Potato Leek Soup

It is Allium season. All of the plants that spent the rainy winter in the ground are burgeoning in the warm weather, blooming and ripening. In the garden and farmers markets, broad hipped rosy red onions, mauve puffball chive blossoms, elegant jade leeks, sweet cloveless young garlic.

Weyland from a couple of plots over offered me some of his leeks. He had a beautiful row of slender leeks he planted last Fall and said he didn’t really know what to do with them. I told him how to make potato leek soup, how easy and good it was so he took them home to try the recipe. A few days later, I asked him how the soup had turned out and he said it was great, they had made it 3 times. He was digging more leeks (and not offering me any) so I guilted him into giving me a nice handful.

I think the reason that the Mesdames Child and Beck began Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a recipe for potato leek soup is that it is the sort of recipe that can be related while standing in a garden with a shovel in your hand. It is essentially simple without being plain, and delicious without being difficult.  It always pains me to see new cooks start out with a difficult dish and then become discouraged when it doesn’t turn out well. This soup on the other hand is a great confidence builder.

While the basic recipe requires only five ingredients- potatoes, leeks, water, salt, and cream- I sometimes augment or adapt it by adding some turnips and substituting chicken stock for water or milk for cream. The crucial step is to get all of the vegetables scrupulously clean. Leeks are notorious for hiding grit amongst its cracks and crevices. I get it all squeaky clean by first cutting off the darker green tops of the leeks, then quartering them and rinsing them in a bowl of water deep enough for the dirt to settle on the bottom while the leeks are being swished around above them.  Be thorough, because “earthy” isn’t the flavor we’re going for this time.

After the leeks are clean, chop them into chunks. Peel and cut the potatoes into large chunks. Dump them into a pot; add a generous amount of salt (although you will want to leave room to adjust it later) and just cover with water. Cover the pot and bring it to a low boil and cook for 20 minutes or so, until the leeks have softened and the potatoes are tender enough to crush with a fork. Using an immersion blender or canister blender, puree until quite smooth. Pour in cream, bit by bit, tasting as you go. I tend to use very little cream, just enough to enrich with out obscuring the flavor of the vegetables. Taste for salt and soup is ready. I drizzled a little olive oil and chives on top- but that embellishment is entirely optional.

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Start from the beginning- Roast Chicken 101

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been doing some  cooking lessons with my sister and a friend back East. Joy and Elisa are interested but inexperienced cooks. Since I’m not there in person to explain things verbally I realized that writing these lesson means writing from scratch; I begin from the assumption that every step, from ingredients, to tools, to the actual cooking should be broken down and presented as simply and thoroughly as I can.  I try not to assume that the reader will necessarily know the difference between a simmer and a boil, a mixer and a blender, a chef’s knife and a paring knife so that I am sure to explain it clearly.

It’s a little different when my brother Peter calls me with a food question (I’ve gotten several calls that begin “Hey, I’m at Trader Joe’s and I was wondering….”). Peter is an experienced cook- he made the turkey last Thanksgiving- and when I tell him to “blanch” something, he doesn’t think I’m talking about A Streetcar Named Desire. So I start explaining a recipe or technique from a different place with him.

Most of what I’ve written about on this blog assumes some knowledge of cooking. However, in the posts tagged “101” or “how to cook,” I’ve tried to include a little more explanation of a foundational technique or recipe. Learning the techniques has been the most important part of learning to cook for me. It’s like having a map so that if there is horrible traffic on the freeway, you can still find a way to get to your destination because you can see the big picture of how things work instead of being completely dependent on a recipe.

I wrote a lesson for how to make roast chicken for my sister that I thought I’d share; let me know if you think it’s user-friendly for a new cook:

“Roast Chicken-

First thing you do is arrange the oven shelves and turn on the oven. You will probably want to have a lower shelf for vegetables and a middle shelf for the chicken. It should be about 425°. Ask Mama if the oven runs hot or cool- you may need to adjust it a little depending on the stove, but it should be close to 425°.

What you will need-

-One whole chicken, probably around 3 pounds

-Salt, pepper and paprika (paprika is optional but very nice). You will need enough to season both the inside and outside of the chicken. It’s good to have as much as you think you’ll need separated into little saucers or bowls so that if you touch it with chicken hands, you don’t contaminate the whole container or have to wash your hands every time you need more salt.

-Oil or melted butter (probably 2 or 3 tablespoons, enough to coat the outside of the chicken)

-Optional- you can use a couple of cloves of garlic, or a cut up onion, or a lemon half, or herbs like one of the following: sage leaves, tarragon, or rosemary,  inside the chicken cavity  for  flavor. All are optional. Probably best to stick with the basics until you get the hang of it.

-Paper towels

-A pan to hold it in the oven. This pan should be close to the size of the chicken. I often use a cast iron skillet to roast chicken. If the pan is too big, the juices that come out will spread out too much and burn. If it’s too tight, the liquid will steam the chicken too much.

-A small paring knife

– A cutting board or plate to set the chicken on while you prepare it

While the oven heats, take the chicken out of the wrapper in a clean sink. Reach inside the cavity to check if there is a package of giblets and necks inside and remove it. Wash the chicken inside and out in cold water. Shake off as much as you can or put it in a colander to drain. Dry the whole skin of the chicken off with paper towels. The wetter the skin, the more difficulty it will have in browning, and crisp brown skin is one of the best parts of a well-roasted chicken.

Look at the large cavity opening where the legs are. If there are any big pieces of yellow fat there, pull them out.  Generously salt, pepper and paprika the inside of the bird. Turn it around to the neck end. If you stick your fingers into that smaller opening and feel right under the breast meat, there is a bone there. It is the wishbone and if you remove it now, it makes carving the chicken breast easier after it is cooked. You may need to slit through the meat a little with the paring knife, but then you should be able to just pull it out with your fingers. This is not necessary, but try it sometime.

Place the chicken in the pan and flip the wingtips inward and tuck them behind the rest of the wing to hold it closer to the breast and keep the tips from burning. Take the oil or butter and pour it over the top of the chicken. Use your hands to rub it over the whole surface to coat the chicken. If you have a basting brush, you can use that to brush the butter over the chicken instead. Now salt, pepper, and paprika the whole outside of the chicken, trying to evenly coat the skin. If you are going to add any aromatics to the bird’s cavity, now is the time to stick that lemon or garlic inside. Now it is ready for the oven.

It should start making a fair amount of noise in 10- 15 minutes. If not, turn the heat up 10 degrees. If it’s going crazy and the juices or skin are starting to burn, turn it down a bit. But the sizzling noise is normal. Chickens usually take me between 45 minutes to an hour to cook depending on the weight. Check it at about 45 minutes. Wiggle the leg and see how loose it feels. If you have a meat thermometer, use it in the thigh meat, or, if the joint feels really loose, use the little knife to jab a little hole in the thigh meat. If the juice is still coming out really pink, give it 10-15 more minutes, if it comes out mostly clear with maybe a little drop of reddish, it is probably done. It just takes a little practice to be able to tell, but with the nice crisp skin preventing evaporation, it shouldn’t get dry. If you have a meat thermometer, slide the tip into the thickest part of the thigh meat. “Done” is about 165°.

When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and set it aside for 10 minutes. This will let it settle a bit so less of the juice flows out when you carve it.

I’ll link a video for carving a turkey which is the same concept, just bigger.”

In a little hot water: Poaching

In a world where bold flavor is king, the traditional technique of poaching chicken or fish seems to have fallen off the radar. The words that tended to surface during a Google search of the term seems to be “bland,” “low-fat” and once even “poaching= ew.” I’ll even admit to a personal prejudice, mentally associating poached salmon with little old ladies garden clubs and poached chicken with watery chicken salad. But that was before I tried it myself.

If you’ve read anything about the sous vide technique, you know that maintaining the lowest necessary temperature to safely cook the protein allows the meat to become tender without the heat squeezing the natural moisture out. Poaching, while less precise and certainly lower tech, can also serve to steep the meat in a flavored liquid at a sufficiently low temperature to keep the meat tender and juicy. It also adds no fat, poaching liquid being water  flavored with aromatic vegetables and herb and acidulated with wine, vinegar or lemon juice.

The first thing to do is to flavor your poaching liquid, often called a court bouillon. Here is a simple version I poached my salmon filets in tonight:

Court bouillon

1 ½ cups water

½ cup white wine

½ rib celery, sliced

1 small carrot, peeled and sliced

2-3 slices lemon

1 sprig tarragon

4 stalks of chives or onion, chopped into sections

½ teaspoon salt

5 peppercorns

Bring everything to a simmer in a small saucepan and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or so until the liquid is infused with the flavors of the aromatics. After it is used, it can be strained and frozen to reuse several times.

I flipped these to fit the top into the curve of the pot-perfect fit!

With court bouillon at the ready, prepare the salmon filets, rinsing, drying, and check for bones that may need to be removed. The salmon should be just submerged under the liquid, so use a pot or pan that is as close to the size and depth of the fish as you can find. Heat the liquid in the pan just until it shivers, bubbles just breaking the surface. Slide the fish into the court bouillon and bring it back to that barely pre-simmer stage and then cook it for about 5 minutes per half-inch of thickness. When it is done, remove it from the heat. The salmon can be left in the poaching liquid to keep warm while any other tasks are completed.

If the low-fat health benefits of poaching don’t appeal to you, I encourage you to anoint the salmon with a pat of compound butter, homemade dill mayonnaise, or Hollandaise sauce.

We’re having it unadorned tonight, a simple and satisfying Spring supper with asparagus and roast new potatoes doused in  warm mustard vinaigrette. The salmon is rich and buttery, subtly infused with tarragon and lemon. I think it’s about time poaching made a comeback.

“But you ain’t ever had my cornbread….”

I expect I might get a few “she’s an idiot, bless her heart”s for this one. I’m sort of messing around with one of the quintessential elements of a regional cuisine; but I have my reasons.

Although I hail from Atlanta, Georgia, and although my Southern roots spread deep and wide, my childhood did not really establish me with the fundamentals that constitute the canon of “real Southern cooking”. We didn’t eat pork  (so no BBQ) or seafood, we didn’t fry anything, and we weren’t allowed to eat white sugar. I knew more about tofu, bean sprouts, and carob (which in my opinion is the devil’s sorry substitute for chocolate) than I did about catfish or country ham or peach ice cream.  Our biscuits usually had whole wheat in them, and our (freshly ground before our eyes at the health food store) peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread were PB&”M” for molasses instead of “J” for jelly.

This lack of orthodoxy in my education has enabled me to come away without a dogmatic position on what constitutes “real Southern cornbread.”  I do prefer a crispier cornbread, made in a cast iron skillet, to the cakier moister versions I’ve tried. But I don’t like cornbread so gritty that it feels like a mouthful of sand crunching between my teeth. And while I don’t want it sweet, I don’t mind a little sugar in the mix. This sort of precluded most buttermilk-based recipes also, since they are subtly sour.

I tried the ATK Best Recipes version, probably a pretty classic Southern style cornbread that involves pouring boiling water over part of the cornmeal to make a mush before mixing it into the rest of the ingredients.  While it does enhance the corniness of the flavor, it left me wanting more. I’ve always used a little milk in cornbread; I thought about substituting milk for water in which case I could heat the cornmeal in the milk and which honestly, I’m not going to do, one of the chief benefits of a quick bread being its quickness.

There were a few dismal failures, not even worth mentioning in detail, but I did have the foresight to write “not good” in pencil next to the cornbread recipe in one cookbook to save myself the trouble next time.

My next good attempt was with the 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking’s “Method I.” for cornbread.  The recipe itself has a pleasing symmetry – ¾ cup flour, ¾ cup cornmeal, and ¾ cup milk – that is helpful to the “number remembering deficients” among us (me).

It was still a little on the gritty side for me, so I modified it ever so slightly, using half cornmeal and half corn flour (very fine cornmeal, not cornstarch) to make up ¾ cup. The recipe also stipulates an 8×8 square pan, but I use a buttered and pre-heated cast iron skillet.

So, with minor adjustments, here is The Joy of Cooking‘s

Corn Bread

Method I.

Heat the oven to 425° Grease or butter a cast iron skillet. Five minutes before the batter is ready to bake, place the pan in the oven until it becomes sizzling hot.

Mix:

¾ cup all-purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

4 teaspoons sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

¾ cup cornmeal (made up of half cornmeal and half corn flour)

In a separate bowl, beat together

1 egg

2-3 tablespoons melted butter of bacon fat

¾ cup milk

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry, mixing minimally. Pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake at 425° for about 25 minutes.

Lemon(balm)ade

A neighboring gardener who grows mostly herbs and flowers in her plot was dividing  an exuberant lemon balm plant last year and offered me a piece. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a part of the mint family, so I should have been forewarned that it would spend the winter plotting its invasion and then as soon as the weather improved, start making incursions into the rest of the herbs. I’m going to have to dig it up and replant it in a bottomless flower pot to keep it in check. But it’s so pretty, and it smells wonderful, like a sweet herbal lemon scent, and the bees seem to love it.

The rain has caused an explosion of growth so I’ve been trying to keep it pruned until I can replant it. One of my favorite uses for it last year was infusing a quart jar of water with a generous handful in the fridge over night and then using the water to make lemonade. It adds a subtle, herbal, green flavor to sweet/sharp lemonade. It’s a nice variation on a classic.

Lemon balm-ade

1/2 cup lemon juice or a mixture of lemon and lime

1/2 cup simple syrup * since anyone who makes sweet tea knows sugar never dissolves in cold water

3 cups of lemon balm infused water.

Mix together and serve over ice.

Makes about 1 quart

*Simple syrup

Heat together 1 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water until it simmers and the sugar is completely dissolved.

Keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Spring green: Roast Asparagus

I think it is safe to say that Spring has truly arrived. Capricious weather, wildflower covered hillsides, and that brief ten minutes of overlap in the year when the hills are green at the same time that trees are in leaf – these are my first clues. But the real indicator is my insatiable craving for fresh foods like bright peppery watercress, sweet green peas, crunchy lettuce salads, and emerald stalks of asparagus. I want the unadulterated flavors of green things, no fussy seasonings or rich preparations to mask their delicate essence; if not raw, then not far from it.

photo by Israel Holby

I realize that this is hardly an original sentiment. Food blogs, websites and magazines are full of “fresh flavors of Spring” features. But, hey, I live no more than 25 miles from the feathery fronds of California Delta asparagus farms; I’m not going to eat butternut squash risotto just to be an iconoclast.

Asparagus is a vegetable that in my mind generally needs no improvement other than salt, pepper and olive oil and a quick roast in a hot oven. Remembering that water is a colorless, flavorless liquid and that most vegetables are made up in large part by water indicates to me that in order to enhance or highlight the essential flavor of the vegetable, water should be removed, not added. Hence, I roast asparagus.

When buying asparagus,  I take a minute to look the bundle over. The cut ends should not look like the desiccated grain ends of a block of wood, the stalks should be firm, smooth, and evenly green, and the tips should be largely intact tight buds. I usually trim the ends just above the white part of the stalk and don’t bother to peel any further north than that. Rinsed and dried, the stalks are laid in alternating directions on a sheet pan to allow as much surface to touch the hot pan as possible. Drizzled with olive oil, then shaken around to coat and then salt and peppered, these beauties are ready for a blistering hot oven, about 425°.

I keep an eye on them. Since asparagus varies so much in thickness, I don’t have a set time to roast them, but I look for the color to be brilliant green with a few edges just beginning to crisp and brown in the heat. I want the stalks to still be firm enough not to double over when I pick one up.

And that’s it. Bright, sweet and juicy, they need nothing more done to them. I’ll be virtuously devouring these naked (the asparagus, that is, not me) for weeks before I even think about dipping them in Hollandaise sauce or wrapping them in prosciutto. It’s fresh, brilliant Spring on a plate.

Pinch me

After dropping the Mister off at SFO’s International terminal, I headed south through the hills and past the flower fields to Half Moon Bay. There is a nice old main street with a couple of book stores and coffee shops and a kitchen ware store where the owner asked where I was from having perceived an accent. He was an “ex-pat” Southerner himself and told me about the cazuela type clay pots he had there, beautiful black casseroles and paella pans of unglazed clay. I got a cup of coffee and went to look at the beautiful green sea, watching the white horses come thundering in. It’s incredibly beautiful today, warm and clear.

I headed north to the top of the gold crescent of the bay, just inside the curve that protects the bay from the giant winter swells that make the Mavericks the legendary big-wave surf spot, to the harbour in search of Dungeness crabs. I’ve never actually cooked a live one myself, and a solitary evening is a good time to allow myself the option of spectacular failure. The first place I stop is a warehouse with a sign advertising fresh fish; they have whole filets of smoked salmon curing in a walk in fridge but no live crabs. Next stop, the harbour and fishing pier where boats are docked. “Jimbo” has live crabs, according to his sign, so I holler over the rail to find out how much and how do I get down there. He had a tub full of lively crabs, two of which made a break for it as soon as he took the lid off.

I was worried about my crab making a break for it all the way home- I kept anticipating an “Annie Hall” moment and honestly, if that crab had gotten out of the bag and out into the car, I may have just let it have the car. This is a big, tough, intimidating crustacean. I’m thinking it could lop of a finger, no problem. But great meals are not accomplished by cowards and I remind myself that someone had to eat that first oyster.

Some Taiwanese friends with lots of crab cooking experience told me that the most humane way to cook a crab is to  put it into a cold pot with some salt, water and seasoning and then slowly bring it up to steam. Having read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster”, I’m not completely confident about this, but it’s the best idea I’ve heard so far.

Twenty minutes later, out it came,  it’s purple shell now vermillion. I gloved up and cracked off the top shell, pulled out the gills, the mandibles and the apron and cracked the whole thing in half. It’s surprisingly straightforward once you grasp the concept. I don’t have a cracker, so I used a small cast iron skillet to crack the legs. I’ve got a baguette, an herb salad and a glass of wine. I decided it was a good idea to change out of any potentially “dry clean only” clothes, armed myself with paper towels, rolled up my machine-washable sleeves and got crackin’. The reward for my risk? Sweet, fresh chunks of crab – oh, and I found a new use for that clarified butter I was talking about.

Aromatherapy: Buttery Yeast Rolls

Today has been one of those filthy days we’ve been having so much of this winter  which, frankly, I’m sick of. Intermittent rain showers, spurts of hail mixed with tentative peaks of watery sunshine until the afternoon deteriorated into a somber steady rain.  Only an emergency could have roused me out of my house. I finished a book, did some light tidying, and pruned my unread emails, but as the day got grimmer, I began to feel that depressed lassitude that prolonged lack of sunlight causes. Then I remembered the homely smell of fresh-from-the-oven bread that had greeted me when I walked into a friend’s house yesterday and knew immediately what I should to try to do- bake yeast rolls to go with my lentil soup for supper.

Having a mother that baked bread while I was a child had given me the sort of nebulous “muscle memory” of bread making- the foamy awakening of live yeast, the strands of gluten that form as dough is kneaded, the texture of properly kneaded dough, the satiny sheen on the outside of a taut ball of dough set to rise, and the thump on the crust and smell to announce a “done” loaf.   But knowing what to look for is different from knowing how to get there and my independent attempts at baking with yeast have had mixed results. My pizza dough is well in hand, and oddly, a complex hearth loaf involving a two-day dough fermentation and a “poolish” has always been successful. But regular sandwich loaves have usually been damp and heavy and all of my attempts to make my favorite eggy challah bread have been horrible with none of challah’s characteristic pull-apart strands.  So unlike other types of cooking with which I feel a strong degree of confidence, I always approach bread baking with trepidation.

Looking through my cookbooks, I found a recipe that required a two-day rise in the refrigerator, one that needed powdered milk and potato flakes, and another that made about forty rolls. I’ve heard eternity described as “two people and a ham” and I think that “two people and forty rolls” could come pretty close.  I’ve had good and consistent results with Southern Living cookbooks and used their basic roll recipe divided in half.

Southern Living Buttery Pan Rolls

Ingredients ( I halved these measurements)

5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons white sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 package or 2 ¼ teaspoons  active dry yeast

1 ½ cups milk

½ cup water

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, divided

Directions

Combine 3 cups of the flour, the sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl of a stand mixer.

Combine milk, water and 1/4 cup of the butter in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let mixture cool to 120 to 130 degrees F (49 to 54 degrees C).

Gradually add milk to flour mixture and beat at low speed of an electric mixer for 30 seconds. Then beat for 2 minutes at high speed. Gradually stir in the remaining flour to make a soft dough.

Replace the whisk attachment on your mixer with the dough hook and knead for about 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough in a well greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Punch dough down, cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Melt remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter.

Shape dough into 40 balls and dip each one in the melted butter. Place the balls in two greased 9 inch square baking pans. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes.

Bake in a preheated 375 F oven for 15 minutes or until rolls are golden. Brush warm rolls with any remaining melted butter.

The only departure I took from the instructions was in forming the rolls. After the first rise, I punched down the dough and began squeezing grape sized balls off of the big ball of dough. Each piece was rolled smooth between my palms and dipped into a bowl of melted butter. I put three small dough balls into each hollow of generously buttered muffin tins to form a cloverleaf roll. If you’ve ever had monkey bread, the cloverleaf roll is the same concept, a pull-apart loaf, on an unsweetened and miniature scale.

Since one of the most common problems that bakers have is incorrect oven thermostats, resulting in too low temperatures and under baked bread, I recently got one of those little low tech oven thermometers to get a more accurate read. My oven varies from between 15 and 25 degrees off! No wonder my loaves had been doughy! It’s really helpful to be able to adjust the oven to the correct temperature for almost any type of cooking but it’s pretty crucial for baking. You can pick one up for about $4 at most hardware stores.

So, rolls are rising and the oven is preheating to the correct temperature. Soup is on the stove and already the day seems a little less grim. It’s remarkable what good smells can do for a bleak mood.

Fifteen minutes before suppertime, I hopefully slide my muffin tins into the oven and hope for the best. Golden, buttery, and yeasty, they emerged to be immediately fallen upon like a pack of hungry wolves. We’re burning our fingers and tongues to get at them- they smell so good! They have that golden top and lightly crisp buttery outside while the interior pulls apart to a light and airy texture that yeast and gluten combine to make. Mmmm. Maybe I’ll actually be able to crack this baking thing.

Where have you been all my life?: Clarified Butter

I just discovered something that simultaneously gladdens and frustrates me. It frustrates me because it’s like discovering an amazing shortcut to work that shaves 15 minutes of stop and go traffic off the drive after you’ve been driving the same route for 5 years. Why didn’t I know this sooner? It gladdens me because I have discovered and easy way to make butter taste even better! Yes, butter. Taste. Even. Better.

It all started because artichokes are in season here and I have been taking advantage of their abundance and the fact that we can now both enjoy the labor-intensive ritual of dipping the petals into something delicious and scraping off the flesh between our teeth. I’ve been steaming them or steaming them first and then splitting and grilling the halves. I usually make a lemony mayonnaise, maybe something with capers or an aioli, but was in the mood for something simple and easy.  I had butter in the fridge (of course) and decided to try making clarified butter.

Clarified butter is butter from which the milk solids and water have been removed by boiling and straining or skimming it. Taking the process one step further and carefully browning the milk solids before separating them produces ghee or beurre noisette (brown butter). Clarified butter has a very high smoke point, perfect for frying or sautéing vegetables over high heat. But just like other foods whose flavor is enhanced by toasting or caramelizing, browned butter is butter intensified, the butteriest of butter flavors.

Grab a couple of sticks of butter (it keeps well, so go ahead and make a lot) and a heavy bottomed pan. This is really the only touchy part of this procedure- you really don’t want it to burn, so a heavy pan and a watchful eye will be important.


Melt the butter over medium heat.

It will foam up and steam- this is the water cooking out of the emulsion. The top will begin to be covered with foam as the milk solids then separate from the fat.

Give it a stir and see if there is a layer of white on the bottom as well.


When the white milk fats have separated from the yellow fat and the fat is transparent, take it off the heat and scoop the opaque top layer off, pour the clear layer into a clean jar or ramekin, leaving the white solids in the bottom. This is clarified butter. If you want to take it to the next level, leave everything to gently cook in the pan until the layer of solids on the bottom is golden brown and the butter starts to smell like popcorn.

I can’t tell you how delicious this is. You really have to try it to understand why I’m so excited about how easy this liquid gold is to produce. Dip a spear of asparagus into it and you’ll see what I mean. Artichokes and beurre noisette are an unmitigated pleasure. It’s the little things, really, that make me the happiest. It’s ways of bringing out the best in the simple pleasures of life. And I mean, come on, it’s even better tasting butter.

Semolina Pizza Crust

It would be my guess that in the history of food wars, a fair number of skirmishes have taken place in the name of defending what is good and proper in pizza. Flame wars have erupted on discussion boards on chowhound.com over whether a beloved joint’s crust is tasteless or delicious, soggy or cardboardy. Some think that pizza should be on a thick layer of pillowy foccacia-like crust, while others won’t touch it unless it’s crisp bottom bears the char of a wood fired oven. Deep dish or thin crust, sauce, cheese: all topics of passionate and sometimes vitriolic debate. And that’s all before we reach the question of whether or not pineapple in any form ever belongs on a pizza.

I began this post with the previous acknowledgement in order to explain why my recipe for semolina pizza crust is not being introduced as a polemic. It’s just what I like. Whether or not you recognize my impeccable taste as authoritative is your own personal decision to make. I prefer a thinnish crust that doesn’t collapse en route to the mouth under the weight of its burden. I like a crust that tastes like something, one that is chewy and dense but not ply woody like a frozen pizza crust. I have found that semolina adds a crunchy, chewy texture and more flavor than regular all purpose or bread flour alone. Like I said, just my preference. If any of you are beginning to get an indignantly elevated heart rate or if any hairs on the neck’s back are rising, now might be a good time to look away.

Deciding which crust camp to ally oneself with is the first step. Topping philosophy is the next. I’ll confess that the image of a united front that my nuclear family presents to the world is a façade when it comes to pizza topping. Someone in my house (I won’t name names, but let’s just say it’s not me) has big liquid tears pool up in his eyes when pizza emerges from the oven without pepperoni on it. The classic combination of tomato sauce, pepperoni, and cheese with an occasional guest appearance by olives or mushrooms is the preference of what I’ll refer to as the “red” sauce camp. In fact, the comment that I got when discussing the topic of this post was “chicken on pizza is for idiots.” Ahem. In the more liberal pizza-topping (“blue” sauce camp, anyone?) category are those of us who in summer like a skim of olive oil, corn, fresh tomatoes, slivers of onion, goat cheese, spicy sausage and whatever herbs you have in pots on your patio, or in winter, strands of salty prosciutto, hedgehog mushrooms, tomato sauce, arugula, and Asiago cheese  blistered and browned from the oven. Unlike the classic formula, which given good ingredients and a couple of reliable tools is almost guaranteed to be successful, experimental versions can sometimes go badly (Pineapple on pizza? Really?) But like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when it’s good, it’s very good.

I humbly submit my personal favorite pizza crust recipe. Top it as you see fit.

Semolina Pizza Crust

1 1/2 cup warm water, divided

1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups flour (regular unbleached is what I use)

3/4 cup semolina flour, plus a little more to keep it from sticking to the baking sheet.

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

oil for oiling bowl.

1. Pour about half a cup of warm water into the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and leave it for about five minutes until it dissolves and swells. Add the rest of the water and olive oil.

2. Add in the flour and salt and stir into water mixture. Use the kneading hook attachment to stir the ingredients until a smooth ball forms and it has pulled away from the sides of the bowl- 5 minutes or so.

3. Place dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic or a clean dishtowel, allowing the dough to rise until it is double in size for about 2 hours. (Now would be a good time to get your toppings of choice ready, listen to some music, have a glass of wine, chat etc)

4. Punch the dough down to collapse the air bubbles inside. Divide the dough in half and roll into two balls. (At this point, I usually wrap one piece tightly in plastic and freeze it for later)

5. Heat the oven to 475° and get a large sheet pan out. Sprinkle a thin layer of semolina on the pan and form the dough into a thin rectangle. By grabbing the edges of the dough and gently squeezing, you allow gravity to stretch the dough out. Keep turning the dough around in your hands, squeezing and stretching it into shape. Lay it on the sheet pan and stretch it to fit completely.

6. Top as desired and bake in the scorching hot oven for 12- 15 minutes or until the bottom is golden and spotted with darker brown when the edge is lifted.