18 May 2010

Dirty Dozen

Look at that tight, little star-shaped hole, glazed with sticky icky goodness.

Amateur  money shot
We're talking about doughnuts, of course. When we first started this site full of horrible double-entendres in early 2009, we did it to show off a bit of homespun food porn, starting with our attempt to make doughnuts.

In nearly a year and a half, we've come full circle. We've gotten better at finding ingredients. We've gotten better at working on techniques. And we still haven't been able to bust a decent frickin' 'nut in Paris. Sure, dozens of American (or American-style) "coffee shops" sell doughnuts, but good luck getting anything other than a hockey puck that's been sitting in a refrigerated case for days on end.

We gave up ages ago. We didn't even really eat doughnuts back in the States anyway. Then, the other night on a lark (or rather because of discounted tickets), we figured we'd go see Iron Man 2 at the shitty chain theatre nearby. Those fantasies you have of Paris being intellectual and artsy? We tossed 'em ages ago.

Anyway, there's this scene in IM2 where Robert Downey Jr. is sitting in the hole of the famous Randy's Donuts in LA, eating a doughnut. At that moment, I turned to Alannah and said, "I want a doughnut." She turned to me and said, "Me too!"

This isn't slang for a dirty act in public, but what married people actually say to each other.

The trouble is, for all the craptacular chains we've got surrounding us, not one of them makes doughnuts. The UK has imported Krispy Kreme. Spain has been invaded by Dunkin. We, on the other hand, got nothin'. So we went to bed, as we're wont to do.

At some point the next day, I looked in the fridge and saw a mixing bowl of some kind of dough.  "You didn't..." I started to say to Alannah. "Yes I did," she replied.  She'd used the dough part of some sour cream doughnut recipe on Epicurious and modified it to use yogurt instead, and much less orange zest. And it was beautiful.  She rolled out the dough and cut it into shapes.

Doughnuts and stars. Much more organized this time around.
The last time we made doughnuts, we got better results on the holes, and it took a lot of experimenting with oil temperatures and frying times. This time I bowed down to Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook and used the temp and times for his "Coffee and Doughnuts": 30 seconds on one side, 1 minute on the other, and back to 30 seconds on the first at 160ºC/325ºF.

While TK's formula is for raised (yeast) doughnuts, it worked perfectly for Alannah's adaptation of the Epicurious cake (old-fashioned) doughnuts. In fact, the crumb is damn near perfection.

Exhibit A: Cross section of cake doughnut
with perfect crumb.
We made a few experimental doughnuts, as well as a bunch of holes and coated them with cinnamon-sugar for a round of overindulgent taste-testing.

A-holes and O-holes:
An Alannah and Omid production.
Having successfully completed our test round, it was time to go whole hog and make a dozen proper doughnuts. After all, American food deserves American quantities.

Nice (cooling) rack!
As much as I love all things naked, I don't care much for an undressed doughnut. I told Alannah I'd make her a nice, gooey glaze, and after she was done rolling her eyes, I actually got to the business of making some out of powdered sugar and liquid. (You need about an 8:1 ratio.)  Powdered sugar and milk with a touch of vanilla for standard glaze. Powdered sugar and maple syrup and a touch of butter for maple glaze. And powdered sugar and melted milk chocolate for chocolate glaze.

Keep your glazes warm in a bowl, dip your 'nuts in, then rack 'em for at least five minutes 'til it's all firm.  Then it's ready to shove in your mouth.

A threesome of each:
Glazed, cinnamon-sugar, maple and chocolate.
We've had several doughnuts since making the batch, and I'm already kind of sick of 'em. They're damn good, but like I said, we never really ate doughnuts that much in the US to begin with. It's just that once in a while you get a craving for something you can't have, so you just have to go out and grab it for yourself. After all, the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it, right?

That's what we've been doing much of the time since that first post. And we've since discovered that almost anything can be made better at home. When you do it yourself, it's more fun, more involved, and more personal. The same applies to cooking.

In fact, despite the fact that we probably won't make them again for another year and a half (and when we do, it'll be raised doughnuts!), we found that doughnuts give us the perfect synergy in the kitchen.

As the anal type (as in, she's the baker, sheesh!) Alannah's great with measurements and feeling out the proofing of a dough. As the sloppy bastard who eschews recipes, I'm better suited for the other part: Operating a deep fryer.

13 May 2010

Italian Stallion

We don't go out for Italian much. Good Italian food is a rip-off in Paris. Despite being right next door to France, the local idea of Italian food seems to be underflavored pizza slathered in chili-infused olive oil, or pasta served in bucket-sized Chinese take-out containers. Sure, there are a few outstanding Italian-run places (there's a Slow Food affiliated salumeria in our neighborhood that destroys the competition), but they're not too easy on the ol' immigrant pocketbook.  (Ironic, eh?)

Alannah and I used to have Sunday "date nights" which usually involved a movie of some sort and a long, languid three-courser at our local Italian joint in San Francisco. It was cheap. It was a chain. But it was good. Now, being denied all that, I whip up a meal that might be date-worthy, and we download something to watch on BitTorrent.

Roast chicken breast with pan-fried asparagus slivers,
butternut squash & rosemary risotto
The trouble is that – going all crazy with the simulating date night thing – we'd get too fancy, forgetting that the great thing about Italian cuisine is that when you have excellent ingredients (which we pretty much always have access to, even on the cheap) it need only be simple. So we started looking more closely at how non-restaurant Italian food works...

Extra motivation was provided when cousins from the US told us they're going to Italy this summer, and that we should join them, renting a house in Umbria or Tuscany. Alannah started fantasizing about making like Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun, lolling about on the terrace as we put away bottles of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. I started fantasizing about making it with Diane Lane. (Umm, hello, she might be old, but have you *seen* Unfaithful??)  The best part would be having our own kitchen, meaning we could stock up on local ingredients and avoid being ripped off at restaurants.

So the last few weeks have involved a lot of experimentation. Some of it in the kitchen, trying out a marathon of Italian "basics" so we can treat our US brethren to our cooking without looking like back-assward Parisians, scaring the kids with our salacious organs. (You know, kidneys, livers and the kind.)

Yes, there will be kids with us, so our adventures in Italy will be strictly rated PG. Or "-10" as they say here in France.

And kids like spaghetti. I like spaghetti. Just about every idiot knows how to make spaghetti.

Spaghetti pomodoro-basilico
Then we watched the "Techniques" episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (thanks, BT!) and thought, "We gotta make that spaghetti."  And after making the featured recipe by Scott Conant of Scarpetta, we'll never make spaghetti the same way again. You know, except for those 8 months of the year when we can't get organic tomatoes straight from Sicily.  Hey man, I told you we have access to great produce – just not year-round. It's a seasonality thing.

Flipping channels one night, we found some Canadian show about some guy who goes around Italy cooking outdoors. I have no idea what it's called, nor who the guy is. It's all dubbed in French. All I know is that he keeps it really simple, picking up local ingredients and doing very little to them. But I found myself drooling. "This," I declared to Alannah as I leaned over to her on the couch, "is how I want to do it in Italy." We subsequently talked about food.

Foccacia. Arugula with Parmesan. Heirloom tomatoes.
That's it.
The most complicated thing I learned was foccacia. Which is essentially pizza dough. Flour. Water. Yeast. A pinch of sugar and salt. Some olive oil.  Garnish with chopped anything. (We went with slivers of onion and olive.) Bake at maximum heat for no more than 10 minutes.  Serve drizzled with olive oil.

Next most complicated: Arugula salad. Or roquette or rocket or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. Toss that salad. (With salt.) Shave that smelly thing. (Parmesan cheese.) Serve drizzled with olive oil.

Next on the list: Sliced heirloom tomatoes. Sprinkle a tiny bit of salt. That's it.  Oh yeah, serve drizzled with olive oil.

See a pattern there? Take simple ingredients, and give it a money shot with really fucking good olive oil.

Of course, one can't sit on the terrazza, sipping wine and nibbling antipasti all afternoon while the munchkins slurp spaghetti. When the sun goes down, we may feel the need for something hotter.

Pizza bianca with tuna, sweet onion, and lemon zest.
Drizzled with olive oil.
Using the same formula for foccacia dough above, you can make pizza. Our "reference" recipe is Mario Batali's dough, which calls for white wine and honey.  However, I pay homage to my roots by using sake. Yes, the Japanese booze. I'll be expecting the Carabinieri  to arrest me upon arrival.

There are a gazillion varieties of pizza, obviously, but the key rule is to not overload it with toppings. When you're putting shit like white wine or sake into your dough, you kinda want to, you know, taste it.

You also want to taste your sauce. Especially if you've made it from scratch. And the best way to do that is to follow the tomato sauce recipe above for the spaghetti, and then pour that over sautéed onions and garlic and simmer. Done.  You can also go a totally different way and spew white stuff all over your pizza dough.

For the first time, we made a pizza bianca (white pizza) - where instead of tomato sauce, we used crème fraîche. You can top a white pizza with anything, but just remember that if you use a seafood topping, the rule is: No cheese. There are a few exceptions here and there, but generally speaking, no one wants to snack on your tuna with a side of curdly cheese, mmkay?

Roast chicken with aged white cheddar and
caramelized onions.
Outside of these hard and fast rules – few toppings, simple sauce, no cheese on seafood – you can go buck wild. Unleash the beast. Pimp out your pizza. You can even make your sloppy seconds enjoyable by turning them into a pizza. We had the majority of a rotisserie chicken leftover and used some of the white meat to top a pizza. Embellished with some sharp aged white cheddar shavings (hint: use a vegetable peeler to get pretty petals of hard cheese) and caramelized onion, it's freakin' insane.

Is it authentic Italian? Hell no. But making fresh bread and sauce to mop up and not waste what food you already have is totally in the paisan spirit.

A few nights ago, we had half a red bell pepper sitting around and getting ready to shrivel, so we sliced it up and threw it on a pie with mozzarella di buffula, caramelized onions and diced garlic, and it turned out to be the most cream-in-your-jeans delicious vegetarian pizza we've ever had.

Pizza dough also keeps really well: You can roll it up into balls and freeze it long term, or store it as a wad, in a sealed container in the fridge for a few days. So it's super easy to come home and throw a pie together after a long day of prostituting your ass out to whatever corporation you work for.  In short, even a butt-whore can make good pizza. Providing s/he has a very hot oven.

In our fit of Italian experimentation and ridding ourselves of leftovers, we came to one of the most amazing dishes ever: Smoked herring carbonara.

Smoked herring. No cheese. Duh.
This is so easy yet so multimouthgasmically amazing, you'll be wanting to make it every week. Soften some diced or sliced onions in olive oil. Add lardons (matchsticks) of smoked herring (kippers). We got some Slow Food approved stuff straight from an old Norwegian man, but the canned stuff is fine. Put aside. Beat an egg or two with a tablespoon of cream and a dash of salt. Mix in the warm herring/onion mixture to temper it. Cook some spaghetti just shy of al dente and drain. Place in a large mixing bowl or return to the pot. Rapidly mix in the egg mixture, moving quickly to ensure the egg doesn't curdle. Serve in a bowl, top with garnish.

The garnish is important, believe it or not. Personally, we've gotten into young garlic stem or ramps sliced up like chives or scallions. They taste more garlicky and have more crunch. But being that you can't always come by young garlic (or allium or ramps) any member of the green onion or chive family will do.  Slightly greening up your carbonara that way will bring it to life and add more depth to the simple, delicious flavors already within. And that's what this cuisine is all about.

Come summertime, we'll send you an update how it goes in our Tuscan kitchen.

In the meantime, any Italians reading this, please feel free to correct any of our bullshit. We know that's the only way to con you into divulging your nonna's recipes.

05 May 2010

Cinco de Mayonnaise

Believe it or not, this is not another screed against the lack of decent Mexican food in Paris. There's enough about that in past entries. In fact, in light of the fact that it's Cinco de Mayo – wherein Mexico celebrates its ass-whooping of the French during the Battle of Puebla – it's not surprising that the French don't want any real Mexican food to compete with its cuisine. An upstart burrito might actually whomp a crèpe and turn the world of casual gastronomy on its ear, upsetting the order of monotony that keeps Parisians properly dour.

No, sir, I wasn't about to let the un-Mexicanness of anything around us on this most Mexican of marketing-fueled holidays get us down. I laughed off the Cinco de Mayo invites from not-even-Spanish-run Tapas bars flooding my inbox. I resisted the temptation to go to my local bar's tequila night.

Instead, we decided it was time for a little payback: It was time to represent la raza, and turn the tables, fucking with a fundamental of French cuisine. (Never mind that neither of us are Mexican, or Latino for that matter...)

Behold, Cinco de Mayonnaise. Whereupon the standard, classic French recipe for mayonnaise – egg yolk, acid (i.e. vinegar) and oil was bastardized, much the way they louse up Mexican food. I haven't had this much fun vigorously flailing my forearm since I first discovered "making mayonnaise" as an adolescent.

Like yin and yang. Cuz they're Asian. Get it?
First up: Thai mayonnaise (based on Cock-brand fish sauce, sriracha chili, and peanut) and Japanese mayonnaise (based on rice vinegar and sugar for a Kewpie-style taste).

Tres. Cuatro. Cinco.
Rounding out the five: Aioli-styley (based on garlic and balsamic), Mexican (hot chili and lime), and in honor of Jon Stewart, the infamous Baconnaise (based on Dijon mustard and lovingly hand-minced lardon bits).

So to our hermanos y hermanas out there, this messing with French tradition is for you.

Of course, one does not simply tuck into mayonnaise. To quote Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, "they drown 'em in that shit." With 'em meaning: French fries.

Best homemade fries ever. (But we can do better!)
After having read about how to make the best Belgian-style double-fried fries over at the French Culinary Institute's "Cooking Issues" blog (highly recommended reading if you're into food science), we decided to give it a go. It's a bit labor-intensive, but the results are way worthwhile. It'll be better once we have a dedicated high-volume deep fryer (soon, my pretties!) but these were awesome.

If you're curious, we skipped the optional pre-blanch step listed in the link above – first off because it's too time-consuming, and secondly because we think Jeffrey Steingarten is an asshat.

Of course, man cannot live on mayo-drenched fries alone. Alannah felt we should have something Mexican and fried up some corn tortillas into tostadas upon which we could have her crazy rich refried beans (featuring lard and lardons), salad, roasted chilis, and sour cream. Sure, it's a bit gringo, but then again, so are we!

"Salad" is only a technical term.
Chugging down a couple of Coronas with lime may have been a bit cheesetacular – especially for purported beer lovers – but hey, what can you do? It was better than going out for freakin' tapas, after all.