Ideas


© 2011 Francis & Lloyd

Pasta is the best. It cooks quickly and simply, doesn’t need much to make it great, and is the medium for any number of wonderful sauces. I had a request from my most important taste-tester for a basic pasta sauce post, with one tomato and one oil-based recipe, so here goes. Both recipes have very few ingredients, so the quality of them is really important, particularly the tomatoes, olive oil, and most importantly the pasta. If you’re going simple, you might as well spend a little extra to make sure the dish is as good as it can be. And it can be really, really good. Also both sauces come together in the time it takes to cook the pasta and can be adapted to any situation or ingredient you might encounter.

Easy Pasta Sauce v.1: Olive Oil
Serves 1 hungry person, 20 minutes

1/2 pound pasta (preferably something a little interesting in shape)
2 Tbsp. of your best olive oil, extra virgin if you have it
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced or minced
Salt and pepper, freshly ground if possible
Parmesan cheese

1. Start your water boiling, salt it well (1 Tablespoon at least). When it’s boiling and the pasta’s in, pour the olive oil into a small sauce or frying pan and turn the heat to low. Add the sliced garlic. It should NOT FRY, seriously don’t let it start frying, you just want it to cook lightly.

2. When the pasta’s ready (keep it al dente), drain it and pour the drained pasta back into the pot you cooked it in. Pour the olive oil and garlic onto it while still hot and stir the whole mix. Plate it, add salt, pepper, parmesan to taste. That’s it.

•••

Easy Pasta Sauce v.2: Tomato
Serves 1 hungry person, 20 minutes

1/2 pound pasta (preferably something a little interesting in shape)
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes (with basil is good)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, freshly ground if possible
Parmesan cheese

1. Once the pasta’s in, put the tomatoes in a saucepan over medium heat. When it starts to simmer/boil put the garlic and seasonings in. Simmer for a few minutes to cook the garlic.

2. Drain the pasta, add the sauce, plate, top with parmesan. Not so bad, huh?

It’s the ultimate comfort food. Butter, carbs, cheese, it’s sort of hard to go wrong with such a fantastic combination, but there’s a science to making a successful mac and cheese. I’ve only just begun a long and exciting journey towards perfection of this pillar of homestyle American cooking, but, I must confess, I cheated.

My grandfather has been a mac and cheese enthusiast for lifetimes longer than I have. “Papa’s making mac and cheese!” was an often repeated exclamation in my house and remains a cause for celebration. His recipe toes the line between gourmet and homey in just the way you hope it will, and for me sets the bar by which all others are judged.

When I first called him for the recipe he gave me amounts like “a little flour” and “a bunch of cheese.” Maybe the fact that I’m his descendent allows us to communicate in this way. Now these approximations are, in all fairness, the way he (and I in his footsteps) cooks, but a recipe they do not make. So I’ll try to quantify these measurements while still preserving the freeform spirit of the recipe, forgive me Papa.

Papa’s Mac and Cheese
1 hour, serves ~6

1. Cook 1.5 pounds penne, rigatoni, or other smallish tubular pasta until fully cooked but firm. Before draining reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.

2. Melt 2T butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, when fully melted add 1T flour and stir until the flour is incorporated and the texture is smooth. You now have a roux.

3. Gradually add 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring after each addition until the mixture is smooth and even.

4. Add, a handful at a time, 1 pound of shredded sharp cheddar (or more if you want it really cheesy), again stirring after each addition. While you’re waiting for the cheese to melt add some seasonings (mustard, salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg are pretty standard).

5. Once fully melted, combine the sauce with the pasta and mix until each piece is coated. Butter a large (13”x9” or so) baking dish and pour the pasta/cheese picture into the pan, spread it out to fill. Pour 1/2 cup or more of the reserved pasta water over the entire operation, depending on how moist it looks.

6. Top with breadcrumbs and/or more shredded cheese, bake at 400 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy. Let it sit for at least 10-15 minutes before serving.

Learning to cook can be an arduous, often-frustrating task that only proves worthwhile at the end of a long (hours or years, maybe) journey. It’s an incremental process that takes serious and long-term effort to finally reach the effortlessness of experienced kitchen-goers, no one will tell you it’s easy.

That being said, anyone can learn with just a few simple tools (the internet is an indispensable one) and a little bit of dedication. Like anything it’s helpful to have a foundation of techniques and ideas to gradually progress to more complex and freeform culinary tasks. Find someone you trust who won’t judge your inexperience and ask them to start from square one and work your way from there until you’re familiar with the basics. If you can handle chopping and sautéing and boiling and a few others, you can cook almost anything. Buy a decent recipe book and you’ll find a world of foodie opportunities.

Yes, cooking can be hard. In fact it can be really terribly hard even for those people that do it as a serious hobby or on a daily, professional basis. Occasionally a recipe doesn’t come out right or some ingredients might not behave the way you want them to, but these are just further challenges on the quest to becoming a “good” cook, however you might define that. As you improve you’ll rely less and less on explicit directions and more on your own intuition and ideas of what works and what doesn’t , which recipe makes the best mac and cheese, the easiest tomato sauce. Trial and error will always be your best research tool. And no matter what, understand that cooking should be first and foremost enjoyable, particularly when it’s for those who will be happy no matter what you end up concocting.

Purple carrots do a lot of the work for you, making the photo interesting in subject matter alone, but think about the composition and lighting nonetheless.

I’m not a great photographer. The only time I had any real training in the subject was in high school when I took introductory photo and darkroom techniques. It wasn’t the most subtle or well-developed program ad certainly didn’t have any component about food. So, everything that I’ve learned has been through trial and (lots of) error as well as the advice of a few generous and considerably more skilled friends.

The most important thing when taking a photo of your culinary creations is the light. Assuming you have a decent camera (I use an entry-level Canon DSLR) you’ll need to either find or create suitable light to highlight your subject and produce the depth and texture that makes the food pop on whatever print or electronic medium you’ll eventually use to display the photograph. I try, whenever possible, to use natural light from nearby windows, but this is not always possible. Yes, you can take decent photos with the overhead lights in your kitchen, but try putting a lamp nearby, behind the camera. The industry calls this a “fill” and it softens the harsh fluorescent shadow you’ll most likely encounter with purely artificial light.

Framing is just as important, and can really elevate you from amateur to professional status. As a general rule the food should fill most of the frame, or at least be centered enough to be the focus of the image. Until you start composing elaborate backdrops and sets for your food (I’m not there yet, and don’t know if I ever will be), keep the scene simple: a plate or display surface, some garnishes, your meal front and center. With just a few elements in the photo your depth of field will be even more pronounced. The carrot photo above almost takes this too far, but having some background or foreground blurry is not at all bad, and can give the photo far more impact.

Again, I’m not a pro and I’m probably not even qualified to give photography advice, but who cares? I like a few of the photos I take and try to emulate the components in those that I think work particularly well. You can certainly do the same. Play around, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Ever seen a piquet? You have now.

Some older recipe books will call for an “onion stuck with cloves” and, until recently, this made absolutely no sense to me and I basically ignored it. In a recent attempt to make a gigantic pot roast the recipe I was using not only called for this onion contraption, but explained it. You see the result above. It’s an aromatic intended to flavor a stock, soup, or long-cooked meat dish by the clever combination of onion and clove, here with the added bonus of a bay leaf.

Of course you can accomplish the same thing with any number of aromatics, in all sorts of arrangements, but why not embrace a technique that’s been part of cooking for hundreds of years (probably, it didn’t have a wikipedia article). I first saw it in James Beard’s fantastic Beard on Food, and that alone should be good enough reason to trust the charming piquet, as if you even needed one.

And we’re back! After an extended vacation (I’m terribly sorry) I return from all sorts of food adventures revived and ready for some serious blogging.
Coming soon: new breakfast posts, CGC events, food porn, site updates, foodgawker and tastespotting integration, and more!

A huge pat on the back to the marketing and research teams at Benihana, whoever and wherever they are. It seems they’ve managed to exactly model the American consumer market and create a product, a restaurant concept, perfectly designed to hit all the pleasure centers that we Americans are preprogrammed to desire, even lust after. What’s the secret? Theater in droves, even if it’s terribly corny and borderline offensive to anyone with half a brain. A vaguely Asian ethnicity helps to take the idea even further out of the realm of reality, though I dare you to try to find a Benihana in Japan. And of course scoops and lumps and plops of butter (they painfully refer to it as “Japanese Ice Cream”) center the entire production directly within our fat-loving American tastes.
Salt, fat, and a circus, what’s not to love? This is a legitimate question and one that I struggle to answer despite my gut feeling that I should have a deep and primal urge to hate the place. In all honesty, it tastes good. Really good in fact. Is it really gourmet? Not at all. Is it kind of sort of a little bit awesome? Begrudgingly, yes.
“I can make this food just as well if not better at home.” I should have kept this thought to myself because just a day later I was picking ingredients for what would later be deemed Benihana steak and vegetables. One of my more discerning customers was to be the judge, herself a Benihana veteran and member of the illustrious Chef’s Table birthday club. How did it turn out? Fortunately the fact that the chefs at Benihana cook on your table means it’s stupidly easy to copy their recipes and follow them at home. You’ll only need a few ingredients, and after you practice your knife spinning and sign a form releasing this website and its authors from all legal responsibility you’ll be well on your way to Benihana certification.
Benihana Steak and Vegetables
Takes about 30 minutes, unless you want to marinate. Should serve 2.

About 1-1.5 pounds of nice fatty steak (NY strip or the like, trimmed and marinated in soy sauce and rice vinegar if you have the time.)
3 medium zucchinis or yellow squash, each cut in half once the long way
1/2 yellow onion, cut in wide strips
Lemon juice
Butter
Soy Sauce
Pepper
1. Allow the steak to come to room temperature.
2. Heat a cast iron or other NON non-stick pan as hot as you feel comfortable, at least 1 minute on high heat, with nothing in it. A spritz of water should dance around in little beads on the surface of the pan. While you’re doing this pat the steak dry with a paper towel, the drier the better. Place it in the pan and DON’T TOUCH IT DAMNIT until it releases from the pan with a gentle nudge, about 3 minutes for a 1.5″ thick steak, flip the steak to the other side. After another 3 minutes the steak should be browned on both sides. Remove it from the pan to a cutting board and cut the steak into fairly large cubes, the cubes should be very pink or red in the middle, that’s ok.
3. Return the cubes to the hot pan and add at least 1.5-2 tablespoons of butter, about the same of soy sauce, and the juice of half a lemon. Stir or flip this until the butter is melted and bubbling and the sauce ingredients are combined and slightly thickened on the surfaces of the steak. After a minute or two, depending on your doneness preference, take the pan off the heat, pepper to taste, and serve with rice.
4. The zucchini and onions are almost exactly the same. Brown them in a dry or lightly oiled pan, cut into pieces, return to the pan with the rest of the ingredients and reduce slightly.
Surprisingly good.

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