Rhona’s Paris Dinners

I have a close friend who lives in Paris. She, like I, trained as a chef and knows how to cook. She’s raising her 16-year old son single handedly while she translates 6 days a week at Le Cordon Bleu where she works as many as 12 hours a day. Even though she comes home exhausted, she always provides a proper meal for her son: a proper French meal, with courses and a variety of dishes. We speak often on the phone–just about everyday–when it’s about 5 pm my time and 11 pm her time. I’m sipping on my first cocktail and she’s making or eating dinner. The process, for me, is slow torture. She starts out describing the products that are about to be cooked–things that we can’t find here like wild game, the best butter in the world, or fresh goose foie gras, and by the time she’s starting to cook, my stomach is growling.

Last night, she made blanquette de veau. A veal blanquette is somewhat like a veal stew except for a couple of things. First, the meat is poached rather than braised. The poaching liquid is then finished with a flour roux. Egg yolks are added to the thickened poaching liquid and the mixture slowly stirred until the egg yolks gently thicken it and turn it silky. Cream is then added. In traditional versions, mushrooms and pearl onions are included to go along with the meat. The blanquette is served with rice.

A blanquette is a pretty straightforward affair, but there are certain caveats and tips. In France, they call for the tendron which is a part of the breast and is, in fact, the least expensive cut of veal you can buy. In this country, I buy either a whole or half breast of veal, trim off the fat and gristle, and separate the meat from the bones. I then use the bones, along with some aromatic vegetables, to make a basic veal broth in which to poach the meat. This is important: blanch both the meat and the bones (not together) by putting them in a pot of cold water. Bring the water to a simmer, drain the meat or bones, and rinse with cold water. If you don’t follow through with this blanching process, the poaching liquid will be grey and taste like soap. Once the bones are blanched, make the broth. When the meat has been blanched, it is ready to be poached–usually for about 40 minutes–in the bone liquid.

Once the meat has been poached, you’ll be left with a very flavorful poaching liquid. This liquid can be reduced to intensify its flavor but, more typically, it is simply thickened with roux to give it the right consistency. Once the roux has been incorporated–or rather, the poaching liquid whisked into the roux–the liquid can be combined with egg yolks (traditionally about 8 per quart of liquid) and gently cooked over the stove (while stirring constantly) until the liquid takes on a silky consistency. Rhona then finishes this concoction with organic crème fraîche, cream of a quality we can’t get in this country. For some reason French cream tastes better than American cream, even American cream that’s been cultured into crème fraîche. They typically eat near midnight.

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Artichoke Bottoms

I was once a maitre d’ at a restaurant in Montmartre. An American came in and ordered an artichoke vinaigrette which was duly presented with a bowl for the finished leaves. As he sat there, I realized that perhaps he didn’t know how to eat an artichoke, so I went over to his table, took a leaf of the artichoke, dipped it in the vinaigrette, slid it between my teeth and placing the finished leaf in the bowl. Figuring I had handled the problem and continuing my gentle surveillance of the dining room, I returned 10 minutes later to find the artichoke gone. I mean gone. Every bit of it. Not a trace, no leaves, no heart, no nothing.

While most of us nowadays know how to eat an artichoke, many of us are mystified by recipes that call for artichoke bottoms or artichoke hearts. To prepare artichoke bottoms (the hearts are virtually the same) the leaves must be trimmed off in a process we call “turning.” Even though this seems wasteful, there’s nothing quite so elegant as a simple salad of artichoke bottoms with walnuts or more elaborate combinations with wild mushrooms, asparagus tips, etc. To turn an artichoke, grip it, underhand, in your left hand. Hold a long and very sharp knife against the artichoke with your right hand. Use your lefthand to rotate the artichoke against the knife, trimming off the outermost leaves as you go. Continue rotating–it may take several rotations since you should try not to cut too deeply with the knife and cut into the inner flesh–until you see the pale flesh of the inner part of the artichoke. At this point, cut off the bottom stem (you can also do this at the beginning) and switch your grip on the artichoke from underhand to overhand. Hold the knife along the bottom of the artichoke at an angle and rotate the a artichoke to trim off patches of dark green. The bottom of the artichoke should be completely free of dark green. Cut the leaves off the base and trim the base by rotating it against a small sharp knife.

To cook an artichoke bottom, put it in a small pot with enough water to cover generously. Add a tablespoon of olive oil (this coats the artichoke and keeps it from darkening) and cover the pot with a plate to keep the artichoke heart submerged.  Simmer until a skewer slides into the artichoke heart with only slight resistance.  Drain, allow to cool, and remove the choke with a spoon.

Artichoke bottoms can be served in salads or, for elaborate presentations, as holders for other vegetables such as peas, string beans, mushrooms, or truffles!

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How to prepare and roast a whole round fish (daurade)

By “round fish” we don’t mean a fish that’s actually round, but rather a fish that swims in a “normal” way, with belly down and dorsal back fins up. This is in contrast to a “flatfish,” which is relatively flat (duh) and nestles in the sand on the bottom of the sea. Sole and flounder are examples.

A daurade is a round fish that swims on the European side of the Atlantic. They are closely related to our porgies, but are meatier and come in a number of very desirable varieties. Daurade is now farmed, but wild daurade can still be found at exorbitant prices.

Here we show how to prepare the daurade by trimming and cleaning. We then roast it with the skin and scales left on and then simply peel off the skin and scales when the fish is done roasting. This is a great trick when you’re grilling and don’t want the fish to stick to the grill.

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Vintage perfumes

The more I experiment with perfumes, the more I realize that I’m trying to emulate the perfumes of the past. I remember the smell of my mother in the 1950s as she’d get ready to go to a party–the smell when she was leaving and the smell when she got back. By the time she got back, the top and middle notes of the perfume had disappeared and the only smell was that of natural musk, an aroma most people, even perfumers, have never smelled. So, it is emulating these perfumes (sans the natural musk) that draws me deeper into perfumery. I’ve had some success, particularly with a natural floral blend fixed with some special balsam I got from a supplier in India. I think it smells divine, but it doesn’t last long enough–a couple of hours at most. I know there are things I can do and add to help it last longer but I don’t want to attenuate it too much.

I’ve been playing around with para-cresyl acetate, which has a strong phenolic aroma with a strong animalic component. I’ve combined it with synthetic musks to see if I could emulate natural musk. I got into the ball park but no home run. I added civet and that helped but of course that’s another forbidden product (I don’t want to participate in the torture of the civet cat) that I won’t be able to use.

Everyday, I have a smell training session. I take 20 or so aroma chemicals and smell them on smelling strips. I then try to identify them blind. It’s not as easy as it might seem. Right now I’m working on a bunch of chemicals that start with P. These means a lot of phenyl this and phenyl that. Phenyl means that the aroma is probably going to be phenolic–sort of tarry and burned and really like phenol, but most people these days don’t know what that smells like. But it does mean that the chemicals are somewhat similar which makes distinguishing them all that more difficult. I figure when I can identify all 250 of my aroma chemicals that I’ll be partly on the way to becoming a perfumer.

I’ve been working on an artificial narcissus. I would never have known how to create one myself without the help of Jellinek’s The Practice of Modern Perfumery. He uses a number of para-cresyls, ylang, hydroxycitronellal, petitgrain, indole, heliotropin, terpineol, natural geraniol, linalool, isoeugenol, benzyl isobutyrate, and phenyl acetaldehyde. It’s not bad but of course it’s more aggressive than narcissus absolute. I’m going to add narcissus absolute to it to see if I can tame it and make it more natural seeming.

So, I’d been experimenting along these lines, when a chic perfume boutique opened around the corner. After chatting up the owner on several visits, he said to bring in some samples of my “creations.” So, with much trepidation, I sat with him as he slowly and silently sniffed the 7 vials I had brought in. When done, he looked it me–I was preparing myself not to be crushed–and said “You have a line here.” “You’re very talented.” Well, I left the store floating on air. He not only praised them but said he would carry them in the shop (apparently the place is very hard to get into being high-end and niche) once I got the packaging together. After much experimentation, I finally figured out the packaging but it turned out not to be slick enough to sell these rather expensive perfumes. So, I’m back to the drawing board and have been in touch with numerous suppliers in China trying to get someone who will make an order of fewer than 10,000 bottles. It’s very hard to get something simple and elegant.

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How to roast a whole round of veal

The round of veal is a roundish muscle that resembles a flattened sphere. It usually weighs about 4 pounds but can vary a lot in either direction. It is impeccably lean and tender and is used to make the finest scallops for such things as veal scallopini. Most people, however, substitute a cheaper cut. Yes, a round of veal is expensive but not as expensive as a lot of things and it makes a perfect and very elegant roast that you’re unlikely to have encountered anywhere else. One caveat: the veal must be perfectly cooked or it will be dry.

When you buy your round of veal, it will come “cap off” or “cap on.” The “cap” is a flat section of tough meat that partially surrounds the round and has to be trimmed off. You want this piece of meat for making your jus so when you buy the veal, ask for it cap on or, if the butcher removes the cap, be sure he gives it to you. This extra meat is essential for making a jus since the properly cooked round will release very little in the way of juices.

When you get your veal home, trim off the cap–just follow the natural separation of the muscles–and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Let the veal come to room temperature before you roast it. Brown the cubes with carrots and onions and place the tied up round of veal on top in a pan or pot just large enough to hold it. Roast the veal to an internal temperature of 132 degrees (it will rise 5 degrees as it rests) and transfer it to a platter. Cover it loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for 10 minutes before carving. Spoon or drain the fat off the caramelized juices in the pot or pan you used for roasting the veal. Add water or broth to the caramelized juices and simmer while scraping with a wooden spoon. Strain and transfer to a sauceboat.

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How to poach a flatfish

Many of us have fish poachers but when it comes to poaching a flatfish like a sole or flounder, we’re lost. The standard solution to this  quandary is a special fish poacher called a turbotière, diamond-shaped, with handles on the ends and a rack for lifting up the fish. The only problem with said devices is their cost. They’re usually made of copper and can cost upwards of $1000. While I’d love to have one–they’re beautiful–even I have a hard time justifying this expense since poaching whole flatfish isn’t a daily procedure. To improvise a turbotière at home, you’ll need a roasting pan that’s deep enough to hold the fish covered with liquid and a cake rack, grill-like to help the cake dry slightly. Unfortunately, most cake racks don’t fit into most roasting pans so you’ll have to cut the cake rack down to size with wire cutters. Once you’ve got it so that it fits into the roasting pan, attach loops of strings to two ends so you can lift it out when the fish is ready.

Traditional recipes usually call for poaching in a court-bouillon, which is essentially a vegetable stock. The fact is that very little flavor from the poaching liquid makes it into the fish such that the expense and effort of a court-bouillon are hardly worth it. An easier solution is simply to salt the water liberally and infuse it with a bouquet garni (a bundle of parsley, thyme, and bay leaf). If you’re in a restaurant situation, re-use the poaching liquid so that you end up with a rich fish broth you can use for making sauces. You can even use it as the base for a beurre blanc or hollandaise.

Here we show preparing and poaching a turbot:

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Caramel

Caramel is one of those simple things that throws people off. Perhaps it’s the idea of heating sugar to rather shocking temperature that scares us, but as long as you stand back a bit during critical moments, there is nothing to fear. First off, most recipes include an initial step of adding water to the sugar. This accomplishes nothing and only makes the caramel take longer to cook because before the sugar can begin caramelizing the water must all evaporate off. So when you set out to make caramel, use sugar alone. Traditional recipes suggest cooking caramel in an unlined copper pot, but I do mine in copper lined with stainless steel. Plain stainless steel also works. Don’t use tin-lined copper or aluminum. The important thing is that it be rather heavy so the sugar cooks evenly. Add the sugar, turn the heat to high, and begin stirring with a wooden spoon. After a few moments the sugar will start to lump up, as though you’ve added liquid, but after a couple of minutes, the sugar will begin to liquify. Continue stirring until all the lumps disappear. Now you have a couple of choices, but whatever you do, it’s imperative that you stop the cooking or the sugar will burn. If you’re using the caramel as it is–you’re not converting it into any kind of sauce or syrup–then stop the cooking by plunging the pan in a bowl of cold water. Let it sit in the water for a couple of seconds and then use it immediately before it hardens. Caramel is simply sugar cooked until it turns reddish brown, but there are a number of derivatives. If you add water to the caramel as soon as it’s ready (here you should stand back), you’ll end up with caramel syrup. If you add heavy cream, you’ll end up with caramel sauce. If you cook butter with the caramel and then finish the mixture with cream, you’ll have butterscotch.

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Chicken

Roast Chicken
I recently got a call from a woman, hysterical because I had “ruined the turkey” for her Thanksgiving dinner. She had discovered pink where the thigh joint joins the back of the bird. I tried to explain that a properly cooked bird will be pink (but not translucent) on the inside of the thigh. (Wolfgang Puck is the only one I know who backs me up on this.) I asked her if she at least ate the breast (which I assume was more cooked) and she said, no, that she had thrown the whole bird in the trash. So, I should probably explain in my books, when I tell people to take the bird out at 140 degrees, that the bird will still be pink near where the thigh joint joins the back.
While I think of roasting a chicken as the gastronome’s equivalent to a tv dinner–basically all you do is stick it in the oven–people are still intimidated by it.
The fact is you can have more than satisfactory roast chicken by simply sliding it into a 500-degree oven and cooking it about 45 minutes. If you have convection, turn it on.
You may wonder why the high heat. It’s essential for browning. Browning is one of the central challenges in roasting, particularly with small roasts, because the heat has to be high enough to brown the roast before it cooks through. Thus it’s impossible to brown a quail in a home oven (restaurant ovens are something else) without cooking it to death. On the other hand, roasting a turkey presents no problem because it spends so long in the oven in order to cook through.
The solution for small birds is to brown them on the stove before sliding them in the oven.
While you can roast a chicken by just sticking it into the oven and forgetting about it, there are a few tricks that improve it significantly. One of the most persistent problems facing the roaster of birds is the tendency of the breasts to cook through before the thighs. This is why the breast meat of so many turkeys is dry; relying on the pop-up thermometer is catastrophic. To avoid this, cover the breast of poultry loosely with buttered aluminum foil (or a bard, see page 000) for the first 20 minutes of roasting. This slows down the cooking of the breasts and gives the thighs more time to catch up. The bird is done when a thermometer stuck between the thigh and the breast (near the joint but not touching) reads 140 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, determine doneness by looking at the juices in the bird’s cavity. Most recipes say to wait until they are clear (initially they are a cloudy pink) but I’ve found that this overcooks the bird. A more reliable system is to wait until the juices are clear but streaked with red. Once out of the oven, cover loosely with aluminum foil for about 15 minute to let the heat redistribute and leave the chicken more evenly cooked.
The relatively low internal temperature that I call for often provokes questions about safety. While a somewhat higher temperature is required to kill salmonella, keep in mind that salmonella is only on the surface of the bird and not in the muscle tissue (the meat) unless the bird died of a septicemia. The surface of the bird gets much hotter than 140 degrees.
It is in part for this reason that it’s not a good idea to stuff turkeys and chickens. To cook the stuffing and get it to a safe temperature (around 160 degrees) you have to cook the bird to death. A better idea is to wrap some stuffing in aluminum foil and put it in the roasting pan next to the bird.
I’m often asked about roasting racks. I never use them because they suspend the bird above the roasting pan. This causes the juices to drip down on the pan which is much hotter than the bird and burn. To prevent this, put the bird right in the roasting pan. Select a roasting pan that’s close in size to the chicken so there aren’t bare patches that get too hot and cause the juices to burn. To keep the chicken from sticking to the pan, set it on a few slices of onion or carrot (these will contribute flavor to the juices, see below) or the giblets taken out of their little paper package. There are those who dispute the value of trussing, but trussing keeps the bird together and helps it cook evenly. It makes it look much more presentable at the table. Fortunately, there is a simple method that requires no needles or other instruments designed for putting holes in the bird.

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Last, there is the question of jus and gravy. A gravy is simply a jus that’s been thickened and in the case of roast chicken I rarely bother with the thickening unless it’s just to add a little heavy cream and reduce it a tad.
When your chicken is finished roasting, the roasting pan will contain both juices (some or all which might be caramelized into a brown crust clinging to the pan) and liquid fat. The trick is to separate the two. If the fat is perfectly clear, it means that all the juices have caramelized and that all you need to do is pour off the fat before deglazing. If the juices are cloudy, it means that they have emulsified with the fat. The trick is to separate these emulsified juices from the fat. To achieve this, boil down the juices by putting the roasting pan on the stove. Re-position the pan every 30 seconds or so so that the juices brown evenly. When the liquid in the pan turns clear, and a brown crust has formed in the pan, pour off the liquid fat. Now you should have a roasting pan with a caramelized crust and no fat. Deglaze the pan with a small amount of water or broth (never more than a cup for a single roast chicken) and put the pan on the stove. Boil the liquid while scraping with a wooden spoon to get the crust to dissolve in the liquid.
Another trick, and one that’s particularly useful if you don’t have enough drippings, is to make a kind of phony jus by caramelizing broth. Pour a cup of broth into the roasting pan and boil it down until it reduces completely and caramelizes on the bottom of the pan. Deglaze with another cup of broth, scrape up the crust, and caramelize again. Deglaze. Caramelize. Ad infinitum. (see also “jus,” page 000)

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Braised Chicken (Coq au Vin)

I’m not going to give a recipe for coq au vin since I think we’ll become better cooks without one. More valuable is a description of the principles at play and an analysis of how the preparation works.
Traditionally, a rooster for a coq au vin should be marinated with aromatic vegetables and a bouquet garni in red wine. The aromatic vegetables and the wine are then used to braise the rooster, about 3 hours.  The braising liquid is finished with beurre manié and the rooster’s blood. The braising liquid needs to be whisked into the blood and not the other way around or the blood will curdle. The cooked aromatic elements (onions, carrots, bouquet garni etc.) are removed and discarded (although some clever cooks puree them—not the bouquet garni–and use them to bind the sauce) and a separate “garniture” of glazed pearl onions, sautéed mushrooms, and little lardons of bacon is stirred into the stew just before serving.
If you have a real mature rooster, this is pretty straightforward, but most of the time we encounter or prepare “coq au vin”, we’re using a banal chicken, inappropriate for long braising. In the interests of authenticity, such a dish should be called “poulet au vin rouge.”
One might be tempted to assume that an identical process, with the braising time shortened, can be used to braise a chicken rather than a rooster. But there are problems. Since a cut-up chicken will cook in about 20 minutes in simmering red wine, the red wine and aromatic ingredients have no time to cook and the wine’s tannins and acids may remain harsh. The dish may have a raw wine taste. When using red wine, first, select a wine that is soft, that doesn’t have too much acidity or tannin, that’s a bit oaky, and very full-bodied. (Traits I like in cooking are often the opposite of those I like in drinking.) I find wines from Argentina to be particularly good cooking wines.
Once the wine in hand, the obvious solution is to simmer the wine ahead of time, before using it to cook the chicken. But wine simmered alone just becomes harsh and aggressive. Red wine must be cooked with proteins so the proteins clarify out the tannins and soften the acidity. So the trick is this: make a red wine stock in the same way you make stock with water (substitute the wine for the water) by first browning drum sticks or wings (dark meat is best; just buy the cheapest) and aromatic vegetables and then simmering them for 3 hours or so in the red wine. The resulting “stock” can then be degreased and reduced and used to cook our chicken.
Brown the cut-up chicken in butter (or lard if you have it—don’t use bacon fat which is too aggressive) until it’s well browned on each side. Take out the chicken. If you’re adding more aromatic vegetables (which may not be necessary since they were included in the red wine stock), cook them in the same pan over medium heat for about 10 minutes to soften them. Take out the vegetables, discard any fat and put the chicken back in. Pour over the wine stock, cover the pan, and simmer about 20 minutes until the chicken feels firm to the touch. (Removing the bone from the thigh ensures that the cooking time for the thighs and breasts is the same.) Take the chicken out, keep it warm, and decide what to do with the braising liquid. There are a couple of approaches. It’s unlikely you’re going to have blood so we’ll skip that for now. But beurre manié is a good option. There is also the possibility of reducing and degreasing the braising liquid until there’s a very small amount left (a half cup or so) and then finishing it with cold cubes of butter—usually about 6 tablespoons. This latter approach makes the dish richer and more intensely flavored but there’s less sauce to go around—but you’ll want less since it’s so rich.
You must also give thought to the garniture. If you’re using the classic garniture, most of the work can be done ahead—just sautéing the mushrooms has to be done at the last minute—including rendering the lardons and glazing the pearl onions.
Fortunately, coq au vin or poulet au vin rouge lend themselves to all sorts of improvisation. First, you can concentrate on a specific wine. While it’s unlikely that the character of a particular wine won’t be obscured by cooking, it’s worth experimenting with specific wines such as Beaujolais, Rhone wines, or red wines from the Loire Valley. Be sure to advertise that you’re using something other than a banal everyday wine by calling your dish coq au beaujolais or poulet au chinon. This takes your dish out of the ordinary and lends it panache. (Although I assure you that there will be nothing ordinary about a poulet au vin rouge made with good red wine stock.)
While the pearl onion/lardon/mushroom combination is delicious and classic (in addition, heart-shaped croutons, tips dipped in chopped parsley are sometimes used to decorate the finished platter) some substitutions are obvious. Using wild mushrooms will elevate your dish to celestial realms. A bit of chopped truffle would do no harm either. Also, add a spot of Cognac (not “brandy”) to your sauce about a minute before serving (be sure to cook off the alcohol). On the other end of the spectrum, you may want to simplify your dish by including the carrots, celery, and onions that were used for the braising. This, in fact, is the difference between cuisine bonne femme, cuisine bourgeoise, and cuisine classique. In cuisine bonne femme, the aromatic garniture (usually carrots, onion and celery) is left in the dish and becomes the final garniture (keep in mind that the vegetables can also be pureed and used to thicken the sauce). In cuisine bourgeoise, aromatic vegetables are added to the stew at an appropriate time during the cooking; in cuisine classique, the garniture is prepared completely separately (as for a classic coq au vin).

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Fricassées and Sautés
The difference between a fricassée and a sauté is easily explained. To make a fricassee, the chicken is cut up and lightly sautéed to, as the French say, “stiffen it.” In other words, as you see the pieces contract and firm up slightly, they’re ready for the next stage, moistening with some kind of flavorful liquid. Such a liquid, typically broth, then absorbs the flavor of the chicken and can easily be converted into a sauce.
The best known fricassee, fricassee de poulet à l’ancienne, is made by lightly cooking the cut up chicken in butter, sprinkling the chicken with flour, adding broth, and gently simmering until done. The sauce is then thickened with cream and egg yolks.
The term “sauté” is a little confusing because we normally associate the word with cooking in fat over relatively high heat to brown whatever the food is in question. When the word sauté is used in the context of cooking chicken, it simply means that the chicken is completely cooked in fat (such as butter or olive oil), taken out of the pan, the fat discarded, and the sauce made in pan. In this way, the sauce takes up the crusty caramelized juices attached to the bottom of the pan. At the last minute, the chicken is reheated in the sauce.

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“Sauteing” Breaded Chicken

When chicken is breaded–coated with flour; flour and egg; or flour, egg and breadcrumbs–it needs to be cooked in a sauté pan over gentle heat. The heat is much lower than if you were sautéing chicken that had no coating. Keep in mind that it is the bread or other coating that you’re browning and not the chicken itself. For this reason, browning breaded foods usually requires lower heat. In French cooking, there are several kinds of breading. A simple coating of flour, followed by sautéing, is called “à la meunière.” When the floured food is then coated in egg and sautéed, it is called “à la parisienne.” When coated with flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs, it is called “à l’anglaise.” When foods are coated à l’anglaise and gently cooked in clarified butter, they absorb some of the butter and turn a golden brown. When all goes well, there should be an ever-so-slightly-crispy coating and a melting, perfectly cooked, interior. But most people make horrible breaded foods because they use whole butter (which leaves specks on the breading) or, worse, oil (which has the wrong flavor if it has flavor at all), canned breadcrumbs (which are rancid and ghastly) and they cook over too high a heat. To make the breadcrumbs for the coating, cut the crumbs off several slices of dense-crumb white bread. Let the bread get ever so slightly stale or leave it in a low oven for about 10 minutes. You don’t want to dry it out, but rather just keep the crumbs from gumming up. The breadcrumbs should be as fine as possible (so they don’t absorb too much fat) such that I work the bread through a drum sieve. You can also use a strainer. Once the breadcrumbs are in hand, pound the chicken breads just enough to flatten the thicker end so that the breast is of even thickness. Don’t try to make the breasts too thin or they’ll dry out when you cook them. Cook over low to medium heat in clarified butter. If you continue to use the butter in the pan for a second batch, strain it first to eliminate specks.

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Fried Chicken

To fry a chicken, cut it up and plunge it in hot oil. The temperature of the oil, usually around 340 degrees, should be regulated depending on how the chicken is cooking relative to how it is browning. If the chicken browns too fast, it won’t cook through.
There is much debate as to how the chicken should be coated before it goes into the oil. My own preference is for the thinnest coating possible—such as a simple dipping in flour or a light batter of flour and water—but there are those who want a thick batter, perhaps containing eggs. Recipes for batters abound, but I’ve found that many of the traditions, such as using beer or seltzer, make no difference at all.
Whenever you fry, be sure to take precautions. Use a heavy pot, keep it on the back of the stove, and never fill it more than halfway full. Use tongs or a spider to lower the chicken slowly into the hot oil (if it’s plunged in all at once, the oil may boil up and overflow) a bit at a time. Continue adding the chicken, adjusting the temperature to keep the oil from boiling over.
While not usually served with a sauce, I find a flavored mayonnaise, such as tartar sauce, to be indispensable. Old recipes even call for elaborate sauces such as sauce poivrade, a sauce based on vinegar and pepper.

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Grilled Chicken
The main problem with grilling chicken is the tendency of the chicken to flare up and end up covered with soot. There are several ways to avoid flare up. One consists of building the fire to one side of a covered barbecue, browning the chicken on both sides over the high heat, and then finishing cooking the chicken with the cover on on the side of the grill with no coals. If you’re grilling chicken directly over a charcoal fire, cook it on the flesh side first. In this way, by the time you turn the chicken over to cook the skin side (where all the flammable fat is contained), the fire will have died down a bit. If you’re using a gas grill, use a lower heat to brown the skin side.
Then there is the question of marinades. I usually forgo them because I don’t think of what I want to have for dinner in time. If I have an hour or two, I’ll marinate with a few tablespoons of soy sauce, white wine, a little garlic and a little thyme. If have more time, I might include a sliced onion.

 

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Opium

I used to give a cooking class in which I would prepare a crème anglaise. At one point I scraped the tiny vanilla specks out of each length of the bean and explained that the consistency of the resulting paste was reminiscent of opium. This performance was repeated more than once until I heard a member of the audience say loudly “How does he know what opium looks like?”  This silenced me for evermore and fortunately nothing ever came of it.

But the funny thing is, is that I do know what opium looks like and feels like, if I may be deliberately ambiguous.

Opiumflower

OpiumpodOpiumharvestI don’t know when I first heard of opium but it was certainly before the summer when I tore up the neighbor’s garden. I must have been about eleven or so and the woman up the street asked me to take care of her garden or, what we called it in those days, “the backyard,” while she went on vacation for two weeks. This was not the first time I had taken care of a neighbor’s yard and I always jumped at the chance even though it meant a week or two of work and attention for maybe ten or if I were really lucky, twenty, bucks. What lay behind my interest was not the money but that I would suddenly have a center of operations where my friends and I could hang out. I got to play host and with any luck would have managed to work my way into the locked house to take a few swigs of booze.  In any case, she was showing me the garden, telling me where to water and how often when she pointed to some bright flowers and said “These are my ‘oriental’ poppies.” I immediately felt a jolt of electric excitement. I knew that they could have as easily been called “opium” poppies.

My mind went immediately to work. One must remember, information could be hard to access in those days. People were lucky to have a banal encyclopedia on their shelves. I could ride my bicycle three miles to the public library where pickings were slim, I could ride over to Stanford for scientific stuff (I guess I was young enough to appear harmless and was let in virtually everywhere), but finding out about opium and, most importantly, how to harvest it, was not necessarily easily at hand. However, one of the blessings of my childhood, and I have it to this day, was my grandfather’s 1910 eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I have since learned that the eleventh edition represented the Britannica’s last effort to have the encyclopedia offer the most thorough and rigorous commentary on every possible subject. In any case, it was a goldmine of cool stuff and was particularly helpful in my pursuit of my interest in the illicit, including booze and drugs. I have the original opium piece in front of me now—the article takes up seven pages of the smallest print I have ever seen, printed on onionskin. The print becomes even smaller as subcategories are introduced such as the various countries in which opium “is” produced. Information is given about soil, and planting, and cultivation such that it takes the equivalent of 10 pages in a normal book to get to the exciting part—harvesting of the opium. As I read it now (and stare at the elegant engraving showing the pod and exactly where it should be excised to extract the opium) I realize that I must have been in luck since the pods are only ready for about two weeks out of the year. When the flowers fall off, the familiar looking pods form and are ready to be harvested. Details are given about making the necessary incision, at what time of day (in the evening) and when and how to collect the raw opium that will have exuded from the pod’s wound. I can’t imagine how long it would take to find this much information on the internet. But what I remember now were poppy pedals strewn haphazardly around the yard, the sagging wilting pods and a panorama of devastation after I had sacrificed her entire poppy patch (which was indeed substantial) to make one ball of raw opium the size of a hazelnut. I swallowed the whole thing one morning as I rode my bicycle to summer school. Thank goodness the stuff didn’t have any (or much?) potency since that amount could have killed me. In retrospect, the only thing about my product (or that of my poor neighbor’s) that resembled opium was its characteristic consistency—like well-chewed-on chewing gum—and it’s dark brown color.

It wasn’t until many years later and under very different circumstances that I encountered opium again.  My friend Denny and I were introduced to it by one of our “connections.” He gave us each what was about 1/3 of a gram along with a glass of milk the idea being that the milk makes the opium less likely to upset one’s stomach. We managed to get home ok before the stuff really kicked in and left us in a stupor, sipping Coca Cola, well into the morning. We both threw up—a sign of a good dose—but otherwise had no ill effects and certainly no repeated cravings. I think we ended up buying an ounce from the guy and dealing it out, in our big time way, in one-gram aluminum foil packets. But I studied its consistency and remember it now as somewhat tar-like, but smelling of damp leaves and decaying vegetation, not like tar at all. The feeling, or “high,” it produced reminded me of how I felt when my mother would give me paregoric (which is a simple tincture of opium) to treat my persistent diarrhea. You see, I’ve been on opium since early childhood.

Years later, and on a similar bodily level, the consistency of opium became a topic of more practical concern. We—Otts (my boyfriend) and I—discovered that if we inserted a pellet up our ass that we would avoid the rumbling stomach effect. The only problem was that opium is sticky and would cling to the finger as we tried to slide it up there. I don’t know if it was I who thought of it, but we would form it into pellets and freeze it before inserting it as easily as a suppository. The effect, as it came on, was of the rectum becoming delightfully numb and the feeling then extending out into the rest of the body. Eventually it leads to a certain post-coital like euphoria and then to the dream state in which one’s head nods as he sinks into reverie. But the strange thing about being stoned on opium is that it’s possible to be very stoned, to be “on a nod,” and to still “maintain.” You could be a million miles from nowhere in your mind and the doorbell would ring and you could get up and talk as needed as though nothing were amiss.

When Otts and I lived together, Otts had access to opium and we used to smoke it after dinner. We didn’t really know what were doing but we would put it in a skillet, put the skillet on the stove, and breath up the smoke with an empty paper towel roll. We would usually do MDA at the same time.

I didn’t encounter opium again until I was in Kathmandu and bought an ounce for four dollars. Being so cheap meant I could smoke it instead of eat it (eating is more powerful). I had bought a chillum which is a cone-shaped pipe used for smoking cannabis. The chillum has a small opening on one end which is the end one normally sucks on. I, however, would work the opium into the hole and then suck in a candle flame through the small hole, sucking through the large opening. This would pull the flame over the opium in the pipe and vaporize it.

One of the effects of opium is its ability to help concentration. Reading on it is wonderful and I read many a book in that little hotel room in Kathmandu with my friend Dennis. As it grew past midnight, we would bop on down to Earth Restaurant and join the French junkies drinking their milkshakes. (Opium causes one to crave sweets.)

Because I didn’t want to bring opium across borders, I had to score each time I went to a new country. This wasn’t hard in southern Asia and I always had a good amount for smoking in the evening or eating by day. Being stoned on opium helped me endure the interminable bus and train rides across the entire continent.

But despite my opium experience I had never been to an opium den. I had read about them in Colette (where she describes the smell of burning opium as being a little like chocolate) and had seen elaborate porcelain opium pillows. But when I arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, I was in luck. I stayed in a cheap hotel and met some German hippies who know about an opium den and were planning to go there that evening. I decided to tag along.

This opium den was not what I had envisioned. It was lit with a single harsh florescent light. The pillows were bricks. The customers would lie around with their heads facing inward to form a circle. In the middle of the circle sat a young boy (hell, what’s a little child labor in an opium den) who manipulated the pipe.  The pipe was a long bamboo tube with a bulb on one end. In the side of the bulb was a small hole. The opium was sold as “chits” which were concave metal disks—an inch or so across—half full with black tar. Each chit was good for 6 puffs. As you reclined, the boy would insert a small amount of opium in the hole in the side of the bulb and hold the pipe for you on one end and the bulb next to a flame with the other. As one inhaled, the flame would go through the small opening where it volatilized the opium.

After one chit, I was pretty stoned. But not to waste a good opportunity, I went for a second for a total of 12 puffs. The owner gave me a 13th puff as “baksheesh.”

By this point I could hardly see. My new friends and I piled into a couple of rickshaws and made it back to the hotel. For the next 12 hours, I lay naked on a bed scratching lazily. (Opium makes you itch.)

Strangely, I never grew addicted to opium and didn’t miss it when I couldn’t have it. It was only years later, after a hospital stint on morphine, that I experienced the ravages of withdrawal, probably the worst experience I know of.

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Salt Cod

Don’t confuse salt cod (bacalao) with stockfish. Stockfish is air-dried and requires a longer soaking period.Salt cod comes in many different qualities, by far the best shown here. Often, it is yellow (a sign of progressing rancidity) or excessively dry and thin. Look for the thickest filets you can find and those that resemble the unsalted fish as much as possible. Avoid buying tails, which are thinner and less meaty. Ideally, the fish should retain some flexibility. Soaking is the most important step in preparing salt cod. Most recipes say to soak for 24 hours but this is risky and may leave the fish too salty. Forty eight hours is a better bet. When soaking the fish, look for something you can prop it up on in the soaking container so that the salt, as it dissolves off the fish, sinks to the bottom and doesn’t remain in contact with the fish. Here we show using a fish poacher with the fish on the rack suspending the fish above the bottom. You can also use a couple of tin cans set in a large pot and arrange the fish on top. Change the water every few hours. Once the cod has been soaked, there is no great mystery to preparing it—prepare it like any other fish, but keep in mind that it is stronger flavored than fresh cod. Because it can be aggressive, salt cod is usually poached before it is added to such things as chowder or fish stews. It is sometimes helpful to separate the thinner and thicker parts of the filets so their timing can be controlled accordingly.  Here we show removing the bones and separating the fish into flakes. One popular preparation is a brandade. A brandade is a puree of salt cod with garlic and potatoes and is quite delicious when spread on little toasts. It does, however, seem like a waste when given beautiful salt cod such as that shown here. Salt cod chowder is prepared much like a New England clam chowder—in fact it contains clams—in that potatoes and leeks are simmered together, but differs from a traditional chowder in that it contains corn. The corn is taken off the cob and simmered with milk for about 15 minutes until the kernels soften. The mixture is then worked through a food mill and simmered with the other ingredients—clams, potatoes, and leeks.  The fish, poached and separated into flakes, is simmered in the soup just long enough to heat it through. The sweetness of the corn makes a perfect counterpoint to the saltiness (which, in fact, should be minimal) of the fish. In Spain, bacalao is served with romesco sauce. Romesco sauce contains dried red chilies (anchos are good), garlic, olive oil, bread, tomatoes (best roasted in the oven), almonds, and garlic, ground to a paste. While tradition dictates working everything together in a mortar, most everyone makes it in a food processor. Here we show baking a chunk of salt cod on a layer of romesco with lemon slices (rinds removed) arranged on top of the fish. Once you’ve poached the salt cod, you may want to use it in a salad. Salt cod goes well with citrus fruit which provides a sweetness and acidity that balance the gentle saltiness of the cod. Try also including ingredients such as chilies to provide heat. Here we show salt cod with three kinds of citrus—orange, grapefruit, and clementines—fennel, and raisins.

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