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February 28, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter II - Roma's

Dominic Armato
The second stop on my Chicago tour de boeuf is one with Armato family history.

Back in the days when my folks were courting, my father was living up on the North Shore, and he'd drive down into the city to pick up my mother and take her out for the evening. This meant a lot of late... and often sleepy... drives back north. It was during this time that my father, fearing for his safety, developed a theory that I think holds true to this day:

You can't sleep while you're eating.

While the study of NS-RED has technically disproven the theory, in general I think it's a good one. It isn't too hard to drift off while the dashed yellow line drifts by in hypnotizing fashion, but it is exceptionally difficult to fall asleep while you're chewing and swallowing. Of course, one might also question the wisdom of attempting to eat a Roma's beef sandwich while operating a motor vehicle, but hey... these were times when getting behind the wheel while drunk was socially acceptable in most spheres. Thankfully, neither gustatory nor somnambulatory endeavors kept my father from surviving his courtship, and he has thus been afforded the opportunity to produce progeny, to whom he might pass on the love for the beef stand that quite possibly kept him alive.

I joined my folks at Roma's for an Italian beef dinner last week, and decided to make this the second official entry in my 2006 Beef-Off. Roma's is a fairly typical Chicago beef establishment in terms of appearance. It doesn't quite have the borderline grungy character of Al's, but it has definitely seen its fair share of years, and it's a hole-in-the-wall counter joint. However, while we endeavor to set the scene for you, the Beef-Off is completely unconcerned with appearances. It's all about the beef (and maybe the fries). As such, it's merely coincidence that Roma's beef is also fairly typical.

Generally speaking, I'd describe Roma's as good, but not great. One thing I will say for it is that the predominant flavor was definitely the beef. The juice's seasoning was fairly light, and the peppers were nothing fancy whatsoever... slightly garlicky sweet and large chunks of hot peppers and celery for the giardiniera. Both the beef and bread were a little dry (parts of my bread seemed a touch stale, even, despite the fact that I had it dipped), but this wasn't the major shortcoming that kept Roma's from greatness. Though the sandwich had a nice, basic, beefy flavor, the juice just seemed... well... weak. I don't quite want to go so far as to call it watery, but the thought briefly crossed my mind. So while I generally appreciated the flavor -- beefy, lightly spiced, ever so slightly sweet -- I just felt as though I wanted more of it. I still preferred it to Al's, but I don't expect it will be long before Roma's is unseated as the current favorite.

In Roma's defense, I understand that they're one of the few beef establishments in the city that don't regularly get their beef from a single, consistent source (read: Scala). So I'm told that their beef is a little inconsistent, and probably shouldn't be judged on one visit. But here at the Beef-Off, we make no exceptions. Every chosen establishment has one chance to put its best foot forward, and we judge the... um... foot we're given. After two rounds, said foot is currently in the lead.

For those keeping score, the current standings:

1) Roma's
2) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.

February 20, 2006

Chocolatey Goodness of the Premium Kind

I am most definitely not a chocolate connoisseur.

Don't get me wrong, I like to think that I know good chocolate when I taste it. If you give me Valrhona and Godiva side-by-side, yeah, I'm going to know the difference. But I don't have that megarefined palate that can pick out the extremely subtle differences between great chocolate and amazing chocolate.

That said, I've been enjoying some amazing chocolate.

For our belated Valentine's Day, my ladylove saw fit to have some remarkable chocolates shipped in from France. zChocolate tries to separate themselves from the luxury chocolate pack by offering a rather impressive level of packaging customization. Their deluxe collections come in a mahogany box that you can personalize with an engraved plaque, a card featuring your uploaded photo, and even an individual collection, selected chocolate by chocolate (all dark for me... rock on!). But this definitely isn't style over substance. They say their chocolatiers are master chefs, and I can't say I've heard of them, but I'm perfectly willing to take their word for it. These are really fantastic chocolates. Though it's decidedly unscientific, one of my rough benchmarks for chocolate quality is the size of the bites that make me happy. I'll consume run of the mill chocolates in one bite. Good ones, probably 2-3. But with these, anything more than a quarter or a fifth of a chocolate is overload. A little nibble is more than enough to savor. The outer coatings have a nice bite, and in my collection, are all wonderfully dark. The ganache is potent, and an unusual amount of attention seems to have been paid to the the ganache's texture. It's smooth when it should be smooth, a little grainy when it should be a little grainy, firm when it should be firm and creamy when it should be creamy. In terms of flavors, they're creative enough to be interesting, but we're not dealing with curry and wasabi, here. They're less about unusual combinations and more about evoking the strength of more traditional chocolate flavors.

Of course, this all comes at a price that screams special occasion, but there's no question in my mind that you're getting some of the best chocolates out there. Good stuff.

February 19, 2006

Pining For Shabu Shabu

UPDATE : Chiyo has closed

In Tokyo's Ginza district, on Ginza-Dori, is a restaurant named Zakuro. Zakuro is traditionally decorated, with folk art on the walls and kimono-clad swat teams of hostesses doing their utmost to make you comfortable. Though Zakuro serves a variety of Japanese foods, their specialty is nabemono -- a Japanese genre of pot-cooked foods including the well-known sukiyaki and its lesser-known cousin, shabu shabu. (Zakuro was also the site of the $50 peach debacle, but that's another story for another time.) Not only is the service impeccable, but in a particularly nice touch, every time you leave the restaurant there's about a 50/50 chance that you'll be given one of their pottery teacups as a parting gift.

I really like shabu shabu.

The problem is that the ratio of my massive, uncontrollable shabu shabu cravings to the number of trips I make to Japan generally hovers somewhere around 37:1. During the years I lived in Los Angeles, this wasn't a big problem. There's a huge Japanese community in L.A., and on a four block stretch of Sawtelle alone, there are about a dozen places you can go for an inexpensive and satisfying fix. Of course, the Little Osaka joints aren't of the same caliber, but they feed the need. However, for reasons I don't understand, good nabemono is exceptionally difficult to come by in Chicago. Once upon a time, there was a fantastic restaurant named Honda, though in truth it was more of a self-contained Japanese culinary complex. The place seemed to take up half a city block, with the bottom floors comprising the restaurant and the top floors comprising the dormitories where they'd house the chefs they flew in from Japan. Sadly, Honda closed years ago, leaving a Japanese cuisine vacuum that has yet to be adequately filled.

As such, I was beyond thrilled to hear that Matsumoto, a restaurant that previously served exclusively kaiseki meals, had just reopened as Chiyo, and that nabemono would be the centerpiece of the menu. Tonight, we gave it a shot.

For the uninitiated, shabu shabu is thinly sliced beef and vegetables, cooked in a pot and dipped into a pair of sauces. The pot is filled with boiling water, seasoned with a little bit of konbu (seaweed), and placed on a burner at your table. The beef is sliced extremely thin -- almost carpaccio thin -- and the vegetable plate usually includes items such as napa cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, daikon radish, green onions, tofu and noodles. As for the sauces, you have two to work with. First is ponzu, comprised of dashi, soy sauce, yuzu, mirin and, frequently, garlic. The other is goma su, a creamy sauce made with ground sesame seeds, soy, sugar, rice vinegar, oil and garlic. Also, there are usually little condiments that can be added to the sauces, such as minced green onion or chives, spicy grated daikon, pureed garlic or chili oil. The meat and vegetables arrive at your table raw, and you swish them around in the pot to cook them. Yes... shabu shabu is a Japanese onomatopoeia. And occasionally, depending on the restaurant and the season, when you're finished cooking, the resulting broth will be converted into a little cup of soup for a nice finish.

So it was with great anticipation that we walked into Chiyo this evening. It's a very small place -- only five tables, plus a bar -- and it just oozes Japanese. By that, I don't mean that it's all rice paper and kimonos and lanterns. I mean that it looks like a casual little joint that you might wander into in Japan. It's modern, clean and minimal with little Japanese touches in the decor. Our set menu started us out with a little marinated daikon, and then a small sashimi starter that included salmon and flounder. Then came the burner and the sauces. Sadly, this is where my disappointment started. For me, shabu shabu lives and dies by the goma su. Over the years, I've probably visited about a dozen shabu shabu establishments between Japan and the U.S., and I've always found that the goma su falls into one of two distinct categories. The first is a very smooth sauce that's quite sweet with a very pronounced vinegar flavor. The second is a lumpier sauce, usually a touch heavier on the garlic, that is barely sweet at all and very, very nutty. My tastes have always leaned strongly towards the former... preferably with a healthy dose of chives and a bit of chile oil. Sadly, Chiyo serves the latter, with almost no sweetness whatsoever, and no chile oil anywhere to be seen. Before the beef had even hit the table, I knew it would be difficult for me to give Chiyo a fair shake. It's not that I think the savory goma su is any less legitimate, it's merely borne of a different culinary philosophy... one that is incapable of satisfying my craving.

But I have some reservations about the beef as well. The menu offers both a prime ribeye as well as Kobe. We opted to go whole hog and spring for the Kobe. To be clear, I have no idea if it was actually Kobe. Unfortunately, that's a term that's suddenly being tossed around with reckless abandon, even if it's only accurate 2% of the time. It could have been Kobe, it could have been Kobe-style, it could have been Wagyu, or it could have been none of the above. I have no idea. What I do know is that while it was beautifully marbled, and tasty to boot, it wasn't nearly the magical experience that I've come to expect from Kobe. Also, it was sliced too thick for my tastes. Everywhere else I've had shabu shabu, the beef is sliced extremely thin -- almost carpaccio thin. But here it was a good 2-3 times thicker. It threw off the balance, and also meant that a mouthful of beef wasn't as light and tender as it should have been. It may have been a stylistic choice, but it was one that wasn't working for me.

To be clear, this is good shabu shabu, and your mileage may vary, but for me, it just isn't going to satisfy the shabu shabu jones. That said, the couple at the next table had the sukiyaki... which smelled fantastic... so it appears that a return trip will be in order.

February 17, 2006

Soppressata - Chapter I

In a move that is sure to yield either deliciousness or botulism, I've decided it's time to take a crack at dry-cured sausage.

As a Valentine's Day present, I received Charcuterie, a cookbook that I've been eyeing for quite some time. I've always wanted to hang some meat in the cellar. Of course, the fact that I have no cellar has been something of an impediment. But my desire to cure, coupled with my fiancee's enabling nature when it comes to foodstuffs, has finally driven me to make homemade sausage a reality.

Next stop, soppressata.

All hurdles have officially been cleared. A source of quality, farm-raised fatty pork? Check. A local source for pink salt? No sweat. I have a good freezer lined up, so that any trichinella larvae that may have snuck into my hog can suffer a frosty death before they go into the sausage. And most importantly, it turns out that my folks up north have a largely unused refrigerator sitting in their basement, which gets nice and cool this time of year. What's more, my father... a huge fan of good salami... has agreed to help.

Coming soon, Chapter II -- The Pork

February 15, 2006

Krog Bar

Chef John, hiding behind serrano ham, largueta almonds and a tower of quince paste.
A good eating day!

After this afternoon's sojourn to Watershed, the day certainly didn't need another great new restaurant to be considered a wild success. As such, tonight's dinner was a wonderful bonus, especially considering that it may have been my second accident of the day. I was steered to Krog Bar by one of the folks over at LTHForum.com, who suggested I try "Krog", as he was a big fan of the chef and assumed that his new digs would be great, but that I might have trouble getting reservations. In doing a little internet research, I came across "Krog Bar", which I took to be the establishment he meant, especially since the proprietor, Kevin Rathbun, is a big culinary name with other restaurants around town. The only problem is that Krog Bar doesn't accept reservations. Did he mean Krog Bar? Did he mean one of Rathbun's other restaurants, many of which are on Krog Street? We may never know. For the moment, we don't care.

With my sweetheart in a work-induced coma and my stomach still happily filled with the afternoon's Southern shrimp bounty, I almost bailed on the Krog Bar plan. But when I started to get hungry around 11:00 and had no idea what else would be open, a little tapas and wine started to sound mighty appealing, even if I had to fly solo. So I hopped in a cab and after a quick jaunt found myself at Krog Bar. It's a small, standalone building in the corner of a large restaurant complex called Stoveworks. According to my cab driver (read: check my facts!), Stoveworks is an old, converted pot-belly stove manufacturing complex that is owned by a number of chefs, wherein they house their restaurants. And upon seeing the place, I don't doubt it. Stoveworks is a little industrial culinary oasis tucked away on a small back road, and appears to house a number of restaurants, including Kevin Rathbun's flagship restaurant, Rathbun's.

Inside, Krog Bar is trendy, but cozy. The lighting is predictably low, and the entire establishment can seat about 30 at assorted counters and high tables with stools. There's an abundance of wood paneling, steel beams above, somewhat mod light fixtures, and a long white marble bar behind which both drinks and foodstuffs are prepared in a tiny prep area. Immediately, I like this place. One of the things that always strikes me as somewhat wrong about tapas "restaurants" is that tapas isn't really meant to be served in a restaurant. When you go to Spain (and I've only been once, so I don't profess to be any kind of expert), you get these tasty little dishes that you munch on while you're drinking yourself silly at the bar. It seems to me that tapas, in its original format, isn't so much a culinary style as it is a happy drunken afterthought. Which, to be clear, isn't knocking happy drunken afterthoughts. Many of the world's greatest inventions, culinary or otherwise, were undoubtedly conceived while under the influence of a mind-altering libation. But elevating it to a full-blown high-end restaurant cuisine, while tasty, has always struck me as tapas selling out. Now, many of the dishes at Krog Bar clearly aren't going to be confused with whatever you'd pick up at a Catalonian corner bar, but it seems much more in keeping with the spirit of tapas than so many of the places that have cropped up in my hometown.

The menu consists of about 30-40 selections, mostly very simple. A good half of them are simply bits of cheese or slices of assorted cured meats. Right there, a good start. But in the rest of the menu, Krog Bar starts to distinguish itself a bit, mixing a number of traditional selections with some more creative neo-tapas, if you could call it that. In proper fashion, the dishes are all extremely small. I made a good meal out of six of them. Additionally, there's a fairly extensive list of 40 or so Spanish and Italian wines, which I'm told changes reguarly. But since wine is (regrettably) not my area of expertise, I'll stick to commentary on the food.

The first dish I tried was one of the more creative items on the menu, Yellow Tail with Piquillo Peppers, Chile Oil and Sherry Vinaigrette. It was just a touch spicy, extremely tart and extremely appreciated. Though the vinaigrette was potent, the fish still came right through, which I can only attribute to a good pairing. After the yellow tail, I moved on to the Bonita Tuna with Roasted Peppers, Green Onions and Sherry Vinaigrette. Had I been paying more attention and not blindly sating my desire for canned Spanish tuna, I probably would have realized that this was very similar in preparation to the yellow tail. It was. And it was still quite good, though I thought the assorted accoutrements worked better with the raw yellow tail than with the cooked tuna. Next up were the Grilled Artichokes with Lime and Mint Vinaigrette. These were also quite good, but they were extremely tart. I had made the mistake of doing three heavily vinegared dishes all in a row, and with such a suboptimal dish progression, I wasn't in the best place to judge it properly. However, I'm a sucker for artichokes, so I enjoyed 'em. It was at this point that I ordered a second round, making sure not to duplicate the trio of tartness. As such, I passed on the white anchovies, which was hard to do, but I knew I wouldn't be able to give them a fair shake. I instead dug into one of the specials, Lamb Albondigas with Tomato Sauce. Very traditional, and I loved it. To begin with, I adore lamb. I'm also fairly certain that some sort of sharp cheese was worked into the meatballs, which worked very well. It definitely was not a light tomato sauce. This was a heavily cooked, thick red sauce with bold character, and it was a nice pairing. After the albondigas, I dug into an item that I was shocked had eluded my eye on the first pass, the Chicken Liver Paté with Cava Gelée. This was fabulous, and definitely the winner of the evening for me. It was a very smooth and moist paté which was served in a small cup, topped with a thin layer of gelee. What really grabbed me, however, was the sweetness. It was very, very sweet with an almost grape-like flavor. I asked the chef, who was working a scant four feet away, if the paté was sweetned, or if it was just the gelée. He told me that, in fact, the gelée wasn't sweetened at all, and it was all in the paté. He went on to explain that he prepares a caramel and port reduction, which he then blends into the paté to give it the sweetness and "take the edge off the chicken liver." Mission accomplished. While I am one who appreciates chicken liver concoctions with said edge fully intact, the sweetness absolutely did mellow out the organ's pungency and made for an exceptionally smooth flavor. It was a new approach for me, and I absolutely loved it. I then decided to finish up with some good cured meat, and the manager suggested the lomo (paprika cured pork loin). I enjoyed it quite a bit, but in truth, I was still basking in the afterglow of the paté, and as such was a little distracted.

While waiting for my cab afterwards, I spent a little bit of time chatting with the chef, John. He was an extremely friendly fellow. It turns out he grew up in Atlanta, spent a few years in telecom, then somehow landed in the restaurant business. He's definitely in the right place. In the course of conversation, I mentioned that we'd been to Watershed for lunch, and when I commented that it was really a fantastic lunch, he jumped right in, praising both the chef and the establishment. By the time my taxi arrived, Rathbun himself had parked himself at a table and was enjoying a post-work glass of wine and a few nibbles, and I could only think of Thomas Keller's claim that he opened Bouchon so he'd have someplace to eat after he was done with his night's cooking over at the French Laundry. So, after a thorougly satisfying meal and a little friendly chatter, I hopped my cab back to the hotel and briefly considered rousting my ladylove out of bed for a late-night snack. Krog Bar closes "no earlier than midnight and no later than two", so I had a decent shot at making it back in time, but sadly, she was not to be moved. Her loss.

February 14, 2006


American Southern is a breed of food that's completely foreign to me. And with assorted work responsibilities eating up potential food exploration time, it was starting to look like I might escape Atlanta without expanding my horizons. Thankfully, my ladylove and I managed to sneak away for a late lunch this afternoon, and we ended up inadvertently stumbling into the eminently capable hands of Scott Peacock, who provided us with an exceptionally tasty lunch and a lesson in simple Southern fare. In doing some online research, I'd learned that ground zero for fried chicken goodness in Atlanta was to be found on Tuesday nights at Watershed. Apparently, the chicken starts flowing at 5:30, and is usually gone before the clock chimes 7:00. Sadly, other obligations made it impossible for us to hit that window. But the lunch menu seemed mighty tasty, with enough Southern dishes for me to do a little experimentation, so we decided to head on over for a late lunch.

A few MARTA stops east of downtown Atlanta lies Decatur, Georgia. It's a comfortable, unassuming little town, relatively devoid of national chains, chock full of upscale boutiques and altogether suburban. Watershed's decor couldn't be more perfectly suited to such a locale. The building, an old converted gas station and garage, has some of the original space's character, but has been repainted from floor to ceiling in various pastel blues and greens. With enormous rolldown glass doors in front, a multitude of skylights, beech chairs, worn antique tables aplenty and a small store up front selling bath soaps and greeting cards, it has the kind of (God forgive me for using this phrase, but it's accurate) shabby chic atmosphere common to suburban establishments more concerned with being light and friendly than serious about their food. And though I was trying very, very hard not to prejudge, the crowd didn't make it any easier. Across the room, two smartly-dressed ladies immediately identified themselves as on-the-siders. One table over, a solo diner went through her entire meal, appetizer and entree, without once pausing to remove her cell phone from her face. But appearances can be deceiving, in this case thankfully so, as we soon discovered.

Executive chef Scott Peacock, as it turns out, is co-founder of the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food along with one Edna Lewis. Edna Lewis, for many, will need no intoduction, if for no other reason than the fact that her society was dedicated in part to "seeing that people did not forget how to cook with lard." In a remarkable and sad coincidence, I discovered that Edna Lewis died last night, at the age of 89. Thankfully, it appears she died in good company. For the last eight years of her life, she served as Peacock's mentor, while he moved in and served as her caretaker. By all accounts they were close friends bound by a common passion. I can't say I expected to discover such a remarkable and timely back story when going back to research Peacock, but given the quality of the food, I'm not surprised.

We had a really delicious lunch. As Peacock says in the foreword of The Gift of Southern Cooking, the cookbook that he and Lewis co-wrote:

"In the South we are blessed with a long growing season and have always depended on fresh produce, both cultivated and wild. There's an old saying that what grows together goes together, and the dishes we put on our tables have that natural seasonal affinity. We also tend to enjoy life at a leisurely pace. Good cooks in the South see the preparation of food as satisfying, a natural part of the rhythm of daily life. It is all of these qualities that we have tried to translate into the pages of this book so that you can really taste what good Southern cooking can be."

It is eminently clear that for Peacock, respect for the ingredients is paramount. We started with a couple of appetizers. The first thing I tasted was Jern's salad, a simple one with a creamy blue cheese dressing and bacon. It wasn't the aggressively flavored affair that I'd generally expect from such a salad. It was much more about the simple crisp of iceberg lettuce and the light, sweet creaminess of the dressing. It was simple, refreshing and pleasant. My appetizer, however, was fantastic. I had the good fortune to choose what turned out to be one of Peacock's favorite dishes, his Creamy Stone Ground Shrimp Grits with Pullman Plank. It arrived, a bowlful of traditional creamy Southern grits, into which Peacock mixes his shrimp paste. The shrimp paste is made by sauteeing shrimp with a ton of sweet butter, salt, pepper, sherry, lemon juice and cayenne, removing the shrimp and reducing the remaining juice, then processing the whole mess into a rich, shrimpy paste. The resulting grits were extremely rich, but they stopped short of heavy. And they were full of a bold shrimp flavor that was just a touch dirty -- the kind of character you get from shrimp in New Orleans. The grits were served alongside a plank of toast, buttery and crispy with a shot of garlic. Jern's entree was the Garlic and Thyme Roasted Pork Sandwich with Fig Conserve, Fresh Cheese and Dijon Mustard. The sandwich was just as described, plus a small pile of fresh arugula, and extremely tasty. The pork was chilled and extremely tender, and while Jern probably would have preferred it somewhat leaner, I was thrilled to discover that Peacock has no reservations whatsoever when it comes to melt-in-your-mouth pork fat. I opted to go all shrimp, all the time, and had myself a shrimp po' boy. It was a number of sweet shrimp, lightly dusted in cornmeal and fried, put on a great piece of French bread -- extremely moist, with a perfectly crisp crust. The shrimp were buried in a mound of very finely shredded lettuce, and they sat atop a light smear of what I believe was a remoulade of some kind. I gave it a squeeze of fresh lemon, a little hit of Tabasco and dug in. It was the kind of sandwich that could have been entirely ordinary or even unimpressive in other hands, but the quality ingredients and perfect execution made it special. This isn't to say it was haiku-worthy, but it was light, crisp, extremely satisfying, and I tasted every single ingredient. For dessert, Jern had herself some chocolate chip cookies with a glass of milk, while I hit one of my all-time favorites, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Even the dessert gave me a bit of a different spin, in that it was surprisingly savory. This is not to say that it wasn't sweet, but it wasn't the smorgasbord of sweet that I'd generally expect from such a cake. As a result, I was less blown away by sweet cream cheese than I was drawn into the more subtle flavors of the cake... the cinnamon, the pecans, and -- God forbid -- the carrots.

All in all, Watershed wasn't a mind-blowing experience, but I think that's just the point. Peacock isn't going to write the book on neo-Southern and start the trend on FoodTV (though he has been on FoodTV). He simply loves his home, loves the fruits of its earth, and wants to prepare them in a way that makes them shine. He respects history and heritage and wants them to live on in his dishes. In this, he absolutely succeeds. We had a really excellent lunch that I only appreciate more as I continue to think about it. Naturally, I walked out the door with his cookbook, and at the risk of giving myself too many culinary goals for 2006, I'd like to further familiarize myself with this breed of American cuisine.

My only regret is that we missed the fried chicken. But you always have to have something to come back for, right?

February 12, 2006

The Ten Commandments of Dry Pasta

Dominic Armato
Time to lay down some ground rules.

I post a lot of pasta recipes. Mostly beacause I cook a lot of pasta. But there are so many basic pasta rules that this becomes problematic. The basic rules are usually three times longer than the actual recipes themselves, so including them is a little ridiculous. But they're so, so important. Pastas are so minimal and simple that the tiniest little details in preparation make all the difference between a decent pasta and a great pasta. As such, I feel as though not adding them to a recipe is a great disservice. Enter the hyperlink.

Here, I post the Ten Commandments of Dry Pasta, passed down to me by the culinary gods. All of my future pasta recipes will link back to this page. And while you are encouraged to always refer to the commandments, I am sure it won't be long before you have taken these words into your heart and allowed them to rule your pasta preparation.

Italian pasta come in two primary forms, fresh and dry. Those who insist that one is superior are blasphemers. Both types are equally worthy, and the nature of the dish will determine which is more appropriate, but for now we'll focus on the dry. So, when it comes to cooking dry pasta, take heed of these commandments, for it is only through them that you will attain pasta salvation.

I - Thou Shalt Use Quality Ingredients
Of course, this is an important rule for any recipe, but it's three times as important for pasta. Good pasta is all about freshness and simplicity -- any pasta containing more than four ingredients beyond the pasta itself is a complex one. As such, all of the flavors are magnified. If those flavors are superb, your pasta will be superb. If those flavors are mediocre, your pasta will be mediocre. And this commandment extends to the most basic ingredients. Use only high-quality extra virgin olive oil, such as Raineri Silver. When using canned tomatoes, use only high-quality tomatoes, preferably Italian San Marzano tomatoes, such as Carmelina tomatoes. Even when salting your pasta water, use sea salt. And trying to use Prince spaghetti will earn you time in purgatory, so don't even go there.

II - Thou Shalt Not Fear Olive Oil
Some recipes will seem to call for an exceptionally large amount of olive oil. It isn't a typo. A quarter cup for a pound of pasta is entirely normal. One of the most common mistakes people make is not using enough olive oil. Provided you have a good quality oil (see Commandment I, above), using the proper amount will impart a richness and brightness that cannot be achieved any other way, and will be sorely missed if this commandment is ignored.

III - Thou Shalt Not Make Thine Own Dry Pasta
In Italy, you have pasta fresca (fresh pasta) and pasta secca (dry pasta), and a common misconception is that the latter is achieved by setting the former out to dry. But they're fundamentally different products utilizing different ingredients and different techniques. Fresh pasta is easy to make and at its best when you do it yourself. Dry pasta, however, is best left to pasta factories. Making dry semolina pasta with a good bite requires industrial machinery. It absolutely cannot be done by hand, and even home "pasta machines" do a horrible job. Home-extruded pasta is an abomination before the culinary gods.

IV - Thou Shalt Use Ample Water
There are those who insist you should use just barely enough water to cook your pasta. Those people are wrong. For starters, you want to give your pasta plenty of room to swim around so that it cooks evenly and does not clump. Secondly, you want the water to stay as hot as possible, so the more water you have, the less it cools when you add the pasta. The only exception to this commandment is if your stove is not strong enough to keep a large pot of water at a good boil. In this case, use as much water as you can while maintaining a strong, rolling boil.

V - Thou Shalt Salt Liberally
The whole flavor vs. temperature debate is neverending, and I've waffled on the issue myself. However, what is beyond question is that adding a pinch of salt to a big pot of water does absolutely nothing. Use a big ol' fistful. My opinion? It's all about flavor. Yeah, it raises the boiling point of the water, but not enough to have any kind of measurable effect on cooking the pasta. But while it may not cook any faster or be any firmer, pasta is undeniably tastier when it's a little salty. As a small side note, while salt in the pasta water is favored by the culinary gods, olive oil is not! It will keep the pasta from sticking, yes, but it will also keep your sauce from sticking to your pasta. Olive oil in the pasta water is a pact with the devil. To avoid sticking, a good stir immediately after adding the pasta to the water and another about a minute later is all that is needed.

VI - Thou Shalt Not Break The Pasta
I have absolutely no logical reason why. I just know you don't do it. You don't do it. It's a cardinal sin. If your pasta doesn't fit in your pot... well... get a bigger pot.

VII - Thou Shalt Not Drain The Pasta Dry
When pasta cooks, the water gets nice and starchy. This starchy water acts as a thickener, finishing your sauce. So, when draining your pasta, don't shake it vigorously and let it sit so that it completely drains. You want it to still be a little drippy when you combine it with the sauce. Give it a quick drain, maybe a quick toss or two, and get it right in the sauce. What's more, it's generally a good idea to grab a cup of the water and set it aside before draining the pasta. Then, as you combine the pasta and sauce, if the sauce hasn't quite thickened up just right, a few tablespoons of the water will usually do the trick.

VIII - Thou Shalt Not Overcook The Pasta
Nothing makes the culinary gods cry like overcooked pasta. Pasta needs to be al dente. It needs to have bite. It needs to have substance. It should be just barely cooked through, without the slightest hint of softness on the outside. If you think you don't like pasta al dente, give it a chance. Cook it al dente a few times, and you'll soon understand why. The culinary gods will rejoice, and you and your children and your children's children shall know the joy of al dente. To best achieve the joy of al dente, ignore the package directions. In my experience, the recommended times almost always make for overcooked pasta, and sometimes frightfully so. Once five or six minutes have passed, you just have to keep testing until it's ready. Unfortunately, the only way to know when it's "ready" is if you've had it cooked correctly and have a basis of comparison. Explaining the right texture is difficult, but here's the best I can suggest. Try cooking some spaghetti. If you pull out a strand after five minutes, you'll note that the outside yields to the teeth, but there's still a hard core which you can probably even see if you look. Keep checking every minute thereafter. As soon as you can bite through a strand without sensing a sudden, noticeable change between the outer layer and the core, make a mental note... that's moments shy of al dente, and that's when it should be pulled to finish in the sauce.

IX - Thou Shalt Finish The Pasta In The Sauce
This is one of the most important of the ten, and one that is so rarely done. You want to pull your pasta when it's almost but not quite finished, and then immediately add it to your sauce over low heat. You then want to toss your pasta and sauce and cook them together for the last minute or so. This gives the pasta a chance to absorb a little bit of the sauce, and more fully integates the two. It's a small thing that makes a huge, huge difference.

X - Thou Shalt Not Make The Pasta Wait
Ideally, you want your sauce and pasta to both be ready at exactly the same time. It takes practice. But if one of them is going to sit, it is imperative that it is not the pasta. Most sauces can sit for a bit without being harmed much, if at all. But if the pasta sits, even for a minute, it will suffer, and significantly so. It will get cold, it will get gummy, and it won't achieve the magical fusion that results when it goes straight from the water to the sauce.

These are the Ten Commandments Of Dry Pasta. Know them. Heed them well, and you shall be rewarded. So say the culinary gods.

February 10, 2006

Iron Chef vs. Iron Chef

I've been watching a lot of Iron Chef lately.

It's one of those things that ebbs and flows. I don't watch any for a month, then I consume 12 episodes in a week. But I record both religiously, and flip back and forth depending on how the ingredients and chefs interest me. So now that IC America is entering its third season and I've had a little time to get past the initial superficial comparisons, I think I've finally nailed down the essential difference between the two shows.

To be clear, I think they're both great. The absolute genius of the original Iron Chef requires no elucidation. And despite having gargantuan shoes to fill, I think IC America has done a rather fine job. It isn't the original, and nothing ever will be, but they managed to maintain most of the spirit without overreaching too much. They've maintained the freewheeling creative spirit. They take the competitive aspect very seriously. I'd even go so far as to say that I generally prefer the judges... more people with food knowledge and fewer BDJs (Bimbo Du Jour, for those not up on IC shorthand). But I think I've finally put my finger on the most critical difference between the two series:

Fukui-san and Doc Hattori.

Not them specifically, though they are both great characters who couldn't be replicated (or at least their Canadian VO counterparts), but rather the manner in which they fulfill their roles. Alton Brown is a great commentator. He's knowledgable, he's funny in a nerdy eye-rolling sort of manner, and he's generally personable and enjoyable to watch. But he isn't a sports announcer, and that's the difference. In Fukui-san's play by play and Doc Hattori's color commentary, the original Iron Chef producers found the culinary version of a first class sports announcer team. While IC America has grasped the drama and the competitive spirit, by dropping that style of commentary and keeping the live audience silent and in the dark, they've lost the sporting event feel that the original had. It was named "Kitchen Stadium" for a reason. As such, watching IC America feels more like observation than participation. It's just as interesting to watch, but that sense of excitement that the original cultivated is lacking.

Now that I've finally put a finger on it, it's a little frustrating. IC America is a great show, I think they did a great job in trying to live up to ridiculous expectations, and I'll continue watching it regularly. But the fact that a couple of very minor tweaks could have taken it from great to fantastic is a little frustrating.

February 09, 2006

New Ingredients

From the left, Shaohsing, Chinkiang Vinegar, Fermented Black Beans and Chili Bean Sauce.
These days, it isn't often that I work with brand new ingredients for the first time. So, working with four in the same day was definitely worth documenting.

In keeping with one of my stated goals for 2006, I did a little further exploration of traditional Chinese cuisine tonight. So I picked out a few simple stir-fry recipies, drove down to a Chinese grocery I've been meaning to check out for a while (Richwell Market, in Chinatown), and loaded up. If anything, the large number of staples only served to demonstrate just how few traditional Chinese dishes I've actually made. Which is depressing, given the number of pseudo-Chinese dishes I've made. But self-loathing doesn't go well with stir-fry, so I got over it and played with my new toys.

The first is shaohsing. In truth, I can't say this is the first time I've used shaohsing... just the first time I've bought it. I have a beautiful old bottle of the stuff on my shelf that I received as a gift, and I've broken out from time to time to use a little. But for the most part, I've used dry sherry, which is often suggested as a substitute. But my bottle of shaohsing is old, and while I'm told it's supposed to improve with age, I've never really been sure if what I was tasting was in any way what it was supposed to be. So I bought a bottle, and was surprised to find just how ample of a substitute dry sherry really is. Don't get me wrong, they're not at all the same, but in character they're actually quite similar. The shaohsing isn't nearly as dry, but it has that intersting sourness that I'm used to in dry sherry. And on the tail end, you can definitely taste the rice from which it's fermented.

The same ingredients, sans packaging.
Chinkiang Vinegar
Next up, Chinkiang vinegar. It's a type of rice vinegar, but a long, long way from the clean Japanese version. Also known as black vinegar, it's apparently made from either black or brown glurinous rice. It isn't too harsh, but rather has a nice sweetness to it. And it's an assertive, full flavor that's very pleasant. Perhaps most interestingly, I was surprised to find that it has a very slight smoky flavor. Or maybe I got an odd bottle. But I believe that's normal. Good stuff.

Fermented Black Beans
Fermented black beans are pretty much what they sound like. They're Chinese black beans that have been salted and sometimes lightly seasoned, then left out to dry and ferment slightly. If you've ever had anything in a Chinese black bean sauce, you know what they taste like. They're beany. They're salty. The bit of fermentation gives them an interesting character. I'd say they were exactly as I expected, except for the packaging. At least for the brand I bought, they're basically just tossed in a simple cardboard tube. Nothing airtight, barely sealed. I suppose there's really no need, but in a country where everything under the sun is vacuum-sealed for freshness, it's a little unexpected. These little fellows take a bath before you use them (maybe half an hour in a few changes of water) to lessen the impact of the salt, and then they go into all kind of traditional stir-frys.

Chili Bean Sauce
It was only after the fact that I discovered this is the toban djan so frequently referenced in Iron Chef Chen Kenichi's battles. And the reason it's a staple is immediately evident. It isn't fancy... just a simple fermented soy paste with a healthy dose of prepared chili mixed in. It's the perfect base for any kind of full-flavored spicy dish. The chili brings the heat and the bean gives it some gravity. I look forward to trying a few different brands so I can settle on a favorite.

February 08, 2006

Skillet Doux

I suppose it's about time I make it official.

As promised, I have chosen to completely ignore your advice by selecting a blog name that actually tied for dead last in the voting. However, there's a little part of me that wants to believe Skillet Doux is simply misunderstood, partly because I had to explain it to a couple of people. Perhaps this will help:

Pronounciation: "bi-lE-'dü
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural billets-doux
Etymology: French billet doux, literally, sweet letter
: a love letter

Yes, it's a dumb pun. But it works on so many levels, I couldn't resist. First off, literally half-translated, you've got "sweet skillet", which is entirely appropriate. Secondly, it's meant to be read as the culinary version of a love letter, which has the dual meaning of both foodstuffs made with love, and also enthusiastic culinary writing. And lastly, a title derived from a French phrase seemed an appropriate salute to the grandpappy of western culinary technique.

So, yeah... it was pretty much impossible to resist. So impossible to resist, in fact, that I was shocked when extensive internet searching turned up absolutely nothing. I may not be the first person to think of it, but I'm apparently the first to bring it to the web, which is just as good these days. As such, consider this food blog officially named, as www.skilletdoux.com is up and running.

Rock on.