Fresh Corn with Red Peppers and Cumin

We've enjoyed a summery dish of fresh corn with red peppers for many years. We cut corn off the cob, sauté it with scallions and chopped red peppers, seasoned with cumin and garlic.

Oddly, the southwestern-style flavorings for this dish were passed on to me in the cookbook Cuisine Rapide, by Pierre Franey, a classically trained French chef. In the 80's and 90's Franey published a weekly column in the New York Times called The 60 Minute Gourmet, which was a precursor to what Bittman writes today.

These two men share a lot of common ground. They believe that people should cook at home more often; they make home cooking more accessible and less intimidating than most people take it to be, and they strongly promote the use of simple fresh ingredients and a small number of flavorings to create a wonderful dish.

In his cookbook Franey calls for a slightly different proportion of ingredients than I recommend. Here's my version:

3 ears fresh corn, shucked, cut in half cross-wise, then cut kernels off lengthwise with a large knife
1 large red pepper, chopped
1/3 cup green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 clove garlic, chopped
Salt and fresh ground pepper
----- Heat oil and butter in large skillet over medium-high heat
----- Add all ingredients to the pan and sauté about 3 minutes, until slightly softened.

Many people don't realize that corn is very widely grown throughout China. In fact, you'll see field upon field of corn, often  in proximity to enormous rice paddies. Something that really surprised me on a trip to the Sichuan province a few years ago, was to find virtually this same preparation of corn and peppers on the menu at a local restaurant. No cumin, but otherwise identical. A recipe is included in the one truly authentic Sichuan cookbook, Land of Plenty, by Fuscia Dunlop. In the Sichuan version, the corn and peppers are simply cooked in peanut oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Grill-Steamed Vegetable Packets

After sharing thoughts about summer vegetable chopping yesterday, here I present a simple technique to get mixed vegetables onto your grilling menu with little fuss and easy advance preparation. Yes - this approach is just like the "hobo dinners" or whatever that campsite foil package dinner deal is called. We're just taking it upscale a little.

The advantages of using this approach are:

  • The vegetables can be chopped hours in advance
  • You can grill-steam the packet(s) somewhat in advance of the prime-time grilling window (e.g., burger / steak / whatever grilling) because these veggies are great at room temp. 

Grill-Steamed Vegetable Packets
Two large packets to serve 6-8 people

2 red peppers, chopped into 1/2" pieces or larger
2 yellow or orange peppers, chopped into 1/2" pieces or larger
1 red onion,  chopped into 1/2" pieces
4 medium zucchinis, ends trimmed, halved down the center, sliced into "1/2 moons" about 3/8" thick
   --- Trust me - 1/4" is too thin, 1/2" is ok, but I think in between is perfect.
4 medium yellow squashes, trimmed as zucchini
   --- You can salt and drain the zucchini and squash if you'd like.
   --- Let them drain for 15-20 minutes, then gently wipe with a paper towel
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried).
   --- You can add plenty of fresh oregano, but be spare with the dried stuff.
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

  1. Prep all the vegetables and toss with half the olive oil, the balsamic, oregano and S&P. This can be done up to 3-4 hours before cooking. 
  2. When grill is warming / fire starting, lay out two large pieces of heavy duty foil. Drizzle one tablespoon of oil on each sheet and spread it around. Put half of the vegetable mixture on each sheet. 
  3. Wrap the sheets into a package, rolling from the sides and sealing at the top. You can use more than one piece of foil and can wrap this package almost any way you want - tightly, loosely, whatever - just get it fairly well closed for grilling, allowing the ability to open the top and check doneness of the veg. 
  4. Place packets on hot grill for about 10 minutes. The heat of the grill, thickness of the foil, the size and amount of vegetable will all modify how long it takes to cook these through. 
  5. The main thing is to not overcook the vegetables - you'd eat most of them raw or nearly so anyway - so underdone is better than overdone. If they are a little under done you can keep the package closed for a few minutes off the grill. If they come off the grill perfect, open the packages widely or turn them out into a serving bowl. 
  6. Before final serving taste and adjust salt, pepper, or even a touch more oil or balsamic.   

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Technique: Chopping Summer Vegetables

It's summer. You'll be making salads, grilling vegetables, and maybe even harvesting some homegrown ingredients from your backyard garden. The farmer's markets are beginning to go really wild.

In short, you'll be chopping some vegetables sometime soon.

There's ONE thing you really need to know - it's all about the knife.

Eventually, if you chop enough vegetables you'll get faster and more precise. Given enough different vegetable related dishes, you'll learn different ways of tackling the same vegetable, depending on how it is to be used (think sliced vs. chopped tomatoes). But no matter what, if you don't have a good, sharpened knife, it will be more laborious and potentially painful in more ways than one.

For what it's worth, I recommend an inexpensive but durable chef's knife - the Victorinox 8" Chef's Knife.  Even if you splurge on or already own an expensive knife, all that's really going to matter after the first 6-12 months is how sharp you keep the blade. In fact, in some professional kitchens, knife sharpness is more than a matter of pride - it becomes a competition among chefs.

Except for cutting bread and boning meats/fish, I use my large chef's knife for 98% of my chopping. Maybe 99%. Literally. And I even know what that word means.

Enough already - here are some handy tips for summer vegetable chopping (with a large chef's knife):

  • Cut fresh corn in half, then stand the cut ends on your cutting board like a tower. Run your knife from top to bottom to cut off the kernels. You'll need exactly FIVE vertical cuts to remove all the kernels - no more, no less. 
  • The fastest way to chop tomatoes is to cut them in half end to end, then again into quarters. At this point it's easy to push the seeds/juices out of each quarter. You may need to trim the whitish core and the stem pit (or whatever that dark thing is called that holds the tomato to the vine). After seeding the quarter, cut big chunks, or more vertical, thin slices, which can be chopped crosswise into little 1/4" cubes. 
  • Cucumbers - trim each end, cut in half, place the fat middle end on the cutting board, like suggested for the corn. With just a little practice you can trim the peel off from top to bottom, not taking off much, if any flesh. So - no need for a peeler. After trimming, slices or quarters are easily obtained. 
  • Snozzcumbers - you're on your own. I can't recommend a viable approach. Hopefully the BFG is not reading this note. 
Toss cucumbers, zucchini or squashes into a colander with a generous sprinkling of kosher or sea salt. Let them sit for about 20 minutes - and they'll lose a lot of the water that would otherwise end up watering down your dish. 

  • Chop the stem portion of a bell pepper, as if beheading it (the stem is the head). After slicing this top open, you can trim vertically, four times around the core and seeds, to create big flat pieces of pepper.  When you trim this way, run the knife edge right along the inside of the white spines - you don 't want that part - it's bitter. 
  • A similar technique works well horizontally for small peppers, usually needing just three cuts.  
  • After cutting large heads in half or quarters, I like to cut broccoli and cauliflower from the stem end toward the "leaves", making small cuts that allow the "trees" to fall apart. The bigger trees get more of the same treatment. 
When chopping anything into tiny pieces, keep the tip of your knife anchored on the cutting board rock/press the broad end (nearest the handle) down to chop through. Steady the food with your non-cutting hand. Yes, you can and should tuck your fingertips "under" (curl them back a bit) for safety. Also, pretend in your mind that you're a professional chef (you already have a very sharp knife, right) and your in chopping competition with the dude/dudette next to you. It doesn't take too long to get fast, faster and fastest. But do watch those fingertips. 

  • Last, for now, smash garlic with the flat knife blade and the skin will fall off. Lay the knife blade over one clove, holding the handle, and with your other fist, pound once down against the blade. It is SO easy. 
Grilled Vegetables
Don't overgrill - you'd eat most any of these veggies raw anyway.
Add some oil, S&P and balsamic vinegar. 

Technique: Using Pasta Water to Make A Sauce

Garlic Pasta with a little crispy Prosciutto

You may see an instruction in some pasta recipes to 'reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water'. It's a fairly important technique - but I've often taken that instruction somewhat lightly, especially if there are other sauce oriented ingredients in the recipe.

But if you boil this technique down to it's essentials (my apologies for the subconscious pun), it becomes more evident that there's power in it.

In the case I'll describe here, there are just 4 ingredients: pasta, cheese, olive oil and a garlic clove - does water really count?  It's easy to add simple ingredients like crispy prosciutto or pancetta, herbs, or just keep it plain, as seen in the orechiette below.

  1. Put pasta water on to boil.
  2. Slice one clove of garlic. 
  3. Add two tablespoons olive oil to a very small pan or skillet. Add the garlic and cook over low heat for 5 minutes - do not let the garlic brown. Remove pan from heat. 
  4. Cook pasta per directions (I recommend Barilla and DeCecco brands). 
  5. While pasta is cooking, grate 1 to 2 ounces of good quality Parmesan or Romano.  
  6. Just before draining, reserve about one cup of the pasta water (I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup, with a handle). 
  7. Drain pasta, return to pot or serving bowl. Add garlic, garlic oil and cheese. Mix. Then add about 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water. Mix. Keep adding pasta water about 1/2 cup or less at a time, stirring, to create a nice saucy consistency. 

Garlic Pasta with Roasted Mushrooms, Cauliflower and Grilled Hot Italian Sausage

Be Prepared for Disapointment

Inigo Montoya: Who are you? 
Man in Black: No one of consequence. 
Inigo Montoya: I must know... 
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment. 

According to my kids, The Princess Bride is widely accepted to my favorite family movie. Actually, it is. There are so many great lines - we repeat them all the time around the house. "You keep using that word. I don't think you really know what it means". "Anyone want a peanut?".  "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"!

As I was preparing to tell you all about a truly bad dish I made last week, the phrase "Get used to disappointment" came to mind. However, in the kitchen you don't want to "get used to", rather, you want to "be prepared for" some unexpected results

It happens to the best of us. 

To me, it usually happens when I improvise too much or too quickly. But sometimes I take what appears to be a great recipe and really foul it up. Usually, I missed some critical ingredient, measurement or step without realizing it. 

With that in mind, sometimes it doesn't matter if  you've got all the other elements of good cooking in order: fresh ingredients , a good recipe, sound techniques and good tools. There are times you just plain mess up, and can hardly recover, if at all. 

I was making a Spicy Sicilian Chicken dish from a Molto Italiano recipe (Mario Batali). GREAT fresh ingredients - as you might even see above on Kindle in B&W. Peppers, carrot, celery, potato, eggplant and even a few tomatoes are buried under that mound in the picture. 

The dish included a hearty handful of dried hot pepper and a few glugs of red wine. Fresh oregano too. How could this go wrong? I don't know. But,well, yuck. OK flavor, but not awesome. Texture - a little mushy (clearly my mistake). Color - Arggghhh. Pink potatoes and eggplants from the red wine. 

I'm still not sure what I did, but I'm in no rush to try this again soon. Not because of the recipe - it was me. I'll admit defeat, swallow a little disappointment and maybe try again in the winter. Yuck. 



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