FINDING A NEW WAY TO COOK
The purpose of this book is to introduce you to a way of cooking truly delicious food simply, easily, healthfully, and with pleasure, and to enhance the joy in sharing it. The impetus to write it-a ten-year endeavor-dates back to when I was a young chef, cooking and eating in wonderful restaurants and home kitchens in France, Italy, and the heartland of America. I adored all the rich, sumptuous food but realized I had to face the realities of weight gain, food allergies, and fluctuating blood sugar. As I grew older I became progressively more concerned about the long-term effects of a rich diet on my health and well-being.
Necessity set me on the path to find a way to cook and eat that would nurture my body as well as my soul and senses. I made myself a guinea pig for more diets and dreary "healthful" concoctions than I care to remember. I read widely on nutrition and diet, from the most iconoclastic to the most mainstream. Most of these bleak regimes addressed only the physical side of eating, ignoring the other hungers that good food satisfies: hungers for the connection it can forge to friends and nature, for its sensual beauty, its colors, aromas, flavors, and textures; for the cultural and historical meaning it expresses; and, most important, for comfort and well-being.
In order to satisfy these deeper hungers, I realized I had to devise new cooking techniques to replace the high-fat cooking methods I grew up with. I brought all my professional experience to bear on translating the recipes of memory into healthier adaptations, experimenting by radically altering classic techniques or using them in a new way. Because I believe that prohibitions against delicious fats such as butter and cream and against sugar only increase desire, I exclude nothing in my cooking and do not count fat grams. Instead, I have devised new ways to use fat's special qualities to enhance the deeper experience of eating while respecting the realities of its impact on diet and health.
The style of cooking that I have evolved is deeply influenced by the Mediterranean cooking of Italy, France, Greece, and Spain, with a good dose of American regional foods and a smattering of Asian influences. It is not simply my Greek heritage that attracts me to Mediterranean cuisines; they most closely mirror the way I like to eat and cook: simply and deliciously, in tune with the seasons. In addition, the traditional Mediterranean way of eating has proven to be profoundly wise. Without counting fat grams or calories, Mediterranean people are among the healthiest and longest-lived in the world, with low incidence of coronary heart disease and cancer. Theirs is the model for my everyday diet: largely based on plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes; moderate amounts of fish, poultry, nuts, and wine; with a small amount of red meat, saturated fats, dairy products, and sugar and a minimum of prepared foods. I eat moderately day to day, and periodically I eat with abandon.
MODERATION AND THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE
Food clearly has a profound emotional, even spiritual, impact on human beings. It is a primal source of pleasure, comfort, and sharing with friends, a link to culture and our roots. But the "pleasure principle" is rarely considered in the determination of well-being, where indeed it may be as critical as the obvious nutritional content of foods. When people don't feel satisfied by the food they eat, they feel deprived, cut off from well-being. They often overeat lackluster foods in an attempt to gain a feeling of satiety. Yet many of the official recommendations for healthful diet would have us strip food bare of taste if need be in order to eradicate fat, commonly viewed as the dietary cause of woes from obesity to heart disease to cancer....
Szechwan Pepper-Crusted Steak Smothered with Onions
A crusty seared steak smothered with fried onions is one of the simplest and most satisfying combinations imaginable. I rub the steak with a mix of finely ground Szechwan, white, and black peppercorns, which imparts an aromatic, slightly floral yet peppery flavor that goes wonderfully with the onions. Although it is delicious as is, this combination sings when drizzled with a rich winy sauce and served with potatoes, such as Potato Chips (page 47) or Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes (page 77).
You can use many cuts of beef for this recipe, as long as they are tender enough to be served rare. The most flavorful steaks for pan-searing are at opposite ends of the spectrum in price-shell and strip steak of beef or buffalo are quite expensive; skirt and hanger steak are inexpensive. (Buffalo steaks, either shell or sirloin, are a great alternative to beef; they are flavorful and tender, yet spectacularly lean.)
1 1/2 pounds Vidalia or Bermuda onions, peeled
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
SZECHWAN PEPPER RUB
1 teaspoon Szechwan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon allspice berries
1 1/4 pounds beef skirt, hanger, or strip steak or buffalo sirloin or shell steak, trimmed of all fat
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Scant 1 teaspoon finely grated ginger
Port Wine Sauce (page 637), Balsamic Syrup (page 636), or Red Wine Essence (page 639) (optional)
To make the onions, slice the onions in half through the stem. With a mandoline or vegetable slicer or a thin sharp knife, cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch slices. (You should have about 6 cups.)
In a large nonstick skillet, melt the butter over moderately low heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and toss to coat. Cover and cook until the onions have released their liquid, about 13 minutes.
Uncover the pan, increase the heat to moderate, and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the onions with the sugar and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until they are golden brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle with the balsamic vinegar and toss until the vinegar has evaporated. Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and season generously with pepper. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
Meanwhile, prepare the pepper rub: In a small heavy skillet, toast the peppercorns and allspice over moderate heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a blender or spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Strain the spices into a small bowl and return the coarse bits to the blender. Blend again and strain.
Pat the steaks dry with paper towels; rub lightly with a little of the oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and massage the ginger into the steak; then rub the pepper rub over them.
Heat a grill pan or heavy nonstick skillet over high heat. Lightly oil the grill pan, if using, or swirl the remaining oil in a nonstick skillet. Add the steaks to the pan and cook until little droplets of blood form on the surface, about 4 minutes. Turn the steaks over and continue cooking until droplets of blood form on the top again, another 3 to 4 minutes, for rare.
Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes. With a thin sharp knife, slice the steaks on a slight angle against the grain. Sprinkle the meat with a little salt and arrange the slices on four warm dinner plates. Nestle a mound of onions next to the steak, drizzle a little of the optional sauce around the meat, and serve at once.
You can prepare the Szechwan pepper rub up to 2 days ahead and the onions up to 6 hours ahead; cover and leave at room temperature. About 5 minutes before serving, sautT the onions in a hot pan until warm through.
"Wood-Smoked" Steak Smothered with Onions. Crust the steaks with Smoky Tea Essence (see below) instead of the Szechwan Pepper Rub to make the steak taste as though it was grilled over wood.
Smoky Tea Essence
Makes about 1/3 cup
This powder, my most exciting discovery with rubs, is made from Lapsang Souchong or Hu-Kwa, a smoked tea from China's Fukien province. It imparts a sweet, bacony, smoky flavor to foods. You can use it in just about any dish where a slight hint of wood smoke is desired. I've rubbed it on steaks to give them a grilled flavor, infused it into broths to impart a bacony flavor to soups, and added it to pots of beans or to roasted peppers. When I am cooking for vegetarians, I use it instead of bacon or ham to impart a smoky flavor. While it is great as a rub on its own, I often use it in tandem with many other Flavor Essences and Dry Rubs.
Smoky teas are readily available in supermarkets and gourmet stores.
1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) loose Lapsang Souchong tea or 20 tea bags
If you are using tea bags, cut them open. Empty the tea into a blender or spice grinder. Blend the tea for at least 1 minute at high speed, until you have the finest-possible powder. Let the mixture settle for about 30 seconds before removing the cover, so the fine powder does not fly into the air.
Use a dry pastry brush to push the powder through a strainer set into a clean dry container. Blend and strain the larger bits again.
Store in a tightly sealed jar away from light for up to 3 months.
Warm Spilling Fruit
A GUIDE TO IMPROVISING
Ripe fruit gently cooked with a small amount of sugar and a little water releases its juices and melts slightly. A vanilla bean amplifies the fruit's own sweetness and perfume. The effect is like a pie filling and has many uses, both as filling and as sauce. The fruit is delicious served warm, with or without a small scoop of ice cream or a tablespoon of crFme fraeche. It can be spooned into a wide shallow bowl and topped with a baked pastry "lid" or used as a rustic sauce for Roasted Fruit (page 475) and plain cakes.
This method works wonderfully for many kinds of fruits, including pears, apples, peaches, nectarines, mangoes, plums, cherries, and berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
3 cups fresh fruit (peeled, pitted, and/or sliced 1/2 inch thick, as appropriate), singly or in combination, such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, nectarines, or plums
2 tablespoons water
1 to 4 tablespoons sugar, honey, or maple syrup (depending on the sweetness of the fruit)
1 vanilla bean
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 to 3 teaspoons eau-de-vie, such as kirsch, framboise, or Poire William (optional)
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the fruit, water, and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. With a thin sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half. Scrape out the seeds and add the seeds and bean to the pan. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the fruit releases its juices, 2 to 4 minutes.
2. Taste the fruit for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary. Stir in the lemon juice. Uncover and cook over high heat until the fruit is tender and the juices are syrupy, about 2 minutes longer. Discard the vanilla bean and stir in the eau-de-vie, if desired. Serve warm.
Warm Fresh Cherries with Kirsch
Pitting cherries seems like such a daunting task that people rarely eat fresh cherries these days any way other than out of hand. So we miss the extraordinary pleasure of cooked fresh cherries, when their fragrance is released in all its glory.
In this warm compote, pitted cherries are cooked with a vanilla bean and sugar just until they release their juices. A drizzle of kirsch (cherry brandy) accentuates their marvelous flavor. They are best eaten warm, spooned into shallow soup bowls, with a Scented Custard Sauce (page 530), Real Whipped Cream or CrFme Fraeche (page 533), ice cream, ice milk, or frozen yogurt. They also make an extraordinary sauce for plain cakes such as Fresh Lemon Cake (page 506) or Pistachio and Almond Cake (page 514).
Follow the Guide on page 472 using 3 cups pitted fresh cherries (see page 677) and 3 tablespoons sugar or honey. When the cherries are tender, discard the vanilla bean and stir in 2 to 3 teaspoons kirsch, rum, or cognac.
Inside a Blueberry Pie
This wonderful stew of blueberries is indeed like the inside of a blueberry pie. Sprigs of fresh thyme make the blueberries taste like wild ones. Served warm, the sauce is particularly good with baked fruits such as Slow-Roasted Peaches (page 476) or Caramelized Roasted Pears (page 476) or with vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt. The sauce can also be made with black or red raspberries or blackberries. (The frozen sugarless blackberries available in supermarkets work wonderfully.)
Follow the Guide on page 472, using fresh or frozen unsweetened blueberries, 1 1/2 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon water, and 1/2 vanilla bean. Add 2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme, cover, and cook over moderate heat until the berries have released their juices but are still whole, about 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.