Monday, March 22, 2010

We love to make sweet potato or yam fries, but HOW in the world can we make them crispy?

I have to confess, great sweet potato fries are something that have always evaded me. The great ones we have in diners and bars are particle composites, or sweet potato plywood, not slivers of the veggie itself.

A few things have gotten me close though, albeit never in the oven, but in a vat of oil.

The thing about it is this: what we know as crispy is a result of the exterior of an ingredient quickly dehydrating from an extreme heat. Sweet potatoes contain too much water for this to happen very easily at a low temp(it never crisps), and too much sugar for it to happen at a high temp. (it burns).

If you're dead set on using the oven, I'd cut them small (shoestring size) and use a decent amount of oil, essentially frying them in the oven.

In the frier, I par-fry them at 325 degrees until soft. Then I toss them in a flour and cornstarch mixture before refrying at 375-400 degrees. It is this coating that gives them crispness, not the sweet potato itself.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is there an easy way to make great bread?

Whole wheat with spicy olives and walnuts.

I'll be honest, I didn't think there was, but I finally tried the infamous no-knead. It's turned me into a new man. To clarify, I'm a cook, my method is somewhat of a refined improvisation, as opposed to the science required to understand baking.
A good loaf had always evaded me . . . in the kitchen anyways. So I kinda gave up trying a while back.
When I came across this video it gave me hope. It's Jim Lahey (of Sullivan St. Bakery) and Mark Bittman, discussing the process. So I got the cook book "My Bread" and set out to get my bread right. It takes some patience, but the time required develops the gluten in lieu of messy tiresome kneading and in the end the effort is nil, and the product is something to write home about.

NOTE- This recipe calls for using your potentially-expensive dutch oven. The high heat in the recipe can cause permanent discoloration and minor cracking. This won't prevent you from making yummy food moving forward, some people find it aesthetically displeasing. Strait cast iron will do just fine.

First you have to get the basic recipe down.

3 cups bread flour, more for dusting (AP flour will do if you cant find bread flour.)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cup water
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

***For specific instructions watch the video in the link above.

You simply combine the dry ingredients, add the water and cover. After 12-18 hours of proofing you turn out the dough and fold it over onto itself once. Two more hours proofing and you drop the loaf into a dutch oven that had been heated in a 500 degree oven. What comes out is amazing.
Now I can't say that my first loaf came out perfect, it took a few tries, but once I got it down. . . . well, it qualifies as incredible. I never expected I would be able to bake a loaf like this in my home.
The best part is once you get the basic recipe down, you can add a wide variety of ingredients to spice up your loaves. I made many types, admittedly with varying degrees of success, but some were excellent. The winners were smokey peanut (smoked paprika and roasted peanuts), spicy olive and walnut, whole wheat with cayenne, cashew and curry powder, ham-cheddar-and-dill-pickle and so on and so forth down the line.
The trick is to avoid introducing ingredients that affect the "science" of the bread too much. Something I was slow to pick up on.
Overall the procedure is fun and rewarding. I'd suggest taking it on if you have the baking itch.
If you do, I'd love to hear how it turns out.

Smoky peanut loaf at the end of the first proof. Note the stringy lengths,
indicative of good gluten development.

***Special thanks to Jeremy and Abby for lending me their dutch oven (not pictured) without which this entry would not exist.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why does brown taste to good?

Often times the goal of a cooking method or technique is to achieve a brown color. Grilling, roasting, sauteing, searing, etc. etc., all processes undertaken to give color ingredients.
Brown food tastes better; we see the color in cooked foods and subconsciously are drawn to it. Charred steak, roasted vegetables, caramel sauce,toasted bread, golden brown fried potatoes; they all look very appetizing. Our brains know it, but does our mind understand it?

Let me try to explain. There are two types of browning:
1. Caramelization: The browning of sugar molecules happens around 310 degrees. Molecules get shaken up by the energy of the high heat, the atoms rattle apart and come back together in a wide array of compounds, browning occurs and great complexity of flavor develops. Consider the difference between eating a spoonful of table sugar, and a taking on a spoonful of caramel.

2. Maillard Reaction: A similar chemical process, but in molecules other than sugars such as carbohydrates and amino acids. Molecules are busted up and reconvene in tastier ones, this reaction is accompanied by a brown color. Giving us things like espresso, porters and stouts, chocolate, and toast.
Better Browning
If brown is your goal, there are a few things measures you can take to get you closer to your color.
Keep it dry: Browning will not occur in the presence of moisture. Since water can't be heated to more that 212 degrees, browning is excluded. This is why we pat our fish and meat dry before cooking. This is also why it's hard to brown items with a high moisture content.
Keep it hot: Use a pan that gets hot and stays hot (cast iron or clad stainless steel) . Especially in the case of meat and fish. Whose surface must essentially dehydrate immediately (from such high heat) in order for a brown crust to form.

Keep it lubed: Use enough oil, it's what conducts the heat so well. If you skimp on the fat, you'll see less of that delicious color.

Keep it spacious: If you're aimin' to brown more than one thing, like sliced mushrooms or scallops, you can't crowd the pan. The moisture released will be too much to evaporate before steaming your food, and proper browning won't occur.

Brown's Downs
More brown is not always better. Browning everything and then mixing it together can create so many compounds (literally thousands) to taste that the individual flavors become muddy. So pick and choose the things you brown to keep a clean flavor

Sauteed mushrooms

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The better resource . . . .

I'm a cook, and I've been at it professionally for 16 years now; nothing to sneeze at.
I do this "Grill-a-Chef" thing where anyone can ask me anything about food and I will try to get them the answer. The goal being that it will enable more people to cook.

But there are other resources out there like me. One in particular stands out: Harold Mcgee, an expert on food science and author of "On food and cooking" the ultimate food science reference. If you're a food geek, he's an A-lister, and he puts himself out there to answer people's food science questions. Anyone can email him at

He'll just get back to you with an answer. Simple as that.
Amazing, isn't it.

Check out the website.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Staples: Parmigiano Reggiano

There's always at least one chunk in the fridge, if not more. I'm always buying the stuff, partly because it has a long shelf life and partly because . . . . I hate running out.
An aged cheese like this is worth so much more than the usual applications: grated with pasta or stirred into risotto. It is the gift that keeps on giving. It's great on freshly popped pop corn, it holds together my mashed potatoes, it's shaved onto salads with a peeler and shredded onto sliced apples with sea salt and olive oil. The rind goes into the freezer for my next batch of chicken stock, to which it adds a great nutty complexity. At the top of the list of possible applications? Popping a chunk in my mouth.
You might notice little bits of crunch throughout; light specks that freckle the cheese, these crystals are naturally forming MSG's (mono-sodium glutamates), affecting how your tongue perceives the cheese's taste . . . . flavor crystals if you will.

NOTE: There is no true substitution for the real deal. If you are in a pinch, grana padano will pass, or something like a cave aged gouda can be nice. Just look for those white specks, they're what make the difference.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Try something new . . . a sea urchin

I have loved sea urchin from the first moment I had it. It's a prickly little creature, whose roe is a delicacy. The flavor is something like the butter of the sea, but it's way too good to spread on toast.
I passed by a heap of sea urchin at the Lobster Place today, as I have many times. Today however, something got into me. I had never processed a sea urchin before, but I love to eat them. So I figured today I would take on something new.
I picked up three and set out for an adventure . . . . and a fine snack.
I had no idea where to start, whenever this is the case I head to what I think is the most underrated, underused resource in the world: youtube. I watched a few videos, you simply hold the thing in your hand and, using kitchen shears, make a cut around the bottom (the side the mouth is on). Give it a smell to test for freshness, (one of mine was definitely funky) Then you simply scoop the roe out with a spoon, pull off any gunk. . . . . and enjoy.

These sea urchin were very good, though not the best I've ever had. It's certainly more economical to get them whole and pick them yourself. These three cost me just over eight dollars, nothing compared to the sky high prices I've paid for the ready-to-eat roe.

If you're looking for something new, maybe you'll be willing to take the leap too.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pantry Staples: Bacon

I've kind of gotten away from from my pantry staples entries, but not because I'm not thinking about it. I actually think about it all the time. My issue is this: what can I write about in my cabinets that you, the reader, want to hear about.
So it's a fine line between singling out what is actually interesting and highlighting the mundane. What's more, it's my pantry, so nothing in there seems out of the ordinary to me.
The benefit of me constantly staring into my pantry is that it has led me to learn a little bit more about what's in there. And to a analyze a little further what's always on hand.
That brings us to what's ALWAYS on hand, bacon.
As we all know it's great to crunch into a crispy piece, but bacon's versatility never ceases to amaze me. It brings three essential traits to a dish: smokiness, salt, and pork fat. Three traits that go well with almost everything . (I feel obligated to include the word "almost" here, but I can't actually think of anything off hand that wouldn't benefit from some bacon)
I usually go for the thicker cut stuff, I prefer more substantial pieces. I look for a good balance of muscle tissue to fat (see pic). A lot of meat in bacon looks appealing, but it is the fat that carries the bulk of the bacon flavor, and so the fat that passes it on. For this reason I always reserve the fat, it makes great sauteed veggies, and is the perfect fat for tender buttermilk biscuits.
Also, you might have noticed the word "uncured" popping up on packages in the meat section. This is because responsible meat processors (unofficially starting with niman ranch) have ceased to use sodium nitrates, a known carcinogen. Since the USDA requires that anything that is labeled "cured" use sodium nitrates, products not using them must be labeled "uncured". However, rest assured they're certainly cured, in layman's terms anyways, and very delicious.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Goosebump Beans- True Red Beans & Rice

I’m not quite sure why, but in the winter months my recipes slow down. They involve not necessarily more work, but more time. Maybe it’s the lack of produce that excites me and/or I want to eat more hearty filling food. Whatever the reason, in winter heavier ingredients made with full flavors make for full bellies.

This recipe definitely meets all of those winter criteria; in fact it epitomizes them. These beans can take up to three days to make. With drawn out steps to build flavor. There is pork, smoky pork, and then some more pork; culminating in delicious beans. I had known of this method for years, but the first time I had the chutzpah to take it on was to see my great friends out of New York. It was an occasion for many reasons. Recently I was missing my friends, so for nostalgia's sake, I made some of these beans.

If you’re going to measure the value of your time by the results of how you spend it, then there is no better endeavor in my opinion; short of spending time with your friends.

They’re called goosebump beans- if you don’t get ‘em when you taste ‘em, then you didn’t make ‘em right.

Goosebump Beans

1 lb. dry kidney beans

2 smoked pork shanks (and/or ham hock)

2 medium onions, medium dice

2 green peppers, medium dice

5 Stalks of celery, medium dice

5 Garlic cloves, sliced

2 tbsp tomato paste

3 bay leaves

1 pack Andouille sausage (Cajun) - approx. 12 oz.

¼ cup Plain white vinegar

**Note- Don’t add salt to this recipe until the very end! It brings many flavors together, and if you adjust too early in the process then it may become way too salty.

1. Spread your beans out on a sheet pan and pick through them to make sure there are not stones or debris. This seems like a superfluous step, but you’d be surprised how often I actually find little rocks, even from the finest sources. Once clean, place them in a large vessel covered with at least three inches of water, soak overnight.

2. Now we essentially make a smoky pork broth in which we’ll eventually cook the beans, it could be done the day before or the day of. Place the hocks/shanks in a stock pot along with all the veggies, the tomato paste and the bay leaves. Cover this whole mess by three inches of water and bring it to a simmer over medium low heat. Let this cook until the meat is literally falling off the bone- three to four hours.

3. Kill the heat, remove the pork chunks from the liquid. Pick the meat off the bones and return it to the liquid along with the soaked beans. If needed add more water so that this is covered by three inches, and bring to a low simmer again.

4. As this is coming up, render the andouille well over medium high heat. Brown it well, this lends significant flavor to the mix. Once it’s nice and brown add it to the beans along with the vinegar.

***It will take at least an hour and a half for the beans to cook, maybe more, as they do so, keep an eye on the water level, the beans will thicken it but it should be reasonably loose through the cooking process otherwise the heat won’t distribute well. You will also need to stir occasionally, when you do be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot well. If you do go to stir and the bottom feels caked on and burnt, DON’T scrape it up. Transfer the beans immediately to a new pot and continue cooking. You don’t want to incorporate that burnt flavor into the dish.

5. Once the beans are well cooked and breaking open they’re ready to go. Season it well with salt, give it a good stir and allow it to marry

Put a heaping spoonful of some white rice, garnish with some sliced scallions.

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