Saturday, November 26, 2011

Corn Cookies


I like to think that my mental state is influenced by factors deeper than the weather. If, say, I am depressed, it's because the human condition is depressing, right? Not because of the cloud cover or ambient temperature. But that doesn't seem to be the case. As much as I like to think that I'm some rarified being walking around in a human suit, in truth I'm a pretty simple animal, and my inner life is affected by my outer surroundings. Give me a warm spring evening, with balmy air and ever-later sunset, and I'm suffused with a feeling of hope, that you know, things are really gonna be alright after all! And give me a spate of gray, rainy days, like we've been having lately? Sigh.....

So yeah, things have been feeling a little bleak lately. Rain has been pelting down with a near-biblical vengeance, so much so that salmon are actually crossing the street. It's hard not to take it a bit personally. I need a little sunshine to restore my faith in the rightness of the world. And, since the outside world isn't helping me out, I baked up a little sunshine of my own.

These corn cookies are just about as sunny as can be (in addition to having the ever-important fat and sugar required for happiness). The recipe comes from Christina Tosi, at Momofuku Milk Bar. Tosi packs a ridiculous amount of corn flavor into these cookies, thanks to corn flour and the freeze-dried kernels themselves. She also has a great technique where she whips the bejesus out of butter and sugar, going beyond creaming to a whole new level of texture. The resulting cookies are crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, and as much as I tend to favor wee bite-sized cookies, making them large maximizes this contrast of textures in a delicious way. I suppose that relying on baked goods for mental health may be a somewhat dangerous policy. But on these gray winter days, it really does make the world a little sweeter.

Corn Cookies

adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar, as printed in Lucky Peach
yields ~18 cookies

Dehydrated corn can be found in the natural-food or snack section of larger supermarkets. If you can't find it, and decide that rather than try another store you'll just get the bag of mixed dehydrated vegetables and pick out the corn kernels, there's a strong likelihood that your finished cookies will end up tasting a bit like dehydrated peppers and tomatoes, and you'll have to scrap the batch and start again. I'm just sayin'.

2 sticks (225 grams) butter, warmed to room temperature (Tosi favors high-fat butter like Plugra)
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
1 egg
1 1/3 cups (225 grams) flour
1/4 cup (45 grams) corn flour (this is ground to a flour-like consistency, unlike the coarser cornmeal, and can be found in gluten-free sections of your supermarket -- in a pinch, you could probably try to blitz cornmeal in a blender and substitute that)
2/3 cup (65 grams) freeze-dried corn powder (freeze-dried corn is available at Whole Foods or other natural food stores, and easily grinds to a powder in your blender)
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp coarse salt

Place the butter and sugar in a mixer (ideally fitted with a paddle attachment), and cream on medium-high until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides with a spatula, then begin blending on a medium-low speed and add the egg. Increase speed back to medium-high, and blend for a full 8 minutes. During this time, the sugar dissolves and the whole mixture becomes pale and nearly doubles in volume.

While the mixture is blending, sift together the flour, corn flour, corn powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

After the uber-blend has finished, reduce the heat to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing until it just comes together (as ever, tis better to under-mix than to over-mix).  Line a sheet pan with parchment, and scoop out 1/4 cup-sized cookies. Cover the pan with plastic wrap or a plastic bag,a nd refrigerate for at least an hour (or up to a week). If you don't have the fridge space for a sheet pan, you can use plates, and then transfer to a sheet tray before baking. This chilling step is critical for keeping the butter-heavy cookies from greasing all over the place, so don't skip it.

When your doughballs have chilled, preheat the oven to 350 degrees farenheit. Make sure the cookeis are at least 3 inches apart on their parchment-lined sheets (I tend to pack them onto one tray for chilling in my space-challenged fridge, then spread them out on multiple sheets for baking). Bake ~18 minutes, until very faintly browned on the edges, but still bright yellow in the center.

Let cool completely on the baking sheet, then transfer to a plate for serving or airtight container for storage. Corn cookies keep ~5 days, or in the freezer for a month.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Txipirones en su Tinta (Squid in Ink Sauce)

According to every American website and magazine, I should be spending these days thinking about pies and cranberry relish, about on-sale luxury gifts for my holiday lists. But I'm not. I'm still thinking about sweet and briny shrimp the size of your thumbnail,

horses sunning themselves on wind-swept mountains,

and bucolic towns in rolling hills (which also have Michelin-starred restaurants).

And squid.

Okay, I realize that many out there are not fans of squid (and I also realize that my somewhat turd-like picture probably doesn't help the cause). Squid are, for lack of a better word, kind of oogy. It's hard to see those tentacles without imagining them wrapping wetly around your ankles (or is that just me?), and jet-black is not generally an appetizing color when it comes to sauces (or, really, any food item beyond olives and caviar). But despite its aesthetic handicaps, this is one heck of a dish.

I've heard it said that squid should be cooked either two minutes or two hours. There's some truth to this -- a quick turn in the pan leaves squid tender, but cook them for more than a few minutes and they toughen up to an unappetizingly rubbery consistency. If you want to return them back to a chewable delicacy, you've got to stew them for a good long time until they soften again. This traditional recipe takes the long view, which not only softens the squid, but deepens the flavor of the dark, briny sauce. And while the squid picture lacks the majesty of my other shots of the Basque Country, it captures the same spirit: a simple, un-fussy approach to some of the best ingredients in life.

Txipirones en su Tinta (Squid in Ink Sauce)

traditional, as interpreted by Iñaki Guridi
serves 4

1 1/2 lbs squid, cleaned
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
2 red onions, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 packets squid ink
1/4 cup red wine
1 cup water or fish/seafood broth, plus additional as needed
2 slices baguette, cubed
bread or rice for serving

Take the tentacles of the squid, and stuff them inside of the tubes (squid in the Basque Country are conveniently sold this way, but if yours come separately this step won't take much time). Don't worry about closing the tubes around their contents -- as the squid cook both the tubes and tentacles will swell, sealing them into neat little packets.

Heat half of the olive oil in a soup pot or large skillet over a medium-high heat. Add the squid in a single layer (you may need to do this in batches), sauteing until they brown lightly, ~3-4 minutes per side. Remove and set aside.

Add the remaining oil, lower the heat to medium-low, and add the onion and pepper. Saute, stirring occasionally, until totally softened but not browned, ~30 minutes.

While the onion and pepper are cooking, carefully open the ink packets (unsurprisingly, this stuff kinda stains), and squeeze into a small glass. Add the wine and the water/broth, stirring well to blend.

When the onions and pepper are soft, add the ink-wine mixture, and saute for a few more minutes. Add the cubed bread, and cook another 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender (or use an immersion blender), and blend until the mixture is smooth. Add additional water/broth if needed, to create a gravy-like consistency.

Return the squid to the pan, along with the ink sauce. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover and lower the heat until it just barely maintains its simmer. Cook for an hour. Serve with bread or rice to sop up the sauce.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Kale and Rye Bread Panade

I've just left the Basque Country and headed back toward the Pacific Northwest, embarking on a truly epic amount of travel time. And mourning. Back to work and daily life, where it only takes one 'k' instead of three to say thanks. No more freshly-caught hake, home-infused sloe liqueur, or hand-made European cheese (with the exception of a chunk stowed in my luggage, courtesy of a visit to an overly-friendly convent in Idiazabal). And, worst of all, no more of my dear friends, to have a drink with while hanging out on cobblestone streets on balmy Autumn evenings, or to teach me the livestock-specific call for every farm animal we passed on our many walks. I've still got a few meals to log from my trip, and a handful of recipes to try at home. But for now, I need some comfort food.

I had the good fortune of encountering this recipe from Portland's Fressen Bakery a few weeks ago for my story on rye, and it manages to combine two of my favorite things: rye bread, and leftover-repurposing thrift. If you haven't yet met the panade, I heartily encourage you to become acquainted. Cubes of stale bread (and really, it can be any crusty loaf, not just rye) are enriched with aromatics and other additions (in this case, caramelized onions, fennel seeds, a bit of vinegar and wine and a whole lot of kale), then tossed with cheese. Then the whole mess is given a good drink of flavorful broth, and baked until bubbly. The result is heavenly. It's like the best part of stuffing, but made softer, saucier, and a bit healthier (especially if you, like me, use an overly-hefty helping of kale).

I love the balance of flavors in this version, and the way that the sour vinegar and wine offset the heftier bread and cheese, but really you can freestyle a panade with any combination of breads, cheeses, herbs and vegetables that are knocking around your pantry. I was going to write that it's enough to soften the blow of returning back to my normal stateside life, with its presence of workdays and absence of red-tiled roofs. To be fair, that might be too tall an order. But this is really delicious, a bit of a culinary blanket to curl up with and make the rainy Northwest days a little warmer. You can find the recipe here, courtesy of The Oregonian.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Fish a la Bilbaino

Like most of my fellow cooks, I have a fairly burgeoning spice cabinet. I love the fusty notes of turmeric, the Eastern European sharpness of dill, the nutty depth of sesame oil and surprising savory-sweet brightness of cardamom. I also love how a seasoning palette can come together, like the instruments of an orchestra, to create a symphony of flavor. Sure, if used with a heavy hand, they can become muddy. But at their best, they transform your basic building blocks, elevating them to something richer and better.

It turns out that not everyone shares my enthusiasms. And despite having a renown gastronomy, the Basque spice cabinet is... a little bare. If you don´t count each type of pepper separately, my friend Iñaki´s tiny shelf contains only the addition of thyme, cumin, saffron, and a dusty container of curry powder that´s probably never been opened. We´ve had lengthy debates about the benefits of seasonings, with Iñaki maintaining that they´re just a crutch of people who need to hide sub-par ingredients. Last week we rode the Artxanda Funicular to panoramic beauty on the top of BIlbao, and looked at a monument to the many groups that fought against Franco (where the expected socialists and communists were joined by batallions of local hiking clubs). As we looked down the lists of names, I asked Iñaki about his political affiliations. ¨I have no party,¨ he claimed. ¨I am only anti-spices.¨

And much to my surprise, I am gradually undergoing a similar political conversion. Despite the lack of seasoning (or perhaps because of it), the amazing local ingredients shine. Farm-grown vegetables and just-caught seafood really don´t need much adornment, beyond a drizzle of olive oil and salt. And lest you, like me, furrow your brow at the idea of a beloved dish composed of little more than fish in a garlicky vinaigrette, let me tell you: it´s great.

As with most simple preparations, the beauty of this is in the details. Needless to say, you start with great fish (we´ve prepared it with hake and horse mackeral, both locally-caught and fresh). What could just be a boring vinaigrette is given depth from sauteed garlic, then poured over the fish and back into the saucepan to emulsify with the fish gelatin, adding flavor and body to form a rich, cohesive sauce. I still maintain a love for the full symphony of complex, seasoned dishes (and even managed to win fans for this Moroccan herb jam, although it contains both smoked paprika and cumin). But the art of simple cooking, like a haunting solo performance, can be its own sort of perfection.

Fish a la Bilbaino

via Iñaki Guridi (with tips for sauce emulsification courtesy of his sister)
serves 4

~1 1/2 lbs relatively mild-flavored fish
3 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
3 Tbsp white wine or sherry vinegar
1 handful parsley, finely minced
salt to taste

Bake or poach the fish until fully cooked (details of this will depend upon the source and size of the fish used).

While the fish is cooking, begin the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over a medium-high heat, and saute the garlic until just begins to darken (we have made this with both golden and barely-colored garlic, and I think I prefer the former). Add the vinegar and parsley and boil for a minute, stirring to emulsify. 

When the fish has finished cooking, pour the sauce over it. Let sit for a moment, then gently tip to sauce back into the skillet. Bring to a boil for a minute or two, stirring rapidly to emulsify, until the sauce has reduced very slightly (if your fish gave off a lot of liquid in cooking, this may take an additional minute or two). Transfer the fish to a serving plate, pour the sauce over the top, and serve. Add salt to taste.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Rye Flour

 Yes, I have promised you stories of European adventure. And yes, there are constant reminders that I am far from Portland. Traditional dancers and musicians piped their way through the streets shortly after I dropped my bags. Breakfast consists of bowls of milky sweet coffee, with crusts of last night´s bread crumbled in. I have held five-day-old rabbits that peed in my hand, and politely declined the offer of a walking stick during a farm stroll, only to be informed that it was in fact a pushing-back-cows stick. I will be terribly sad to leave.

But as for cooking, and taking pictures of said food, I´ve been a bit remiss. And it´s not for lack of amazing food. The first evening brought a lovely potato tortilla and croquettes, but after 18 hours of travel I wasn´t really following what was happening. Last night I ate dinner that was cooked on an actual wood-fired stove, but given that my inability to speak Basque was enough of an imposition, I decided not to make things worse by sticking my camera around. I promise salt cold aplenty to come, but for now, I´ll tell you about the snacks I baked in Portland and carried with me.

If you´re looking to represent America abroad, it´s hard to go wrong with chocolate chip cookies. And if you´re looking to make chocolate chip cookies, it´s hard to go wrong with a buttery dough, aged for a few nights in the fridge. And, per my latest obsession, bolstered with rye flour.

When this chocolate chip cookie recipe first surfaced, it seemed like perfection. Take the usual easy-peasy formula, wait a few days, and almost by magic the dough develops a caramel-like depth. But after writing an article about the wonders of rye flour, I couldn´t help but swap some into this formula (cutting the amount down just a wee bit, to account for the moisture-absorbing prowess of rye´s whole grain). And the result is just lovely, my all-time favorite. It has been politely demanded that I bake more before my departure. If only the Basque Country sold rye flour...

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Rye Flour

adapted from Jacques Torres in The New York Times
yields 2-4 dozen cookies, depending upon size, and must be made at least 1 day before baking

4 1/4 ounces bread flour, 1 1/3 cups (I feared this could yield a tough consistency, but it´s called for in the original, and nicely offsets rye´s minimal gluten, though it´d probably be fine without)
4 ounces rye flour, 1 heaping cup
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp coarse salt
10 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
5 ounces (2/3 cup) brown sugar, packed
4 ounces (1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 4-ounce bar (or more) chocolate of your choosing, chopped into small cubes and bits

Sift together the bread flour, rye flour, soda, powder and salt. Set aside.

Place the butter in a mixer or large bowl, and beat together with the sugars until very light. Add the egg and vanilla, and stir until well combined. Add the flour mixture, stir until just mixed, and then add the chocolate and stir to distribute evenly. Place in a bag or covered container, and chill 2-3 days.

When you´re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and line a few baking sheets with parchment (or grease them well and hope for the best). Scoop the dough out into cookies -- Torres favors large cookies for a nice crisp-outside-gooey-inside consistency, but I find you can arrive at something similar if you make small cookies and watch them like a hawk.

Bake until golden brown yet soft, 10-15 minutes depending upon cookie size. Let the cookies cool on the sheet for a couple minutes until they firm up enough for you to move them, then transfer to a rack to cool completely (it´s difficult to end up with soft cookies if you don´t pull them soon enough). Devour when warm, with milk, or let cool fully and pack them in an airtight container for your travels.