LISTENING TO BIRDSONG

leisure (noun) – use of free time for enjoyment.

Leisure, as the definition implies, is commonly understood as a kind of remainder — it’s what we do with our time after work is done. Wake up and put yourself together. Commute to work. Put in your eight or nine hours. Pick up groceries on the way home, prepare dinner, maybe attend to kids, clean up. That hour before bed: leisure. We spend it watching TV, surfing the web, exercising, reading, painting, making music. For many people, myself included, leisure involves struggle. We struggle for more free time, and we struggle to use more of our free time for enjoyment. This is the way it goes.

Then a bird comes along and chirps in your ear, “Do what you love.” You swat at it initially. Annoying birds with their annoying chirps. But it comes back — that diva of a chickadee that keeps chick-a-dee-dee-deeing at the break of dawn. The only way to make the torment stop is to take a deep breath, loosen up, and hear its song through. The song’s refrain is simple: it tells us to expect more leisure out of life. Slowly, gradually, hours once cordoned off for sleep and work present themselves as hours designed for enjoyment. We begin to see opportunities for extracting free time from every waking moment. There’s still work to do — and many responsibilities — but leisure is no longer consigned to life’s few remaining hours.

By virtue of its extraordinary demand on time, this dish would seem to defy rationality. Its creation engulfs staggering portions of day and night. But if cooking makes your heart beat faster, there is no better way to spend your leisurely hours.

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CRISPY PORK CONFIT with SMOKED BACON JAM,
ASPARAGUS & PICKLED TURNIPS

for the pork confit, recipe by Thomas Keller:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
12 bay leaves
3 large rosemary sprigs
1/2 bunch thyme (1/2 ounce)
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley (about 2 ounces)
1/2 cup garlic cloves, crushed, skin left on
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 cup kosher salt
8 cups water
2 ½ lb slab of pork belly with skin
4 cups of pork lard

for the smoked bacon jam, recipe by Martha Stewart:
1 1/2 lbs. smoked bacon
2 medium yellow onions, diced small
3 garlic cloves, finely diced
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3/4 cup brewed coffee

to assemble:
4 small turnips
4 tbsp. each of salt & sugar
1/2 cup of white wine vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 bundles of asparagus (about 20 spears)
several spoonfuls of smoked bacon jam
4 portions of pork confit

Prepare the confit: Combine the first 9 ingredients for the brine in a large pot and bring to a boil. After 1 minute, remove from heat and let cool completely. Place the pork belly in the brine and refrigerate for 10 hours. Remove the pork and pat dry. Heat the oven to 200. On the stove, melt the lard in a Dutch oven, bring it to a simmer, and place the pork in the lard so that it’s fully covered. Cover the Dutch oven, transfer to oven, and cook for 4-6 hours until the pork is tender. (If desired, you can shorten the time by cooking at a higher temperature) Remove the pork from the oven to cool. You can now remove some of the fat between the skin and meat if desired. Store the pork in its fat in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Prepare the bacon jam: Cook the bacon in a skillet, then remove the bacon and dice it. Pour off all but 2-3 tablespoons of bacon fat and add the onions and garlic to the skillet. Cook until translucent and slightly caramelized. Add the vinegar, sugar, syrup, and coffee and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to lowest and simmer for about 2 hours until the liquid is syrupy, stirring occasionally.

Prepare the turnips: Peel and slice the turnips so that each one yield 6 slices. Cook the turnips in simmering water for 15-20 minutes until tender. Rinse them under cold water, then combine the cooked turnips in a bowl with salt, sugar, and vinegar. Set this aside for at least an hour, then rinse under cold water.

To assemble: Remove the pork from its fat and cut 4 portions. Slice the skin in a cross-hatch pattern. Heat the pork in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Heat a bit of olive oil in a large pan, add the asparagus, and cook on medium-low. Add a cup of water and cover to steam the asparagus for 4-5 minutes, then set aside. Remove the pork from the oven. Heat a non-stick skillet on medium and fry the pork skin-side down until the skin is crisp and nicely browned. Plate one portion of asparagus. Spoon some bacon jam on top. Rest one portion of the pork confit on top of the jam and place several slices of turnip around it.

THE FOREST FLOOR

The aroma of mushroom-laden pizzas in my kitchen brought to mind the fanciful art of describing smell. There was a brief period in my early twenties when I was inclined to wear fragrance. I’d fallen hard for a bottle of Sel Marin, profiled by its maker as having top notes of lemon, Italian bergamont and beech leaf; middle notes of sea salt, moss and algae; and base notes of cedar, musk and leather. “Sun, warm sand and a gentle breeze of fresh sea air,” it promised, “A refreshing and striking note of lemon fades to reveal an aquatic green algae note, while vetiver and drift woods of cedar and birch dry slowly in the sand and salty sea air.” Now if I had to sell these pizzas at a perfume counter, I’d seduce you this way: “After a late April thunderstorm, warm rays of light break through the canopy, lifting steam from the forest floor with notes of fresh herbs and broken pine needles giving way to a musky waft of wet soil, decaying wood, and charcoal from a long extinguished fire.” Anyone hungry?

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PIZZA with BLACK TRUMPET MUSHROOMS & TALEGGIO  

1 12-inch round of homemade pizza dough
1 heaping handful of fresh black trumpet mushrooms
6-7 slices of Taleggio cheese
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper
1 farm egg
chopped chives for garnish

Make the pizza dough ahead of time. Heat a pizza stone for one hour in the center rack of your oven, set at its highest setting. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch pie. Place the cheese slices on the pizza, followed by the mushrooms. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle salt and pepper all over. Transfer to pizza stone in the oven and bake until the crust is reaching golden brown. Crack an egg into the center of the pizza and bake for 2 minutes longer. Turn on the broiler if necessary to achieve a charred crust. Remove from oven, drizzle with olive oil, and garnish with chives.

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PIZZA with HEN OF THE WOODS MUSHROOMS & RICOTTA  

Follow the same instructions as above except spoon clumps of ricotta onto the pizza along with a broken-up clump of Hen of the Woods (Maitake) mushrooms. This pizza has a more intense mushroom flavor than the black trumpets, which have a smoky, somewhat fruity but still fairly mellow flavor.

A SHOW OF AFFECTION

I loved it when my mom took my brothers and I to visit our grandmother. Each visit was approximately the same. We’d get buzzed in to her condo, walk past a koi pond overgrown with papyrus, and take the elevator to the third floor. She would come to the door to greet us, and we’d walk in to greet our grandfather who always sat in the same armchair near the TV, often with a newspaper. No matter the hour, grandma would ask us whether we’d eaten and offer to cook something. While the adults conversed over tea, my brothers and I would do what we always did — page through old photo albums, which included photographs of mom and her brothers and sisters in their childhood, and survey the precious figurines on my grandma’s vanity. Inevitably, grandma would open the freezer to produce popsicles or chocolate-covered ice cream bonbons for us. When it was finally time to leave, grandma would cup our hands in hers and remind us in Mandarin, “Your health is the most important.” (健康是最重要的)

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the wide range of less obvious ways in which people show affection toward one another, particularly when words or embraces don’t come easily: extraordinary attention to logistical details of your life, providing for your everyday needs, asking about your work, getting drunk with you.

Frankly, I’ve never had trouble at showing affection. If I dig you, I’ll write you a note, bear hug you, fix you a cocktail, and use every pot and pan in the kitchen to serve you a delicious dinner. This dish is a good example of how transparent cooking can be as a conduit of affection. It begins with peeling small tomatoes by hand, proceeds to coaxing the fragrance of fennel into a clear broth, rendering chicken skin into golden brown cracklings, and gently poaching fish in olive oil. If someone makes you this dish, you are well loved.

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OLIVE OIL POACHED COD with GRIBENES & TOMATOES
in FENNEL BROTH 

for 4 servings:
2 tbsp. grapeseed oil
1 large shallot, peeled & diced
2 tbsp. fennel seeds
4 fennel bulbs with fronds
1/4 cup of cognac or white wine
6 cups of water
chicken skin from 6 thighs
2 dozen cherry tomatoes
3-4 cups of olive oil
2 lbs. (4 servings) fresh cod fillet
sea salt

Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer and turn off flame. Add the tomatoes for 25 seconds then remove and run under cold water. Use a knife to pierce the skin and peel the tomatoes by hand. Set the tomatoes aside.

Portion the cod into 4 thick fillets. Season the cod fillets with salt and set aside.

Roughly dice 3 of the fennel bulbs with fronds. Slice the fourth fennel bulb into 4 “steaks” and roast them in the oven at 350 until soft and slightly browned, about 30 minutes. Reserve some of the fronds for garnish. Heat the grapeseed oil in a pot on medium flame. Add the shallots and fennel seeds and cook for 4-5 minutes until softened. Take care to avoid any burning. Add the 3 diced fennel bulbs with fronds. Saute this for 5-6 minutes until fragrant. Add the cognac to deglaze the pot. Then add the water and parsley, cover, and let simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile heat a nonstick frying pan on medium and place the chicken skin in the pan, fatty side down. Fry these on both sides until crisp and golden brown, about 10 minutes in all, then set aside to cool.

Finally, heat the olive oil in a small pot (preferably non-stick) on medium low. Pat the cod fillets dry. When the temperature has reached 180, add two of the fillets to the oil. The oil should not bubble aggressively; if it is, lower the temperature. The fillets should poach in the oil for about 10 minutes. If they are not fully submerged in oil, turn them over halfway through. Repeat with remaining fillets.

By now the fennel broth should be done. Pour the liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth and discard the solids. Season to taste with sea salt.

To serve, place one fennel “steak” in the center of each shallow soup bowl with one cod fillet on top of it. Place several tomatoes around the cod. Ladle the fennel broth into the bowl. Crumble the chicken skin (gribenes) on top of the cod fillet. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve immediately.

 

MUCH ADO ABOUT AUTHENTICITY

I’ve never cooked Thai food before, but when I found beautiful slender eggplants and fresh basil at the farmer’s market this weekend, I knew I had to give it a go. The recipes I saw for Basil Eggplant were pretty consistent, involving eggplant seasoned with garlic, fresh chili peppers, fish sauce, sugar, and Thai basil, served on white rice. In my pantry I had dry Szechuan chili peppers and the type of basil ordinarily destined for pesto, but I didn’t have any rice. I did have vermicelli noodles, which I imagined with some Madras curry. One voice in my head, the voice of Authenticity, said sternly, “Don’t you dare make a classic Thai dish with Chinese peppers, Italian basil, and Indian curry.” Another voice, the voice of Freedom, said, “It’ll still be delicious — why not?” I decided to go for it and was glad I did. This dish was vibrant, soulful, and — taking only 15 minutes to prepare — a definite keeper.

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BASIL EGGPLANT with CURRIED VERMICELLI 

3 small bundles (4 g) of dried vermicelli noodles
a few tablespoons of your favorite curry powder/sauce
grapeseed or vegetable oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled & sliced
2 fresh (or 4 dried) chili peppers, sliced
3 Japanese eggplants, roll-cut
about 2 tbsp. fish sauce mixed with 1 tbsp. sugar
a pinch of salt
a heaping handful of fresh basil leaves

Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the vermicelli, cooking for 2-3 minutes. Drain the vermicelli but retain about 1/2 a cup of the hot water. Stir in a few tablespoons of curry (how much will depend on the type of curry powder/sauce you’re using), adding more until it’s to your taste. (I preferred a subdued curry vermicelli, but you can add soy sauce and chili oil if you like) Stir in a teaspoon of grapeseed oil. Heat oil on medium-high heat in a large wok or non-stick frying pan. Add the garlic and chili peppers and fry until fragrant. Add the eggplant along with a cup of water and cover for 5-7 minutes until all the water is absorbed and the eggplant is translucent. If needed, add a bit more water and cover again to finish cooking the eggplant. Now gently stir in the fish sauce-sugar mixture plus a pinch of salt and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the basil leaves. Serve the basil eggplant on top of the curried vermicelli noodles.

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SATURDAYS

Growing up, my brothers and I routinely confronted a hurdle before going to school: a warm bowl of oatmeal with raisins that dad had set out for us before going to work. By the time we got to it, a filmy layer would inevitably form on top of the oatmeal, out of which a few raisins poked like Mastadons stuck in tar pits. Of course, we were ungrateful. I’d poke at it, swallow a few bites as quickly as possible, and off we went. As terrible as it sounds, I faintly recall that we occasionally tried to bury leftover oatmeal in the trash, though I’ve also buried this transgression deeply enough in my memory that even I question its truth.

After a week of accumulated oatmeal, Saturday Morning Breakfasts were a gleeful occasion for us. Mom and Dad would make fried eggs, crisp bacon, English muffins with jam, and fresh fruit. Sometimes we’d have fresh bagels from Goldstein’s or pancakes or fancy omelettes or even my grandma’s fried Daikon radish cake (luo bo gao) studded with Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms. Whatever it was, we always looked forward to Saturday Morning Breakfasts with great anticipation, and I know that my parents delighted in making them.

It’s curious how these rhythms are internalized into adulthood. Nobody’s forcing me, but my weekday mornings always begin with (instant) oatmeal and raisins, and my Saturdays always bring welcome change. This morning I used the season’s last Meyer lemons to make these ethereal ricotta pancakes.

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MEYER LEMON & RICOTTA PANCAKES with FIGS

based on a recipe for 4 by Anne Burrell:
1 cup of fresh figs, halved
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of fresh orange juice
2 cups of all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 heaping tsp baking powder
4 eggs, separated
1 heaping cup of fresh ricotta cheese
3/4 cup whole milk
2 Meyer lemons, zested & juiced
butter for cooking pancakes
pure maple syrup

Combine the figs, sugar, and orange juice and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Sift the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder into a large bowl and mix well. In another bowl, combine the egg yolks, ricotta, milk, lemon zest and juice until smooth. Whisk the dry and wet ingredients until combined. Now whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt to get stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the pancake batter. Heat a griddle or non-stick pan on medium heat. Melt a bit of butter in the pan. Ladle one portion of batter into the pan to according to desired pancake size. When little bubbles begin to form on the top, flip it over and cook until the bottom is golden brown. Repeat until all the batter is used. Stack the pancakes with butter and pure maple syrup. Serve with the macerated figs.

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HERE AND NOW

I miss home. I’m from a suburban Los Angeles community nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. There are amazing Chinese and Mexican restaurants if you drive 5 minutes in any direction — places like Chang’s Garden which serves Shrimp Sauteed with Longjing Tea and Tacos La Bufadora with its Wednesday $1 fish tacos. Of course, I miss my family as well. My parents recently took out the front lawn and planted a drought-resistant native garden. Mom says she is beginning to notice the fragrance — so too are the butterflies.

Living in Philadelphia, I have a tendency to complain about public transportation and state-controlled liquor sales, not to mention winter. (It was long and rough) But my trip to Reading Terminal Market today filled me with gratitude for the bounty of spring, which is not something I experience with such intensity out west. I brought home a bundle of locally foraged ramps (wild leeks) and Morel mushrooms, pale blue eggs, rhubarb, the season’s very last Meyer lemons, and muscat grapes (probably from California). I still miss home, but with market days like today’s, I’m learning to savor the here and now.

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CROSTINI with MORELS & CHIVES

for 3-4 appetizer servings:
1/2 a loaf of rustic table bread
extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp excellent butter
1 large handful of Morels
1/4 cup of finely chopped chives
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Place several thick sliced of bread under broiler until golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside. Now gently rinse off the Morels to remove dirt. Dry them. In a separate pan, heat the butter on medium and saute the Morels until fragrant and slightly crispy on the outside. Remove from heat. Brush the mushroom-flavored butter onto the bread. Slice the mushrooms in half and place them on the bread. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with chives.

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CROSTINI with RAMPS & RICOTTA 

for 3-4 appetizer servings:
1/2 a loaf of rustic table bread
extra virgin olive oil
a bundle of ramps
1 cup of fresh ricotta
lemon zest
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Brush several thick slices of bread with oil and place under broiler until golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside. Brush dirt off the ramps but there’s no need to wash them. Cut the roots from the ramps and discard. Now chop off the white bulb and white stem. Saute these in olive oil on medium heat until softened. Chop the leaves in half and add them to the pan. Saute until tender, just a few minutes. Spread a spoonful of ricotta over the bread. Place a portion of sauteed ramps on top of the ricotta along with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, and lemon zest.

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SUFFERING & ROAST CHICKEN

My worldview is shaped by suffering — some of it in my own sliver of experience, most of it not. With a day job in the field of international politics, I’m constantly assaulted by the realities of war, poverty, and scarcity. These days I instinctively read the frivolous sections of the New York Times — T Magazine, Fashion & Style, Dining & Wine, Home & Gardens, even Real Estate — before having to deal with Politics, which brings no aesthetic pleasure.

In responding to suffering, there’s a fine line between escapism, which I occasionally indulge, and coping, which this recipe for Roast Chicken & Bread Salad invites. Escapism is a desire to avoid an honest assessment of reality. Coping is a desire to seek protection in order to gain fortitude for the challenges ahead. What is it about this dish? I think it has something to do with the bread, which is there to soak up all the juices released by the chicken. There is a fullness here. Nothing is lost. Nothing will be lost. Make this dish for your loved ones. Make it for your enemies, too.

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ROAST CHICKEN with BREAD SALAD
scallions, pine nuts, currants, arugula

recipe by the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe, San Francisco

for 2-4 servings, slightly adapted:
1 medium chicken, the best you can find
tender sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary, and sage
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

for the bread salad:
8 ounces of an open-crumbed, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
1/4 cup of mild olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp. Champagne or white wine vinegar
kosher salt and freshly crackled black pepper
1 tbsp. dried currants*
(*rehydrated in 1 tbsp warm water + 1 tsp. red wine vinegar)
2 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
2-3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (mostly white but include green)
2 tbsp. chicken stock
a handful of arugula, curly endive, or mustard greens

Thoroughly pat the chicken so that it’s very dry inside and out. Slide herbs under the skin of each breast and thigh. Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper (about 3/4 tsp. salt per pound of chicken). Cover loosely and refrigerate for at least a day if possible (if not, it’s okay too — it’ll still be delicious).

Prepare the bread salad by heating the broiler. Remove the bread crusts and reserve for some other use. Tear the bread into large chunks (about 4 cups in all), brush them with olive oil, and briefly broil them to get some color on all sides. Toss them with the olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 475. Pat the chicken dry again and place it breast-side up in a shallow roasting pan just barely larger than the chicken. Place the pan in the center of the oven. If it’s not sizzling within 20 minutes, raise the temperature until it does (I had it set at 500). The skin should blister but not char. Turn it over after 30 minutes. The chicken should roast for about 45 minutes to an hour.

While the chicken is roasting, finishing the bread salad by toasting the pine nuts, rehydrating the currants, and sauteing the garlic and scallions with a bit of olive oil on medium-low heat (don’t let them color). Add all of these plus the chicken stock to the bread mixture. Taste it and adjust the seasoning if it is bland. Place the salad in the oven for the chicken’s final 5-10 minutes of roasting.

Remove the chicken and salad from the oven. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set it on a plate. Carefully discard clear fat but not the lean drippings. Slash the skin between the chicken thighs and breast and drain the juice into the drippings. Pour these drippings into the bread salad, which should include moist, steamy bread as well as dry, crispy bits. Let the chicken rest in a warm spot (eg. stovetop) and the meat will become uniformly succulent. Spread the bread salad on a warmed serving platter. Cut the chicken into pieces and nestle them in the salad along with several arugula leaves.

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ASK MR. ALPENGLOW

Q: So I think I want to start a cookbook collection. Any recommendations for essentials? Probably not the super extravagant ones but I want good staples.

A: Given that I practically inhale them in my sleep, few topics excite me as much as cookbooks. My approach to building a cookbook library moves along three fronts: (1) a handful of “industry standard” reference books that cover core techniques; (2) a medium-sized range of cookbooks with recipes born out of a deep reverence for home cooking and entertaining; and (3) a much larger set of restaurant-y cookbooks that I use for inspiration but rarely cook from. Let’s get Category 1 out of the way. When I was first learning to cook, I relied on the Culinary Institute of America’s The Professional Chef, Schlesinger & Willoughby’s How to Cook Meat, James Peterson’s Fish & Shellfish, and Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. For Category 3, I tend to buy anything published by Daniel Boulud, Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller, the late Charlie Trotter, and Alice Waters, among others. That leaves us with the meat and potatoes, Category 2. Here are 10 Cookbooks I Can’t Live Without (in alphabetical order):

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Dornenburg & Page, Culinary Artistry (1996) – This book was a game-changer for me. It taught me the generalizeable principles of composing a strong dish through selecting seasonal ingredients, compelling flavor combinations, contrasting textures and temperatures, and anticipating how everything will look on the plate.

Thomas KellerAd Hoc at Home (2009) – I had to include a Keller. This one is all about cooking for your family, and it begins with a no-frills meal that Keller made for his father just before his death. The book gracefully insists that fine dining can’t hold a candle to lovingly prepared meals at home.

Irene Kuo, The Key to Chinese Cooking (1977) – There are strikingly few Chinese cookbooks featuring recipes that are simultaneously authentic and easy-to-follow. This one is the best. It’s old-school — no photographs — but it doesn’t matter.

Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking (2006) – Recounting her family’s traditional meals through the course of a year in a farming community of freed slaves, this book has the intimacy of a memoir. I like it because it clearly conveys that the rituals of cooking seasonally are as much about what’s not available as they are about what is. Just because something is available at your local grocery store doesn’t mean you should buy it.

Jim MeehanThe PDT Cocktail Book (2011) – I put a lot of thought and energy into cooking because it’s how I like to show my affection for family and friends. Well-made cocktails have become a big part of how I extend hospitality. Until the new Death & Co. cocktail book comes out, this is my go-to book.

Russell Norman, Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (2012) – There are a lot of great Italian cookbooks out there by people like Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Carlos Mirarchi, but this one is the most elegant and buoyant of them all. Besides reading like a love letter, it captures the giddiness of a traveler discovering “where the locals eat.”

Yotam OttolenghiPlenty: Vibrant Recipes (2011) – Popular for good reason. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of “vegetable forward” (not strictly vegetarian) cooking.

Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread (2010) – I don’t bake a lot, but when I do, I like to break a leg with this book. It’s clearly for advanced bakers: using it is like ascending a Himalayan learning curve with a team of seasoned sherpas.

Judy Rodgers, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (2002) – I had heard a lot about Judy Rodgers before buying this book and I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. But when I made the painfully delicious “Roast Chicken with Bread Salad” that made San Francisco fall in love with Zuni Cafe, I understood. The recipes in this book will become your personal stalwarts.

Alice WatersThe Art of Simple Food (2007) – I am above all a disciple of “California cuisine,” and Waters is its head prophet. “Cook Simply, Engaging All Your Senses,” she implores. I listen. This book helped me to internalize the sequence: (1) go to the market, (2) choose the freshest ingredients — those at their peak, (3) then decide how to prepare it, but you won’t have to do much if you’ve chosen well.

What are your favorite cookbooks? 

PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

What is there to say about steak frites? If you’re lucky enough to live near a good bistro, you’ve probably never considered making this classic dish at home. If you don’t live near a good bistro, you’ve also probably never considered making steak frites at home. Here’s the thing. Restaurants want us to believe that we’re better off leaving it to the pros. They want to get into our minds, break our spirits, and….sorry. [takes a deep breath] Point is: It really isn’t hard to pull off killer steak frites at home if you heed a few guidelines. First, start by selecting a good cut. Everyone’s favorite is ribeye, and justifiably so, but hanger steak is a deeply flavorful and affordable alternative. Second, season the steak simply with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper; no need for “steak seasoning” and marinades. Third, cook with a very hot and ideally heavy skillet. Nothing is worse than a steak that isn’t seared properly, so don’t be timid with high heat and a bit of smoke. Finally, learn to avoid dry steaks by touch; softer steaks are closer to rare. As you’ll see, even these crispy French fries with herbs are surprisingly straightforward. Moral of the story? YES WE CAN.

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STEAK with MUSTARD BUTTER & FRENCH FRIES
(recipe for two adapted from David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen)

2 (8-ounce) steaks, ribeye or hanger
1/2 tsp of sea salt (smoked if you have it)
1/2 tsp of chipotle chile powder (or Aleppo pepper)
freshly cracked black pepper
clarified butter (or vegetable oil)

for the mustard butter:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temp.
2 tsp. mustard powder
2 tsp. good Dijon mustard

for the french fries:
3 large Yukon gold potatoes
fresh thyme, rosemary & sage
canola oil for frying
sea salt

Pat the steaks dry and rub them with the salt and chipotle powder. Chill for an hour. Make the mustard by mashing the butter with the mustard powder and Dijon. Form into two mounds and chill on a plate. In a large cast-iron pot, heat about 3 inches of canola oil for your french fries. Slice the potatoes length-wise. Once the oil is hot (test with one fry; it should bubble immediately), add the potatoes in batches. Fry them until golden brown and use a mesh strainer to transfer them to a wire rack. Now heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the clarified butter. Cook the steaks 5-6 minutes on each side for a rare steak, turning them over once (exact time will vary depending on steak’s thickness and your stove; you want a cooked steak that is still soft when you press it with your fingers). Remove the steaks from the pan and let rest. Finish the fries by frying them once more in the oil with fresh herbs for just a minute or two. Remove, drain well (on a paper towel or wire rack), and toss with sea salt. Serve the steak with a mound of mustard butter, freshly cracked pepper, and a heap of fries.