Friday, December 21, 2007

Tails of Beauty, Tails of Might

Sucking it right off the bone.

That aptly describes the pleasure I feel when I am enjoying a bowl of my mama's simple oxtail soup. Nilaga. Oxtails. Ginger. Onions. Salt. Water. That's it. Simmer slowly until done. For years, I denied myself the oxtail experience of my roots, going instead for the boutique meat. Glamorous filets, chicken breast, an occasional short rib feast. But oxtails were mean, disgusting looking, and only poor people ate them. Which was exactly the reason they will always be so good.

When my forties came, the fall signalled the need to hang in for provisions that would increase warmth and fortify soul. Muscles and bones ached more. The need for a good read and something warm on the stove cooking for a VERY long time was spiritual. I believe I was reading "Like Water for Chocolate" at that time in our walk-up flat in the Marina, when I came across the recipe for oxtail soup. The soup that brought Tita, the heroine of the book, back to life from a nervous breakdown. The soup whose recipe was taught to her by Nacha, the ancient cook in her tyrannical mother's kitchen. What a way to remember the healing power of the bones.

Luckily, I found them at a butcher's on Mission Street. And with ginger, onions, cabbage, and the tails, Tita, Nacha and I shared in the glorious mystery of sucking down on some good bones and gelatinous cartilage. The healing I felt co-incided with that of the literary characters and I felt myself inside Tita through the warmth that these oxtails gave. We were eating meat that needed time, thought, and patience to coax out the very best of its character, which is humble by roots, and mighty in flavor.

This holiday, I'll be slow-cooking them in a base of carrot, celery, onions, bay leaves and other herbs (bouquet garnis), and either a little vermouth or maybe a decent house red. The bones need to start up early, probably before I head out to dance class on Saturday. I'm setting the crockpot to cook them for ten hours. Plenty of time. By the time friends come, they'll be ready to pour over some rice in bowls and it will be us and our faces in sauce and sucking down on some good tender meat.

Bones Basic

2-3 lbs. oxtails
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
1 c. red wine
veal stock
bay leaves (2)
2 TBS. whole peppercorns
1/2 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper
1/2 c. olive oil

Lightly dust tails with seasoned flour. Sear on high heat in thick-bottom pot or Dutch oven until brown. Remove from Dutch oven and place at the bottom of the crock pot. De-glaze the fond from the Dutch oven with the wine. Add stock and simmer until the brown bits are dissolved. Remove from heat.

Add chopped savory vegetables, bay leaf, peppercorns to the crockpot. Pour the stock over everything to cover. Season to taste then seal crockpot with its lid and leave it alone and read a book. Preferably something that makes you happy curled up with a coverlet on the couch.

I can't imagine a better winter day. Cheers.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Finding Home Anywhere

Living in the dorms is a special challenge for people like me who love to cook--and who love to share the enjoyment of food with friends. It's one thing to share a meal served on a plastic tray, it's another thing to see something cooked from the heart coming out of the oven or off the stove having and serving it to your loved ones. I think this kitchenlove-isolation has made me particularly susceptible to waxing poetic about the simplest cooking encounters.

I am lucky enough to have older friends with apartments nearby who allow me to raid their kitchens on occassion. I recently enjoyed one such occassion and found myself oddly at home--a feeling much missed by this homebody. My girlfriends and I planned way in advance (a miracle in itself) to treat "our boys" to a home cooked meal. We were so excited for a real meal, and what did we make? Pizza! It felt kind of silly, considering we all have access to pizza every day, but we wanted to throw some dough in the air and make a mess... But really, it was a perfect choice because this time dinner was less about filling our stomachs and all about filling our hearts.

Before the guys arrived we had time to chatter in a warm kitchen over rising dough while we prepared toppings. Really, not much is better than best friends in a warm kitchen in the anticipation of something special; we had nothing but love and warmth in our hearts, and I think these feelings were kneaded into the dough. The boys arrived just as we finished rolling out individual pizzas. We then all got around the table and assembled our own perfect pizzas. Heart-warming perfection. Our friends were all so happy to have a hand in creating the meal rather than being served (especially my girl friends, who admittedly have limited cooking talents); and although we hadn't seen each other much during the busy quarter, we were at home with each other in an instant. The atmoshpere was perfect for food magic. We all were cooks, and we all cooked with the feelings of joy and comfort and love. From that point on I was a mushy mess. While the first pizzas were in the oven we had time to catch up and mess around. It didn't matter that we could only bake 2 pizzas at a time, making the dinner abnormally long; in fact, we didn't even notice that the dinner was long. Like music, in which the notes are made special by the silence between them, it wasn't about the food, it was the time in between the bites that made the meal great. We ate and revelled being so at home again until the last pizza came out of the oven some hours later. Even though we were just eating pizza, the love and intentions with which it was made filled more than our stomachs.
Simple Thin-crust Pizza Dough

bread flour (approx. 3 cups) (bread flour makes the dough more sturdy for spinning, if you use bread flour you don't need to knead or punch down the dough as much after rising.)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 packet fast-rising yeast
1 C. hot water (as hot as tap will give you)
2 tsp. olive oil
Blend the yeast with two cups of flour and the salt. Add the water and the oil and mix to form a dough. Add more flour as necessary until you can knead the dough. Knead for about 6 minutes. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl covered with saran wrap, and allow to rise for about 45 minutes. In the mean time, preheat the oven to 400F and prepare your toppings. Split the dough into two pieces and roll into two medium size pizzas on parchment paper. If you can't find parchment paper (some regular grocery stores don't have it), roll out the dough and the place on a cutting board liberally dusted with cornmeal. Grab some guests and have them top their own pizzas!

The pizzas can go directly in the oven on parchment paper (just be careful not to burn the paper onto the crust!). The trick to crust is that it needs to bake directly on a hot surface. I don't have a pizza stone or tiles in my oven, but cooking directly on the floor of the oven works (expecially if you like thin crust crispiness) and even on the rack (more as a last resort to get more in one batch). Bake 12-18 minutes until crust is hard.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Paella Perfecto

Is there really such a thing as a purist? I keep reading in "Catalan Cuisine" by Coleman Andrews about the ultimate authentic paella. As if there were such a thing as an ultimate Any Dish. As if there is the ultimate application of heat, spice, oil, onions, garlic, ingredients to make a paella THE paella. Is it paella when there's no rabbit in it? What happens to vegetable paella? Is that really a paella? And what the hell is paella doing in a book about Catalan cooking when its a Valencia region specialty?

Conventional wisdom about legendary paellas says they have to be cooked over an open fire on the beach. The rabbit must be grilled to perfection before put into a paella, which needs the smokiness of the rabbit to be authentic. No peas. Beans. Green beans for authentic Valenciana. Feh.

I think folks who proffer opinions about what is the right, best, appropriate, perfect version of a dish are as crazy as, well, crazy as me. That's ok with me. With advancements in online publishing, now everyone has a pulpit from which to proclaim the relative merits of a dish and how its made, what ingredients are in it, and even the geneology of the cooks making it.

So in the bright, limitless world of virtual, I stand today, pontificating my heart out about paella and other pressing matters of the state of the senses.

I once heard that an opera house in a big city recently had a $75 million dollar facelift, which included a $1,500,000.00 stage curtain replacement. The fabric and fringe of that curtain was of a certain type and standard produced solely by a convent of blind nuns sequestered somewhere in the Alps. Does that make that curtain authentic, rare and valuable? Yes. Does it make it very expensive? Yes yes. Does it promise to bring more prestige and commerce to the isolated area by promoting its rarity and prestige? Triple yessicas!!

There's no such thing as a purist. I think the purist throughout history is really just someone with a big mouth who opined about things, and in this instance about recipes in particular, and who had the vehicle to do it with. They also had as a willing band of co-conspirators, compatriots ready to agree with their opinion, and be vocal about theirs. And everyone of them had their own vested interest and personal tastes in mind.

So there you go. In the world of paella superlatives, started as early as the 8th century when the Moors first brought rice to Spain, it is this humble author's opinion that the superduper superlative paella was, is, and will always be an experience in relativism based on your available ingredients. And if you could make the rice good. Or you're visiting the Valencia region.

All the rest is marketing.

Serves 4-6 as a main course

15-20 fresh shrimp
1/2 lb New Zealand mussels, fresh
2 Spanish chorizo or good quality linguica sausage, sliced diagonally at 1/4" thick
1 whole chicken (marinated with minced garlic, salt and pepper and Spanish agridulce paprika)
2 onions, chopped
4-15 cloves of garlic, minced (depending on taste/preference)
3 - 4 c. chicken broth
2 c. valenciana rice (calrose or any short grain rice will also do)
1 pkg. frozen peas
olive oil
two pinches whole saffron
2 TBsp. white wine

Roast chicken at 375 until about done. (1 hour, 20 minutes). Turn off heat and let rest in oven. Soak saffron in wine to allow it to bloom.

In a large flat paella pan or wide skillet or saute pan, saute onions in olive oil until golden. Add sausage and cook through. Add rice and garlic. Let rice absorb flavors of the savories and meat, coating in hot oil until rice kernels are opaque. Don't let the garlic burn.

Pour in the broth and saffron wine mixture and stir to incorporate. Let simmer at medium/medium low heat to let rice absorb the liquid. Just before all the liquid is absorbed, and the rice kernels have just a LITTLE bite left, add the fresh shrimp and peas. Cover tightly with foil and continue to cook at low heat for another five more minutes. Turn off heat completely and let rest.

Cook mussels in ungreased cast iron skillet until opened. Turn off heat and reserve any pot liquor. Cut up chicken into serving-sized pieces. Arrange chicken pieces over the paella, then add the mussels and pour in the pot liquor. Serve, enjoy.

And come up with your own damn version of this recipe. This one happened to work for me.