As you've probably figured out, I use the cold winter months to catch up on reading about a locavore's favorite subjects - food and food production, cooking and gardening. This past week I came across a beautiful gem published a couple of years ago called "Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes A Cook's Manifesto," by Michael Ruhlman.
Ruhlman was familiar to me as a food writer and occasional judge on the popular Food Network TV show "Iron Chef America." As I was planning this article, I found out Ruhlman was also fired from a writing job in 2010 for speaking out (on his personal blog) against unhealthy processed snack foods. My kind of guy!
"Ruhlman's Twenty" is for people who already can follow a basic recipe, but want to elevate their skills from "adequate" to "really good." (Ruhlman uses the word "elevate" a lot.) The book describes in depth the 20 techniques Ruhlman believes encompass the essential skills for cooking virtually anything.
Right from the beginning, though, it was apparent this was to be no ordinary how-to book. The title of the first technique is "THINK." He says, "Thinking in the kitchen. It's underrated." He goes on to explain what he means: "Cooking is an infinitely nuanced series of actions, the outcome of which is dependent on countless variables. ... Think about what you're cooking. Stay ahead of it."
Chapter two is about "SALT." Ruhlman explains in the book's introduction that some of his techniques "appear to be ingredients rather than techniques." Besides being ingredients, Ruhlman considers them tools with multiple uses, and using tools, he says, is technique. The chapter on salt, for instance, is about how to use salt skillfully for various purposes.
Ruhlman follows the salt chapter with chapters on water (yet another surprise), onion, acid, egg, butter and sugar. In other chapters, he talks about fundamental ingredient combinations: Dough, batter, sauce, vinaigrette and soup.
In the final chapters, Ruhlman talks about techniques for applying heat in various ways, from roasting (high heat followed by low heat) and braising (moist heat) to grilling (fire) and frying (hottest heat). The last chapter is called "CHILL" and covers heat extraction.
Practicing each of the 20 techniques is encouraged with step-by-step photos by Ruhlman's wife, Donna, and by including five illustrative recipes at the end of each chapter.
For today's recipe, below, I was inspired by a recipe in his chapter on vinaigrettes. The taste is light and delicate, and I look forward to experimenting further with the recipe to become increasingly skillful at balancing the flavors.
Ruhlman closes the book with tips for continuing to become a better cook, and here (among other things) he specifically advocates local foods. "If you buy lettuce that's been sitting in a grocery store after spending a week on a truck, that salad is only going to be that good. If you buy lettuce handpicked at a local farm, you can be the best chef in the world simply by not doing too much to it." I concur completely.
He goes on to caution that "sources can be deceptive. Grocery stores can have exquisite products, and well-meaning farmers can grow mediocre livestock and plants, or treat them carelessly." As I always say, know your farmers!
Fastest way to get better? "Cook and watch what happens." Focus on one technique at a time, Ruhlman says, and, "Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention. The best cooks get that way by being more aware. ..."
Ruhlman's love and respect for food and his thoughtful approach to cooking makes this book a joy to read and a pleasure to use. It's a book I know I'll return to again and again.
LOCAVORE LEEKS VINAIGRETTE
1 pound leeks (home garden, Lummi Island)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
1 tablespoon garlic, finely minced (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
1 tablespoon honey (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
1 teaspoon dried thyme (home garden, Lummi Island)
1 inch smoked cayenne pepper, finely minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
3/4 cup hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1/4 cup shallots, minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
4 hard-boiled eggs, yolks and whites minced separately (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
To prepare the leeks for cooking, the goal is to leave the root end intact. Trim off the roots themselves, but leave the portion where the stem meets the roots intact. Also trim off the very dark green tops. (Ruhlman suggests saving these for making soup stock later.)
Next, split the leeks lengthwise down to about 1/4 inch above the root end. You want the leek halves to stay attached to the root end so they won't fall apart during cleaning and cooking. Once split, rinse each leek under cold running water to eliminate any dirt between the layers. Take special care to clean the root end, too.
Steam the leeks over boiling water in a covered pan for 10-15 minutes, until tender. Plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking, drain well or pat dry with a clean lint-free towel, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Prepare the vinaigrette by putting the vinegar, minced garlic, honey, thyme, salt and minced smoked pepper into a blender. (A stick blender is convenient, if you have one.) Blend thoroughly, and then, while the blender is running, slowly pour in the hazelnut oil. Blend well. No individual ingredients should be visible.
Just before serving, arrange the leeks on a serving plate and trim off the root ends so halves are now separate. Stir the shallots into the vinaigrette, and pour vinaigrette over the leeks. (You will have some left over.) Sprinkle the minced hard-boiled egg whites over all, then sprinkle the minced yolks over that.
Sprinkle with additional salt to taste.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.