Breakaway Cook

Breakaway Cook Makes the LA Times!

A few months ago I was due to give a talk at Diesel bookstore, in Rockridge, along with Molly Katzen, Elizabeth Falkner, and a few other cookbook writers. I showed up on time, and met the bookstore manager. She looked both surprised and very worried, and asked me if I was okay, and to step into her office.

It wasn’t good, whatever it was.

It turns out that someone identifying themselves as Eric Gower had called the bookstore several hours before, claiming that a thief had broken into his car. His computer, which contained his only pictures of his mother (!) was stolen, and he had no way to get to the bookstore on time. He needed the bookstore to wire him $150, pronto, in order to make the event.

In one sense the story was so preposterous that it was amusing, and I got through the event ok, but in another, it was scary. Why in the world would *I* be chosen?? Jesus, couldn’t they find someone a little, I dunno, more well-known than an obscure cookbook writer? But maybe, in an odd way, it might be more plausible for that very reason.

I then brushed off the event as just another wacky manifestation of the times we live in, and forgot all about it. Until this morning, when the LA Times ran a story on how this “bookstore author scam” is gaining momentum. For any bookstore owners reading this, beware!

Well, at least I’m good company, with Nick Hornby.

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Udon with Pea-Spinach Pesto and Umami Topping (with Salmon)

I don’t know what it is about pestos that keeps me coming back. I fully realize that pestos are fraught with the danger of cliche, given their role in some of the not-so-successful early-stage fusion, with well-meaning chefs and their attempts at edginess to establish market-leading trends. But I think that, as always, by keeping things extremely simple, pestos are real boons to breakaway cooks.

As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of frozen peas. I find them in some sense vastly superior to fresh peas — which in any case are only available for a few weeks out of the year — the now-high-tech freezing processes ensure that supervibrant garden-y pea flavor. And lordy, is it convenient to just have a stash in the freezer at all times. For this pesto, I had the last part of a fresh bag of spinach to use up, plus the classic breakaway ingredients of frozen peas, carrot juice, umami salt, and a little milk. I didn’t even bother thawing the peas, just a few cups directly into the blender with the following:

  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 2 cups fresh spinach
  • umami salt, pepper
  • ¼ cup evoo
  • 2 tablespoons carrot juice
  • 2 tablespoons milk

I could have eaten and really enjoyed the udon with just this — and in warmer weather, this is excellent served cold — but I also had some crimini mushrooms on deck, ready for use, along with a piece of a yam that I decided to cut into thin, matchstick strips, and a leek. I decided to saute these together to create a quick little topping:that would give the dish some good texture and give it even more umami goodness (criminis, like all mushroooms, are jam-packed with umami, as are yams, as are leeks when they melt):

  • 2 cups minced mushrooms
  • 1 cup matchstick yam
  • 1 large leek, minced

Into the saute pan they went, along with some ghee, as I waited for the water to heat up to cook the udon. And lo and behold, out of the deep-freeze came a salmon filet, bless its rare flesh, purchased long before this year’s ban — it was time for this to end its frozen isolation. It got a quick crust of my standard coriander, fennel, black pepper, and plenty of salt and pan fried in cast iron.

More ambitious than I had originally planned, but well worth the tiny extra effort involved.

Make frozen peas your friend! And let me know if you know any innovative or favorite use of them.

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EZ Umami Nothing-in-the Fridge Loaf

This thing was truly a bottom-of-the-barrel dish that came out way better than I had imagined it would, so much so that I thought I’d share it. It had been almost two weeks since I’d gone shopping, and there was, seemingly, NOTHING in the fridge. But, it’s amazing what can happen when you have a few stray carrots, onions, and mushrooms if you mince the hell out of them and throw enough umami at it. The shrooms were not at their peak, shall we say, but oddly, this seemed to add to their deliciousness. This thing just popped with flavor, and I’ll be making it again and again, of that I’m sure.

Here’s what I put into my claypot:

  • 1 onion, minced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and minced
  • 3 cups crimini mushrooms, minced
  • 1/2 cup dried tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground star anise
  • about a quarter pound of (grass-fed) ground beef, though this could easily be omitted)
  • 2 eggs
  • some frozen persimmon puree I found deep in the freezer, thawed
  • freshly made bread crumbs

Saute onion, carrots, shrooms, tomatoes, and star anise in olive oil for about five minutes, until they soften. Add the beef, if using, and plenty of s&p. While that cooks, whisk together the eggs and persimmon puree (not everyone has persimmon puree in their freezer, including me most of the time. An excellent substitute would be dried fruit — apricot, figs, plums, maybe papaya — softened in boiling water, then blended to a puree). Add that to the pot, mix well, and liberally toss on some seasoned breadcrumbs, made in the spice grinder by blending a small piece of stale bread, some optional freshly ground coriander, black pepper, and salt. Bake at 400 (no lid) for about 20 minutes. If the breadcrumbs aren’t toasty-crispy on top — though they should be — put it under the broiler for a minute or two, which will definitely crisp it up. Really nice with a glass of ancient vine zin.

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The Breakaway Schemata

I’ve drawn a cool little schemata/diagram of the three essential components of breakaway cooking. For some reason I can’t get it to post here, but do check it out by clicking here. Let me know if you can think of anything to add!

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The Breakaway Approach to Better, Easier Cooking

A few weeks ago a charming writer and editor named Kim Carlson from Culinate contacted me and asked if I would write up a few general rules or tips to make cooking at home more rewarding. The piece is finally up, so please check it out! (along with the rest of the site–there’s a lot of good stuff there)

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Cooking with Monks

I’m just back from a multi-day cooking workshop with the monks of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the Ventana Wilderness southeast of Carmel Valley. I was invited down again to help the monk-chefs who cook for the summer guest season “wake up” their summer menus with some breakaway vibrancy. The winter fare at Tassajara–a full-blown monastic training center for aspiring zen Buddhists–can be fairly simple and spartan, but they pull out the stops for the summer guest season, when they open the gates to anyone who’d like to experience the magical tranquility and great food the place has to offer.

We cooked a meal for 105 people–a personal record for me–that consisted of

  • soft tofu topped with fennel that had been pickled in a gorgeous pink brine of plum wine, umeboshi, rice vinegar, and honey
  • yaki onigiri (cooked rice crammed into triangular molds and filled with umeboshi and chopped nori and sesame, then brushed with a canola/soy sauce blend and grilled)
  • squash pizzettas brushed with a fresh oregano pesto and chopped roasted almonds, then baked
  • broccoli “rice” (finely diced broccoli sauteed in olive oil then braised in fresh orange juice and topped with orange zest)
  • baked soft tofu in a mint puree and dusted with crushed pistachios
  • strawberries infused with lavender and strained yogurt, piled on a shortcake made with lavender

We also spent a day going through old menus and thinking up ways to give them some global zip while keeping the food relatively light, an important consideration for the 100+degree heat that is common in the summers down there.

I’ve written about this before, but one of my favorite aspects of the Tassajara kitchen was its “mindfulness bell” — a bell that sits in the middle of the action, that anyone can ring at anytime. When it rings, everyone stops what they’re doing — no matter what it is — and reflects for about a minute on just what it is that that we’re trying to do when we cook. It’s not really designed as such, but one of its purposes is to pretty much eliminate stress in the kitchen. There’s no task that’s SO important that it can’t just wait for a minute while everyone takes a few deep breaths. How I would love to see the mindfulness bell incorporated not only into every restaurant in the country, but into every home kitchen, too. It’s the perfect kitchen wake-up call, to remember why we even bother cooking in the first place. It’s because we’re hungry, of course, but it’s also one of the oldest, and surest, ways of demonstrating love and care. We just have to remember this WHILE we do it.

I can’t wait to go back.

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Fried Rice

Leftover rice, how I love thee! I almost never tire of taking leftover rice and making something tasty with it. And because I know this about myself, when I make rice as part of dinner I tend to make a lot of it, with the intention of having leftovers and making fried rice with it. Fried rice works best with leftover rice; cooling time in the fridge seems to reduce its starchiness and increase its ability to meld with other ingredients.The rice shown above is more or less a classic example of my favorite fried rice, using whatever I had in my fridge. Here is today’s version:

  • onions
  • fresh ginger
  • diced carrots
  • diced mushrooms
  • 1 fresh manzano chile, de-seeded and diced
  • chopped up leftover roast chicken
  • 1 egg mixed with pickled fennel juice
  • several cups cold cooked rice

Start off by heating a combination of olive oil and butter over medium heat. I’m liking my new nonstick wok purchased pretty much for this purpose. Then add some chopped aromatics — onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, garlic, or any combination of these. I also like to chop up whatever else is in the fridge that needs to be used: sweet peppers, fennel bulb, broccoli, winter greens, snap peas, green beans . . . virtually anything will do, but the key is to chop it finely. Feel free to add meat, too, as I did here. I like to keep everything about the size of a grain of rice or slightly larger. Liberally salt and pepper it all.

Then add the rice. Since it’s cold, you’ll need to sort of spear it with a spatula to break it up. Keep doing that until you have no more rice clumps, until all the ingredients look more or less uniform.

As that cooks, I like to crack two eggs into a coffee cup, add a splash of vinegar (pomegranate vinegar is nice, though today I happened to have fennel pickling juice on hand), whisk them with a fork, add to the rice, and mix well. Taste for salt – citrus salt is always good — and add a handful of chopped herbs (cilantro works especially well). Serve with a mound of pickled ginger, pickled fennel, some sliced avocado, and an icy Belgian beer.

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Using Herbal Blasts in Your Cooking

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I always chuckle when I read a recipe that asks me to use some fraction of a teaspoon of an herb. My daily cooking (and my cookbooks) lean heavily on the prodigious use of fresh herbs, often measured by the quarter-cup and half-cup, but sometimes even multiple whole cups. Using fresh herbs in these kinds of quantities produces dishes might seem counterintuitive or even nutty, but the results, more often than not, are lively, vibrant, and incredibly satisfying. The reigning heavyweight champ of the herb world is Jerry Traunfeld — do yourself a favor and check out his books sometime.

Herbs used in large quantities create taste revelations that aren’t easily forgotten; can you remember the first time you tasted basil-based pesto? I can — and I recall being stunned at how good something could taste. I couldn’t get over it. I ate nothing but pesto for about two weeks!

Have you ever tried fresh oregano leaves in quantity? Imagine the following oregano pesto:

  • 3 cups fresh oregano leaves, stripped from their stems
  • 1/4 cup cashews, slightly browned in a skillet (no oil)
  • 1/2 cup very fruity extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons plain greek yogurt
  • plenty of freshly ground pepper and sea salt

Blend all of the above in a blender or food processor, and spoon it over hot pasta of your choice. It’s incredible! The yogurt makes the whole thing creamy and light, and the cashews give it a toasty depth.

Tarragon is another fresh herb that I love to use in large quantities. Saute some onions (or shallots, or scallions, or a combo) in olive oil until soft, then transfer to a blender. To that add at least a cup of fresh tarragon leaves and whir it around. Add this lovely green goo to chicken thighs, and bake them in a 375 oven for 45 minutes or so. Or add the same “pesto” to a head of chopped cauliflower, and bake that.

Using fresh herbs by the fistful is an easy, healthy way to inject serious flavor into your cooking. And if anyone reading this has a favorite way to use at least a cup of some fresh herb, I’d love to hear about it!

(photo credit: scoutress)

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Sauerkraut, Breakaway Style

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I’ve always had a thing for fermented foods of all kinds — pickles, miso, yogurt, vinegars, olives, cured meats, beer and wine, even coffee, tea, cheese, and chocolate — but recently I got all fired up about making my own after hearing a talk by the hyperarticulate and hyperzealous Sandor Katz, author of a book I like a lot called Wild Fermentation, a paean to the yeasts and microorganisms that naturally surround us and to the things they can do for us. For Katz, fermentation is a “a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.”

Fermented foods are the opposite of industrial, processed food, whose processes either deaden or downright destroy the complex bacterial life so prevalent in fermented foods. We’re so paranoid about bacteria: we have antibacterial soaps, antibiotic drugs — and in Japan they have antibacterial underwear! — but there’s really no escaping microscopic bacteria and fungi. We breathe them, and eat billions of them every time we take a bite of something. Every culture on earth makes use of them. They help us digest and they boost our immune systems. We are, quite literally, the descendants of bacteria.

Happily, fermented foods are also chuck full umami, and bring us gripping and varied flavors.
There is much to say about Katz’s book; I’ll try to get around to a full review of it soon.

This sauerkraut couldn’t have been simpler to make. Seven heads of cabbage (4 green and 3 red, all of which turned red in the end), shredded with a Benriner (Japanese mandoline) and a bowlful of tangerine salt were the only ingredients. The only hard part about it is the constant pressing down of the cabbage with your fist; you add a layer of cabbage, salt it about as much as you would normally salt something, make a fist, and press down, which breaks down the cellular structure a bit and allows the salt to draw out the considerable water content of the cabbage. Add another layer, more salt, and press down some more, till you have no more cabbage.

The crock I’m using is a German one called a Harsch. It’s 20 liters — I was probably a little too optimistic in calculating my kraut-eating capacity when I bought it, so you might want to get a smaller one if you want to join me on this adventure. It has a brilliant design: two stone weights weigh down the food, which quickly becomes submerged in its own juices, brought out by the salt and by the pressing action. The brim has a moat, in which water is poured, thus preventing insects or anything else from getting into the crock. Fermenting time so far has been about three weeks, and the kraut is stunning — tangy and lively and a little sweet, nothing remotely like the canned/jarred kraut served on hot dogs at ball games. It’s really more like a slaw that’s fermented, with just the right notes of complex sour. I can imagine making this with a different salt, perhaps a saffron salt for a new layer of savory goodness, or maybe even adding some julienned young ginger to it. More experiments to come.

Kim chee is on deck for the crock, but I’ve got a few gallons of sauerkraut to get through first. If any of you in the Bay Area would like some, drop me a note and come on over with a container.

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Garlic Confit

 

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I know that I’m lucky to be surrounded by a few Korean-run corner markets, all of which offer big bags (more than 100 cloves) of peeled, hyperfresh garlic for just a dollar or two. It is vastly superior to the great majority of skin-still-on, dried-up or even sprouted garlic available at most supermarkets. These of course can be used as is, in all the typical ways cooks use garlic, but since I learned to poach garlic in canola or olive oil at very low temperatures, I’ve never looked back. Poached garlic, or garlic confit (“confit” refers to some cooked food that is then covered in fat of some kind, which works both as a seal and a preservative) is mellower than raw garlic, yet still provides plenty of garlic-y goodness. I keep a Mason jar of it in the fridge, barely covered with oil. Whenever I need garlic, I simply open the jar and spoon a few (or more) out. I often use a spoonful of the garlic-infused oil, too. Use them as you would normal garlic.

At this point in life, I can’t imagine going back to using garlic the old way. Be sure to make your confit as soon as you buy your bag of unpeeled garlic, because the window of freshness on peeled garlic is short. Don’t buy peeled garlic that has brown spots, or that looks even slightly slimy—only buy the plump, vibrant, healthy-looking garlic for your confit. It lasts in the refrigerator, covered and in oil, for at least a month, but I seem to keep mine for up to six months without any problem. Some people worry about botulism with any confit, since the anaerobic environment can allow bacteria to develop, but I never worry about it — it doesn’t sit around long enough. If you’re at all worried, simply add a tablespoon of vinegar of choice to it.

I’m also very curious to see how others use it — please do report!

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  • About 50 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • Enough olive oil (or canola oil) to cover them in a shallow pan (about 1 cup, depending on the shape of your pan)

Slice off the brown root end of each clove, and place the cloves in a skillet. Cover them completely with the oil. Heat the pan very, very gently – you want bubbles to rise, but ideally not break the surface. Slow and gentle is the key here. Cook them for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let them cool in the oil, then transfer to a Mason jar, and refrigerate.

 

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