Friday, March 11, 2011

Taking Stock, and Making It, too!

Souperlatif has not been busy in the kitchen for many a past week. Those of you who follow, will have missed the weekly excursions on soup roads less traveled. I, too, and am eager to be back with something new. What could be a better return than a return to the basics - taking stock, and making it, too! Almost every soup needs it, almost every cook never has it (the fresh homemade, that is), what's more, the making of it is a bit of a chore. And in my house, not everyone is addicted to stock aroma therapy.

Enter the pressure cooker. A bit dusty on a back shelf, seal ring and pressure gauge still looking serviceable, I think its time to revisit speeding up stock by intensifying the cooking, which is what pressure cookers do best. Not an original notion, pressure cooker stock seems to have quite a following on the blogs. While its no surprise to find a howto from Kuhn Rikon, the Swiss manufacturer of the worlds most high-end pressure cooker, Saveur, too, has an online article in their Test Kitchen series by Kyle Connaughten. Much more surprising, I found a discussion and instructions for making stock in the new 6 volume compendium, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, by Nathan Myhrvold et al.

In this astonishing work, which details cooking with liquid nitrogen, has pictures from within the inside of covered pots while the cooking is happening, and describes using ultrasound to "cavitate" ingredients in a liquid bath (I still do not have my head around this one), the old-fashioned pressure cooker takes center stage for meat stock. From the author who advocates cooking pastrami for 72 hours in a sous vide bath at 120 degrees, he gets the stock done in under 45 minutes!

Well, could it be good? I'm curious! I've always had a healthy distaste for pressure cooker chicken dishes - closest thing in a homemade kitchen to canned chicken stew. And what about clarity? How could all that heat not cause the minute particles to be irremediably suspended in the broth? I adapted the stock discussion to beef stock, using chopped up bones, browned meat, typical stock vegetables and spices. I roughly followed the cooking directions - heat to 15 psi, lower heat and cook for 45 minutes to an hour. When I turned off the heat and allowed the cooker to come to normal pressure, the result was just what I thought. The stock smelled anything but aromalicious, and the broth looked almost milky. Could the food scientists be lacking in discrimination after all?

I re-read the manual and I have to admit, it was User Error. The most important point, and I didn't pay attention the first time around, is to allow the vessel to reach full pressure, but then to reduce the heat to low, just about a simmer.

When I repeated the procedure, both for beef and for a chicken stock, I got a really fine result. I don't think the broths would be clear enough for Thomas Keller, but they were definitely workably clear, even before straining. The key is low temp, the pressure provides process intensification, and the not insignificant benefit, significantly foreshortened cooking time.

This stock doesn't need a recipe. Whatever you normally do, you achieve the usual result, only sooner. My chicken stock was what I typically do for light soup base. I used the following - all the freshest, especially this beautiful organic half breast:

One proviso, making stock in the pressure cooker is not for big yields. It is never advisable to fill the cooker with water more than 2/3 full, or 3/4 at most. And therefore, the half breast was just the right amount for 4-6 cups of water.

So next time you think stock, think Presto - there's more to your mother-in-laws' old tool-of-choice!

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Accidental Chowder, or, the Pleasures of Fish and Cream

I was recently thumbing through a group of cookbooks, all excellent soup cookbooks featuring soups of New England and chowders. The idea was to test and compare approaches to "authentic" clam chowder. I had a huge batch of fresh clams, potatoes and cream, fresh thyme, onions, and some good fresh cod - in short, all the essentials every one of these authentic recipes required. But as I was ready to go, one item was missing, the salt pork. The salt pork is key: the saltiness, a bit of the smoky, and fat to render with the onions. Clam chowder was suddenly out, at least the New England variety. I did end up making a Manhattan-style clam chowder, and the clams were gainfully deployed, but the recipe I developed was unfortunately not a winner.

Next morning, still without salt pork, I decided to use the nice fresh chunks of cod in a delicate creamy concoction that turned out just perfectly. As New England fish chowder, it wasn't authentic at all, and I borrowed little from the recipes I thought I would feature. But it was definitely worth writing about - quick and simple, too.

I had a short pint of fish stock stored in the freezer, and this with a bottle of store bought bottled clam juice was my stock. I sauteed the onions in butter with a little light olive oil, then let them express with some good white wine. Added broth and potatoes, seasonings, then brought to a simmer until the potatoes were soft. Meanwhile, I heated the cream with a little tarragon - very important step! The cream should be steamy, slightly foamy, but not at a full boil. If the cream is not heated first, it will curdle in the soup! After the cream is added, the cubed fish need only poach in the broth for 5 minutes or so - just until they are opaque and flake easily. Recheck seasonings, especially pepper, then serve immediately. A perfectly delicate chowdery "accident", in just 20 minutes!

Fish Chowder with a French Accent!

2 tbspn butter + 1 tbspn light olive oil
3/4 pound fresh cod or haddock, in bite-size chunks
1 medium onion, diced fine
1/2 cup good white wine
2 cups diced Yukon Gold potatoes
2 cups fish broth or clam juice
1 cup water or light chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
sprig of fresh tarragon, or pinch of dried
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
pinch of cayenne pepper
freshly ground pepper

As above, start with the onions, and when translucent, add the wine, simmering off the the alcohol. Season with the thyme, stirring for a minute or so, then add all the liquids except the cream, the potatoes, the bay leaf and salt, pepper, and cayenne, and continue to cook until the potatoes are soft. Heat the cream with the sprig of tarragon in a separate pot as described above. Add in a 1/2 cup of the broth from the soup, and slowly pour the cream mixture back into the soup pot. Remove the tarragon sprig, add the fish cubes and allow the fish to poach in the broth for about 5 minutes. The fish should be opaque, tender, and easy to flake with a fork. Check the seasonings, adding salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately with a garnish of parsley. New England style chowder crackers are allowed!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Simple Pleasures - A Sunday Soup of Chickpeas from the Greek Island of Sifnos

On the Cycladian island of Sifnos, Sunday's dinner is in the oven the night before: a gloriously mellow soup of only chickpeas and onions, sparingly spiced, it simmers all night in a special clay vessel. In the smaller villages, the vessels are brought to the town bakers' on Saturday night, and next day, it is often the men who solemnly attend to the carrying of the pot back home for Sunday lunch. The island is known for its potters and pottery - no surprise that its most famous dish has its own dedicated piece of crockery - the skepastaria, pictured at the right.

Along with the unique clay pot, villagers insist that the specialness of their soup comes from using the purest rainwater, the freshest onions, and the tangy unfiltered olive oil from their own orchards. Not to mention the somewhat idiosynchratic mensural technique for guaranteeing the right amount of water! A local recipe source says that you add water to the crock pot and cant the vessel. When the water reaches the rim of the tilted vessel, the beans should be completely covered by the water. As it turns out, not all chickpeas are alike, some swell in the soaking more than others. So, the Sifnos cooks have an approximate starting measure of chickpeas (usually a kilogram), and then the amount of water depends on how they respond to the soak. The trick of adding water until the beans are covered in a tilted vessel works perfectly!

I first discovered this soup in a recipe from Paula Wolfert. She calls it Clay Pot Chickpea Soup in her book, The Slow Mediterrenean Kitchen. While acknowledging the Sifnian tradition of overnight cooking, Wolfert develops a somewhat quicker cooking version. This is a bit of a delicious irony: for her slow cooking bible, Wolfert speeds up the original recipe! The soup is very good just as she designs it, and I loved it enough to repeat it often, always promising myself to try out the longer slower cooking method next time.

And I eventually did. With utterly marvelous results:
The chickpeas, which never really got soft enough by the Wolfert method, were meltingly tender. The broth, too, was darker and richer. I'd like to think it was the perfectly imprecise measurement of the water! As for rainwater, I passed. Bottled water will do, if tap is not fine enough in your area. A clay pot to my mind is essential. I used a thinly glazed Amnion clay pot - they don't make this artisinal crockery any longer, but mine has been my bean pot of choice for almost 30 years. And instead of slow cooking all night, started mine in the morning and had it ready for for dinner.

The Ingredients:
2 cups chickpeas, soaked overnight.
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup best olive oil
2 medium red onions, chopped in a food processor
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt, bay leaf optional
flour and water to make paste seal for the clay pot.

Serve with:
freshly ground pepper
plenty of lemon quarters
finely minced parsely

A note about soaking. Best to begin the night before. In the AM, rinse and drain, then store in the refrigerator covered with water until you prepare the soup. One hour before you are ready to assemble the soup, remove from the refrigerator and add the baking soda. Then rinse and drain once more before cooking.

Assembling the soup:
Using a processor (a mini is just perfect) chop the onions very fine. Put the
rinsed chickpeas into the pot, then add the onions, salt and optional bay leaf.
Pour in the olive oil and mix gently with a wooden spoon. Add water as described above: pour in enough to cover, then tilt the pot and continue to add water until water reaches the lowered rim and still well covers the beans.
Cover your pot and make a seal out of flour and water. Start with a cup of flour, adding water and more flour until you have enough to make a seal ring between the pot and cover.
Here is how the prepped Amnionware looks - pot sealed tight with the ring of moist dough.

Place the pot in a cold oven. Turn the dial to 425, and when the temperature is reached, about 15 minutes depending on the oven, reduce the temperature to 150 to 200 degrees and cook all day - six to seven hours will be fine. Then turn the oven off and count the minutes until dinner. The aromas will surely test your will power, and the sight of the finished dish with its handsome collar will definitely work for eye candy: