Breakaway Cook

Happy Thanksgiving, Breakaway Cooks!

Delia and I woke up to this beast, and about 20 of her pals, the other morning when we were camping up in Lake County. I had always thought that wild turkeys were exceedingly skittish, but these guys were poking around practically inside the tent!

May you all have a very special day (and meal) tomorrow; if anyone feels like sharing any breakaway dishes you’ve made, please do! I’m thinking of butterflying the 10-pounder I bought yesterday, and giving it an Indian spice treatment.

I’m thankful for everyone reading this, and simply for being alive in this time, in this place. Peace and good wishes to everyone!

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Wild Perch with Grains of Paradise

OK, it’s time for the long-awaited grains of paradise.

Stuart was kind enough to send me a jar of these little gems, which sort of look like peppercorns (that link says “what peppercorns only dream of being” — reminds me of a long-ago friend who lived and breathed the stoner sport of frisbee; his favorite quote: “when a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a frisbee). They don’t have much aroma at all when you open the jar and take a whiff, but, once ground, everything changes: it’s almost like a combination of coriander, cumin, cardamom, and something tropicalish. It’s native to West Africa, and it’s actually, most improbably, in the ginger family. It also changes color when ground! It becomes a silvery gray dust, redolent of earth and ground minerals.

I found some perch, caught in Morrow Bay, and thought it might make a good canvas to really see what the grains of paradise would bring to it. It’s subtler than one would think, given the above description, yet it’s unmistakably there; the fish became lightly perfumed with fleeting glances of exotica — perfect, really. If it were any stronger, it would have been too much about the flavoring, and not enough about the fish. The brick-colored residue in the pan is from a lone piece of tomato that was floating around the cutting board. The pan was mighty hot — it was first heated by a maxed out flame, then a film of olive oil, then the whole thing was tossed into a 550 degree oven, along with a few pieces of Meyer lemon and the spoonful of tomato. Perch is delicate, so I figured that was better than pan-frying it, which would surely have resulted in a mangle, though a delicious one.

I also had a very successful experiment with a thick pork loin — LOADS of GoP, plus kosher salt, that’s it, fried up to perfection, followed by a deglazing of the pan with Calvados and chopped-up persimmons. Next up on the GoP experiment queue: tofu, carefully crisped in a GoP crust.

I believe it has earned a permanent place on the spice shelf, next to the pepper; it’s almost like having a choice of pepper 1 (good old Tellicherry) and pepper 2 (GoP), with the latter getting the nod when just a bit more complexity and — dare I say it? — mystery is called for.

Please chime in with any GoP experience, thoughts, dishes …. it’s a very worthwhile spice to have around.

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Semi-Dried Tomatoes

Well last week was in all likelihood the final hurrah for tomatoes, at least here in northern CA, so I scored a huge, 10-pound bag of heirlooms for a few dollars (end of the day sale at the farmers’ market). The weather and the mood were more about slow cooking than chowing them down in salads, so I decided to replenish the larder with a good supply of semi-dried tomatoes.

Semi-dried tomatoes are a huge boon to breakaway cooks. Slow-roasting them concentrates their flavors until they become perfect little umami bombs — local flavor blasts — ready to serve at a moment’s notice. They’re much better than sun-dried tomatoes, which generally have to be reconstituted/softened in some way, and who wants a one-step user process when a zero-step one is better? They also have better texture: they remain soft with some bite to them, whereas sun-dried can sometimes be tough if not properly rehydrated.

Here’s how to do it: place a silpat or parchment paper on a baking sheet, and turn on the oven to 275. Thinly slice (not insanely, but thin) enough tomatoes to fill up the sheet. Don’t overlap them —  use as many sheets as you need to, but keep them slightly separate. Spray with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper (lemon salt or tangerine salt is nice here, but not necessary). Bake for at least an hour, maybe 90 minutes or even two hours, or until they shrivel a bit. Taste one. Is it a superconcentrated tomato flavor? That’s what you’re after. But don’t let them in so long that they just shrivel to nothing; they should largely retain their shape.

I then just take them out, let them cool, and pack into glass jars. The heating/drying process seems to give the tomatoes some kind of robust, anti-bacterial properties, because they tend to stay just fine (i.e. no mold or funkiness) for a long time in the jars. I’ll use them a lot in the coming months; it’s great to just reach into the jar and pluck out the umami flavor blast — breakaway cooking at its finest!

What to do with them? Anything you’d do with a sun-dried tomato. Simple pasta, with sauted onions and herbs, gets pushed to an entirely new level with a handful of SDTs. Line some ramekins with them and crack a few eggs on top, and you’ll have some of the most flavorful baked eggs imaginable. Wonderful in vinaigrettes/salad dressings, finely chopped. Or even pureed with olive oil and herbs, as a mezze/dip for bread, including this one. Fantastic on quick homemade pizza (using the refrigerated dough from Trader Joe’s — it’s good!). On sandwiches. Or just part of an olive plate, with wine.

The jar will disappear quickly! Any favorite sun-dried tomato dishes among this august crowd? Try them with semi-dried, next time.

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Cabbage Soup with Persimmon Herb "Pesto"

No more crunchy crispy  anything for me for a few days: yesterday I had the dreaded root canal, made worse by a complication that required getting out of the chair, mid-procedure, and going to see a specialist (a very special endodontist with the best bedside manner I’ve ever witnessed). All I can say is: thank god for heavy-hitting pain medication! I’m ok, but I’ve promised her that I’ll only eat soft foods for a few days while it heals.

A mild, wintry soup seemed like the ticket, so I sauteed a large onion, and a cubed-up sweet potato in olive oil, along with a large pinch of toasted coriander seeds, lots of fresh thyme, some black pepper, and plenty of tangerine salt. Then a half-head of julienned green cabbage and some chicken stock.

The soup is very soothing and healing, but it needed some additional pizzazz. Herbs never fail me, so I turned to them. Hmm, there sat a plump, almost-ready-to-burst hachiya persimmon. I wonder what it would be like to finely chop some herbs (parsley, cilantro, and thyme) and just blend them together with the persimmon, which would then get spooned into the soup, ala pistou? That turned out to be exactly what the soup needed: a small blast of freshness/fruitiness/fabulousness. Victory is declared, and now I have something good to eat for the next two days!

This now has me thinking: I wonder what other fruits would blend well with large quantities of herbs? And then what?

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Breakaway Ideas at the Marin Farmers Market

For the past few weeks I’ve been involved with one of California’s best farmers markets, the Marin Farmers Market held each Sunday at the Civic Center in San Rafael.  I’ve been shopping there for years, and have long been impressed with the quality, variety, and prices there. While shopping I would often gush to farmers about the latest new dishes I had made with their products, and plenty of impromtu conversations with other shoppers would arise as well. It was obvious that people loved the gorgeous displays of produce, but equally obvious that many were kind of stumped about what to do with it all, besides the classic “saute in olive oil and garlic, and finish it off with a little lemon.”

So I proposed an idea to the executive director of the market: an “ideas booth” that would help shoppers not only better understand the seasonal gems that surrounded them every week, but to give them entirely new and original ideas on how to create easy, healthful dinners with them.

So I’m now there on Sundays, talking with people and leading tours of the market. I encourage people to show me what they’ve purchased, and I then come up with breakaway dinner ideas for them. I also encourage people to stop by before they begin shopping to hear about what’s especially enticing each week.

The Marin Independent Journal got wind of it and wrote a nice story in today’s paper.

It would be great to meet some readers/contributors in person, so if anyone’s around Marin on Sunday mornings, come by and introduce yourself. And if you have any ideas on how to make this service better, I’d love to hear them.

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Jehangir Mehta's Brilliant Breakaway Indian Creations

I’ve been thinking about Jehangir Mehta’s food ever since I tasted it last summer, so it’s with special delight that I recently received his new cookbook, Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence.

Mehta is a breakaway cook on steroids. The title comes from Mehta’s aversion to the rules that govern much of Indian, and specifically Ayurvedic, culinary traditions. His “indulgence” of the title is not some hedonistic indulgence, it’s Mehta giving himself permission to indulge in rule-breaking of all sorts. And does he ever!

Mehta grew up with cooks serving Ayurvedic meals at home. I don’t know a lot about Ayurvedic cooking, but I do know that some of its most important foods — avocado, pomegranate, blueberries, grapefruit, and honey — are among my favorites. Food seems to be a means to address heath concerns; certain foods are believed to be beneficial both to prevent certain maladies and to address them once they show up. There is a heavy on emphasis on “balance.”

Part of what makes Mehta’s food so interesting is his sense of play between 1) centuries-old rules and 2) modern sensibilities. He seems happiest –and of most interest to breakaway cooks — when he’s pushing individual ingredients far beyond their traditional roles. This in my opinion is a fabulous way to cook: by isolating powerhouse ingredients — think of miso, tamarind, lemongrass, matcha, pomegranate molasses, rosewater, saffron, chipotle, preserved lemons, ghee, shiitake, umeboshi, jaggery . . . the list goes on and on — WITHOUT the burden of doing everything traditionally associated with those ingredients, a cook is utterly free to create new dishes that carry whatever predominant notes one wishes.

Mehta brings his unique sensibilities from the pastry world, where he has concentrated most of his considerable energies, to the savory world, so dessert-minded people will have a field day with this book. While many of the techniques are from the kitchen of a truly professional restaurant pastry chef, and are thus in all likelihood beyond the reach of average home cooks with limited time and equipment, the sheer ballsiness of his creations are so inspiring that home cooks might want to take them on anyway.

Some examples: he makes a vegetable cake that sounds incredible: cauliflower, artichoke hearts, golden beets, and broccoli, mixed together with paprika, eggs, flour, and sugar. Cauliflower clafouti, anyone? Made with almond flour, lots of butter and eggs, and milk. Cardamom cookies, chive biscuits, tumeric Yorkshire pudding, guava-tamarind brittle, saffron-glazed nectarine “carpaccio” with yuzu sherbet …. don’t all these sound wonderful, and almost familiar to breakaway cooks?

And for anyone wanting some grown-up non-alcoholic drinks: how about a cool glass of orange-marigold iced tea? Or perhaps some lavender citrus tea, a basil cocktail, or just cucumber water? I imagine that all of the drinks in the book could even be made in concentrated form, and combined with some sparkling water for everyday drinking.

Mehta has a tiny, and I mean TINY, restaurant in NYC called Graffiti. His kitchen, apparently, is the size of several large cutting boards (I’m barely exaggerating). Several friends of mine have visited it, and all have come back with glowing reports. If you find yourself in New York and want some breakaway Indian food, Mehta style, do ring him up and make a reservation. If you need an additional reason to visit, his prices are insanely low by NYC standards. Do report back, please, if you end up there.

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Baked Persimmon Eggs

Let me just say that I haven’t woken up this happy in a very long time. After eight years of near-total darkness, an extra-strong beam of light is providing hope again. I feel like a plant that just got moved from a dry dark basement into the full sun!

This required a festive breakfast.

Heat oven to 400. Peel and chop up a large Fuyu persimmon, and toss it into a small frying pan with a few tablespoons of shallots, some butter, some chopped fresh herbs (I used oregano and thyme), and plenty of salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes, until the shallots soften a bit, and transfer to two buttered ramekins (or, in my case, my cool little tiny cast-iron pots; the above shot is what it looked like just before going into the oven). Make a small indentation, and crack two eggs into each ramekin, dust with more s&p, and place in oven for about 10 minutes, or until the yolks have barely set.

With some homemade bread and jam and three slow cups of crema-laced coffee, this was truly a lovely way to sit down with the NY Times and savor the victory. A hearty cheers to the American people who made this happen.

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