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October 3rd, 2009

07:34 pm - in which kate is completely insane
I'm about to do two insane things. One, I'm going to yammer on about the menu for my Christmas party, and it is barely October. Two, I'm going to post a recipe that I made up and have not cooked yet.

But it's going to be fucking amazing. Hear me out.

The theme for this year's Christmas menu is Creole/Cajun. This is because we are really poor (running a restaurant has a way of nickel-and-diming one to the grave) and Southern food is festive and terrible for you while necessarily being light on the pocketbook. So we are having crawfish remoulade in toast cups (toast cups are a wonderful trick: cut the crusts off packaged white bread, squish the slices flat with a rolling pin, cram into mini-muffin tins, brush with butter, bake until toasty), celeriac remoulade also in toast cups, Coca-Cola wings, pimento cheese, shrimp paste, faux dirty rice stuffing with cranberries and apples in endive "bowls" for the vegans, black-eyed pea fritters with hot-pepper sauce also for the goddamn vegans, blah blah.

And we are having oysters. Quality Seafood will sell one a hundred oysters for $35, which sounds like a fabulous deal until you consider that the oysters are uncleaned, unshucked, covered with seaweed and barnacles, and come in a gritty, stinky burlap sack that must be toted out of Quality Seafood on a hand cart. I adore raw oysters to such an extent that I am more than happy to contend with this, or, more accurately, blackmail the men in my life into contending with this. We did the raw-oyster thing for my birthday this year, and once every six months sounds about right.

I really wanted to do oysters Rockefeller for my Christmas party. However, even given my unfortunate tendency to do amazingly stupid things in the name of cuisine, I knew that producing oysters Rockefeller for 30+ guests is a terrible, terrible idea. BUT THEY ARE SO DELICIOUS. So I pondered: how to accomplish the Rockefeller effect without actually having to fuck around with rock salt and touch-and-go timing and the like? It took me some days of pondering before I had the germ of an idea: how about having the oysters part and the Rockefeller part be separate?

I was also in need of another vegetarian nibble. I was planning on making classic gougeres, because they are easy and fun as hell to produce. But then my little noggin started a-tickin' and I had this giant, wonderful inspiration.
frankenrecipe ahoy!Collapse )

I believe that this will be so incredible that nobody will notice I didn't make pig candy.

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June 2nd, 2009

06:16 pm - soup for F
I was out at the bar with a couple of handsome young men last night, and the discussion was serious -- knife fighting, the relative merits of Kanye West, how everyone at the gym is doing their deadlifts wrong, the imminent zombie invasion, and, finally, how F is really seriously worried about money these days and doesn't know how he's going to make it through the next couple of months without ending up in hock.

Dialogue ahoyCollapse )

Black bean soup IS really good. It's really good and it's super-cheap, because the ingredients are cheap to begin with and because, unlike most soups, the less stuff you put in it the better it is. It keeps very well, improves as it sits and gets along well with all manner of starches, from tortillas to rice, though I like it with polenta (recipe follows.) It's also good for you.

So here you go, F.

Take a big onion and as much garlic as you like (I recommend abusing your garlic privileges), chop the onion and mince the garlic, and sweat both over medium heat in a couple tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a partially-covered soup pot for about 5 minutes or as long as it takes the onion to go limp and translucent. To this you add one 12-or-14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes with juice, 6 cups of water or broth (made with Better than Bouillon or plain old bouillon cubes), and 3 cans of black beans with their liquid. (You can also use a pound of dry beans for this, and it will be cheaper and probably tastier, but will have to cook for much longer -- like two hours.) Set the heat on low and simmer, stirring when it occurs to you, for about half an hour or until everything is starting to look the same in there. Then taste it, add salt if necessary (it probably will be) and pepper, and allow to cool. You'll want to puree this, and the best tool for the job is an immersion blender, though you can use the regular old blender (just be careful). Add more liquid if it gets too stiff, and you're done.

Nice things to add with the water or broth are a couple tablespoons of tomato paste, a big canned chipotle chile minced up, a bay leaf, some thyme, and/or (my personal favorite) a teaspoon of anise seeds. But they are not necessary.

Now for the polenta: forget everything you've heard about polenta. It is time-consuming but not difficult or labor-intensive, and if you want to nest tasks you can get it started before the soup. Put 8 cups of heavily-salted water on to boil in a large saucepan, and once the water is good and boiling slowly sprinkle in 2 cups of regular cornmeal, stirring all the while. The sprinkling must be done carefully and the stirring must be constant, or the polenta will be lumpy, but who really gives a shit about a lump here and there, right? Once all the cornmeal is in the pot, drop the heat to the lowest possible setting and let the polenta simmer for 45 minutes. By "simmer" I mean "allow to blurp ominously about once every thirty seconds"; any hotter and it'll burn. Stir once in awhile but don't disturb the crust on the bottom. The polenta will be an edible consistency long before 45 minutes are up, but the long simmer is necessary to make it taste like anything. Add pepper before you eat it.

So you have your soup and your polenta and that's all you need, but you can also put yogurt or sour cream on there, and chopped cilantro. This will cost you about seven dollars for six or eight servings, and when you're sick of black bean soup there is lentil soup, with or without pumpkin, and minestrone, and and and...

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December 29th, 2008

01:51 pm - Christmas: pig candy
Bacon was the zeitgeist this year, and recipes for pig candy were all over the place, and I kept hearing people talking about it as if it were the Second Coming, and this made sense because hello, it's candied bacon. But for some reason I was not totally convinced that pig candy was all that. A small part of me suspected that it was some kind of fairground-style gimmick, like deep-fried Snickers, tasty but notable mostly for its novelty.

How very, very wrong I was.

Guys. Pig candy.

Pig. Candy.

Pig candy is sex. It is sex with love. It is the kind of sex that takes hours and hours and sets off the smoke alarm. It is sweet and meaty and spicy and smoky and funky. It does strange things to one's perception of reality, and when it's fresh it drips.

Making pig candy is a lot of work, and it's really a job for two cooks working in shifts. It is easy to screw up, and is impossible to ignore or walk away from. (Is the above metaphor continuing of its own volition? Hm.) Basically, what you do is this: buy some good-quality thin-sliced bacon -- a party of 30 made short work of two full pounds of pig candy, and we were doling it out very sparingly, so plan on making way too much. You take this bacon, and you take some dark brown sugar and some cayenne pepper mixed together, and you pack the sugar on the bacon really good. Do not dredge: pack. Then you lay the slices of bacon out on a cookie rack which fits inside a rimmed baking sheet, put this in a cold oven, and turn it on to 350. After the oven gets up to temperature, you will need to turn the bacon every four minutes. You REALLY don't want it to burn, so take it out before it looks quite done; the melted sugar is like unto napalm and will finish the cooking off the heat. Then you let the oven cool down. Then you do it all again. One batch takes about half an hour. Your house will smell like the most ritzy, expensive private club in hell, and it will smell that way for days. You might as well just throw out the baking sheet; that shit is never getting clean again.

So what do you do with pig candy when it's done?

I'll tell you what you do: you throw a party to which you invite an uber-sexy creature for whom you kind of have the hots, and when they show up you haul them into the kitchen and prop them against the counter and tell them to close their eyes, and then you feed them a slice of pig candy, and you watch their face become suffused with ecstatic wonder and listen to them whimper helplessly, and feel very smug indeed.

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September 28th, 2008

11:46 pm - jingle bells
Today I was thinking about what I'm going to serve at our Christmas Eve party. (YES, I KNOW THIS IS RIDICULOUS BECAUSE IT IS NOT EVEN OCTOBER YET. JEEZ.) We've been throwing a Christmas Eve party for three years, and it is always an occasion for advanced debauchery and festiveness, with food. It turns out that if you get Ceej drunk enough he will play a very Ray Charles-esque version of "The Little Drummer Boy" on his guitar, and even the Jews cry.

The food issue as it pertains to the party is a bit of an ongoing problem, despite my three years of practice. I always screw it up. Last year I took on way too much last-minute work, and at 9:15 PM I was half in the bag, stuffing mushrooms while wearing a ridiculous dress, and most of the planned food ended up not happening. The year before we were loaded up with sweets but had nothing substantial to offer beyond a slab of expensive smoked salmon which vanished before I even got any. Also, I always end up spending too much money.

The evolved Christmas party food criteria are as follows: most of the work must be doable well ahead of time. One dish made to order is OK, provided someone else is cooking it. Cheap is good. Anything that requires utensils to eat is right out. The menu must be at least a little weird and exotic; I have always believed that one of the great joys of Christmas is the opportunity to eat peculiar food. Nothing that drips is allowed, and since many of our friends are vegetarian, meat must be sparse and isolated.

I think I have defeated the beast this year, though. This year there will be A Theme. The theme is Christmas Breakfast. The menu will consist of clever plays on traditional diner breakfast food, and traditional chichi brunch food. And it will be even more appallingly bad for you than breakfast food usually is. (What the hell, it's Christmas!) Here is what I have so far.

Panettone French toast. I invented this last year, and I consider it my single greatest achievement, in cooking and perhaps in general. Panettone is a traditional Italian egg bread, like a lighter challah or a denser brioche. It features delicious bits embedded in it -- candied peel soaked in anisette, golden raisins (IMO the only acceptable application for those foul creatures), and so forth. It is amazing on its own, but it also turns into the most transcendent French toast in the whole world. I will make dainty triangles of this, and serve them with a mixture of drawn butter and maple syrup for dipping.

Pig candy. AKA candied bacon, but pig candy sounds infinitely more disgusting. You make it by coating bacon in dark brown sugar and baking it until it is crispy. I don't think it's possible to make enough pig candy.

Possibly also some little cocktail sausages.

Latkes, as an homage to the Maccabees and also to hash browns. I'm going to force my friend Avi to make these; he has his technique down, and since he's an excellent show cook he will not mind presiding over the stove for awhile. With applesauce and sour cream, natch.

Quiches. One crab and artichoke, one spinach and mushroom. Cut in very, very small slices.

Jacques Pepin's chocolate-chestnut "cake", which is made by mixing melted chocolate, canned chestnut puree and whipping cream and refrigerating it all in a loaf pan overnight. Note to self: remind guests to make sure their cardiologists are on call.

My mother's Caribbean fruitcake. If you have never had a fruitcake from the Caribbean, you are seriously missing out. They do that shit right down there. Eating a slice is like taking a shot.

Oranges, olives, nuts, etc

Hot spiked cider and mimosas

This is all guaranteed to make attendees feel leaden and bilious at family Christmas the next day. But while I have them in my clutches, I think they will be happy.

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July 27th, 2008

09:47 pm - red curry salmon
Every home cook has one dinner that they can make in their sleep, out of ingredients they always have, and count on getting a result that will warm them up and make them smile, no matter how awful the day was, how many dirty dishes teeter in the sink, no matter how querulously the wide world whines at their doorstep.

This dinner is usually cheap to make, and in recent years I suspect that cooks' default dinners have become more "exotic" in focus, as we discover the delicious, inexpensive, easy, headswimmingly spicy and invigorating dishes of the hotter climes. Mine is no exception. If you don't cook a lot of southeast Asian-inflected food it won't be a staple meal so much as an event meal, one that requires a dedicated shopping trip. The good news is that it is impressive, and delicious, and rather beautiful, and extremely easy; it would make a great date-night dinner. It is also Ceej's favorite thing that I cook; he'd eat it four times a week if he could, and I think I would too, except for its being a bit of a calorie bomb. No dish is perfect.

I tweaked this from a recipe on Epicurious; the original recipe was very much For Party. My version is For Hangover and/or For After Double Shift and/or For Scarfing Down In Front Of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent". (Oh, that Vincent D'Onofrio!) I just call it red curry salmon, and here is how I do it for two people.

Step 1: Get the rice cooker cranking. Any kind of long-grain rice is fine, though jasmine is ideal and basmati sounds a bit reckless. Defrost a couple of frozen salmon fillets from Costco. (This would also work with shrimp or chicken if you don't like salmon.)

When the salmon is thawed, marinate it in some soy sauce for not very long -- fifteen minutes or so.

You will also want a green vegetable of some kind. Green beans are very nice, bok choy is lovely, spinach is just fine and plain old frozen peas will do the trick in a pinch. If the veg is frozen and needs thawing, do that now too.

Step 2: Heat up a nonstick skillet and sear the salmon in it, over very high heat for about three minutes a side. This will result in rare fish, but it will have some time to sit around and cook further on its own. Set fish aside and tent it with foil.

Step 3: In the same skillet, heat a tablespoon of neutral oil over medium heat. Add the zest of a lime and a tablespoon or so of Thai red curry paste. This will do for two people who like their food fairly hot; adjust accordingly per your tastes and the strength of your paste. Stir-fry zest and curry paste gently for three or so minutes. It's OK if the paste browns a bit. If it looks too dry, add some more oil (not too much).

The curry paste makes this meal, so do try to track down the good stuff; failing that, though, Thai Kitchen is totally decent in this application.

Step 4: To the pan, add half a can of coconut milk, the juice of the lime lately zested (two limes if yours is a dry little golf ball), a tablespoon of brown sugar (light or dark, it doesn't matter) and a tablespoon of Thai fish sauce. Whisk this until the curry paste is all incorporated, and leave it to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it becomes a thickish sauce. How long this will take depends on your coconut milk; some start out fairly thick and some are watery. Either way, the sauce is done when it looks like sauce to you. Taste and adjust as necessary; it might need more fish sauce.

Step 5. While the sauce is composing itself, cook the vegetable of your choice, however you like to do it.

Step 6. Serve fish and vegetable over rice, with sauce, garnished with chopped cilantro, or scallions, or both, or nothing.

Without this recipe we'd probably starve.

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June 30th, 2008

07:30 pm - crevettes aux lait de coco et maguier, beans and rice
Poulet au Lait de Coco
West Indian Rice and Beans

I've had a craving for tropical food recently. Actually I always have a craving for tropical food; this climate seems to inform it, as does my general affinity for all things island. If it comes with palm fronds, steel drums and cocktails with plastic monkeys, I'm all over it like a rash.

My experimentation with Caribbean cooking has been hit-or-miss (hit -- last year's Easter dinner; miss -- Run Down, which has an excellent name but languished uneaten in the refrigerator until I had to throw it away with a heavy heart, thinking of the starving babies in Haiti.)

This dinner was both a resounding hit and a near-miss. It was a hit because both of these recipes are absolutely delicious, a miss because they don't go together at all. There's a lot of ingredient redundancy -- all those green onions, all that thyme -- and also textural redundancy; I had no idea that genuine Caribbean beans and rice are basically a soup, or a really loose risotto, not at all what you want with a curry. When you make these things, which you should, have the curry with plain white rice and a dish of beans on the side, and the beans and rice with some jerk chicken or even just a nice pork chop.

ANYWAY, I really wanted to post this because of this site, which I StumbledUpon and have become obsessed with. It is not for the beginning cook; the recipes are really terse and the techniques are sketchy. It's basically a shorthand archive of a great many recipes from a great many precious, out-of-print cookbooks that I can't afford, and I love it for that. Actually I would love it just for the recipe for Poulet au Lait de Coco, which hails from Martinique (palm fronds! plastic monkeys!), and is the kind of recipe, beloved by me, that is ridiculously easy to put together and still makes people want to have the cook's babies. I tinkered with it a little bit; I threw the onions and garlic in the blender to make a paste per my usual curry method, and stir-fried the paste with the thyme and curry powder. Don't waste your precious saffron here; it will be totally lost. I also did not have poulet, so I subbed shrimp, and when the liquid looked like it was overwhelming the protein I threw in a large chopped mango. This took about fifteen minutes and was extremely tasty and unusual.

The beans and rice were an exercise in Weird, for me. I grew up with the edict that you do not stir rice ever, ever, ever, so executing the recipe was a lesson in adaptability and trust. Also, have you ever noticed that the flavor elements in Caribbean cooking are really peculiar? Thyme and allspice in rice? Both scallions and parsley in the curry? What? But all doubts are banished when the aroma starts to rise; this is true fusion cuisine, and it smells like God. I added some minced fresh ginger to the rice, and sauteed onions instead of scallions, and it turned out just fine. Runny, but fine.

Now all I need is a mojito. Or at least a Red Stripe.

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June 24th, 2008

08:17 pm - how it's gonna be: potato salad
This is the fifth summer that I have sought the perfect potato salad, and finally, after dozens of veryveryclose but not QUITE there moments in its pursuit, I have finally landed the beast. It has been pwned. Its head is now mounted on a plaque above my stove. I have eaten many pounds of potato salad in my day, it being one of my very favorite things to eat and all, and I can safely say that mine is now the best I have ever had.

I am speaking of potato salad with a mayonnaise dressing here. I have already developed an extremely good potato salad, largely aped from a recipe my high school boyfriend's aunt made up, which involves red potatoes, lightly steamed green beans, Kalamata olives, and red peppers in a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette, but it is less versatile than the American beauty mayo variety. It is not what people think of when they want potato salad. It is very good, though, and I thought about posting the recipe until I realized that I just did. That's basically it; you throw those things together and dress them. It should also have parsley and basil. People love it and it's easy to pretend it's healthy, too.

Mayo-based potato salad, of course, has no such pretensions. It's terrible for you and everybody knows it. It is also usually very tasty; Laurie Colwin and I are of a mind that there is no such thing as truly bad potato salad, provided nobody monkeys around and puts nasty shit like ketchup in it. The basic boiled potato-mayo-onion combination is always at least OK, and it's malleable; you can try putting hard-boiled eggs in there (meh, to my mind) or capers (but they always sink straight to the bottom), or celery (but it's kind of depressing), and so forth, and you will probably end up with something that the people at the barbecue will scarf down like pigs at the trough.

I, however, was after transcendence, and there are a number of things that can go wrong with potato salad, rendering it only OK, not delicious. For instance, different kinds of potatoes -- and even different specimens of the same kind of potato at different seasons or phases of the moon or whatever -- absorb radically different amounts of dressing. Sometimes the dressing slips off as if the potato has been shellacked, and sits in a sullen pool at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes the potatoes go the opposite direction and suck up so much mayonnaise that they become stodgy and you can feel your arteries hardening while you eat them. Stodginess is the major enemy of potato salad, to my mind. Then there's the issue of the onion element; I find that the kind of onion is less important than how it is sliced. Too fine and it will all end up as sad onion confetti stuck to the bottom of the bowl with the capers; too coarse and it will make everyone's eyes water. Also, there is the debate about chunky vs. smooth. I have had potato salad consisting of intransigent chunks of potato the size of my fist, with poor dressing permeation; I have also eaten potato salad that was basically mashed potatoes with mayo in, which is vaguely disgusting. Some people get around this by lightly mashing the potatoes before dressing them, leaving some mushy and some chunky, but this causes the potatoes to leak free starch, which makes them sticky. Sticky potato salad is to be avoided at all costs.

I have defeated all these obstacles. You can too. Here is how it is done.
To spare friends lists everywhere...Collapse )

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June 22nd, 2008

10:54 pm - First in a series: bar snacks I would serve if I ever own a gastropub...
... if the economy does not tank to the point that "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" is no longer a fanciful '80s cinematic misfire, but cold reality; also if I ever inherit a million billion dollars and can run my gastropub as a vanity project.

Deep-fried tiny fish spines

Last September Ceej and I ate dinner at Alinea, which I am still trying to find the words to adequately describe. After a long struggle, I realized that I can only do Alinea justice by using it as the setting for a longish piece of science fiction with dashes of romance, Vodoun, and politics; watch for it here, once I finish exorcising the demons.

ANYWAY, at one point during the four-hour BDSM routine that is dinner at Grant Achatz' crown jewel, we were served a thing like a napoleon, except instead of pastry it had watermelon -- immaculate organic watermelon that had been fed the blood of virgins, no doubt -- and instead of Bavarian cream it had a slice of nearly-raw fish that was totally unfamiliar to me. I couldn't even find the fucker on Wikipedia. I think Alinea may have a crack team of oceanographers on the payroll, who routinely explore the depths of Lake Michigan to discover new and exciting species of delicious, delicious fish and render them extinct before the French Laundry has a crack at them. I think there was some basil oil involved, and some obscure peppery microgreen.

So this thing was presented to us, and it was so awe-inspiringly brilliant that it almost made me cry -- the kind of thing Bach would have come up with if he were a chef. But the best thing was the garnish: a minute, deep-fried fish spine, aligned in such a way that it looked like it was diving headfirst into the watermelon part. I think this spine used to belong to an anchovy, or something similar that flits around in great silvery schools until the dolphins eat giant wads of them, and it's sad, on the nature special.

It was not sad when I polished off my napoleon and said (too loudly, fueled by a great deal of the finest Barolo known to humanity), "YUM. TIME FOR TINY FISH SPINE." I excavated my neglected fish spine from the microgreens and ate its wonderful, shattering, spiky, oceanic self, and experienced a major HOLY SHIT rush. It tasted like the very essence of ocean: the faint odor of rotting, and the strong odor of fresh bright ozone, and the possibility of being eaten by something, or eating something. Waving weeds, blowing froth, pointy things under your feet, coming to the surface with a ribbon of blood unspooling from your heel...

It also tasted like DELICIOUS FISHY FRITOS. And removed from their exalted homeland, fancy deep-fried fish spines would be so comforting piled in a basket to be crunched by the handful alongside a Stella Artois or three, with the game on TV and the faint memory of the last time you were on a boat... the spray and the creak of the ropes and leaning over the rail to watch the fish, the little silvery fish...

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June 15th, 2008

07:03 pm - tomato panic: cold tomato soup with bread and herbs
The salmonella outbreak done pissed me off some, because I was on a serious tear making this soup every other day or so, and I had almost -- almost -- perfected it when the maters disappeared.

However, today I went over to Bill and Louisa's house to discover them, their four girls, two friends and the dog up to their ears -- almost literally -- in tomatoes. I shit you not, there were five giant Rubbermaid crates full of tomatoes, and most of the refrigerator full as well. It turned out that Bill's friend Mike does some work for an organic farm, and the farmer got a bumper crop of tomatoes; so many tomatoes, in fact, that he could afford to enhance his brand by only sending the really good-looking ones to the market. The rest -- the lumpy ones, the funny-colored ones, the ones with mushy spots where they lay on the ground -- Mike took home with him.

So there we were, and there was this embarrassment of tomatoes; we all spent the afternoon putting them up in jars, which was a nice companionable thing to do, and we were all very jolly despite being hot and sweaty and covered with tomato seeds and bits of skin. And I went home with a big box full of quart jars -- the apocalypse will have spaghetti sauce, by God -- and a smaller box full of fresh, almost-perfect organic tomatoes with which to make cold tomato soup.

I am not officially calling this soup gazpacho, because "real" gazpacho is one of those things about which people regularly come to blows, and mine is not orthodox. For instance, I cook my tomatoes, and I understand that Real Gazpacho is never cooked. But raw-tomato gazpacho can taste pallid and salsa-like unless the tomatoes are immaculate, and they rarely are these days -- cooking concentrates the flavor a bit, which seems like a good idea. I also add tomato paste, which is anathema. But my soup is tomato, and it is cold, and it has bits of cucumber and onion and soaked bread in it, and if you wanted to call it gazpacho I sure wouldn't object.

This is the perfect thing to eat on a sweltering-hot day. I like mine with a dab of yogurt in it, which must horrify the Gazpacho Gods still further, but it is just fine plain. Here is how it is done.

Get a couple of pounds of tomatoes. Since they will be cooked, it's OK if they're not awesome, but they should be pretty good. Wash them and cut them in half, or in quarters if they're really huge, and seed them - you do this by holding the tomato over a bowl and squeezing it so the seeds pop out, and then you chase the strays out with your fingers. Reserve the seeds and tomato water in the bowl.

Heat kind of a lot of good olive oil over medium-low heat in a large, deep skillet or pot with a lid, and throw in a chopped garlic clove or two -- go easy, you are not making marinara. Gently cook until garlic is fragrant and translucent; do not allow it to brown. Then add the tomatoes just as they are, stir them around a bit and cover the pot. If you are adding herbs -- I like tarragon in this application -- that need some cooking, add them now too.

While the tomatoes are sweating, strain the seedy tomato water in a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl. Reserve tomato water; throw the seeds away, or feed them to the chickens, or take them somewhere and germinate them, whatever. Into the tomato water put a medium-sized piece of the middle of a loaf of firm white bread, French or Italian or sourdough or whatever, with no crusts. Stir around and leave to disintegrate.

The tomatoes are done when they are squishy and their peels slip off easily. Do not cook them further unless you want to try drinking a glass of sticky red sauce. When they are done, let them cool until they can be easily handled, and pull off the peels. Then put the whole shebang -- tomatoes, bread and tomato water -- along with a couple teaspoons of tomato paste in the blender and whizz till smooth. If you want parsley, add it towards the end of the whizzing. Taste for salt and pepper; it will need a fair bit of both. If it seems impossibly bland, try adding some vegetable bouillon -- I am hopelessly addicted to Better Than Bouillon brand concentrate. If it is too thick, add some water. Set it aside.

You can start chilling it now, or you can do like I do and put in some finely chopped cucumber, red onion and/or red pepper first. Either way, put it in the fridge and do not touch it until it has chilled at least overnight. The flavors need time to bloom and meld. Taste again for salt before serving. It might need more pepper too, or a dash of sherry vinegar, and it isn't a bad idea to stir in a drop or two of really excellent olive oil to finish.

This is extremely good for you and will make you feel virtuous as hell. Since we don't know how long tomatoes will be offlimits in the stores, I do recommend acquiring friends who are farmers.

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June 14th, 2008

04:27 pm - the critic: fogo de chao
My personal standard for restaurants has evolved over the years, but these days it's pretty consistent, and, I think, reasonable. I like restaurants that are at the very top of their game (Gourmet's top 100 is a reasonable barometer); I like restaurants that specialize in food that I will never, ever cook myself (barbecue, pho, damn good burgers, migas); and I like restaurants with freakish gimmicks that are impossible to duplicate at home, provided the food is good.

Fogo de Chao, the Bahia-based churrascaria, falls in the latter two categories. The Austin branch of this mighty chain opened recently, and we went there last night to celebrate my recent promotion (from shit pay and no responsibilities to only crap pay and lots of responsibilities). It was my understanding that Fogo deals in something like dim sum, except Brazilian and with hunks of meat instead of shumai and chicken feet, and I was correct; however, it is much more than that. The Fogo Experience is the ultimate in gluttony and gourmandism; it's deeply weird and yet comfortingly familiar; and it's faintly ridiculous in the best possible way.

Here's how it works: you show up and are ushered to your table by one of the approximately one thousand wait staff with whom you will interact in some fashion during your stay. This person suggestively sells you a couple of jaw-droppingly expensive capirinhas (a shame about the price tag; the capirinha may be my favorite cocktail in the world, and I've met a few), and gives you The Drill.

The drill is that on your table, next to each place setting, is a little doohickey that looks like a coaster, green on one side and red on the other. Green means "go"; red means "whoa". This doohickey is the cue for the roving masses of stern Latino men brandishing swords laden with giant hunks of charred meat to avoid you or descend with alarming rapidity. There is also a small set of tongs at each place. The tongs are there so you can catch the meat as it falls off the swords, and spare the tablecloth (rather a futile enterprise, but a cute conceit).

That meat. The meat is good. The meat is very good. It isn't USDA Prime or anything, but it is beautifully done -- rotated over a hot fire until it reaches a perfect balance of caramelized crunchiness and translucent bloodiness. There are fifteen kinds of meat, of which our favorite, by a landslide, was the top sirloin roast. The ribeye, oozing cholesterol, was also very good, as were the lamb chops. The house special garlic beef is still knocking over anyone who speaks to us today. The chicken, pork sausage, and filet mignon were forgettable, and we were crying "uncle" long before the ribs showed up. I was extremely impressed with how deft the servers were at accommodating our preferred level of doneness just with their knifework, hewing close to the surface of the meat for well-done and deeper for rare. I think I may have ordered more meat than was sensible, just to watch them do this. It was like a floorshow for anyone who likes meat.

With the meat come a selection of faintly peculiar side dishes, which you don't know you want until you are eating them. There are little squares of deep-friend polenta that taste like the avatar of Fried. Actually, they taste like that heavenly frying smell you encounter on fairgrounds and run all over the place stuffing unsatisfactory things in your face trying to capture. There are fried bananas, superfluous garlic mashed potatoes with cheese, and some divine but deadly little greasy popover-esque buns, also with cheese. (I have added them to my internal catalogue of snacks I will serve if I ever own a gastropub -- a lengthy list by now, and one unlikely to ever see the light of day except maybe in a blog entry sometime). Fortunately there are not a whole lot of these things; if Fogo served them in conventional American-sized portions there would probably be lawsuits.

So what do you do when your arteries are screaming for mercy and your eyes are tearing from this onslaught? You turn up the red side of your coaster and hit the salad bar. Fogo's may be the best salad bar I have yet encountered. There are not a great many items; this isn't some epic casino-style smorgasbord. But the selections are all startlingly good, a little weird, and just the thing to combat the meat. There are beautiful butter lettuce and glorious pickles, prosciutto and smoked salmon (somewhere between hot-smoked and lox, dry but easy to slice) and salami and smoked cheese and Swiss cheese; there are fresh hearts of palm and artichoke hearts, free of stringiness, that have never seen the inside of a can, and really good potato salad and really good shiitake mushrooms in a garlicky marinade, and olives, and a transcendent cucumber salad, and, glory of glories, a big basket of rough-hewn chunks of real Parmesan cheese. I have never been tempted to steal from an all-you-can-eat buffet before I saw that Parmesan; I have a bad habit of eating it in chunks at home, and it's so expensive that I always feel guilty. Apparently Fogo has a salad-bar-only price point, and I am tempted to go down there on the regular to take advantage of it.

If you survive all this, there is dessert. Our creme brulee was lousy. The prix fixe, $45 a head for the meat option, does not cover dessert or drinks, and it sounds reasonable until you learn that the lousy creme brulee costs $14. I'd say skip it, and roll your sorry ass on home for Haagen-Dazs instead. You can and should beat the system.

It is difficult to describe how awful I feel today. Churrascaria is terrible for you, and my very bones are informing me of this fact. But once in awhile, eating a whole cow in charmingly theatrical circumstances -- with the world's best pickles on the side -- is just the ticket.

Go again? Once a year, please.

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