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Balancing Act

August 14, 2011 1 comment

I spent this last week making some of the best pizza in New York City. I know, I know, that’s a pretty bold statement. We’re talking New York here. The official shape is “the slice”. With the possible exception of pastrami on rye, there’s no food more “New York” than pizza. Yet even with all the history, pizza is still the hottest food in town.

Everyone knows the standard New York style slice. It’s an icon, like the Empire State Building or Woody Allen’s neurosis. But lately Neapolitan pizza has been popping up all over town. These pizzerias use wood burning ovens and menus entirely in Italian. They’re a combination of the traditional and the experimental. The process dates back to the dawn of history. Cook stuff on top of bread. Yet the flavos and presentation are distinctly modern.

Getting back to the story, last week I was lucky enough to be able to train at Forcella, a new Neapolitan pizzeria in Williamsburg. The restaurant has only been around for a couple of months, but the pizzaiolo, Giulio Adriani, has been cooking this style of pizza for decades in Naples, Argentina, and Brazil. Now he is opening his own place in Brooklyn, with one more spot on the way in the Bowery.

I was glad to work with Giulio because I think he represents both sides of the new pizza. He understands tradition, not just how things were always done, but why. From there he’s not afraid to experiment, and to try to fit the local tastes.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the whole operation. From the mixing of the dough to the firing of the pizza. I rolled dough balls, made mozzarella from scratch, crushed the tomatoes and worked the oven. When you see pizza from this end, it’s not a commodity product, sliding off a conveyor belt. Each one is it’s own struggle of balance. You must time the fermentation of the dough just right. The oven must be burning at the proper temperature. The crust must achieve a harmonious mixture of doneness and char.

Essentially you are walking a fine line between perfect and destroyed. We’re talking about a matter of seconds. Not tens of seconds. Seconds. You have waiters screaming, people pushing past, pizzas lined up to be cooked, and you’re trying to make the one, two, three, or even four pies you have in the oven into a transcendent pizza experience.

Cooking a pizza like this is a lot like mixing a song. There is no precise amount of midrange that should be applied at all times, and every time you inch up the fader, you’re not making a perceptible difference. But pretty soon you tweak a couple knobs and you’ve got a cacophonous mess. The same can be said of cooking in general, but really Neapolitan pizza in particular. You can start getting so focused on minute details that you begin to lose sight of the big picture. You shoot for the perfect leopard spotting, only to miss and end up with char.

I’ve actually never worked in a professional kitchen before. I’ve done a bit of under the table catering, but I’ve never worked in an actual restaurant kitchen. To say this was a wake up call would be an understatement. Cooking for a busy dining room full of paying customers is completely different from anything I’ve ever tried before. Most people there are as interested in the social aspect of it as the food. They went with friends to have a good time. Maybe they’re trying to impress a cute hipster chick. It could be a reunion with an old bicycling club. Whatever the reason, they expect you to do your job so they don’t have to think about it. Any nagging thoughts about problems with their food are a distraction and are not what they signed up for.

Transcendence can be found just about anywhere. We live in an amazing world and it’s important to open yourself up to what you see all around you. However, trying to create this from base parts (flour, salt, water, yeast, tomatoes, cheese) is a whole other story. They say practice is the most important thing. It’s clear that what you want is to get it into your muscle memory. Thinking only exacerbates the problem. You want transcendence to feel like just a part of nature.

Update: You want photos? No problem.

Categories: Nom, Pizza

Deep, Dark

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After a week of mid August weather, we seem to have gone back to March, for some reason. Fine by me. It gave me a chance to go all out on tonight’s dinner.

The plan was gumbo. First we needed a roux, so I put Erin to work on that. Cajun roux’s are a different breed from the kind I grew up with. First off, I was always told that a roux should cook for about 10 minutes and have a light brown color. A cajun roux cooks for almost an hour, and turns a dark, burnt umber tone. Secondly, I was always taught that a roux was equal parts fat and flour, but the recipes I looked up had  varying amounts of flour, and the textures were probably all over the place as a result.

So we went to about a 1.5:1 flour to oil ratio and I left Erin to stir. Then I started making the chicken stock cause it’s shitty out and I’m on vacation and what the fuck else am I going to do with myself? So in go all the chicken backs and various other parts I’d been saving, along with some aromatics and herbs.

Those issues being taken care of, we just needed to figure out exactly what kind of gumbo this was going to be. Gumbo is one of those great dishes that has no canonical version. It’s a grab bag. Traditionally there’s a few different types of meat and/or seafood. This being vacation, we decided to splurge, and picked up crawfish, chicken, N’awlins style andouille sausage, and a hand full of shrimp.

I don’t really have a recipe to share, but you can get a good idea here. Gumbocooking.com seemed to be the best resource for gumbo tips and techniques and recipes I could find. If you’re interested in making gumbo, look at a few recipes from this site and you’ll get the idea. Most of them have pretty much the same base, then they just add falvors in on tip of it.

The final product came out great. Tons of layers of flavor, and totally worth spending all Saturday working on it.

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Secret Ingredient Part II

Just a bit of follow up on the big BBQ from last week. After cleaning out the smoker from a winter’s neglect, and scrubbing this thing top to bottom, we were ready to go.

The first thing we did was take the meat out of the fridge early. Let it get close to room temp. If it goes in the smoker too cold, they say that you could get creosote build up. Even if this isn’t true, I still don’t think you want the outside of the meat to be cooking while the inside is iced cold. 2-3 hours at room temperature for these larger cuts should be just about right.

Then it was time to fire up the chimney. You never want to use lighter fluid to start your coals. The marriage of meat and fire is a holy union. Adding petroleum products is unnatural. It’d be like spiking your chili with kerosene. For smoking or even just for burgers, do yourself and your guests a favor and get a charcoal chimney starter like this one.

The trick is to know your smoker. You eventually get a feel for what size fire you need, and how much air to give it. Remember that more air = hotter fire = quicker your fuel is spent. Try to build a fire that will hold your temp, more or less, at medium air flow. And unless you have a major flare up, only adjust the air flow at the fire-box, and never at the chimney. You do not want smoke sitting in the main chamber of the smoker for a long time. The chimney should remain all the way open.

Once you hit a temperature between 200° and 250° F, the meat goes on and, if you’re doing a large cut like a pork shoulder or a brisket, your job for the next 12 hours or so it to try to keep it in that temperature range. Too high, and the meat will dry out. Too low and it won’t cook properly. Hygiene, hygiene.

Here’s where you can cheat. Since staying up for 12 hours before even lunch is a bit impractical, there is a shortcut you can take. Larger cuts of meat will have absorbed about all the smoke that they’re going to after about 6-7 hours. Anything beyond that point you’re basically using your smoker as a charcoal and/or wood burning oven. And if all you really need is an oven, there’s nothing stopping you from using the one in your kitchen.

Wrap your pork shoulder or brisket in tinfoil. Place in a 250° degree oven. Close off the air flow on your smoker. Set your alarm for about 12 hours from when you first put the food on. Take a nap.

When everything’s done, let the meat rest in the tinfoil for a while. At least an hour. By then it should be about cool enough to handle. Start with a couple of forks and pull that mother apart. Or chop it up with a big knife if that’s what floats your boat. Either way, you’re ready to eat.

Graduation BBQ from Chris McIntyre on Vimeo.

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Secret Ingredient

May 12, 2011 1 comment

My sister’s graduating. She’s gone through Rutgers School Of Nursing’s graduate program and, after going through more years than I can count, she is finished.

An event like this deserves a party. So it was decided to throw a BBQ for about 60 people. And her family is doing the catering. Myself included.

With that many people, it’s no sense trying to have what you might think of as a normal, post-war, North Eastern, suburban backyard cookout. You would spend hours at the grill rotating burgers. As soon as you feed one batch of people, the last has finished digesting and is getting back in line. This is not conducive to having a good time at a party.

True barbecue isn’t like that. The key to traditional ‘cue is a mountain of meat cooked with smoke at low temps until its’ falling apart tender. This is something I’ll take over burger slinging any day. When it comes to BBQ, my tastes lean towards pork shoulder with thin, vinegar based sauce. It hits all 4 taste sensations: spicy, smokey, tangy and fatty.

Even finding properly cooked pulled pork in New Jersey can be tough, so about 10 years ago I set out to try to do it myself. I started by buying some cheap contraption shaped like a barrel smoker at Home Depot. It was made of some flimsy metal and could barely fit one rack of ribs, but hey, it had an offset smoke box like the ones in the pictures, so I figured I was assured success. After some trial and error, I was able to get food that was technically edible out of that thing, but never much more.

I decided that I need to upgrade, so I bought ANOTHER ONE from Home Depot. This time it was a different brand, slightly larger, but still made of some unknown alloy, and only about an 1/8″ thickness. If the idea of BBQ is keeping a consistent low temperature, then trying to use this barrel smoker was like driving with your elbows. Your only hit the right angle by luck, and then soon the road conditions change and you’re screwed again.

Eventually I got a good quality barrel smoker. It’s 1/2 ” hand welded thick cast iron. It’s from Oklahoma Smoker Company. I would definitely recommend this company, but if you’re interested there are other companies out there that make something similar.

But lets say that you’re not as crazy as I am, and don’t want to invest in a huge rig. Water smokers are reasonably cheap and fairly useable. Even a regular Weber grill, with the coals on one side and the meat on the other would be better than some of these knock off barrel types you find at some hardware stores.

Don’t be fooled. If you’re looking to get started in BBQ, read Smoke and Spice by Bill and Cheryl Jamison. It’s a good introduction into what is traditional BBQ. It’s a great starting place, with tips on some commonly used set ups. It’ll get you pointed in the right direction. Then you can start experimenting. Come up with a style unique to your own back yard.

Update: Spelling

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Pizza with Bacon and Broccoli Rabe

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Pizza dough is a pretty simple enterprise. If you’re doing it right, it’s no more than four or five ingredients, so you best make them count.

Started this dough on Sunday. Been trying different flour combinations. I found some Italian flour online, ground superfine, and have tried a few different combinations. This one was 60% King Arthur Bread Flour, and 40% Caputo “00” Flour.  Been trying to use as little additional flour as possible needing. Wetter dough gives you a better oven spring and a fluffier crust. But that dough’s harder to work with, and I don’t think it browns as well. Also, not loving the 00 flour. I think that was made more for ovens that go up to about 800° or so. The rickety old firepit in my apartment can’t get much past 500. The first attempt didn’t turn out so good.

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Stuck to the peel. Didn’t brown too great. Was luckier with the second one. Used more bench flour. Lighter touch, maybe. Threw some blanched broccoli rabe and bacon on there. The bitterness of the broccoli rabe cut through the fat of the bacon. Also let it cook a bit longer. This pie went almost 10 minutes. Not what you’d get in a professional oven, but not bad for my tiny ass little apartment.

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The Science Of Pringles

The inexorable march of progress, as embodied in a potato chip.

Categories: Nom