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Feed Your Brain: History Of The Taco

Still on vacation, but here’s something to keep you busy. A brief history of the humble taco.

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From An Expert: How To Make An Old Fashioned

From the most excellent Serious Eats, here is one of the few whiskey cocktails that might actually (in certain circumstances) improve on straight bourbon.

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Home Made Pizza In The Summer

June 30, 2012 2 comments

It takes a special kind of crazy to coax a 550º temperature out of your oven in the dead of summer. Maybe I was just running out of recipes for my greens. Maybe I just had the feeling that no matter how good the pizza in my area was, I could do better. Whatever the reason, despite knowing the forecast of continuing heat and humidity, I decided to make some pizza dough the other day. 

Proper pizza dough is never a one hour rise and bake. If you see a recipe that calls for mixing flour, water, and yeast together, letting it sit for an hour, and then cooking your pizza, you’re best bet is to move along. Sure you might end up with something that resembles a pizza crust, at least superficially. It will be flat and it will support a layer of cheese. At best, though, it’ll end up tasting like drywall. If you want pizza NOW, order in. The dough you want is going to take a couple of days in the fridge to reach it’s full potential  

Today we, the intrepid, decided to soldier on. While every fan in the apartment set to spinning, we kicked the oven into high gear. 

I always like to make one pie per person. That’s just enough to leave you uncomfortably full, which is where you should be after putting up with so much just to start making pizza in the first place. Each dough has been measured out to about 13 oz. We take the dough and shape it into a ball, stretching the outside as much as we can without tearing the dough, creating a surface tension. When the yeast create CO2 during their proofing, this surface tension will capture the gas and help the dough to raise. This part is very important when cooking pizza. You tuck the dough into itself to create a tight ball, then pinch the bottom closed. Then you slap the doughball down on your work surface and slide it around to even out the seal. It’s hard to describe. There are videos on YouTube, but none of them are right. 

After a second raise, the dough is ready to be worked. You can tell if it’s ready by poking it. Seriously. If you give it a gentle poke and it doesn’t spring right back, then it’s ready to go. 

After flattening out the first pie, we dressed this with some fresh mozzarella, some blue cheese, and blanched napa cabbage. I got my mozzarella at Taste Of Italy in Tinton Falls. The flavor was good, fresh and well seasoned, but I found the texture to be watery. Creating a good ball of fresh cheese can be hit or miss. It’s a very physical activity. The milky water needs to be wrung out thoroughly without damaging the curds.

Before it goes in.

I will admit I never had cabbage pizza before, unless you count sauerkraut (don’t ask). It was good, with just a bit of grassy flavor to cut through the richness of the cheese. The dough was high hydration, approximately 67%. As you can see we got some tremendous oven spring. 

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Some hobbyists can get caught up in the tools. This is true with any pass time. Sure we all like to have the nice Cuisinart for making the dough, or a professional 3 by 6 plastic container for raising our doughs. But all of those things are simply luxuries. What’s really important in pizza making is your ingredients and your oven. Without having a decent machine in your kitchen and knowing how to use it, the pizza will never get that perfect crisp/tender/chewy texture. I’m still learning with this oven here. The undercarriage is getting cooked perfectly, but the tops are still a bit blonde for my taste. If I leave them in much longer, though, I’ll risk burning the bottom. It’s going to take a bit more tinkering to get the settings just right. 

As I write this it is 90º and I do not have air conditioning. This is the time of year when you put away your break and pizza making skills for a few months. The oven is not doing you any favors. Sure, you can always make grilled pizza, and the diehards will simply build a wood fired oven in their back yards. But for me, this was a good way to end the season. In the mean time, I’ll probably take the time to explore the local pizza joints in Monmouth County, and look forward to getting back in the kitchen come fall.

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CSA Week 4: It’s Not Easy Having Greens

June 26, 2012 3 comments

Like mot things in life, I wish I had been more diligent in blogging my weekly CSA bundle. So far, it’s been an enjoyable challenge to come home with a bushel of food, mostly greens, and try to figure out a way to live on these that doesn’t require eating the same meal every day for a month. The trick is to not always insist on your CSA goodies taking center stage. Variety is the spice of life. Focus on the pork shoulder you find on sale that week, for instance, and let your veggies play a supporting role.

The first thing to do is to make a salad while everything is super fresh. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to plan your weekly meals in order of what needs the most cooking. The fresh lettuce, straight from the garden, will never taste as good as it does the day you pick it. Meanwhile, heartier kale can survive a longer wait.

For dinner on Sunday, the plan was to stir fry some greens with chicken sausage I picked up from Stop and Shop, and then toss it all with some pasta. That didn’t turn out so well, as the sausage decided to turn itself rancid. Luckily, Sunday was a nice day for a walk. Erin and I moseyed on down to the grocery store and exchanged the meat for a hunk of fresh mozzarella. On the way back we even stopped at a blues show in the park.

Greens and pasta is almost too easy, though. Sure, you can throw some random protein in there and call it a new dish, but after a while I starts to feel repetitive.

The following day we dined on carnitas. Bock choy added some crunch, but mostly it was a bit of a break. While living with limitations is an effective tool to get your creativity going, sometimes you just want something easy and greasy. Enter the carnitas.

Then today it was back to the drawing board. I have to say that I’m pretty proud of myself.

The end result is a Three Green and Sausage Casserole. It sounds very pot-luck, but it was simple and pretty darn tasty.

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The recipe, such as it is:

2 medium sized bunches of kale
1 bunch of bock choy
1 bunch Swiss chard (you can substitute almost any green)
1/2 lb sausage chunks
Bread crumbs, 1 handful
6 oz smoked gruyere
1 tomato

First, blanch the greens, shock them in some cold water, and wring them out. Cut the leaves into bite sized pieces. While those are cooking, brown up some sausage. Then cut up a tomato. Finally, mix the ingredients with some breadcrumbs and cheese in a casserole dish and pop into the oven at 350 until warmed through.

There are plenty of variations. Perhaps next time I’ll try ricotta instead of smoked gruyere. It would totally change the character of the dish. Which is fine. A technique is always more handy to have than a recipe.

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Pretzels

At some point, an adrenaline junky may find himself zip-lining down the side of thousand foot cliff along side the Yellow River. As his feet brush the tops of trees and his life flashes before his eyes, he may think back on the path that led him there. It seems that, as with any form of addiction, you begin to need ever greater doses to get your rocks off. What started out as an affinity for water skiing could eventually end up as a series of of ever more ridiculous stunts just to inject a bit of excitement into a an otherwise tired and featureless life. 

Baking can be a lot like that. 

I say this because any normal person who wants a soft pretzel will simply go to his supermarket freezer isle and pick up a box that you just throw in the microwave for 3 minutes. If only life could be that simple for the gluten junky. For some of us, the idea that we want pretzels turns into a week long ordeal that involves whiskey, George Clinton, and pH levels. To be honest, I probably would have drank whiskey and listened Funkadelic that night even if there were no pretzels, but I don’t think my friends would have come by just booze and music. The pretzels sealed the deal. 

Pretzels are, like many baked goods, easy enough to make at home, but difficult to get quite right. Part of the problem is that traditional pretzels are soaked in an alkaline solution before baking. Real bakers use lye could easily be a bumper sticker sold at county fairs and restaurant supply stores throughout the country. 

There are various ways to approximate that perfectly tanned pretzel exteriors. One common trick is to use baking soda in place of the lye. It’s cheap, accessable, and just alkali enough to get the job done without causing chemical burns. But for some reason I remembered reading about another secret, and some quick googling led me to a Times article from two years ago (who knew I had such a great memory for baking related minutia?) about increasing the pH of baking soda by, well, baking it

So a week ago I began making preparations for the big day. I baked a box of baking soda. While the powder came out looking exactly the same as it went in, I did notice a serious burning in the back of my throat when some dust got kicked up. Next I went on line and spent a rather crazy amount of money on pretzel salt, because I knew Morton’s topped pretzels were not going to cut it. 

Following with my new, devil-may-care baking attitude, I decided to wing the recipe. I figured that since bagels and pretzels are sort of cousins, and I had made 55% hydration bagel dough a few weeks ago (see here for a quick primer on baking percentages. They don’t work the way you think they do.). So I whipped up a simple dough with 55% hydration, a sprinkeling of salt, a tablespoon of Active Dry Yeast (which is is probably more than I needed, but this dough was going to have a short ferment) and few pinches of sugar to get the yeasties going. Whoever said that baking was more of a science than, say, grilling, didn’t realize that, with both, the secret ingredient is confidence. Hubris, really. After all, if it goes wrong, who cares? It’s just flour and water.

Wile the dough was rising, we started drinking. Fermentation was a common theme that night. 

Boiling is what separates the pretzels from the breadsticks. Since we were experimenting, I filled a wok with 6 cups of water, and mixed in a half cup of baked soda. Erin and I weighed out 3 oz portions of dough and rolled them into misshapen pretzel-like blobs. I boiled four of them, two at a time, for about 2 minutes each, splashing water over top of them. Then I slid them onto my pizza stone, which had been preheating for an hour or so in a 450º oven. 

I didn’t take any pictures, but trust me when I say that these came out almost perfect. There was still… something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The crumb was tight. Could have used a bit more salt, is all. The outside had bite and a color a bit like beige leather carseats. I was looking for something closer to Tanned Mom. I thought to myself, if a half cup of baked soda gives results this good, another half cup will be twice as good! More is always better!

So I upped the pH of the water even more and cooked the last 4 pretzels. This time I flipped them in the water, to make sure that the whole thing was appropriately soaked. 

I noticed something was off right away. The outside of the pretzels seemed dimpled. They appeared shriveled, like raisins. 

I panicked. I had gone too far. Pushed the limits. Should have left well enough alone. Meanwhile, my friends were in the next room expecting more pretzels. I didn’t have a back up. Maybe they wouldn’t notice. 

No such luck. When I pulled the pretzels out of the oven, they didn’t just look like leather, they felt like it. Once they cooled, we all manned up and tried one. They had a bitter, sharp taste. Pretty unpleasant. Stronger than you would have gotten from plain baking soda, I think. pH giveth, and pH taketh away. 

Experimenting can be fun. Be bold. Be foolish. But learn to recognize when you find what you were looking for. 

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Umberto’s Grandma Pie

In more delicious news, Tom Boyles goes to Long Island in search of a Grandma Pie.

“Tom,” he said in his thick New York-Italian accent, “I am going to let you in on a pizza secret that isn’t known outside of New York and Long Island. We’re gonna go to Umberto’s and you are going to try Grandma’s Pizza.”

It’s not exactly true that the Grandma pie is unknown outside of New York and Long Island. I’ve actually been seeing a number of neighborhood slice joints here on the Jersey Shore embracing this style. A small local chain, Gianni’s, has been heavily pushing their version. In Long Branch alone, I can think of 3 places that make a quality Grandma pie, two of which sell it by the slice. I plan on getting some reviews posted in the near future.

As the name implies, this isn’t a new invention. I remember my great Aunt used to make one of these every time she knew the kids were coming up from New Jersey. She would take the squares of pizza out of her refrigerator and put them back together on her baking sheet like a puzzle. Because her eyes weren’t so good, she’d have to lean in very close to the oven to set the temperature. Any one of us could have set it for her, but she insisted on being the generous host.

Even with all the Grandma slices I’ve eaten over the last couple years, I still miss the smell of my Aunt’s kitchen. I miss the very thin layer of cheese she would use, that seemed to fuse with the dough. I miss the garlicky tomato sauce, and the heavy helping of Kraft parmesan she had sprinkled over the whole thing. Food has a strong ability to take you to different moments of your life. I think that, for me, this type of pizza will always bring me back to that formica table on the outskirts of Boston.

This article is a great look a some others who take this style of pizza seriously. There’s even a quick walk through for those who want to try their hand at baking one of these.

It’s interesting that the author states that Umberto’s uses a Sicilian dough, when I’ve always found the crust of a Grandma pie to be closer to a classic NY style that hasn’t been stretched out so much. Proofing the dough in the pan also seems like it’s a key step.

This is a great primer if you plan on experimenting with a few recipes, are curious about a type of pizza you hadn’t tried before, or just want a trip down memory lane.

Momofuku You

More than you ever thought you wanted to know about Ramen.

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