Saturday, May 28, 2011

What the $%^ are fiddleheads?

You see them in the grocery store (heck, you may see them on your morning jog) a few weeks in spring.  Strange, curled green things, almost catepillar like, sitting in a big pile in the produce section.  Then they vanish, not to be seen again until the following year.  What are they?

Fiddlehead ferns are simply ferns that have not unrolled into their full ferny glory.  There are a handful of species that are edible (most common: Bracken, although Ostrich are more widely available in my neck of the New England Woods), and have been part of few major culinary traditions (Native American, then hence later on New England's, and Asian).  They pop up and quickly over a few weeks turn into the less edible ferns you see during your nature hike.  They are not farmed, but foraged.  Yes, even the ones you find at Whole Foods.

This leads to a particular quandry.  Although growing up on the forest floor near a burbling brook might sound idylic (Figure 1.aa), what it actually makes these is an amusement park for microbes, which  in turn will use your GI tract as a roller-coaster ride.  Fiddleheads should be washed and cooked thoroughly by all but the bravest of gastronomes.  The University of Maine suggests boiling for 10 minutes or steaming for 20, which might be a little much for those of us who want to taste some of the more delicate flavors of these little guys, but not a bad idea if you're foraging them on your own.  Today's foraging spot was yesterday's deer bathroom.

(Figure 1.aa:  The original Avatar.  The whole place was crawling with Giardia.)

So what do we actually do with fiddleheads in the kitchen once we've Bear Grylls'd them out of the woods (or Trader Joe's), other then boil the fun out of them?  They have a spinach-y flavor, and a nice crunch, so I treat them like I do the myriad of greens I get in my CSA box:  Sautee.

Sauteed Fiddlehead Ferns
  • One pound of fiddlehead ferns, generously rinsed.  This is not a recipe to try if your town is on a water ban.  Hose those ameoba down the drain!
  • About a tablespoon of unsalted butter
  • A big splash of white wine.  I used a reisling to balance out the other flavors in the dish.
  • Salt.  When I made this recipe, I decided to uber-Spring it up with some weird coarse-salt-and-dried-flowers mixture made by these people.  The attending from the last post brought over the other day in exchange for the notary services of my girlfriend.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Melt the butter in a large sautee pan over medium-high heat.  When it's smoky-hot and almost turning brown, toss in the fiddleheads and let them cook until they're smoky hot and almost turning brown (about 10-15 minutes).  See that light brown patina on the bottom of the pan?  That's pure carmelized flavor, and you're going to harness it with a technique called deglazing.  Right before you think your ferns are ready, throw that splash of wine into the pan and aggressively scrape at that brown stuff with a WOODEN SPOON ONLY.  Do not scrape with a metal spoon, unless you like shrapnel.  Rubber spatulas are not stiff enough to stand up to the task.  Only a wooden spoon will do.  Toss the fiddleheads around in the pan a bit to coat them in your brand-new pan-sauce.  Season with whatever messed up salt you have knocking around in your pantry and serve (Figure 1.ab).

(Figure 1.ab - Fiddleheads make for a great dinner on the balcony.)

Now get off you're computer and go find these things!  You probably only have another week or so before they're gone.

Monday, May 9, 2011

When Attendings Come for Dinner

I usually leave making the sweet stuff to my girlfriend over at MyFrostingAffair.  Due to a recent complex chain of events (Figure 85.a), however, the attending I'm on service with this month ended up moving to an apartment down the hall.  Of course, I invited her and her wife over for dinner.  I was given an epic list of Cannot's:  Ovolacto-vegetarians, but one doesn't like the taste of eggs (although as an ingredient, they're okay) and the other is pregnant, which nixed a whole litany of foods.  I ended up making a warm lentil salad and hand cut saffron papardelle (post coming soon) with oyster mushrooms, portabellos and asparagus.  In a fit of Top Chef-esque culinary frenzy I decided that in the 1.5 hours I had left myself to cook everything, I would make a dessert.
Figure 85.a - A visual analog to how I ended up having my attending/neighbor over for dinner. (

I make a great, very rich, girlfriend-impressing, chocolate mousse.  It's old school, with the only ingredients being good chocolate and eggs (making it lactose free):

Old-School Chocolate Mousse [note: tastes better out of the two]
(recipe adapted from GQ, of all places)
  • 8 oz. high quality dark chocolate, somewhere between 55-75% works best.
  • 6 eggs.  Since these are kinda-sorta-raw, use the highest quality, freshest local organic eggs you can find (to minimize the risk of food-bourne illness).
  • A pinch of kosher salt.
Start melting the chocolate in a double boiler.  Avoid getting any water what-so-ever into the chocolate, at all costs.  This will ruin it.  Completely.  While it's melting, seperate the egg whites from the yolks.  Whip the whites and the salt into stiff peaks with a hand mixer.  Once all the chocolate is melted, take a couple of spoonfuls of the chocolate and mix it into the yolk, then take the mixture and fold it back into the melted chocolate.  This little extra step is called "tempering" and it will prevent you from having chocolate scrambled eggs for dessert.  Fold the chocolate & yolks into the fluffy whites.  Spoon into bowls (or ramekins, if you have them) and chill for a few hours or overnight to let them set.  Serve with homemade whipped cream and a sprinkle of salt on top.

The eggs in this recipe aren't technically 100% all the way cooked, so it was back to the drawing board for a killer dessert to impress my attending/neighbor.  When my mom was diagnosed with Crohn's disease about 10 or 15 years ago, I had made her a dairy-free mousse, the recipe for which I had found in some PETA propaganda I received as part of a project for a highschool class called Problems in American Democracy.  Yes, I know.  I was taking a course called Problems in American Democracy in highschool.  No, I did not wear a pocket protector, or tape in the middle of my glasses.  I lost the recipe a long time ago, but it was easy enough to remember.

New-School Vegan Chocolate Mousse [the technically easier of the two: no tempering]
  • 8 oz. high quality dark chocolate, 55-75% cocao
  • One package of silken tofu
  • (optional) 2 tbsp confectioner's sugar
  • (optional) 1 1/2 tbsp garam masala, or to taste.
Melt the chocolate as directed above, again being extrordinarily careful not to get any water into the chocolate from the double boiler.  In the meantime, blend the tofu into a smooth consistency.  I found an immersion blender works really well, and gets a ton of air bubbles into the mousse (this makes it a little more comparable to the old-school version).  If you're sweeting it with sugar, or elevating it with garam masala like I did, now is the time:  Blend them into the tofu before mixing in the chocolate.  When the chocolate is fully melted, mix it into the tofu.  Pour into serving dishes and refrigerate.  Serve with homemade whipcream to undo the vegan-ness, with a sprinkle of coarse salt on top.

There you go.  Two great, straightforward recipes that will make you look like a kitchen champion.  Make one, make the other, make both and have a taste test!  My attending/neighbor loved the dinner, and I'm actually pretty excited to hang out again soon.... but maybe MyFrostingAffair and I will go to their house next time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tony's Food 101: Dressing It Up

I've always been envious of homemade salad dressing. There. I said it (as nerdy as it sounds). It's that mine never came out right. No matter how much I shook or whisked, my vinagrettes were just sub-par. They never quite emulsified, or they seperated within nano-seconds. Then, I got this email. How did I not think of this myself? My immersion blender is one of my most beloved kitchen gadgets. I use it to make hummus, smoothies, and of course, pureed vegetable soups. The uses of this item are seemingly limitless. A couple of saftey tips, though:

1) Never lift the immersion blender out of the bowl while the blades are still spinning. Your whole kitchen will be covered in puree.
2) Never put your fingers anywhere near the blades while the device is plugged into the wall. You never think you'll push the button that starts the blades whirling, but you might end up like a dermatologist friend of mine. She was less-than-impressed at the job the emergency medicine resident did on her multiple finger lacerations.

Now that the necessary safety warnings are over with, let's get cooking.

Figure 3.14p - Old School versus New Wave.

Cranberry-Walnut Salad Dressing

(Sorry this is a bit late. This recipe would be better in the late fall or early winter when we tend to have left over cranberry sauce sitting around our fridges, after holiday meals. I actually started this post back in January but totally forgot about it until recently. I'll make up for it with a bonus recipe at the end.)

  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

  • 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup vegetable oil (or any variation of either of these two oils alone, or a mixture of both. I like the half-and-half ratio.)

  • A generous handful of toasted walnuts. If you have raw walnuts, crush them into little pieces with your hands or a mallet or something. Put them onto a dry pan without any oil, and toast over medium heat until they're golden and they smell amazing.

  • 2-3 heaping tablespoons of cranberry sauce, preferably a chunky, whole-cranberry type.
    A dash of heavy cream or half-and-half, or a heaping tablespoon of mayonaisse.

  • (optional) A dash of orange bitters.

Combine all of the above ingredients in a tall container. I like re-used 32 oz yogurt containers for all of my immersion blending needs. Blend until smooth, and store in the container you made it in. I served it over a crunchy salad of sliced red cabbage, fennel and crisp romaine lettuce (see figure 3.14i)

Figure 3.14i - The finished product.

Bonus Recipe: Aoili

This is a more recent creation. My girlfriend doesn't like artichokes. I absolutely love them. I've made them a couple of times, both steamed and stuffed/baked (like my mom makes them) and they were never a go. That is until I made a creamy, garlicky aoili, and told her to dip the artichoke leaves before she ate them. She finished off half the artichoke herself. The second one I made, she told me I had better give her half of the heart, or I would be in trouble. This serves to show you the magic some egg yolk, oil, lemon and garlic can work.

  • One high quality egg yolk, the fresher the better. Save the white for an omlette or something.

  • One medium or large clove of garlic, roughly chopped. Other, more traditional (read: whisk) recipes will tell you to grind it into a paste with some salt, but with this method, your immersion blenders' whirling blades of doom will do the work.

  • Juice from 1/2 of a lemon. You can include a pinch of the zest if you'd like.

  • A pinch of salt.

  • 1/2 cup of good olive oil.

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a tall container. Get your immersion blenders' blades a-whirlin'. Keep it going, and slowly drizzle the oil into a spot where it's going to hit the blades, while keeping the whole thing relatively submersed in the mixture. This can be a bit tricky. Keep blending until all the oil is incorporated. This method basically takes all the skill out of making an aoili: It will keep for about a week without seperating. At all. The garlic flavor will intensify the longer you keep it in the fridge.

It's good to be back, folks.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tony's Food 101: Improving and Inventing Cocktails

Hi guys and gals,

Things have been wildly busy lately, with one of our residents out on medical leave, medically leaving the rest of us to shoulder his calls. I did get out of the hospital recently, for a cocktail holiday party at my best friend's house. The premise was great: everybody dressed in sports coats ties and dresses, with a huge assortment of liquor with mixers left on ice, and some pretty interesting cocktail recipes framed on the wall above. The guests were hesitant at first, making slow circles around the bottles, except me. I dove right in, egg in hand, and whipped up a Ramos Gin Fizz for my girlfriend. After that, all sorts of drinks were flying off the bar and into the eagerly waiting hands of party guests. A couple of things needed to be tweaked here and there (especially with the more complicated libations like the Ramos), so I had to do some quick thinking on my feet. An altered Ramos recipe is below, as well as an off-the-cuff cocktail present for the party's hostess, who's a die-hard amaretto fan.

The Ramos Sans Flowers
Not having an ethnic grocery store near his house, we didn't have any access to orange flower water, an arguably essential ingredient to the Ramos Gin Fizz. We made due with some substitutes, or equally incredible results:
  • 2 oz gin. I like New Amsterdam in this one because of it's great citrus notes (plus the architectural bottle looks impressive on a home bar).
  • 1/2 oz. lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. lime juice
  • 1/4 oz triple-sec
  • 1/2 oz orange juice
  • 1/2 oz. St. Germaine (which everyone at the party is now officially obsessed with).
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 oz. heavy cream

Combine all ingredients, more or less in that order (but definitely cream last due to the acids in the citrus juices) in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until your arms literally hurt. The key is to get a huge amount of delicious foam on the top of the drink. Pour into a tall glass then add club soda until the foam rises to the very very edge of the glass, then enjoy. As an aside, a bartender once told me that this drink tastes like "lemonade and a creamsicle making sweet love."

The Christmas Cookie

This was my small gift to the party's hostess, who loves amaretto. She is also very much a franophile, so the inclusion of two wonderful french liquors was an added bounus.

  • 2 oz. Domaine de Canton ginger liquer.
  • 1 oz. amaretto
  • 1/2 oz. St. Germaine
  • 1/2 oz. heavy cream

Shake with ice until creamy and foamy, and strain into a martini class. It could be garnished with one of those Pirouette cookies that are ubiquitous around the holidays.

I will try to post more now that things are slowing down, I hope everyone enjoys their holidays and has a great New Year!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tony's Food 101: Pot Roast for a Hard Rotation (or Busy Work Week)

It's no secret that I haven't been particularly good about posting lately, and it's primarily because of a rough month on the Stroke team in September and a deadlines for AAN 2011 abstract submissions in October (along with my annual pilgrimage/vacation to Burlington, VT and a houswarming party to throw). So what's a busy resident to do, balancing service requirements, studying, social life and a stalwart dedication to cooking at home as much as possible? Well, as the weather cools down, the answer is simple: the crock pot.

If you don't own one, go and buy or order one right now. I'm not even kidding. They don't cost more than $30 and they accomplish two amazing things:

1) They do all the actual cooking for you while you're at work - all you do is throw ingredients in and turn it on. It's also nearly impossible to burn anything in a crockpot, so no worries there.
2) They cook things at a very low temperature for a very long time - delicate flavors are preserved and overall the flavor of a dish has hours to develop.

This allows busy people to make amazing things to eat without dedicating more than 15 minutes in the kitchen. It also allows said busy people to cut down on all the salt and fat and preservatives they would otherwise be dragooned into eating from prepared foods. I tend to view crockpot-type foods as more seasonal for fall and winter (e.g. roasts, hearty stews), but there's no reason not to haul out this ceramic wonder May through August. Here's a super fast, amazing technique for pot roast that I developed in medical school and perfected for busy service months.

Crock-Pot Pot-Roast
  • A 3-5 pound beef round or chuck roast.
  • Two large onions, cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds or half-rounds.
  • Two cloves of garlic, smashed.
  • Whole seasonal fresh herbs (I like sage or rosemary in the colder months).
  • Coarse salt and cracked black pepper to taste.

Ok, this is really, really easy. Put the onions and garlic in the bottom of the crock pot in the morning before you leave for work (you can cut everything up the night before, if you're not up on your knife skills). Rub the roast with salt and pepper and plop it down on top of the onions. I find that if there's a fatty side, putting that up works best. Throw your herbs on top. Cover and turn on low. (In the past, I've tried turning it on high for an hour and then turning it down: This makes no difference). Go to work. Come home to find a tender, flavorful roast sitting in a ton of jus. You will have leftovers (it makes an awesome sandwich with horseradish sauce). I store it in a tupperware with the jus in it, this will keep it from drying out, and you can just microwave the whole thing to re-live your home-cook-rock-star dinner on another late night later that week.

I will try to post more often, I have some pretty good material lined up for November.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why You Should Buy Eggs From Local Farms

Read this report from the inspectors from one of the farms involved in the recent egg recall and see if you are persuaded to switch to eggs laid by cage-free local chickens, regardless of price. Even before the recall, I had started buying eggs from the farm that we belong to for our CSA and this recall only helped me confirm the wisdom of my choice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer Semester '10: Ceviche

Ceviche is one of those foods that, in the same vein as sushi, a good number of people are deathly afraid of because it is not cooked with heat. Unfortunately, even in this day an age, well past the days of cholera and dysentery here in the US, infectious diseases and food bourne illnesses are a very real concern. While it is true that raw and undercooked foods present a higher risk for carrying food bourne illnesses than their well-done counterparts, I've always found it fascinating that people don't think to ask about where their food is coming from as an indicator of how likely it is to be contaminated. Admittedly, I've been on a big Omnivore's Dilemma kick (only fueled by my girlfriend getting me Animal Vegetable Miracle for my birthday this year). Just this past week, 380 million eggs were recalled from an Iowa concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) because of salmonella outbreaks. To bring this post back to blog relevance, this is why I bought the fish for this following recipe for ceviche from my local Whole Foods. Sure it was more expensive, but at least it came with some token knowledge of where regionally the fish was caught or farmed, and something about the farming practices of the specific place (no hormones, antibiotics, et cetera). Sure there were people who didn't want to eat it, just for what it was, but out of everyone who did at the large cookout I prepared it at, not a single person got ill.

I became hooked on ceviche years ago, and recently got one of my friends hooked too. In fact, we actually cleaned out our cruise ship's supply of it back during our last vacation in April. It was being offered as a free appetizer at the ship's wine bar, and his wife and my girlfriend didn't even get to try any after we were through! Although there are many, many variations (some local and some more progressive-chef-creative), it really couldn't be a simpler formula:

Fresh Fish + Citrus Acid + Salt + Time = Ceviche

Of course, there are some other wonderful additions like chiles, garlic, herbs, tomatoes and garnishes, but I will leave those at your discretion. As it is served cold, I prefer it as a summer dish.

Simple Ceviche

  • About one pound of fresh, high quality, preferably organic, preferably local (to increase freshness) seafood (Figure 387.a). Previously frozen isn't ideal, but it is acceptable. I've used sea bass, scallops, snapper, shrimp ... really any solid, meaty seafood or shell fish. Avoid flakier and more delicate stuff like tilapia. You want something that will hold it's shape after 3-4 hours of marinating in a relatively strong acid.

    Figure 387. a - Big Fish.

  • One to one and half cups of freshly squeezed citrus acid. Lime is classic, but I've recently used a combination of lime and grapefruit to good effect. Strain it to make sure mostly all of the pulp is removed (figure 387.b)

Figure 387.b - A combination of lime and grapefruit juice. I wish I had tested the pH for nerdiness' sake.
  • A teaspoon of salt. Feel free to omit this right away and sprinkle it on later. You can also use more interesting salts post-hoc in this way as both a flavoring and a garnish, like Himalayan pink salt, Maldon salt, black salt, et cetera.
  • One or two hot chili peppers to taste.
  • A big bunch of cilantro, de-stemmed and chopped.
  • A clove of finely chopped garlic.
  • Garnishes like match-stick cut mango and super thinly sliced spanish (red) onion or sweet onion.

Toss all the ingredients together in a non-reactive (read: not plastic, not metal - glass) bowl. Keep it cool and allow it to marinate for 3-4 hours. The acids in the marinade will actually denature the proteins in the fish as heat would, leaving you with super tasty fish with a cooked texture. Serve with whatever garnishes you like, and if bringing it outdoors, put the glass bowl inside another bowl with ice and water to keep it cool.

Figure 387.c. - Please note how unreactive the bowl is.

Figure 387.d - The finished product, ravaged by party-goers.

Sorry that I haven't been posting as regularly as I'd like to, my girlfriend and I took the big step and moved in together, and two apartments worth of unpacking (and my other birthday gift, Red Dead Redemption) have been keeping me pretty occupied. I'll figure out something to post next week.