5 new things you should try this summer

Ah, the dog days of summer. What is it about later sunsets that makes us so decadently lazy? Every year it’s the same: Memorial Day rolls around and, like clockwork, we grill burgers five nights a week. Don’t get me wrong—I love burgers as much as the next girl—but if you venture past the culinary usual suspects, summer has so much more to offer.

Don’t miss these five quintessential summer experiences:

  1. Drink fino sherry. Made from the Palomino grape in Spain and allowed to oxidize in a tiered system of barrels called a solera, sherry ranges from pale and light (fino) to dark and deeply nutty (oloroso). These wines are fortified and typically have between 15 and 22 percent alcohol. They age under a layer of yeast called flor, which gives them a unique woodsy characteristic. Refreshing fino sherries make a great aperitif on a warm night and—bonus!—go really well with summery food.
  2. Pickle something. It’s not as difficult as you think. Mix one cup of vinegar with one cup of water, add half a cup of sugar and a quarter cup of kosher or sea salt, and heat in a saucepan until everything is dissolved. Fill a glass jar with some kind of amazing summer produce (yes, fruits work too—try cherries) and pour the pickling liquid in to cover them. Stick the jar in the fridge overnight. Eat the pickles within 3-4 days. Easy, right?
  3. Make your own limoncello. This Italian liqueur, made from the lemons that weigh down the trees of the Amalfi Coast, is typically served after dinner as a digestif—but I like to use it as a base for grown-up lemonade too. To make your own, dissolve 1 3/4 cups of sugar in 2 1/2 cups water, add the zest of 10 lemons and a bottle of high-proof vodka, and steep the mixture in a clean glass bottle for 6 weeks. Then filter it a few times through a chinois or coffee filter, return it to the bottle, and keep in the freezer.
  4. Grill a pizza. Get your grill as hot as possible. Roll your pizza dough out so it’s super-thin. Brush the grill grate with vegetable oil, then slide the round of dough onto the grate and cook for about 1 minute, then flip the crust over and cook for another minute, until the bottom of the crust is browned. Add your favorite toppings and warm the whole pizza on the grill. Pro tip: grilled pizza goes really well with a Bandol rosé.
  5. Get crazy with your strawberries. It’s tough to improve on one of nature’s most perfect foods, but I know of two oddball ways to do it: macerate the berries in balsamic vinegar, or toss them with fresh basil. Or both. Seriously.

What do you love eating and drinking in the summer? Let me know in the comments!

A proper Porteño empanada

Calzones, samosas, bisteeya–virtually every culture has their version of a savory handheld pie. Some are clearly better than others (I’m talking to you, Hot Pockets). And for my money, one of the very best is the traditional Argentine empanada.

The most traditional empanadas are filled with chopped or ground beef spiced with cumin and paprika and mixed with tomato, olives, hard-cooked egg, and raisins. Together, these ingredients add up to more than the sum of their parts through a complex balance of meatiness, acidity, sweetness, and salt.

Since we’re currently hanging out in Buenos Aires for a bit, I thought we should learn to make proper empanadas. We spent a sunny Saturday afternoon in the kitchen with Norma Soued, a practicing clinical psychologist who gives Argentine cooking workshops out of her Belgrano apartment. Norma teaches in a mix of Spanish and English and speaks fluent French as well–perfect for the parade of foreigners who attend her classes each week. Continue reading

Octopuzzle solved

BTW: the great mystery of the best way to cook an octopus has been solved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the winning preparation method involved confiting the octopus legs in duck fat. Just as everything is better with bacon–yes, even octopus–everything is also better once poached for four hours in 200-degree duck fat. The confit left the octopus meat evenly silky and tender, whereas none of the braised/roasted/simmered samples finished cooking without leaving the thick ends of the legs a wee bit dry.

I bet Harold McGee didn’t see that one coming.

More than one way to cook an octopus

Around here, duck is the undisputed Most Delicious and Magical Animal. But for me, octopus runs a pretty close second. Its satisfying meatiness, fun form factor (tentacles!), and tendency to pick up subtle smoky flavors from surrounding ingredients make it one of those things I automatically gravitate toward on any menu.

Five pounds of delicious, magical octopus

Done right, octopus is tender rather than rubbery. But there are a few things you need to know about cooking octopus at home. Most importantly: OCTOPUSES ARE NOT SQUID. If you try to cook them the same way, you’ll end up with something that resembles your rubber sink stopper. And nobody wants to eat that.

You have essentially two choices for preparing edible octopus. You can barely cook it and serve it sashimi style–a great option if you fished the thing out of the ocean yourself and know exactly how fresh it is. But if you’re like me and can’t trace the provenance of your cephalopod past Sun Fat Seafood, you should probably make like an Italian grandmother and cook it slowly for a loooooooooooooong time before you grill/sear/sauce it.

Harold McGee, food science expert extraordinaire, very eloquently explains why in this New York Times article. Basically, because octopuses don’t have bones, the muscle fibers in their arms have an enormous amount of connective tissue that gets tough and rubbery before it starts to break down between 190 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. So whatever your final preparation for the octopus, you need to tenderize the meat first by heating it to that temperature for a few hours.

We used McGee’s recommended method this week as part of testing for our Weird Wines dinner. After breaking down our monster five-pound specimen, we blanched it quickly and then cooked it in a dry, covered cast iron pot at 200 degrees for about five hours. The outer ends of the tentacles were awesome–tender, with a distinct but not overwhelming oceanic flavor. The body ends, though, were a little dry. Clearly we have some work to do on calibration of our cooking time. On the upside… dry tentacles mean I get to eat more octopus this week, and I’m not exactly sad about that.

One other cooking method we’ll be trying: sous vide. McGee doesn’t mention this as an option in either his article or On Food and Cooking, but my theory is that heating the meat to 195ish degrees will work the same way whether the meat is in the hot oven air or a water bath. And perhaps by sealing the juices in the vacuum bag (octopus gives off a TON of liquid as it cooks), we can intensify the octopus flavor.

So, talk to me. Have you tried cooking octopus? How did you do it? What worked and what didn’t?

Duck: A delicious, magical animal

It’s no secret that Dan is a little obsessed with duck. Sous vide, roasted, seared, confited, whatever–if it’s made of duck, he’s crazy for it. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when he floated the idea of doing a January dinner centered on ducks and geese. I’d never cooked either one, and I was excited to learn.

Getting ducks was easy (we ordered directly from Liberty Ducks in Sonoma). But finding a locally and ethically raised goose wasn’t so simple. We Googled. We tweeted. We searched Chowhound. And ultimately, we discovered that the last remaining goose farm in the area had just sold their birds and planned to quit goose-raising entirely. I was ready to admit defeat.

The next morning at my regular coffee shop, the guy behind the counter listened as I relayed the story of our dead-end goose-hunt. “Oh yeah,” he nodded. “I just did a whole roast goose for Christmas dinner. Drewes Brothers in Noe Valley can hook you up.”

Have I mentioned how much I LOVE living in a city where small talk with your barista turns out to be the most effective method for sourcing whole animals?

Anyways, once we had our birds in hand (one whole goose plus 8 duck breasts, 12 duck legs, 10 pounds of duck fat, 10 pounds of duck carcasses, two pounds of duck livers, and four pounds of duck tongues), we got to work. I made three enormous pots of duck stock. Dan slow-cooked duck and goose leg confit overnight in the oven, saturating the air with a rich meaty perfume. We researched techniques for making liver mousse and sausage (both incredibly easy, as it turns out). We ate duck and goose whenever we found it on restaurant menus. We fried a lot of stuff.

And somewhere along the line, a funny thing happened. I caught a little bit of Dan’s duck fever. Remember how Homer Simpson felt when he found out that pork chops and ham and bacon all came from the same delicious, magical animal? That was me with the ducks. And I hope that’s how our guests felt too when we presented this menu.

duck fat fries with three sauces

0. Goose leg confit a l’orange and fried duck tongues
Beer cocktail: Saison Dupont, Knob Creek bourbon, spiced kumquat syrup, orange

1. Duck fat fries with spicy banana ketchup, caper parsley relish, and curry aioli
2001 Michel Dervin, Cuchery, Champagne, France

2. Goose pho
2008 Clos Habert, Francois Chidaine, Montluis Sur Louire, France

3. Duck leg confit slider on a housemade bun, pear mostarda, purple slaw with pomegranate
Curieux, Allagash Brewing, Portland, Maine

4. Duck / duck / goose (duck liver mousse, housemade duck sausage, and goose breast with a sweet potato tater tot, bourbon caramel, honey poached apple, and cider gastrique)
2007 Domaine de L’Oratoire St Martin, Côtes du Rhône, France

5. Blood orange and ginger trifle
NV Caveau du Mont July Bugey Cerdon Rosé, Jura, France