Friday, November 27, 2009

Another Idea

I turned 30 this past Wednesday!
That's right, the big three zero.
While I don't have much of a sweet tooth, I do indulge in a slice of carrot cake at least once a year.
This year we decided to make a substitution. Rather than raw grated carrots, beets went in.

The resulting batter was a beautiful pinkish red color. The cake itself didn't quite retain the color, but it was outstanding.

It was slathered with a maple cream cheese icing.

We be hammin'

I tried an interesting twist on one of my favorites this year - a baked ham.

Its almost like a simple braise. So simple it has two ingredients: ham & rootbeer.

The ham was a small one from Niman Ranch, a company whose product I love. and the root beer has to be Virgil's. It's a cut above most out there. It's lightly carbonated, sweetened (but not too much) with cane sugar. What really makes it great is it's huge complexity resulting from spices and roots. Unlike almost all commercially available root beers , it's actually brewed.

I poured two bottles in a pan , plopped in the ham, covered it and baked the thing @ 300 degrees for around four hours, flipping it every 45 min. or so.

It turned out pretty ok. The ham wasn't the cut I was hoping for, it was leaner than I expected, so it didn't soften up as much as I wanted. However, the resulting glaze was out of this world. The cooking time left it the perfect consistency and I finished it by whisking in a dollop of Dijon and a sprinkle of Chinese five spice. The specifics need tweaking, but the potential for greatness is certainly there.

The resulting sauce was definitely something to remember. It's so dark
it looks burnt, but the concentrated Virgil's was amazing with the ham.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gravy 101

Somehow the notion of gravy has this weird aura surrounding it, but I don’t really know why.
I think it deals partly with the fact that a lot of people who aren’t normally in the kitchen are taking on holiday meals. Gravy seems to be how most of those-new-to-the-stove commiserate.
“It was lumpy” . . . “It was bland.” . . . We didn’t have nearly enough!” . . . etc. etc.
Recipes hit it from all different angles, starting from different points, using various techniques and assuring different “fool-proof” methods.
And while the majority of them work in their context, you don’t walk away with much info on how to derive a gravy from various situations.
Maybe this will help:

You start with your flavorful liquid – giblet jus or chicken stock . . . and you add a roux . . . and that’s it.

First the liquid: Whatever it is, you just have to isolate it so that you can measure it. I would say it should be a dynamic, not just a wine or a juice, but a but a developed combination of flavors (a stock of sorts). I usually figure on a quarter cup a person, which is very generous, but I still manage to run low anyhow.

Next the roux: They say equal parts flour and butter . . . well yes, but that’s by mass and not volume. In other words, you have to weigh it, not measure it. Because flour can vary so much in mass to volume ratio.
But for those of you that don’t’ have an electronic scale.
It’s pretty much 1 tbsp of butter to 1 tbsp+1 tsp flour. You warm this duo up in a small pan and cook for about a minute, essentially toasting the flour slightly. Make a healthy portion of this to have on the side.

Now, you bring the liquid (whatever it is) to a boil and you stir the roux in. Roughly one cup of liquid to two tablespoons of roux. This method should prevent lumps and bumps, but if it doesn't you can puree the gravy in a blender and/or pass it through a fine sieve.
roux should look thinly sandy in texture.

The roux’s thickening characteristics don’t take effect until the liquid boils and the individual starches explode, like tiny popcorn. So when you add roux, give it a minute before you judge whether or not you need more.

Now the tricky part.
You have to assess it and adjust a little bit at a time.
Do you like the thickness?  If it is too loose, add more roux and boil. If it is too think, add more liquid.
If it is flat tasting?There can be two issues here. 1. The flavor is there, but it's not accented by enough salt . . . in which case you add salt.  2. There simply isn't great meaty flavor there, in which case I sneak a bullion cube into the gravy.  

Add a drop of acid (lemon, vinegar {maybe balsamic})  Unless you started with some tangy white wine, your gravy will benefit from a touch of acid.  It brightens the flavors. 

Think about sweetness? Sometimes a touch of honey, maple syrup or brown sugaris a great addition. 

Gravy should easily coat a spoon. I love mine with a lot of freshly ground black pepper.

Monday, November 23, 2009

If it aint broke . . . .

As a cook I'm always trying new twists and interesting takes on things, and I had to check my self-criticism in regard to the way I make sweet potatoes. I love them, and they're very nutritious. and every year I prepare them in one of two ways both with chipotles, and always as an extra dish I can put out without any work.
I had been racking my brains trying to think of a new way to include sweet potatoes. . . . until an annual eater at my thanksgiving feast checked in to make sure I would be making my chipotle sweet potatoes.
And all the pressure just went away. As a cook I'm always striving to strike a balance between keeping it interesting without getting wacky and giving the people comfort food to remember.
It's a fine line.
Here are my two super easy sweet potato recipes:

The first is to melt one tablespoon of butter and one teaspoon of salt, with two tablespoons of adobo (the sauce the chipotles are in). Cut the sweet potatoes into about 2 inch cross sections.
Lay down a little of the chipotle butter, set the sweet potatoes, and some more butter on top.
Roast in the oven (375ish) for about 25 min. or until they are "fork tender"
This takes very little time, even for large numbers of people.

They get beautifully browned.

The second is a mash.

4 Sweet potatoes
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps Adobo suace
1 Chipotle pepper, chopped

1. Rub the sweet potatoes with oil and salt and roast in the oven (375ish) for around 40 minutes or until "fork tender". (They're delicious just like this by the way, plain and simple)
2. Allow to cool slightly, peel off the skin and crush with butter, adobo sauce and one chopped chipotle.

Some browning where the sweet potato is in contact with the pan is fine.

These reheat beautifully.
For me they'll go down in history as one of my favorite midnight snacks.

On the importance of stock: battling water in a world of flavor

The emphasis on stocks in the culinary world used to baffle me a little, but as I’ve matured, my love for a good stock as surpassed just about everything else. I don’t necessarily mean “stock” in the classical sense, so much as any flavorful liquid derived from ingredients. (though that is pretty much exactly what stock is)

In the building flavor, water is the enemy. It dilutes, muffles, and puts a general damper on the good taste the cook is trying create. For this reason I strongly advise against just adding water to a dish in order in increase moisture. One should always hold out for a more flavorful liquid: wine, beer, coconut milk, apple cider. . . or a really good stock.

Great stock is really what sets apart the best soups and saucy preparations. It sets the foundation on which to build depth of flavor. Something you can’t achieve from a can, box, or little cube of msg. (each of which you can find in my kitchen, I’m not an elitist, just an idealist)

This recipe will yield a healthy two quarts of stock, a nine dollar value at the store for around six to seven dollars. Of course the flavor blows the store bought stock right out of the water . . . flavorless drab water.

And yes- it takes a little more effort. But done right, stock is the gift that keeps on giving. First of all it helps you extract great flavor from things you wouldn’t otherwise eat (shells, bones, herb stems, veg. scraps) capitalizing further on maximum value. And while I’m not a fan of the stockpot-is-my-trashcan mentality, stock is a great way use older ingredients on the edge of edible.

AND after I make this chicken stock, I go back and pick the meat off the wings for chicken salad.

Roasted Chicken Stock

Ingredient amounts are rough, reasonable variations will still make a good stock.
3 lbs chicken wings (any bird bones or carcass will do)
3 medium onions, skinned and roughly chopped
3 large carrots, rinsed and roughly chopped
5 large celery stalks, rinsed and roughly chopped
5 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 bay leaves

- 2 cups of wine (I even try to cut back a little on my water use when making stock)
- herbs: thyme, rosemary, sages, parsley, etc etc. in fact about the only herb I wouldn’t put in is lavender. We’re making stock, not soap.

Just don’t add anything from the cabbage family, (broccoli, Brussels, radish, turnip) as they release sulfur in a long cooking process, not something you want in your stock.

For more extensive list of stock do’s and don’ts go here.

1. Preheat your oven to 375 degees. In a baking sheet, spread out your wings and roast for 40 minutes, or the they are nicely browned.

They should get beautifully tanned like this, it makes for great character in the stock.
2. Scrape your roasted goods into an eight quart stock pot and add the remaining wings and your veggies. → This step really only applies if you’re using wings; because callogen cooks out of the wings when roasted, adding a few raw at the end really adds some body to the stock.
Optional: warm you baking sheet over a low burner. Once hot, use a cup of white wine to deglaze. Scraping up and dissolving all the yummy caramelized bits. Add this liquid and bits to the stockpot. This is optional because it can be tricky to manage a lot of hot liquid in such a shallow vessel.
3. Using COLD water, cover your stock fixins by about two inches and set over a low flame. Allow to come to a simmer (just a few bubbles constantly surfacing).
4. Over the next four hours, occasionally take the time to skim the scum of the top.
5. Through a fine sieve strain out the liquid and allow to cool.

Today's addition:
I had this king oyster in my fridge for a while. It didn't have any foreseeable uses coming up, so I thought he might be good for the stock, but I browned him well before adding him in:

Thin slices of mushroom browned well can add huge flavor.

Further crazy ideas: Because I’m nuts, I like to freeze my stocks in ice cube trays. It’s the perfect portion size when pulling together meals for 2-6 people. Just drop in a cube or two of stock and you’re good to go.

Once cold, the finished product should be jelly-like, implying good body and viscosity.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Perfect Pie Crust

Pie crust: that mystic endeavor that all of our grandmothers seem to have down pat, but is somehow lost on the next few generations. People tip toe around the process, avoiding the risk at all cost, resorting to frozen ready-made crusts, or worse yet, skipping out on pie completely- all for fear of the crust.

In making pie crusts, recipes (and cooking shows) advise to proceed with caution, and for those of you who have taken the leap, you probably know why. Pie crust gone wrong is not a pleasant thing to eat, something along the lines of hardtack.

It doesn’t have a lot ingredients or steps, but it does have a fair amount of room for error.

I did a ton of research, and I uncovered a million little tricks, most of which proved completely superfluous. A few of them however, really make a difference.

These tweaks shorten the margin of error a smidgen. For instance the cornmeal adds a kind of faint almost imperceptible crunch, adding significantly to a sensation of flakiness, but despite my tweaks, there’s still fair amount of trial and error required. Keep in mind its important to keep ALL of your ingredients cold, as it limits how the fat is incorporated into the dry ingredients (imperative to flakiness)

And don't let a failed attempt get you down, when you master the pie crust, you can do anything.

So prepare yourself, here we go:

1 ½ cups All purpose Flour

½ cup Fine ground corn meal

½ cup Whole Wheat Flour

1 tbsp Sugar

1 tsp Salt

½ lb. Butter, unsalted (2 sticks), cut into ¼ tbsp pieces and tossed in flour

5 tbsps Ice water (+ more as needed)

Optional: 1 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese

1. Pulsing in a food processor, mix the dry ingredients well. Stick the whole bowl for the food processor in the fridge.

2. Once chilled, put the bowl back on its base. Separate the prepared butter in half, add it to the processor and, again in pulses, buzz until almost completely incorporated. It should look a little sandy.

3. Now separate the remaining butter in half again. Pulse in the first half until slightly incorporated (pea sized pieces), then pulse in the remaining butter until barely incorporated at all.

4. This is the important step, don’t add too much moisture! Also this is where you’d add the grated cheddar it you're going to.

Transfer this mixture to a bowl, using a plain tablespoon sprinkle about three spoons of water (the spoons for measuring tend to drop big splashes of water, you don’t want that) using your hand lightly toss the dough. Add the remaining water and toss lightly but thoroughly. Squeeze a portion of the mix in your hand, if it clumps together, your pie crust is ready.

{Alton Brown actually uses a spritzer in this step, I love this concept as it perfectly and evenly distributes the least amount of moisture needed)

5. Separate the mix into halves and pack them into fat discs. Wrap the dough balls individually in plastic and stick them in the fridge for at least an hour. (this resting time allows the moisture to distribute evenly)

Thaw them out before rolling.

Your perfect pie crust is ready to go.

***If you're really into this, you should watch this 2 part video.

Alton Brown breaks the whole idea of crust down and discusses options. By far the best resource I found in my search.

For those of you that don't get the news letter, the final destination for this crust (with the cheddar) was a chicken pot pie.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A dinner to remember . . . . I wish I could!

I seldom just sit down and recount what I made at a specific dinner, I guess I think it seems a little self-promoting, but for some reason I'm making an exception this time.
A friend of mine procured some high-brow Italian wines. Here's the catch, they had already been opened, so we had to drink them asap.
I was charged with the responsibility of whipping up some solid wine food.
So here's what I came up with.

To start:
Apple and fennel salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano and soft boiled farm eggs

Exactly what it says, with lemon juice and olive oil

Nantucket bay scallops with preserved lemon, pickled onion and Celtic rock salt

Those scallops are wild caught, they are so delicious.

For the main course:
Seared tuna belly with crispy sage over cabbage braised in beet juice.

The tuna belly at the lobster place is always calling out to me. This was great dish.

Roasted Squab with potato and carrot confit

I kinda overcooked the breasts, but they were still delicious.

Braised pork belly with celery root puree.

The squab and pork belly I scored at Dickson's meat. They have a really good product.

The wines were exceptional and the company was good. At least what I can remember of it. The four of us killed almost seven bottles of wine, and I'm still paying the price.
Still, nights like those are my favorites.
You never know when you're going to make a memory, or forget one.

Good food with good people . . . a little wine doesn't hurt either. . . until the next day anyways.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A few notes on the paradox of recipe writing and reading

Writing recipes can be a very tough thing.
Why do we do it?
Ideally it’s a template that can be recreated over and over with perfect consistency, but nature doesn’t give us perfectly consistent ingredients to work with. So in reality it’s just a guideline, a rough draft of a dish that one must edit.

In writing recipes, I try hard to find the best middle ground. Giving the cook enough info for inspiration, but with room for preferential variation. Please know that I think of my recipes as foundations on which to build. Read them knowing that I hope you take license, and let me know if it works (or if it doesn’t). My goal with Grill-A-Chef is to encourage people to cook, and that takes a little experimentation and awareness. As the cook it’s your job to adjust for nature’s inconsistency.

Back to the recipes:
The trickiest part is in the quantities. They’re where every recipe starts, but how does one decide whether to list a whole ingredient or a processed (cut, cooked, grated, etc.) ingredient?
One recipe might say “4 medium potatoes”. In this instance, the quantity used can vary greatly with the size of the potato. Not to mention the problem that the word “medium” poses. How big is medium potato? And is that relative to all potatoes in the world, or just in the pile of potatoes at your market?
Another recipe might say “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes.” This is a much more specific quantity, but how many potatoes will this require? And what do I do with the extra potato?
You may have noticed that my recipes vary completely in how they are written. How I choose to write it is purely circumstantial. If I say “4 medium potatoes” the required amount is somewhat elastic, though I’ll usually follow that up with an approximation of volume. If I say, “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes,” then you need that amount.
**** I realize that I sometimes stray from my own rules.

Next on my list of peaves is the ingredient that you have to buy a whole bottle of for just one teaspoon. I’m a cook, so my pantry has a plethora of rare items that I use regularly. Still, I try to recognize these when they come up and isolate them as optional.
In other words, I try to avoid putting the cook in a position where she has buy something she’ll never use again.

Execution of a recipe can vary exponentially. People have different stovetops, different pots and pans, even different lighting under which they see the food. Over time my goal has become describe what the final product of each step should be, and then lay a map of how to get there. Including times and heat ranges that are only approximate.

I usually end a recipe with some ideas for substitutions, interesting additions, and general advice. Which I hope is helpful.

Please let me know an thoughts or questions on this subject.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Holiday Series

Hey there readers,
In the next few weeks I'm gonna execute a Holiday series. Covering individually the major bits and pieces of a holiday meals.
Some traditional, and some not so traditional.
If there are any requests, please hit me up.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I need a good pumpkin gnocchi recipe, any ideas?

Funny you should ask. A few people have hit me up for something like along these lines this season, so I finally broke down and whipped something up.

I have to say, I’m a huge fan of gnocchi for people who want to take the leap into fresh pasta making. (yes, they fall under the category of fresh pasta) They're easy and fun to make; a great project for kids.

They’re certainly not foolproof, but they are pretty forgiving.

I have one beef with gnocchi though, it requires a tool that only performs one job: a potato ricer. I don’t have enough room in my one bedroom apt. for uni-tasking gadgets, but there really isn’t another way to get great gnocchi so I make a rare exception.

Sure, you can use a food mill, but they have a tendency to somehow agitate the starch in the potato by stirring it while crushing it, making them gummy. A ricer just crushes it, resulting in lighter gnocchi.

And let me tell you, there is nothing like those tasty little pillows. When they are light and fresh, there is no substitute.

4 Russet (Idaho) potatoes

1 Kabocha squash (butternut, acorn, or just plain ole pumpkin would be fine too)

3 eggs

2½ cups Flour sifted. (+ more for dusting in production)

1 ½ tbsp Nutmeg, Freshly grated.

1. Roast the squash by halving length wise, coating it with oil, salt, and pepper. Place cut side down on a sheet tray and cook at 400 degrees until tender. Aprox. 25 min. Scoop out the flesh and set aside.

This is a sunshine kabocha.

2. Rinse the potatoes, and drop them into boiling salty water. Cook them until a pairing knife is easily inserted (around 25 min.). Allow to cool enough to handle.

*This step is key, DON’T overcook your potatoes, if they bust open and absorb too much water it will kill your gnocchi.

3. Using a paring knife, peel the skin from your potatoes, and squish them through the ricer into a large bowl. Next pass the squash.

4. Add the eggs, nutmeg, a hefty pinch of salt and the flour. (I also added a splash of amaretto liquor) Mix lightly with your hands until it comes together, Add more flour if needed. This is really where the margin for error comes into this recipe. The dough should be dry enough to roll out (see pic), but you cannot overwork it, or it will become dense and chewy. It is good to have a small pot of boiling water on so you can taste a sample. It shouldn't fall apart, and hopefully it's not too dense.

5. Now the fun part, in bunches, work the dough into long rolls (about the diameter of a dime) and cut into little dumplings. Being sure to keep everything well floured, or they will stick together.

Now you have gnocchi, you can refrigerate them for a few hours until meal time. They freeze pretty well too, which is why I usually make them in large batches. Gnocchi should keep frozen for about 4-6 months.

With my pumpkin gnocchi I made a simple brown butter and sage sauce.

For four people I put about 3 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Once melted dropped in a small handful of sage leaves. They should sizzle and pop and smell amazing. As the butter browns, you'll notice they bubble less, that's because the they're running out of moisture and getting crispy. Remove the sag from the butter once they stop bubbling completely.

I know this pic sucks, but I wanted you to see roughly what the butter looks like.

Note the foam that forms on top, and the browned milk fats that settle on the bottom.

Now I dropped my pumpkin gnocchi into boiling water. Fortunately gnocchi come with a built in timer. When you drop them in they all sink to the bottom, give them a very gentle stir, and as they cook they will rise to the top. Once they're all sitting on the top, they're ready to go. It happens pretty quickly relative to pasta, so don't drop them until your sauce is ready!

I added the gnocchi to the browned butter along with a good splash of chicken stock and two more tablespoons of butter and some grated Parm to bring it together.

To finish, I topped it off with a little more Parm and the fried sage.

Freakin' delicious.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Will my bread rise?

Q: I am making the famous no-knead bread from the NYTimes /Jim Leahy adaptation published a few years ago. I'm doing a variation with multi-grains, and I can see it is rising very very slowly. I had questioned the yeast, in the past it was ok, from another unrisen loaf. But the dough seams warm - I do think SOMETHING is happening, just not fast. I put it together at 10pm last night, so it's been 13 hrs now. How long can I leave it to continue to rise? the recipe calls for 18-20 hrs. If I leave it overnight a second night - totaling more like 36 hrs - will it become rotten or rancid or otherwise toxic? If not I'm happy to let it go and see what happens. Could a person add yeast at any point, or would that be too hard to mix in? Does yeast need to be thoroughly mixed to work correctly, since it's actually a chemical process?

A: I think a few things about this, but I want to preface all my thoughts with the fact that while I have baked bread, I am not a bread baker (like Jim Leahy, whose bread is incredible). It's a very specific arena.
That said, I'll tell you what I know.
1. whole grains are much heavier, so: a) it takes more force/energy to make them rise, and they may never rise as much and b) yeasts, which are tiny organisms, process all grains differently(and some not at all). so that could slow the process, and/or just limit it.
2. sometimes part of the yeast in a packet/block will die and recipes will depend on all the said yeast in a recipe being active. However, because yeast is essentially a bacteria, it actually reproduces while eating the protein in the flour, and releasing the gas that in-turn makes your bread rise. So, if there is any active yeast at all in what you added, the population will eventually get there. It just may take time. Of course this is one of the real skills of a bread baker, knowing when bread has risen the correct amount (or when the yeast is at the correct population).
This also means that you don't have to add yeast late in the process, but if it did come to that I would advise just starting over.
3. The extra time this may take exposes you to some variables. There are good yeasts ad bad yeasts. molds are also bad. If you see any weird colors, or smell any really funky sour, acrid or rancid smells, toss it. Strong yeast aromas, and slightly sour smells are ok. In short, it should smell good, and don't doubt your judgment, if it's bad you will know, if you have a bad feeling about it trust your instinct.
4. Having said all that. There is a serious science and skill to bread baking. Where the recipe is a specific equation that equals a delicious loaf of bread. When you futz with components of that equation, the result will be different, for better or for worse.

I'd say give you bread a little more time, and then, even if it hasn't risen as much as you'd like, bake it anyways.
(as long as it hasn't gone bad) I'd love to hear how it turns out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Is it possible to eat Indian corn?

Funny you should ask.
I bought this bunch of corn the other day at the market and the vendor told me I couldn't eat it. Because, he said it, "it wasn't grown to be eaten." So I politely asked if it had been treated with anything, (it wasn't) and silently vowed to prove him wrong.

I knew this wasn't your run-of-the-mill (pun intended) food grade corn, but I also knew it had the essential components that all other corn has (hull, hard starch, soft starch, endosperm, germ, etc.) . So I figured maybe I could apply some simple methods and see what I came up with. I was pretty sure I could make some sort of food, though I wasn't sure how pleasant it would be to eat.

Here's what I found:
Note: There are two types of corn in this bunch; a lighter larger yellow kernel and a smaller red kernel.
I tried popping it. I had no idea what to expect. I just put the kernels a small pan over low heat with a little oil and a pinch of salt. I covered it, after a about a minute, sure enough I heard popping.
Both were uniquely tasty and resulted in "cute baby popcorn" from the small kernels, I would say the hull of the yellow corn was still pretty chewy, unpleasantly so, but the red corn was perfectly delicious and had a pretty inner color.

Note the color of the inside of the popped kernel.

Next I set out to grind the grain and see what kind of porridge it would yield.
I processed the corn in my coffee grinder and whisked it into simmering water. I used both corns together for this, party because I was low on corn, and partly because I thought a mix would be nice.
This is where the corn really came through, essentially (maybe because I was conducting this experiment in the morning) I made grits, and they were very yummy. Uncommonly earthy.
Definitely a dish I will revisit after the holiday.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Do you have a quick and easy, but impressive hors d'oeuvres?

I do.
It kinda falls under the category of ghetto fabulous.
I call them Russian Nachos.
It simply consists of potato chips, sour cream, scallions and salmon roe. It's a real people pleaser, and it's beautiful with all the orange little jewels.
It couldn't be easier, the only tip I have is if you're going to pile it high try layering it. Lay down a few chips with all the fixin's and then repeat until you have a mountain.
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