Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pizza: tomato and garlic, chanterelle and onion confit

We decided that the perfect thing for B's birthday would be a pizza dinner, and then cake and presents. We made two types of pizza. Begin, of course, by making a simple white bread dough for the pizza: flour, salt, yeast, water. Knead lightly and let rise, and then roll out on a floured work surface with a rolling pin. The rolling will knead the dough and develop the gluten horizontally, so that when the water expands, it will puff bubbles between two layers of thin crust.

One was a fairly traditional tomato pizza. Slice tomatoes thin, spread in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet, and sprinkle with salt and many cloves minced garlic. Bake 400°F until the tomatoes are reasonably cooked. Remove the tomatoes, and turn the oven temperature up to 500°F to preheat for the pizzas. Transfer the tomatoes to a rolled-out dough, and cover with liberal amounts of parmesan cheese and small cubes of a strongly-flavored pecorino romano.

The fancier pizza requires beginning a little earlier with an onion confit; the recipe is essentially from Chez Panisse Pasta Pizza & Calzone. (The confit keeps well in the fridge and can be prepared long in advance.) Heat four tablespoons butter or goose fat in the bottom of a dutch oven, and add four onions, sliced thin, and some salt and pepper. Cover and cook 5 minutes, and then sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar. After the onions have cooked another few minutes, so that the sugar caramelizes slightly, add leaves from a few sprigs fresh thyme, two cups red wine, and 1/4 cup each red wine vinegar and sherry vinegar. Simmer one two two hours, until syrupy.

Spread the onion confit on a rolled out pizza dough, and top will a little fontina cheese. Then add chanterelle mushrooms that you have sauteed in butter or goose fat with some thyme. More fontina and the pecorino.

Bake both pizzas 10-15 minutes, until the cheese just starts to brown. Serve with a Zinfandel or Chianti.

Birthday Cake for B

For B's birthday, I made the "Rich Chocolate Cake" from Chez Panisse Desserts. Except for the pictures at the end, the rest of this post is unapologetic plagiarism, formatting (as best as I can reproduce it) and all.

Makes one 8-inch or 9-inch cake: 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons salted butter • 7 ounces semisweet chocolate • 2 ounces bitter chocolate • 6 eggs • ¾ cup granulated sugar • 38 cup brown sugar • 38 cup cake flour • 3 tablespoons finely grated almonds • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar

The flavor of this cake depends almost completely on the chocolate, so be sure to use the best semisweet chocolate you can buy.

Butter the sides and bottom of an 8-inch or 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with baking parchment or waxed paper and flour the pan. Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan. Chop the chocolate in coarse pieces and add to the butter. Stir constantly over low heat until just melted and smooth; be careful not to overheat or the chocolate will turn grainy. It should not get much hotter than 115°F. Set aside.

Separate the eggs and beat the sugars into the egg yolks until just mixed. Which the chocolate is still warm, which the egg mixture into it, then stir in the flour and the almonds. If the combined mixture has cooled, warm if over low heat, stirring constantly, until it is barely warm. Warm the egg whites slightly by swirling them in a bowl above a gas flame or over hot water—the whites will beat to a greater volume when warmed. Add the cream of tartar to the egg whites and beat until they look creamy and form rounded peaks: if they look at all flaky they are overbeaten. Spread the egg whites over the chocolate mixture and fold them together quickly without deflating the whites. Pour into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the cake is completely set around the sides but still has a soft creamy circle, about 6 inches across, in the center. The cake will rise and crack around the edge and separate from the softer center. The center should wiggle just slightly when you shake the pan gently; it will continue to cook when you take it out of the oven. Cool thoroughly in the pan.

To serve the cake, turn it out, peel the paper off the bottom, and ice with chocolate icing or powder lightly with vanilla powdered sugar. The cake keeps very well, if not iced, for three or four days. Do not refrigerate or freeze, just cover the pan with foil until ready to use.

This is a synthesis of a number of French recipes for gâteau au chocolat. The cake is very good with Rum, Cognac, or Vanilla Ice Cream, or it can be served with crème Chantilly. Coffee, of course, is welcome afterward.

Steamed broccoli, baked potato chips, and tuna steaks with garlic and ginger

For the potatoes, begin by coating a rimmed cookie sheet with goose fat or oil. Sprinkle liberally with cumin, ginger, paprika, and garlic salt. Slice potatoes thin, and arrange in pan, turning them so that both sides get some fat-and-spices. Bake until tender and starting to crispen.

Coat another rimmed cookie sheet with goose fat or butter, and crush a garlic clove into the fat. Arrange tuna steaks in the pan, sprinkle lightly with salt and powdered ginger, and bake under the broiler 15 minutes.

Steam broccoli. Decide that you absolutely _must_ go buy yourself a bamboo steamer the next time you are in China Town. They work magnificently.

Serve with a Pinot Noir or light Zinfandel.

Goose Soup!

You all know that I love making soup. And a Christmas goose makes an excellent soup. Be sure to collect all the rendered fat from cooking the goose. It is nicely flavored and an excellent saturated cooking fat. It almost made me want to start buying the occasional fowl at our Farmers' Market. (The Christmas bird was pre-ordered from a local Oregon game farm that specializes in humanely raised and slaughtered organic meat.)

As always, begin with the stock. Include all the bones and giblets from the bird, as well as any stale aromatic vegetables (celery, carrots, onion, leeks), and a dried bay leaf and some pepper corns. Cover with water, bring to a boil, and let simmer a few hours.

Meanwhile, prepare ingredients for a white mirepoix: parsnips, celery, and leeks. Saute these in goose fat, with a little salt to encourage the aromatics to release their liquids. Then add halved crimini mushrooms. Once the mushrooms start to wilt and release their juices, cover with stock. Add some reserved cooked goose meat, adjust the salt, and bring to a boil briefly before serving.

The soup is delicious, but a bit sweet on account of the parsnips. Serve with a hearty bread: a crust whole-wheat-and-walnut pairs well. This soup pairs with almost any wine that's not too delicate or citrus-y; your standard Friday-night Chardonnay or Pinot Noir would make particularly good choices.

New Years trip to the Oregon Coast

Over New Years, my family, B, and I rented a vacation house in Port Orford, a lovely fishing town on the Southern Oregon Coast. We took many pictures, none of them food related. I've posted a few favorites below; all of the pictures (about 500) from my camera are available in a Picasa web album.

Meals before Christmas

Now the last of January, it seems appropriate somehow that I recap the meals. Let's then begin with the meals from around Christmas.

On Dec. 21, we had broccoli and purple cauliflower, wild rice, and salmon:

On Dec. 22, my family and I made pot stickers:

Christmas was a goose:

And Boxing Day was a seafood bisque. Begin by boiling crab shells (leftover from Christmas Eve), with some old carrots, celery, and onions, and dried peppercorn and bay leaf. Strain them, and bring the broth back to a simmer. Sauté a mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onion in butter, along with some clams (scrub them first), which will steam open and release their liquids. Remove from heat, and pick out the clams; make your little sister take the clam meat from the shells. Add the veggies to the crab broth, and blend until smooth with your brand new immersion blender that you received for Christmas. Add the clam meat, some leftover salmon, and the meat from the half-crab that you saved. Bring to a boil, stir in some heavy cream, correct the salt, and add just a little curry powder. Serve with parsley and a good bread.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Book Review: Confessions of an Eco-Sinner

Let's get one thing out of the way first. Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston, 2008; $16.00 in paperback) is not well written. Pearce likes lists. And sentence fragments. Lists of fragments. Ideas and stories, names and places, flotsam and jetsam. Pearce also likes drop words, or maybe editor just missed something.

And doing little to mark a new story than a change in paragraph. Throughout the book, Pearce travels around the world, and often you don't realize you are in a new place until a few sentences in. Like when he teleports to Nairobi. From Mandoli. Or Xiamen. Hmph. Pearce intersperses his text with personal commentary, grunts and all.

In addition to his slightly schizophrenic style, I think the thing that bothered me most about Fred's writing is his proclivity to use first names. Most of Fred Pearce's stories include meeting, at least briefly and in their places of work, non-Western people who are involved in the manufacture or disposal of products for the Western markets. Usually these workers are first introduced by full name, but sometimes I get a paragraph in, realize that I've lost track of who is who, and cannot find the original introductions: I think that's why I lost track, as I never had it to begin with. For the bosses and entrepreneurs in charge of plants, those with offices and a familiarity with the language of global commerce, Fred Pearce generally sticks with full names. However, Fred's favorite characters are the assembly-line workers and poor farmers, and they are invariably referred to, after the initial introduction, by first name. Only Europeans are called by their last names. (Of course, for Chinese characters, you should reverse all references to "first" and "last": when I say "last name" I mean the more formal family name, and by "first" I mean "familiar" or "given".) These names, and sometimes the international organizations that the corresponding people work for, are the only references and citations Pearce gives for the copious facts strewn throughout the book. The final failing of Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is its lack of footnotes, in-text citations, and a bibliography.

In spite of all this, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is not a bad read. Frenetic writing leads to easy skimming, and the content is interesting enough. Pearce visits Uzbekistan, for example, to discuss how the forced-labor production of cotton, still ongoing, has depleted the countryside of water, moving the edge of the Aral Sea by 60 miles. Of course, this information is "known", but not commonly discussed here in the states. Next time I'm accosted by one of those "environmental activists" littering the Berkeley streets and hoping that I'll give them money to assuage my liberal guilt, I intend to start discussing the manufacture of blue jeans.

Pearce's diatribe can be condensed into a few main theses. The first is one I think any local-foodie should appreciate: when you look at a product, you should try to see the people behind it. I appreciate that Pearce did the legwork necessary, and throughout the book he brings up parts of products you probably aren't used to thinking about. The global economy is truly astounding, when the cotton for a pair of socks can be farmed in one country, shipped to another for spinning, to another for dying, to yet another for knitting, and to yet another for packaging. Pearce's details won't match the footprints of most products on the American market — Pearce is English, living car-free in London but flying a lot — but the message applies throughout the rich developed world.

A second thesis is that as rich consumers, our sociological footprints are as important as our (intimately connected) ecological footprints. Are we contributing to child labor? Do our purchases fund wars? Or perhaps our participation in the global economy helps people improve their lot. Many of Pearce's heroes are poor women, working awful factory jobs under conditions that would not be tolerated in the US, for dollars a day. But if the market dries up, they will have no option but to return home to the countryside, where their farming families are even poorer and much more misogynist.

Thus, the third and perhaps most-important thesis in Confessions of an Eco-Sinner is in response to the perennial question of What To Do? Pearce's answer is essentially: It's Complicated. Pearce spends 200 pages documenting the many footprints Western consumers have, and concludes with about 60 with titles like "How We Can Save The World". These final chapters are unconvincing, largely because nobody really knows what to do. But the roller-coaster of a book does a good job of documenting some of the ways that global trade is good, and some of the ways that it's bad. England buys most of its green beans from Kenya, and Pearce is very supportive of this: the Kenyan farmers have good lives and are helping the environment with their polyculture farms. Bangladeshi prawns, on the other hand, seem to be causing no end of evils, but this is not inherent to the prawns; rather, it's a problem of graft and mis-managed monoculture swamps. Chinese paper recycling in Pearce's eye is incredibly positive. On the other hand, Pearce points out that given the carbon cost of trucking paper to the recycling plant, the most environmentally friendly way for Britons to dispose of their old paper is to walk it downstairs to the building's incinerator, where the paper can be turned into heat. After all, trees are a biofuel.

I wish that Confessions of an Eco-Sinner were better edited, indexed, and referenced. It would make an amazing "e-book": a collection of web pages, with internal links and external citations. I wish that producers would make it possible to "track down the sources of our stuff" electronically. Michael Pollan, in an op-ed for the New York Times, proposed a wonderfully low-cost way to help the world, although it would require the government force producers to adopt it. Namely, every product should have a bar code and number, which we could either type into a web-browser, or, more usually, scan with our smart-phone camera (all smart phones have, or at least can have, bar-code scanning technology). Then a well-documented web site would pop up with details and photographs of the production of the product.

Pearce tells lurid stories, and clearly traveled with a camera, although no photographs make it into the final book. If not as a web-site, I could imagine Confessions of an Eco-Sinner as a series of magazine articles. Then again, every week The New Yorker includes exceptionally well-written stories from correspondents around the world. Those stories are much more humanizing that Pearce's — The New Yorker is like a global This American Life — but as far as I know no magazine has taken up the same project that Pearce has. I don't recommend that you buy a copy or read it yourself, but I do recommend more authors try their hand at books like this.