It has been a year of revitalized cooking for me, a pattern that was typical until I began traveling so much. The domestic version of me has routine breakfasts of oatmeal or toast; lunches ranging from leftovers to really killer dal and rice or another grain; and dinners all over the map. Last night was an off-the-cuff roll-your-own cabbage leaf with pork, kohlrabi, carrot, mushrooms, nam pla–based dipping sauce, and so on, kind of great; the night before was a delicious “failure,” a dish I intended to turn into a simple cassoulet, but wound up being overcooked pork in bean-and-tomato sauce. Needless to say, little is wasted; as Julia Child used to say, “One of the great things about cooking is you get to eat the failures.”
All of this is interspersed with a few more serious projects, new and recurring themes, a kind of devotion both to discovery and to getting some old things right. That includes handmade pasta, which I know how to do, and have had lessons from some of the best, but really I’m not very good at; the old bread passion, which has evolved to sourdough and 100 percent whole grain, and about which everyone is sick of hearing; and cooking over wood, a total pain in the ass as everyone knows, but also really fun and often worth it.
Yet some ideas have taken hold more strongly than others for me. These are my current, and seemingly lasting, obsessions from the time I spent cooking in 2017 — and some things I’m hopeful I can master in 2018:
1. Tortillas are my favorite new project.
I have become enamored with making real tortillas. I’m not talking about combining masa harina with water and taking it from there — the rough equivalent of using Bisquick to make “bread.” I’m talking about taking dried corn, cooking it with cal — pickling lime — soaking it, rinsing it, grinding it, and only then pressing circles and griddling them. The process of cooking and soaking lime is called nixtamalization (the “x” is pronounced “sh” — nishtamalization) — and it produces nixtamal. You grind the nixtamal and you have real masa, which, even when you don’t know what you’re doing, makes insanely good tortillas (or tamales).
Or, at least, it should. But the “real” tortillas I’ve had in Mexico were, oh, three times as good as the ones I’m making (which, let me assure you, are still better than anything you get in almost any restaurant you’ll go to). The problem is not the corn — I’m starting with beautiful corn from Masienda. It’s my grinding technique. I’m using a (pretty damned powerful and good) Breville food processor, but I can’t get the grind fine enough. There are some electric grinders that you can buy in Mexico, but they’re difficult to import; the electric ones sold here are too expensive to gamble on, and too big for an intermittent project, anyway. You could go completely old-school and use a metate, but even if you’re willing (and able) to do the manual labor, it’s not easy to find a real one of those. A friend suggested an inexpensive manual grinder, and I’m getting one in a couple of weeks; we’ll see how that goes. I’m never going to be Mayan, clearly, but I do think I can get these to the ooh and aah stage.
Getting started wasn’t that difficult, but here’s where I am: As I said, Masienda is the place for corn; you buy cal, which is sold in supermarkets as pickling lime. You rinse the corn — you need about 100 grams per person, or a little more than three ounces, and simmer it with a half-tablespoon of cal per every 100 grams, for 30 to 45 minutes or so, until the corn is starting to get tender.
At this point, you cover and soak; one time I was given a lesson in this, in Puebla, the corn was soaked overnight; four or six hours seem to be enough, however. The corn becomes a bit slimy, the skins slip off easily, and the water becomes a bit gelatinous. (As I’ve said, this is a work in progress …) Rinse a couple of times, swishing the corn around in water, then drain and grind as finely as you can, without adding more water. (One interesting technique, which I have not tried, is to add too much water to the food processor, then make up the difference with a little store-bought masa harina. It’s a sound idea, but as I said, I haven’t tried it.)
I’ve been grinding about two cups of the nixtamal at once, for three or even four minutes in the food processor, a long time — it won’t get finer than wherever it’s gotten by then. Add some salt, refrigerate if you want, and then make tortillas.
I have learned a little about tortilla-making, too: It’s better if you press gently two or three times (between plastic; in Mexico, many people use a cut-up supermarket plastic bag), instead of smashing the thing in the press once. And your griddle should be well-preheated, quite hot — not low heat, but medium-high, for like 15 minutes. Hot. Then they’ll cook in less than a minute per side, and if you’re lucky, stay quite pliant for a while. In any case, they’ll taste great, so even if the form and consistency are not what you hoped for, they’ll make an amazing breadlike product, and you can, like me, keep at it.
2. I finally understand the Instant Pot hype.
My year has not been entirely about trying to learn to do things that other people learned how to do thousands of years ago. It’s also been a year of figuring out new ways to do old things. To that end, I’ve become (to my own surprise) a fan of the Instant Pot, which, as you probably know, is technically a sophisticated form of an electric pressure cooker. (It also slow-cooks, sautés — sort of — does some primitive sous-vide cooking, and maybe more, though, of course, not the roughly dozen different techniques that its producers claim.)
I’ve been a “regular”-pressure-cooker fan since Lorna Sass insisted that I try it 20 years ago, and I don’t know why I never got an electric pressure cooker, because the ability to set an auto-shutoff time is a major step up: You guess how much time your beans or meat or whatever need, you set it up, and you leave. When you come back, it’s either done or not; if it’s not, keep going. Alternatively, of course, you pay attention and your food is done in half the normal time, or faster.
There are other advantages to pressure-cooking: Liquid never boils out, so you can use less, resulting in more concentrated flavor without reducing. This works brilliantly with many vegetables, which cook in three or four minutes with a little oil and a tablespoon or two of water; they come out perfectly, and with vivid color. My friend Greg Brainin, who works with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, has been playing with this and going nuts over it.
So, I gotta say, try this: Take a not-too-big cauliflower, broccoli Romanesco, or regular head of broccoli, and put it in a pressure cooker with two tablespoons of good oil, one tablespoon of water, and some garlic, chile, and salt. Cook until high pressure (it’ll get there fast) for three minutes. Quick release, and check that out.
3. Beans and grains can be mind-blowing.
Needless to say, once you start pressure-cooker-ing, you become even more enamored of legumes — and, to some extent, whole grains — because, again, you’ve cut the cooking time by 50 to 75 percent. Last week, I made a batch of black chickpeas in less than an hour (normally, they’d take at least two, and likely way more). They were firm, whole, and delicious, probably the best dal I’ve ever produced. (I used ginger, cardamom, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and probably some spices that I’ve already forgotten.) I served it, cross-culturally (forgive me) with faro, which took maybe 15 minutes.
The thing to do is to go to Kalustyan’s, or another store with an extensive selection, and buy legumes and grains you’ve never heard of, or thought of cooking, and start messing around; you will soon be a convert, both to the electric pressure cooker and to some new foods. When it can come together so quickly, and the ingredients are relatively affordable, there’s really no reason not to try it out. (There’s a reason that a chunk of the population of India and many neighboring countries, the part of the world where legume-eating is most popular, uses a pressure cooker once a day or more.)
As great as the pressure cooker is, I still like to finish dal on top of the stove, where I can taste constantly. Yesterday, I took a pound of some red beans I’d never seen before — deep, dark, glossy red, quite pretty, and small — and pressure-cooked them for a half-hour, with an onion. They were mostly tender but still a little chalky, which was what I’d hoped for. I finished them on the stove with a little more water, a strong garam masala, a few mild chiles, including a dried chipotle for smokiness, some garlic, and some salt. At the end, I stirred in a little butter. That was pretty good, and I served it with pressure-cooked whole barley tossed with oil, garlic, and a lot of cilantro.
4. There is more to offal than the usual suspects.
My Instant Pot experiments led me to another, more surprising revelation. Recently, a chef was asked about offal at an event I attended, and his advice was simple: “Get a pressure cooker.” That’s not an “offal” generalization (a great deal of organ meat — liver, for example — cooks quite quickly), but it is a good generalization for tough meat: You take your things that usually require six or more hours to cook — short ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, shin, shank, foot, tripe, whatever — and you cook them for an hour or so in the pressure cooker. That’s usually enough, but even if it isn’t, another hour will surely do the trick.
The most unusual thing I did recently, and among my favorites, was throw a few pigs’ tongues (they’re small) in there; I then cooled them, sliced them, and crisped them up in oil, with mustard and bread crumbs — “deviled,” as they used to say. (Additional guidance: Cook the tongues for about 30 minutes at a time, until they’re not fork-tender, but tender enough that you could imagine eating them; chill, then slice thinly. Dredge in mustard, then in bread crumbs, and gently sauté or broil until the bread crumbs brown. Serve with lemon.) I do think that the pressure cooker has upped my interest in offal, and my interest in offal has led me to use the pressure cooker more — so this is an upward spiral.
5. “Forgotten” fish deserves love, too.
Finally, speaking of offal and offcuts: I am increasingly enthusiastic about a new breed of fisherfolk and even retailers that have sprung up in response to the ecodamaging techniques of industrial fishing. Though this is a much more complicated story than I’m prepared to tell here, one upshot is an increase in the kind of fish available to us non-fishers. Anyone who’s been to a part of the world where whatever that comes out of the water that isn’t poisonous is relished can readily imagine that there’s more in our local waters than we’ve seen on our tables.
So when I finally see whelk — of varying sizes, no less — in local markets, when I see sheepshead on menus and at stores, when blood and sea clams start making appearances at the market, I, for one, am ecstatic.
I’m just going to rave about the whelk here for a second. It’s a snail — a univalve mollusk, I believe — and a big one. You’ve seen them, and you’ve eaten them, at least in fritters (in the Caribbean, they’re called conch). Their meat is like that of clams (especially big clams), and until they get too big, you can eat them (nearly) raw; once they’re large, their meat takes well to long cooking.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I took some small ones — about four inches long, tops — poached them in water for a couple of minutes, chilled them down, and served them in their shells, cold, with mayo. They corkscrew right out when you tug at the meat with a tiny fork (total fun), and you can eat the whole thing, except the operculum, the part that protects the otherwise-exposed meat.
The bigger ones are more of a process. The initial cooking is the same, but the fork-tugging thing may not work, in which case you will need a hammer or something like it; still easy enough, but more dramatic and definitely not for the table. Their guts, while still edible, are not to everyone’s liking, and there are some very tough bits that are worth trimming as well. But having done that — and it’s all pretty intuitive (I could be doing it all wrong, I suppose, but it all seems fine) — you can then slice the meat and serve it cold, or include it in a stir-fry (or, yes, a fritter) or a pasta-with-clams kind of thing, or grind it in the food processor and simmer it in tomato sauce. Awesome stuff.
As I said, these are just a few of the notions that took hold most strongly this year. Starting in early 2018, I’ll be traveling to places I’ve never been — I’m looking forward to frequent and (hopefully) interesting new ideas and reports as a result.