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Perfecting pizza, one ball of dough at a time

Melissa Surber delivers chicken marengo pizza at Bertucci's in Medford
Rosario Del Nero bites into a slice of pizza and savors it for a moment. “It’s not Neapolitan, it’s not Roman,” he says. “It’s rustic, provincial Italian pizza. It’s not as wet as Neapolitan, which is what most people have, or as thick as Roman.”

He is not even considering the toppings. Del Nero focuses on the dough that cooks up into the crust. It must be just so. “Flour, water, yeast—it’s simple,” he says. “But the secret ingredient is time. You cannot rush the yeast.”

He pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil and draws a graph. “X is quality,” he explains. “Y is time.” He draws a curve that peaks at about 40 hours. “Anywhere between 36 and 48 hours of slow rising in the cooler, the dough makes perfect pizza.”

Rosario del Nero enjoys a slice of Bertucci's pizzaA native of the Valtellina valley in Lombardy, Del Nero was the original chef of Bertucci’s when the chain began expanding beyond the original pizzeria with bocce court in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. After more than a decade away from the group, he returned to Bertucci’s last August as executive chef and culinary vice president. Ever since, he has been infusing the 85-restaurant group with his passion and his discipline to make a superb and consistent product. He invited us to the Medford, Massachusetts, location for a lesson in his philosophy and practice of pizza.

The wrong way


Del Nero certainly turned around our perceptions of pizza crust. Given that we use a home gas oven that works hard to reach 550°F, we thought we had experimented sufficiently to make a pretty good home crust. It used 210 grams of mixed white and whole wheat flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of instant dry yeast, and 150 grams of ice water. We would whirl it up in a food processor and let it sit at least 10 minutes before adding three-quarters teaspoon of sea salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. We’d whirl it up again, then let it rise in an oiled quart container all day, pressing it down when it threatened to spill out.

Listening to Del Nero, we quickly learned that we were doing a few things right and a couple of critical things wrong. Using very little yeast was a plus, but oiling the dough was a no-no.

“You have plants at home? Trying oiling their leaves and see how fast they die,” he said. “Dough is the same way. It has to breathe.”

The right way


Rosario Del Nero inspects pizza dough at Bertucci's Our biggest mistake was rushing the dough. “It has to rise very slowly so it forms tiny air bubbles. The flavor won’t be as good if the dough is rushed,” he said. “You don’t want to punch it down. That’s fine for bread, but you want pizza to be soft and pliable. Punching it makes it tough.”

We felt as if we’d been beating our kids. At home the next Friday, we made dough and let it rise in the vegetable crisper drawer of our refrigerator until after lunch on Sunday. We left it covered on the counter—because “the dough hates air,” as Del Nero told us. It warmed to room temperature in time for us to shape it into pizza for dinner.

The resulting pizza was a revelation. The same recipe was easier to shape and cooked up with a crisp but not crunchy texture. It also tasted much better.

So we went back the next week for more instruction.

06

02 2017

Kitchen garden at Chatham Bars Inn is really a farm

Chatham Bars Inn Farm picnic tables
Chatham Bars Inn stays Cape Cod’s gastronomic top dog because it grows its own food in Brewster on the north side of the Cape. The entire operation covers eight acres. Crops grow on four acres, with about a third of the crops in massive hothouses.

lettuce grows at Chatham Bars Inn Farm “It’s tricky to grow on Cape Cod,” says farm manager Josh Schiff. “The weather is unpredictable and the soil is poor.” As a result, the farm grows some of its most temperature-sensitive crops inside greenhouses, including a forest of tomatoes that fruit from May into December. “We start everything from seed,” Schiff explains.“We grow tomatoes and lettuce in compost with hydroponic irrigation.” More sprawling crops, such as cucumber, summer and winter squashes, and pumpkins spread across plowed fields. The farm supplies the kitchens of the inn. By getting a headstart on the usual Cape Cod growing season, the farm produces at its peak from late June through mid-October, the inn’s busiest months. The farm’s 75-member CSA program spreads the bounty around the community, and the farm runs summer gardening workshops for area residents.

salad niçoise at Chatham Bars Inn Farm picnic On a perfect late May afternoon, picnic tables set up beneath a canopy of oak trees made a regal setting for an outdoor meal served family style for Lexus Gran Fondo participants. Plate after plate showcased Cape Cod provender and the Inn’s culinary chops. A deconstructed salad niçoise featured locally caught yellowfin tuna with purple potatoes, white anchovies, haricots verts, and greenhouse tomatoes. Slices of roasted farm pork pâté sat amid pickled cauliflower and green tomatoes. A jar of the inn’s own beach plum preserves completed the board.

In fact, Chatham Bars Inn meals benefit from the myriad of pickles, relishes, and preserves made on the premises. Here’s the inn’s recipe for sweet-hot pickles for hot-water processing.

PICKLED GREEN TOMATOES AND CUCUMBERS

Yields seven 24 oz. mason jars

Ingredients

24pickles16 1/4 cups water
3 1/4 cups white vinegar
1 lb. honey
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/3 cup salt
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
farm fresh herbs to taste (tarragon, thyme, dill, etc.)
3 1/2 lb. pickling cucumbers
3 1/2 lb. green tomatoes

Directions

Clean and sterilize all jars and lids before beginning.

In a large pot, combine all ingredients through black pepper, bring to boil. Reduce heat to bring pot to a simmer, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

As spices steep and bloom, wash and slice cucumbers and tomatoes. Quarter the cucumbers lengthwise, and cut green tomatoes into eight wedges each. Pack the clean and sterilized jars with the vegetables and herbs of your choice.

Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables to fill the jars and cover with the lid to close, but not tightly.

Place jars on canning rack in a canning kettle with enough hot water to reach base of the rings. Hot-process jars by bringing to a boil and holding at simmer at least 15 minutes. Remove from hot water bath, tighten the lids, and cool jars on racks. You’ll know the pickles are properly sealed when the center of each lid snaps down.

Because the jars have been hot-processed they can be left out at room temperature for up to 6 months. Once opened, they should be refrigerated.

23

07 2016

Home cooking rules at Highway Inn

Highway Inn in Honolulu
Monica Toguchi has to smile when diners at Highway Inn take one bite of their beef stew, lomi salmon or kalua pork and cabbage and ask—only half in jest— “is my mom standing in the kitchen?”

Toguchi’s grandparents Seiichi and Nancy opened the first Highway Inn in 1947 and “we’ve tried to preserve their recipes,” she says. “My focus is on serving local people—from workers in the neighborhood to governors, congressmen, and presidents of banks. You leave your pretenses at the door.”

Highway Inn grilled banana bread No one, it seems can resist chef Mike Kealoha’s secret-recipe smoked meat or the lau lau of pork shoulder and salted butterfish placed on a bed of luau leaves and then wrapped tightly in ti leaves and steamed for two hours. “Hawaiian food is simple,” Toguchi says, “but the preparation can be long and tedious.”

Toguchi left a doctoral program in Oregon to return to the family business, which she took over in 2010. I applaud her commitment to helping maintain the island’s traditional food culture. It’s precisely that mix of good, local cooking and contemporary chefs with international chops that makes dining in Honolulu so fascinating, varied and delicious.

After starting with grilled banana bread (above right), I settled on a light lunch of chicken long rice soup—a local favorite that shows the influence of the Chinese who came to Oahu to work on the plantations. I could imagine every mother on the island serving this soothing soup of chicken and noodles in a heady ginger broth to a child who complained of the sniffles. I knew that it would be just the thing for a cold winter day back home in New England and Monica was kind enough to share the recipe.

Highway Inn has two Honolulu locations: 680 Ala Moana Boulevard #105, 808-954-4955, and inside the Bishop Museum of cultural and natural history at 1525 Bernice Street, 808-954-4951, www.myhighwayinn.com.

CHICKEN LONG RICE


Highway Inn chicken long rice soup Long rice can be found in most Chinese grocery sections of supermarkets or in Asian food stores. It is not really made from rice. It is mung bean thread and is sold in cellophane packages of tangled nests of noodles.

Serves 8-12

Ingredients

2 inch piece of ginger root
3 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 qt water
salt and pepper
3 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon shoyu (or strong soy sauce)
16 oz package long rice
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced

Directions

Peel and slice the ginger, then mash the slices in a mortar and pestle. Cut chicken thighs into bite-size pieces.

Add vegetable oil to large pot and fry ginger and chicken until chicken is lightly browned.

Add 2 quarts water and simmer for about one hour, or until chicken is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add chicken broth and shoyu and bring to a boil.

Soak long rice in hot water for 15 minutes. Drain and chop into 5-inch lengths. Add chopped long rice to chicken soup and cook another 10 minutes, or until long rice is tender. Stir in sliced green onions and serve.

23

03 2016

Irish whiskey tells the country’s tale

Boston Globe, March 15, 2015 - page M2 Judging by the job posting at Teeling’s Whiskey, the first new Dublin distillery in 125 years is finally getting ready to open its visitors center. The job? They’re looking for fluent English speakers with at least one other language to give tours. The center, located on Newmarket Square in the Liberties section of Dublin (that’s Dublin 8 for those who understand the city’s postal codes), will be open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Exactly when it first opens for business is still unannounced.

Meantime, Dublin hardly lacks for whiskey attractions, some of which we outlined today in a story in the Boston Globe travel section, “Even its whiskey tells an Irish tale”. The story includes the new Irish Whiskey Museum (inaugurated in January) at 119 Grafton Street (+353 1 525 0970, irishwhiskeymuseum.ie) as well as the Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street in Smithfield Village (+353 1 807 2355, www.jamesonwhiskey.com). Perhaps our favorite stop of all was the Palace Bar, an institution in its own right and one of the finest places to drink whiskey in all of Ireland. The Palace’s own whiskeys — a 7-year-old named The Fourth Estate to honor the journalist patrons, and a 14-year-old finished in sherry casks — are both made for the bar by Teeling. Here’s hoping they will be included in the tasting at the end of the tour.

15

03 2015

Dublin gastropub’s inspired sweet potato soup

Front room at the Exchequer Pub in Dublin Pubs have always had some kind of grub to sop up the suds, but pubs all over Ireland began to take the quality of their kitchens seriously about 10 years ago. The turn toward better food was a matter of survival. Pubs lost a slew of customers after March 29, 2004, when Ireland became the first country in the world to ban smoking in the workplace — including restaurants, bars, and pubs. Once a few pubs introduced quality food with strong Irish roots, it became clear that the gastropub concept was the way to win new customers.

Two years ago, the Restaurant Association of Ireland began giving out awards for best gastropubs, and in the two competitions since then, one of the top contenders in Dublin has been The Exchequer, located on the corner of Exchequer Street and Dame Court (3-5 Exchequer Street, +353 1 670 6787, www.theexchequer.ie). It’s a cozy warren of several rooms, including two bars that stay open late, a small dining room, and a lot of high-stool seating along shelves under the windows. (That’s the bar at the Exchequer Street entrance above.) If you’re particularly fortunate, you might even score one of the old-fashioned sofas or armchairs in the bars. The waitstaff couldn’t be warmer (we got a big hug on leaving after lunch), and the menus run the gamut from steamed cockles and mussels with spicy sausage to a simple sandwich with the soup of the day.

One cold and misty day the bowl on offer was “sweet potato chili soup.” It’s a great example of the gastropub approach to reinterpreting traditional dishes with a few smart tweaks. In this case, the soup was a fresh take on potage parmentier, the classic leek and potato soup. The cook used sweet potatoes instead of regular spuds and added just enough ground chile pepper to lift the taste. With a little experimentation, we figured out how to make a satisfying version at home. We eat it with a slice of Irish brown bread (see previous post).

SWEET POTATO CHILE SOUP

Sweet Potato Chili Soup at The Exchequer in Dublin Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
6 leeks (white part only), well cleaned and chopped
2 large Garnet sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
5 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon ground Espelette chile pepper (ancho or New Mexican will do)
salt to taste

Directions

1. Over low heat, melt butter in soup pot and add leeks. Cook, stirring, until soft but not brown.

2. Add sweet potatoes and chicken stock. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook about 30 minutes until sweet potatoes are soft.

3. Remove from heat and purée until smooth. Stir in ground chile and heat through for another five minutes. Add salt to taste.

08

02 2015

Traditional Norteño barbacoa at Casa Hernán

JohnnyGrill
As we suggested in the La Gloria post that started this San Antonio series back in June, chef Johnny Hernandez has been helping San Antonio reclaim the Mexican side of its culinary heritage. Easy-going venues like La Gloria and The Frutería focus on the simplest of Mexican food — street food, really — but at his special events venue Casa Hernán, Johnny gets into some of the more complex traditions.

Brunch at  Casa Hernán

Brunch at Casa Hernán

Hernandez does a grand Sunday brunch about once a month at Casa Hernán, sometimes featuring barbacoa in the South Texas/northern Mexican tradition. In some parts of interior Mexico, cooks will roast an entire animal in a pit, usually a lamb. In northern Mexico, barbacoa usually signifies a pit-roasted cow’s head (and nothing more). Hernandez had an outdoor kitchen built to order in his back yard. Not only does the tiled work area include a large grill with the machinery for splaying lambs and kids over the heat, it also includes round holes into which Hernandez can use a chain and pulley system to lower chain baskets into the coals of an underground fire pit. The holes are sized to accommodate baskets large enough to contain an entire cow’s head.

CasaHernancowhead To prepare the head for cooking, Hernandez sets it on banana leaves, seasons it liberally with salt, pepper, epazote, onion, thyme, oregano, and avocado leaves, then wraps the whole concoction in the banana leaves. He then lowers it in a chain-link basket into the fire. It takes about 12 hours to cook a cow’s head before he hoists it up with a chain and pulley and pulls the meat off the bones. Now that’s barbacoa!

The beef cheeks provide the juiciest, tastiest meat and form the centerpiece of the brunch buffet, displayed next to the cooked head. For the rest of the brunch, Hernandez will likely grill a few entire lambs, cook up huge piles of sausages directly over hardwood coals, and make a big selection of vegetable dishes and (of course) fresh tortillas. Dessert always depends on the fresh fruit of the season.

Given the necessary gear to make this dish correctly, it’s one we won’t be trying at home.

18

08 2014

What a great thing to do with an egg!

pisto manchego with cod a pil pil
We’ve been lucky enough to visit Sevilla’s Taberna del Alabardero every few years over the last few decades, but it’s possible that our most recent meal was the best yet—even though it was off the modest bistrot menu instead of from the haute cuisine fine-dining menu. Now with sites in Madrid and in Washington, D.C., Taberna del Alabardero began as a social-work program launched by a priest to teach marketable skills to boys from the streets. It’s evolved into one of the top hospitality schools in Spain. The original location in Sevilla near the bullring is the laboratory where all that hospitality training is put into practice. The townhouse mansion has fine dining rooms upstairs with a menu that would have made Escoffier smile. (The third level has elegant bedrooms for the small hotel.)

Taberna del Alabardero

Frankly, we’re just as happy to eat off the bistro menu in the tile-encrusted dining room downstairs that adjoins the central atrium café. The dishes are simpler and everything is prepared—and served—by the faculty and students of the hospitality school. (Note the students standing by, waiting to serve.) Dishes tend to be Spanish rib-stickers: the hearty potato and sausage stew known as Riojanas, or cod a pil pil served with pisto manchego (Spanish ratatouille) topped with a poached egg (above). Here the pisto and poached egg constituted a side dish, paying second fiddle to the cod. But we think it will make a great light lunch this summer when we’re swimming in tomatoes, squash, and eggplant.

The three-course bistrot menu at Taberna del Alabardero is a steal, costing 12.50 euros on weekdays, 17.50 euros weekends. Here’s the contact information: Calle Zaragoza, 20. The phone is (+34) 95-450-27-21, and the web site is www.tabernadelalabardero.es. The restaurant is closed in August.

13

03 2014

Pimento Cheese for holiday South in your mouth

Pimento cheese
Chef Matthew Bell hails from Montana, but after about a decade in the South, he felt confident to head the kitchen at South on Main restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s a collaboration with the Oxford American, the magazine that chronicles the literary and cultural life of the South and is often called the ”New Yorker of the South.”

”We are taking our cue from the magazine and keying in on the cuisine from all regions,” Bell told a gathering of writers who previewed the restaurant and performance place while it was still under construction. ”Arkansas cuisine is a microcosm of the whole South with influence from the Ozarks and the Smokies,” he said. ”We have a long growing season and close access to the Gulf for seafood.”

Now open for business, Bell is offering updated versions of classic dishes, such as a starter of pork cheeks with gnocchi, parmesan, and a fried egg, or a main course of catfish with fried brussels sprouts, hushpuppies, and rémoulade. But for my small group he proved his chops with a masterful version of the Southern staple Pimento Cheese. I like to serve the colorful dip during the holidays — all you need are some celery sticks and a few crackers.

PIMENTO CHEESE

To add heat, chef Matthew Bell favors Frank’s Red Hot Sauce or Crystal Louisiana’s Pure Hot Sauce. Since I had neither on hand, I used traditional red Tabasco from Louisiana’s McIlhenny Company.

Ingredients

1/2 roasted red pepper, peeled and seeded and finely chopped
1/2 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon finely grated garlic
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoons pickle brine from your favorite dill pickles
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
pinch of salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Using a strong wooden spoon and a bowl, combine all ingredients in order, stirring well after each addition. Pack into small bowl or ramekin and serve with celery sticks or crackers.

An Istanbul take on mideastern muhamarra

P1000932 One pleasure of dining in Istanbul was getting reacquainted with muhamarra, the walnut and pomegranate spread found all around the Middle and Near East. We buy it at home from Samira’s Homemade in Belmont, where Lebanon-born Samira Hamdoun fashions all sort of tasty spreads. But we found it on every mezze tray in Istanbul, and decided we had to learn to make it for ourselves. Fortunately, our friend Elif Aydar of the Marti hotel group gave us her own recipe.

It was a bit of a challenge to adapt, since we can’t pop into the grocery store for red pepper paste or sour pomegranate condiment. Moreover, colloquial kitchen measurements differ between Turkey and the U.S. and the breads have different textures. But with a little experimentation, we figured it out. One unusual aspect of Elif’s recipe is that she uses a little bit of soft cheese. Using chevre provides a nice tang and smooths out the consistency.

While we’d normally reach for the food processor to make a spread, we elected to use hand tools for this one to keep a certain amount of texture. It’s worth the trouble to grind with a mortar and pestle, chop with a knife, and grate to produce soft bread crumbs.

MUHAMARRA

Ingredients

3/4 cup walnut halves
2 roasted red peppers, skin and membranes removed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 English muffin, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons chevre
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon crushed Aleppo pepper
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1/3 cup olive oil

Directions

1. Using mortar and pestle, crush walnut pieces to texture of coarse meal.

2. On chopping board, finely mince red peppers. Add to walnuts and blend well. P1030712

3. Add garlic, grated muffin, chevre, cumin, and Aleppo pepper. Mix well. Stir in pomegranate molasses, then olive oil.

Serve at room temperature with triangles of pita bread or as a dressing for meat or fish. We like it as a spread for sandwiches made with sliced roast chicken. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

11

04 2013

Recapturing a great flavor of New Hampshire


Our latest book, Food Lovers’ Guide to Vermont & New Hampshire (Globe Pequot Press), just arrived two days ago and it brought back fond memories of the research. One of our favorite meals was at the Bedford Village Inn, when Benjamin Knack, fresh from a season on Hell’s Kitchen, had just take over the dining program for this romantic destination property.

It so happens that Ben makes a killer gnocchi, which he claimed was so simple that even his then 4-year-old daughter could do it. There are a couple of secrets to getting just the right texture. The potatoes should be cooked so they “squeak like Styrofoam when you squeeze them,” he says. And they should be pushed quickly through the sieve so the potato remains warm while you’re making the gnocchi.

That particular night we ate the gnocchi tossed with duck confit, but they’re equally good dressed in a light sauce made of roasted tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and nothing more. We managed to get the Bedford Village Inn into Food Lovers’ Guide to Vermont & New Hampshire, but the gnocchi recipe arrived too late to make the first edition. Next time, maybe. In the meantime, here it is in all its glory (and simplicity).

GNOCCHI WITH ROASTED TOMATO SAUCE

Ingredients

3 russet potatoes
1/3 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch pepper
1 egg
1 cup flour

Directions

1. Bake the potatoes until they are soft (about 45 min) in a 350-degree oven. While still warm, cut in half and, using the skin, push through a sieve or tamis onto a table top.

2. Sprinkle cheese, salt, and pepper over potatoes and cut in with bench scraper. Break egg on top and cut into potato mix until well incorporated.

3. Add flour and cut in until it is fully incorporated. Knead gently until a ball is formed. Flatten dough to about 3/4 inch.

4. Cut dough into 3/4 inch dowels and cut dowels into 1/2-inch pieces. Toss uncooked gnocchi in flour and allow to dry for 15 minutes.

5. Set 6 quarts water, well salted, to boil in large pot.

7. Drop gnocchi into boiling water and cook until they float. Then allow to cook for 2-3 more minutes.

8. Toss with 1/4 cup canola oil and store covered in refrigerator up to 48 hours until ready to serve.

ROASTED TOMATO SAUCE

Ingredients

5 vine-ripened tomatoes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Set oven to 350F.

2. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise. Toss with 1/4 cup olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in roasting pan and cook 25-30 minutes.

3. Remove tomatoes from oven. Separate skins and discard. Purée tomatoes until smooth. Add 1/4 cup olive oil while blending and add salt and pepper to taste.

from Benjamin Knack, executive chef at the Bedford Village Inn