KISSED (Keep It Simple So Everything’s Delicious)

Look over the recipes in Delicious By Design and you will notice some consistent ideas. They aren’t necessarily simple to make (although many are) and they don’t all use locavore-approved ingredients (although many of them are better if you do) but they do rely on keeping the flavors and textures true to the original ingredients, whatever they are. The Adrian Ferran school of scientific deconstruction of foods into purees, foams and gels isn’t part of the DxD vocabulary.

One of my earliest attempts at making a complicated dish was cooking Salmon Pierogies from The Seafood Cookbook: Classic to Contemporary by the late great chef Pierre Franey. I went down to the fish market and they happened to be selling whole, freshly-cut fillets of salmon. I bought a beautiful three-pounder with glistening silver skin and bright orange flesh. The whole piece was easily 18 inches long. As awesome as the fish looked, the recipe called for it to be skinned, cut into little cubes and ground up in a food processor with eggs and cream. Even twenty-five years ago, it seemed wrong to destroy a perfect piece of fish (imagine serving it simply broiled in lemon juice, olive oil and maybe a splash of champagne vinegar on a big platter) by grinding it up and serving it as small oval fish balls in a dill cream sauce.

The pierogies turned out fine, although maybe they were a bit harder than they were supposed to be, but I couldn’t stop thinking what a disservice I did to that great fresh piece of salmon. And, of course, I couldn’t stop myself from telling everyone at the meal how guilty I felt. I learned two great lessons that day: First, respect your ingredients. The more awesome they are to start with, the simpler the cooking should be and the fewest ingredients and techniques chosen to enhance the natural flavor and presentation of the dish.

The second lesson? Don’t complain to your guests about your own cooking. You’ll either get pity-compliments, or agreement that you screwed up, and neither enhances the mood of a dinner party.

Here’s an example of how I like to cook. This recipe for Freshest Creamed Spinach only takes 10 minutes from start to finish, so you can make it right before you serve it. It uses a few simple ingredients and the star of the recipe—the baby spinach—is only cooked enough to blend its flavor with the small amount of cream sauce that it’s cooked in. And since the spinach itself supplies the liquid for making the finished sauce, all the good flavor is there, and despite the usual idea of creamed dishes containing cooked-to-death ingredients, this version tastes both fresh and luxurious at the same time.

Salad Daze

Salads are versatile. They can be anything from a few bites to whet the appetite or finish a plating to a complete meal. For real salad courses, there are a few regulars that always seem to be on restaurant menus. Caesar salads always find a place, but few are made in the traditional style. Call me retro, but there is something about table service that makes fine dining an experience.

Watching a Caesar being prepared from scratch is not only fun, but is an education in balance—how disparate elements like garlic, anchovy, egg yolk and parmesan combine to create salty-creamy-tangy flavors and the croutons and lettuce contribute crunch. The dressing has nothing in it that you wouldn’t find in your pantry, and the classic technique of preparing the whole thing in a big wooden bowl invites some showmanship. Most Caesars suffer from an overdose of garlic, which shouldn’t ever happen when you consider the classic “made-in-the-bowl” recipe instructs that the garlic merely be rubbed into the wood and then discarded. And our ridiculous fear of raw egg makes preparing the salad an exercise in crisis management.

Another salad that has become ubiquitous is a beet salad with baby greens, goat cheese and walnuts or pecans. It surprises me that people who normally wrinkle their noses at roasted beets nevertheless relish this. But it supports the theory that a great salad combo is way more than the sum of simple parts.

Here is what I think makes a satisfying salad. Not too many ingredients, not too many varied greens, a mix of salty-sweet-pungeant, and a balance between enjoying all the elements together and yet allowing individual ingredients to keep their own flavors.

We’ve posted a salad that fits that bill nicely. The Grapefruit Avocado Shrimp Salad places its titular elements on a simple bed of butter lettuce, and the dressing is a hybrid catalina-thousand island recipe that is both sweet and vinegary.  Ripe avocado, barely-cooked shrimp and grapefruit supremes make the salad as good to look at as it is to eat. Add a few more shrimp and the salad can be a small main meal.

The whole segments of grapefruit are an elegant part of the salad. These grapefruit “supremes” are easy to extract from the fruit, even though it seems like it’s a lot of tedious peeling. Watch the accompanying video to see how Sharri Wolfgang does it, and you may never cut a grapefruit in half again.

The Art of Cooking

Here is a sketch of me cooking at my stove, drawn by my daughter Rebecca. On the left page are some notes about the Baby Bella Sauté. I’m making latkes in one of my favorite pans, a 14-inch Calphalon One that comes out when there is a lot of frying or sautéing to be done. I am happy to say that both of my kids (well hardly that, Rebecca is 24 and Steven is 21) have become good cooks and have mastered recipes from DxD.

Magic Mushrooms

There is something almost mystical about mushrooms. On a clear morning after a storm in warmer months, a walk around my neighborhood isn’t complete without the sighting of large mushrooms that have popped out overnight. It’s like walking past a rose bush with no flowers on it one day, and discovering it covered with blooms the next.

Of course, I am too uninformed about foraging to even attempt to harvest one of these crops, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for fungi in cooking. As a source of umami, that savory meatiness that the Japanese identify as a fifth taste, mushrooms are a quick hit for sauces and stews. Dried mushrooms restore amazingly in a little hot water, and the resulting broth becomes another element used for enhancing braising liquid or a sauce. Oyster, shiitake and morels are all available and can be stored in the pantry for months. Even standard grocery chains carry a variety of fresh mushrooms these days, so finding a fresh shiitake is almost as easy as finding white mushrooms, crimini, or portabellas.

An early revelatory experience for me centered around mushrooms. Having gone to The Inn at Little Washington back when it first opened, I was blown away by an appetizer, Marinated Shiitake Mushrooms with Chilled Vermicelli, and chef Patrick O’Connell was nice enough to give me the recipe. You can download the recipe here. Preparing the dish involves making a tomato sauce, sautéing the mushrooms in olive oil, and preparing the vermicelli, all separately. Only at the plating does it all come together.

As I was making the dish, none of the preparatory steps smelled or tasted anything like the dish I remembered from the restaurant. I assumed that the recipe was missing a transformative ingredient held back by the chef. And then, when all of the parts had been assembled as directed, there was the dish—a reasonably accurate version of the restaurant serving. The transformative effect of technique, training and intuition resulted in something amazing. I realized two things that day: creating a recipe and preparing one are really two separate things, and just how much designing a recipe is like designing anything else.

Making a good mushroom dish is all about creating a meaty texture with the mushrooms, a combination of extracting the water from the fungi, searing the exteriors, and adding flavor with spices and stock. The Baby Bella Sauté that we’ve added to our New Recipes section is a great all-purpose dish that, with some fine-tuning of spices and liquids, can accompany almost any kind of main dish, and can be pretty awesome as the major ingredient in anything from a quiche to a crepe to an enchilada.

I Hate K-Cups

The insta-cup mania that has taken hold of the coffee world has finally convinced Starbucks to join the crowd. While Peet’s hasn’t succumbed just yet, how long can it be? There is no doubt that the idea of a quick, fresh one-cup shot of joe with no muss or fuss is appealing. You know what isn’t appealing though? The cup of coffee.

For me, it is possible to brew a passable cup if I use a dark roast and make the smallest cup the machine will allow, which often means using two capsules for a decent amount. But using a simple manual drip cup and ground coffee takes only a bit more time, and yields a much better product.

That is just part of my objection to the K-cupafication of America. Even when purchased wholesale, the cost of each capsule is at least 50 cents, and is often more than a buck.

I am not going to argue that a nine dollar pound of coffee is enough to make 100 cups of coffee in a coffee maker. Yes, often a few cups of each pot goes to waste, and the pot gets stale quickly sitting on a burner for a few hours, but it is still half the cost of the K cups.

But here’s more of a direct comparison. A 24 pack of Green Mountain Coffee costs about 15 dollars, but a pound of coffee will easily yield 40 strong two-tablespoon cups for nine dollars. And in the end, you toss biodegradable grounds and paper instead of a plastic cup.

Still, most of the people in my office who lobbied for the Keurig are perfectly happy with the coffee it brews and thrilled with the ability to choose a brew a cup at a time.  For me, though, a K cup is the MP3 file of coffee. Just like music that has been compressed, filtered and billed as a more compact but equivalent version of the original recording, in reality it is a trade-off of quality for convenience, and most listeners have no aural skills to tell the difference. Moreover, they have almost a contempt for people who bemoan the loss of quality, as if someone shouldn’t bother to improve the good-enough format.

I love the idea of the instant single cup coffee maker; there are some espresso machines that do a great job of delivering a single shot from a capsule. But is it too much to long for a Blu-ray equivalent of a K cup to come along?

Great Finds from 2011

There has been a tremendous amount of cooking and eating going on in the month of December. Now that the smoke has cleared, it’s a good time to pass along some of the food discoveries that improved my cooking in the last year.

J. Martinez & Company Coffee Roasters This boutique coffee roaster from Miami delivers estate coffees and their own excellent blends at reasonable prices. You can order Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee—the rarest in the world from two different estates. Yes, it is 50 bucks a pound, which is, of course, ridiculous. Until you taste it. For half the price you can get Jamaican High Mountain, which despite its name is just coffee. But really great coffee. There’s an excellent estate Kenya AA and Kona, and their private blends are well worth trying at 11 dollars a pound. Plus, you get to choose from 4 grinds and two roasts so you can order coffee just the way you like it brewed.

Marshalls Creek Spices Once you try spices from this small-batch packer you’ll never go back to supermarket bottles. It’s obvious from the moment that you open the box that these actually look like fresh leaves that are dried instead of flakes of unreliable provenance. The prices are actually better than premium spices at your local grocer and they have some blends that you won’t find anywhere else—including a few great mixes that have no salt. While you do pay for shipping, it is a single fee per order, so clear your shelves of your old spices (you should do it once a year anyway) and restock from this site.

Homemade yogurt Without sounding like a granola-cruncher, my sister turned me on to how easy it is to make your own yogurt. It is as simple as heating a gallon of milk to 180 degrees, cooling it to 130 degrees, stirring in 1 cup of plain fresh yogurt, and then dividing it up into Mason jars. I use 8 oz containers, but any size works. Place the closed jars in a cooler, cover with a bath towel and pour a kettle of boiling water onto the towel. Close up the cooler and open it next morning or after about 8 hours, and put the yogurt in the fridge.  If everything works right, you will have a thick custard-like product without additives. The better the milk, the better the yogurt; the longer it stands the tangier the result. Mine usually has a little clear whey floating in the jars; you can pour it off or stir it in. Add fruit or a teaspoon of preserves and it beats anything you can buy in a store at a third of the cost.

The Kobe Beef Store Wagyu Cattle are the source of the best steak in the world. If you know that the best beef in America is labeled Prime, then you should know that the Japanese marbling scale puts Prime as an 8 out of 13 levels, and Wagyu is labeled 1 through 5. The meat is also known as Kobe beef, named for the Japanese prefecture famed for the product. Raising Wagyu in the Kobe style calls for exacting techniques in feeding and handling—the cattle even get massages. Many ranches in the US have begun raising Wagyu, but the meat is ridiculously expensive—sometimes over $100 a pound.

I stumbled on this store on eBay of all places, and took a chance on an order. At $18 a pound it seemed like a worthwhile risk. And the product turned out to be the real deal. Individually sealed one pound steaks are perfect for two people. Now they have their own site, http://www.kobe-beef-store.com. A ten pack of New York strips is $199. Sure, twenty bucks a pound is still plenty expensive, but once you try these, you’ll see they are worth the money. They also sell 10 lb packages of ground Wagyu that make incredible hamburgers and meat loafs.

Butter blanching This is so easy, I can’t imagine why I never tried it before. Blanching greens can help them keep their color, but go a step further, and cook them in a quart of boiling water with the addition of a tablespoon of salt and a stick of butter. Spinach, kale, mustard greens, even broccolini and asparagus will work great using this technique. Just dunk the vegetables in the boiling butter-water, cook until nearly tender (in the case of greens, it could be as little as thirty seconds, and drain over the pot.  You can add a few drops of olive oil or a squeeze of lemon to finish the dish, or a sprinkle of parmesan. It’s much easier than sautéing and scales up for a crowd better, plus the flavors are fresher.

Do you have any techniques or products that made your gustatory life better last year? I’d like to hear about them.

The Festival of Oil

On Tuesday the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins at sunset. It celebrates the reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem, and a miracle that occurred when the sacred oil burned for eight days when it should have only lasted for one. Today that miracle is symbolized by lighting a nine-branched menorah (one for each day plus a shammos, or helper-candle) and the partaking of things fried in oil. In Israel, that usually means jelly doughnuts, but among American Jews of European descent, it means latkes—shredded potatoes fried in oil.

Everyone has their family recipe, but this isn’t mine. Rather, this is the way I like to eat them, super crispy on the outside and just a bit of creamy potato goodness in the center. The secret is big shreds of potato loosely held together so the oil bubbles all around it and through it. Try these Super Crispy Latkes with sour cream and applesauce.

Latkes cook best when you have extracted as much water from the mixture as possible. Paper towels and strainers just don’t work. The best way to get out liquid is by using a tea towel as a screw press to compress the potato shreds. Drape the towel over a big bowl and add the potato mixture on top, then gather the ends to make a bundle. Start twisting the top ends and the liquid will be squeezed through the cloth. You might even grab the bulging sack and massage more liquid out by squeezing it that way too. It’s possible to get 2 cups or more of liquid out of the potatoes in the recipe we are featuring. All of this is done before any other ingredients are added.

Beware of one thing though. Latkes have a short half life, Leaving them in a warm oven soon makes them stale-tasting. Oddly enough, letting them cool and then reheating them works much better. In fact, I have found that making them a day before and quickly reheating all of them in a hot oven brings back most of the flavor and crunch. Still, like just about any pancake, there is no substitution for one fresh out of the pan. They are addictive.

Here are some behind-the scenes shots of preparing the latke photo in DxD:

The Spice of Life

This image came in the other day from Florence Sumaray—one of the lucky people who attended the Launch Party and received a bottle of AURAS Spice Mix. Here’s one of the many uses for this versatile blend—sprinkled on popcorn, it adds a kick. The AURAS Spice mix came about as an attempt to create a less-salty and more sophisticated alternative to McCormick’s Season-All, and to balance the flavors of salty, peppery, floral and spicy. It’s a mix of salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder, paprika, chili powder and lemon peel, along with a bit of cumin, allspice and cayenne pepper. The AURAS Spice Mix is great on meats and fish, and adds a zing to vegetable sautés. It mates really well with brown sugar to create salty-sweet rubs for chicken or pork.

People have found lots of other uses for the Mix. Add a 1/4 cup to a bottle of ketchup and create a new flavor sensation. Use it as a topping for deviled eggs, or mix it with sour cream to have with latkes. What other good ideas will you discover using the Mix? We would love to hear about all of them.

It’s pretty easy to make the AURAS Spice Mix yourself (as well as the Savory Spice Blend featured on the same page) but we were wondering if it might be good enough to sell as a product all by itself. Sure, there’s no mystery to the recipe, but it is nice to have it ready-to-go. Is this a product that’s good enough for Prime Time? I know it’s great with Prime beef.

The Perfect Recipe for Christmas (or any other) Morning

What is the perfect dish for a cozy holiday morning? It would be something rich, flavorful and—let’s be honest—easy to prepare. One of my favorite brunch dishes is French toast, but just like pancakes, it requires a lot of last-minute stovetop attention. So, here is all the yumminess of French toast in a version that puffs up in the oven and makes an incredible centerpiece to your festivities. The French Toast Soufflé—the latest DxD Extra recipe—is sweet, chewy and a little bit salty. Paired with some sausage from Edwards (http://virginiatraditions.com/Smoked-Sausage-Links.aspx) and a fresh citrus salad of grapefruit, and orange segments, it’s a perfect way to enjoy your Christmas or New Year’s morning, not to mention a Hanukkah Brunch. You can have fun trying your own additions to the basic recipe. I’ve suggested a few, but use your imagination. And since the recipe multiplies well, you can serve a big crowd.

DxD Gets Media-Savvy With a Jingle

Everything is more memorable with a jingle attached to it. That was the thinking behind Rebecca Sugar’s idea for this short song. Yes, she is the daughter of DxD author Rob Sugar, but she has also written songs for Adventure Time, the popular animated series on Cartoon Network, where she is also a writer and storyboard artist. Try to keep this one out of your head.