Thursday, April 29, 2010

Crawfish Town, USA

I was fortunate enough to get to spend some time down in Cajun country recently, Mainly the small towns surrounding Lafayette. I can't say enough good things about it. The culture there is thick and pervasive like you'd expect to find in an Italian village, or the hills of Thailand.
The region brandishes it's own signature music, language (French Cajun) and distinct English accent, community and of course, food.
The people are so nice, it's easy to get caught up and feel like a part of it. I caught myself silently accosting other tourists, who doubtless stood out as much as much as me, for taking advantage of the hospitality; but there's plenty to go around.
Our first meal lead us to Crawfish Town, USA. Despite it's uncanny resemblance to a Cajun outback steak house, it was outstandingly delicious. The menu read like a dream I once had, frog leg etoufe, gator bites, jambalaya, po-boys, and of course everything crawfish: etoufe, bisque, boulettes, crawfish pie, enchiladas, and my personal favorite, boiled; extra spicy with corn please.

The bisque was very good, done the right way with the head of mudbug stuffed with crawfish dressing and served next to a steaming pile of rice. The crawfish pie changed my outlook on life. A crispy little cornmeal crust, still soft in the right places; like a pretty lady. It was filled with a rich, full-flavored goo, and they weren't shy with the crawfish tails.

The next day reiterated what I've always known, the freshest and best fish and seafood you will ever eat in your life, is inevitably purchased from a pickup truck. This little guy was peddling fresh shrimp by the side of the road. Huge wild caught gulf shrimp for 4.95 a pound!!!
I can't remember last time I paid less than ten.

For lunch, I had giant bowl of turtle soup. In the spots in the city (New Orleans), turtle stew is always made with ground turtle, and is rumored to often be replaced by veal for cost and availability reasons. This soup was unmistakably turtle, and let me tell you it was amazing!

The last item to check off the list was a tour of the area's butchers. Each sporting their own selection of "specialty meats" including unique cuts and preparations. Numerous things you won't see anywhere but down here. The Cajun chaudin for instance: a pig's stomach stuffed with more pork and about a million other ingredients. Intended to be roasted and then sliced and enjoyed. If only I'd had a kitchen to cook in.

These butchers also compete for the locals' taste for the best boudin, a sausage of pork meat, rice, scallions and spices. Though many places have a seafood version that's good too. It's typically fished out of a pot of water and devoured on the spot with a spicy cracklin' chaser.

If you ever find yourself down in that part of America, take the extra time to tour the Cajun country. The people there will make it well worth your while.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I tried to make mayo using the blender and then the processor. Both methods produced mayo soup. What is the best way?

This is great question, and one that troubled me a lot early in my culinary career. There is nothing worse than having to whip up an aioli just before a dinner rush. With a million other things on your plate, it falls apart into a soupy mix of egg and oil. You have to scrap the effort and start over. Once you get it down pat, it'll be a valuable weapon in your culinary arsenal.
I want to take a second to discuss the difference between an aioli and a mayonnaise: there's no difference, enough said. Some will argue that aioli is made with olive oil and/or garlic so it has more flavor. Regardless the terms end up as interchangeable marketing terms used by restaurants and chefs when it seems right. The fact remains that they're both egg yolk whipped up with oil.
Making mayo is simple, but simple aint always easy. There's a bunch of cool science stuff behind all of it, but I won't beat you over the head with the chemistry. Just know that the overall ratios are important to yielding a good final product.
Also keep in mind we're constructing an emulsion here, or arranging fat and water molecules with a little bit of air. If these don't align properly you're going to have mayo soup. For a mayo emulsion, the key is a strong foundation; starting the emulsion is where most mayos go awry: without it you can't build a great mayonnaise.
As with all the recipes I put forth, this is very basic and open to futzing apart from the ratios. You can use any flavor vinegar for this and any oil or combination of oils. I like half extra virgin oil and half canola oil. Using only olive oil can be very intense (and expensive). Lastly, I'm a fan of pure aioli, but depending on its destination you might want to sup it up a bit with some extra flavorings.

Quick Mayo

1 Egg yolk
1 tbsp Acid (lemon juice or vinegar)
1 tsp Water
1 tsp Dijon Mustard <- HAS to be dijon
1 cup Oil
Salt to taste

Optional: Grated garlic, roasted garlic, herbs:tarragon, chives, cilantro, chervil etc, spices: black pepper, cayenne, smoked paprika, coriander, saffron etc, Booze: cognac, amaretto, bourbon, grand mariner

Method 1- Immersion Blender
1. In a vessel that your blender fits snugly into, place the yolk, acid, water, and dijon. Using a fork or a small whisk, mix these initial ingredients very well.
2. Add the oil (and extra flavorings if you're using them) and allow the to settle for a minute of two.
3. Insert your immersion blender and using pulses, start he emulsion. Once you see that it has taken continue to pulse, slowly lifting up. Once you're 3/4 of the way emulsified you can put the petal to the metal and buzz it all together.
4. Season your mayo and test it for acidity.

That's right, I'm wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Method 2- Food Processor
1. In the bowl with the blade place the yolk, acid, water, and dijon. Turn the processor on and mix these initial ingredients very well.
2. With the machine still running, very slowly begin to add the oil. Continuing to barely drizzle until you can see that the emulsion is taking. You can pick up the pace with your drizzle, but don't rush it. You're bound to break it.
3. Once the mayo is set, season with salt and test for acidity.

Tips: If the mayonnaise seems gloppy add another teaspoon of water (or vinegar if you'd like it more tangy). It will smooth the whole thing out.
Fixes: If your mayo breaks (becomes liquid) during the process, set aside the broken mayo, wipe out the container and start over. Once you've successfully made a new mayo, slowly add the broken mixture, it will incorporate perfectly.
Notes: You can make mayo in a blender, but the blades tend to be a little harsh for getting it started. So blenders are less than ideal.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I made some ice cream that has been in my freezer for over 24 hours and is still soft. What gives?

Ok, has it frozen yet?
The first thing I'd say is that just because things in your freezer are frozen doesn't mean it's the right temp. everything will be frozen @ 25 degrees, but ideally your freezer is around zero. The only real way to check is with a thermometer, or you could just turn your freezer down a notch and see what happens. Also, a full freezer functions much better than an empty one.
Barring that, other issues could be a super high fat content in cream used, or rather a low water content. The idea behind ice cream is to suspend tiny ice crystals in fat globules, giving us great texture. That's why we keep it moving when we cool it down, preventing bigger ice crystals from forming.
If the dairy used in a recipe doesn't have enough water it will be essentially like freezing lard. It just won't set up the same

Back from Cajun Country

FYI Ya'll.
I've just resurfaced from a long awaited trip New Orleans.
Look out for some interesting posts to come.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ramp Burps

Every year around this time a funny little thing pops up around the city. The ramp, a kind of wild leek; has an incredible onion pizazz, with good bite and near perfect aroma. It's somethin' else.
For New Yorkers, it pops up on fancy menus and in popular magazines with recipes for clipping. A seasonal food fad typical of a fashion city. The ramp becomes the IT ingredient for a few weeks. It explodes onto the scene, it rises to the top as though we've never seen it before and then, poof! It's gone, and all we have to show for it is bad breath.
I guess the secret of the ramp's success is in the marketing. It's not as though the ramp's quality changes every year, it is just so temporal. It epitomizes the seasonality of food. It's one of those things we look forward to when we're packing up our winter clothes, and then miss when it's gone. The question is: Do we enjoy it while it's here?
I certainly do, maybe a little too much. I'm sure to buy more than I know what to do with. Inevitably I find myself staring at a mess of ramps in my fridge wondering what I'm going to do with them all. I can't just let them go bad, right?
In a frustrated panic, I usually whip up a quick brine to escape this pickle. But in the months to come, I'm always glad I overbought. These little ramp pickles make their way into many little snacks. Pickled ramp cream cheese is a revelation on a bagel. The oniony punch is a great compliment to a salad, with the brine for a dressing. On a few hazy mornings, they've even been spotted draped over the edge of a bloody mary glass.

Pickled Ramps

2 Bunches ramps
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups vinegar, (rice, cider, redwine, or any mix thereof)
2 tbsps salt
2 tbsps honey

1. To prep the ramps, nip off the root, remove the outer leaf if it's slimy and rinse very well. Place them in a large bowl.
2. Over high heat bring the water, vinegar, salt and honey to a boil. Kill the heat and pour the brine over the ramps.
3. Using tongs, swish the ramps around a little to distribute everything. Allow to cool and transfer to a storage vessel (ideally glass)

These pickles are delicious in a few hours, but they'll mellow out a little over more time. With a group of students I spoke to recently we tasted crostini of pickled ramps with minted ricotta (just ricotta blended with mint, a little olive oil and pinch of salt) It's a pretty stellar snack . . . . that you'll be tasting for hours afterward.

Friday, April 9, 2010

It's catching on a little bit . . . .

I always hesitate a little to make a post like this, I worry it can seem a little like I'm patting myself on the back. But I want to share what I'm doing because it makes me excited, and it's a step towards my goal of helping people help themselves to cook and eat better. If anyone out there reading this knows of kids or classes who want to cook, please send them my way. I love this stuff.

A few people and organizations have been nice enough to include me in there efforts to better the world. As usual I wasn't quite sure what I was getting myself into, but head first is how I dive.

I got to go to a middle school in Long Island City and talk to kids about eating better and sustainable foods. We spoke a little about how food is important to them in their lives. When I asked them what's the weirdest thing they had ever eaten, they all just stared at me. I hit them up for their ethnic backgrounds- Dominican, Mexican, Ecuadorian, and so on and so forth around the world. So I tried to muster some ideas of food that would seem normal to them in their homes, but strange to the rest. In Ecuador, a classic Christmas dish is guinea pig, the Ecuadorans present confirmed, and the rest gagged and coughed at the thought.
Then the kids made, on their own but with a little direction, fennel and apple salad with lemon dressing. It was tepidly received, but they all tried something new and they made my day.

I also went to speak with some NYU students (also an international lot) about shopping at the green market and wild food. I heard about the wild foods from their indigenous lands. It was a lot of fun, I brought them ramps and dandelion leaves to try.
Then we tasted dandelion pesto with speck and pickled ramps over mint ricotta. They pitched in on production.

We all stood around munching our samples, and discussing the flavors.

In both instances the individuals who reeled my in are really making a difference. So my props to them, please keep up the good natured endeavors, it's working.

Monday, April 5, 2010

How can I recreate that great soup de poisson I had in the south of France? It's just never the same.

The short answer, unfortunately, is: you can't.
I hate to shoot you down, but one of the things about truly great food is that it is fleeting. It is there when you are digging in and gone when you are done . . . sometimes forever. The secret is to acknowledge it as you're taking it in, as opposed to remembering how good it was as soon as you set your fork down.
Sure, I could go rattle off a list of tangible reasons why you can't recreate your soup de poisson: It is impossible to get the same quality of the same fish, much less pair it with similar co-star ingredients. In other words, you can't tangibly recreate this soup with a facsimile of flavor.
However, even if I could secretly serve you a bowl of the exact soup that made the impression, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest it would not strike you as the same. For more intangible reasons, such as maybe your body was short on protein, vitamin B6 or omega-3's, leaving you with a craving for fish soup. Maybe you were on vacation, you were relaxed and you were in the beautiful and romantic South of France. Inevitably your mood was affected by these, and mood has a huge bearing on how we perceive food.
Imagine a great burger after hearing a loved one has past, and a great burger on spring break with friends. Even if they are the same burger, they will taste different.
My point? . . . We taste with more than our tongues, and acknowledging that is giving ourselves the freedom really enjoy our food.

You can buy great fish here in NYC and we have access to incredible produce from countless farmers and purveyors. They won't reconstruct soup de poisson from the south of France, but they can compose a great fish soup. The eater just has to see it for what it is, and not what it's not.

So pay attention to what your putting in your mouth, and appreciate it for what it is, because you never know when you're going to eat a great memory.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tootin' my own horn . . . . and someone else's, (who is also tootin' my horn)

Ok, so there is this great blog, A Mouse Bouche.
It's basically a dialogue between two sisters, covering their food adventures past, present and future. For me it's a kind of sweet insight into the importance of food; to them of course, but it's certainly thought provoking and . . . . . mouth watering.
One of the authors, who is a good friend (and a great cook), reached out to do an interview with me. She made me look pretty good, which I know isn't easy.
She asked some great questions and, I don't mind saying, I gave some great answers.
Give the interview a look see, and check out the rest of the blog while you're there. I'm sure you'll love it.

and thanks again Mouse.
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