December 31, 2013
Circular Reasoning

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Poaching eggs, roasting chicken, making an omelette: touchstone skills of culinary competence. Restaurant chefs have turned the latter two tasks into shibboleths of their clan. Talk to enough home cooks, however, and it becomes clear that it’s the pursuit of the perfectly poached egg that the amateur ranks find most frustrating.

Spend any time chasing this white whale and you’ll quickly learn the canon of sworn-by tricks: the vinegar, the vortex, the freshness, the separation, the simmer. I’ve tried them all, in every permutation possible, and while I’m certainly not going to call them apocrypha they’ve never produced anything that I’d consider a picture-perfect result. Endless frustration and disappointment. Particularly saddening as salad Lyonnaise is one of my favorite things in the world.

For all my efforts I never quite got to the point of admitting defeat but I did start to look at poached eggs the same way Anthony Michael Hall once tried to make peace with his lamp-building skills. Then something happened. I started seeing these really gorgeous, magazine-ready poached eggs in my friend Emily’s Instagram feed. I jumped at the chance for new and pure inside baseball — and by pure I mean that there was no way Emily would “cheat” with one of those silicone poaching cups or a bootleg plastic-wrap bouquet or any other performance enhancing technique. As soon as I presented the question she was happy to share her secret (which she certainly wouldn’t characterize as such) and I’m embarrassed to admit (sorry Em) that I was incredulous at first; so incredulous that even after asking her about it another three or four times — and getting the same, consistently simple answer every time — I waited months before even trying it out. When I finally did, the results were flawless, and repeatedly and consistently reproducible.

The reveal: Emily always poaches her eggs in a small pan. A small, thin-walled aluminum pan that’s just a few inches deep. She does the vinegar and the vortex as well, but I’ve been down those roads plenty of times. The pan size, it turns out, is one hell of a twist. For everything I’ve ever read about poaching eggs, I never saw (or noticed) anyone saying anything about the cooking vessel or the size thereof. And I’d always erred on the side of using something larger or deeper, because of everything I’ve always drilled into my head about maintaining a steady water temperature and because I figured a deeper pool of water would mean less chance of bottom-contact ruining the setting of the egg white. Irrespective of whether those were sensible thoughts, as soon as I switched over to a small pan like the one Emily described — while also deploying the canon of tricks described above — I started producing perfect poached eggs on every attempt, including the one pictured above.

I’ve had a favorite little sauce pan in my cookware collection since my mother handed it off to me while I was in college, about 15 years ago (moka pot and Le Creuset 26 shown for scale):

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There’s nothing really fancy about it; it’s a 1-quart Calphalon 5001 — there’s at least three of them on eBay right now for about $25 each. But I’ve always been fond of it. Now it’s taken on heightened importance in my kitchen.

As stated earlier, I still employ all of the other canonical tricks in order to make poached eggs that look like the one above. The “separation” trick is a newer one but it’s a very, very good one; you can use a strainer like Kenji Lopez-Alt suggests, you can buy the specialized spoon that Michael Ruhlman swears by; you might consider my approach, which started as a finesse ( it was the the only thing within reach that was both clean and holey) but which quickly revealed itself to have its own special virtue: a perforated fish scaler.

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The special (but by no means entirely unique) virtue of the fish scaler relates to one final trick I’ve been putting to use, one that comes from my friend Lukas, who I met through Emily and who is himself a master of the poaching arts. With respect to the whirlpool, I’ve always slipped the egg in at an angle, from the whirlpool’s edge, as if it were easing into hot tub or jacuzzi. Lukas tipped that he always deposits the egg right into the center of the whirlpool, a direct hit, so to speak. I’ve followed this instruction with success and I’ve found that the shape of the fish scaler provides a perfect conduit —a perfect luge, so to speak — to launch the egg right where it should go.

I revived this blog at the outset of 2013 with a couple of posts last New Year’s Day. I’m thrilled to finish off the year with one more post, especially one concerning something as contextually symbolic as the egg. Happiest poaching to all of you in 2014.

October 25, 2013
Maine Shrimp, Escolar, Sea Urchin

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A recent trip to Esca and an order of their maccheroni alla chitarra — ”guitar-cut” spaghetti with crab in sea urchin sauce — got me thinking about the dish pictured above, something I put together back in February when I was experimenting with my own sea urchin sauce and when both Maine shrimp and escolar were for sale at Wild Edibles in Grand Central Station.

The dish is a Maine shrimp and escolar crudo, dotted with minced pea shoots and seasoned with yuzu juice, resting in sea urchin sauce and garnished with a fried shiso leaf, fried enoki mushrooms, a togarashi-dusted fried Maine shrimp and a half-teaspoon of red tobiko.

Maine shrimp are a highly seasonal delicacy available for only a few weeks each winter. They’re prized for their sweetness — an adjective I generally abhor for its laziness when used to describe seafood but an adjective which is, in this case, legitimately meaningful. 

Escolar is a wonderful fish that’s misunderstood and unfairly maligned in popular discussion; this is something I intend to discuss at length in a future piece of writing. Suffice to say for the moment that people who propagate hysteria about escolar’s gastrointestinal effects are people who simply haven’t done their homework. Escolar is safe, escolar is sustainability-positive, and escolar is absolutely delicious — so delicious that it’s regularly featured at many of New York’s most celebrated restaurants, including, perhaps most notably, Le Bernardin.

Because Maine shrimp and escolar both reveal their greatest charm when served raw, and because there is some wisdom in using escolar in modest amounts, a mixed crudo seemed like a great way to put these ingredients to use, especially given their complementary taste profiles — escolar’s flavor is as “non-fishy” as Maine shrimp’s, but its high fat content provides a spectacular textural butteriness that Maine shrimp lacks on its own.

As for the sauce, my initial motive hadn’t been to work with sea urchin; I had simply been trying to develop a healthy, non-clear sauce that achieved great depth of flavor without relying on classic umami-imparting ingredients or undesirable animal fats. Sea urchin, contrary to what many people might expect (given its luxuriousness) is a very healthy ingredient: It’s relatively low calorie, proportionally very high in protein, and studies indicate that it has a positive impact on cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Esca’s sea urchin sauce is delicious and in many ways the standard against which all others should be measured, but it calls for quite a lot of butter, which is the sort of thing I was looking to avoid as a baseline issue. After some trial and experimentation my final product didn’t avoid dairy altogether but it turned out a great success: I ended up using zero fat yogurt in place of any butter or cream; I stick-blended a rack of raw sea urchin from Dainobu together with Siggi’s skyr (Icelandic yogurt), yuzu juice, and a stock made from Maine shrimp shells. For purposes of this particular dish I used the stock to lower the sauce’s viscosity and to enhance its flavor; the sauce could easily be prepared without the stock, and/or with an alternate liquid, to use in other dishes as imagined and desired.

I loved this dish: I loved eating it, I loved looking at it, and I felt fantastic about it nutritionally. While this particular rendition is necessarily seasonal because of the Maine shrimp, there’s no reason it can’t be tweaked a bit to be enjoyed year-round using other types of wild shrimp, provided that you can get a hold of quality escolar (which is regularly available at The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market, if you can’t find it at Wild Edibles) and quality sea urchin. As for a wine pairing, I believe — having consulted one of my culinary bibles, Dornenburg and Page’s What to Drink with What You Eat — that this dish would match very well with a white Burgundy or an Alsatian Riesling.

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February 1, 2013
The Common Good.

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For the better part of 2012 I was dating someone who felt strongly that grilled cheese sandwiches represented the outer boundary of her culinary prowess. I always suspected that this was more humility than truth  she has, among other things, been a guest lecturer at the James Beard House (albeit not as a chef)  but I tried not to press the issue. Instead I did most of the cooking when there was cooking to be done, and we tried to find culinary common ground where we could. One of the greatest hits  easily the greatest hit  of that choreography came last February when we conducted a purportedly scientific but plainly just-plain-fun Sunday night grilled cheese taste test extravaganza.

Purportedly scientific meant $85 worth of cheese from Murray’s, four different loaves from Amy’s Bread, some high quality butter, and deft eyeballing (hers, not mine) of the perfect cheese-to-bread-to-butter ratio. 

The staff at Murray’s, aside from being wickedly funny, have the greatest attitude and deepest knowledge of any food-related business I know of in New York. When my number came up at the counter it only took a half sentence of explanation before the cheesemonger’s eyes lit up in shared enthusiasm about the project; after 10 or 15 minutes of tasting and talking, we circled in on a half dozen selections. The six finalists were the following:

Cabot Creamery Clothbound Cheddar  - (Murray’s) (The Strong Buzz)

Consider Bardwell Farm Pawlet (Murray’s) (Wedge in the Round)

Idiazabal - (Murray’s) (Wikipedia)

Scharfe Maxx - (Murray’s) (SFGate)

Spring Book Farm Reading - (Murray’s) (SFGate)

Quadrello di Bufula - (Murray’s) (SFGate)

All were delicious, melted well and produced an excellent result. We had to declare a winner, of course, and the winner was the Quadrello. If you’re a Tallegio fan you’ll be especially satisfied with this cheese. And if you’re not, you’ll have an excuse to conduct an experiment of your own. I’d love to hear how it goes.

January 25, 2013
Shake every tree.

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Of all of the pieces of red meat I’ve eaten in my life two stand out above all others. One is the Elysian Fields lamb I had at Per Se in June of 2007. The other is the corned beef  pictured above  that I bought at a roadside food truck in Austin, Texas in October of 2010.

The food truck — Odd Duck Farm to Trailer — didn’t call it corned beef. They called it brisket, which is fair in that corned beef is made from brisket, and reasonable in that this was in Texas. Nonetheless I probably wasn’t the first person to order Odd Duck’s brisket with the expectation of sitting down to some barbecue. Whatever the case, I’m glad that those expectations weren’t met.

Saying that Odd Duck’s brisket — which was cured (i.e., “corned”) and then cooked sous-vide — was better corned beef than any I’ve had in New York would invite accusations of heresy and poor judgment. In a way it would also be like comparing apples and… quince, because the style of Odd Duck’s product — thickly sliced and succulent — was more evocative of British salt beef (itself a specific style of corned beef) than what you would find at Katz’s or Carnegie Deli. Nonetheless, facts are facts: Odd Duck served up something in a class above any corned beef I’ve ever had in any New York deli or in either of my favorite purveyors of salt beef in London, the famous bagel shops of Brick Lane.

There’s a lesson in this. While I don’t really participate in new year’s resolutions in the traditional sense, I do consider January to be a good time to meditate on guidelines for living well. One about which I’m feeling particularly aspirational was neatly expressed in September by an interesting guy I met at the Ideas in Food guest dinner at Aldea last July:

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Everyone says  it’s an easy thing to say  that you’d be a fool to order the fish at Peter Luger. Sure. Maybe. I enjoyed one of the best cocktails I’ve had in my life at a sidestreet cafe in Prague in October of 2001. Prague, where the one thing that every knows is that you drink every beer in sight, and that the beer in sight is the only thing you drink. Of course the beer in Prague is great. But the thing about that cocktail was that the bartender was invested in it: this was a man bored of pouring beer after beer after beer and thrilled to have a chance to show what else he could do. His focus was palpable and his effort effective.

I admit, with a healthy measure of shame, that if Odd Duck (which is now closed  chef Bryce Gilmore left in December 2010 to open a flourishing and highly-acclaimed full-service restaurant called Barley Swine) had advertised the dish as corned beef I would have never thought about ordering it. If I had thought about it at all, I probably would have laughed at it and fired off a few wiseass texts about it. The joke would have been on me. But the embarrassment of being the punchline isn’t the point here. The point is to recognize that good living is about constantly extending your reach and thinking about your expectations rather than just having them.

Jose’s tweet  which I later learned was inspired by the video-game playing of his youth  is great guidance at the outset of a new year. Shake every tree, speak to every villager. Just like in those old video games, you might discover something extraordinary when you take a closer look at things, even a little odd duck sitting off the side of an unfamiliar road.

January 1, 2013
Everything a work in progress.

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Of everything I cooked in 2012, the dish pictured above - sea scallops, maitake mushrooms, salmon roe and broccoli - was my favorite, and it was my favorite for various reasons, the most substantial of which was the fact that it was an improvised weeknight creation that took less than ten minutes to get from the fridge to the dining table. It was also delicious and nice to look at.

Although the dish was improvised, maitake and roe was not my own idea; it was sitting in the back of my head thanks to a dish I had at Marea this past summer - halibut with hen of the woods and trout roe:

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For my first dinner of 2013 I ended up making scallops with mushrooms and roe and greens again, with adjustments. It came out beautifully and was nearly as ad hoc as the 2012 edition - around 8pm I took stock of what was in the fridge and tried my best to harmonize. Here the roe is yuzu tobiko (as opposed to ikura, above) and the mushrooms are Alba Clamshells from D’Artagnan (rather than maitake, above):

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It was a very satisfying way to open my home cooking in 2013. I feel like this is going to be a year of refinement for me, and this was a beautiful way to get started.

January 1, 2013
Happy 2013.

City Grit sent us all home from their New Year’s Eve dinner with some Hoppin’ John for the morning after. A thoughtful touch, and motivating. Happy new year! The blog is back.

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June 3, 2010
A Drink for Early Summer.

1. The Pimm’s Iced Tea is not a Pimm’s cup.
2. The Pimm’s Iced Tea may be my favorite summertime cocktail.

Developed by chef Johnny McDonald during his time at Philadelphia’s Snackbar, the Pimm’s Iced Tea was mercifully born three years ago, which means you don’t need a degree in botany to make the drink at home. When I asked him for the recipe in July 2007, Johnny was happy to share:

in a shaker with large ice cubes pour a 2 count gin, 4 count pimm’s, one half a lemon-juiced. shake and strain over diced cucumber in a martini glass or a rocks glass (chef’s preference!). top with ginger ale.

To mix one up at home I use one ounce of Hendrick’s, two ounces of Pimm’s, half a lemon squeezed to a measured ounce, and two ounces of ginger ale.

Do not be lazy: dice the cucumber. Do not be impatient: wait a minute after pouring until the cucumber dice have risen to the top of the glass.

May 31, 2010
Speaking of Lists…

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Sam Sifton’s list of memorable dishes got me thinking about some other greatest hits of 2009. The most memorable things I ate last year, in no particular order, were:

Photo of frozen rhubarb + mozarella pudding by Shola Olunloyo.

May 31, 2010
Best Sandwich(es) in New York

New York Magazine just released their list of the 101 best sandwiches in New York. It’s a little predictable (see Defonte’s, Porchetta and Num Pang; see also Barney Greengrass, 2nd Ave. Deli and Katz’s) but too thorough to be completely obvious. It’s not without surprises: plenty of people will question why Shopsin’s didn’t make the cut, but perhaps that cleared room for one of my all-time favorites, the perennially underloved marinated anchovy sandwich at 'wichcraft.

New York Magazine and Sisha Ortuzar, the sandwich’s creator, both note that it’s not one of ‘wichcraft’s most popular offerings, even if it’s possibly their best. (Robert Sietsema is a fan as well. Is this thing the Betamax of fish sandwiches?) Its lack of popularity might explain why, as devoted as I am to it, I’ve always found it somewhat inconsistent - sometimes it’s assembled thoughtfully, sometimes a little less so. Perhaps they don’t move enough of them to perfect their routine. When they get it right, it’s remarkable. Do yourself a favor next Saturday: pick one up for lunch at 8th and Broadway, then step across the street and lose yourself inside the Panhandler.

May 31, 2010
Memorial Day.

Memorial Day weekend is built around the burger, but I hit my quota Saturday night at Corner Bistro (medium rare bistro burger; satisfying but underseasoned). I might have to close the holiday out on Monday by making some classically American chicken wings. Or rather, almost classically: the boneless beauties above are the real way to go. I made the wings in the picture a couple of years back based on ideas I got from Shola Olunloyo. If I make them on Monday, I’m basing the sauce on Scotch Hands Butter Co.’s habanero butter. I generally balk at the idea of paying money for other people’s compound butter, but that stuff is amazing.

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