Spaghetti with Miso Tomato Sauce

2016-food-blog-september-0763A lot of people focus, when they talk about their own recipes – the recipes they have created, or modified from already-existing dishes – on secret ingredients. There’s that one, singular item you add to “make it your own,” (or, if you’re the Colonel, maybe eleven). If you’re a certain kind of cook, you leave it out of your written recipes so no one can duplicate your masterpiece exactly, and they struggle for a lifetime trying to figure out why theirs doesn’t taste quite like yours. Secret ingredients puzzle your audience; they are intrigued but can’t quite identify that flavor combination – it blends just enough to keep it unidentifiable.

2016-food-blog-september-0737My one big secret ingredient used to be nutmeg in oatmeal chocolate chip cookies – it added another layer of warmth and interest, and it made one of my high school friends giggle about my cookies being aphrodisiacal. It was unexpected until you knew it was there, and then it made sense. My college roommate adopted it in her own chocolate chip cookies and at least once left it out of the recipe she passed along to a friend, so that the cookies would never be quite the same, thereby keeping them special.

2016-food-blog-septemberApart from that, my typical “secret ingredient” practice is just adding so many components that I likely won’t remember them all when I need to recreate whatever dish it was (clearly ideal methodology for a food blogger!). But suddenly, I have a secret ingredient. It fits all the qualifications: it adds a definite flavor without being obvious, and it would be difficult to guess at were you trying blindly to taste out every component of the dish.

2016-food-blog-september-07442016-food-blog-september-0747This came about by accident, as many of my masterworks do. We had just arrived home from our annual summer road trip, which meant a whatever-is-still-good meal. Pasta is easy here – a bag of spaghetti and a can of tomatoes are guaranteed to be fine and tasty – but being who I am, the urge to tinker kicked in and I was rooting around in the fridge looking for something to make it special. I found a container of heavy cream that, shoved to the very back, was not only still good, but almost frozen, and a tiny, hard, crusty little corner of miso paste. It looked okay, apart from being approximately the texture of granite, and in a moment of innovation genius “well, why not?” I tossed it into the sauce.

2016-food-blog-september-0749As secret ingredients go, this is a good one. No, you don’t necessarily want to buy a whole tub of miso paste just for this, since you’ll only be going through a tablespoon or two, but the number of other sauces, soups, and stir-fry dishes that it will contribute to makes it a great thing to have at the back of the fridge. (And really, if you bought the stuff for Deb’s recipe in the first place, you’ll need a new recipe to use up that last stubborn chunk that has been hiding in your fridge for months anyway.) The miso adds all the salt needed to the sauce, but it also contributes a lux, complex quality that gives depth the tomatoes and somehow makes the cream feel lighter – more sprightly.

2016-food-blog-september-0754In the final incarnation, I added leeks for an onion-y aromatic base, a splash of wine to deglaze, and a smattering of chili flakes, and I was delighted with all of these additions, though you could certainly leave out the heat, replace the leeks with garlic or shallot (or some combination), and I wouldn’t say no to marsala in place of the wine.

In any case, though, scatter the top with a chiffonade of basil or some parsley fragments, and challenge your dinner guests to guess what that extra flavor is – I bet they will be stumped, trying to determine our new secret ingredient.

2016-food-blog-september-0762

Spaghetti with miso tomato sauce
40-45 minutes
Serves 8-10
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons salt for pasta water
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup finely chopped leek, white and pale green parts only
½ cup dry white wine
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 tablespoons white or red miso paste
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
½ cup heavy cream, at room temperature (adding to the sauce at room temperature, rather than cold, eliminates the danger of curdling)
optional: 2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley or chiffonade of basil to scatter over the top

 

  • Fill a large pot with water, add the 2 tablespoons salt, and bring to a boil. When it boils, add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions, stirring once or twice to separate pasta strands. When the spaghetti is tender but still has a slight bite, drain it and add it to the sauce as directed below.
  • While the pasta water heats, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is melted, add the leeks and turn the heat down to medium-low; sweat the leeks, stirring often, until they are tender. This should take about 8-10 minutes.
  • When the leeks are tender and translucent, add the wine and the red pepper flakes, stir to integrate, and raise the heat to medium-high. Simmer for 3-5 minutes to cook off some of the raw flavor of the wine.
  • Now, add the miso paste, using a wooden spoon or a whisk to break it up and integrate it evenly into the wine mixture. Cook 2-3 minutes to allow it to soften and distribute (the older the miso paste is, the more reluctant it will be to integrate).
  • Dump in the canned tomatoes and their juice, stir, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Periodically, crush the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon or with a potato masher (be careful: they squirt!).
  • When the sauce has simmered at least 20 minutes to let the flavors blend, and when the pasta is cooked and drained, take the skillet off the heat and stir in the room temperature cream.
  • Integrate the drained pasta (I use tongs for this), then place the skillet back over medium-low heat and cook, frequently manipulating the pasta with your tongs, for another two minutes. This lets the pasta absorb some of the sauce.
  • To serve, transfer to a large bowl or serving dish and, if desired, scatter the top with your parsley or basil. Warm garlic toast is a welcome accompaniment.

Beer Braised Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri

2016 Food Blog June-0973 The first heat wave of the summer has hit Southern California (actually, if I’m honest, it has hit most of the country. Stop cackling, Seattle), and as a result, the things I most want to consume are tacos, grilled anything, bright, herbaceous sauces with plenty of acid, and beer. Fortunately for everyone concerned, today’s recipe combines three of the four. Entirely decent odds.

2016 Food Blog June-0946I had these tacos at a brewery restaurant in Venice, just on the other side of Highway 1. We’ve done cauliflower in tacos before, but that was a wintry dish. This one, with bright, sharp chimichurri sauce and briny crumbles of feta, is all summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0964As many breweries do, this one tries to use their beers in their food as well as in pint glasses, which makes a lot of sense. A glug or two of dark beer into a cheese sauce is perfect, and braising everything from beef to cauliflower in a simmer of ale rather than red wine just fits the venue.

2016 Food Blog June-0972I suppose in this instance, braising isn’t quite accurate – a braise is a long, slow cook in liquid, and here the beer deglazes the pan and then simmers just until the cauliflower florets are tender – but the name sounds nice, doesn’t it? Anyway, the normally mild, sometimes musty vegetable picks up some color and char from a very hot skillet, then sucks in some of the nutty bitterness of whatever beer you pour, sputtering and steaming, into the pan with it. It’s not quite the same depth and richness as roasted cauliflower, but a lighter incarnation that is a bit less sweet.

2016 Food Blog June-0958Once you pile the florets up into a nicely toasted tortilla, you spoon on some chimichurri sauce, a bright, Argentinian answer to pesto, possibly of Basque origin, that is traditionally used to both marinate and top grilled meat. It’s usually dominated by parsley, though sometimes cilantro and oregano make appearances, and gets its sharpness from raw garlic and a healthy dose of vinegar. Mine starts out traditional and then tempers the tang with red wine vinegar, rather than straight white, and sneaks in a bit of sundried tomato and green onion (though you could also use shallot) for a sauce that would make an equally good salad dressing, if you have some substantial greens laying around that need a kick. My version also uses much less oil than some, so feel free to glug in a bit more if you want a looser sauce.

2016 Food Blog June-0963A few crumbles of feta on top of the veg, and you’re ready to serve. And if you’re really feeling the beer-y flavor, perhaps a side of these black beans. Hit it, summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0976

Beer Braised Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri
Makes 1 cup chimichurri, and enough cauliflower for 4-6 tacos
About 30 minutes
For chimichurri sauce:
3-5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons shallot or the whites of green onions
1 tablespoon oil-packed sundried tomato, drained
¾ cup packed parsley, stems and all
2 tablespoons cilantro, stems and all
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 tablespoons (¼ cup + 1 tablespoon) red wine vinegar
⅓ cup vegetable or olive oil
For cauliflower tacos:
1 large head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces dark beer
soft corn tortillas, lightly grilled or toasted over an open flame
crumbled feta cheese, to serve
pico de gallo, to serve (optional)
additional cilantro, to serve (optional)

 

  • To make the chimichurri, blitz the garlic, onion or shallot, and sundried tomato in a food processor until the ingredients are well broken up. This ensures no large chunks of garlic in the final product. Then, pack in the parsley, cilantro, salt, black and red pepper, and vinegar, and pulse the food processor 2 or 3 times at 1-second intervals. Finally, drizzle in the oil and pulse again, 2 or 3 times at 1-second intervals, until everything is well chopped, but not so long that a fully emulsified paste is created. We are looking for the mixture to retain some texture. Set aside until ready to serve.
  • In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with the 1 teaspoon salt, the cumin, and the 2-3 tablespoons olive oil. Preheat a large skillet or a grill pan over medium-high to high heat and, when it is quite hot, tumble in the oiled, seasoned cauliflower. It will sizzle tremendously.
  • Char the cauliflower on all sides – you are looking for dark bronzed marks on the outside, but not to cook it through – this should take 3-4 minutes.
  • Deglaze with the beer by adding it all at once and stirring gently. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until the florets are tender but still have some texture; about 5 minutes.
  • To serve, use a slotted spoon to pile up about ¼ cup of florets in each tortilla. Spoon over a few teaspoons of chimichurri, then a few teaspoons of crumbled feta. Add pico de gallo and a few extra cilantro leaves if desired, and serve immediately.

Banh Mi-tballs

Food blog April 2015-0634When it comes to creating music, it seems to me there are two basic schools. One begins with the melody, considering sound, instrumentation, rhythm, process. Words and story – if there is one – get added to fit the beat and the harmonics and the feel. The other starts with the words: weaving a story, shouting a chorus, infusing rhyme and connotation and syllabic play. Filtering in notes and melodies that fit the narrative.

Guess which one I favor.

Food blog April 2015-0599I have the same issue with food. Seriously, when it comes to creating a recipe, I should probably start with the fundamentals: ingredients. Taste. Familiarity. Procedure and execution and fitting flavors together.

More often than not, though, the singer-songwriter I’ve never been pops to the forefront and I’m instead thinking of names and paragraphs and ways of representing the food I haven’t even made yet.

Food blog April 2015-0600That’s what happened with this experiment. In fact, this is in many ways the inspiration for the whole meatball project. Not because I’ve had a dish just like it that needed to be recreated. Not because I’m obsessed with or particularly fond of meatballs. No. Because I thought the name “banh mi-tball” was too good to pass up.

Food blog April 2015-0603As I noted previously, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity and exactness of such a sandwich. Ratios of meat to vegetable, the types of vegetables, the texture and flour types in the bread, form the bases of entries on numerous discussion forums that range from curious to intensely heated. Names are called. Gluten is flung.

Food blog April 2015-0604Here’s the thing, though. Now that I’m invested, I just wanted to make a sandwich good enough to be called banh mi-tball. I mean, you can’t back up a heart-wrenching narrative woven in clever rhyme with a tinny little toy guitar and an out-of-tune keyboard. But by the same token, I don’t think you have to be Jimi Hendricks or Eric Clapton to support the story in a satisfying way.

Food blog April 2015-0606What I’m trying to say here, is that I’m not all that interested in authenticity. I didn’t seek out every banh mi shop in Los Angeles and sample and compare and pester their chefs for trade secrets. Even when I’m not losing my mind grading papers during the semester, I don’t have that kind of time or motivation. The point was, I decided, to strive not for exactness or tradition, but to craft a damn good sandwich. So that’s what I’m going for.

Bread, vegetables (pickled and non), meat, spread. These are the necessary components. There should be a crisp crust, there should be a representation of sourness, spiciness, and umami, there should be a vegetal crunch. For this incarnation, I added strips of fresh Persian cucumbers to my pickles, along with sprigs of cilantro and wedges of lime. I spread my slightly-less-than-crisp “baguettes” with a curiously beautiful coral-hued spread of mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice, and I stood back and let my fellow sandwich-diners have their way with the pan full of meatballs on the stove.

Food blog April 2015-0611Since banh mi sandwiches so often feature pork, a pork meatball was the way to go. It would need to echo some of the flavors found in the sandwich itself, which means this is one of those recipes with a tablespoon of this and a teaspoon of that and an ingredient list long enough that you might at first be put off. You shouldn’t be, though. Like so many good Asian recipes, especially sauces, every single individual component has a part to play, and none are particularly exotic. Ginger and garlic for their aromatic spice. Jalapeños and cilantro for freshness and heat. A few tendrils of pickled onion  and a squeeze of lime for sourness. Soy sauce and brown sugar to balance that sourness. Fish sauce and red miso paste for that earthy umami funk. Capitalizing on my previous meatball experiments, a pinch of baking powder for lightness and an egg to bind everything together.

Food blog April 2015-0612Despite the lengthy ingredient list, the actual production of the meatballs is easy. Remembering my satisfying results with Swedish meatballs, I dumped everything in the food processor and let it whir. Pâté is a frequent protein option for banh mi sandwiches, so the smooth, bouncy texture I knew I could achieve with mechanized mixing seemed to fit the bill. After a mix, a quick roll with moistened hands, and a shallow fry in vegetable and sesame oil, all that remains is a twenty minute simmer in flavorful liquid. I opted for chicken broth with a bit of miso paste and a bit of brown sugar swirled in, which resulted in a poaching liquid so tasty I debated serving small bowls of it on the side.

Food blog April 2015-0625Once you have all the components, sandwich construction is easy. Because people tend to like crafting their own, this actually makes remarkably good party food. Just lay out your pickles, your vegetables, your bread, set down a jar of spread and a bowl of meatballs and watch your guests go to town. Load up your own baguette with enough fillings to stretch the corners of your mouth as you attempt that first bite. Then hide the leftovers. Because you’re going to want this again, and you might not want to share it.
Food blog April 2015-0628

Banh Mi-tballs
Makes 22-24 tablespoon-sized meatballs
For the meatballs:
2 cloves garlic, skins removed
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1-2 tablespoons jalapeño slices
¼ cup cilantro
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon red miso paste
½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon lime juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped pickled onions
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
For the sauce:
1-2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon red miso paste
1 teaspoon brown sugar

 

  • Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and cilantro to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until almost paste-like. This will ensure easier integration and no large chunks of garlic.
  • Add the pork and all other meatball ingredients through the 1 egg (that is, everything except the vegetable and sesame oil), then clamp on the lid and pulse to combine until the vegetable bits are well integrated and the pork itself is smooth and slightly gluey in texture.
  • Working with moistened hands to avoid too much stickiness, roll the mixture into tablespoon sized balls. When all are rolled, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil shimmers, then carefully add the meatballs in a single layer.
  • Fry over medium heat until browned on all sides; 5-8 minutes. Remove to a clean plate.
  • In the skillet, whisk together the chicken broth, the 1 tablespoon of red miso, and the 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Carefully place the meatballs into the simmering broth, again in a single layer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low.
  • Simmer meatballs for ten minutes, then flip each one over and simmer for 10 minutes more. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature on a sandwich with pickles, vegetables, and spread (recipe follows).

 

Sriracha and lime mayonnaise
makes a generous ⅓ cup; enough for about 4 sandwiches
⅓ cup mayonnaise
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon lime juice
½ tablespoon sriracha or to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce (go easy; it’s strong)

 

  • Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well to combine.
  • To assemble the sandwiches, split baguettes lengthwise, spread generously with sriracha and lime mayonnaise, then layer on meatballs, pickled vegetables of your choice, cucumber, sliced jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, and if desired, a squeeze of lime juice.

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs

I fervently hope you have at least one recipe in your arsenal that your family is just mad about. In my case, I guess that might be… tacos? Or perhaps, pardon the sub-par photography, pot pie. For my mom, this recipe is a take on Swedish meatballs from an old cookbook with a faded gold cover. Populated by numerous, lightly ethnic recipes from various European and Mediterranean regions, the cookbook is most stained and marked (Mom makes adjustments in the margins with pencil) on the “Myrna’s Meatballs” recipe. On the facing page is a photograph of a woman (Myrna, I guess) with well-teased chestnut hair, large glasses, and a round face, in the process of lighting candles over a nicely stocked dining room table.

Food Blog February 2015-0364The meatballs themselves, with their mixture of beef and pork seasoned with warm spices and draped in rich brown gravy, are definitely a take on the Swedish smorgasbord classic, and my family is nuts for them. Every year when we plan our Christmas menu, the one item that doesn’t change, it seems, is these meatballs. This past year, because the plan was all rolled appetizers, the meatballs didn’t fit the theme. Rather than skip them, however, they became Christmas Eve dinner instead. Christmas was saved. For Christmas 2015, we’ve already decided the theme will be “food on a stick” (because, I mean, what else would we do while eating the current year’s offerings than plot options for next year’s celebration?). My sister has already excitedly declared that we’ll just stab the meatballs with toothpicks, and that’s one dish done.

Food Blog February 2015-0349I must confess: I like these meatballs quite a bit, and I enjoy them when they show up in the Christmas spread, but they aren’t quite on my deathbed menu. They are tender and tasty, and the gravy in particular – depth and extra richness imparted by a mere teaspoon of instant coffee powder – is a savory treat. But something about the meatball itself made me want to fiddle.

Food Blog February 2015-0350In one of those lovely coincidences the universe sometimes hands out, the Cooks Illustrated issue in my, well, my bathroom magazine rack (what?) just happened to contain a Swedish meatball recipe, and though many of the ingredients were the same as Myrna’s immortal list, the procedure was different enough to catch my attention. Since one of the things – I think – I wanted to adjust about the family meatball of choice was the texture, it seemed fortuitous to combine-and-conquer.

Food Blog February 2015-0352The main difference in the CI version of Swedish meatballs is the way the meat is prepared. Mom and Myrna knead together the pork, beef, a handful of parsley, spices (plenty of black pepper, as Mom is always telling me), lightly sauteed onions, and  breadcrumbs soaked in milk (called a panade) in a bowl before forming soft balls. Taking a cue from sausage making, CI recipe tester J. Kenji Alt instead vigorously paddles the pork in a stand mixer with spices, baking powder for lightness, and the traditional sopping panade. A touch of brown sugar goes in too, for a background hint of sweetness. Grated onions and salt join this combination, and the whipped meat paste is only lightly combined with ground beef. This results in a tender, light meatball with a sort of springiness, achieved by stretching the meat proteins in the pork as it is paddled into a paste-y emulsion. It also more evenly distributes the fat through the meat, which seemed worth imitating.

Food Blog February 2015-0353In my version, because I also wanted to minimize the number of dishes I was going to make N. wash (our version of an egalitarian kitchen: whoever cooks, the other one has to wash up. You can guess how this usually works out), I decided to go for the food processor instead of the stand mixer. I was going to use it to make fresh breadcrumbs anyway, and decided relying on it to grate my onions and mix up the meat would keep things easy. In retrospect, this seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t the blade tear apart the meat proteins, rather than elongating them? Yet it did produce a pleasing texture.

Food Blog February 2015-0355Mom (and Myrna) brown their meatballs in a few tablespoons of butter, then finish them by simmering them in the gravy for half an hour. The CI version, on the other hand, does more of a shallow fry in vegetable oil, cooking the meatballs completely and then just running them through a quick turn in the sauce. I decided, again, on a slight compromise. I used less oil than the CI recipe, and browned the meatballs on all sides, opting to use my electric skillet so I could control the oil temperature. Once the meatballs were golden and felt almost crisp, I drained them, whisked up the sauce in the same skillet, and returned them to the gravy for the requisite half hour simmer. Any opportunity to add flavor seemed like the right thing to do.

Food Blog February 2015-0356When we couldn’t take the aroma anymore (the dog kept appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, wagging and smiling. Their eternal hope is so encouraging and so sad), I boiled up some egg noodles, tossed them with butter and parsley, and ladled on the main event.

Food Blog February 2015-0360I don’t think I’m allowed to say that my meatballs were better than Mom’s. But they were very, very good. I think the textural change – a subtle tenseness to the exterior that burst when you bit through it, and a tightness to the meatball that was somehow not at all dense – was an improvement. I also added a reserved squeeze of dijon mustard to both the panade mixture and the sauce, and that, along with the bare hint of sweetness from the brown sugar, was a good choice.

Food Blog February 2015-0366But in addition to the texture and the minimal flavor upgrades, I think the nest of buttery noodles made the dish. When we eat these meatballs at Christmas time, they are usually part of a large spread – one little corner of a plate full of wildly varied appetizer items. Here, resting atop an eggy bed, glazed with thick gravy, we really had a chance to appreciate their deep, warm flavors.

Food Blog February 2015-0364

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs
Makes 25-30 1-inch meatballs
For meatballs:
1½ cups bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ of a large onion)
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + 1 tablespoon for serving
⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ pound ground beef
1 cup vegetable oil
For gravy:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1¼ – 1½ cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste (taste first; sodium content in beef broth may vary)
  • Using the disc shredder of a food processor or a box grater, grate the onion and cook it in 1 tablespoon butter over medium low heat until tender and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool.
  • While onion cooks and cools, use the regular blade of a food processor to create 1½ cups bread crumbs from 1-2 slices of bread (stale is fine). Combine the bread crumbs, the milk or half and half, and 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard in a small bowl and let soak for 5 minutes.
  • Add the ground pork, cooled onions, ¼ cup parsley, salt, baking powder, brown sugar, and spices to the food processor. Squeeze out the soaked bread and add that as well.  Process for 1-2 minutes into a smooth, homogenous mixture. Pause to scrape down the sides as needed.
  • Dump the pork and bread paste into a large bowl and add the ground beef. Using your hands or a spatula (but hands work better), gently fold the beef into the pork mixture until just incorporated. With moistened hands, form generous tablespoon-sized balls (about 1 inch) from the meat mixture.
  • Heat oil in a straight-sided skillet to 350F, or until the first meatball sizzles when cautiously dipped in. I used my electric skillet to help monitor the temperature. Fry the meatballs, turning as needed, until brown on all sides – about 5 minutes. Remove and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray while you make the gravy.
  • For gravy, carefully pour out the remaining oil in the pan, but leave any browned bits behind for extra flavor. These are called fond. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour and whisk together. Let flour and butter cook for 1-2 minutes into a loose, lightly golden smear. Stir in the instant espresso powder, the brown sugar, and the dijon mustard. Add the beef broth, whisking constantly to deter lumps. Continue to whisk slowly until mixture reaches a simmer and thickens to a gravy consistency. Taste for seasoning, keeping in mind flavors will intensify as it continues to simmer.
  • Add the meatballs to the gravy in the pan, cover, and cook over low to medium low heat for 30 minutes, basting the meatballs occasionally.
  • Serve hot or warm over buttered egg noodles, mashed or boiled potatoes, or with toothpicks for an appetizer or smorgasbord spread. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of parsley over the starch or the meatballs themselves for a little brightness.

Project Sauce Conclusion: Classic Béarnaise

As the culminating entry in this sauce project, where else could we end up but drowning in butter? I realize it’s after Christmas, which means you might balk at this, but it’s not January just yet, which I think means it’s safe to endure one more indulgence before we resign ourselves to a month or three of crisp winter salads, pickled vegetables, and herb soups (actually, all of that sounds pretty good… maybe I’m just hungry).

Food Blog December 2014-0989But before we get to all that, reflections are in order. As the Parson in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales promises in introducing his sermon, it is time to “knit up all this feast and make an end.” This is a meal of endings. The month is almost over, and the year is fast on its way out after that. Even my camera battery decided to go with the theme, running out of juice mere moments after I snapped the top photo.

Food Blog December 2014-0978I chose sauce as the subject for this year’s project because I knew only basics about it. It struck me as mysterious – puddled round or gently but surely emulsified over various restaurant and food-TV displayed dishes, deeply flavored and succulent, providing a link between the otherwise fractured components on the plate. I was acquainted with some – the kind of softly thickened, creamy concoctions resulting from a roux – but terrified of others – hollandaise and mayonnaise and this final entry, béarnaise, seemed outside the arsenal of an ordinary home kitchen. Why else would eggs benedict always cost so much on a brunch menu? Yet they weren’t as frightening as I’d expected. In fact, despite being prepared to make multiple versions of each and frantically fix broken or greasy sauces, I had little trouble. And as I wound my way through the project, some lessons became clear:

1.) Butter is king. Though there are some recipes that rely on simple reduction as their method for producing thick, glossy pours, most require fat to add shine and to help emulsify, and because so many of these classic sauces are French in origin, there is no other fat even under consideration besides butter. It makes sense, too. Bringing a sauce together frequently requires emulsification, which means suspending together insoluble droplets together to thicken the liquid. Whole butter is a combination of fat and water, which means as it sits there all innocent and golden in that paper-wrapped stick, it is already an emulsion all on its own. If you’re going to work with sauces, be prepared to go through a lot of butter. Just remember you’re usually making enough sauce for a crowd, so it’s not quite like you’re chowing down on that whole stick all by yourself…

Food Blog December 2014-09822.) There are three main methods of thickening: eggs, flour or starch, or reducing. The eggs help thicken the sauce because they cook, transforming from a viscous goop into supernatural, temperamental velvet. The flour and starch work by expanding as they heat in the liquid you whisk them fervently into – they swell and absorb and, if you’re assiduous in your stirring, result in an evenly thickened mixture, not a soup full of doughy clumps. Saving these, however, the simplest method of thickening is reducing. Since in most cases a sauce is a pot of liquid suspended over heat, enough simmering is going to result in loss of water, and the more water evaporates from the pot, the less there is left in the sauce. Evaporation, though, takes time, which leads me to lesson three.

3.) Don’t rush. While these sauces are not particularly difficult to make, they do take time. Bringing a pot full of liquid even to a light simmer takes a while, and if you want a thick, glossy reduction in less than five minutes, you’re going to be disappointed. Much of the rich savoriness achieved by something like a veloute or a barbecue sauce comes from simmering away the water in your mixture to concentrate the flavors. As for the egg-based incarnations, mayonnaise just doesn’t come together in an instant. Be prepared for the long haul before you can spread it on that sandwich.

Food Blog December 2014-09854.) Get ready to stir. While we’re considering the long haul, it’s not enough to just throw a pot of sauce on the stove and walk away for a while. In almost every case, a successful sauce is the result of determined and consistent whisking for long minutes at a time. Eggs scramble, flour lumps, and milk curdles if left unattended. Since the objective of sauce is a smooth texture, be prepared for the stirring this requires. Relatedly, this also means having your ingredients pretty much prepped before starting the process – there’s just not time to finely mince a shallot at the same time you’re vigorously stirring a pot of slowly expanding egg yolks.

5.) Carnivore-friendly. Vinaigrettes and dessert offerings excepted, most of these sauces to seem to be intended for consumption with flesh of some sort, whether that be fowl, fish, or four-footed. Some are based around meat broths or stocks, while others just classically pair with specific cuts. This month’s offering, for example, is a classic steak-house luxury. I suppose this is reflective of an era in which meat is the focal point of a meal. But we found that, far from a necessity, many of these sauces are just as enjoyable puddled over a pile of lightly steamed vegetables or roasty starches. Because really, a thick emulsion of butter and egg yolks should be poured over almost anything, as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s get to that whole butter and egg yolks thing, shall we? As sauces go, béarnaise is not so different from last month’s beurre blanc. In fact, as restaurant legend goes, beurre blanc was an accident, created by a chef who was intending to make béarnaise, but forgot to add the egg yolks. That tells you much of what you need to know about this fluffy, decadent concoction. Reduced wine and vinegar, some aromatics, egg yolks tenderly and assiduously whisked like a hollandaise, and then an embarrassing amount of melted butter carefully dribbled in. It emulsifies into a pale, almost foamy lemon-colored sauce that is a bit strong on its own, but utterly lovely enrobing everything from red meat to barely blanched green beans.

Food Blog December 2014-0986I wasn’t sure I would love béarnaise sauce at first, because in order to be a classic béarnaise, it has to be flavored with a hefty note of tarragon, an herb with lush, pointed leaves redolent of that most repulsive of flavors: black licorice. The anise-y taste it imparts in its dried form exiles it from my spice cabinet, and I was worried that stirring a whopping three tablespoons of it into my sauce would render it inedible. Surprisingly though, despite the strong aroma, the final flavor is delicate and inoffensive. It’s noticeable, yes, but in the final product it’s just an herby freshness not so different from basil.

Because this was sort of an occasion, being the final sauce and all that, we decided to make it celebratory and eat béarnaise with its classic pairing. In addition to the crisp-tender green beans and smashed potatoes, we inhaled thick slices of seared chateaubriand, a thick cut from the tenderloin similar to filet mignon. Over this, the béarnaise dribbles and foams and mixes, and the richness is decadent and heroic, and we didn’t lay our forks down until every molecule of food was gone from those plates.
I hope you are enjoying the holiday season. Project Sauce may be over, but with New Year’s Eve just around the corner, there is one more sort of sauce I think you should consider. And in this case, you don’t even have to make it. You just have to hit it. And then let someone else take you home and tuck you in. Happy New Year, friends. I can’t wait to tell you about the project for 2015.

Food Blog December 2014-0989

Pretty Classic Sauce Béarnaise
Makes a little over 1 cup
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick; 4 ounces)
1 shallot, minced (1/4 cup?)
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon leaves, divided
1 teaspoon crushed peppercorns
3 egg yolks
salt to taste
  • In a small pot, melt the butter, skimming off and discarding the bubbly scum that forms at the surface.
  • Meanwhile, simmer the wine, vinegar, peppercorns, shallots, and 2 tablespoons of the tarragon leaves until only a tablespoon of the liquid remains. Strain into a glass or metal bowl and let cool for a minute or two.
  • Set the bowl over a pot half full of water and begin warming it up over medium heat. Before it has a chance to heat up much, add the three egg yolks to the bowl with the wine mixture and whisk vigorously. Continue to whisk as the water comes to a bare simmer.
  • Continue whisking the yolk mixture until it is doubled – about 5 minutes. It will become pale and fluffy.
  • When yolk mixture has doubled, turn the heat down to low and begin dribbling in the melted butter a few drops at a time. If the mixture begins to look curdled or really shiny, remove from the heat for a minute, whisking constantly. This will slow down the speed at which the eggs cook. If you’re really nervous about it, add about a teaspoon of water and whisk vigorously to bring things back together.
  • Continue whisking and dribbling in the melted butter, on and off the heat, until all the butter is added and the sauce is thick. Add the final tablespoon of chopped tarragon, season to taste with salt, and set aside in a warm spot until ready to serve – a thermos works very nicely.

Seared Scallops with Beurre Blanc and Parsnip Puree

Food Blog November 2014-0893It will come as no surprise to you that I am late with this post. I mean, here it is Monday and it’s up and all that, but a quick check of the calendar belies my appearance of timeliness. See, it’s December. It’s December and this is a sauce recipe I owe you from last month. By my twisted, grasping-for-an-apology way of thinking, though, I ate it in November… so that totally counts, right?

Food Blog November 2014-0872This time around, we’re back to butter. There are a lot of butter based sauces, friends. A lot. This one, a beurre blanc, is a sauce made by reducing white wine with aromatics and sometimes a bit of lemon juice or vinegar, then whisking in an unbelievable amount of butter until the sauce turns into this rich, fluffy, thick, pale yellow ambrosia that belongs draped over every kind of substance imaginable.

Food Blog November 2014-0875Food Blog November 2014-0879Most of these sauces have dubious origin stories. Who wouldn’t want to be responsible for a well-loved buttery emulsion as appropriate to green beans as to seared fish? Cooking lore holds, however, that beurre blanc was created by accident – an unintentional simplification of béarnaise sauce that caught on and became beloved. Julia Child writes about it with the affection you might expect for a sauce that is, in her words, essentially “warm flavored butter.”

Food Blog November 2014-0880Food Blog November 2014-0881This is not Julia Child’s recipe. For ease, and for clarity, I went with Alton Brown’s. Mine is a slight adaptation – I halved the recipe, and I didn’t have the traditional shallot so I simply omitted it. Alton’s sauce uses lemon juice instead of white wine vinegar, which suggests it was meant to go with fish or seafood, and this decided my pairings for me. Lemon and butter sauce? Pass the scallops.

Food Blog November 2014-0870The silkiness of this sauce is perfect with shellfish. I can imagine dipping lush hunks of lobster into it. I can imagine a drizzle over soft-shell crab. I would be more than satisfied with a pool underneath a piece of halibut or cod. But scallops won the day for me. These perfect little cylinders, meaty and mild and almost sweet, develop a perfect crust when you pat them dry, season them aggressively, and sear them golden-brown on top and bottom. When you douse them with sauce, or float them in a puddle of it, the buttery smoothness somehow elevates them even more.

Food Blog November 2014-0882Because I was eating alone, I decided to play with plating a bit more than usual. As I see it, there are many ways to serve this dinner. I tried two options. First, and a bit more everyday, is a lovely heap of parsnip puree, a few scallops nestled atop it, and a small pile of steamed slender green beans alongside. A healthy drizzle of sauce, and you are ready to serve.

Food Blog November 2014-0883Food Blog November 2014-0884To amp up the presentation though, I grabbed a long rectangular dish. A few small bundles of green beans at intervals along the plate, small mounds of puree between them, and a tender scallop balanced on each spoonful of puree. Sauce can be applied to the top of each scallop, or poured around the edges of the plate just before serving.

Food Blog November 2014-0893

Seared Scallops with Beurre Blanc and Parsnip Puree
Serves 2

For the parsnip puree:

3-4 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2-3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon chives, finely minced
For the beurre blanc:
4 ounces dry white wine
½ tablespoon lemon juice
½ tablespoon heavy cream
6 tablespoons cold, cubed butter
salt to taste
For the scallops:
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to sprinkle
12 large sea scallops, at room temperature

 

  • Place the milk, garlic cloves, and parsnip chunks into a medium pot over medium heat. The moment the milk begins to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the parsnips are tender, 10-12 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the butter until melted.
  • Blend until very smooth using an immersion blender, a regular blender, or a food processor. Just before serving, fold in the chives.
  • While the milk for the parsnips is heating up, make the beurre blanc.
  • In a small pot, heat the wine and lemon juice to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce the liquid to a bare tablespoon.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and add the half tablespoon of cream, which will help stabilize the mixture.
  • As soon as the liquid begins to bubble again, turn the heat down as low as it will go and begin adding the butter, one cube at a time, whisking until completely integrated into the liquid before adding the next cube.
  • Continue adding the butter, whisking constantly, until it is all integrated. Turn off the heat and continue whisking until the sauce is fully emulsified and has become a fluffy, pale yellow puddle slightly thicker than melted ice cream.
  • Stow the finished sauce in a thermos to stay warm while you cook the scallops.
  • Unwrap your scallops and pat them dry with a paper towel. If they are wet, they will not sear well. Sprinkle both sides of each scallop with salt and pepper.
  • In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. When it is shimmering in the pan, carefully add the scallops in a single layer, taking care not to let them touch one another. This seems fussy, but it is essential for getting a good sear.
  • Once you have placed each scallop, don’t touch them for 2 full minutes. Then, carefully lift one and check the bottom – it should have a deep bronzed crust. If this is the case, flip over each scallop and cook another 2 minutes. If it isn’t deeply bronzed yet, let it cook another 30 seconds before checking again.
  • When the scallops are cooked, they should feel slightly springy but resistant, like a firm mattress. Ideally, they should be the palest, palest pink in the center as in my photo above – they will continue to cook while you plate the rest of the meal.
  • To serve, arrange as desired with scallops atop or beside the parsnip puree, and the beurre blanc sauce drizzle over the top or puddled on the side. Accompany the dish with steamed green beans or pencil asparagus, if desired.