Breakaway Cook

Breakaway Profile in The Kitchn

If anyone’s curious about what the microscopic breakaway kitchen looks like, there’s a cool little feature on breakaway cooking in The Kitchn, a wonderful little site “for those who want to cook more, but are shy in the kitchen. It’s a place to dive in deep, and embrace the joy of one of our basic needs: food.” The Kitchn is the food/kitchen section of Apartment Therapy. Many thanks to Dana Velden for doing such a fine job with both the prose and the photos.

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Thyme Crust — Add Herby Crusts to Everything!

I’ve been hooked on crusts for a while now, and am on constant alert for new ones. My latest infatuation is with herb crusts, made simply by combining fresh herbs with small amounts of crusty bread, salt, and pepper. The crust above is just thyme leaves, pain au levain, and s&p.

What do you do with a crust? You sprinkle/pack them on to foods you want to become crunchy or crispy. The crunch of food is a severely underrated aspect of great food, I think. It lets you know that something very special is coming. It’s the first thing you taste, the first sound you hear, a precursor of good things to come. They are a crucial part of breakaway cooking.

So what gets a crust? Anything baked — a casserole, baked tofu, roasting vegetables — and anything fried — a burger, a steak, a fish fillet, a cake of tofu. The other night I had a small quantity of tofu, and a small quantity of ground beef. I mixed those two together, and stuffed a little bleu cheese and thyme leaves in the middle, and gave it the thyme crust. (The top patty is about to get flipped in the photo). An herby deeply browned and crispy crust was the result, with all kinds of floral notes and umami goodness from the blue cheese. On top went some carmelized onions, tomato chutney and a small swirl of dijon, sandwiched between slices of Acme herb slab. It was a fine, fine sandwich.

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Ginger Cardamom Carrots

It’s weird but the older I get the more I crave carrots. I beeline for the salsa counter in Mexican restaurants, where I pile up a plate of the pickled spicy ones alongside the pickled jalapenos. Carrot salad, carrot cake, roasted carrots, I’ll eat them wherever I find them.

I’ve cooked them a billion ways, and this one is the current fave — I’ve tried tweaking this approach in various ways, but I keep coming back to it. There are two secrets/tricks to making this addicting side dish: cutting them in the right shape, and judicious quantities of freshly ground cardamom. Here’s how it’s done:

Peel six or seven fat carrots, and cut off the ends. Slice them down the middle, lengthwise, and put the halves flat-side down so they rest flat on the cutting board. Then slice it again four times lengthwise, leaving four long strips/planks. Then slice those on the diagonal. I don’t worry about uniformity, I just follow this basic guideline; there is beauty in irregularity! Throw those into the wok or chef’s pan.

Then mince a few tablespoons of ginger and one medium onion, and throw those in. Heat the pan on high, add some ghee/butter/olive oil (or any combo of these three), and start to cook over high heat. Add plenty of salt and pepper. While it’s cooking, grind up enough cardamom seeds to yield about a tablespoon. It seems like a lot, which it is, but go for it. Continue to cook until everything is soft, and taste for salt. Top with chives, or other herb of choice (the purple in the photo is from a chive blossom). Prepare for addiction!

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Iron Chef — The Breakaway Spin!

Well some very intriguing news came in the form of a phone call from the executive producer of Iron Chef America, who asked if I’d be interested in being a judge for the upcoming season. And the answer was, “Yes!” We tape in NYC in late June — more updates as developments unfold, but for now, woohoo!

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Rice Noodle Medley, Breakaway Style

My local Chinese market was selling two trays of the fat rice noodles often used in chow fun (which is now apparently called shenen fen) for the price of one, so I picked up a duo-pack and set about making dinner. These noodles are nice because they don’t require any boiling: just make a stirfry of choice, and incorporate the noodles. This round got fresh ginger, carrots, a leek, a few diced anchovies, half a bunch of kale, and a handful of goji berries, all sauted in macadamia oil blend (which I’m liking very much lately — it’s made by the good folks at Jungle Products, in Sonoma). The noodles kind of broke up a bit (they’re quite delicate), resulting in tender blobs (in a good way) that reminded me of gnocchi, a nice countertexture agains the snappy, crisp veggies. A dash of umami salt really set the entire dish spinning with umami (boosted by the anchovies). Do this in a nonstick pan; if it starts to stick (the noodles get sticky), just add a little chicken stock, carrot juice, or water. A quick and very tasty dinner.

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Sauted Kale with Goji

I couldn’t believe how many products with goji berries I saw at the Fancy Food Show this year. We seem to require a new superfood every year (blueberries and pomegranate have dominated this category over the past two to three years), and I think it might be goji’s turn. In a perfect mirroring of this trend, I’ve seen them for sale in fancy health food stores and, heaven forbid, farmers’ markets, anywhere from $12 to $25/pound, but I was able to pick them up in my local market in Chinatown for $2.39/pound. Chinese just eat them, probably oblivious to the trend’s current status (and the Chinese merchants, miraculously, must be unaware of how much they could actually charge per pound, with the right marketing), whereas we “better health through better food” people seek some kind of nutritional botox effect from them.

They’re sort of like a cross between a dried cranberry and a rasin. Sort of! They are in any case the perfect fruity chewy foil for a large bunch of hyperfresh kale, trimmed of its stems. Dice and saute a red onion in fat of choice (I used macadamia oil, which was delicious, but this could be done with olive oil, butter, ghee, or a combo of these). While the onion softens, rinse the trimmed kale and chop into 1-inch segments, and add to the onions once they’re nice and soft. Add plenty of salt (of choice) and pepper. I also tossed in some ground fennel seed, which seemed to add some complexity to it, but this could easily be omitted. Then a big handful of goji berries. Just saute for a few more minutes, and you’ll soon see what a delightful combination this is; it also has the added bonus of being extremely pretty, not to mention about as healthful as it gets. Try a big bowl of it, and notice how you feel afterward–completely sated yet happy and light enough to want to go for a nice long walk.

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"It's Just That I HATE Vegetables"

I once asked a vegetarian friend why she avoided meat.

“Oh, I have nothing against meat,” she said, then squinted a little. “It’s just that I HATE vegetables.”

But seriously: why do so many people dislike vegetables? I think the widespread distaste for vegetables is more or less a rational decision, since so few people know how to prepare them in any way save boiling or steaming, and the results are often fairly disgusting. When I was a kid, pretty much all our veggies came from a can. It was my job to pick which can to open (I usually went for canned corn, which I still kinda like, though frozen has pretty much replaced it). On the rare occasions we did have fresh vegetables, they might get a pat of margarine and a dusting of some iodized table salt and pepper that had been ground literally years before. Blech!

Kids are notorious for not liking fresh veggies, but I know quite a few adults, too, who look at the forlorn broccoli floret on their plate as the price they have to pay for their meat entree.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Ninety percent of eating a delicious, vegetable-heavy diet is shopping. Start with great vegetables, and it’s VERY difficult to screw them up. Conversely, it’s very hard to make crappy industrial vegetables taste great, no matter what you do to them.

I’ve had my vegetable world turned upside down recently by the fine folks at Mariquita Farm out of Watsonville. Julia Wiley and Andy Griffin have long been sought out at farmers’ markets around the Bay Area (though they no longer do any at all), and the list of Bay Area restaurants that buy their spectacular produce is a who’s who of the very best. Their CSA is filled to capacity/booked solid, so no hope of getting on that, but they do offer the intriguing “Mysterious Thursday,” when Julia drives up to SF and unloads, for $25, what has to be the best-looking box of vegetables to be found anywhere.

The photo above is a portion of the box I got last week. I’ve never had, let alone cooked, agretti before, but man is it good. I made a terrific breakaway mapo dofu out of it by sauteing onions, ground beef and Chinese plum sauce, then adding harissa, half cake of soft tofu, and four or five cups of chopped agretti. The agretti made the dish sing by providing green tangy notes and a most pleasing popping texture.

Also in the box were lamb’s quarter’s (a delightful green), baby purple artichokes, dino kale, asparagus, baby turnips, tons of leeks, deliciously sweet salad greens, fancy carrots, favas, herbs, and plenty else. We managed to eat the entire box in four days!

But the point is: with vegetables this good, you WANT to eat them. You can’t help it. So that, it seems, is the trick — to find a supply of incredibly inspiring produce. Farmers’ markets are a great place to look, but I’m liking the box from Mariquita very, very much. If any of you have a favorite CSA, let’s hear about it!

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Golden Beet Soup with Thai Basil Puree

Peak beet season is coming to a close, though they miraculously seem to stay around for most of the year in many places. I’ve eaten a huge quantity this year, but I’m still buying them every time I see them.

I was feeling lazy about doing beet tartare (if any of you reading this have not tried this recipe from The Breakaway Cook, it’s one of my favorites in the book), so just decided to drain the boiled golden beets and toss them in the blender along with some milk, chicken stock, and tangerine juice, along with plenty of s&p (the salt was dried tangerine salt). Victory declared! If I was feeling fancier, I probably would have sieved it once, to give a smoother texture, but I was so hungry and it tasted so good that I pretty much wolfed it down (with plenty of leftovers). And just for fun I had the last remnants of some Thai basil, so pureed that in blender along with some olive oil and drizzled the green goo on top. A keeper! Served with a dollop of full-fat Greek yogurt and a hunk of La Brea whole grain, barely toasted.

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Pea Soup, Weather Irrelevant

I think I’m one of those cooks who isn’t hugely influenced by the weather: I often make big salads for dinner on cold days, and braise a pork shoulder in the middle of the summer (then again, I have the excuse that SF summers are freezing). If I I see that I’ve got a ham hock that is requesting my attention, I , like many others, automatically think “pea soup,” even on warm days like today. I did indeed have a bag of dried peas (I try always to keep a bag in my pantry), so we were off to the races. I’m almost never without carrots and onions, so I chopped them up fairly finely, threw them in the soup pot with a few strips of bacon, and gently sauteed until the fat released and everything started getting soft.

From there, I put in a pound of dried peas and the ham hock (chopped up a bit). Everything was looking so nice that I couldn’t help but snap this picture of it, before even adding any liquid, knowing that the army-green color it would eventually take on wouldn’t be quite as photogenic. From the state in the photo, it was just a matter of adding a quart of chicken stock, and about another quart of water, bringing to a boil, and simmering for about two hours. Thick, porky, meaty pea soup emerged. I used smoked paprika salt at the end to add even more smoky goodness (it had both smoke and umami from the bacon and from the hock). I’m in a bit of a rut with this soup, because the flavors are so good together, but I’m always looking for different ways to eat pea soup, so if anyone’s got a good one, please speak up!

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