Category Archives: Food

The Magic of Casado

A few weeks ago I had some friends over for dinner and wanted to make something welcoming and comfortable. The weather was warming up and for some reason it seemed perfect to make casado.

It’s basically a Costa Rican version of what I grew up knowing as “meat & three,” a set plate with a protein, vegetable, and
some rice and beans. The name casado may have come from restaurant customers asking to be treated as casados, or married men, getting meals like a wife would make for them. I liked the idea of making a simple, hearty meal for my friends.

It sometimes seems like I have a cookbook for every country in the world, but I don’t have one for Costa Rica. I looked a little north, to Rick Bayless’s Mexican Everyday, because I like his easy style and his food always turns out great. I found a recipe for chicken thighs with a Yucatecan Garlic Spice Marinade. I made a salad with a cilantro lime dressing, some Mexican rice, and easy pinto beans. The marinade was incredibly easy to make: take a bunch of ingredients, toss them a blender, and then put them on the chicken. It doesn’t need to marinate long at all.

Our only problem arose when we tried to grill the thighs and realized our gas grill was out of propane. Oops. We switched to the cast iron skillet and got cooking.

When we were in Costa Rica this March, we ate a lot of casado. It was inexpensive but delicious and filling after a long day of surfing (OK, mostly sitting and watching other people surf). Each restaurant made it slightly differently. One place served it with a piece of grilled cheese, some sort of Cotija cheese. When I asked for cheese at another place, they looked at me like I was crazy and threw on a piece of orange American. Some offered avocado and all had a blazing green hot sauce. With an Imperial beer chilled almost to freezing, the casado became our favorite meal. It’s one that allows for diversity and play.

I’m going to make casado again, maybe with pork instead of chicken, black beans instead of pinto, and perhaps brown rice instead of white. The beauty of the meal is that you can switch it up all you want and still end up with a delicious plate.

The Cocktail Lab by Tony Conigliaro

Even if you’re not the sort of person who actually cooks recipes from Eleven Madison Park or The Fat Duck Cookbook, you might still want to pre-order a copy of The Cocktail Lab, which is coming this summer from Ten Speed Press. All three are seriously advanced manuals that require specialized equipment if you’re going to follow them closely. Of course, most people use them for inspiration rather than as strict templates.

If you like a cocktail you probably know how to make a couple variations on the Manhattan already. But Conigliaro takes cocktail design to a completely different level. Even if you don’t wind up making a recipe that requires a specific rare variety of sochu, or blending your own grapefruit bitters, or serving a drink garnished with ruscus leaves and a cloud of your own house-made green tea incense, you’ll learn something new about what a cocktail can be.

And fear not, there are plenty of recipes in here that are simple enough that the everyday home bartender could make them without too much advance preparation. I think my favorite parts, are the component recipes in the back, for things like pink peppercorn vodka and rhubarb cordial, and guides to ways more intense or varied flavors from citrus, all of which seem likely to inspire additional recipes on their own.

Making Bolognese

What does one do on the first day of the new year? Embark on a bold, new project? Make resolutions? Begin a new exercise routine? If you’re me, indulging in a day off of work, you read for most of the day and decide to make Ragu alla Bolognese. I’ve been finishing up Michael Moss’s forthcoming book on the food industry, Salt, Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and his tales of Oscar Meyer inventing Lunchables made me crave a hearty sauce.

I’ve made Bolognese before and had a good idea about the basics. I consulted Cook’s Illustrated and Mario Batali to make sure I was on track. Here’s what I did:

3-4 small carrots

2 celery stalks

1 medium onion

I roughly chopped these and then pulsed them in the food processor 6 to 7 times until they were in really tiny bits. You don’t want mash though, so don’t go overboard.

Olive oil

3 oz pancetta

I chopped this up too and pulsed in the food processor into a paste.

8 oz ground beef

8 oz ground pork

1 TBSP tomato paste

1 cup red wine

1 cup beef broth

1 cup chicken stock

1 28 oz can tomatoes

2-3 garlic cloves, peeled

Oregano, salt, and pepper to taste

1 cup milk–I used whole because I had it

I heated up some oil, about 1 TBSP, in a large dutch oven until it was almost smoking. I added the ground meats and the pancetta and browned it in two batches. Setting that aside, I added the ground mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onion) and softened them for a bit, about 20 minutes. After scooching some aside in the middle of the pan to make a hole, I added the tomato paste and let it cook for 5 minutes. Then I added the wine and let it simmer until it cooked down, another 5 minutes. I might have drunk some of the red wine too. After that you just have to add back the meat and the broths, canned tomatoes, the garlic cloves, salt & pepper, and some dried oregano. Get it to a slow simmer and wander off. Drink more of the red wine.

I checked on it periodically to make sure it was simmering and not boiling crazily. After about one and a half hours, I heated the milk up in a saucepan and added half to the sauce. Once it cooked into the sauce for 10 minutes, I added the second half.

You were probably wondering why I threw in whole garlic cloves, weren’t you? Those I fished out. They were wonderfully soft; I mashed them up and added them back to the ragu.I let it cook a bit longer but we were starving. I had some wonderful fusili pasta from Bella Ravioli in Medford (if  you live in the Boston/Cambridge area this place is amazing) so I cooked that up and served it in bowls warmed by pasta water, topped with parmesan. Yum!

Ragu all Bolognese


Things I would do differently next time–I didn’t do a good job of breaking up the meat as it browned. I’d make that happen. I would let the mirepoix cook longer, maybe 25 minutes. I think more tomato paste wouldn’t hurt. Now I’ve got lots of leftovers to eat for the week, never a bad thing.

Recipes can be Tricky

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between restaurant cooking and home cooking, and between restaurant recipes and home recipes.

In a restaurant, you try to do everything way in advance, like at least a few hours and usually a day before you serve, and then just do the last bit at the very end. At home, you want a recipe that you can cook start to finish in a half hour. A recipe that takes a half hour start to finish is fatal in a restaurant: You want something that takes all morning to prepare, then can be held an arbitrary amount of time, and then finished and plated and served in just a few minutes. If it can’t be held – paella, risotto, Peking duck – restaurants often require advance orders or warn you it takes a long time to make.

And then there’s the recipe. In a restaurant, a written recipe is like crib notes or a set list. You know the song, and you’re going to perform it again and again tonight. Braise, hold, sear, plate w/ gremolata, side haricots. But you have to do it exactly the same way every time and the unstated details are endless.

It’s not written down on the notes, because you already know that the beef should be cut into exactly 6 ounce servings, that you must season, dry, and brown before braising, that the liquid is beef stock with wine, that it should be hot already, that the gremolata must be made with exactly the right ratio of lemon to parsley. You know, in advance, and from practice, that the beans must be blanched and shocked before service, and then heated with shallot oil when ordered and topped with toasted almonds when plated. Those instructions are written down somewhere, probably, but you’re not referring to them. Even so, you follow them strictly, because your food has to be consistent. You have to make that dish the same way all night, and you have to do it again next week, and it has to be the same as last time.

At home, a recipe is more detailed and also less strict. A cookbook recipe can’t assume you know all the details. It will tell you how to brown a piece of meat, how hot to make your braising liquid, suggest substitutions. If you don’t follow the instructions exactly, it’s not generally a big deal. Chef isn’t going to come over to the garde manger station and say your dice are wrong, and nobody’s going to mind if the chicken isn’t seasoned the same from one plate to the next or one week to the next.

I was thinking about this because I tried to write down how we cook our weeknight stir-fry the other day, and realized that I had no idea how much of anything we put into it. A few glugs of fish sauce, maybe? If I don’t want to get a spoon dirty I’ll just pour chili paste in straight from the jar. In a restaurant, you’d measure and weigh your portions of meat, but at home, we use whatever’s on hand, whether it’s a little extra or a little short.

This week we added corn and tomatoes because we had them lying around and they’d go bad if we didn’t. It turned out great and I kind of wish we’d measured what we did because it was better than usual. I can tell you exactly how we do it, but it’s still not a recipe. To properly tell someone else how we usually make the dish, we’ll have to measure more than we usually do, changing what we’re doing in some small way to give it the contours of a shareable set of instructions.

A Cookbook Not to Miss

David Tanis wrote in the New York Times the other day about a cookbook I wanted to highlight myself, Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu. I can hear the head shakes now–“Japanese farm food? What’s next?” It’s such a lovely book both as an object and as a cookbook. Nancy imbues the entire thing with her warm personality.  She packs so much information in this book but don’t be scared. She’s exacting about her ingredients and techniques but nothing is too difficult here.

The Poached Egg’s Moment In The Sun

Poached eggs are having kind of a moment these days, which is fine with me, although Bookdwarf isn’t as much of a fan. I like the way a poached or sunny-side-up egg can be both a protein and a sauce in a dish. But sometimes they don’t quite work out.

One of my friends has been recommending the Double Awesome sandwich at the Mei Mei Street Kitchen truck, so when I saw on the Boston Food Truck Schedule that it would be near my work, I stopped by. It’s a scallion pancake wrapped around two poached eggs, cheese, an herb pesto, and spicy ketchup.

That’s an ambitious project, especially for a food truck: It’s a lot of ingredients, a lot of last-minute assembly, and a completely absurd declaration of love for poached eggs. I can think of few things quite so ill-suited to being folded into a sandwich and served in a little box with no utensils. I guess it helps that you can eat this thing standing up, because you can bend forward at the waist to avoid dripping eggs all over your clothes. It’s messy and rich and soft and fun.

But it wasn’t great. The cheddar cheese overwhelmed the scallion pancake. The pesto was runny and under-salted and, if I can be pedantic, not technically pesto. The ketchup didn’t make sense with the pesto or the scallion pancake. Good, perhaps, but not up to the level that you’d expect from a revolutionary hipster food truck, not quite double awesome.

In contrast, Strip-T’s out in Watertown has a way with runny eggs and with everything else. You may have heard of this place, but if you haven’t, expect it to be everywhere shortly. It’s a great story as well as a great restaurant: Tim Maslow returns to his father’s old-school neighborhood joint after a stint with David Chang at Momofuku, and starts changing a menu that had been the same for 20 years. Cue the buzz on Chowhound, strong reviews from the Boston Globe, and coronation from Bon Appetit, and it rapidly becomes hard to get a table on a weekend.

It’s not just buzz. Grilled romaine with oxtail and poached egg – amazing. Chicken wings with a sweet/savory sauce made from Moxie – amazing. Homemade whole-wheat orichette with bottarga and tomatillos – amazing. A hamburger with a fried egg (yeah, there’s that runny egg again, and you can dip your fries in it) – amazing. Tripe with grilled cabbage – amazing. A donut – amazing. Panna cotta with raspberries and coconut pound-cake croutons and sea salt – amazing.

It all comes together: Concepts, execution, reasonable prices that come with a location on a side street near the Arsenal Mall. And those runny eggs.

Dinner Tonight, Well Last Night Technically

Mr. Bookdwarf and I have been eager to try cooking more recipes from Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor since our dinner party a few weekends back. Tonight we opted for a simple dish called Chicken in Tart Garlic Sauce.

Mince lots of garlic and ginger and make it into a paste with some salt. Heat peanut oil and saute until soft. Add in some green cayenne chilies, which I just happen to have growing on our porch. Add in some boneless chicken breast sliced into smallish pieces and cook for several minutes. Add in a cup of water. At first you think, woah that’s a lot of water. Trust me you want the sauce. It looks bland but it packs a lot of flavor. Bring the water a boil and continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through. Take off heat and add two tablespoons of lime juice. Salt to season. Garnish with some cilantro.

We made some brown rice to go with the dish. I winged a broccoli dish as well by stealing some of the ginger, garlic, and peppers before adding the chicken. Steam the broccoli. Drain the pan. Heat a little oil and add back in the aromatics. Toss in the broccoli and coat. I then threw in some fish sauce and chili oil that I had made for the dinner party. Delicious!