Have you ever had a son or daughter who plays the piano like a real champ, such a champ that you invite all your friends over one night and set up a little concert–with fliers and cocktails and a video camera on a tripod–and when your son or daughter finally sits down to play they totally freeze up and won’t hit one note? That’s how I felt two weeks ago when I had friends over to eat not one but TWO dishes from a new favorite cookbook, David Tanis’s “A Platter of Figs.” My love for this book ran pretty deep for a variety of reasons: (a) it was a gift from Craig’s parents; (b) David Tanis is the chef at Chez Panisse, one of my favorite restaurants; and (c) the book is knock-you-out beautiful, with gorgeous pictures and recipes and writing that’s heartfelt and really, really smart. But when it came time to perform, I’m so sad to report that the two recipes I made from it–the Green Chile Stew & the Spicy Pickled Vegetables–were total duds.
The Green Chile Stew was no small undertaking. The meat alone–5 lbs well-marbled boneless pork butt–cost a pretty penny because I bought humanely raised heritage pork from the Park Slope Food Co-Op (I had a one day shopping pass there after doing the orientation (but I won’t join ’cause Craig refuses to work)) and that was $10 / lb so I ended up only buying 3 lbs for $30. But still $30 for 3 lbs of meat? That’s a pretty penny.
Then there was the roasting of the chiles (chilis? A debate ensued on Twitter about this and I missed the result.) Chef Tanis calls for 1 cup chopped roasted green chiles and has a note that explains the process: “Fresh green chiles, such as New Mexico or Anaheim, must be roasted over an open flame on a barbecue grill, gas burner, or under the broiler, til blackened. Then rub off the skins, remove the stems and seeds, and coarsely chop the chiles.”
He says if you can’t find Anaheim or New Mexico chiles (and I couldn’t) you can use a combination of Poblanos and Jalapenos. I used only Poblanos and maybe that was a big mistake:
The rest of the stew making process was pretty standard: you brown the meat, remove it, then add garlic, cumin, tomatoes, carrots, the chiles and sprinkle over flour and stir. You salt the mixture, add the browned meat back, and then add water or broth and bring to a boil:
You cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 1 hour. Then you add potatoes and cook another 30 minutes and that’s the stew. And here’s what it looks like when you serve it:
Pretty, right? All the components clear and identifiable. But, I’m really sad to say, it was just a watery, flavorless mess. It didn’t taste like anything; the vegetables were bland and the chiles, for whatever reason, ineffective. It just didn’t come together; whereas most slow-cooked braises and stews magically fuse into a glorious whole, this just tasted like porky water with bits of potato. My guests–who are generally very kind people–didn’t lie to me: they agreed, it was a dud.
(Mark, who radiates disappointment in the above photo, is actually from New Mexico, so he took this failure personally.)
Here’s the thing: I’ll accept some responsibility for the failed stew. I didn’t get the right chiles, maybe I didn’t use the right amount, so–ok–let’s not throw stones at David Tanis yet.
But here’s where we all scratched our heads in wonder: these Spicy Pickled Vegetables.
Ok, follow me here: you take 4 sliced carrots, 2 sliced onions, 3 quartered jalapenos, 4 whole garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon salt, 10 peppercorns, 1 tsp coriander seeds, and 1 bay leaf and put that in a pot. Ok, so far so good. Now watch these proportions: to that you add 1 Tbs cider vinegar, 1 Tbs olive oil, and 1 tsp dried oregano and then COVER everything with water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the carrots are just cooked through and transfer the whole thing to a bowl to cool.
I don’t have Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio” book yet (it’s on its way) but something about that ratio seems way off: 1 part vinegar to 100 parts water for pickles??
Not surprisingly, the resulting “pickled” vegetables tasted just like, well, boiled vegetables with absolutely no flavor at all. I tried to add vinegar after the fact and lots of salt but it was no use; these were a total embarrassment. No one touched them.
Before I could totally hang my head in shame, there was a secret weapon in the refrigerator, a weapon from a superhero cookbook, a cookbook that never, ever fails, that always dazzles, that’s in my dessert island Top 5: that’s Suzanne Goin’s “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.”
The recipe? Churros. Yes, churros. I made the batter before I started everything else and it ended up saving the day, turning an evening of disappointment and broken hearts into an evening of mirth and merriment and lots and lots of fried dough.
I’ll put the full recipe below, but essentially you make a pâte à choux–that’s the same dough you make for cream puffs. You make it by cooking milk and butter…
…and then adding flour to the pot, stirring and cooking it a few minutes. Then you put the dough in a stand mixer and add eggs:
When you’re ready to make the churros, you heat a big pot of oil (but only halfway, any more and it could bubble over!)
I nearly burned my hand off holding a thermometer by hand in the oil (til it reached 350) and then I remembered I had a digital thermometer so I dropped that in and it worked perfectly, broadcasting on its digital display exactly when the oil reached 350.
Now, as for why my churros don’t really look like churros: I tried piping them using my star-shaped piping tip and a Ziplock bag but the bag kept tearing and I didn’t want any accidents involving oil on this night of failure and disappointment. So I decided just to use two spoons and make little churro balls:
This, I think, was an excellent idea. The resulting churros were scrumptious looking and a deep, golden brown. I rolled them in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon and look how happy they make everyone:
The churros that saved the dinner party, indeed.
from Suzanne Goin’s “Sunday Suppers At Lucques”
1 cup plus 1 Tbs whole milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, sifted
3 extra-large eggs
1 extra-large egg yolk
2 to 3 quarts vegetable oil, for frying
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Bring the milk, 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon water, salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, and the butter to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat, and add all the flour at once. Stir together with a wooden spoon, and return the pan to the stove over low heat. Work the batter back and forth, stirring with a wooden spoon, to dry the batter. When the dough begins to roll away from the sides of the pan, cook another 5 minutes.
Transfer the batter to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer running at low speed, drop the eggs and egg yolk in one by one, waiting for each to be incorporated before adding the next. Let the batter rest at least 2 hours in the refrigerator before using.
Heat the oil to 350 F on a dep-frying thermometer, over medium heat, in a heavy wide-bottomed pan.
Place the dough in a pastry bag fitted with a number-4 star tip. (You may have to do this in batches.)
Combine the cinnamon and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.
Squeeze 4-inch-long pieces of dough into the oil. Don’t overcrowd the pan; the churros shouldn’t be touching. Fry the churros 2 to 3 minutes, turning them gently with tongs once or twice to brown all sides. Test one to make sure the center is done. It should be cooked all the way through and have a crisp exterior and soft center.
Drain the churros on paper towels, and pat to remove excess oil. While they’re still hot, roll each churro in the cinnamon sugar, and serve right away with cups of hot chocolate for dipping.