6 Kitchen Epiphanies

It was a good year in my kitchen, if I say so myself. Here are the high points:

Cooking with clay: My stockbroker, of all people, imports clay moqueca pans from Brazil. The size of a shallow salad bowl, the color of dark wood and with a loose-fitting lid, these pots are unusual and gorgeous and behave, as pots and pans go, essentially like cast iron — you cook with them on top of the stove or in the oven. Traditionally the pans are used for seafood stews, but I’ve also braised short ribs, slow-cooked bitter greens, and made soups and a killer ratatouille. Something about the porosity, or the glaze, hoards and intensifies flavors.

Eat green: Always on the lookout for novelty in vegetables, I bought and planted Cavalo Lacinato, or Tuscan kale, seeds a year ago in my winter garden. Not much happened but I left the odd blue-leaved plants in over the summer and fall, and now they’ve come into their own: weird, fountain-shaped Dr. Seuss–ian things that look like collards or Brussels sprouts, only with long, wrinkled tongue-shaped leaves. Cooked slowly with onion, optional bacon and a squeeze of lemon, they’re tender, minerally and slightly bitter.

Mo’ meaty meat: I was always told that salting meat before cooking was a recipe for dryness. Judy Rodgers, of Zuni Café, begs to differ, and suggests we salt our meat and poultry when they come home from the store — even if (or especially if) we don’t intend to eat it for a few days. Salting and peppering before cooking amounts to a mini-brining — and has provided me with countless taste epiphanies in the last year.

Slow roast: After many desultory consultations with cooks and chefs and recipe writers, I recently started slow-roasting meats for five or so hours at 250 degrees. Short ribs. Brisket. Pot roast. I salt and pepper the meat, stick it in a pan, cover it with finely sliced onions, and shove it in the oven. For the longest time, the meat just sits there, the onions opaque, the beef slowly turning a wan taupe color. But as hours pass, the ribs or roast gives off liquid, reabsorbs it, turns brown, then darker brown, until, eventually, I pull out a lovely crusted, moist, tender, profoundly tasty thing.

Frankly speaking: There are many closet lovers of the cocktail frank. I realize this every time I brattily trot out a plateful of Schreiner’s house-made teeny wieners, both plain and spicy. Just heat them up any which way (boil, steam or pan fry) and serve with good mustard. The wee franks turn plump and juicy, and as you bite into one, the skin breaks with the most satisfying little pop.

Julienne now: Mandolines have been around forever, but I haven’t been tempted to buy one until recently, after I’d seen what the city’s raw-food chefs do with them — make low-carb pastas and wild salads from fresh zucchini, carrots, radishes, anything that shreds. And then, this summer in France, I discovered the rasped-carrot salads so many French women eat for lunch — one solution, clearly, to the famous French paradox. Over the last three months, I’ve happily shredded apples, jicama, carrots, daikon, beets and my fingertips into various salads.

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