Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the Cutting of Lettuce (and a new Caesar salad)

Opinions abound on the cutting of lettuce, both in the prep kitchen and at the dining table.  It's one of those things that people are completely sure about and often wrong. For prep, it's generally acknowledged that tearing, as apposed to cutting, lettuce is less damaging to the structure of leaf. The nerds investigators at Cooks Illustrated tested the phenomena and more or less proved what I always heard growing up: that sliced lettuce will brown on the edges (but not for several days after slicing).

Even so, my standard operating procedure when making Caesar salad is to use a serrated knife to slice Romaine hearts. I don't use one of those "lettuce" knives either - just my favorite Henkels Utility knife. We go thru lettuce quickly so browning isn't an issue. In fact, when I make Caesar I routinely use all the Romaine hearts in the bag, so there's none leftover to go brown anyway.

Then there's the issue concerning the etiquette of cutting salad with a knife at the dining table. The new Emily Post assures readers that it is, in fact, ok to cut your lettuce at the dining table. Apparently, the no-no originated along with carbon-steel knife blades that would become discolored and corrode from the acid in salad dressing. With the routine use of stainless steel and silver, knives are safe from corrosion and diners are cleared for cutting up lettuce. This clearance is acknowledged in such few circles that I can hardly advocate it. I don't want to be blamed when your bossy aunt pulls you aside for a primer on table etiquette when she catches you cutting your salad.
Cutting salad is usually avoidable, anyway. Except in the case of the new Caesar I've been making since this summer. I've been making Kristine's Caesar dressing since she taught it to me ten years ago. This summer I came across a recipe in The Art of Simple Food and decided to shake things up. This new recipe - nearly identical to the original - is a lot like what Mary used to make at Cafe Nola. I've been drizzling it onto long, thin, delicate Romaine hearts, along with croutons and ribbons of Parmesan. Those long, thin Romaine hearts are beautiful on the plate. And they can basically be cut with the side of your fork since the spines are so crunchy. But I'm spreading the word about the acceptability of taking a knife to lettuce at the dining table.

Here's that recipe:

Cafe Caesar for Romaine Hearts
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

2 cloves garlic
2-3 anchovy fillets
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, best quality
Fresh ground pepper

Peel the garlic and and pound in a mortar and pestle, mashing it up. Add the anchovy fillets and continue to mash into a paste.

Measure the lemon juice and vinegar into a small measuring cup. Add the garlic/anchovy mash and whisk with a fork to combine. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Stack individual Romaine leaves on large plates. Drizzle some dressing on top. Using a vegetable peeler, peel long ribbons of Parmesan or Grana Padano off a large block. Serve with croutons, if desired.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

On Death and Lobster

There's a spectrum of emotional response to the how-and-when circumstances of a person's death. At one end, there's sad-but-peaceful acceptance of what many would see as a favorable death - i.e. age 82, while sleeping. At the opposite end of the spectrum is sorrow-induced rage caused by what most would agree as an untimely or unfair death - i.e. age 24, choking on food/brain tumor/auto accident.

We also care about the planned death of the animals we eat (putrid, nasty slaughterhouse at one end, state-of-the-art, clean slaughterhouse at the other?). The Humane Slaughter Act, first signed in 1958 by Dwight Eisenhower, requires requires meatpackers to anesthetize or stun livestock prior to killing, except in the case of kosher slaughter. Animals are meant to be rendered insensible to pain prior to killing so that they won't suffer. Interestingly, the Act doesn't protect poultry, fish, or rabbits, a fact not lost on proponents of animal rights. It doesn't protect lobsters, either, an omission which fuels the debate on the best way to kill them.

People who cook lobster fall into one of two categories: stabbers or boilers. Professional cooks are mostly stabbers, but I think that might speak more to a predisposition for using knives than concern for animal welfare. Stabbers like to say that their way is more humane, taking the position that swiftly stabbing the lobster in the back of the head is faster and more painless than death by boiling water. Most home cooks self-report as boilers.* A rarely-acknowledged third category includes rubes who accidentally kill their lobsters before cooking them. No one I know advocates drowning lobsters as a means of killing them. But then again, up until this summer, I wouldn't have guessed it was possible to drown an animal that LIVES IN THE OCEAN.

Ever since he published the recipe in June 2012, I've been wanting to make Mark Bittman's Singapore Chili Lobster. Since co-council was required for an undertaking of this magnitude, I enlisted help from a friend. The sauce really is the heart of this dish, and the saucier's cooking skills and palate matter tremendously. I can't take any credit for the sauce - Ari took care of that on his own. What I can take credit for is the procurement of four live lobsters, being brave enough to handle them, and being gauche enough to drown them.

What happened is that after allowing the live lobsters some time to frolic on our patio (which they declined to do, either because they knew what was coming and weren't going to give us the satisfaction, or because they were scared of the dog), I thought they looked a little sad and dry. We consulted the internet which said we could make them a seawater bath, and since I had a container of sea salt and a beverage tub, I thought: Groovy! We can make a lobster pool! I made the pool and explained the situation to the lobsters as I set them into it. The lobsters seemed to be enjoying themselves - they become a lot more active in the water than they were on the patio. But after about five-ten minutes, there was no more splashing around. I picked one up to see how he was doing and he was totally limp.

Horrified, I called Dirk's. Now, my husband and I are in disagreement about how often Dirk gets this call. My bet is that he gets it several times a summer. I'm going to call him sometime and ask. Anyway, Dirk said lobsters drown in freshwater, and city water plus sea salt does not equal sea water. [The official answer sounded like this: Something something salty blood osmosis toxic drowning.] Dirk said all that happy moving around they were doing in the lobster pool was actually their death throes. Whoops. He also said to just boil them immediately and they'd be fine, and they were. Whew!

I still feel so badly about it mainly because, and I hate that I'm saying this, but the lobsters totally knew what was up. That's what I took the time to explain it to them, that the pool was going to be fun. They knew otherwise. Next time I cook lobsters, I'm going to have to stab them, or secure co-council who will.

* This raises the possibility of validity problems in my survey, as respondents may have lied or exaggerated about their behavior in order to appear more humane, or under-report the severity or frequency of lobster-killing behavior in order to minimize their problems. In short, the author acknowledges the possibility that respondents claiming to be boilers may actually be stabbers.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A New Lamb Curry

We had an unseasonably cool summer in Chicago. And so it was that I did a lot more indoor cooking than usual. That I ate more and exercised less is something I'll have to deal with soon enough. But I've got no complaints. The summer of 2013 was, in sum, pretty much awesome. I saw some great concerts, had some fabulous meals, got a VitaMix blender (!), killed my first lobsters (more on that soon), and developed some new favorite meals.

This Burmese Lamb Curry will be with us forever - it's that good. Its origins are with David Lebovitz - he published a recipe for beef curry this spring. The idea to make it was still in my head one day at the market when I saw some gorgeous lamb stew meat. The flavors translated well to the lamb and my recipe is barely different than the original beef version.

Fresh ginger is something I'm always grateful to have on hand. Having a well-stocked pantry is likely a relic of my years in the mountains. My children were small and we lived nearly 2,000 vertical feet, several hairpin turns, and about six miles from the town grocery store. I avoided popping into town just to pick up one or two things at the market. We had a co-op from which I purchased cases of juice, whole peeled tomatoes, sprouted grain pizza crusts (Hey! I miss those!), and assorted sundries. The Walmart (3,000 vertical feet and 65 miles from the Town of Telluride) supplied nearly everything else. And we had Rose's Market, aka Clark's, for anything you might require - plus really wonderful trout from Mark at the fish and meat counter - between trips to Montrose.

Back to ginger. It's versatile and keeps for, like, ever, in the bin in the fridge. I like to buy cactus-shaped pieces, breaking off a nub as needed and just tossing the rest back in the bin. I don't even wrap it - I think it's happier left as is. I use ginger in pad thai, curries, salad dressings, kung pao, marinades, Asian lettuce wraps, and gyoza. It's an easy ingredient to add to your cooking routine - especially if you're in a bit of a rut and need to add some new flavors to your cooking.

You can source lamb stew meat at any butcher (essentially cubed boneless leg of lamb which is super lean), or substitute beef stew like the Lebovitz recipe stipulates. Here's my recipe:

Burmese Lamb Curry
Print recipe only here

Serves 2

1 pound stewing meat (beef or lamb), cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 T garlic, finely chopped or pressed
2 T canola oil
2 1/2 cups water
1 T fish sauce
2 T fried shallots (see below)
8 small shallots, peeled and left whole
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

Mix the beef pieces in a bowl with the salt and turmeric, massaging the salt into the meat. Chill for an hour.

Mash the ginger and garlic together in a mortar and pestle, if you have one, otherwise just chop up as finely as you can. Heat the oil in a large open saute pan or wok over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger and saute for a few minutes, stirring, until soft and fragrant.

Turn the heat up to high and add the lamb or beef and cook, stirring occasionally until browned. Add the whole shallots, water, and fish sauce. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. If the water evaporates during the cooking, just add a bit more.

Stir in the fried shallots and chili powder. Cook another 10 minutes or so. Taste for seasoning and serve.

* To make deep-fried shallots, heat some oil and add a generous handful of finely sliced (peeled) shallots – about 1/2 cup, cooking them in a few inches of hot oil until deep golden-brown, then scoop them out and let them cool on a rack or paper towel until crisp. They can be stored in a jar for a few days if you want to do them in advance.

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