Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Pure and unrefined"

An article in today's New York Times hit a nerve, a chemist's nerve, in particular.

The article relates the delights of sea salt from the west coast of France.  Lovely stuff, for sure, but the understanding of what constitutes "purity" in the author's mind is peculiar.
Every grain, every crystal, is cultivated naturally, harvested by hand and marketed pure and unrefined.
So, if it's unrefined, it cannot be 'pure' salt at all.  The fact that it's unrefined means it's contaminated (and I don't mean that in a bad way) with other compounds.  Good contaminants, tasty contaminants, beneficial contaminants, mind you, but contaminants nonetheless.

 Author Elaine Sciolino then goes on to describe their process for harvesting gray salt:
Every other morning, when the weather is right, they harvest gros sel marin gris, or gray coarse sea salt, a moist and coarse salt that collects on the lining of the clay ponds, gray from the nutrients that sit in the clay.
The combination of a hot sun and a soft dry wind is needed to cause the perfect level of evaporation in the shallow, rectangular artificial clay ponds whose water level they control with a system of pipes leading to the sea. 
Collecting salt water using sea water piped in from the ocean into man-made clay ponds doesn't exactly scream "cultivated naturally."  In fact, it's quite technological in nature.  Picking a piece of fruit from a tree might be "natural."  Setting up a clever system for getting salt out of sea water isn't "natural" in any sense of the word. 

We also find out from the same paragraph that the "nutrients" in the salt that make it gray come from the clay ponds, the man-made clay ponds.  So, the contaminants in this "pure," "natural" salt come from letting sea water extract other salts from the clay in the the man-made clay ponds.  The so-called nutrients aren't even in the sea water to begin with, but in fact are added, albeit passively, to the water.  Natural.  Uh-huh.  

It's this kind of sloppiness in thinking that really pisses me off, and I expect more from a good reporter for a good newspaper.  This is a topic of interest to me because it sits at the intersection of food and chemistry, and it demonstrates profound ignorance on the chemistry side. 

Go head, mention "chemical-free" laundry detergent.  I dare you. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer corn chowder

Bought some excellent sweet corn at the farm stand last weekend, along with some freshly dug potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, wax beans, peaches, plums....a summer bounty.

Decided on a big pot of corn chowder.  I used my Lodge cast iron Dutch oven for this. 

6 slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 large Spanish onion, chopped
1 large rib celery, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 large white potatoes, peeled, and cubed
6 ears of corn, kernels cut off, cobs reserved
1 tsp dry thyme
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream

Shucking your corn.  I recently found this YouTube video on shucking corn, and wow, does it work great!  Here's what you get from six ears.

By the way, the sanest way to cut corn off the cob is to lay the ear down on the cutting board, and slice the kernels off one side, then rotate and repeat until all the kernels are removed.  I've seen all sorts of nonsense about how to cut kernels off corncobs, but every one of them keeps the ears standing upright.  Dumbest way to do it!  Rotate the ear and lay it down on the cutting board, for goodness sakes!  A serrated knife works best. 

Cut up the bacon, and saute it in the Dutch oven.  I added a few more tablespoons of bacon fat (which I keep in a tightly closed container in the fridge).  When it's crisp, remove it and set it aside.

Saute the onions, celery, and garlic in the bacon fat until tender. 

 Add cut-up potatoes.

Add the corn.  Mix well.  Add thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper.  Remember, you're seasoning bland potatoes and corn, and you're just about to add water, so taste carefully for seasoning.  I also tend to go heavy on black pepper in chowders -- it always tastes right.

Here's the assembled ingredients, just prior to adding corn stock.  

Yes, you heard me right -- corn stock.  Instead of using just water, or chicken stock (which I think detracts from the corn and bacon flavors), I simmer the trimmed ears of corn in water for about 20 minutes.  You'll need a good 6 cups of stock for this recipe.

Add the stock to the Dutch oven, bring to a simmer, cover, and let simmer slowly for about 45 minutes.  Turn off the heat, and add the cream.  Stir well.  Taste carefully for seasoning.  Serve immediately, or the next day, when it undoubtedly will be much better.

N.B.  This chowder is not wallpaper-paste thick.  In fact, it's rather watery -- which is the way it should be.  You should have no reason to add flour to this soup to thicken it.  The potatoes and corn have enough starch in them to thicken it to the proper consistency.

Variation -- Add a few cans of chopped clams, juice and all, in the last 5 minutes of cooking, and you have clam-corn chowder.  Or add some cooked crab meat.  Crab-corn chowder. 

Variation -- Add a cup of fresh tomatoes (peeled, seeded, diced) towards the end of cooking.  Gives the soup a nice color, and a different, tangy taste.   Not quite Manhattan style, but nice.

Variation -- Make the chowder vegetarian.  Use either butter (or olive oil if you want it vegan)
instead of the bacon.  Omit the cream if you want to keep it vegan.

As you can see from the variations, this recipe is a base upon which many, many kinds of soup can be based.  If you leave out the corn, and add the clams, you have clam chowder.  Add fish in the last few minutes of cooking, and use fish stock or clam juice as your liquid, and you have fish chowder.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Birthday, Julia!

Julia Child would have been 100 years old today.  Happy Birthday, Julia!!

Her cookbook "From Julia Child's Kitchen" was one of the first cookbooks I owned, given to me as a birthday gift by my parents.  (Probably my 16th or 17th, if I remember correctly.)

I still own it, along with most -- if not all -- of JC's books. 

I still remember making my first recipe out of it -- chocolate mousse.  Julia's books were always very well written, and went far beyond just a dry collection of recipes.  They were books that could be read.  And read them, I did.  And many others, too.  James Beard was another of my favorites for 'readable' cookbooks.