A world devoid of tomato soup, tomato sauce, tomato ketchup and tomato paste is hard to visualize.
~Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

On President’s Day—watching pre-dawn documentaries detailing their lives—I was again struck that we have yet to elect a head of state with Italian heritage. Curious. It seemed a proper day to post a tomato sauce recipe.

This sauce is fundamental, versatile and ever so simple to create. It is great to have on hand for kith and kin at a moment’s notice any time of the day. Although the fresh tomatoes in my clime are fabulous, the season is unfortunately narrow (usually mid July through early October, with the most flavorful in September). Fresh tomatoes out of season just do not make the grade…they can even be on the verge of inedible. So, I usually turn to the canned whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes that perpetually inhabit the pantry. Luckily, some of the tomato vendors at the local farmers’ market also can their own, and they are exquisitely flavorful.

If the season is on, you may substitute 2-3 lbs of fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped. But, then again, why would you not slice a gorgeous heirloom tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil…or even just a little sea salt…and savor?

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Two 28 oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes, finely chopped (retain juice)
1/2 medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded
1 small rind of parmigiano reggiano
A quick splash of red wine
Sea salt
Bouquet garni* of fresh parsley, thyme and basil sprigs

Using kitchen scissors, chop tomatoes while still in can.

Heat olive oil in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring some, until softened and slightly goldern, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic, saute and stir occasionally another 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Stir in the tomatoes with juice, carrot, salt, rind, red wine splash and bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. The sauce will thicken to a porridge consistency. Remove and discard the rind and herb bundle. Adjust seasoning to your liking with salt remembering that tomatoes demand liberal amounts of salt.

A silkier version can be made by finishing the sauce in a food mill or blender.

The sauce will keep refrigerated for one week or frozen for 3 months.

*Bouquet garni: herb sprigs bundled together with kitchen twine.

Pourboire: when serving with a pasta or fish, it can be gently toned down with a little cream to make a “pink” sauce. The sauce can also be jazzed up with drained capers, chopped olives, diced peppers, red pepper flakes…you name it.

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Scrambled Eggs — An Art?

February 14, 2009

A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.
~Samuel Butler

So often we see abused plates of scrambled eggs—overcooked, hard, lumpy, devoid of life. Mastering simple scrambled eggs is more difficult than it may seem. I have even heard some chefs remark that they occasionally test new cooks by watching them prepare a plate of scrambled eggs. The perfect scrambled egg is a rare dish demanding a gentle, slow and low cooking process. The end product is all about texture.

Do not overwhip, but you must impart air to the eggs so they will be fluffy. The air bubbles in the liquid become coated with protein and the molecules uncoil (denature). When whisking, tilt the bowl so the whisk moves diagonally across the plane—the eggs should be well mixed, but not overly frothy. Overwhipping can unravel the protein molecules in the eggs.

According the venerable James Beard, using liberal amounts of butter is crucial. Also lodged somewhere in the recesses of my hippocampus is a chef’s hint that a very, very small pinch of cayenne pepper can “wake up” the eggs. As with such obscured memories, I do not remember the source of that truc.

It is essential to use low, gentle heat when cooking eggs, as egg protein begins to thicken at only 144°F, which allows them to toughen rapidly.  So, create tiny curds.

When the eggs are soft and shiny, remove from heat before they are too set as they will continue cooking. Remember the adage…“when eggs are done in the pan, they are overdone on the plate.”

SCRAMBLED EGGS

3-4 T butter
3 T cream cheese
6 fresh, organic, free range eggs, meaning the hens are raised on pastureland
1 T crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Small pinch of cayenne pepper, dried
Small pinch of white pepper, dried
Small pinches of herbes de provence and thyme, dried

Melt the butter and cream cheese in a heavy non-stick skillet. Combine the eggs, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, white pepper, herbes de provence and thyme and a dollop of crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream in a glass bowl and whisk briskly — just until the yolks and whites are combined.

Pour into the non-stick skillet, with the heat on low. With a wooden spatula, gently stir the egg mixture, lifting it up and over from the bottom as it thickens. Stir away from the sides and bottom of the pan toward the middle. Continue to stir until the desired texture (a mass of soft curds) is achieved. They thicken, dry out and toughen very quickly toward the end, so if you like them soft, fluffy and moist, remove them from the heat a little before they reach the desired texture—they will continue to cook after being removed from both the stovetop and the pan.

Pourboires:
Also known as the egg white, albumen accounts for about 2/3 of an egg’s liquid weight. It contains more than half the egg’s total protein, niacin, riboflavin, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium and sulfur. The albumen consists of 4 alternating layers of differing consistencies. Egg white tends to thin out as an egg ages because its protein changes in character which is why fresh eggs sit up tall and firm in the pan while older ones tend to spread out.

Scrambled eggs have many faces, allowing for a variety of permutations and combinations with other ingredients. Consider adding cooked proscuitto, serrano ham or pancetta, chives, sliced sauteed mushrooms, diced sauteed chicken livers, ricotta cheese, goat cheese, barely wilted spinach, fresh tarragon or other herbs…the possibilities seem endless.

Finally, for an even creamier version, try 5 whole eggs coupled with 2 egg yolks.

Paella

February 13, 2009

A morsel eaten selfishly does not gain a friend.
~Spanish proverb

Too long overlooked by a broader audience, Spanish gastronomy is at the forefront of the Western food cosmos. With its broad range of dishes, flavors and ingredients from the simple and rustic to the refined, artful and elegant, Spain is becoming the food destination. This “newly discovered” and somewhat overdue appreciation is likely due to the influx of tapas and paella restaurants as well as the famed chefs such as Ferran Adrià at El Bulli with his outside the box techniques. Like maestro Adrià, several of his countrymen also covet the prestigious three star designation awarded by the Michelin Guide.

Historically, paella was born from the fusion of Roman and Arab culinary heritages. Despite systematic, and often brutal, efforts by Christian clergy to systematically quash Moorish history and identity, much of the Iberian cuisine and culture has been heavily influenced by the Muslim conquest and a several century rule of Spain. Beginning in the 8th Century, the Moors developed a highly civilized land they called Al Andalus.

Outside some of the more obvious Moorish contributions—magnificent architecture, spendid landscaping and fountains, the introduction of paper, music, advanced academics, mathematics and sophisticated astronomy—the marked influence on cuisine is also indisputable. The Moors cultivated olives and oranges and also brought rice, cumin, saffron, almonds, peppers and other spices to Spain.

Now perhaps the most widely known dish in traditional Spanish cuisine, paella is often cooked over an open wood and vine fire in a broad round two handed paella pan. Paella pans of several sizes are available at cooking stores (one of my favored haunts), but it also can also be made in a large sauté pan. The dish is served right out of the pan at the table, family style, sharing the bounty with all.

Controlling the fire—the heat intensity—is paramount. The dish should not be disturbed during the process or you will cause the rice to cook unevenly. The idea is to cook the rice underneath to form the classic crust called soccorat on the bottom.

Several versions of paella exist often depending on region and available meat, game, fish and seasonal produce. The one constant, the leading lady, is the rice which should be the short grain variety, preferably Valencia, Bomba or Calasparra…even Arborio. Long grain rice simply is a “no no”.

PAELLA

4 chicken leg thighs, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons pimenton or sweet paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil

Spanish chorizo sausage, sliced

4 jumbo shrimp, peeled, but with heads and tails on
2 lobster tails, cut into medallions
Several squid, cleaned and rinsed
12 mussels, cleaned and scrubbed

4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 medium onion, diced
1 (16-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and hand crushed
1 t sea salt
1 t sugar

1 cup valencia or arborio rice
1 teaspoon saffron threads
2 bay leafs
1/4 C dry white wine
3 cups stock
1/2 cup sweet peas, frozen and thawed
Fresh cilantro

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Mix the oregano and paprika with some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture all over the pieces of chicken and marinate for 30 minutes or more.

Heat the olive oil in a paella pan or wide shallow skillet over medium high heat. Place the chicken in the pan, until brown on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Add the chorizo and continue to cook until the oil is a vibrant red color. Temporarily remove the chicken and sausage to a platter.

Sear the lobster tails and shrimp for one minute over high heat. Add the squid to the pan and sear for 15-20 seconds. Set aside.

Make a sofrito—saute the garlic, onion, and tomatoes sprinkled with some salt, pepper and sugar; cook until the mixture caramelizes a bit and the flavors meld. Remove and set aside.

Return the chicken and sausage to the pan and lower the heat to medium. Pour in the white wine and cook until it is reduced by half, about 1-2 minutes. Add the sofrito and cook 3 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron and add to the pan along with the bay leaf. Season with salt.

Fold in the rice, carefully spreading it evenly around the pan. Cook for 5 minutes on high, stirring and gently moving the pan around so the rice cooks evenly and absorbs the liquid. The rice will float about in the pan.

Nestle in the reserved shrimp, lobster, and mussels. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes. Near the last couple of minutes of this cooking process, scatter the squid and peas on top. During this entire stage, do not cover, disturb or stir or the rice will cook unevenly.

The stock should be absorbed by the now fluffy rice and there should be a nice shimmer to the top of the paella. Remember, the ideal paella has a toasted, caramelized rice “bottom crust” called socarrat. Allow to rest off the heat for 3-5 minutes, garnish with cilantro, then serve.

Pourboires: mix it up with other ingredients to change the character of the paella, including green beans, broad beans, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, mushrooms, serrano ham, chicken livers, rabbit, clams, snails

The vulgar boil, the learned roast, an egg.
~Alexander Pope

A segue from streetwalkers to virginal ova. I intend to occasionally share thoughts about eggs, a personal favorite for The Last Meal (not to be confused with Supper)—just for the metaphor alone. What a superb evolutionary adaptation…the gentle orb, the simple but complex shell, the pure hues, the yin-yang of yolk & white, the unadorned chemistry, the endless uses in the kitchen.

Pourboire: Egg shell color may vary, but color has nothing to do with egg quality, flavor, nutritive value, cooking characteristics or shell thickness. The color comes from pigments in the outer layer of the shell and may range in various breeds from white to deep brown. The breed of hen determines the color of the shell…so, those with white feathers and ear lobes lay white eggs while those with red feathers and ear lobes lay brown eggs.

OEUFS EN COCOTTE

4 fresh, organic, free range eggs, room temperature
1-2 T unsalted butter
4 T cooked diced cooked pancetta, bacon or ham
4 T shredded Gruyère cheese
8 t heavy cream
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon, chopped

Preheat oven to 325 F

Fill baking dish with 1 1/2″ to 2” hot water; place insert in pan. Butter 4 ramekins. Put 1 tablespoon cooked diced pancetta, bacon or ham in each ramekin. Break 1 egg into each ramekin; top each with 1 tablespoon shredded gruyère cheese and 1 tablespoon cream.

Carefully place ramekins in baking dish. Cook about 12 minutes, checking the eggs after about 10 minutes baking time. When done, the whites should be completely set and the yolks beginning to thicken but not hard. Always remember that eggs continue to cook after they are removed from their cooking medium…a refrain you will hear throughout: “when eggs are done in the pan, they are overdone on the plate.”

Remove ramekins from baking dish. Season eggs with salt and pepper; sprinkle with chopped tarragon.