What Thomas Keller Taught Me

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.  I settled onto the couch and strategically balanced the oversized, very heavy book on my lap.  By the time I had finished flipping through its pages, not only were my thighs numb, I already had accumulated about a half dozen recipes that I wanted to try.  Did I expect anything less?  Probably not.

How is this any different, you may ask, than any other new cookbook acquisition?  Consider this – while other cookbooks may give me collections of recipes that I’d like to try, thumbing through Ad Hoc at Home has managed to actually change the way that I think about cooking.  If you’ve ever seen the dozens of cookbooks that occupy their own Billy bookcase (and half of a second one) in our library, you would know that this is no small feat.  I’ve gone from collecting recipes to collecting techniques, and Ad Hoc at Home is a treasure trove.

One of the first recipes that I tried out of Ad Hoc at Home was actually listed as an ingredient for another dish that I wanted to make.  The soffritto, which is one of the components of a roasted pepper recipe, calls for only three primary ingredients – spanish onions, plum tomatoes, and olive oil – plus one minced clove of garlic at the end.  Easy enough, right?  And yet, the actual recipe itself, when done in accordance with Keller’s instructions, takes five hours from start to completion.

From a process perspective, nothing could be simpler than this soffritto.  Just chop the onions, toss them into a pan with a generous amount of olive oil, then simmer away for 2 1/2 hours.  At that point, create a tomato pulp by stroking the cut plum tomatoes against a grater, add that to the onions, and simmer for another 2 1/2 hours.  One pressed clove of garlic finishes the dish.

You would think that such a simple recipe would yield standard results – a sweet caramelized onion flavor, some acidity from the tomatoes, but nothing fantastic, right?  This is where the magic of Keller’s technique shines – the resulting soffritto has such a depth of flavor, it’s tempting to just break out a spoon and eat it straight from the pot, thereby nullifying five hours worth of toil for five minutes of pleasure.  The overall experience is a subtle shift in perception, a quiet realization that, if treated with enough care and attention, even the humblest of ingredients can surprise you.  I used the soffritto in the roasted peppers, then gradually depleted the rest of the batch by stirring it into scrambled eggs and folding a spoon of it into a batch of home fries.

My one admission is this – I didn’t carry the recipe through to its full five hour preparation time.  It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s that I was forced to end it early after realizing that the soffritto was browning way too quickly.  My burners were not designed to sustain such a low simmer as what Keller’s recipe demands, and I was forced to take the soffritto off of the heat to save it from turning into a charred mess.  So, as soon as I get my hands on a flame tamer, I’m going to tackle this recipe again, and do it right the next time.  As good as the soffritto was after three hours, I can only begin to imagine how it will taste after five.

And one day, I may just find myself in Yountville, sitting down to taste the original.

May 12, 2010   Comments

Anatomy of a Meatball

A good meatball begins as a tried-and-true recipe, either passed down through family lore, or traded with a neighbor, or copied out of a cookbook, catalog, website, or magazine.  It gets made, to exacting proportions, over and over, until the dish fits comfortably like a worn pair of jeans and your body and mind go on autopilot when you’re in the kitchen.

One day, based purely on a shortage of this ingredient, or an abundance of that, the meatball recipe gets a dash of improvisation, and evolves.  You add something that you hadn’t thought of adding before, or add a little less or more of something else, or substitute one ingredient for something else, and not only did you still end up with meatballs, they were better, because they were no longer someone else’s recipe, they were your meatballs.

Tuesday was spaghetti and meatballs night.  These are my meatballs.

In its most basic form, a meatball is a lightly blended combination of one or more types of meat, bread, some dairy, and various herbs and seasonings.  Beyond the meat, bread, and dairy, your greatest potential for customization comes in the seasonings.  What I am listing here is what I did on Tuesday night, which was largely dictated by what was on hand and what was growing in the garden – your mileage will definitely vary based on the unique riffs that you take off of the main tune.


Here’s my list of ingredients.  The recipe is highly scalable, so go crazy with your bad self.

1.5 lbs ground beef, 80% lean
1 slice bread
2 eggs
4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Bunch of herbs, 1 1/2 tsp salt, bunch of ground pepper

Olive oil for frying


Useful items – flexible spatula, high-sided frying pan, tongs

You Want The Sauce, Too?

28oz can of chopped or crushed tomatoes
More garlic, chopped
Oregano, or some other herb
Red wine


The Meat

Most recipes call for a blend of beef, pork, and veal, which contributes to a more delicately textured meatball than if you use just one kind.  Most times, I am too lazy or frugal to hunt for ground pork and veal, so I use beef exclusively.  The most important rule is this – the more fat in your meatball mix, the better the meatballs.  I tried using 95% lean beef one time, and the results were horrible – dry, crumbly, rubbery meatballs that absolutely refused to absorb any sauce.  I always use 80% lean; if you’re concerned about the fat content, realize that a lot of fat will be poured out and not end up in the finished dish.  Then again, if you are really worried about fat content, you shouldn’t really be eating beef anyway.

Eggs

Rule of thumb, one egg per pound of meat, erring on the egg side.  So, I had a 1 1/2 pound pack of ground beef, so I used 2 eggs to make the meatballs.  Lightly beat the eggs with a fork before adding them to the mix.

Bread

Some recipes call for soaking bread in milk, others call for bread crumbs.  I don’t see a difference in the end results – I like to give a slice of bread a brief spin in the food processor to make it into crumbs.  So long as, in the end, your bread has formed a pasty mush with your liquid, you’ll be fine.  You could probably get away with canned crumbs provided they are not too old and dry.

Dairy

I’ve seen recipes that use plain yogurt, and others that use milk.  Again, for reasons of expediency, I use milk because it’s what’s most commonly on hand.  I’ve used yogurt before, and you really can’t taste it in the end result, so the purpose of dairy is really as a moistening agent here.

The Extras

Here’s where you get to have fun and customize according to what you like, what’s on hand, or what seems to be a good idea at the time.  Beyond the usuals of salt and pepper, the variations of herbs and spices that you can add to a meatball recipe are really flexible.


My personal taste enjoys a lot of garlic, and a nice hit of grated parmesan, so, at least to me, those two add-ins are essential to my meatball recipe.  I generally chop about three or four garlic cloves into the mix, along with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grated parmesan.  When I went out to the garden, I snipped a handful of italian parsley, some thyme branches, and a bunch of oregano.  After rinsing these clippings, I roughly chopped the parsley and thyme and tossed them into the bowl with the rest of my dry ingredients (bread crumbs, salt, pepper, parmesan, garlic) and gave the whole thing a good toss.  I reserved the oregano for the sauce.


To this bowl, I then added about 1/4 cup of milk, and the two beaten eggs.  Using a whisk, I stirred the contents of the bowl until I had a uniform mixture, then folded in the ground meat using my hands.  At this point, I put the bowl into the fridge so that it could firm up a bit – if you’re pressed for time, you can skip the chilling.


Here’s the cooking part.  Take a large frying pan, preferably with tall sides (the meatballs will tend to splatter) and heat a small amount of olive oil on medium-high heat for about three minutes, then turn the pan so that the oil coats the bottom evenly.


Wet your hands.  Take a 1/4 cup measure and measure out 1/4 cup of meatball mix from the mound, then plop it into your palm and roll it up into a meatball.  The mixture should form a loose clump that holds together, but is not bouncy-bouncy hard.  As you complete each meatball, place it carefully into the pan.  You should be able to get a decent number of meatballs going in a ring around the edge of the pan, and a couple more in the center.  Don’t crowd them.


After a few minutes, take a flexible spatula and shimmy it under each meatball, to separate it from the pan (don’t use tongs, you’ll rip the meatballs in half).  After loosening the meatballs, use the tongs to carefully turn them to cook the other side.  If you’re a perfectionist, you can repeat this process twice more, but generally browning them on two sides is enough to keep them from falling apart.  I’ve never done this in a nonstick pan, so maybe using one would enable you to skip the flexible spatula.

As the meatballs progress to a more done state, you can begin pushing the initial batch to one side of the pan to finish cooking as you form and place more meatballs into the empty space.  Don’t be overly concerned about overcooking them – they are large enough, and contain enough fat, to not dry out.  As the first batch of meatballs seem done, you can transfer them to a paper towel with the tongs as you finish cooking the rest.

After all is said and done, you should now have a lovely batch of meatballs.  At this point, you can let them cool completely and refrigerate or freeze them, eat them as they are, or finish them in some tomato sauce, as I have done here.

For the tomato sauce, I chopped more garlic, and set up my oregano and found myself some leftover red wine.  I drained all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan and threw in the garlic, along with a little more olive oil.  When the garlic turned golden, but before it burned, I added the oregano and about a cup of red wine to the pan and scraped up all of the sticky meat leavings with a wooden spoon, then added a 28oz can of chopped tomatoes.  Let this come to a simmer, add the meatballs (turn them to coat evenly with sauce) and let the whole thing cook, covered, at a low simmer for about 35 minutes.

August 14, 2008   Comments

Introducing My Cookbook Collection

Books

For some people, it’s shoes. For others, it’s consumer electronics. For me, the object of my collection obsession, as it has been for a number of years, has been the cookbook.

You may have noticed that, so far, a lot of the recipes that have appeared on The Best Food Blog Ever have been sourced from cookbooks and culinary magazines, and this is by design. I am approaching the development of this blog much like the evolution of my own skills in the kitchen. At first, you prepare recipes exactly as they are presented in a cookbook, to the letter, and as someone new to the kitchen, you fear any variation lest you “mess up” the final dish. Then, one day, you really want to make a particular recipe and you find out that you’re missing one small ingredient – and you substitute, and it works. Then you do this more and more, and one day, you’re using the cookbooks and recipes as launching points, taking an idea here, a technique there, and making your own creations based on tried-and-true past experiences.

That’s my rationale for having so many cookbooks. Quite a few of them are good for only a handful of recipes, but they are solid, dependable recipes that will always work. Others, like the Joy of Cooking and The New Basics, are the go-to books for master recipes covering a broad range of different ingredients and techniques. Still others form the basis for my core knowledge of ethnic cuisine, and I try to limit myself to the “best of the best” for a certain nationality, but someone’s always writing a better one that will be published one day, and that will invariably end up in my bookcase.

The oldest cookbook that I own was probably picked up when I was fifteen, and the most recent was likely found at an outlet store for a killer price. I used to avoid books that had a lot of fancy photography and advanced layout (I still have a small collection of Frugal Gourmet paperbacks) but in today’s modern times that’s all we seem to get, and I don’t mind the shift. I’ve come to realize that food photography can go a long way towards illustrating what a dish is supposed to look like, and without it, you’ve lost an important barometer of how well you’re executing a dish.

Perhaps the best part about finally buying a house was being able to display all of my cookbooks in one place, as opposed to having random stacks of them on the floor in our old apartment.

Well, that, and the larger kitchen.

May 10, 2008   Comments