Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Good Cooking Is Trouble" Paul Bertolli

Good cooking is trouble and the trouble begins when you try to take it seriously, in earnest. Enter the humble tomato the most multifaceted of all summer produce. I wait, patiently all year long for the end of August, longing for the full taste of a local, summer ripe tomato. I don't know anyone who writes better of the tomato than Paul Bertolli, executive chef and co-owner of Oliveto, a restaurant in Oakland CA that I hope to visit someday. Bertolli also wrote my first serious cookbook, the cookbook that began the start from scratch deal around here "Cooking by Hand".  It isn't your everyday kind of cookbook, although it does have recipes. It is a collection of essays, reflections on the appreciation of food. It reminds us to stop and think about what we are eating and to appreciate how good food happens.

It was Bertolli who inspired me to start canning, make my own pesto, toast nuts and grind them into nut butters, to make my own mayo, grind sirloin to render hamburger. The list is endless. So you can only imagine my intrigue when realized I could make my own tomato paste. Bertolli calls it Conserva, I call it Gold Paste. A way to spend hours cooking something you can buy at the store. I am so there! Conserva is essentially homemade tomato paste but much better than anything you will find in a can. Conserva's flavor is deep and complex, a tomato reduced to its purest, richest, form.

Most people would consider the endeavor of Conserva short of crazy. I spent $20 on 5 pounds of tomatoes. 8 hours later they have been reduced to about 6 ounces of a very flavorful tomato paste. Two small jars, almost nothing until you taste this stuff. I have done it before, and I will do it again. Nothing makes me happier than a teaspoon of this spread on a piece of toast, blending it with tomato sauce for pasta or simply licking a finger full right out of the jar.

I made a few adjustments to Bertolli's instructions including peeling my tomatoes first and straining the cooked tomatoes to reduce the amount of liquid up front. I may have ended up with a little more if I had not strained the tomatoes.

Making Conserva is easy, but it does takes time at attention, a perfect activity for a fall day.

Cut 5 pounds of ripe tomatoes into small dice; this promotes the most rapid cooking. Warm a little olive oil in a saucepan big enough to hold the tomatoes. Salt them lightly and bring to a rapid boil. Cook the tomatoes until soft about 10-15 minutes. Immediately pass them through the finest plate of a food mill, pushing as much of the tomato pulp through the sieve as you can. The purée should not have any seeds.
Lightly oil a half sheet pan with olive oil. Place the tomatoes in a 300 degree oven for about 3 hours. Use a spatula to turn the paste over on itself every 30 minutes or so. The water will evaporate and you will notice the surface darken and the liquid will thicken. Reduce the over to 250 after 3 hours and continue to evaporate the paste for another few hours until it is thick, shiny and brick-colored. I had some really darkened, burnt areas so I passed the paste through a sieve when it was done to remove the specks of burnt paste. Store in a glass canning jar topped with 1/4 an inch of olive oil. As you use it, make sure you maintain the level of olive oil on top. Bertolli says it can safely be stored at room temperature but I keep my in the fridge.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

More From the Fall Pantry: Citron Confit

Confession: I hate waste. I can't waste anything, especially food. I didn't grow up poor, to the contrary. Still, I abhor waste. I can track this characteristic back to my childhood. While there was always more than plenty we didn't waste. At the end of a meal my Father would return portions of milk we didn't drink back into the milk carton. I know, very gross. We ate what we were served. It was that simple. If fruit or vegetables, especially lettuce got slightly brown, it didn't matter, it was eaten. I remember being slightly overcome with disgust in college when I came home for holidays that the food in our fridge looked like it might have a life of its own. I am sure, even though we had money and didn't have to stretch, this was a some kind of post depression behavior that came through my Father. After all, he was the one collecting the milk at the end of dinner.

The essence of this mentality stuck. I don't actually pour milk back into the carton but I do not throw out much and I make use of parts of food most people discard without a thought. Bones of any kind go into the freezer, shells from shrimp, crab or lobster, into the freezer. Peelings of vegetables, carrots, celery, onion skins for example, all go into the freezer. Like magic the trimmings of our meat, fish and vegetables turn into homemade broth on a regular basis. There is something wickedly satisfying about this!

Citrus! God forbid the rind of anything get tossed. However in the summer this presents a particular problem as I make fresh squeezed lemonade almost every week. Before juicing lemons, limes or oranges they get zested. The zest gets frozen and then tossed into something else later, like homemade lemon curd. By the end of the summer I am completely overstocked with zest. So the idea of Citron Confit, or preserved lemons really appeals to me. Citrus rind essentially picked to be tossed into just about anything to liven up a dish, what a great idea and so easy.

I had a few lemons and limes sitting around that just were not going to get used in the next few days so I decided to put up some preserved lemons and limes. I simply cut up the lemons and tossed them into a pint size canning jar with lots of salt, smashing them down to create a plethora of juice. They will sit on the counter for a few weeks, getting shaken every now and again for a few weeks and then I will put them in the fridge and use them for any number of things, tossed into steamed vegetables, smashed into butter to dollop on fish, mixed in a gluten-free couscous, into a bowl of wild rice, the list is endless. There are so many different ways to go about preserving citrus but it really is as easy as just tossing the peel into a jar with salt. Go ahead and google preserved lemons and you will find a dozens of directions and ideas for jazzing up the brine with bay leaf, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon . . . I just stuck with salt for my first attempt. I am anxious to to try the fruits of my labor after tincture of time and plan on making a smoked paprika-chipotle sauce that calls for preserved lemons to serve at a welcome home party for my wife.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Grilled Sweet Corn, Black Bean and Cherry Tomato Salad with Chipotle Chicken

This salad pulls the flavors of the end of summer together! Succulent sweet corn and juicy tomatoes are at their best the end of August and into September. I can't help but eat this almost any day. You can make any number of variations changing out the the beans, meat, no meat, salmon. What ever you are in the mood for the basic salad is wonderful

2 ears sweet corn, grilled and kernels removed from the cob
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
12 cherry tomatoes, quartered
5 slices of cooked bacon crumbled
one bunch green onions, including green tops, cut on the diagonal into 1/4 inch slices
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
2 southwest chipotle chile-grilled chicken breasts

Dressing for salad
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon adobe sauce from canned chipotle chiles
2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Whisk together the dressing ingredients. I like to use an emulsion blender to mix the dressing. Toss everything together and serve immediately or chill until ready to serve.

To make Chipotle chicken:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 cup honey
1 tablespoons minced chipotle chiles in adobe sauce
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 boneless, skin-on chicken breasts
olive oil
ground pepper

Melt butter, add honey, chiles and 1/2 teaspoon honey, mix and keep warm. Brush chicken breasts with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill chicken for 3 minutes on each side then brush both sides with chipotle butter, basting twice more until the chicken is done. Cool, dice and add to salad.