Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pricey, Ain’t It?

Japan: lovely food, lots of nice things, but boy howdy is it expensive.

Take this for example.

I made a big pot of clam chowder, and the next day I served the leftovers with a light spaghetti dish. To do this, I used:
2 pounds teeny live clams
1/4 pound mild bacon
1 onion
half a beautiful carrot
sprinkle of thyme
a cup or so very fat whole milk
2 pounds small potatoes
1/2 pound spaghetti
3 Tb butter
2 cloves garlic
1 generous cup fava beans
8 fat shiitake mushrooms
1/4 pound unsmoked salt-cured bacon (prosciutto)
some Gruyère cheese
1/4 pound sweet cherry tomatoes
2 bottles white wine (one for each evening)
1 perfect crusty French baguette

And then 5 kiwi fruit and 1 fat grapefruit for dessert
The total bill was $30. Rough, huh? Gee whiz.

No, but seriously, food is now so expensive in the US, and given that I walked to these stores within less than 15 minutes total (and thus didn’t pay for gas), I find it disturbing that this very expensive country seems to be so cheap by home standards. What’s even more disturbing is that this total bill includes $13.50 for the wine, and Gruyère is insanely expensive — I just didn’t use much.

Admittedly, I’m mostly gloating, but here’s the recipes:

Clam Chowder
Slice the bacon crosswise in thin strips and put in a big pot over medium-low heat until they have rendered most of their fat. Add 1 onion and half a fat carrot, chopped medium. Stir occasionally until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add 2 pounds small potatoes cut in small cubes, stir-toss until coated with fat, and add enough water to cover by an inch or so. Bring to a strong simmer, then add a generous sprinkle of thyme, reduce heat, and simmer gently about 30 minutes, until the potatoes and carrots are just tender. Add 2 cups very fat milk or half-and-half and bring to a simmer. Add 2 pounds well-rinsed very small live clams (the ones I used are about 1/4" across; if you must use larger ones, scale up the weight). Cover the pot and bring to a strong simmer, then cook about 5 minutes, until all the clams are open (shake the pot to convince any last recalcitrant ones to give up the ghost). Correct salt, and serve with lots of black pepper, some good crusty bread, and a coarse white wine.

Spaghetti Portale
I call it this because I got the basic concept from Alfred Portale, chef and author of The Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook. His recipe calls for pea shoots or arugula, which I didn’t have, and for which I substituted the fava beans and shiitake mushrooms. You need to use very low-salt prosciutto to make this work really well, but for ordinary cooking a decent ham or blanched bacon will do just fine.

Take 3 Tb or so sweet butter and leave it on the counter for an hour to soften. Mince 2 cloves garlic very, very fine, or purée with a knife if you want. Mash the garlic into the butter evenly. Scrape the butter into a mildly heatproof serving bowl. Add to the serving bowl 1/4 pound quartered cherry tomatoes, 1 generous cup just-cooked fava beans, 1/4 pound prosciutto cut in thin strips, and about half a cup shredded Gruyère cheese. Remove the stems of the shiitake, then cut the caps in quarters. Sauté in olive oil over medium heat until they release their liquid and then reabsorb it and begin to fry again. Remove from heat and set aside. Bring a lot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add half a pound of spaghetti and boil until just barely al dente. As it is nearly done, turn the heat back on under the mushrooms. Spoon off 1 ladleful of liquid into a cup, then drain the spaghetti. Put the spaghetti and the mushrooms in the bowl with everything else. Toss, adding the reserved liquid a little at a time as you go, until you have a creamy sauce and everything is mixed in smoothly and fairly hot. Serve immediately with black pepper and, ideally, fresh-grated Parmesan (which I didn’t have), and a coarse white wine on the side.

Grapefruit For Dessert
I adore this trick, which I got from Jacques Pépin.

Cut both ends off a grapefruit, then slice off the rest of the skin and pith by cutting from one cut end to the next in fat slices. Hold the grapefruit in your off-hand, horizontally, so your thumb can rest on one end. With a paring knife, cut just beyond one bit of section-skin, down to the core, then cut on the near side of the next bit of section-skin. Remove the section. Now cut on the far side of that second bit of section-skin, but when you get to the bottom turn your hand so your knuckles come toward you and scrape the section off the skin. Do it again on the next section, and the next, and so on. The more often you do it, the faster and smoother it will get. The result should be a pile of perfectly clean grapefruit sections. Make a pretty fan-circle of these on the plate. Mound up some berries, diced fruit, coulis of fresh fruit (put fruit in the processor with a pinch of sugar and whiz until smooth), etc. in the middle; I just chopped some peeled kiwis very fine. Squeeze the remainder of the grapefruit, i.e. all the section skins, over the top. Serve immediately. Chocolate is a nice accompaniment, of course.

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