recipe does include a useful photo if you can’t picture a cauliflower steak.) I’m just finishing a free subscription I received because my wife bought me one of their cookbooks as a gift, and the book included a coupon for a free year of the magazine, but I won’t be renewing because their recipes don’t work well and the magazine seems so much more focused on eating out (and expensively) than on actual cooking. Anyway, the idea of a cauliflower cut vertically into large steaks appealed to me, but I changed up the sauce to something that I thought better suited the mellow, slightly sweet flavor of well-browned cauliflower.

To cut the ‘steaks,’ start with a whole head of cauliflower and trim away all green leaves while leaving the stem intact. Standing the head on its base, make a small mark with your chef’s knife in the center of the top of the cauliflower, and then make similar marks at least ½” in either direction, enough to cut four slabs from the head. Anything less than a half inch won’t hold together when cooked; too much more than about 5/8” and you’ll only get two steaks that won’t cook through before the outside burns. You can cut the remaining florets and brown them with the steaks, or save them for another use (like soup).

This sauce is tangy, but contains no heat; you could also roast a hot pepper, like a red jalapeño, and add it to the puree, or finish the sauce with a few drops of red chile oil.

Cauliflower ‘Steaks’ with Roasted Red Pepper sauce

1 cauliflower head, cut as described into four steaks
2 red bell peppers
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp olive oil

1. Roast the peppers on all sides under a broiler, about 40 minutes total (turning as needed), until well charred. Throw the garlic cloves on the same sheet pan for about ten minutes to soften and brown slightly. Set the garlic aside.
2. Place the peppers in a bowl and cover with foil for ten minutes to allow the steam to escape the peppers and separate the flesh from the skin. Remove the charred skin, the stems, and any seeds, saving the liquid from inside the peppers.
3. Place the peppers, garlic, pepper liquid, and sherry vinegar in a bowl or cup and puree with an immersion blender, or puree in a food processor. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and set aside.
4. When the peppers are done, set the oven to bake at 400 degrees. Heat a large saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat.
5. Add 1 Tbsp olive oil to the skillet and heat until shimmering. Add two of the four cauliflower steaks and cook one and a half to two minutes until nicely browned. Flip the steaks carefully with a spatula (place your hand on the cool side to flip without splashing the hot oil on yourself) and brown the alternate sides. Remove the steaks and any stray bits of cauliflower to a rimmed sheet pan, add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, and brown the other two steaks.
6. Roast in the oven for ten minutes until you can easily pierce them through with a paring knife. Remove, season with salt and pepper, and serve on a bed of the roasted red pepper sauce. Finish with a drizzle of an assertive, peppery olive oil if desired.

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. (It’s also available on iBooks.)

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.