Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Making Cheese Even Better

I’m a sucker for a pretty picture. Especially if that picture is of food and in this particular case if that picture is of oil-dressed tomatoes piled high on top of slices of fried cheese. I have a few cookbooks that I adore that have absolutely no pictures of food, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking to name just one, but for the most part, beautiful pictures are what draw me in to a recipe, a book or an ingredient. It’s called food porn and it’s why, in addition to my obscene cookbook collection, I have subscriptions to every major food magazine.

Back to the tomatoes piled high on fried cheese. There isn’t much you can do to cheese to make it better than it already is, but frying it is certainly one way to try. Most cheeses can’t stand up to the heat, but one exception is Halloumi. Mentioned many times before on this blog, Halloumi is a Mediterranean cheese that has a very high melting point – in other words, you can pan fry it and it will keep its shape, but even more importantly something magical happens. The saltiness of the cheese is set off by the warm, melting creaminess and if you’ve left the Halloumi in the pan long enough, at a high enough heat, the crunchy crust that forms on the surface of the cheese finishes everything off with a seriously good contrast of textures. It’s cheese heaven so whenever I see a recipe that calls for it, I take note.

My latest ‘the pictures are just too pretty to pass up’ purchase is The Family Chef by Jewels and Jill Elmore. In a feeble attempt to stunt the growth of my cookbook collection, I stopped myself from buying this book the first time I saw it back in June, but after reading more about the sisters in this month’s Sunset Magazine, I knew I had to go back for a second look. I realized my first instinct was right and quickly purchased the book. It has been my bedside reading for the past week and their Halloumi Cheese with Cucumber Lentil Salad is the first recipe I made from it.

An added bonus with this recipe is that I discovered the boyfriend likes lentils! I didn’t think it was possible that such a healthy powerhouse could be on his list of, ‘please make me more of this right now,’ foods, especially after our phone conversation the day before I made the dish. He called me while I was browsing the aisles of Whole Foods and when told I was getting lentils, he responded with, “Why on earth would you be doing that? Lentils are gross.” Not encouraging, but he rarely knows what’s good for him so I picked them up anyway, made this salad and he couldn’t get enough. He even picked a lentil dish out of another cookbook for me to make the next night. I think I’m on to something here. Maybe you can be too.

Halloumi Cheese with Cucumber Lentil Salad
Adapted from The Family Chef (to make a smaller portion)

1/2 cup beluga lentils cooked according to package directions
1 medium cucumber, peeled in strips, halved lengthwise and sliced into half circles
2 ripe tomatoes (preferably one yellow and one red), cut into chunks
3 T extra-virgin olive oil + more for frying cheese
2 T chopped parsley
2 T chopped mint
2 T lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 package of Halloumi cheese, cut into 8 slices

Place the first seven ingredients in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and mix together. Heat a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add some olive oil (about a tablespoon or two). Add the Halloumi slices and cook each side until golden brown, 2 – 3 minutes per side. Place the Halloumi slices on a platter and top with the tomato and cucumber mixture. Serve immediately while the cheese is still warm.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pickles at Happy Medium

I don’t think there is any arguing with the fact that we live in an instant gratification oriented society. I certainly know it’s true in my life of internet shopping and instant music downloads to my iPhone, but there is one area where I try my hardest to leave that fast-paced lifestyle behind – the kitchen.

I am a card carrying member of Slow Food USA and, as mentioned before on this blog, would probably be quite happy spending my days curing prosciutto in my basement and experimenting with cheese cultures for the different blues and triple creams ripening in my fridge, but the truth is I just don’t have that kind of time. The majority of us have to work for a living so those projects must wait for the occasional, lazy weekend day. Making food and food products from scratch at home is no longer a necessity to be able to eat, but a luxury for those who have the time.

Since I don’t have time to be my own cheese maker, farmer or butcher, I have done my best to find a happy medium. I do grow some of my own vegetables and what I don’t have time to do myself, I try to purchase from the artisans who are taking the time and care to do it right (farmers markets, small batch cheese producers, etc.). This doesn’t mean I’m never at Ralphs buying blueberries shipped in from Argentina. It just means I make an effort not to be there, but when I am, I don’t feel guilty and neither should you.

My favorite happy medium of the summer is refrigerator pickles. They’re quick and easy for the home cook who wants a pickled vegetable by next weekend, but doesn’t have the time or desire to make sure that there are pickles put up for the whole winter. It was quite satisfying and easy with pickled radishes from my own garden and even easier with my recent batch of pickled cucumbers, made from cucumbers purchased at the farmer’s market.

After I picked up two pounds of bright emerald green pickling cucumbers, I went looking for a good way to use them. Most of the recipes I found were intended for huge batches of pickles that were headed for a canning bath and wouldn’t be ready to consume for at least a month. I wanted pickles and I wanted them a lot sooner than in a month. I also wanted to be able to spend the evening with my boyfriend and not gently lowering and lifting canning jars in and out of a pot of boiling water. Instead, I mixed up a basic brine, cut the ends off my pickling cucumbers to allow the brine to quickly penetrate the cucumbers, poured the vinegary liquid over the cucumbers and let them sit, first on the counter and then in the refrigerator. Five days later I had wonderful crispy perfect pickles. Five days may not seem like instant gratification in your book, but compared to a month or two for the canned variety, I was happy. So were the rest of the pickle eaters at my BBQ the next Friday night. We all sat around a bonfire, happily crunching on some of the best pickles any of us had ever had and these are the folks who taste more of my food than anyone else. I can tell when they’re lying, and they were not.


Happy Medium Pickles

2 pounds pickling cucumbers
1 cup white wine vinegar
3 – 4 cups water
1/4 cup salt
4 garlic cloves
1/2 bunch of fresh dill
1 T mustard seed
1 1/2 T coriander seed
1 quart sized jar (or larger)

Rinse the cucumbers, dry thoroughly and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours. If you've been keeping your cucumbers in the fridge, you can skip the drying and chilling steps. Heat the vinegar and three cups of water in a small saucepan and stir in the salt until dissolved. Set the vinegar mixture aside to cool just slightly. Place a few dill sprigs at the bottom of the jar along with the garlic cloves and half the mustard and coriander seeds. Cut the stem and blossom ends off the cucumbers (an eight of an inch is all you need to remove) and place them in the jar. Pour the vinegar mixture over the cucumbers, adding more water as needed to cover. Place a few more sprigs of dill and the remaining coriander and mustard seeds over the cucumbers. If the cucumbers are not fully submerged, add more dill to force the cucumbers fully under water. Leave the jar on the counter for two days and then place in the refrigerator for two to three days more. Enjoy the pickles within a week of opening the container.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mayonnaise - How to Cheat

One thing I have noticed over the years is that mayonnaise is an oddly divisive substance. Many hate it with a passion, refusing to let it so much as touch a piece of sandwich bread, while others love it, slathering it on artichokes, mixing in herbs and calling it a sauce, even topping the occasional plate of scrambled eggs with a dollop just because they can. I am a card-carrying member of the latter group. It may be because both my parents are from the South where mayonnaise is more of a staple ingredient than just a condiment. Not a day went by at 3752 Chevy Chase Drive that we didn’t have a huge jar of Best Food’s (Hellman’s for you East Coasters) in the fridge, with another one on standby in the cupboard.

My appreciation of mayonnaise seemed perfectly normal amongst my own kind. In fact, I didn’t realize there was anything wrong with my level of mayonnaise consumption until my sophomore year of college when my roommates looked on, horrified at my decision to fold up pieces of Kraft American singles and dip them into my oversized jar of mayonnaise as a snack. Clearly, my gourmet tendencies had yet to take hold.

For someone who loves mayonnaise as much as I do, I find it surprising that this past weekend was the first time I tried to make mayonnaise at home. I guess it’s due to my devotion to Best Food’s. I never saw the need. I am here to tell you that I have been reformed. I still love my Best Food’s, but there is something completely different and luxurious about homemade mayonnaise. I am also here to tell you about a few mistakes I made with the first two attempts that never emulsified. Making mayonnaise is not as simple as it seems.

If you’re not in the Los Angeles area, then you don’t know that it topped 100 degrees this past weekend and not just in the Valley. It was a hot one and without the benefit of any air conditioning, the idea of vigorously whisking egg yolk while slooooowly adding oil, drop by drop at first, seemed like too much physical exertion for such a hot day. I decided to take a lovely looking recipe from Michael Rulhman and make it in my blender. After all, the blender will certainly whisk vigorously while I have my hands free to add the oil drop by drop. Right? Not so. It turns out, according to The Joy of Cooking, that you need to have egg white included in the recipe if you’re trying to make a blender mayonnaise. Clearly J o C must know what they’re talking about so I transitioned to their recipe which called for using a bit of egg white in addition to the yolk and a Cuisinart instead of a blender. I fitted my Cuisinart with the plastic blade as directed and attempted batch number two. Still no emulsification. Perhaps I added the oil too quickly? Possibly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the plastic blade did not create enough agitation to get the mixture to emulsify.

Already having dirtied two of my major kitchen appliances, I eyed the third. Epiphany. If I used the whisk attachment on my KitchenAid mixer, then who, other than the all-seeing kitchen Gods, would ever know that it was, in fact, a mixing machine and not my own arm that was attached to that whisk? I reverted back to Ruhlman’s recipe and in about five or 10 minutes had a wonderful mountain of homemade mayonnaise sitting in front of me. Success. Who says cheating never gets you anywhere? Truth be told, the energy exerted while washing all of those appliances is at least equal to, if not more than what it would have taken me to whisk the darn thing by hand in the first place.

My final tip on homemade mayonnaise? Once you have succeeded in getting the mixture to emulsify, for God’s sake, don’t ruin it by throwing it in a blender to add fresh herbs. I lost two thirds of my beautiful mayonnaise by trying to turn it into basil mayonnaise in the blender. I managed to break the emulsification and ended up with a runny purple mess in front of me (purple basil). Thank goodness I had set some aside that I was able to combine with hand-chopped basil.

I served this basil mayonnaise next to a gorgeous skirt steak that the boyfriend grilled, but it would be equally delicious on just about any kind of sandwich.

Adapted from Michael Ruhlman

1 egg yolk
1/2 t salt
1 t lemon juice
1 t water
1 cup vegetable oil

Place egg yolk, salt, lemon juice and water in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whisk on medium to combine. Pour vegetable oil into a glass measuring cup, preferably with a pouring spout. Turn mixer up to medium high and use a spoon to add the oil to the mixer, drop by drop, until about a third of the oil is mixed in. You should see the emulsification coming together as a thick, white, creamy sauce. Each time you add oil you will see the emulsification loosen, then come together around the whisk and then start sticking to the sides of the bowl again. When the mixture sticks to the bowl, you know it’s safe to add more oil. I used the spoon method for the entire cup of oil, mainly because I had already broken two emulsifications that afternoon. If you are brave, feel free to start adding the oil in a slow drizzle after the first third is successfully incorporated. Once all the oil is incorporated, you should be left with glorious, luxurious mayonnaise. Use as you will.