Monkfish sous vide

I’ve been thinking about sous vide cooking, reading about it, and I’m finally going to try it, especially since it CAN be done without any fancy equipment–except a beer cooler. That I can handle–in fact, I already have one–I just had not thought of it as a kitchen appliance.

I’ve been wanting to try sous vide cooking, especially reading about it Stefan’s Gourmet Blog posts. Being somewhat budget conscious, I’ve explored alternatives to the water ovens and circulators usually used in sous-vide cooking. I’ve looked at articles on how to turn your slow cooker into a sous-vide machine and discovered that requires some additional equipment and “hacking” to work; that’s also not for me.

There seem to be a lot of reasons for using this technique, not the least of which is to avoid heating up the kitchen and overworking the A/C! There’s also the appeal of the evenness of cooking and not being able to overcook unless you give a lot of attention to the actual cooking. All those advantages and some alternatives to expensive equipment or ones that require engineering know-how at least let me try it. One alternative I discovered was a big pot of water, low oven temperature–not an option in summer for me.  I found references on adding external temperature controls to rice cookers and multifunction pots, using the oven, and, of course, lots of ads for sous vide tools.

So what has precipitated this sudden fit of actually doing it? It’s the hot, muggy, humid, steamy weather we have here in the summer and the fact that I’m a serious fresh-air freak. If it’s at all possible I’ll have the doors and windows open–Frankie especially appreciates this. I want to cook without having all the extra heat–so I’m exploring all possible alternatives, including adapting recipes that normally involve using the oven for the slow cooker–looking for ways to beat the heat.

Krups rice cooker IMG_3796

For food safety temperature is important so I looked at lots of articles giving temperatures for various meats and fish, including on that considered using the keep-warm function on the rice cooker or multifunction pot. Next to the beer cooler method this looked like a possible one for me since I do own a Krups multifunction pot. To check that out I filled the pot with and checked the temperature on the slow-cooking setting–the temperature held at 185 ºF which looks as if it might work for some veggies and, perhaps, for tough cuts of meat. Switching to the keep-warm function and doing a temperature check two hours after I had switched to keep-warm function–but the water started at 185 ºF and I had absolutely no information on what the rate of cooling in the closed multifunction pot was. So–more data, please! I started with water at 110 ºF on keep-warm setting to see what happened. What happened was 165ºF.

So the multifunction pot (Krups) is out for just using the warm function, but I’ve discovered that if the pot is hot and then turned off, it hold a steady temperature for about two hours. Since I’m only doing sous vide for one and quick things, I don’t need a huge pot. This is going to take a bit more tending, but it would certainly be easier for quick things than a beer cooler (my laziness is showing, I know).

Searching for the best temperature to use for monkfish sous-vide produced an interesting array of suggestion. Always preferring data, I was glad to see Monkfish sous vide temperature experiment which tested throughout the range of temperatures that I found and gave a description of the fish texture at each.

From ChefSteps I also found the following temperature guide for fish and from Amazing Food Made easy temperatures and times in the range of 10 to 30 minutes:

  • Tender  40ºC/104ºF
  • Tender and flaky 50ºC/122ºF
  • Well done 60ºC/140ºF

For my monkfish, I think tender and flaky is a good option; for tuna, I might go for just tender–or even rare, depending on the grade. Now for time specifically for monkfish to be medium the general consensus seemed to be “medium” at 140ºF for 10 to 30 minutes. Since my tap water is at 140ºF with the beer cooler I should be good to go–though it seems strange to not have to be concerned about time but since it won’t go above the water temperature anything in that range should work.

For seasoning? Well, simple seemed good for my first try so I went with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and butter. I used the rice-cooking mode to bring the water up to 140ºF, put the monkfish in, closed the lid and crossed my fingers. It just seems too simple even though I’ve cooked other things by putting them in liquid and then turning off the heat and letting the residual do the cooking.

The results? The best monkfish I’ve ever eaten. Okay, so I’ve not had anyone else’s monkfish cooked sous vide, but it’s the best monkfish I’ve ever cooked. I cooked it at 140ºF for 30 minutes. Temperature check at the end of the cooking was still at 140ºF. The fish was tender and just starting to flake. I’m still trying to find some adjectives for it. If i have to pick one I think it will be just plain luscious!

Now that I’ve done all the temperature experiments on the Krups multifunction cooker (in slow-cooking mode and keep-warm mode), and on how it holds temperature, I see more sous vide in my future.

Related links:

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. . . more Ratatouille (Provençal vegetables)

dark purple eggplantRatatouille is a summer dish that gets us over the hump of too many zucchini, and maybe tomatoes. It’s enjoyable warm, cold, or room temperature–but it’s not an especially memorable dish.  Not usually–however, I’ve one recipe for it that is memorable.This is not the ratatouille that you put together in the slow cooker, or quickly; however, if you like ratatouille, you should take the time and effort to make this one. Go ahead and splurge on the saffron.That’s part of what makes this memorable.

The recipe from Simply French: Patricia Wells presents the cuisine of Joël Robuchon (see bibliography) gave entirely new meaning to ratatouille.

Provençal Vegetables (Ratatouille)

Adapted from Simply French, pp. 229-230. Serves: 8 to 10

Ingredients

  • 10 medium tomatoes
  • 2 medium onions finely chopped
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 green bell pepper, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, peeled and thinly sliced
  • Bouquet garni: several parsley stems, celery leaves, sprigs thyme, wrapped in the green part of a leek and fastened with kitchen twine
  • 4 garlic cloves minced
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
  • 6 to 7 small zucchini scrubbed, trimmed, and cut into matchsticks (about 1-1/4 pounds)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 small eggplants peeled and cut into matchsticks (about 1-1/2 pounds)
  • Pinch of saffron threads (optional)

Preparation

  1.  Core, peel, and seed the tomatoes. Save as much juice as possible and strain. If strained juice does not measure 1 cup, add water as needed to bring to 1 cup. Finely chop the tomatoes and set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, combine onions, 1/4 cup oil, and pinch of salt. Cook over low heat until soft and translucent.
  3. Add peppers and pinch salt. Cover and continue cooking about 5 minutes more.ÒΛÓ
  4. Add chopped tomatoes, stir and continue cooking for about 5 minutes more.
  5. Stir in the tomato juice, bouquet garni, and garlic.  Taste for seasoning.
  6. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes–don’t over cook–vegetables should not be mushy!
  7. If the tomatoes lack flavor, add tomato paste.
  8. In another skillet, while the tomatoes, onions and seasonings cook, heat 1/2 cup oil over moderate heat. When hot add zucchini and sauté until lightly colored (about 5 minutes). Transfer to colander and drain excess oil. Season with thyme and salt.
  9. In the same skillet, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil and sauté the eggplant until lightly colored. Transfer to colander and drain excess oil.
  10. Add zucchini and eggplant to the tomato mixture and taste for seasoning, add saffron if desired, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes.
  11. Serve warm, room temperature, or cold. Will keep covered and refrigerated for several days.

ÒüÓ

This is not you everyday, get rid of the zucchini, ratatouille. It’s special occasion, peak tomato season, and it take time and effort, but if you invest the time and effort, I think you’ll agree that it is a fantastic dish. This best made when tomatoes are at their peak–you don’t want to expend this effort and use canned tomatoes or supermarket ones that have no flavor–that would be a waste of effort. Neither the tomato paste nor the saffron can overcome that deficit.

Ratatouille (slow-cooker)

vegetables for ratatouilleDuring the summer abundance of eggplant, squash, and tomatoes  we’re often in the OMG-what-can-I-do-with-these-zucchini mode. Ratatouille and caponata  provide some good eating even when the hot weather has rather killed the appetite. I thought that being able to do this in the slow-cooker instead of stove-top would be an advantage in sweltering weather that is already taxing the A/C without adding more heat.

It’s easy to find ratatouille recipes–a quick search on the internet will provide a plethora.  The question:  are they  “good” recipes”?  I’m not sure I can tell you what (specifically) tells me “good”, “passable”, or “oh yuk”.  Most likely past experience, and reading a lot of food science, and (from America’s Test Kitchen) “why this recipe works”.

Here is a ratatouille recipe given by a friend, from Food.com, reproduced below. I’ve never made ratatouille in a slow cooker so I thought this was worth trying. In reading the recipe, I had only a couple questions, so I decided to make the recipe as directed–well, almost–as much as I can–I’m just a compulsive tinkerer, and constitutionally unable to follow a recipe strictly, but almost.  ratatouille ingredientsLooking at the recipe, I knew I’d want more garlic. Had I not been using part frozen peppers (from a Kitchen Disaster), I would not use green peppers–I prefer ripe (red, yellow, or orange) like them. I’m changing the herbs to thyme and oregano,  rather than basil (for reasons explained below in Cook’s notes).  My other question about this recipe had to do with that quantity of tomato paste. Why?

When I started the prep, I was still undecided about the tomato paste.  My inclination was to leave it out because this is an “all fresh” dish, and (to me) tomato paste tastes canned and cooked. Since this does not call for the tomato paste to be added until later, my obvious solution is to wait and see how it tastes, especially since these are summer tomatoes. If  I were wanting to supplement the “tomato” part of the flavor I would likely add some sun-dried tomatoes, rather than tomato paste–unless there is a dearth of “umami” (which is one of my reservations about slow-cooker dishes).

Slow Cooker Ratatouille (Food.com)

The modifications that I made on this recipe on the first round are shown in parentheses after the ingredient. These were just to meet my seasoning preferences, not for any other reason.  Don’t hold this on “warm”–it just doesn’t do well.

Serves: 6 to 8

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
  • salt
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes–about 3 medium
  • 1 large green bell pepper, cut into 1/2 inch squares
  • 1 large red bell peppers or 1 large yellow bell pepper, cut into 1/2 inch squares
  • 3 medium zucchini, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons dried basil (substitute 1/2 teaspoon thyme and 1/2 teaspoon Turkish oregano)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed through a press (4 garlic cloves)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper (held until end as I think it gets bitter with long cooking)
  • 1 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 1 (5 1/2 ounce) cans pitted ripe olives, drained and chopped coarsely (oil cured black olives)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (substitute chopped fresh oregano)

Directions

  1. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt; let stand in a colander 1/2- 1 hour to drain.
  2. Press out excess moisture.
  3. Rinse the eggplant with water and pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Place the eggplant in crock pot.
  5. Add onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, olive oil, basil, garlic, pepper and 1/2 tsp salt.
  6. Mix well.
  7. Cover and cook on high setting about 3 hours or until the vegetables are tender but still hold their shape.
  8. Stir in the tomato paste, olives, and the fresh basil.
  9. Serve hot, room temperature or chilled.

Notes:  Being of scientific orientation, I decided to do an experiment–half the recipe is cooked as above; and the other half cooked separately, with modifications after I had tasted the results of the original method. First, I had to cook for an additional hour–I thought my rice cooker/slow cooker ran rather hot, but not according to this.  After tasting I did add the tomato paste as the tomato flavor was not at all pronounced, but I think the tomato paste (unless browned before adding) doesn’t add the depth I want. I needed more salt (which kind of surprised me because I don’t usually need to add much. Oregano and thyme needed to be bumped up as did the garlic. Those minor things were done to the first batch. So far the onions  have stayed crispy and I think I’d prefer them a bit softer so maybe microwave them before putting into the slow cooker (that had to wait because they were already mixed with the other vegetables). This came out with more juice than I’d expected.

Now for the second batch. I’m adding more olives, more garlic (sliced rather than pressed), some red pepper flakes (about 1/8 teaspoon) for a little zing (but not a lot of heat), and sun-dried tomatoes (instead of tomato paste), a bay leaf, and increasing the oregano and thyme. Instead of increasing salt, I’m going to add just a touch of nam pla (fish sauce)–or an anchovy fillet mashed would work. This is not intended to make it at all fishy just more flavorful. This needs to be stirred after an hour so that the bottom veggies don’t mush and the top be a bit undercooked. Check for doneness–don’t just trust the time. I prefer my veggies cooked but with a little “tooth” to them, so in my slow cooker this finishes in about 2 hours. I like this one as there’s no added liquid, except the dash of nam pla and what the veggies give off. Minced fresh oregano added the last 15 minutes of cooking leaves it very fresh tasting.

Bottom line: this is quick and works if you want a very light ratatouille, not complex ratatouille.  I don’t want my ratatouille over whelmed with herbs and garlic, but I’d like to make it a bit more complex, or layered flavor–maybe it needs a little more umami It has the advantage of being very quick to assemble.

Ò¿Ó

As you likely know if you’ve read other posts, I’m somewhat partial to recipes from America’s Test Kitchen.  When the published Slow Cooker Revolution I had to check it out.  I was hoping that those recipes would improve my attitude to (and increase use of ) my slow cooker. There’s no denying it’s convenience, but generally I’ve simply not been happy with the results when compared with oven or stove-top methods.

A comparison of America’s Test Kitchen recipe with the one above is interesting. One of my “complaints” is that their recipes sometimes  seem more complicated–though they do increase flavor.  The recipe below is from the Slow Cooker Revolution (Kindle edition). This is the recipe that inspired me to try the one above.  The cooking instructions are quite extensive so I’m only going to summarize them for purposes of comparison. I’m trying to find a compromise of best flavor and easy preparation.

Slow-cooker ratatouille (America’s Test Kitchen)

Serves: 10 to 12

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggplants (2 pounds), cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 zucchini (1-1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Preparation

  1. Brown eggplant, half at a time, in olive oil (5 to 7 minutes), and transfer each batch to slow cooker.
  2. Brown zucchini, half at a time, in olive oil, transferring each batch to slow cooker.
  3. Cook onions, bell peppers, garlic, and thyme until softened and lightly browned (8 to 10 minutes), stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in reserved tomato juice, scrape up browned  bits, and smooth out lumps, and transfer to slow cooker.
  4. Stir tomatoes into slow cooker, close and cook until vegetables are tender (4 to 6 hours).
  5. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

Notes:  The time it takes to brown the vegetables really is not that long, so it’s worth the extra flavor. It’s a drastic difference, even when you add some umami-hyping ingredients to the Food.com recipe.

The differences here are, notably, the use of flour to thicken, the lack of tomato paste, and the preparation of the eggplant. One of my reasons for trying the recipe from Food.com is the handling of the eggplant, with the idea that salting to remove fluid might eliminate the need for flour–I doubt that you’d know there was flour in this recipe simply by tasting.

After tasting the first batch of the recipe from Food.com with the adjustments noted in Notes, it’s a keeper for simplicity. The America’s Test Kitchen is a bit richer since you’ve browned the veggies. Either is good–depends on the time and effort you want (or have) to invest.

. . . a son goût

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cooked ratatouille

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Celebrating the autumnal equinox.

I woke up to a lovely fall morning–sunny, breezy, cool–absolutely lovely day, some leisurely time over coffee in the sunny kitchen, and realized that I’ve gradually been shifting into autumn cooking mode–cooking urges that are very different from the hot, humid weather of summer.

I’ve been making meals in the multitasking rice cooker lately: whipped up a great spicy lamb and garbanzo bean stew and another of braised pork and collard greens.  Some of immediate use today, and some of each of those to stash in the freezer for quick meals on a cold winter day when I need serious comfort food.

The lamb and garbanzo “stew” was one that I literally threw together in about 15 minutes while I was finishing an index to send to a client. A good friend who knows how much I like to use chili peppers gave me a wonderful chile powder from Made in New Mexico.  I used lamb shoulder chops, a healthy batch of chile powder, some Mexican oregano,  Goya garbanzo beans, and a can of diced tomatoes. The lamb chops came out of the slow-cooking melt-in-your-mouth tender, with just enough spice to accumulate a bit of burn by the time you’ve eaten a bowl of it, but not enough to rip you taste buds out by the roots.  This chili powder is the best I’ve ever used–I’ll be ordering more of that one.

Another job that just could not be put off any longer was cleaning the gas stove. It is one of my very least favorite things to do so I do tend to procrastinate about it; that does not make the task any easier and I know that but I still procrastinate about it. (I think that a house elf would be a wonderful thing to have around!)

Now the stove has at least had a  lick and a promise as my grandmother would have said. Well, at least the lick, but still needs the promise though that is going to happen today. (Definitely no pictures here!)  So happy that the oven is self-cleaning since it gets lots of use in cool weather for carefree braising while I’m working at home.

Now I’m ready for a plate of braised pork and collard greens!

Gift ideas 2012….

STILL doing holiday shopping?    If you’ve got some last-minute shopping to do for your favorite foodie (that includes yourself, too), here are some of my suggestions based on some of the things that I use a lot.

Let me insert a disclaimer here and now–I do not receive any remuneration, discounts, or any other consideration for any products that I recommend on this website–it’s all based on my satisfaction from my use in my home kitchen! 

1.  Rice cooker, steamer, and slow cooker all in one

Krups rice cooker, steamer and slow cookerSomething that never gets put away is my Krups rice cooker–that is also a steamer (even while cooking rice), and a slow cooker.  It even cooks pasta! I’ve used all it’s features and once you understand that it quits cooking when water evaporates and the temperature begins to go above boiling point, you can get away from recipes and get it to do what you want it to do.

The recipes that came with the instructions will do for a start–but it lends itself to cooking things without much attention.  One of the recipes in the booklet that I do find useful is one for mac ‘n’ cheese (one of my favorite comfort foods).  I was really skeptical the first time that I tried this, but it’s become a go-to for quick comfort foods.   One of the rather neat things about this is that when the water has evaporated and the temperature starts to rise, you do get a brown crust on the bottom (that’s normal in rice cookers) which really makes the mac and cheese (with or without the ham).  I’ve even tried using cheddar to do this (adding some extra) and it doesn’t get stringy.  I think that it must be the starch from the pasta in the water that does that.

From the Krups booklet that came with the rice cooker, here’s mac ‘n’ cheese:

Ingredients

  • 200 gm or 1/2 pound macaroni (small penne or other hollow pasta also works)
  • 30 gm or 1/4 cup butter cut in small pieces (I’ve use less and it works fine)
  • 1 slice ham (or not, or more as you choose)
  • 20 gm or 1/4 cup Gruyère cheese (I like a bit more, or use another cheese that melts well)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (adjust according to the saltiness of the ham)
  • 500 mL or 2-1/4 cups water

Assembly & cooking

  • Cut ham into small pieces (if using)
  • Place the butter, macaroni, ham, Gruyère, water, and salt in the bowl and mix.
  • Close the lid, select the Rice cooking mode and press Start.
  • When the cooker switches to keep warm mode, let stand for 5 or 10 minutes, then dig in.

The rice cooker automatically switches to keep warm after about 20 minutes of cooking. You do need the stand time for the pasta to finish cooking.  But…how much simpler can you get?  I’m still playing with variations on this recipe, but it’ a keeper.  Admittedly, this is not a stocking stuffer, but it’s a useful addition to the kitchen and I don’t say that about many stand-alone appliances.

2.  Home espresso machine for the coffee lover

Krups home espresso machine with carafe

espresso in the making

No, I’m not talking about a huge price tag that you see in the Williams-Sonoma catalog.  I was wandering through Bed, Bath & Beyond one day and I saw this small espresso machine on display–with a very reasonable price tag.  It just had to come home with me (with the rationale that Frankie, the cat, needed to give me a Christmas present).

I’ve used the stove-top espresso pot for a long time, but it wasn’t an every morning thing–a little too demanding for my early morning mental state!  But this is simple, and you can froth milk with it, too!

It’s been used evey day since it arrived in the kitchen, to make plain unadorned espresso, cappuccino, or latte, or just a cup of regular strength flavorful coffee.  Since I’m not wild about very dark roasted coffee, I continue to use the Jamaica Blue Mountain Blend that I buy at Costco, grinding my own.

The only down side is that if you want to grind your own coffee, the whirligig-blade spice/coffee grinder won’t do it–you do need to have a burr grinder–but those are not that expensive.  So, if you’re a coffee fiend, this might be a good gift.

3.  Clever coffee dripper

drip-style individual cup coffee ffunnel

Clever Coffee Dripper

Until the espresso machine arrived, this was my gadget of choice for morning coffee.  It has the advantage of not requiring much effort–but making coffee that is close to that of a French press. (I decided to try this after it was recommended in Cook’s Illustrated–and was very pleased.)

This is in the stocking-stuffer range of gift, but does improve the quality of coffee over the usual drip machine or funnel-and-filter apparatus.  It uses the readily available filters from the supermarket, and it’s not demanding in terms of how the coffee is ground.

4.  The proper-size pan

petit brasier with lid

petit brasier from All Clad

If you, or the cook in your life, often prepare meals for one or two, an appropriately sized pan will make life easier and the food better.  One of my most often used items is the “Petit Brasier” from All Clad.

It’s definitely a useful addition to the kitchen.  It can go from stove top to oven; it can function as a skillet, too.  It has the same shape as what is sometimes called an “everyday” pan, but it’s sized for cooking for one or two.

5.  Cookbooks

cover of The Science of Good cookingFor serious cooks,  good cookbooks are always welcome!  We’re always looking for new ideas–especially those that get us away from feeling that we need a recipe for anything that we cook.

One of the stand-out cookbooks for this is The Science of Good Cooking from Cook’s Illustrated. This one supplies food science in a low-key useful way to go along with some great recipes.

For some great recipes and thought on cooking for one are in order, then here are two books that are likely to titillate that favorite foodie who cooks for one.

Cover of Serve Yourself

 

Serve Yourself is delightful reading with recipes for lots of condiments that make dressing up that second serving (also known as left-over) for a rerun–or just for dressing up any meal.

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Another for the cook who does single-serving cooking is The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones.  It includes not only recipes but JonesFC9780307270726some food philosophy and thoughts on dining alone–from someone who does not view dining alone in a negative way.

…and just in case you’re wondering, giving serious cook a cookbook, no matter whether they are just beginning or are accomplished is not insulting…we LOVE cookbooks.

6.  Other miscellaneous stocking stuffers

Still undecided, or just need something small how about:

  • a gift certificate from Penzeys Spices–a chance to try some wild and wonderful herbs and spices that you won’t find in the grocery store.
  • a subscription to Eat Your Books–a search engine for cookbooks.  Yes–the ones that you or your favorite foodie have on the shelves.  You enter titles, and then you can search those books for recipes.  No more frustrating moments trying to remember just which book that recipe was in.
  • A new knife to complete or add to the set in constant use would always be welcome.
  • If you are still undecided see Kitchen equipment for small-time cooking, e.g. immersion blender, or other cookware alternatives for cooking for one or two.  There are other suggestions in posts from previous year’s gift suggestions.
  • You’ll also find some of my favorite books in the Bibliography.
  • If you love planning meals to showcase a great wine, then there’s a gift possibility–a special bottle of wine to anticipate and plan a great meal around.  Price doesn’t necessarily dictate whether a wine is special–there are lots of great wines just waiting for a meal to happen.  It’s always been my treat for myself on my birthday to go to my favorite wine shop (Wine Authorities) and buy a special (not necessarily expensive wine) and then plan a meal around it.  (If you’re from Durham NC it’s the Wine Authorities–and are awesome in helping coordinate food and wine.  Not local, they do ship.)
  • I’ll leave you with one final suggestion–a gift certificate for Kindle books.  A number of the books mentioned here are available for the Kindle, including The Science of Good Cooking.

I do hope that I’ve helped with any last-minute shopping dilemmas, and wish you and your favorite foodie (and the cat) another year of pleasures from the kitchen–good food, good wine, good friends.

A son goût! 

orange tabby on kitchen counter with mixer and knives

the sous chef

Umami in the slow cooker…

flats of plants on tailgate of truck to be loaded for the farmers' market.

for market

Obviously I’ve not been giving a lot of thought to cooking  things lately–it’s been end-of-term grading, indexing and proofreading, or getting  ready for the farmers’ market, or actually being at the farmers’ market, with more energy going to planting things, both for later harvest and for selling at the market than into cooking.

One of the down sides of working the farmers’ market is that I’m one of those people who wake up like a compact fluorescent bulb–pretty dim at first–so getting to the farmers’ market on time on Saturdays involves getting up before the birds just to give me time to be awake and functional. Even Fridays demand early rising, especially as the weather gets hotter–flowers to cut early in the morning and produce to be harvested before the heat of the day sets in and thing wilt…and just to avoid being out in the worst of the heat.

wagon of flowers in buckets

cutting flowers

I’m getting into the swing of that now but it still takes time for my lights to come on, though less painful now.  That early rising on Friday and Saturday makes me into a really lazy slob on Sunday.  Now that the Spring term is over, I’m not meeting classes during the week so I’m enjoying the summer hiatus from lecturing, but still working at freelance indexing so the absolute laziness has to be confined to Sundays and Mondays through Thursdays are still busy.

All this means that for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday cooking is likely to be focused on one-dish meals, and dishes that are good (or even better) when reheated.  Sometimes Saturday meal is not even something reheated–it’s my treat-yourself day–OnlyBurger for after-market meal before I devote the rest of the day to quality time with the cat!  (This past Saturday the treat was a Texan (burger with braised brisket on it) and a peach ice cream sandwich (handmade at OnlyBurger) after the market.  The evening meal was Carolina Moon cheese and strawberries–both from the farmers’ market.)

packaged cross-cut beef shank

beef shank

This weekend schedule means that I try to do some planning and cooking on Thursday to have reheatable food on Friday and Sunday.

This weekend’s meals are going to feature an absolutely lovely cross-cut beef shank from Meadow Lane Farms (also from the Durham farmers’ market)  in an easy dish that can cook mostly unattended: osso bucco, but with beef shank rather than veal shank. (The osso bucco really just means “bone with a hole” or marrow bone.)

It’s a dish that’s easily adapted for one person–there’s nothing fussy about it–no need to be exact or tedious in measuring ingredients, and to make even more “unattended”, it will go into the slow cooker (also serving as rice cooker and steamer) while I’m out working on the farm.

Krups rice cooker/slow cooker and steamer

Krups rice cooker

I have to admit that I’ve not been a fan of the slow cooker until recently, at least for anything much more than cooking dried beans, or poaching a beef tongue. The flavors and textures just aren’t the same as when the slow cooking was done in the oven where some evaporation, browning and concentration takes place even in a covered dutch oven.

My attitude about slow cookers has changed since I found the Cook’s Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution (See Bibliography) and learned some techniques for making food out of the slow cooker more flavorful.  I’m not ready to quit slow-cooking in the oven despite that, but in hot weather I’ll certainly use the slow cooker more often with some of the “tricks” I learned from that cookbook.

What I missed most in slow-cooker dishes was that savoriness that comes from browning (Maillard reaction)  when you slow-cook in a traditional oven or brown/sear on the stove-top.  In the slow  cooker, you can make this absence less noticeable by adding ingredients that contribute “umami“.

Some of the most useful things I learned from that Slow Cooker Revolution are ways to use the microwave oven to facilitate the slow cooker, and using some “unusual” ingredients  in recipes–not esoteric ingredients, just pantry staples that boost  the umami flavor:

  • precooking aromatics like onions in the microwave so that they don’t stay crispy-crunchy in the slow cooker,
  • using tomato paste (for umami) by browning it with the aromatics either in a skillet or in the microwave before adding it to the slow cooker,
  • using dried mushrooms to boost flavor (again, umami),
  • using foil packets in the slow cooker to keep some ingredients from over cooking.
  • using soy sauce or fish sauce to add more of that umami that many slow-cooker dishes don’t get without the evaporation and browning as in the traditional oven.
  • using the microwave to precook some ingredients to get rid of excess moisture that would otherwise dilute the dish in the slow cooker.

These are all easy to do–they really don’t add significant extra prep time or effort, and do really make a difference in the flavor.  I expect an easy, flavorful meal (or two) from the braised beef shank that is going to emerge from my slow cooker on Friday evening, thanks to some added umami!