Monday, July 28, 2008

the minimalist theory tested - J

Those of us (of you) who have been following Mark Bittman's tenure at the NYT since whenever it started (I have cut outs of his recipes that are yellowed and brittle, that tells you something) are, I suspect not just following his recipes. We are following his tenets. The Minimalist, as his column is called, is about paring down complicated recipes to an essential truth, a basic ingredient, or technique which renders the dish miraculously approachable to even the novice cook.

The amazing thing about the minimalist approach is that even as you delevop skills, initiative and preferences in your cooking, you are doing it the minimalist way. At least I do. As much as I love to cook, I like to keep it simple. Presentation matters, but not as much as flavor. Organization matters, but it is more important to have fun in the kitchen than to keep it clean. And recipes are important, but ingredients set the tone. The same way that an historian lets the evidence write the story (only bad historians look for the evidence to prove their story), in minimalist cooking, one ingredient, if it is all you have, may suffice.

Last night was one of those nights.

In the fridge: one small cabbage, one old apple, a 2 lb hunk of parmesan.
In the house: one very tired vegetarian boyfriend, who had been up for the last 72 hours with barely 8 hours of sleep in between dinners, wine tastings, lunches, brunches, seminars, discussions and much shmoozing.

I have been making a lot of slaws with the cabbage I get from my CSA (using Mark's suggestion to salt the cabbage for two hours and then rinsing - it cures the cabbage in the most wonderful and edible way without needing to blanch it), but this was not a cole-slaw night.

I dug in my minimalist repertoire, and I wish I had a picture of the summer cabbage soup over parmesan polenta I made. I shredded the cabbage with a onion I had lying about and sautéed them in heated olive oil in the cute yellow Belgian cast-iron pot I found at Goodwill (score!). The cabbage and onion became translucent and I braised it all with a drop more of olive oil and some sea salt. When the mixture started to brown, I poured three cups of water over it (no broth in the house), and added a bit of cayenne, but just a smidge, grated the apple into it and let it simmer.

In the meantime, a cup of polenta (a well stocked pantry saves the day), 3 cups of water and in the micro-wave it went. 15 minutes later, more olive oil and a heap of grated parmesan folded in and we had our comfort food. The polenta was a fragrant and mushy, the thick cabbage soup was lightened by a vaguely ciderey broth.

It was the best dinner we had all week-end.

ps: i feel perhaps unjustifiably vindicated by S' review of the no-bake cheese cake. while my review was merely an opinion masquerading as analysis, the indomitable S actually tested it, and confirmed that sometimes less is just less.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

No-Bake Cheesecake Bars, tested.

So most of my family is in town for a few days, and I offered to host dinner this evening. Along with grilled tri-tip, local corn salad and potato salad, I decided to make Mark's No-Bake Cheesecake Bars.

I like cheesecake, but don't love it. I think that I was spoiled at a young age by my mother's Chocolate Amaretto Cheesecake, with something like four pounds of cream cheese in it and a chocolate wafer crust, nice and thick. No other cheesecake has ever compared. I even tried cheesecake at Junior's in Brooklyn last year, and while I thought it was good, especially after a red-eye flight to JFK, my mom's still kicks-butt.

But the No-Bake Cheesecake Bars intrigued me with the "no-bake" part of the title. And, it looked ridiculously easy. I mean, the man didn't measure anything. As a rule, I don't really like to bake because it requires a fair amount of precision and does not encourage adaptation along the way. I am not a precise chef. I am working on it, but I view recipes as guidelines, and change them as needed. I bake so rarely, it took me fifteen minutes to locate my Kitchen-Aid, which I use only for baking and couldn't remember in which hidey-hole I had shoved the bowl and mixer attachments. Notice the layer of dust on the Black Wonder.

I mixed the graham crackers with hazelnut powder, (a nod to our northwest location) and probably didn't add enough butter since I was roughly doubling the recipe. I also added raspberries from my garden with the blueberries. It is in the fridge now. I will report back this evening with the results.

Results positive. Family oohed and aahed over dessert. I thought that it was fine, but not fabulous. Suspect family is hiding their true feelings because they are just grateful that they didn't have to make anything. I thought that I put too much ricotta in the cheese mix part and not enough melted butter in the crust. Also, I think that a little bit of powdered sugar in with the cheese mix wouldn't have hurt. The honey was a bit too subtle. The fruit here hasn't had enough sun to get really sweet, so a little sweetness in the cheese mix would have balanced the fruit a bit. Off to make whiskey-sours.


Friday, July 25, 2008

A sense of humor.

Self-deprecation can be a sexy thing, when used wisely. Mark has it down. Not too much, but just enough to show that he doesn't take himself too seriously. He seems to be a real no-drama kind of guy.

I really appreciate his cooking style. The recipes are simple with little or no fuss. He is reasonable with his suggestions for ingredients, and offers alternatives when available. His book, How To Cook Everything is the go-to cookbook in our house. We use it all the time. It gets perused at least twice a week. It serves as a basic reference guide, as well as a jumping off point for inspiration. Got baby artichokes at the farmer's market - what to do with them? Just turn to page 533 for a great starting point, and move forward from there. You will notice in the photo above, the placement of HTCE, with its bright yellow spine, is within easy reach for emergency references.

As a bookseller, this is the cookbook I recommend the most. Forget Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens. I am always trying to steer people to Mark's book as a better alternative to those two. I think that sometimes the older generation is perhaps put-off by the brightness of the cover. I know that people have recipes that they grew up with and want to pass on to younger generations. But sometimes I wonder when was the last time that grandma actually made that gelatinous pies she recalls so fondly, and if she would still enjoy it now.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The cheesecake no-bake recipe video review, by J

Mark Smash! Mark Love!

Undoubtedly, the best thing about today's video is Mark acting like the cookie monster. Mark Smash! - he grunted while he destroyed a bag of graham crackers. Mark Love! - he moaned after taking the first bite out of his cake. Adorable.

I have a feeling his crust would have held together a bit better if he'd stuck it in the oven for 15 minutes, and the cream cheese concoction might have appreciated a bit of gelatine to help it congeal, but this is Mark's show, and it was a good one.

I particularly like the supporting role of the pink cuisinart blender. Tres chic monsieur Bittman, je vous adore.