Friday, November 11, 2005

gelato answers!

Behold! The New York Times has solved my gelato conundrum!

In their November 6, 2005 special magazine Living section (which is primarily about food--a definition of "living" with which I heartily approve) in a one page article titled Molto Pistachio, the writer Jill Santopietro explains the variations of what is called gelato in Italy by demonstrating how the recipe for pistachio gelato varies by region:

"In Italy, gelato varies as much from maker to maker as it does from region to region. Sicilians have long been renowned for lighter gelato made with milk and no eggs. In 16th-century Tuscany, Bernardo Buontalenti, the Medicis' architect, is said to have popularized gelato made with a sweetened milk-and-egg custard. And in northern Italy, where dairy products are more plentiful, gelato tends to be thicker and richer, with more egg yolks and cream."

So there you have it--milk in the South and increasing quantities of cream and eggs appear as you move further North. Why couldn't all the books about frozen desserts that I've combed for an explanation provide such a concise explanation? Thank you, Jill.

I'm going to make the kind that is all milk (no eggs or cream) to see how it compares with all the other frozen desserts I've made which have all had an egg (or egg yolk) custard base. The milk only recipe has two tablespoons of cornstarch in it, which is what many people use to make pudding without eggs or cream (which, if we are on a defining kick, is probably what differentiates "pudding" from "custard"). My friend Deb (Saul, the future chef's mama) has a fine version of chocolate pudding that I've been lucky enough to sample that is made this way and I'm hoping that the gelato equivalent will be intensely flavorful without being nauseatingly rich.

If any other (local) person would like to make the central Italian version (7 egg yolks) and/or the northern Italian version (9 egg yolks and 1/3 C cream), I'd love to do a side by side comparison. Drop me a line if you are interested and I'll e-mail you the recipes for the other versions.

Here's the recipe for the kind I plan to make:

Sicilian (Milk, no eggs, no cream) Pistachio Gelato

Makes 1 quart

4 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup sugar

2 cups shelled, toasted, unsalted pistachios, finely ground.

1. In a small bowl, pour 3 tablespoons of the milk over the cornstarch and whisk until smooth.

2. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, bring the remaining milk to just before the boil. Whisk in the salt, sugar and cornstarch mixture until the sugar has dissolved, about 8 minutes.

3. Transfer the pan to an ice bath. When cool, stir in the pistachios. Refrigerate overnight.

4. Strain, pressing on the nuts to release all the liquid. Churn in an ice cream maker until thick. Freeze or serve immediately.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Restaurant Review: MisSaigon

I haven't had the opportunity to do a review of someone else's cooking in a while. Hmmmm--why would that be? I suppose I could post my feelings about the various pizzas in town since that has been the only restaurant scene to which I've been exposed of late.

But last night, on a whim (had food in the house to cook, had a good day with the kids so cooking didn't seem like a nail in my coffin, etc.) we trucked across town and went to the new Vietnamese restaurant MisSiagon. (I committed the blogging crime of leaving home without my camera. So sorry.)

I'm a big fan of Vietnamese food--brighter, sharper flavors than the Thai food that can be found around here (the Thai offerings in the area, which have improved of late, rely heavily on coconut milk but ignore the sour end of the Thai food spectrum). Thus far the only place to get Vietnamese food has been the frustratingly inconsistent and distant (from my house) restaurant Dalat, located on Michigan Ave right in downtown Ypsilanti. I've had good bowls of Pho (sorry, can't get the accents to work in Blogger) and Bun there (soup and composed vermicelli rice bowls respectively) but I've also had really sad ones that were not worth the drive.

MisSaigon is located out on Stone School Road just past Ellsworth in the new little strip mall that is (I assume) filling the take-out needs of the South East part of town (there is also a branch of Tio's for Mexican and a branch of Ahmo's and a Mediterranean market for Middle Eastern.) MisSaigon's Vietnamese menu is not as extensive as Dalat's--about half of MisSaigon's menu is standard Chinese fare. But the Vietnamese food that is on the menu and that we tried last night was a step up from Dalat's.

We sampled three Vietnamese classics: a big bowl of Pho, a bowl of Bun (we chose the one with marinated char-grilled pork) and a Vietnamese Crepe with shrimp.

The Pho (noodle soup with thin slices of beef) had an intensely flavorful broth with very prominent star anise flavor. It came with the standard plate of bean sprouts and lime wedge, and a bottle of hoisin sauce to add as you like (I've never had it with the hoisin sauce and didn't think it brought much to the soup). I wish that, like some of the Vietnamese places that I've frequented out on the West coast, it had also come with sliced chilies, fresh cilantro and fresh basil to add, but the flavor of the broth was so good that I didn't miss the additions as much as usual. I foresee sending Brian across town this winter to bring me some of this Pho when I've got a horrible cold.

The Bun was good, but not stellar; on a good day at Dalat I'd say the Bun at each place is equal. Bun should be a deep bowl of goodness--layered cold vermicelli noodles, shredded lettuce, carrot, bean sprouts, cucumber and peanuts with some sort of grilled meat on top. It comes with the standard and addictive Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham which is lime juice, sugar, garlic, chilies and fish sauce. At MisSaigon the grilled pork was nicely charred yet still juicy and the vegetables were crisp and fresh. The size of the bowl was moderate--I'm used to more gluttonous servings and while I appreciate that the obesity problem in America (and particularly in my state) should make me pleased that there is a place that doesn't cater to our outsized appetites, I thought this was on the skimpy side. The other big critique is that the nuoc cham was really, how shall I say, Midwestern. I couldn't taste any garlic or chilies in it so it lacked the punch that a good nuoc cham should have. They served it with a bottle of hot sauce so you could boost up the heat, but it didn't have the same effect as fresh chilies.

The Vietnamese Crepe was well executed. If you haven't had one of these, allow me to describe it: the crepe is BIG--not a weenie little appetizer but a plate full of food. A very eggy batter (almost a cross between an omelet and a crepe) is stuffed with sauteed bean sprouts and onions and your choice of protein, then served with leaves of lettuce, fresh herbs and that same lime-fish sauce for dipping. To eat it, you tear off a piece of crepe, fill it with the fresh herbs and wrap it in a lettuce leaf before dipping it in the sauce.

The crepe batter at MisSaigon was nicely spiked with curry powder and the shrimp in the crepe were big, plump and juicy. I had expected tiny (cheaper) salad shrimp and was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of their bigger brethren. The charcoal grilling did not dry out the flesh, something that has happened on occasion at Dalat. (The cook at MisSaigon has a deft touch at the charcoal grill). MisSaigon provided cilantro with the lettuce, though I wish there had also been fresh mint and/or basil and, again, I thought the dipping sauce needed garlic and chilies to brighten up the flavor.

The restaurant is very clean (Dalat is on the dingy side) and the owner/waiter was really friendly and helpful. There was no stress about eating with kids and the waiter brought extra bowls and spoons to dish up food for the kids without our having to ask. Getting the bill took a while but my guess is they didn't expect so many people on a Wednesday evening--I was pleased that there were a decent number of other diners.
I wish the place had a bigger Vietnamese menu--there are a few other Vietnamese dishes on the menu (a few rice plates, chef specials and appetizers) that we didn't try, but clearly they are sticking with conservative fare and relying more heavily on the back-up of Chinese food to pay the rent. I'm hoping that if they stay in business and the Vietnamese food proves popular, maybe they'll diversify the menu a bit more. Until then, I will definitely be back when the urge hits for a big bowl of noodle soup with that heavenly star anise broth.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The gelato conundrum

Sigh. Sometimes the internet provides me with too much information. Thus I find myself with a gelato conundrum: when can I say "I made gelato" with confidence and not worry that what I made was really "ice cream"? (I know, clearly, things must be going pretty well in life if this is what I'm worrying about.)

There are many different definitions of what makes a frozen concoction into gelato rather than ice cream which include:
  1. no cream
  2. just enough cream to make American milk have the fat content of Italian milk (which apparently is a little bit fattier)
  3. no egg whites
  4. no eggs at all
  5. or just special equipment that freezes the stuff with less air mixed in
I can't do anything about #5 since I'm not about to invest in yet another piece of specialized (and no doubt imported and expensive) equipment.

Thus far I've made "gelato" with no cream (whole milk and evaporated milk) and no egg whites (the chocolate orange gelato) and with the just enough cream and no egg whites (pine nut honey gelato--recipe below) combinations. Both were very good and rich and intense. But so was the stuff that I've made that I've thought of as "ice cream"-- the lemon, the cinnamon.

What do you think? Is the term "gelato" merely being used to impress and sound sophisticated while "ice cream" sounds more homey and comforting? Does it imply an intensity of flavor that one does not usually get with stuff called "ice cream"? Is is really about the inclusion of egg whites? Or has the two words become synonymous?

While you are thinking about your response to the above questions, might I suggest you have a scoop of Pine nut honey gelato?

Pine Nut Honey Gelato
adapted from The Ultimate Frozen Dessert Book

1.5 cups 1% milk (that's what I had in the house so I adjusted the cream quantity accordingly to try and mimic Italian milk fat content)
1 C cream
4 egg yolks
1 C toasted pine nuts (you can get these pre-toasted at Trader Joes if, like me, you have a short attention span and a tendency to burn nuts when you try to toast them)
2/3 C honey
1/4-1/2 t salt
1/2 t vanilla extract
  1. In a food processor chop the nuts, salt and vanilla extract until it forms a paste. Add the egg yolks and process some more.
  2. In a pan, heat up the milk and cream and honey until hot but not boiling.
  3. With the food processor running slowly pour 1.5 cups of the hot milk/honey combination down the feed tube. Then add the egg/milk/honey mixture back to the pan and cook gently, whisking continually, until the custard coats the back of a spoon.
  4. Strain the custard through a sieve into a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill until cold.
  5. Freeze in your machine. Then put in a container and freeze until firm.
  6. Serve with a drizzle of honey and a few whole pine nuts sprinkled over the top.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Southern Food by a Yankee

My garden is in its final stages and when your garden gives you this:
A whole lot of green (unripe) tomatoes
and this:
a whole lot of kale (Red Russian and Lacinato varieties)

even a Northerner like me feels the urge to cook Southern. Since the most Southern my roots go is the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, I called in the advice of two of my favorite southerners--Sarah (Atlanta) and Meg (Memphis).

Of course, fried green tomatoes could start off a Southern meal, and the kale could be treated like collards and stewed up with a ham hock, hot peppers and a little vinegar. But what else should one add to make it a meal? After a number of considerations (biscuits with ham? ham and red-eye gravy? hoppin'-john?) Sarah proposed that magic word: grits.

This past summer, Lynne headed South with her family and got hooked on grits. She traveled with a Southerner who had the pleasure of introducing Lynne to the addictive combination of Shrimp and Grits. As Lynne was generous enough to share the recipe on her blog and I'd been itching to try it, this seemed like a good excuse.

Unfortunately, Meg came down with a cold (as did Sarah's Brian) so I invited a few more Yanks to join us: MJ and Lou and Iris.

I've never made Fried Green Tomatoes and they turned out pretty well. My big concern was getting the batter to stick on something as wet as a tomato and an initial dip in flour did the trick. They were a little bit tart, a little bit salty and quite crunchy:
Here's how I made them and what I learned (in bold):

Fried Green Tomatoes

Green (unripe) tomatoes--any non-cherry variety, at least 4 big ones or many smaller ones
1 egg mixed with a little milk
corn meal
oil for frying (I used Canola because it was what I had in the house though I bet peanut would be better) with the addition of 3 T bacon fat (for flavor!)
hot sauce

1. Prepare your tomatoes. Cut out the stem and then trim off the tops and bottoms so you have flat surfaces for the batter to stick to. Cut the tomatoes into 1-1.5 cm thick slices and
salt generously (the first few I made were not pre-salted and were bland. A green tomato doesn't have much flavor on its own so you have to help it along.)
2. Set up batter assembly line: in one bowl put about 1/2 C flour to which you have added some salt and black pepper (seasoned salt or a little cayenne would be good here too), in the next bowl beat the egg with a little milk till it isn't too gloopy, and finally, on a plate put about 1/2 C of yellow cornmeal (with a little more salt and pepper if you like.)
3. Heat up about 1/4 inch of oil with the bacon drippings in a deep frying pan until hot (I don't use a thermometer but you can drop a little corn meal in and see if it foams up when it hits the oil). Then take a tomato slice and dredge it in flour, dip it in the egg and then drop and flip it in the corn meal before popping it in the hot oil.
4. Cook on one side 'till nicely brown (
beyond golden to really brown--again, my first few weren't cooked long enough.) Then flip the tomatoes (tongs work well) and cook on the other side until equally deep brown; the tomato inside should have lost its bright green color and have turned a light olive--that means it is cooked.
5. Remove from the oil and place on a paper towel or paper bag lined plate. If you have a lot to fry mine did pretty well waiting in a warm oven for their brethren to emerge from the oil bath--they didn't sog much at all.
6. Serve with hot pepper sauce (tobasco or the like).

We managed to eat all the tomatoes while reading stories to the kids and getting them tanked up with kid-food (Mac and cheese, crunchy peas, raisins, banana bread, yogurt, etc.). Then, thanks to a DVD of Harold and the Purple Crayon, the grown ups actually got to sit down and eat this:
Mmmm. Shrimpy sausage-y goodness. Get the recipe here.
with this:
White grits cooked with chicken broth and dolloped with butter.
and this:
Kale masquerading as collards.
which made us feel like this:
This would be the state that Meg's son refers to as "Happy Tummy."

We polished off the evening with peach/raspberry cobbler (yeah for frozen fruit!) served with vanilla ice cream.

While there was only one Southerner to truly assess the cooking (and we softened her up with a good supply of wheat beer), it seemed like a successful foray into food that I didn't grow up eating. And I still have lots more green tomatoes left.