Discover more from Aleka Gürel
What a difference a day makes
Featuring oxtails, chive rolls, and some thoughts about kitchen equipment
Shelter in place may be making the days all blur together, but you’re not imagining things - I did send out this week’s newsletter a day late!
This is mostly because Sam and I did an absolutely enormous shopping trip to the Stonestown Farmer’s Market, Costco, Thorough Bread (to pick up flour) and Trader Joe’s on Sunday and spent the rest of the day sanitizing, prepping produce, and playing a tense game of fridge/freezer Tetris. Somehow it all fit, but I’m happy we won’t have to go out to a giant supermarket again for a while.
Yesterday, as I sat down to start writing this, what went through my mind is how I’m starting to feel flashes of normal. My shelter in place rituals are starting to solidify: getting up and immediately making a pot of coffee. Making myself a cup of peppermint tea with a spoonful of honey from my mom’s bees every night before we watch The West Wing. Going to the Stonestown farmer’s market on Sunday mornings. Weekly FaceTime dates with our families.
Today, I came back to those thoughts and had to laugh, because it’s been a very different day. I slept horribly last night and moved through the day half-distracted and half-anxious, frustrated and angered by the news that Georgia (where my grandmother lives) is loosening social distancing long before June 15, when the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates they’d be able to safely do so.
The fact that I can even for a second just bake some bread and forget about the broader situation stems from the fact that I’m deeply privileged in so many ways, and also incredibly lucky to be in San Francisco, which took swift steps to save us from ourselves. (Though their response has fallen short in predictable ways, leading to a massive outbreak of COVID19 among homeless residents.)
In any case, I logged off from work today and immediately started making a batch of this old fashioned pie crust from Stella Parks. Half an hour later, my pie crust is chilling in the fridge, I’m curled up on my couch, and I’m feeling a hundred times better. Baking is a balm.
You may recall that last week I took a trip to our local butcher to pick up a few cuts of meat for the week. That order included three pounds of oxtails, which are exactly what they sound like. I'd never cooked oxtails before but a friend sent me this recipe for Chinese braised oxtails from The Woks of Life and high off of my success with short ribs, I had to give it a shot.
The recipe calls for lots of garlic, bay leaves, ginger and star anise, braised alongside the oxtails in a mix of soy sauce, wine, water and a little sugar. Given our current predicament, I had to make some substitutions – I didn’t have any Shaoxing wine so I used some white wine lingering in the back of the fridge, and used one kind of soy sauce instead of two.
Even given the subs and some false starts with braising temperatures (I've learned that "low" on my stove is much less heat than what most recipes call for when they say "turn it down to low") they turned out flavorful and tender. Sam's verdict: "oxtails are like lobster; they take some effort to eat but it's worth it."
Oxtails aside, this week was one of old standbys. The chicken thighs were easy: I used them to make a big batch of chicken adobo, which I talked about a few weeks ago and is still a winner (plus, it keeps way longer than a regular chicken dish due to all the salt and acid in there.)
The steak I bought was a giant, two-inch ribeye, and when I get a steak this thick, there's only one thing to do: reverse sear it. On Monday night, it got doused with plenty of salt and pepper and popped on a wire rack in the fridge to dry out. The next night, we popped it in a 275 degree oven to cook mostly through before searing it in a hot cast iron pan until beautifully browned on the outside and still pink in the middle.
We served the steak with Alison Roman's crisp smashed potatoes, which I never miss an opportunity to evangelize. In case you've missed my praising this recipe in the past, it involves crisp small potatoes an fried onions, all doused with a slightly spicy butter-oil situation that is wildly addictive.
On to lunches! I kicked the week off in dire need of a non-pasta, proteinaceous option and frantically texted my friend Nina at 10:30am asking her to re-send me her recipe for salmon cakes, which I had managed to lose in our text history when I got a new phone.
The effort to deliciousness ratio here is excellent and you can have them on the table in less than 15 minutes, meaning that I was able to make and eat them in a 30 minute slot between meetings. Plus, she has kindly given me permission to share the recipe with you all!
12-14oz of cooked salmon (I use 2 cans)
½ cup breadcrumbs (I used panko)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (I used parsley)
A squeeze of lemon juice
Flake the salmon apart and pop it in a bowl with all the other ingredients. Mix them all together and then form into 3 or 4 patties. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat, ideally in a nonstick skillet (I use my cast iron.) When the oil is hot (a little bit of the mixture / a drop of water immediately sizzles) place the patties in the pan and fry until golden brown on the bottom. It took me about 3 minutes. Flip and fry until golden brown on the other side. Pop on a plate lined with paper towels and immediately sprinkle with salt. Ta-dah! You have a delicious, relatively healthy lunch. Bonus points for serving them with a nice salad.
The next day featured another extremely simple, comforting, and fast lunch: a crispy fried egg on homemade sourdough.
I have mentioned my love of crispy eggs in this newsletter before but I don't think I've really explained why I love them so much. So I'll start with a fact that may shock you: between probably middle school and the age of 23, I did not eat eggs.
Sure, I ate eggs in things – cake, fried rice, whatever – and I never stopped eating my dad's omelettes, which are amazing, but fried, scrambled, poached, baked or boiled eggs were all firmly off the menu. Every so often, I'd try to eat one and immediately be repulsed. They always looked good but tasted sulphurous and horrible.
Then, one day, while I was studying for my master's degree and cooking a lot more than I had in years, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen posted about this video clip. In it, chef Frank Prisinzano heats a huge glug of olive oil in a skillet and then drops two eggs into the pan. They immediately sizzle away and souffle up, gradually becoming puffy on top and cracker-crisp on the bottom.
I was mesmerised, so much so that when Sam came to visit me at Cambridge that year I decided to make him a crispy egg. Then I had one bite, absolutely loved it, and never looked back. I've since made my peace with all other types of eggs (except hardboiled, which I am still not into) but crispy fried eggs remain my absolute favorite. There's something about the textural contrast that makes them infinitely more delicious to me than the just-set fried eggs you get at diners.
In any case, this week we decided serve our crispy egg-on-toast alongside a salad, because fiber is important. My go-to salad these days is Alison Roman's herb salad, which takes approximately five minutes to make and is the brightest, most refreshing thing around. You combine your lettuce of choice (preferably something spicy like arugula) with whatever fresh herbs you have lying around (I've used parsley, cilantro and chives with great success) and then zest a whole lemon over it all before drizzling it with olive oil and lemon juice, plus plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
This is something I absolutely would not have eaten five years ago. Whole herbs? Yuck. But I've found my tastes changing a lot recently, and thank goodness for that, because this is a salad I actually look forward to making!
Another vegetable I've only recently made peace with: eggplant! (Yes, I know I'm a terrible excuse for a Turk.) So much eggplant out there is spongy and horrible, and it doesn't have to be. What I've found works is salting your cut-up pieces of eggplant and letting them hang out a while to shed moisture, then cooking or frying them at relatively high temperature.
Smitten Kitchen's Black Pepper Tofu and Eggplant follows both rules: you toss the diced eggplant with salt and then roast it at high heat alongside cornstarch-dredged tofu, and then toss it in a sauce of softened shallots plus butter and soy sauce and an obscene quantity of crushed black peppercorns. It's reliably delicious, and also had the happy effect of making me finally bite the bullet and order a mortar and pestle. (Putting your peppercorns in a ziplock bag and bashing them with a heavy object only gets you so far, and also gets ground pepper all over your countertop.)
I didn't end up baking any sourdough this weekend as I only just picked up more bread flour from Thorough Bread this morning, but I still got to play with dough for a different project.
Chinese or garlic chives are currently in season, and I picked up a bunch of them at the farmer's market last weekend. I'd never cooked with them before, but a friend of mine (who also has an excellent food Instagram, see here) recommended giving chive rolls a shot and shared her recipe, plus a helpful video on technique.
This was my first real attempt at making anything in the dumpling family and it showed me that my dough rolling skills are far from up to scratch. Nevertheless, I managed to get them looking vaguely like the instructional video and cooked them up potsticker-style as instructed.
Friends, they were really good. A bit doughy in spots due to the aforementioned lack of rolling skill, but good enough that I'm excited to pick up more chives and try them again and again until I can get my technique ironed out. Watch this space!
I picked up a ton of amazing produce at the farmer’s market this week and I’m feeling so inspired by it. Tonight we’re having mashed fava beans with pecorino and mint from Joshua McFadden’s excellent cookbook, Six Seasons. Later this week, I want to try Bon Appetit’s Cauliflower Bolognese, this blistered broccoli pasta, and maybe an eggplant pilaf from Nik Sharma’s beautiful Season.
If you live in SF and also need produce inspiration, I can wholeheartedly recommend ordering ahead from Vang’s Green Produce at the Stonestown Farmer’s Market - they’ll pack everything up for you in a box and it’ll take you even less time to pop in and out. Plus, their produce is gorgeous.
By special request, I’m going to use most of my space (and your attention span today) to talk about some of my favorite kitchen items!
The request in question came from a friend who’s planning their wedding registry and they came to the right person, because, well, I have a lot of feelings about this topic.
Long story short: there are times when you want to buy cheap, and there are times when you want to buy expensive. It’s not always obvious which kitchen items fall into which kitchen category.
Let’s kick off with the standard wedding registry item: The Kitchenaid stand mixer. My extremely generous grandmother got me one as a housewarming gift a few years ago, and it’s hands down one of the kitchen items I use the most. In normal life, I’m baking at least once a week, and often more. Could I survive with just regular hand mixer? Definitely, but having a more powerful machine makes things a lot faster. Plus, I suspect making anything that requires a dough hook attachment - like bread or cinnamon rolls - would either take forever or burn out the motor of a smaller mixer.
But which kind should you get? I trust Stella Parks (resident Pastry Wizard at Serious Eats) and she recommends the Pro (the model I have) over the Artisan, for a number of reasons, including better bowl design and the fact that it’s just more powerful. Depending on sales, the price usually isn’t different enough to justify a worse machine.
Really well built kitchen tools often last for years, so if your choice is between buying a cheaper version now and waiting a while to save up for the legit version, do it. It will pay off ten years from now when you just have to pay for minor repairs rather than a whole new device because you picked machine with a poorly built motor that burned out.
Same goes for food processors - another thing that honestly I’d buy myself way before a stand mixer - and I’d assume blenders, too (though a Vitamix is probably the only major kitchen item that I have left for a registry at this point - well, ok, I really want a cast iron cake turntable and a grill, but that’s more of a space issue.)
Hot tips for if you need to buy something expensive: it’s obvious, but check places like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, and I’ve gotten extremely good kitchen deals at Macy’s online. Or, set an Amazon price alert on camelcamelcamel.com.
There are some items where you really don’t need to get the most expensive thing. Nonstick pans? They scuff up so quickly that apparently you should just buy cheap and replace as needed. Woks? Avoid fancy nonstick ones like the plague, buy something cheapish, carbon steel and well constructed. (I have the one recommended in that article and it cost like $30.) Cast iron? Lodge skillets are in the $50-60 range and are the best around. I have been fortunate enough to get a couple of All Clad stainless steel pans as gifts, and I adore them, but there are more affordable alternatives.
You may have noticed that I am linking exclusively to Serious Eats articles. This is because I trust them wholeheartedly for literally anything cooking related and they have never steered me wrong. When I first started getting really into this I gradually worked my way through their lists of essential kitchenware and it was an awesome way to kit myself out.
What you need is going to vary wildly based on what you cook. I’ve only recently started cooking from cuisines that use a lot of whole spices (Indian, Chinese, etc) so I literally only ordered a mortar and pestle yesterday. If you deep fry a lot, you’re probably going to want a wire spider. If you’re a serious baker, get thee to Fat Daddio’s and purchase yourself some 8x3” aluminium cake pans ASAP.
What about small stuff? I use my microplane grater constantly for zesting lemons, grating cheese, and grating garlic into salad dressings. A good pair of locking tongs is invaluable for flipping meat, transferring pasta from boiling water to sauce, etc. A cheap bench scraper sounds unnecessary but makes transferring chopped veggies from cutting board to pan so much less messy, plus helps with cleanup, and is really helpful if you bake bread or biscuits or things like that.
There are also two things in my kitchen that sound incredibly unimportant but have made my life immeasurably better: a salt cellar and a spoon rest. The salt cellar was a gift from a friend and is probably the thing I use the most often. I bought my spoon rest to treat myself during last year’s Black Friday sales - it’s ceramic and from Pigeon Toe Pottery. It makes my countertops less messy and also just sparks a lot of joy.
If I was starting from scratch, what would I want? A good knife and cutting board. A cast iron skillet. (They’re really not as scary as they sound, I promise.) Something to boil water in. A wooden spoon and a silicone spatula. Maybe that microplane and a set of measuring cups and spoons. Honestly, that would get me most of the way.
A few months ago I listened to Kiley Reid talk about her debut novel on the podcast Ctrl Alt Delete. It’s called Such a Fun Age, and it centers around Emira, a young Black woman who babysits Briar, a three-year old white girl whose mom, Alix, is a wealthy influencer. One night, Emira is asked to take Briar to the grocery store and is confronted by a security guard who accuses her of kidnapping Briar.
The book follows the fallout from that event and smartly examines racism, power, and privilege as they play out in the relationships between Emira, Alix, and Emira’s boyfriend, Kelley. It’s not an easy read, and it doesn’t draw any neat conclusions, but that’s kind of the point. I’d highly recommend it, and the interview is also very thought provoking.
My one tiny, tiny not-even-a gripe: a central thread of the novel is that Emira is turning 26 and going to lose her parents’ health insurance, and her babysitting job doesn’t include benefits. Based on her income, she’d probably qualify for really cheap health insurance under the ACA or maybe even Medicaid. Her not knowing that is definitely true to real life, but my brain couldn’t help going “nooooo” every time it was brought up. Anyway, if you’re turning 26 and losing your coverage, you’ll have 60 days to enroll in a health insurance plan through the ACA Marketplace, and most people can get really affordable coverage depending on their income. Let that be my health policy thought for the week.
I’ve just started How to Hide an Empire, another book I’ve been wanting to read forever, and I’m enjoying it so far. Check back next week for an update here!