Monday, January 30, 2012

The Keys To Having A Bad-Assed Pantry: Part 2 - Oils & Vinegars

Time to lube up your pantry with some wetness. Okay, you've accumulated all the spices you need. If not read The Keys To Having A Bad-Assed Pantry: Part 1 - Spices. Now we're going to move on to the wet stuff. I'm talking about oils for fattiness and vinegars for acidity and flavor.

First let's talk oils and fats. I'm one of those cooks who uses Extra Virgin Olive Oil for most things. It's a Spanish thing. By the way, it takes the same amount of time to say extra virgin olive oil as it does EVOO. Don't be a lazy bastard, just say the words. Olive oil is all about the flavor. I love to saute in the green fruity oil and I think my food tastes better for it. In doing so I kinda break some culinary rules but that works just fine for me. When choosing an olive oil I like to get a reasonably inexpensive Spanish (I hear the Italians and Greeks make some pretty good ones too, haha) extra virgin olive oil for sauteing and pan frying. I like a more top shelf, floral olive oil for dressing salads or drizzling over a finished dish. If it isn't extra virgin, I don't bother. Otherwise you might want to buy a cheaper, more neutral flavored canola or vegetable oil.

Next up, the king of fat. Butter is my second favorite fat. I always use unsalted butter. I don't need my butter salting my food for me. I like to control the amount of salt that goes into a dish. Why not just cook the rest of the dish for me salted butter. Know-it-all jerk! Ummm anyways, where was I? Oh yes, salted butter. I suppose it's delicious when spreading fancy salted butter on toast or pastry. Perhaps a pat on a nice steak. That's fine I suppose. I love a lightly salted European butter such as Kerrygold or Luprak slathered on a fresh French baguette. For all around cooking my favorite butter in the unsalted European butter Plugra. It's super delicious and has a strong creamy flavor. If you're buying commercial butter make sure it has a nice flavor (I do not recommend you opening boxes of butter in the grocery store and gnawing on a stick although that would be quite hilarious). It's all trial and error in the world of cookery. There are a lot of butters out there that taste like milky chemicals. Bad butter, salted or unsalted, will make your food taste like shit. Ghee is the Indian version of clarified butter. It's a simple process where you gently cook butter and let the milk solids separate from the oils. If you want to cook butter at a higher temperature making ghee will do that for you. It's the milk solids that darken when you're making brown butter and it also burns when you overcook it. Oh, and you can make compound butters (flavored butter) by softening butter and adding in other ingredients like garlic, spices, herbs, etc. They freeze pretty nice too. One of my favorites in curry butter. Yum.

Here is the rest of the fat crew. Find out which ones you like and keep them around.

For deep frying:
* Peanut oil - My number one choice for deep frying. I usually use peanut oil when cooking Asian or Southern food. It imparts a delicious nutty flavor and has a pretty high smoke point (temp oil can reach before burning).
* Lard - This milky white pork fat brings amazing flavor, especially perfect for Latino foods and makes pie crusts über flaky and flavorful. I rarely use it but when I do it's a super special treat.

For frying, sauteing, general cooking:
* Canola Oil - A great choice for all around cooking. Very neutral flavor and a super high smoke point.
* Vegetable Oil - see canola oil
* Safflower, Soy Bean, and Corn Oil - I never really use these but all a decent choice for most cookery.

For finishing dishes, salad dressing, uncooked sauces:
Sesame Oil - Never cook with sesame oil. It burns really easily turning bitter. However, when used for a marinade or drizzled into a dish just as it finishes cooking, sesame oil is freaking delicious
Grapeseed Oil - An aromatic oil that's great for making salad dressings.
Walnut Oil - Also great for salad dressings but very perishable. Nutty and delicious.
* Truffle Oil - For us poor people that can't afford real truffles, a dainty drizzle can go a long way. Use responsibly. Don't let truffle oil become your fancy food crutch.

Special meat fats:
* Bacon Fat - I sometimes save the fat I render from bacon in my fridge and cook potatoes in it. Freaking amazing. Sometimes I'll start a dish (ie: collard greens) by rendering bacon.
* Duck Fat - Or as I like to call it, the Fat of the Gods. The French love their duck fat, and for good reason. It is by far the tastiest thing you can fry something in. If you thought potatoes cooked in bacon fat was good just wait until you try duck fat fried French fries.
* Chicken Fat - I was first introduced to schmaltz (Hebrew for chicken fat) in Miami by a Jewish neighbor of mine. It is totally delicious spread on a little toast. Not really something I keep around but if you have some extra chicken skin and fat trimmed away before roasting a whole chicken, render the fat. Remove the skin and sprinkle with salt. Pour the fat into a jar and let it cool. You'll have chicken cracklins and a jar of schmaltz. Mazel tov!

Now that you're all lubed up let's put a little tartness in your pantry. Vinegars bring the acid to the yard. You cannot have a balanced dish without a little ying and yang. Fatty dishes need a little acidity. Salty dishes need a little sweetness. Ugly dishes need a little pretty garnish. It's all about balance. That giant jug of white distilled vinegar tucked under your sink is great for getting your floors spotless and makes an awesome volcano eruption when mixed with baking soda but I rarely use the stuff for cooking. Way too astringent.

Let's talk wine vinegars. When making pickles or basic vinaigrettes I tend to go with the tried and true white wine vinegar. It has a clean sour flavor that works well with most things. Red wine vinegar is great for salad dressings and adding a little acidity to a dish. I actually use red wine vinegar in quite a few of my grandmother's Cuban recipes. Muy authentico!

Vinegars you might need:
* Rice Wine Vinegar - Perfect for Asian food. Dipping sauces, marinades, pickles, etc. Mix with a little soy sauce, sesame oil, and chili garlic paste and you have a great quick sauce.
* Balsamic Vinegar - Everyone's favorite sour liquid. It seems as though balsamic is by far the most popular vinegar. People like to put it in everything. I like balsamic in certain applications but I don't abuse it like some people do. It does not make everything taste better. Use it when it's called for. Unless of course it's a nice aged balsamic (the more years the sweeter). There is nothing more delicious than a 75 year old balsamic vinegar drizzled over fresh strawberry ice cream. It's expensive as hell but oh so worth it.
* Champagne Vinegar - Similar to other white wine vinegars (chardonnay, pinot, etc) Great for salad dressings and emulsions.
* Sherry Wine Vinegar - One of my favorites. Great for dressings and adding acid to dishes. Tart and sweet and delicious.
* Apple Cider Vinegar - Here's a great all purpose vinegar. Tart and a little fruity. Perfect for salad dressings, emulsions, sauces, etc. Also mixed with water it makes an excellent home cure for acid reflux (fight acid with acid! For reals.).
* Malt Vinegar - Great on fish and chips. End of story.

You don't need all of these vinegars in your pantry. Pick a few you like and go from there. All you really need to cover most recipes is a red and white and a balsamic. If a recipe calls for champagne vinegar you can use white wine vinegar. In my pantry I always have: sherry wine vinegar, balsamic, basic white wine vinegar, and apple cider vinegar (I have gnarly acid reflux). If you're super excited about vinegars you can have an adventure and make you own.

Here's a few places in Seattle where you can purchase most of the tasty things:
Big John's PFI
The Spanish Table
Paris Grocery

Next up: Condiments and Sauces.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bread Winner.

Fresh baked bread is an elusive trick that a lot of chef's cannot grasp. I too thought that I needed to make a blood pact with a demon or perhaps perform black magic human sacrifices to pull it off. Pastry is not my forté. Pastry chefs and "regular" chefs are not built from the same cloth. Most pastry chefs were raised in loving environments that encouraged learning math skills for fun. They follow the rules and bake sweets as holiday gifts. "Regular" chefs were mostly beaten or unloved as children and developed just enough math skills by either dealing or taking drugs. Those skills learned in our debaucherous youth helps us measure ingredients by volume (just replace the speed with flour). Frankly we just can't be bothered to measure things by weight. Such a hassle. Recipes are seen as a list of possibilities. It's super rare for us to look at a recipe and follow it word for word. We glance at recipes and then do what we want. Rules are for fools.

Once in a while the swords cross and stereotypes get broken. There are some badass rebel pastry chefs out there. They have managed to overcome the scientific nature of pastry and throw caution to the wind. There are also more and more 'regular' chefs who actually know math (not just drug measuring or money counting math). They can bake and they do it proudly. It's like monkeys learning sign language. It's not that uncommon but still very impressive.

I don't claim to be one of those chefs that have a knack for baking. I don't. However, with a little divine intervention I produced a really yummy loaf of French bread. Crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside. It's never too late to start baking. You may just surprise yourself. I sure did. When I pulled my bread out of the oven it felt as if I had just given birth. I caressed and coddled that loaf of bread until dinner time and then I cut it open and ate it all.

French Bread

5 cups all-purpose flour
.65 ounces (about 2 1/2 packets) packets active dry yeast
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 cups warm water
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
olive oil
sea salt

In a large bowl, combine half the flour, yeast and salt. Stir in the 2 cups warm water, and beat until well blended using a mixer with a dough hook. Stir in the remaining flour.

On a lightly floured surface, knead to make a stiff dough that is smooth and elastic. Knead for about 8 minutes. Form the dough into a ball. Place dough in an lightly olive oil greased bowl, and turn once. Cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled.

Punch the dough down, and divide in half. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. Form each loaf into a long oval (French bread shaped)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Using olive oil lightly grease a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with cornmeal. Place loaves on the prepared baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth. Let rise until nearly doubled, 35 to 40 minutes.

Lightly beat the egg white with 1 tablespoon of water, and brush over the loaves. With a very sharp knife, make 3 or 4 diagonal cuts about 1/4 inch deep across top of each loaf. Bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes. Brush again with egg white mixture and sprinkle sea salt on top. Bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until bread tests done. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. You have just baked delicious handmade bread! Congratulations.