Sous Vide Fondue Bourguignonne

My twelve-year-old wanted a fondue birthday party, with both meat and cheese. The thought of a bevy of tween girls jostling around a pot of near smoking oil was pretty terrifying, but I was game to give it a try.

Fondue is meant to be a communal activity, but with fondue bourguignonne once you get more than about five people, the competition for pot space gets dodgy. The trouble with meat unlike cheese is that you can’t dip and go. So I decided to precook the meat sous vide at 130°F for a few hours before the party. This solved a number of problems.

First, all of the meat on the table was cooked, so the risk of cross contamination was eliminated. This was always a big freakout point for me, especially with kids at the table.

Secondly, all of the meat was pre-seasoned. I have always had problems with trying to salt fondue meat. You can use salty sauces, which I found repellant, or just go with bland meat. You can try to salt the raw meat before or at the table, but in practice I found this to be messy and erratic. With sous vide, I could deliver the appropriate amount of salt making a much tastier final result.

Lastly, and this is the clincher, the meat is finished in seconds. It is much more like a dip than the normal prolonged cooking for meat fondue. In three or four seconds, the meat is perfectly browned with a medium rare doneness. It requires some instruction to the seasoned fonduer, but otherwise worked flawlessly. More importantly, I was able to scale up to party size as it eliminated the jockeying for pot space.

I could not have been happier with the results. Ten people served with no waiting, no accidents, and perfect cooking. Most importantly, I have a happy twelve year old.

The other exciting thing is that sous vide opens up the possibilities for different cuts of meat to fondue. Normally, for meat fondue you have to use more tender, less flavorful, and more expensive cuts of meat. With this technique you could conceivably get away with using eye of round or perhaps even a leaner chuck. It’s hard for me to imagine short rib not being amazing like this too. Clearly, this is going to require some experimentation.

Tartine Bread

I can make bread. This isn’t bread in four easy steps or bread in under two hours. It is a bread which requires the careful cultivation of invisible organisms. It is a bread that demands incorporation into your daily routine. It is a bread that instills the knowledge, the feeling, when you bite off a hunk of a warm loaf on your back porch on a cool evening, that there is nothing else in the world you could be eating at that moment that would be better.

This isn’t to say that I make the best bread in the world, far from, but rather that slowly developed bread using wild yeast has a complexity of flavor and aroma that is overwhelming, mind boggling when fresh. This is the kind of bread I make today and it has been a very long time coming.
Country Bread
As friends and family can attest, for years I baked and tinkered and experimented to make bread that I liked. Years passed with me adjusting recipes, nurturing starters, tweaking temperatures, and playing with ingredients. Hundreds of loaves had passed through my oven, but still I was unhappy and had given up. Then several months ago, one man and his book changed everything and after 20 years filled with baking misery I am finally at peace with my bread making. That man is Chad Robertson and his book is Tartine Bread.

A few years ago, after moving to the bay area, I put myself to finding great bread in San Francisco. All my life I had been told of the otherworldly powers of the bakers there, of the deep history, of the ancient starters, of the mythical if cliched sourdough. Months passed as I searched the city, every suggestion followed, no bakeshop passed by, I remained unimpressed. Few breads were outright bad, most were passable and a few were good. Loaves from the legendary Boudin were better than expected despite the place long ago having become a caricature of itself. None though were great. After six months of failure, my disappointed turned to ire, so much so that I would openly deride any suggestion of the city’s bread making prowess.

Sitting in my office one Tuesday morning, word went out that a coworker had brought in croissants from the Mission. Rolling my eyes, I finished an email then headed to the kitchen to inspect them. There on the counter was a brown paper grocery bag full of enormous deeply dark almost rust colored rolls. I reached out and snatched one off of the heap. With a gentle squeeze, the crust responded with satisfying crinkles and snaps. Pinching between thumb and forefinger, I tore off a flaky layer and popped into my mouth.

The world around me halted. The aroma from the still warm pastry danced through my head. Yeasty and bold, yet somehow subtle, complex. A hint of sweetness kissed with tang. An exhilarating crunch softened perfectly by a supple crumb. Not exactly buttery, but full and rich. With satisfaction unimagined and a touch of regret, I swallowed. Opening my eyes, blushing a bit, I knew then I would be having a sordid affair with Tartine Bakery.

Over the years I would pop into the bakery only so often as I dared. The risk was too great in frequent visits rendering the extraordinary commonplace, rendering the everyday undesirable, inedible. But I did go and when there I swooned. Once the penance of enduring the long line was performed, I was presented with some of the most amazing works ever created with flour and water, crusts crisp yet forgiving, crumb firm and assertive while tender, and flavor indescribable. Every trip was an education, a promise of pleasure and enlightenment, a marriage of the familiar with the unexpected. There was then no small pang of sadness in saying goodbye to Tartine upon moving back east.

So it was to my great delight when on Christmas day I unwrapped a copy of Tartine Bread gifted to me by great friends. Unlike the bakery though, the book was no sudden love. It was certainly satisfying in its feel, warm and cushy. The first fifth of the book being dedicated to the adventures of Tartine owners Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt was both riveting and frustrating. Extolling the virtue and outright superiority of high hydration, or slack, doughs, natural leaven, and what looked like the trendy no-knead technique infuriated me. Sure, slack doughs are fine for the bread pans but maddening to work with. And sure, natural starers are great for sourdough but using them for such things as brioches and croissants was simply inconceivable. And one more book or article telling me that I didn’t have to go through the archaic practice of kneading was enough to make me scream.

And I screamed. A lot. Every recipe calls for natural starter or leaven, and it instructs you how to bootstrap one in 5 short days and with no rigmarole; whole wheat and white flour, water, and time. I’ve bootstrapped starters before and they all evoked cantrips using grapes, or bartlet pears, or turbinado sugars, or organic rye flours no more than ten days old. Kicking off a starter with store bought flours was to me absolutely absurd and I proved myself right. Five, six, seven days would pass and the lifeless slurries were utterly incapable of producing bread. I would rail to anyone who would listen against the hubris of some San Franciscan dilettante who would think that wild yeast anywhere would behave as consistently and predictably as they do in northern California.

I was wrong. It took me going out of town and my wife feeding the thing to get it going. As she took satisfaction in pointing out, I was being too fastidious with it, too controlling. It didn’t like my fiddling and wouldn’t cooperate. I needed to pay attention to it and give it what it wanted not what I thought it was supposed to have. In the literal sense, I had to form a symbiotic relationship with the starter. Take care of it and it will help me make outstanding bread. Feed it and it will feed me.

That was the core principle, not just for the starter, but for all of the breads. Robertson addresses all of this in detail, but somehow I was not open to the philosophy of it. I of course understood the mechanics but until I allowed myself to develop the necessary intuition everything I tried was a failure. After much practise, I was able to develop a rhythm for the process.

Even with working out a sane rhythm, making a batch of bread is a day long commitment. Starting the leaven in the evening will yield bread just in time for dinner the following day, with much of that day spent observing and developing and of course baking the dough. Yet it is without question worth the labour.

The country loaf, simply a flour, water, and salt bread at seventy-five percent hydration, is outstanding, crusty and complex. My baguettes for the first time are not a total embarrassment, not only looking gorgeous but having a rich flavor that, when fresh out of the oven, makes one swear they contain butter. My croissants produce squeaks of delight from the manliest of men. The book’s olive oil brioche, made from the freshest of backyard chicken eggs, is without question, when hot out of the oven, the best bread I have ever put into my mouth. Rich yet light, dark but thinly crusted, and visually stunning. My mother thought she was eating cake when I handed her a slice.
Baguette

Better still, Robertson’s techniques have re-energized my love of baking. For the first time in years, I’m having fun playing with new breads, new doughs, and new ideas. Naan made with tart yogurt and natural leaven is amazing. My bagels with poolish and leaven aren’t right yet, but are still tasty. And for the first time ever, I am really digging my pizza crust.

After years of reading books, talking with bakers, and experimenting, I had settled in on a style that suited me, that felt right, yet my bread was insipid. I thought I knew a lot about making good bread despite my failures, and I was wrong. It wasn’t until I was able to let go of all my preconceived notions, all of my years of bread making experiences, that I was could accept what Robertson is teaching. A slack doughs does make a tender crumb. You can make amazing croissants with natural leaven. Dutch ovens do give an phenomenal spring. Outstanding bread can after all come from my oven.

Chirstmas Ham 2009

Well, this year’s ham is done. It’s the first one we’ve prepared in California, so there was whole new crop of friends to scandalize. I owe my dad a huge thanks for getting the 40lb carcass here (in addition to the boiler). I doubt such as thing has been seen in these parts in recorded history.

Ham 2009

There were no ham skin incidents or any pork fat dog bathes (man I wish I had pictures of that) this time, just wholesome aged pork goodness. My thoughts will be of you poor hamless souls as I’m dining on this beast for the next couple of weeks.

Mas Tapas

I don’t want to like carefully crafted rough interiors. I don’t want to hang out with the too-hip-for-words post-college twenty-something crowd. I don’t want to wait a hour for a table standing in cold doorways inches away from the pouring rain. I do all of these things, however, at Mas Tapas, the ultra-popular restaurant bar in the fashionable Belmont district in Charlottesville. And I want more.

The place embodies a dining paradox for me. It seems to throw in your face all of the hypocrisies that have corrupted the foodie movement, extolling the virtues of locally grown produce while serving up Kobe beef and wild Alaskan salmon, catering to a crowd that knows more about Wolfgang Puck than Alice Waters. In the post-organic era, chefs waxing poetic about the importance of whatever the trendy food stuff of the day is tend to irritate me. But it is clear from the simplicity of the preparations, the exceptional quality of the ingredients, and the precision skill used to craft his dishes, chef-owner Tomas Rahal has a passion for food that cannot be tarnished by such cynicism.

Rahal’s lack of humility about his creations is at times infuriating, a quirk only made tolerable by his flawless delivery. He actually used the word “incomparable” on the menu to describe the Jamon Paleta Iberico, a dish simply of thinly sliced long aged acorn-fed Spanish ham with Manchego and bread, an adjective I simply cannot leave unchallenged. After hastily trying the meat by itself, I found it quite good but far from the best I have ever had, and started to rebuke Rahal’s hubris. But after pairing it with the cheese and bread, the razor thin slices of pig were transformed as if by some magic trick into a masterpiece of fleeting unearthly flavor and I was forced to recant my criticism.

The wait staff is the near pinnacle of their profession. Fine dining it isn’t, but they excel at making their customers happy. With a restaurant this popular, I have often seen the staff develop an unfortunate air of superiority that the crew at Mas have thankfully avoided. Usually smiling, they navigate the hipster mayhem with deft skill.

The wine list can be daunting as Mas maintains a broad selection, most being unusual or rare. But the staff offers intelligent informed suggestions for wine with a complete absence of pretense and snobbery. The Spanish wines in particular are a treat, and the staff is eager to offer you suggestions for one that will suit your tastes.

The food, though… The food is the reason to go to Mas. It is magnificent. Unable to speak, eyes rolled back in your head magnificent.

When you look at the menu and see Papas Bravas, the natural instinct is to think, “roasted potatoes? Are you kidding me?” But when the beautifully golden yukon gold potatoes appear, the air perfumed with garlic you actually get excited. The alioli is perfect, balancing the spiciness of the rub without making the dish heavy.

The grilled shrimp, Gambas Al’ Parilla, is a popular item on the menu. Although I find them far from extraordinary, the large prawns are always of the highest quality and cooked brilliantly. Sprinkled lightly with sea salt, I usually opt to eat them without the alioli to better appreciate their subtle sweetness.

The menu torments me, tossing up selections that seem nonsensical, daring me to order them. Shrimp croquettes, Croquettas De Gambas, are light and airy, not a hint of greasiness that is the bane of such dishes. But the plantains make this dish. Yes, plantains! Their mild sweetness perfectly counters the heartier elements, but somehow without imbuing contrast.

But the dish that destroyed any last vestige of food snobbery was the Carne Asada. Yes, my dear readers, a humble dish simply of grilled hanger tenderloin served up with a smoked tomato alioli. With the first bite, indescribable flavor consumed my taste buds. I literally forgot where I was. The light sauce blended with tart roasted tomato kissed with smoke perfectly framed the thinly sliced beef. The meat was not tender, but gave unconvincing resistance to the tooth, as if whispering “no” before capitulating to my clumsy advances. Eventually, my wife leaned across the table, gently touched my neck, and asked “are you ok?” When I came to, I felt actual embarrassment, glancing around the restaurant worried that someone had seen me.

Once the plates were cleaned, my wife and I finished our drinks over the light conversation one can only maintain after such an intense experience. We stumbled through the crowd back into the rain leaving our hypocrisies behind.

I want to not like Mas Tapas. It is too fashionable for me to willingly submit to them. But they demand that you like them. If you utter a single disparaging word about the food, they will make a liar of you. But if you are willing to submit, especially if you can enjoy having your preconceptions confounded and shoved back in your face, a finer dining experience than Mas Tapas you will not find.

Pleasant Surprises – Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine

When I got on the plane headed to Disneyland last Friday, having a fantastic dining experience was at the bottom of the list of my expectations for the weekend. I would have put securing a starring role in a major Hollywood motion picture above finding a great restaurant. True to my anticipations, the food at Disneyland — with the exception of a few episodes rising to the pinnacle of mediocrity — was, in a word, appalling.

Being at a loss as to where to have dinner, I punched up Yelp, a site I famously turn to as a last resort for recommendations. The first four hits, I kid you not, were for snack carts in the Disney park. Since we weren’t going to wade through merry makers to eat pretzels, I picked a place that had extremely favorable reviews, Roy’s Hawaiin Fusion Cuisine, despite being seriously turned off by the name. My concerns were not warded off by the tiki torches blazing in front of the restaurant.

My wife and I were already nervous as the kids had been going at it hard all day in the park, and as if on queue our three-year old lost it the moment we walked through the door. This is a scene that will send most hostesses reeling, but ours that night stood undaunted. With grace befitting a saint, she showed us to our table, thrashing toddler in tow.

Micheal Ruhlman’s marvelous book The Making of a Chef has many lessons, but none for me more memorable than if the front of house is to make parents happy, they need to make the kids happy, a lesson that Roy’s has made central to their experience. Our waiter positively doted on our three kids and they soaked it up. Each child was served an assortment of snackables while we perused the menu, quesadillas, celery, and fruit, a brilliant strategy because hungry kids are fussy kids. When the six year old mentioned offhandedly to us that she might like some more, her plate was replenished unprompted seconds later.

A frequent complaint we have for kids menus at restaurants, even ones that are otherwise amazing, is that the food from them is phoned in, littered with perfunctory vegetables or, worse, featuring hot dogs with ketchup, but not so with Roy’s. My oldest got braised short ribs from the kids menu which were outstanding, particularly bitter for me due to my less than satisfactory preparation of them recently. The sauce was hearty, rich, and had a beautiful clarity that only comes from time and care. I would order these short ribs.

My littlest had penne with cheese sauce that was surprisingly really good, clearly from the use of high quality cheese*. I might also add that she asked for chop sticks with which to eat the pasta and our waiter grinned broadly and handed her a pair without the slightest hesitation.

The restaurant was not just a treat for the kids, but also for the adults. For an appetizer we split the recommended Ekolu Tuna Roll, a trio (yes, I begrudgingly said trio) of tunas with varied preparations, from raw to seared. The quality of any raw tuna preparation is predicated on the freshness of the fish, a factor of obvious concern to the chef at Roy’s. The slightly spicy slightly sweet roll intrigued and delighted.

My wife ordered Thai Basil Pesto Grilled Tiger Shrimp with Asian Gazpacho and Kabocha Squash Dumplings. The shrimp were sweet and perfectly prepared but the real treat in the dish were the dumplings, little pockets of perfectly seasoned squash the exploded flavor when you bite down.

Based on our waiters recommendation, I ordered Hawaiian Style Misoyaki Butterfish. Again, the fish was cooked beautifully as were the accompanying vegetables. I don’t have a lot of experience with Butterfish, but the flavor was amazing, and I managed to escape without the famed orange anal leakage.

We opted for the highly recommended Hot Chocolate Soufflé and Pineapple Upside Down Cake and neither my wife nor my kids nor I were disappointed. I would describe the soufflé more as a chocolate lava cake, and I suspect its name was an attempt to distant it from the oh-so-over trend to serve them, but this did not detract from the desert. Their practice of using the highest quality ingredients continued with the use of exceptional chocolate. The pineapple upside down cake was soft and moist, not suffering from the excessive sweetness that so often cripples this desert.

Once the check came, my wife and I were in a Zen like calm, not having a care in the world. The kids were not antsy as they so often are at the end of dinner, but were chatting delightfully to each other (something I had frankly NEVER seen). Not tempting fate, I ushered the kids out while my wife gushed to the staff about how thrilled we were to have eaten there.

If you are looking for the cutting edge of modern food, then Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine is probably not the place for you. Their food is made with great care and skill, flavorful and delightful but otherwise unremarkable. However, the job of a restaurant first and foremost is to make the customers happy, and Roy’s stands with few others in achieving this so completely.

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* Our kids are cheese bigots. When my eldest was four while visiting a friends house, the friend’s mother asked her if she would like some cheese. After an excited “Yes, please!” the mother handed her a Kraft single. She looked at it for a moment and said, with no air of pretension, “I am sorry. I said I would like some cheese.” It is moments likes these that I am filled simultaneously with great pride and horror.

The Roasted Winter Squash Debate

One of the culinary debates I seem to have repeatedly is over the proper way to roast winter squashes, including pumpkins. To roast a winter squash, typically you split them in half, seed them, and pop them in a medium hot oven for an hour. There is little contention over these steps. However a war rages over whether to roast them cut-side up or down.

Normally, I like to see both sides of these sorts of debates, but in this case there is a correct answer. Roast your squashes cut side up. With the cut side down, the moisture doesn’t have any place to go so you are essentially steaming the vegetable. With the moisture staying in the squash, the flavor doesn’t have an opportunity to intensify. Also, with the cut side up the meat has the opportunity to brown a little adding a subtle depth and a heightened sweetness to soups.

So you you want to preserve water in the squash or if you want a cleaner flavor, then steam them. Otherwise, please roast you winter squash with the cut side up.

Obsolescence

Many of us foresaw the death of the publishing industry a decade and a half ago. An inking business executive who I know well had the revelation in the mid nineties after looking over his son’s shoulder for five minutes while he surfed the Internet. So I was shocked to be compelled by following statement in an article from Clay Shirky on this exhaustively considered subject:

It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

This simple and stark statement convinced me it’s time to leave the funeral*. A more profound epitaph could hardly be written if a more sympathetic one could.

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* Still, go read this fantastic piece. If you aren’t convinced by that single statement, the article will will finish the job.

My Last Supper

Tonight as I was sitting with close friends dining on a spectacular meal of our own endeavors, the subject of our last suppers came up. A pall fell over the table as we gave due reverence to the topic at hand.

We started with those that would be at our dinner, and with this we were unanimous, our close friends and family. For me, that is a table of twelve, my wife, children, and my closest friends who understand the mysticism of food. The place must be warm and homey, with comfortable but not relaxing chairs. It would be night, and the room would have a dim but filling light.

We went around the table detailing a dish that would be present in our final supper. I started with my grandmother’s fried chicken. A thing of utter perfection that I will never have again. It is crisp, but not crunchy, salty such that saliva wells up in my mouth. When I bite through the skin, the juice streams down the sides of my face. The firm flesh gives no resistance to my greedy advance. It is love cooked with zeal into the thigh of a yard bird. And it is gone forever.

When I come to, I realize that tears are running down my check, and I stop. Food is abnormally important to me, and I discuss it without end. But not this. This I cannot discuss. This I have to get right, and I am not ready.

Chicken Biryani

Biryani is comfort food. On cool evenings, its sweet aroma mills through the house promising a warm hearty dinner. But I don’t know what biryani is. Many have prepared it for me; restaurants, foodies, Indians, and Bangladeshis. Rice cooked with herbs and masala spices seems to be the baseline of the dish. From there, diversity abounds.

Many argue that to cook the rice with the rest of your ingredients isn’t a biryani at all, but a pilaf. Yet others argue that cooking the rice in the meat gravy is an essential part of a biryani. I firmly fall in the latter camp. Even par-cooking the rice prior to adding the meat and sauce, while reducing the cooking time, will rob the final dish of a profound depth of flavor.

The following is my variation on chicken biryani. I make no claim that it is traditional or conventional as I borrow many techniques used in European style stewing. It is, however, wonderful.

Chicken thighs are the perfect cut for this biryani. The twice-cooking technique handles the connective tissue beautifully, creating a tender meat and rich base. Using breast meat will produce tough dry nuggets.

Biryani recipes usually call for mint, however I do not care to use it in my preparation. The relatively long cooking time can cause the already strong mint flavor to overdevelop, giving the final dish a hint of candy-cane. Instead, I prefer to use mint in the raita I serve with the biryani. This still gives the mint flavor, a brightness from which the otherwise heavy dish benefits, while giving you far greater control over its strength.

Several traditional ingredients to the dish are omitted here, notably saffron and yogurt. Saffron, in my experience, is difficult to use properly here. It has a strong and wonderful taste, but I have not been able to harmoniously integrate it with the other flavors. That is, diners always remark, “Wow! This is great. I really taste the saffron.”

Omitting the yogurt from the dish removes an important tanginess, that I replace with red wine. The wine also imparts a slight astringency to the final product that I rather like. Also cooked yogurt curdles, delivering a mealiness to the finished biryani. The wine does not completely compensate however, so plenty of raita made with strained yogurt is called for when served.

Lastly, many will note the absence of potatoes in my recipe. I find the doubling up on starches unpleasant. Also the final texture of the potatoes is difficult to get right. Most restaurants using potato in biryani are just doing it for filler anyway.

Ingredients:
6 chicken thighs
2 tbl ghee or vegetable oil
1 large onion
3 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tbl. finely chopped ginger
3 tbl tomato paste
1 tbl garam masala*
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 c. red wine
1 c. chopped cilantro
1-3 green chilies, seeded and chopped (optional)
1/4 c. almond slivers or cashews
1 vine ripened tomato, skinned, seeded, and diced (optional)
1 quart chicken stock
2 c. basmati rice
kosher salt
pepper to taste

Directions:
Bone the chicken thighs and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes. Thinly slice the onions radially into half moons.

Place the rice in a bowl, and rinse with no less than four changes of water. When the bowl is full of water, be sure to abrade the grains with your hands vigorously to scrub off the starch. When doing this correctly, the water will become quite cloudy. When finished, the water should remain relatively clear. Pour out the remaining water, then fill with bowl with rice back up with cold water. Set aside to soak.

Heat a cast iron dutch oven, preferably enameled, over medium high heat. Liberally salt the meat. Add half of the ghee or oil to the dutch oven (it should instantly start to smoke), then add a handful of the meat. Spread around the pan giving each piece plenty of room. If you add too much or over crowd the pan, the meat will not brown. Brown the meat well on all sides, remove, and set aside. Add another handful of meat following the same procedure. If the bottom of the pan looks too dry, you may need to add more oil or ghee to finish browning. Repeat until all of the meat has been browned. Add about 1/4 cup of chicken stock to the pan and deglaze. Pour the deglazing liquid over the browned meat.

Return the dutch oven stove, reducing the heat to medium. When the temperature of the pan comes back up, add the remaining oil or ghee. Add the onions and cook stirring frequently until they are deep brown. This can take as long as twenty minutes; it is important not to rush this process. When the onions are almost finished, add the garlic and ginger. Cook for 30 seconds then add the tomato paste. Cook, stirring vigorously, for about a minute to let the tomato paste cook out.

Add the garam masala and turmeric, and cook stirring very rapidly for 10 to 15 seconds. Quickly add the red wine. This is a critical step, because if you do not add the wine quickly enough, the spices will burn, thus ruining the dish. Continue to cook, reducing the wine to near dryness. Add back the meat and deglazing liquid back to the pot. The ingredients in the pot should be very dry at this point. Mix them thoroughly.

Add 1 cup of chicken stock to the pot. If this is not sufficient to mostly cover the meat add some more. Add some of your cilantro, 1 tsp salt, and about 1/4 tsp of fresh ground pepper. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be pleasantly thick at this point. Check and adjust your salt. Depending on how much salt you used on the raw meat you may need to add some more. It may seem too salty at this point, but don’t worry as quite a lot of rice is going in. Remove the pan from the heat.

Sprinkle in the chopped green chilies. Use more or less depending on your desired level of spiciness. The dish will be fine if you chose to omit them entirely. Sprinkle about half of the cilantro on top of the meat and sauce.

Preheat your oven to 350° F. You may want to start this earlier if your oven takes a long time to warm up.

Drain the rice well. Carefully add the rice on top of the meat and sauce in the dutch oven. Use a rubber spatula to get all of the rice out and spread it even in the pot. The rice is very fragile at this point, and too vigorous a movement will break the grains resulting in a dense matted final product. Do not stir the rice down in the pot.

Slowly pour in chicken stock being careful to keep the rice evenly distributed. Add enough to cover the rice by about half a centimeter. Cover and place in the oven for 45 minutes.

While the rice is in the oven, toast your almonds or cashews, either in a pan or in the oven, until golden brown. Let cool, then crush into large chunks. A rolling pin can work nicely for the almonds.

This is a good time to prepare your tomato if you are using it. Blanch quickly in boiling water to skin. Seed it and chop the tomato. The tomato isn’t strictly necessary, however it does serve as a textural and color contrast to the rice and works to brighten the overall flavor.

At 45 minutes, check the doneness of the rice by tasting some. You may need to let it go for another 10 minutes or so.

Once done, pull out of the oven and pour into a mound onto a warmed serving platter, fluffing as you go. Sprinkle on the diced tomato, toasted nuts, and remaining cilantro. Serve at the table with ample quantities of riata.

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* As always, creating you own spice mixtures and grinding at the last minute is the way to go. But using a high grade commercial preparation will produce good results as well.

Toasted Cumin Seeds

Cumin seeds appear frequently in my kitchen. They are essential to much Indian cuisine as well as Hispanic foods, likely a cultural remnant from the Arab rule of Iberia. Black bean soup benefits from a healthy dose of the ground seeds and chili is positively insipid without them.

I am a proponent of using toasted cumin in heartier foods as the complexity the heat induces imparts a wonderful depth and richness. Toasting the seeds is a bit of a trade off though, as the heat drives off or decomposes many of the essential oils that give cumin its distinctive flavor. Thus you may want to mix toasted and untoasted cumin in your preparations.

Properly toasting cumin seeds is something of a dark art. Like roasting coffee, there is a sweet spot measured in seconds to maximize the effect. Too little time and you will fail to awaken the depth of flavor; too much and you will evoke an unpleasant bitterness. Luckily, the later is easy to determine because the seeds will take on a espresso bean color and will emit an acrid smell.

To toast the seeds, first you need a heavy skillet or sauté pan. Avoid using a non-stick pan as the high heat required can produce toxic gases. I like using aluminum core stainless. The key is to have a pan heavy enough to keep high even heat. Cast iron will work fine in this regard, but the black color can make it difficult to see the desired final color of the toasted seeds. I suspect that a more even toasting can be achieved in the oven, but the constant checking needed toward the end of the process renders its use ineffective (for me).

Toasting Pan

It is important to work in small batches. I use no more than 2 teaspoons of seeds for a 6 inch pan. The important thing is to get a single layer on seeds across the cooking surface. For most home recipes this isn’t likely to be a problem as it should be rare to need more than a tablespoon.

Toasting Amount

Finding the correct heat setting on your cook top is a little tricky, doubly so for electric ranges. To find the best setting, heat your pan on the lowest setting for several minutes then add the seeds. Cumin seeds have an amazing quality that they simply will not brown below a certain temperature, about 350°F. Once you have determined that the seeds are not browning, after about 30 to 60 seconds, increase the temperature slightly and repeat the process. Once you see the seeds begin to brown, you should be able to go straight to this cook top setting when toasting cumin seeds in the future.

Once the seeds begin to toast, they will take on a increasingly darker brown color. Toss or stir the seeds frequently. If the seeds start to jump and pop, the heat is too high so back it down. The closer to the end you get, the more you will need to stir or toss. When the seeds take on the color of a medium roast coffee bean, you are done. Immediately dump the seeds onto a plate or sheet pan to crash the temperature.

Nearly Done

Coffee Comparison

The real trick here is determining the correct color. You are going from a brown color to a brown color so any determination is going to be largely subjective. Also if you are browning slowly, and if you are doing it correctly you will be, the mind will play tricks on you, convincing you that the color isn’t really changing. For this reason, I recommend having a small bowl of the “raw” seeds nearby while toasting for quick comparisons.

Comparison

Like coffee, toasted cumin seeds will lose their potency quickly with time, so don’t toast them more than 8 hours in advance if you can help it and grind them in a spice grinder when needed. To reiterate, use the ground toasted seeds immediately after you grind them to maximize their contribution.

Whole and Ground

It takes some practice to get it just right. Cumin seeds are cheap too, so it is worth it to burn a batch or two to know the site and smell. Chances are you’ll do it a couple of times without trying. Above all, be patient, it is well worth it.

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