Breakaway Cook

Amsterdam Is Embedded in My Neurons

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What could I possibly add to the world’s paeans to the beauty and wonders of Amsterdam? The city’s allure is almost violent; it grips you immediately and doesn’t let go. It seems to force the recollection of some deep place within my brain and body, almost on a molecular level, of some long-forgotten realities of long ago. It’s easy to imagine what life must have been like centuries ago because the Dutch prefer to keep all of that alive through the preservation of their architecture and streets, through life on the canals, and through their emphasis on the good life of time spent in cafes, lots of vacation, and in making every space as cosy and inviting as possible.

Our building is a wonder, a 1650 beauty with a sunny and inviting courtyard, where everyone seems to hang out with their books, computers, newspapers, snacks, and drinks. We’re not going to want to leave! My beverage of choice is a cold Westmalle Trappist double ale, without a doubt my favorite beer on earth. They’re cheap and dangerously available at the local market.

We’ve had one terrific meal (at a place called Divan, a Turkish place in the Jordaan) and a host of eh ones, though the organic bounty at the Saturday farmers’ market (more on this, plus some photos, in the next post, after Saturday) is everything a bay arean could hope for. I’ve been cooking regularly but focusing on things that don’t require lots of knifework; it’s amazing how attached I’ve become to comfortable, sharp knives!

Some sad chicken news, alas: all four became sashimi for a predator, most likely a fox, shortly after we left for Holland. Something dug a little tunnel and came up from underneath. We’re sad about it. All those gorgeous eggs will have to wait.

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The Coop!

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A whopping two days before leaving for Amsterdam, we finished the coop! “We” meaning 80 percent Delia, 20 percent Eric, with huge assists from Dave and Peter.

The chix seem really happy. I’m loving just chucking cooking scraps and watching them go nuts.

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And the view from above:

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Any other urban chicken farmers out there? I can’t wait for the eggs, which should start coming, to the tune of 4 or 5 per chicken per week (we have four chickens), sometime in July.

More updates from Europe, so stay tuned!

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Let's Kill the Recipe: Baked Eggs, Breakaway Style

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When I started writing this blog, I really didn’t want it to be about recipes. There are twenty jillion recipes on the net for every conceivable dish. What I really wanted to convey, instead, were ideas and techniques, so that the reader need  not fuss about quantities and ingredient lists. It’s much more valuable to think about an idea, and then, somehow — and this is the tricky part for many, but I prefer to think that everyone reading this is perfectly capable of pulling it off — to make those ideas and techniques your own. It’s much easier to remember notions as opposed to data.

With that in mind, consider the baked egg. The idea is to use a small vessel — preferably a small cast iron pot like that shown above, but you could use a ramekin or anything else that’s roughly four to six ounces in capacity — to bake a small quantity of chopped vegetables topped with a few eggs. I’ll often root around the fridge for some kind of liquid to “bind” the veggies together, typically a dollop of Greek yogurt plus some stone-ground mustard, or maybe a drizzle of leftover salad dressing, soft tofu, or, if nothing else, a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar.

Cheese may or may not be involved. Same with meat.

You then stick it in a preheated oven (375 F) for 15 or 20 minutes (check it often after 15), until the yolks are barely set.

In today’s version, it was shallots, carrots, and kale, all diced finely, that went into the bottom of the pots. I had an extra egg white sitting around, so that got whisked with some mustard, pulverized shiitake powder (for umami) and mango chutney, which then got poured/spooned over the veggies. A few tablespoons of chopped ham (from our incredible Berkshire we got a few weeks ago) were arranged along the sides of the pots, forming a nice little chute to plop in three beautiful eggs (courtesy of Lucelle). A few shavings of Dubliner cheddar on top, along with freshly ground peppercorns and a pinch of matcha salt finished it off.

Three espressos later, I was ready to take on the world!

Give it a try — let’s see what kind of wild combinations we can come up with.

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Demystifying Knives — You Only Need Two!

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The other day I stressed the importance of developing really good knife skills. Now, by “really good” I don’t mean training for a career in food carving; I merely mean getting supercomfortable with the knives you have and use on a regular basis so that you can get meals on the table with just minutes of prep time.

For too many years, I kind of made do with crappy knives. I guess I believed that great cooking was within reach even if all you had was a butterknife. I still think that’s true for certain situations — you find yourself in a borrowed cabin, say, and you’re determined to make a good dinner — but, ever since I’ve used good knives, and kept them sharp, I’m sold on the pure beauty and joy that they can bring to everyday life.

Lots of  cooks have knife sets. Many of you know that I’m not much of a believer in sets of anything, and this most definitely includes knives. Ask a set owner how many of the several dozen knives are used regularly, and the inevitable answer seems to be “two.” I agree with them. I have a few more, mainly because I can’t bear to throw them out, but 95 percent of my prep involves just two knives.  Professional chefs obviously need more than two, but I’m guessing that an overwhelmingly large percentage of us home cooks can cook just about everything we’ve ever wanted to with just two.

Both of the knives shown above are Japanese, but it really doesn’t matter where they’re from. You should have a large (I like six inches) chef’s knife/santoku, and a small paring knife. That’s it. But both should be really good quality. You can probably expect to spend at least $100 on the big one, and $50 on the small one. But they’re the last knives you’ll ever need.

On Sharpening

So how to keep them really sharp?

Lots of people take their knives to a professional to be sharpened; plenty of farmers’ markets these days even have mobile sharpening dudes. I really can’t recommend that route, for the sole reason that the powerful grinders they use really take off a LOT of metal. Go to them often enough and you wind up with knives that look as if they’ve had 30 percent haircuts! Besides, who wants to pack up the knives, schlep them someplace, and pay for this destruction?

I think I’ve tried every method of knife sharpening, including purchasing ceramic knives that allegedly don’t need sharpening at all. In fact, they do, and Kyocera’s solution — to box them up every once in a while and send them to Kyocera for professional sharpening — borders on the absurd; they’re great while they’re sharp though.

The best solution I’ve found is a diamond-surfaced stone, shown above. It has two sides of diamond coating: one rough and one finer. Superdull knives need the rough side, but reasonably not-dull knives work well with the finer side. Three to four strokes on each side of the knife gets them razor sharp.

You’re not quite done yet though — now just glide it up and down a sharpening steel (which would more accurately be called a honing steel, since that’s what we’re doing here) to remove the tiny burrs created by the diamond, and you will have scary-sharp knives.

On Grip

Most cooks grasp the handle of a knife, but my friend Charles Haynes showed me a method that we both believe is superior, and that offers far greater control. Move your entire hand about an inch UP the handle, toward the blade, and grasp the handle where it meets the blade, with your thumb and forefinger, and gently squeeze it. Use your other three fingers to grip the handle, but keep relaxed about it. It’s a lot like “choking up” on a baseball bat. It may sound strange, and perhaps feel awkward at first, but I urge you to try it. You’ll soon see that it becomes like an extension of your hand; it will give you confidence and remove the fear of hurting yourself. Knife slips become far less common because control is radically increased.

It’s also important to use your knives tactilely, not visually. If you rely on the fingers of both hands to do the work, you can proceed literally blindly and not worry about hurting yourself, because when your fingers talk to one another, they don’t miscue.

This is how it’s done, assuming you’re right handed: hold whatever is you’re cutting–be it an onion, a carrot, piece of meat, or whatever—with your left hand by pointing your fingertips toward the middle of your palm. Imagine that you’re imitating a cat, claws drawn—that’s the shape you want for your left hand. Now, holding the knife as described above, tap the flat, broad side of the blade against the first knuckle below your fingertips, to let your left hand “know” where the knife is.  There is virtually no chance of slicing off a fingertip if you do this—it takes the fingertip out of the equation entirely. Feeling the broad side of the blade against your left knuckle, you can now slice and dice with impunity without even looking, since you’re now proceeding by touch (i.e., feeling the blade against your knuckle), not by sight. It never ceases to alarm and amaze my friends and cooking students who watch me do this, and who tend to rely on their eyes to not lop their fingertips off. This “claw” method, along with the “high grip” method of grasping the knife, can be learned in just a few minutes, and will provide a lifetime of vastly increased pleasure and safety in using really sharp knives.

The hands do a lot better when they operate on their own, without much bossing around from the eyes or, especially, the brain. Try focusing your awareness into your hands, and letting them figure out the best way to chop something.

On Slicing

Most people use a knife like a hammer—they bring the knife straight down on a piece of food, and rarely use a sawing motion. I find that the combination of sawing and hammering is the best; it lets the sharpness of the knife do most of the work. There is also a palpable pleasure in feeling, through the fingers of your right hand, the feeling of really sharp metal glide through something.

Your left hand is the guide. If you want really thin slices of something, you barely, almost imperceptibly, move it. If you want thicker slices, you’ll move it more.

One last, if obvious, point: don’t use your precious knives for ANYTHING other than preparing food. Don’t open packages, don’t use as a screwdriver, don’t cut Styrofoam, don’t cut thread.

Anyone have any tips I haven’t covered?

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Administrivia — Please Resubscribe! (plus: we got chicks!)

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Lordy, my tech wounds on this site have reached rather deep. Many of you have received emails from me, requesting that you resubscribe (via email or via rss). But for anyone reading this who hasn’t resubscribed, and who would like to, please do so! The links are to the upper right, just above my photo. I’d love to bring all the old Feedblitz people over to the new software, so come on, please.

Other breakaway news: we got four chix! They’re now quite a bit bigger than they look in this photo; they grow like little monsters. We somehow built a coop — pix of it soon. I am the original neanderthal carpenter, so it’s a total miracle it got built, but we got some crucial help from our superfriend and wonderneighbor, Dave Harp (that link includes of a photo Lucelle, the ubergardener, chicken sensei, and cook I’ve written about before; she’s married to Dave).

The middle two are aurecana chickens, the kind that lay the green/blue eggs, and two are vanilla brown crankers. We can’t wait! Look like the due date for the first batch is August. My egg habit is about to go out of control.

We leave for Holland next week. I’ll be chronicling the adventure here, so stay tuned! But I have a few posts queued up in the meantime, so stay tuned for those as well!

And welcome back to the fold, my little stray breakaway flock!

:^)

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A Quick Bowl of Umami

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Umami is my siren.

It’s pretty much constantly singing out to me, beckoning me with come-hither beams from god knows where. I manage to slip in elements of umami into almost every meal, but occasionally I have to just max it with an umami blast.

Today’s lunch break from painting — don’t even ask! — required such a blast. I had on hand, as I almost always have on hand:

  • dried and pulverized shiitake
  • dried and pulverized dried tomato
  • parm
  • onion

So far so good.  I also had:

  • ultrafresh smoked ham (from my recent pig)
  • a good hunk of butternut squash
  • a few sweet peppers
  • jalapeno
  • citron marmalade bubbling away on the stove

Cube up the squash and dice the onion and off to the races.

It’s times like these that knife skills come in really handy. Is there any skill more useful in a kitchen? Hundreds of hours of relentless practice, like hundreds of hours of anything, can make you really good at it. It’s really, really important to have one good knife that you love/cherish/take great care of. If you’re ever going to splurge on any one piece of kitchen equipment, let it be a good knife. Perhaps a short essay on how I deal with my knives might be of interest, so I will queue up a post on that anon.

Winter squash (i.e. my butternut) cooks quickly once it’s chopped up small, so I was able to finish the dish in about five minutes of high heat in a hot wok. For yet more umami goodness I sprinkled the dish with umami salt, and finished it off with fresh oregano and ham tossed with a spoon full of citron marmalade. With crackers and a glass of the house sauvignon blanc.

Fortified to paint some more!

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Deborah Madison's Delightful New Project

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The always-delightful Deborah Madison has been a HUGE influence on my cooking. I can’t recommend her books enough. So a big heads-up for Deborah fans: she just gave me a sneak preview of her new project, called “What We Eat When We Eat Alone.” Complete with out-there and cool illustrations by her husband, Patrick McFarlin (a rather stunning painter; check out some of his work here).

Wild stuff! I can’t wait to read it. I only wish I could have been videoed in one of these segments:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQEIrU_Fr-M

How about you? Let’s hear a few secrets about what you REALLY eat when you’re alone. Me: I go a bit feral — it usually involves multiple habaneros and eggs. And beer!

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