Friday, March 30, 2007

Brands

Note: Several readers have asked me to recommend brands of high quality canned tomatoes. But without knowing where you are and where you shop this is kind of hard to do. Suffice it to say that most brands of San Marzano tomatoes are better for sauce than any other type of canned tomato. Although doubtless some are better than others.
Yesterday I used Cento brand tomatoes and they were great (about 2 bucks for a 35 oz can). They aren't from San Marzano but they're pretty damned good.
I've never been impressed with canned tomatoes from Ca, Israel, or South America. But I suppose that one day I'll be surprised.

...This may be the surprise that I anticipated. Michael Ruhlman recommends Muir Glen tomatoes.
I'm guessing that they are Ca.

Simple Tomato Sauce (Salsa di pomodoro)

Inspired by this morning's harvest of the last of the tomatoes from my garden here in south -eastern Pennsylvania I decided to re-post (with edits) this post from last year. -BdG


I learned to make this sauce thirty ago from Helen Federico, (Scroll down to "1943") a dear friend whose cooking skills are equaled only by her generosity of spirit and talent as an illustrator, and graphic designer. I recollect that she only made it in the late summer -the end of the growing season for tomatoes in lower NY State- when she would buy a couple of bushels from local growers and put the sauce up en masse.

Although it is cheapest and most satisfying to make this sauce from fresh tomatoes it can also be made quite well with good canned San Marzano tomatoes or their equivalent.

My technique is a bit different from Helen's. For example, I never saw her use a potato masher or an immersion blender, but everything else is about the same.

Equipment needed
Deep 2qt+ pot
Potato masher (For canned tomatoes: I hate cutting up canned tomatoes)
Blender or even better, an Immersion Blender

Cooking time
About 10-15 minutes
  • 2- 35oz (#20) cans of whole plum tomatoes or 4 lbs fresh ripe plum tomatoes cut into 1/4's
  • 4-6 oz good olive oil
  • 5-6 med cloves of garlic, sliced up crudely (it's going into a blender so who cares what it looks like?)
  • 12 leaves of fresh basil (you can use less, no big deal)
  • Salt to taste or approx. 1/2 tsp
  • Pepper to taste
Heat the oil just hot enough to smell it. Throw in the garlic and let it cook for a minute or two but for god's sake down let it brown. If it browns throw out the oil and start over.
Drop in the tomatoes. Mix them around a bit to stop the garlic from frying. If you are using canned tomatoes mash them up with the masher. Bring the sauce up to a simmer, let it cook for 10 minutes. Add the salt and Basil then emulsify it with a blender or an immersion blender.

I prefer to use the immersion blender because there's less to clean up and you can puree the sauce hot without having to worry about it flying all over the kitchen.

One of the many things that's nice about this sauce is that because it is emulsified, it doesn't run off the pasta or break up into puddles of oil and chunks of tomato. Just be careful not to boil it and break the emulsion when you reheat it.

I think the sauce is best served the way Helen served it. Spooned over the pasta after it has been put in the individual pasta bowls. Then grate some Parmigiano on top with a Mouli (I'm devoted to these and have used this type for almost thirty years.) follow it with a liberal grinding of black pepper then pause, take in the aroma and sit back and think about it for a moment before you lift your fork -just like the Helen's late husband Gene used to do.

That part of the recipe I learned from Gene and it's the one ingredient I never vary, ever.

I'll bet their kids don't either.

how not to make tomato sauce

bob del Grosso

I got my first job as a short-order cook in a luncheonette at 14. But I did not make my first batch of tomato sauce until I was 18 years old. I remember the occasion perfectly because of something my father said after eating a couple of forkfuls of ravioli con salsa di pomodori.

Looking over at my mother, herself exhausted from working all day and haggard from the constant worrying over his declining health (to say almost nothing of what she suffered trying to keep track of four sons) he said, “Honey, he’s stealing your fire.” Well, I’m sure he was trying to tell her he was proud of me and pay homage to my mother’s own formidable cooking skills, but the look on her face could have killed a crow in mid-flight. Totally agrodolce: It is still painful to remember it.

I don’t remember exactly how I made that first batch of tomato sauce. But in the intervening 34 years I’ve made thousands of batches of simple salsa di pomodori (garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, basil)-some good, some not so good. I’ve also eaten countless versions of putatively the same thing in pizzerias, restaurants, catering halls, school suppers and in the homes of friends and family. So you can imagine that I have developed a pretty strong opinion about what I like and, ahem, don’t like.

Now those of you who have been reading my blog-posts have by now figured out that I'm a "glass is half empty" kind of character who, unlike my gracious host and soon-to-return colleague, Michael Ruhlman, likes to use the bully-pulpit to whine a bit about things he doesn't like. And today is one of those occasions. So if you prefer not to read a cranky rant, consider yourself warned and surf away! Otherwise try to enjoy as best you can my list of things to do to make lousy salsa di pomodori.

Use cheap canned tomatoes

There are big differences between the kinds of tomatoes that are put into cans by different packers. Some of the cheapest canned tomatoes are acidic and unripe and watery, so to get the sauce to the right consistency you have to do all kinds of tricks to fix it like reducing it by cooking it for too long or adding sugar, tomato paste, cornstarch etc.

Use chopped or pureed canned tomatoes

The packers use the tomatoes that are not good enough to pack whole for these. Chopped tomatoes and puree are okay for chili or as a minor adjunct to some other dish but should never be used for simple salsa di pomodori

Use fresh tomatoes that aren’t as ripe as the good canned tomatoes

Partly due to the pernicious influence of certain chef-evangelists for “fresh ingredients,” and the Greek chorus of know-nothing media wonks and "life-style experts" who mimic and reduce everything these well-intentioned culinarians say, a lot of people seem to think that fresh ingredients like tomatoes, are always better than canned or frozen or whatever. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to suffer through a bowl of pasta laboring under a pallid, mealy yoke of sauce made from unripe plum tomatoes that had been cloned in some godforsaken green house. Good canned plum tomatoes are usually riper and better textured than anything you are going to find in the produce section of a typical supermarket.

Cook it too long

Canned tomatoes are already cooked, so there is no need to “cook them out” anymore than is required to infuse them with the aroma of the other ingredients. And since all tomatoes contain acidic and bitter chemical compounds that become concentrated as the water from the tomatoes evaporates, the longer you cook the tomatoes the more acidic and bitter the sauce becomes. It should take no more than ten minutes to cook up 2 quarts of simple tomato sauce for pasta.

Use dried herbs

Dried basil tastes like a cross between powdered aluminum and dried hemp. It might be fine for scamming a drunk who thinks he’s buying a nickel bag of pot, but doesn’t belong in tomato sauce. I grow my own. In the summer I use it al fresco and at summer’s end I pick it all, and put the whole leaves in the freezer. (I do this with the hydroponic stuff too.) Then when I want to use them, I grab out a handful, throw it directly into the sauce at the end of the cooking cycle -to avoid losing too much aroma.

Brown the garlic

This is terrible. I loathe browned garlic in all its permutations and freak when I’ve left it in the oil too long and have to throw it out. It’s bitter, acrid and completely overpowers the more subtle aroma of the tomatoes, oil and herbs. I'm sure browned garlic was used by Italian troops in WWI as a countermeasure against mustard gas.

Use cheap oil

This sauce is “supposed” to be made with olive oil, which in turn, is supposed to taste like olives -cheap oil doesn't.

Omit the salt

Salt attenuates the sensation of the bitter taste in your brain. When you leave out the salt the sauce can become too bitter. Sure, whoever is eating the sauce can add salt later and achieve the same affect. But what if they don’t?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Daily Bread


Here is the basic recipe for the hearth bread that I make. As I wrote earlier, I vary it a lot. For example, I've got one ready for the oven now (left) that's made with whole-wheat graham flour, white bread flour, quinoa, wheat berries and flax seeds. Sometimes I'll raise or lower the water content or substitute red wine for some of the water. I wouldn't recommend doing any of these things until you have mastered the basic recipe and feel comfortable that you know what all the ingredients do and why they do it -but what the hell. I've sure stumbled around a lot in the kitchen and made plenty of mistakes. In fact I wonder if I'd have stuck with cooking at all if I hadn't screwed up so much and then jumped back in to try to save face.

I didn't mention this in the original post because I wanted to keep it simple, but more often than not, I start with a poolish -a thick slurry of flour, yeast and water that is made to boost the flavor of the final product and in the case of this recipe give the yeast more time to break the coarse graham flour down into sugar. The poolish is made from a portion of all of the ingredients that will end up in the loaf.

The recipe that follows gives the poolish method. If you don't want to use it, just mix everything at once, stick it in the refrigerator overnight and next day follow the steps for baking below.

Everything is weighed unless otherwise specified. Small quantities are in grams bec. I don't have a scale in English units that is sensitive enough. The technique is for a stand mixer. Of course you can adapt it to any machine or make it by hand. Finally, I'm not going to give shaping instructions unless you ask me for them. But I will give some details about how to bake it.

First make the Poolish
In a bowl mix with a spoon or whatever
  • 8 oz Graham Flour
  • 4 oz High-Gluten Bread Flour
  • .5 gram or a big pinch of instant yeast (aka SAF yeast)
  • 13 oz of cool ( 60-72 deg. F) water

  1. Cover the bowl and let it sit out for 4+ hours. You can leave this for a day if it's not too hot and you can't be bothered. And it's not a bad idea to stir it at least once to add some air.

Now Make the Sponge
  • The poolish
  • 20.5 oz High-Gluten Bread Flour
  • 3 grams instant yeast (about 1 scant tsp)
  • 9 grams of salt (about 1.5 tsp kosher salt or 1 tsp table salt
  • 12 oz cool water
  1. Put the poolish in the mixing bowl and add in the other ingredients. Mix with a wooden spoon or spatula and let it sit for 20 minutes until the water is absorbed (called autolyse).
  2. Put the bowl on the stand mixer and mix with the dough hook at a moderate speed (# 4 on my Kitchenaid K5A) for 10 minutes. Stop it once in a while and make sure there is no dry flour in the bottom of the bowl!
  3. After ten minutes, scape down the sides, make sure everything is homogeneous, cover it with plastic and stick it in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.
Shape the bread into a boule and proof it until it looks like it's doubled in size.

Before the boule has finished proofing make sure you have your oven set up and ready to rock. Put a pizza stone on the bottom rack. Put a sheet pan (a cookie sheet with high sides) you don't care about on the top rack (You'll need this for steam.) Crank the oven to 550 degrees (You need intense heat from the bottom and steam to assure robust "oven spring" before the crust hardens).

Put the boule on a peel (apizza paddle, a flipped over sheet pan, or whatever) dusted with cornmeal. Slash the top like a #. Slide the bread onto the stone, pour 6-8 oz of hot water into the hot sheet pan and shut the door fast!

After 10 -12 minutes back the oven down to 450 degrees and bake it for another 48 minutes or so. You can push the bake time if you like the bread to be really brown. It's no big deal to leave in for another 10 minutes or more.

If you are ansty and not sure if it's done, take it's temperature with an instant read thermometer. Unshortened breads like this are usually done (all the protein has coagulated and the starch is as gelled as it is going to get) at 180 degrees F. By comparison, shortened breads typically cook out at about 200 degrees F.

I think the bread tastes best if you wait at least 3 hours for it to cool.


















almost too cool


I've been wanting a chitarra (guitar) to make the square cut Abruzzese pasta alla chitarra for at least twenty years, but didn't get around to it until last month. The reason I shucked and jived for so long was that I assumed that it was going to be so expensive that I'd have to build it myself. Well duh. I suppose I should have actually tried to source one out. Because not only are they available, but they are cheap. I paid about 25 bucks for mine at Fantes.com. The thing is built too!

The frame is made from oak and the strings are fretted at each end on heavy cast-metal fret boards. The tension can be adjusted by two tightening bolts at one end. It also has two sets of cutting strings. One set cuts the pasta into thick spaghetti-like stands and the other into something close in width to angel-hair pasta.

The way you work it couldn't be simpler: roll out the past with a pin, lay the sheet on the wire, roll over it with the pin and bingo! your'e done. Bundle all of that with the fact that you can play it like an autoharp and it's almost too cool for words. (Makes me wonder where James Marshall Hendrix would be right now if his father had given him one of these for Christmas.)


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Verifiable Proof (ing)

Bob del Grosso

That old saw about baking being a science and cooking being an art is hogwash made up by people who wouldn't know science if they mainlined it into their necks. Just because baking tends to require that the baker weigh everything does not make it any more or less "scientific" than boiling a pot of pasta. I think the meme about "baking is science cooking is art" was probably cooked up by post-Enlightenment bakers trying to impress themselves and credulous apprentices with the uniqueness of their craft while at the same time dissing the cooks in the savory kitchen. If "science" means knowledge (from Lat. Scientia or knowledge) gleaned after a thorough examination of verifiable evidence, everything we really care to know or know how to do can be considered "a science." But I digress; point is

I love to bake!

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I've been baking bread on and off for over 30 years and, like cooking, still find it challenging. But not so much. And baking bread at home is just a bit more difficult than doing it in a professional bakery. But if you've got the will, the time and the science, it's no big deal. Take hearth bread for example. I bake 1-2 of these a week, every week.

I'm not sure if I'd do this quite so often if I lived in NYC or San Francisco where there are plenty of great artisanal bakeries, but I live in the burbs where there are none. And since even the best bread at the local thaw-proof-and-bake is so bloody boring, I make it myself.

I makes lots of different kinds of bread, but the type I make for everyday use is a simple boule (which I vary a lot) from graham and high-gluten bread flour, water, SAF yeast and salt. It takes two days from start to finish but handling and baking time is not much more than two hours. (a recipe is here) . Now I'm just going to riff on the process.

Day 1

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I weigh and mix the sponge all at once or make a poolish and sponge (see recipe). (Mixing time =10 minutes) In either case the sponge proofs in mixing bowl in the refrigerator until the next day.

Day 2

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I shape and proof them on the counter top (I recently bought a Brotform for this -these pics are a few weeks old.).

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Then bake them with steam in a 550 degree oven for ten minutes, then back the oven down to 450 for the duration. (45 minutes or an 180 degree internal temp. if I'm feeling insecure.)

This is what my oven set up looks like. Stone on the lower rack and a sheet pan at the top for steam (I dump 8oz of hot water in at the beginning -works like a charm.)

Next I dust them with flour and slash them with my homemade grignette

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C'est finis!

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Well, not quite. Because the end of the process is always gustatory. My favorite breakfast: smoked salmon and avocado on toast drizzled with simple (not emulsified) balsamic vinegar and olive oil (I put halved lemons and garlic in too and always have a bowl of this on my counter top.

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Boycott Food Porn! Turn off the Food Network. Close your web browser! Do your bit to eliminate food voyeurism and cook and eat! bob dG

Cooking Eating and Suffering

Bob del Grosso

I became a vegetarian in 1974 at the age of 19 and continued to eat mostly foods derived from plants, and occasionally eggs and cheese, for seven years. What prompted me to stop eating meat was the result of years of deliberation over the possible causes of several "problems" I was experiencing, but in the final equation of my spiritual calculus seemed to be derived from a common cause: how and what I ate and cooked.

Between my first realization that I loved to eat and the moment that I chose to eat only plants, I ate everything , and I ate a lot. I was the antithesis of a picky eater. I was a voracious omnivore who, like some lower-middle-class-suburban Pantagruel, was never satisfied. The partial and practical result of this was that by 1974 I was 260 lbs and couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without losing my breath.

At about the same time I was becoming aware that my insatiable appetite for food was causing me to suffer, I became acutely aware of the existence and intractable nature of suffering in the world. My father was dying from a long illness, my family was in turmoil, the war in Viet Nam was still raging and by then several close friends had died from drug overdoses and suicide.

Also by this time I'd had about 4 years of part-time experience cooking in commercial kitchens and had become sensitized to the issue of where the big boxes of meat and eggs in the walk-in were actually coming from. I had read "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair and I'd seen my uncle catch and kill his chickens. I also had a neighbor who raised rabbits for food and seen them killed too. I could see these animals were not happy to die -it was obvious.

In short, suffering was on my table all day, everyday.

Now I knew that no matter what I ate or cooked my father was not going to survive, the war was going to continue to mangle lives, and my dead friends were not going to reappear having forgotten the despair that had driven them into oblivion. But I reasoned that if I stopped cooking and eating animals I'd remove myself from the chain of events that led them to the slaughterhouse floor and maybe, lose some weight, feel healthier and just maybe, some of the misery I was feeling would go away.

So how did it work out?

Well, after about six months I realized that simply eating plants was not going to help me lose weight. To bring down the weight I was also going to have to eat less and exercise more. So I started walking everywhere and soon found myself running 80 miles a week. And when I wasn't running I was biking or swimming (I don't bike or run anymore but I still swim 1 mile 4-5 times a week). But yeah, I did feel a whole lot better over not being a cause of animal suffering.

In fact I felt so much better that I began to wonder if there wasn't some systematic way of thinking about suffering and the relationships between living things that led to suffering. So I took up the study of ecology and became a voracious reader on the subject of phylogentetics (A branch of biology that seeks to describe the physical and genetic relationships between living things.) I also started studying Buddhism because I knew that problem of all suffering was THE major focus of Gotama Buddha.

Now I cannot go into all the reasons why I suddenly gave up vegetarianism and begin to eat meat again. But the skinny is that I realized seven years into the process, that even if I never cooked or ate meat again, animals were still going to suffer as a consequence of my eating. I had come to understand that anything that was not a plant, bacterium or virus was in fact an animal and potential sentient being. So for example, if I wanted to make sure that the bowl of salad I was going to eat did not result in the death of any animals I was going to have to make sure the farmer who grew it didn't kill anything to produce it, inspect it for animal life before I ate it and so on and on. In other words, If I couldn't have it all (zero suffering through eating) I wasn't going to bother.

I've decided to bother you with all of this by way of saying that I think the brouhaha over the way that animals are raised , while by no means irrelevant, is a bit of a dog and pony show designed make people feel better about something they choose not to think about. And I think that no matter how much farm animals are pampered they will suffer once they reach the killing floor -and shouldn't that be what we should be concerned about? Why don't we hear anything about that part of the food cycle coming from Mr. Celebrity Chef and the other proponents of humane treatment of animals raised for meat?

And since there is no absolution for the death and suffering of innocent life for even the most committed vegan or animal rights activist, how is it that they appear to have the higher moral ground?

Please don't misread me, I'm not suggesting that we should not all be advocates for the humane treatment of the animals whose flesh we cook and eat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why, I drive 14 miles just to buy eggs from a farmer who keeps true free-range chickens. Of course I could buy the free-range factory versions in the supermarket, but these taste much, much better.