Categories
Dinner Party Gluten Free Index Korean Meats Seafood

Bo ssäm (roasted pork butt wrapped in lettuce)

[one_half][I] grew up eating a fair amount of salad. Not that I particularly liked it back then. The way my mom always made it, it had tons of raw onion, which was a bit overwhelming for my kid palate. But salad was a fact of life in our household. My father once said, in his characteristically unselfconscious way, It’s like greeeease for the body. (Thanks, Dad.) But there were times when my mom, rather than make a salad, would simply set out a plate of romaine lettuce alongside what my sister and I refer to as “ghetto salad dressing,” or soy sauce mixed with mayonnaise.

We would most simply dip the lettuce in one of the sauces and have at it. Other times (and this was particularly the case when we had a leafier lettuce, like red leaf lettuce) we would get all fancy and stuff the lettuce with rice, meat and kimchi before slathering on some ssäm jang and sending it down the hatch.

I always thought my mom just did this, as she sometimes admitted, because she was too lazy to make salad dressing. (Hell, sometimes she couldn’t even be bothered to put the soy sauce in.) I had no idea that the thing we were eating had a name, that it would one day become one of the most fashionable dishes in New York, and that it was called ssäm.

* * * * *

My sister was recently in town, and was flying solo for the first time in years. As much as I love my two nieces and brother-in-law, I was eager to have some alone time with my big sis. In particular, I was tremendously excited to think about what might go down in our kitchen during Daisy’s visit. In the past, she’s always taken the lead with cooking. And people who know what’s good for them generally let that happen. Like the classic play drawn up by Doug Collins: Just give the ball to Michael, and everyone else get the f**k outta the way. But this being Daisy’s first visit to SF since the genesis of Babychili, we naturally discussed who might be the alpha cook during her stay. In particular, I had planned to host a dinner party for my sister and her Bay Area friends, as well a few of my foodie locals. We diplomatically agreed that it would be a collaboration, but for whatever reason (Boredom? Fatigue? Morbid curiosity?), Daisy more or less handed me the reins.

By now, you know that I can’t take a shit without going off on how great David Chang is. Ever since reading about it in asian jewish deli, I had really been wanting to try the Momofuku bo ssäm, and predicted (accurately) that it would be an uncontroversial choice for our dinner party. Non-Koreans, Non-New Yorkers, and those unfamiliar with the cult of Chang may fairly ask: What the fuck is a bo ssäm? As I mentioned above, ssäm refers to food that’s wrapped in something, usually lettuce. Bo ssäm is a popular dish in Korea that consists of lettuce wrapped around boiled or steamed pork belly, kimchi, and inexpensive oysters (sometimes spiced to mask their dodginess). It is typically consumed with some cheap-ass beer and some cheap-ass, freezer-cold soju. (In Korea, craft alcoholic beverages are best left to others—the Japanese, for instance.) Make no mistake. Bo ssäm is some delicious-ass anju, or drinkin’ food.

Tip: grapefruit masks cheap liquor.

Leave it to Chang to seriously dress up this classic bar-food dish by stepping up the quality of all of the ingredients: Slow-roasted pork shoulder instead of boiled belly. Oysters suitable for a raw bar. Sauces tweaked to be richer and bolder. Heck, you can even forgo the cheap booze and rock a nice riesling. If you’re in NYC, you can reserve this much sought after dinner for 6 – 10 people at Ssäm Bar for $200. Or, you can (quite easily) make it yourself. And that’s what we did.

* * * * *

DINNER

First course was a classic ceviche that I started the previous night (at about 10PM, intending to have a late-ish dinner and forgetting that it needed 4 hours to marinate).

The second course was also a bit of a bonus: I had asked for volunteers to supply oysters, and our good friend Caleb was more than happy to oblige. The thing is, I never told him how many to bring. Another beautiful thing about preparing this meal at home: At Momofuku, the bo ssäm dinner comes with a dozen oysters. For the same number of people, we had four dozen.

Oysters were purchased from legendary SF fishmonger, Sun Fat Seafood. Their home page charmingly reads:

*** Good news for Oyster Lovers.  We are currently had a varieties of oysters.

Yes, u haz! Caleb brought a dozen of each:

Beau Soleil (CAN)
Kumamoto (CA)
Hama Hama (WA)
Coromandel Bay (NZ)

We shucked and ate the first 2 dozen, and left the remaining oysters for our main.

Daisy was in charge of the third course, which consisted of 50 of her ridiculously delicious pan-fried mandu. We at this with David Chang’s ginger scallion sauce, which, as many of us agree, makes virtually everything taste better.

Then came The Main Event. A 7-pound pork shoulder from Magruder Ranch that I slow-roasted and served with bibb lettuce, rice, and four garnishes: kimchi (that I bought from First Korean Market), puréed kimchi (a first for me), ssäm jang, and, of course, ginger scallion sauce. What really put this over the top, however, was the oysters. To demonstrate, I carefully loaded a lettuce leaf with rice, pork, and a sprinkling of each condiment. As I readied a meaty, teardrop-shaped, Hama Hama oyster belly, our friend Cecil exclaimed:

You put that on TOP of the pork?
Yes.
Oh, DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN!!!

A silence fell over the room, soon to be replaced by sounds of lip-smacking and swooning. The assembled bo ssäm was an insane marriage of umami and acid, creaminess and crunch, sweetness and salt. People actually stressed over whether there would be enough pork (there was, barely). To call this “the best bo ssäm of my life” doesn’t do it justice. This was flat-out the tastiest dish I’d eaten in a long, long time. My sister called me a “genius” for the overall success of the dish. I wish I could take credit for it, but the truth is that it’s absurdly simple to make.

* * * * *

Bo ssäm
from Momofuku

the pork
1 whole 8- to 10-lb bone-in Boston pork butt (skin off)
1 C granulated sugar
1 C plus 1 T kosher salt
7 T light brown sugar

In a roasting pan that snugly fits the pork shoulder, rub a mixture of the sugar + 1 C of salt all over the meat. (If you’re into this sort of thing, you can see footage of Martha Stewart getting really into rubbing down a pork butt.) Discard any excess sugar and salt, cover meat loosely with saran wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, but ideally overnight.

Preheat oven to 300F. Pour off any liquid that has accumulated around the pork, and cook the meat, fat side up, for around 6 hours until fork-tender (it took mine 8 hours to reach this state). During cooking, baste the meat with pan drippings every hour. When done, remove pork from the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Immediately before serving, rub pork all over with the brown sugar + 1 T salt and cook in a 500F oven for 10 – 15 minutes, until the sugar has caramelized and formed a beautiful, pig-candy glaze. Serve pork with

the accompaniments
at least 1 (but possibly 2 – 4) dozen raw oysters, shucked
1 C kimchi
1 C coursely puréed kimchi
1 C ginger scallion sauce
1 C ssäm sauce
2 C high-quality (we like the Nishiki brand) short-grain white rice, cooked
2 or 3 heads of Bibb lettuce

ssäm sauce
1 T ssäm jang*
1/2 T gochujang*
1/4 C sherry vinegar
1/4 C grapeseed oil

*Ssäm jang is a relatively thick paste that (along with gochujang) can be purchased at any Korean market. Typically, this paste is diluted with water or oil. Chang’s version of the sauce gives it added heat and acidity.

Eating instructions: Grab a lettuce leaf. Wrap around any combination of meat and accompaniments. Bite, chew, swallow, repeat.

Dessert was strawberries with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar. (Thanks, Cecil!)

* * * * *[/one_half]

[one_half_last]

(Yes; Caleb is wearing a SpongeBob band-aid.)

The fabulous Miss Akua.

riceandwheat shrinks from the paparazzi.

Her husband, however,

… does not.

Food sis and food bro.

[/one_half_last]

Categories
Essay Index Rant

Perspective

[one_half]You may find yourself wondering what exactly goes on at Babychili headquarters that allows an entire month to go by with no posts. Fear not. There will be no shortage of the type of gratuitous verbiage you’ve come to expect from this blog. Should I offer some lame apology and then bitch about how busy I am? No; fuck that. We make our own beds, and choose how we spend our time. Instead, I’ll offer a confession to all you non-food bloggers out there. It has to do with how a food blogger views the universe. It’s not the most attractive thing about us, and it’s not what many of us would like to admit out loud, but it is true:

We are obsessed with stats.

CPM, Unique Impressions, Pageviews, Bounce Rate, Returning Visitors … You name it. They are like crack to a food blogger. There’s nothing like the frequent, fleeting approval that comes in the form of daily, unique visits to your site. It’s not the numbers themselves. It’s the subtext: Hey. You’re cool. We like you just well enough to have briefly paused at your site for, at minimum, x seconds. Keep up the swell work, and there is a minuscule chance that someday, we will perhaps rescue you from the slow, suffocating death that is your day job.

To the self-righteous among you who attempt to deny this, I have this to say: bullshit. Why else would you get so worked up about getting rejected from food porn sites like TasteSpotting (TS) and foodgawker (FG)? Why do you want your photo there in the first place? Immortality? Narcissism? Might it have something to do with the fact that the traffic on your post increases at least tenfold when it’s featured on one of those sites? Yeah, Sarah and Chuck (of TS and FG, respectively) have got it going on, and they know it. God bless ‘em. No one, beyond my 20 friends on Facebook, would have ever heard of my site if it weren’t for them. Do I get a little upset when a photo gets rejected? Of course. What red-blooded obsessive-compulsive wouldn’t? But ultimately, I realize that it’s impossible to argue with “we just liked other pictures more.” (Usually expressed by the referees as “Dull/unsharp.”) Right? I mean, you can’t argue someone into liking something, in the same way that you can’t debate someone into being attracted to you. (“Contention I: I am hot …”)

The dangerous thing about getting photos posted on these food porn sites is that the ensuing bolus of traffic is, in fact, like crack. Once you get a taste, perhaps several in a row, you get quite accustomed to certain outcomes. “Normal” (i.e., non- “enhanced”) traffic on a new post becomes sorely disappointing, or deflating, by comparison. It might as well never have existed. As a result, you could find yourself, for example, shooting pictures in a style that caters to these sites. Making meals multiple times for the purpose of a reshoot. Buying specific equipment to improve your chances of getting featured on the site. Wondering whether you should schedule a dinner party for 4PM to get better light. All fine things, as long as you know and are comfortable with what your objectives are.

At some point, I completely lost perspective.

This is how a crazy person views things: I have a very small blog, so my daily traffic on a non-post day is something like 50 unique visitors. The traffic when I get a post featured on both TS and FG on the same day? Hundreds to thousands. In sum, not high enough to crack the nut, but a hell of a lot better than 50. And that’s not including the residual traffic I get from TS and FG on days 2 – 5. Since it’s not realistic to count on getting featured at both sites, let’s be conservative and say there’s a 10-fold improvement in traffic. If I post at 1/5 the rate I normally would, BUT make sure that each post has a killer photo that will likely make it in, I’m still getting twice the number the impressions I would otherwise.

So. If I’ve cooked a nice dish, have a good story, have perhaps written a post, but have no photos taken in decent light, what should I do? TS and FG likely won’t accept any of the photos. A sane person would go ahead and post. In my distorted, stat-fiending perspective, I found myself thinking, No one is going to read this if it’s not on TasteSpotting. (Which is not true, incidentally.) But having that as the standard became paralyzing. Do I reshoot the whole thing? Do I try to get a hero shot with just one of the ingredients? Maybe I’ll just hold off and work on something else …

Then fellow blogger Jean from Lemons and Anchovies (which is a fantastic site, if you haven’t already visited) said the thing I needed to hear:

@lemonsanchovies: @brhau I’m sure your pictures are fine. Post already!

And that’s when I finally articulated mentally what was (in retrospect) obvious, but what I had, up to that point, failed to convince myself of: The point of my writing this blog is not simply to maximize the number of impressions. Duh. If it were, would I be throwing up a fucking marathon post about sous vide short ribs? Further, if I want to develop as a writer, what I need to do is write regularly, even if no one reads it. Cook, and write. I need to get over all this hand-wringing about whether the food porn gods will look kindly upon my pictures.

So that’s it. I’ve decided to give slightly less of a shit about getting stuff onto TasteSpotting. Not that I won’t continue to try like hell. But as a start, I will soon “release” a post that doesn’t contain a single gawkworthy photo.

Coming Soon—A dinner party, featuring David Chang’s Bo ssäm[/one_half]

[one_half_last][/one_half_last]

Categories
Beer Can Chicken Chinese Fusion Index Korean Poultry Vietnamese

Beer can chicken, 6 ways

[one_half][M]y goodness, has it really been that long since July 4?  That would have been the date of our 3rd quasi-annual Battle Beer Can Chicken Competition, held at the frozen tundra (otherwise known as “The Inner Sunset”) where Chez Babychili can be found. And for the record, pictured above is the second-best chicken I tasted this year (sorry, @riceandwheat! 🙂 ).

Battle Beer Can Chicken (BBC) was, in many ways, the inevitable outcome of gathering a bunch of socially awkward, Type A science geeks at a backyard BBQ. As the organizer, I quickly realized the following things about my labmates:

  1. We tend to take after our socially awkward, hyper-competitive, lead geek (otherwise known as our “thesis advisor”) .
  2. We have an unusually high percentage of people who could be described (for better or for worse) as “foodies.”
  3. We likely had no other plans for July 4. (Lab, anyone?)

I had always been interested in attempting a beer can chicken, so I began campaigning early for a collective, one-day work stoppage to hold this food contest. Due to above realizations, this was not a tough sell. It just made so much sense. I mean, we all love food, right? Why not try to channel that love toward an activity of mutual annihilation? The rules were fairly simple: Bring, dress, and carve your own chicken. It must be cooked on the grill with a beer can in its cavity. Popular vote decides the winner. To up the stakes, I assembled a mantle-worthy traveling trophy out of a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy, a rubber chicken, metallic gold spray paint, and glue. The prize was dubbed “The Golden Gob,” in honor of Will Arnett’s character on the greatest show ever to be cancelled by Fox.

The inaugural BBC was a smashing success, with 8 competitors representing 3 countries. One particularly enthusiastic German (whom I will only refer to as “Mr. F”) entered not one, but two birds for consideration. My wife, just to make us look bad, made a Zuni chicken in the oven. The recipes also spanned the globe, including a Tandoori-style chicken and a black tea dry rub. I personally entered a take on pollo a la brasa, inspired by the signature dish of New York City’s Flor de Mayo. The only mildly awkward thing about the whole affair was that I, uh … won my own contest and trophy. I felt a bit like Stephen Colbert accepting applause on behalf of his interview guests. But I graciously accepted the award with an appropriate degree of humility.

A couple years passed between the first and second installments of BBC. In 2007, Esme was born. And in 2008—well, dealing with a 1-year-old’s nap schedule isn’t exactly a walk in the park. But by 2009, I had run out of excuses. The Golden Gob was to go up for grabs once again. And alas, it fell to foreign hands, as the diabolical Dr. H became the first Austrian national to take home the vaunted prize with a chicken he describes as simply, “The Bruno.”

Confused, disappointed, and frankly a little embarrassed, I immediately began plotting my revenge. The anticipation reached a fever pitch with this year’s BBC III, as official entries rolled in from defending champ Dr. H and foodblogging juggernaut Rice and Wheat, who had previously ghost-written recipes for her husband (“Wheat?”) that were good enough for 3rd and 2nd place in the first two competitions. Game on.

Both Dr. H and r+w employed what we refer to as the “giant chicken” strategy, which is simply: Use the largest bird you can find. According to this school of thought,  larger birds will be juicier when done. Also, if grill space is shared with a less attentive competitor, a smaller bird may dry out if not removed early. Indeed, r+w’s entry (described by one onlooker as “Gigantor”) weighed in at a whopping 6.5 lbs, requiring a beer can reminiscent of a pony keg to hold it up. And this time, the two heavyweights went on the grill together.

The remaining entries were all in the neighborhood of 4 – 4.5 lbs. Asian flavors dominated this year, with 4 out of the 6 entries sporting flavors from our planet’s largest continent.

Equipment I cannot say enough good things about the Classic Old Smokey Barbecue Grill (#18), which we used to cook all 6 chickens. What makes this particular make and model ideal for this competition is its 10.5″ of clearance above the grill, which accommodates vertical placement of virtually any chicken we are likely to use. Because the lid is cylindrical (rather than domed), you get this amount of clearance regardless of the lateral position on the grill.

I mocked my friend Reid for bringing a wire beer can chicken holder. Normally, a chicken should be able to stand up with its legs and can in classic, tripod formation. However, I quickly ate my words when I realized that my marination strategy had left my chicken too floppy to be free-standing. Reid was kind enough to let me use the holder, which I now grudgingly recommend.

Grilling instructions None of us is an expert at barbecue, so we worked together to share grill master duties. Though a proper beer can chicken calls for indirect heat, we knew we had to get 6 birds out by lunch, so we put 3 each on 2 grills, which covers much of the usable surface. That’s worked well for us in the past. The target temperature for the grill was 350F. At this temperature, a 4.5 lb bird takes about an hour and a half to cook (with the larger ones taking about 2 hours). You can go as low as 250F, but it takes longer. Fresh coals were added at the one hour mark. Doneness was determined by each individual, but the consensus temperature was about 170 – 175F in the thickest part of the thigh.

* * * * *

THE RECIPES

As you might imagine, I can provide the most detailed information about my own entry, which was called “I wish I were short ribs.” It is essentially my sister’s homemade kalbi marinade, which I once used on my weekly oven roast chicken because I had a lot of the marinade around.

“I wish I were short ribs,” a kalbi-style beer can chicken

A 4 – 4.5 lb, high-quality chicken
1/2 onion
1/4 C Chinese or Korean rice wine
2 T brown sugar
1/4 C usukuchi (light soy sauce)
2 T dark sesame oil
dash of fish sauce
3 cloves crushed garlic
togarashi (Japanese red chili flakes) to taste
1/4 whole, ripe kiwi
kosher salt
1 lemon
1 can beer (it matters not what kind)

Let me know if I’m crazy, but I dry brined and then followed with the marination. Could I have simply added salt to my marinade? Possibly. But I wasn’t sure how much to add, and I knew that my way would work. So I patted the chicken down with paper towels and rubbed about 1.5 T of salt inside and out. I let it sit in the fridge, loosely covered, for 2 days.

To make the marinade, puree onion and mix with rice wine. In a separate bowl, mix brown sugar with soy sauce, sesame oil, and fish sauce. Stir into onion-wine mixture. Add fresh crushed garlic and togarashi to your liking. Mix well.

Then take 1/4 of a whole, ripe kiwi. Mash with a fork, and stir vigorously with 1/2 cup of the marinade. Using your hands, massage this kiwi-marinade mixture all over the chicken, being sure to put plenty underneath the skin. Put the well-rubbed chicken into a giant zippered plastic bag, and pour the rest of the marinade on top. Refrigerate 24 hours, turning once.

The kiwi will make the chicken extremely floppy and tender, so it does help to have a wire beer can chicken holder. Drink about 3/4 of the beer. Using a “church key” style can opener, punch a number of additional holes on the top of the can and liberally add marinade and juice from 1/2 of a lemon. Use the other half of the lemon (trimmed if necessary) to fashion a plug at the neck hole to trap steam.

Grill @ 350F over indirect heat for about 1.5 hours, or until the temperature reads 175F in the thickest part of the thigh.

Some notes from the rest of the field:

“Bruno 2.0: Bigger, juicier, tastier …” [pictured above]

Ok, here it comes:
dry rubbed the night before (not brined) with the following spices:
sweet paprika
some salt
some celery salt
garlic powder
onion powder
white pepper
ginger powder
black pepper
caraway
cayenne pepper

full recipe ( in German :-)) with a not so tasty picture here

“Chicken 888”

We wet brined / marinated for ~5 hours the day before in water, sugar,
salt, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, green onions, and chinese five spice.
We then air dried it overnight on a rack in the fridge. In addition to
beer our can was packed ~1/3 full of garlic.

“Imitation Seoul” [pictured at the top of this post]

i’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seats…

dry-brined for 36 hours with salt and korean chili powder
morning of BBC, brushed chicken with gochujang
made bbq sauce consisting of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, gochujang, rice vingear
towards the end of grilling, basted chicken with some bbq sauce to get some caramelization on the skin

we also adopted the strategy  (a la dr. h) of finding the largest chicken we could – our dream was realized at trader joe’s with a 6.5 lb chicken.

“Pho-king Good Chicken”

My chicken was just a super simple marinade with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, salt, pepper, and oil. Inspired by grilled chicken you get at Vietnamese restaurants (ga nuong). I think the recipe I followed was from Andrea Nguyen. Other than that, I didn’t really do much to the chicken.. and I didn’t cheat by getting a giant bird 🙂

“DNF” [Disqualified in advance for pre-cooking in an electric smoker.]

Are you speaking of my famous “Unjustifiably Disqualified Chicken”?

Brined overnight in liquid
Dry rubbed with a blend of every spice I could find (emphasis on Adobo, and some dried peppers I collected in Oaxaca in 1999)
Smoked 1 hour at low heat (200ish)
Beer can BBQ’ed 1 hour
Finished with a secret bitterness sauce!

* * * * *

THE OUTCOME

Since this is a popular vote, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is virtually zero chance of my winning this again next year. But what can I say? Revenge is a dish best served with a beer can up its butt. I think everyone agreed that all of the chickens were absolutely delicious. Not a dud in the bunch. The voting reflected that, as r+w and I required a tiebreaker (most #1 votes) to determine a winner by the smallest of margins. The auspicious “Chicken 888” rounded out the medalists.
I’m already looking forward to BBC IV, and hope to see everyone here again next year!

* * * * *

Oh, and we also ate vegetables.[/one_half]
[one_half_last]

chicken dance
sweet, sweet victory

vegetables on stovetop grill
[/one_half_last]

Categories
Chinese Index Noodles Sauces Vegan

Ginger scallion noodles

[one_half][O]ccasionally, a shockingly simple combination of ingredients will transcend the sum of its parts. Marcella Hazan’s Chicken with two lemons is a notable example. David Chang’s ginger scallion sauce is another. Both now make regular appearances in my weekly diet.

If you follow this blog, or say, talk to me for about five minutes, you’re likely to get the impression that (1) I am a hardcore carnivore, and (2) I have recently become more than a little obsessed with David Chang. (But you know, not in like a threatening way … More like, You are my culinary soulmate. Let’s hang out together; maybe check out some antiques! Text me?) It’s true. I am a big fan of the meats (and David). So honestly, when I first read this recipe excerpted on Amazon.com, I was a bit dubious that a vegan dish could elicit such a passionate response from a devout porkatarian like Chang. I just didn’t get it. It’s basically a bunch of raw onions and ginger. How good could it be? I’m not even a huge ginger guy. But there wasn’t much to lose, so I gave it a shot.

As my sister described in her über-popular guest post, it ain’t easy to impress my mother in the kitchen. The one dish I remember making for her that she liked was a rice salad that I saw on Lidia’s Italian Table. She liked it so much, she told me how she planned to make it herself:

I’m not going to use cheese. I’m going to make my own way. Some chamgireum, a little bit of gochujang, some gim …
So you’re basically going to make bibim bap.
Yeah.

Mom was visiting from LA, and I was pretty certain she’d never had this before, so I made her the ginger scallion sauce. She was, as always, deeply suspicious of my measuring the ingredients. She’s constantly giving me a hard time about this.

Why did you measure that?
I just wanted to make sure I was close. It doesn’t have to be exact, but the ratio should be close.
[disapproving silence]

She was actually most excited about trying the fresh ramen noodles, which she had never had before. We ate lots of the instant stuff growing up. Sapporo Ichiban, Original Flavor, soup base diluted two-fold. I joke with my Asian friends all the time about this. How much soup base does your mom use? To a man: half. My mom actually felt the need to remind me of this fact. You know, you should only add half of the powder. Yes, Mom. I remember. And I don’t eat instant ramen.

Bottom line: Not only were the noodles a hit, my mom ate the noodles, continued to spoon more of the sauce onto her rice, and started listing things that she would use that sauce on. Bibim bap. Brown rice noodles (good call). Mook (another excellent call). Dad’s really going to like it. Jason might not like it, because he doesn’t like ginger. She ate the rest of the sauce the next day while I was at work, and asked me to buy more green onions on the way home. And then went out and bought green onions herself. She made the sauce herself that night, and—I am not shitting you—measured  the ingredients. I could not believe what I was seeing. Mom, are you actually MEASURING that??? She short of shushed and waved me off. I didn’t push it, and instead took it as the greatest possible compliment. She was so intent on reproducing the recipe that she sucked it up and used measuring spoons. I’m 38 and I’ve never seen that happen. Mom also emailed me several times after she went home to ask me where I thought she might be able to find usukuchi and exactly what kind of sherry vinegar to buy.

So what is it about this dish that makes it so magical? It’s the transformation that occurs when you combine ingredients that, if taken alone, would be unpalatable to most people. The intensity of the onions and ginger is cut by the oil. The oiliness is mitigated by the acid. The sauce does not taste overwhelmingly of onions or ginger, but instead adopts an emergent third flavor that is robust and clean. It gives you the sensation (which I rarely get from vegan food) that you’re eating something substantial. And it’s fucking delicious.

* * * * *

Ginger scallion sauce
from Momofuku
(dresses roughly 6 – 8 four oz servings of noodles)

2 1/2 C thinly sliced scallions (greens and whites; from 1 to 2 large bunches)
1/2 C finely minced peeled fresh ginger
1/4 C grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 1/2 tsp usukuchi (light soy sauce)
3/4 tsp sherry vinegar
3/4 tsp kosher salt, or more to taste

Mix.

That’s the whole recipe. The additional tips Chang offers are: correct the seasoning (if necessary) and allow the mixture to sit for 15 – 20 minutes. That’s it. Of course, being who I am, I couldn’t possibly let you off the hook without offering a few tips of my own.

Ingredients Since scallions and ginger play such a prominent role in this recipe, it stands to reason that you want those particular ingredients to be as fresh as possible. It’s usually pretty easy to find fresh scallions. My go-to neighborhood grocery does not generally have good fresh ginger. How can you tell? It should be firm, fragrant, and have smooth skin. Break off the size you want from a larger piece. If it is dry and fibrous on the inside, dump it! And make a mental note to scold your grocer. It is worth being anal about this. I get mine from a Chinese market, because I know that it’s high turnover.

Re: usukuchi. This is a type of soy sauce that is lighter, sweeter and saltier. Kikkoman and Yamasa are common brands. If you can’t find it, you could substitute 1 tsp of regular (not low sodium) soy sauce. You may need to add a bit more salt to taste.

Prep My only comments here are about the ginger. Since the skin is very thin, you can remove the peel easily and quickly by scraping it with a spoon. A vegetable peeler also works. Can you use a microplane here, instead of mincing? You could. I like knife work, so if a recipe calls for mincing, I generally do it with a chef knife. The reason I don’t use a grater or a microplane to mince is that I find that doing so releases a lot more juice. You also end up with very fine strings instead of small pieces, so the texture is different.

Yield I usually don’t discuss yield, because people tend to have their own ideas about what constitutes a “serving.” But in this case, the book claims that the recipe makes about 3 cups. Not the case. The sliced scallions take up space because they’re little rings. When you add liquids, they occupy a lot of the empty space, and on top of that, the scallions eventually wilt. So you get about 1.5 cups, which isn’t too bad. Correspondingly, I add about half of what’s recommended of the sauce to noodles, and that works out about right.

Use The sauce can be deployed as a general, magical condiment. As presented above, it works great with noodles. What kind of noodles? In Chang’s world, ramen is king. But he acknowledges that fresh ramen is not always so easy to come by. When I don’t feel like hoofing it all the way to J-town, I have been known to use fresh chow mein noodles (known in NY as lo mein), which can be found at virtually any Chinese supermarket, and even some American ones. I’ve also had good luck with what Chinese markets call “vegetarian” noodles, which are eggless and contain alkaline salts (sodium and potassium carbonate). Thus, they are basically the same as ramen noodles. And as my mom brilliantly notes, this sauce would be fantastic on brown rice noodles. I don’t recommend using soba noodles. Why? Because craft, hand-cut soba noodles are quite delicate and I think would be overpowered by this sauce. I find the dried soba noodles you can get at the supermarket to be more or less inedible.

Putting the dish together If using fresh noodles, cook about 4 oz of noodles per person in boiling water that has been adequately salted. I cannot stress this enough. It’s striking how much flavor these noodles have if properly seasoned. If not, they taste like nothing. I like my noodles hot, so rather than shocking them, I cook until almost done. With fresh noodles, you need to start checking at about 2 minutes. When they are softened, but still quite toothy, remove from heat and drain. Add about 3 T of the sauce, and mix. If desired, garnish with sliced scallions, togarashi, and any number of other condiments: meat, pickles, a fried egg, pan-roasted cauliflower, etc. Serve immediately.

What’s up with the picture? If you check out the accompanying picture in the book, you’ll see Chang stuffing his face with some ramen noodles that have brown stuff on them. That’s not the ginger scallion sauce (which is presumably what’s in the tiny bowl in the center). My guess is that it’s hoisin sauce, or some liquid from the sliced pork belly nearby, which likely contains hoisin. [/one_half]

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sliced scallions and minced ginger

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Categories
Guest Post Index Korean Poultry

Guest post: Korean mandu for an American kitchen

[one_half]THE EVOLUTION OF MANDU

[U]ntil my brother made me write this blog entry, I always made a long apology whenever I prepared Korean food. Depending on what I was serving, my apology would include some version of the following statements: It’s not the way my mom made it. Koreans usually don’t serve x with y. If my mom tasted this she’d smack me. This is definitely not authentic, but…. Naturally, I made similar statements in my early drafts. And my brother, who is by far my biggest fan and my strongest supporter, kept shooting my drafts back to me. Not sure it’s there. And, worse: Good start!

Bewildering, I thought. Why is this hard? Is it because I’ve never written about cooking? Have I lost my touch? If it weren’t Ben, I might have flaked on this assignment and quietly pretended my insecurities never came up. But it’s Ben. So I found myself, over the past several weeks—thinking more about mandu and more about how I think about mandu—than I ever have in my life.

See, when it comes to mandu, I know how it’s supposed to be done. I’ve seen my mom prepare a hundred or so every month ever since I can remember. She begins with a pound of beef tenderloin, which she chops finely with a meat cleaver. She seasons this with fresh garlic, black pepper, soy sauce and salt (because they both season meat differently). Next, she takes a hunk of handmade tofu (I think she used to make it herself when we were really little kids) and squeezes all the water out of it with a linen bag that she sewed up specifically for this purpose. (Cheesecloth doesn’t work.) She seasons the crumpled tofu with sesame oil and salt. She lets the tofu and the meat sit in separate bowls, absorbing seasonings at room temperature, while she approaches the vegetables. It’s a different vegetable every time because mom cooks seasonally, but my favorite mandu vegetable was always Korean squash from her garden. This she juliennes, salts, drains, and seasons. Then she chops a small handful of her own kimchee, which she’s always made with less salt (doesn’t last as long, but it tastes fresher), onions, ginger, and sweet shrimp. When the moment feels right to her, she mixes everything in a large bowl, binds it with one or two egg yolks, and then sits at the table to stuff the mandu.

When we were really really little, she made the dough for mandu too, by mixing flour, water and salt. I don’t remember this myself, but my dad, who prefers homemade dough, tells me about it repeatedly on mandu making days.

Mandu is the only dish that my mom ever bothered acting humble and polite about, because she knows flat out that she makes the best. I tried to follow the legacy, and throughout my adulthood, I fixed mandu all the time. Of course, I’d try some shortcuts. I hate dishwashing, so I’d try to season everything in the same bowl (why not? It all ends up in the same bowl anyway). I’d use store-bought kimchee. I always bought meat that was ground in the store. None of my shortcuts worked. My mandu tasted flat, watery, or muddy.

So I gave up and started trying to make mandu the way my mom did. I asked the Korean market to call me on tofu delivery days. I made sure my mom made kimchee for me whenever she came to visit. And when I finally thought I might be able to make it the way it was supposed to be done, I prepared mandu for my parents. That afternoon, the butcher handed me a package that he ground up himself right then and there. “That there’s tenderloin with some prime rib thrown in,” he said. “Your momma’s gonna love that.” I even made the dough, which made my dad sigh as he watched me flatten and stuff each little round. Mom ate my mandu with a completely neutral look in her eyes. “How is it? Is it the way it’s supposed to be done?” I asked. “Sure,” she said flatly. “Delicious.”

I was missing something, and it drove me crazy. Like so many foods I tried to replicate from our childhood, my mandu just wasn’t there. It was boring. It was an occupant on the table that added nothing to the meal. I had the right ratios of crunchy, savory, sweet, and salt. What did it lack? Whenever our church prepared a meal, cooks always asked my mom to taste and correct every dish before it was served. Like her mother before her, our mom was Chef to five neighborhoods. But when I asked her to test my mandu, she shrugged. “It’s good. It’s fine.”

So I sat down with my dad, the theorist. (It doesn’t make sense to talk to my mom about theories.) And together, we came up with a few mandu principles that seemed to be Pretty Good Truths.

  • Meat plus tofu. If you’re Korean, the meat is likely very lean, grass-fed beef. Tofu serves to moisten the texture of the beef, by softening it and adding a marrow-like consistency that ostensibly adds richness. By removing some of the water from the tofu, and seasoning it with sesame oil, tofu can mimic fat and gelatin.
  • Vegetables. If you’re my mother, the only reason to add vegetables is for Good Health. If you’re my father, you believe the vegetables are there to add texture, flavor, and color.
  • Kimchee. We’re Korean. That’s reason enough.
  • Mandu dough. Here’s where my mom and dad take surprising turns. Mom buys organic Nasoya wonton wraps from Safeway, or “good ones” from the Korean market. Same difference. Why? Because it’s easier, and it tastes great. My dad remembers handmade dough and just can’t get past its incomparable, light texture. He’s right. I’m sure I’ll start making this again when my children stop wanting to play with wasp nests and fire.

Here are the problems I had with these principles:

  • Meat plus tofu. As nice as my dad’s theory sounds, tofu just doesn’t replace marrow, fat or gelatin. And despite what everyone says, tofu has a strong soybean flavor, and it doesn’t, as some may assume, simply absorb the flavor of beef. It tends to take in initial flavors and retain them. It also has a high water content and a tendency to toughen into grainy crumbles when crushed and cooked at a higher temperature. If you mix tofu into ground beef in the same way that folks create meatloaf mixtures, what you get is a soggy mixture that retains the metallic tang of raw blood, even after it’s cooked.
    This is why my mom drained and seasoned the tofu separately, and tossed it gently into the beef, so that there were small lentil-sized pieces of beef mixed with small lentil-sized pieces of sesame oil-flavored creamy tofu. But even with gentle tossing, you still get some odd texture/flavor challenges.
  • Finely chopped (but not ground) vegetables and kimchee follow mom’s approach of preserving the integrity of individual flavors. I think this is a great principle, as long as the flavors work together to present a glorious whole. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of disparate stuff. I’ve tasted mandu made with various leftover stuff from the fridge, and this random approach, mixed with the raw blood problem above, can produce the impression of garbage.
  • Mandu dough. I could probably make time to make these, but right now in my life I know I don’t want to.

Given the above, this is what I did:

  • Ground chicken. Store-bought, hormone-free, vegetarian, free-range chicken that has been ground by your butcher offers the right texture, flavor and fat content. We use dark meat. (My BF makes mandu with ground pork, and that’s also fabulous.) The minute I went with a higher fat content meat with a naturally tender texture, I challenged the whole idea of individual nuggets of flavors, and went instead for what I perceived to be the ultimate goal of meat + tofu: richness, tenderness, subtler meat flavor. To shift away from ground meat’s tendency to get rubbery or bouncy, I also added a small amount of fine white breadcrumbs.
  • Good quality frozen spinach. There are a lot of situations where fresh blanched spinach is so superior to frozen spinach leaves that it’s appropriate to sneer when frozen is suggested. This is not one of them. I chose spinach because there is something lovely that happens when wilted spinach leaves are entangled in the golden, garlicky chicken. Kind of the same way that there is something lovely between pork and caramelized cabbage. Another bonus is that the frozen leaves won’t go bad if I decide on too many last minute tickle fights or soccer games.
  • No kimchee. I know: freaky. I know this means I might get my Korean card taken away, but there you have it. I like kimchee when it’s stewed, and I like it fresh. I’m just not crazy about it when it’s lightly steamed inside a nugget of meat. To me, that bright, spicey, tart flavor just kind of goes limp and sour in there. (So how did my mom do it so well? I don’t know. Possibly magic.)
  • Yangnyum soy sauce. Yangnyum, usually used as a dipping sauce, creates deeper flavor in meat that is essentially just steamed. Yangnyum cuts the grittiness of spinach, brings out the round savory capability of chicken, and supports the caramelizing of the mandu.
  • Mandu skins. See above.

And from all this thinking and rewriting arose some personal discoveries:

  • Be the mandu. Mom makes amazing mandu, and trying to achieve greatness in mandu is a worthy journey. But maybe trying to exactly replicate her inimitable style doesn’t make sense. Whatever happens in her kitchen, with her tools, and her magical touch is as particular as her thumbprint. Maybe knowing how mandu is supposed to be done is going to come down to how I apprehend, understand, and interpret the mandu I was brought up knowing. I don’t have a sunny, cement-walled backyard where Korean squash and shepherd’s purse grow rampant with sharp, sweet green onions. I don’t use the same warped wooden cutting board, or make the same musical cutting sounds with my knife. Maybe that’s why mom treats me like I’m stupid every time I tried to make them exactly the way she does. It’s her way of pushing me out into the culinary world and saying, Take what you know … and then go get ‘em honey.
  • Deliciousness can come at any price. Or rather, as my brother quoted from Momofoku, “… deliciousness by any means.” Ground chicken and frozen spinach are lowly ingredients, and it feels somehow unglamorous not to be using something exotic or difficult. But put them together, seasoned properly, in mandu, and something glorious happens. Browned in a pan, they come out golden, rich, complex, and full of umami. I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t try to eat at least of dozen of these in one sitting. Have I tried making them with lobster or oyster mushrooms, or chestnuts? Yes. Are they as delicious as the chicken ones? No.
  • Time is an issue. Like my brother, I have never been afraid of taking time to make good food. Make my own condiments? Drive across town for a single ingredient? Practice pulling noodles by hand? All good things that I have done and loved. But once children came into my life, cooking moved to occupy a lesser portion of my daily life. So, also like my brother, I focused on creating uncomplicated dishes efficiently and well. With this approach to mandu, I can make 50 yummy mandu in about 20 minutes. That’s important to me.

So what does this all mean? Well after having written this blog several times over, I think the bottom line is that mandu—like all dishes—is supposed to move gracefully through time and generations. (I say gracefully because as open as I try to be, there are still ingredients that I feel might take mandu to a bad place, like cheese spread or ketchup.) Edification can be a form of cherishing, but it can also restrict natural evolutions that take place from kitchen to kitchen. So no more apologies. Right?

Right. Still, the real test came when my parents were visiting us, and we found ourselves having to slap together a fast meal. Mom foraged around and found a bag of my quickie rogue chicken mandu in my freezer. Despite myself, I had a quiet anxiety attack. She’s going to know I cheated. She’s going to think I’m an unfit mother because I can’t make mandu the real way while still keeping my children safe and engaged in fun algebra exercises. Instead, for the first time in my life, my supertaster, critical, talented mom gave me unqualified praise. “WOW delicious!” she exclaimed, totally surprised. “Tell me how you made this! Write it down! I want to make that for Esme!”

* * * * *

HOW I MADE THAT MANDU
(according to my BF Leeann, who watched me, and then wrote it down for me, and my 6-year-old daughter Jinju, who took the above picture)

Mandu (Korean dumplings)
1 T dark brown sugar
1 tsp fresh crushed garlic (I use a mortar and pestle)
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 C finely minced scallions, sautéed until bright and fragrant, cooled to room temperature
1/2 tsp fresh ginger juice
2 T toasted sesame oil
1/5 C (scant) soy sauce
1 extra large egg, separated
5 oz frozen, good quality spinach leaves, thawed, lightly drained (don’t squeeze it so much that all you have left is fiber)
plain, fine white breadcrumbs
1 lb ground chicken
1 package wonton or gyoza wrappers
olive oil or grapeseed oil*
water

Yangnyum dipping sauce
1 T dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 T minced scallions
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 T ground, toasted sesame seeds
1/4 C soy sauce

*My mom and I use these two oils for Korean cooking. Mom never uses canola or soybean oils because she thinks they taste nasty (I think they are fine). I never add sesame oil to my cooking oil because I think that intense, direct heat adversely changes the flavor (Mom thinks I’m crazy to think so). Olive oil adds a lovely richness to Korean cooking. Grapeseed oil preserves clarity. Those two we agree on.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the first 6 ingredients. Mix in the ground meat and spinach. Add egg yolk to bind, and mix (reserving egg white in a separate bowl). As my BF puts it: add bread crumbs until moisture is something you can only sense (and hear) in the mixture rather than see.

The wonton wrapper will have one side that looks more floured than the other. Drape half of the wonton wrapper across the top of the egg white so that only half of the floured side is moistened. Place about a teaspoon and a half of the filling mixture in the center of the wonton wrapper on the moistened side. Fold wrapper in half over the mixture. Seal the edges and gently flatten the filling to press out air bubbles and allow for more even cooking. It takes a little practice to figure out the proper amount of filling to use, but once you do, the assembly moves fairly quickly. I usually place the assembled mandu on a large piece of waxed paper. Repeat until filling mixture is gone. Makes about 50.

At this point, you can freeze them, on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, as long as the mandu are not touching each other and the skins are not too damp (if you find yourself making damp ones, just sprinkle cornstarch on the wax paper). After they are frozen solid, you can store them in a large zippered bag until you’re ready to cook. Never defrost frozen mandu. Simply follow the directions below, which are the same for fresh or frozen.

To make yaki mandu (potsticker style) heat about 2 T of oil over medium heat in a nonstick frying pan. Place mandu in the frying pan (leaving enough space between them so they can breathe, which means you will have to cook them in batches). When the mandu starts making a tchka tchka tchka sound, add a few tablespoons to 1/4 C of water to the pan and cover until the top of the mandu are steamed through, slightly translucent and wrinkly. The filling should feel firm to the touch. Bottoms should be golden brown. Transfer to serving plate, and repeat until all are cooked. Serve with dipping sauce.

These are also yummy in soup. Bring homemade stock or broth to a light boil, and season soup with salt, black pepper, and a pinch of freshly crushed garlic. Cook mandu until they float up to the top, and then finish with minced scallions and a few dots of sesame oil. Warm until the scallions are bright green and the sesame oil is fragrant.

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open mandu with filling

closing mandu

uncooked mandu on cutting board

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Categories
Dinner Party Index Korean Meats Sous Vide

48-hour short rib

[one_half]”A very important thing to realize is that tougher or fattier meats always have better flavor; this is why osso buco and the short rib are so delicious and filet mignon will never be found on a menu where I am chef.”
—Mario Batali

[I] almost cried when I saw that Pó bear was on my side in this ongoing debate I’ve been having with my sister over the merits of filet mignon. She’s a fan. I just don’t get it. I put filet mignon right up there with pork tenderloin and boneless, skinless chicken breast as cuts that just don’t have what I’m looking for when I’m in the mood to eat meat: what my friend Gene calls The taste of victory. Give me a shank, a shoulder, or a thigh any day. [Tender or lean] vs. [tough or fatty]. One way or another, people tend to fall into one of these two general camps, even if they don’t know it yet. Don’t think so? Go ahead and check out what your coworkers are ordering at the taqueria. There will almost certainly be a contingent that’s hell bent on getting carnitas. Then there’s the steamed/grilled chicken people. The ones who are planning to work out later. In my observation, rarely does one side order from the other’s menu (my sister, being a notable exception, associates freely with both).

Then there’s the short rib. A true crossover meat that appeals to both the carnitas and the “fresh mex” crowd. How has this become the case? Have the tender/lean-meaters simply never seen what uncooked short ribs look like? I believe the answer lies in the undeniable deliciousness of the short rib. If you’re going to make an exception, have a “cheat day,” whatever you want to call it … grilled, marinated kalbi is likely to be near the top of your list.

Short ribs have been present for a disproportionately large fraction of my favorite food moments to date. I grew up going to Korean church picnics, so that’s many pounds of kalbi consumed right there. I also have a special affection for Alice Waters’s Braised Beef Short Ribs with Gremolata, my favorite recipe from the oustanding Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, and one of the first really great meals I prepared myself. So my jaw dropped when I saw this post from asian jewish deli about short rib pastrami. Which he put into a reuben. Holy fucking shit. I think about short ribs a lot, but this never occurred to me.  I knew immediately that I had to have it.

As it turns out, my St. Patty’s Day dinner for Erin was long overdue. I had promised her corned beef. Why not corned short ribs? In a reuben? For a dinner party? Regular visitors to this space may have gathered that I also started to become obsessed with sous vide cooking at about this time. In deciding whether or not it was worth setting up my own sous vide rig, I wanted to cook something where the technique would make the most extreme difference. Consensus, and Thomas Keller, seemed to point to short ribs as the real game changer. Why? The general principle here is that you can select a temperature at which the connective tissue (e.g., collagen) dissolves. Given enough time at said temperature, meat gets softer, because the muscle fibers can no longer adhere to each other as well. However, this process can occur at temperatures below what’s necessary for browning. Such temperatures can be stably maintained with an immersion circulator, or any number of alternative setups for sous vide cooking. With tougher cuts of meat like short rib, cooking with this technique can result in degrees of tenderness generally not associated with medium rare doneness.

So there it was. A near-perfect storm of circumstances compelling me to cook short ribs really low and really slow. It was as if The Island wanted me to do it. So I did. Four times.

* * * * *

Attempt #1: The Keller way

Before spending 4 – 5 days curing and then attempting my reuben for strange dinner guests, I wanted to give sous vide short ribs a test run under lower-pressure conditions. For my first pass, I went straight for the Thomas Keller method, as I could best determine. I considered getting his book, Under Pressure, solely for this one recipe. However, reviews seemed to indicate that much of the book was focused on practical details that were only relevant for professional kitchens. So I consulted The Google, and found this post by sousvidegeek, which references Keller’s book. From it, I inferred that the ribs were simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked for 72 hours at 56C. As I am wont to do, I seasoned the ribs three days in advance. After sous vide’ing, I seared the ribs in a very hot cast iron skillet, deglazed the pan with residual liquid from the plastic bag, and made a simple pan gravy with butter, shallots and red wine.

I’ll confirm that you’ve never had short ribs (or anything else, for that matter) quite like this. If you are accustomed to cooking thinly sliced kalbi on a grill, you might expect medium rare short ribs to have a gradient of doneness from the outside in, along with a fair bit of toothiness. In my case, aside from the seared exterior, the meat was uniformly pink and medium rare. It was not quite fork-tender with this preparation (I needed a knife), but the meat was extremely tender, much like a prime rib. I do not (as others might) assert that this format is superior to the non-sous vide forms. But it is undeniably different, in a way that you kind of have to try to believe.

The flavor of the sous vide short ribs was also novel to my tongue. When braised, short ribs typically assume robust, rich flavors. When grilled, kalbi-style, their beefiness melds seamlessly with the sweetness of the marinade. But with the Keller treatment, the flavors were strikingly subtle, and almost smoky. Ironically, more filet mignony than I’d like to admit.

I would say the only real disappointment I had with this dish was the state of the tendon. For kalbi eaters, I’m talking about the delightfully crunchy sleeve of connective tissue right up against the bone, otherwise known as “the best part.” The part that Americans tend not to eat. With the braised version, it’s decadent and slightly molten. Alas, the 72 hour short rib tendon is still tough, and tenaciously adhered to the bone.

My reservations notwithstanding, I knew there was some serious potential here, so I proceeded to

Attempt #2: The reuben (and the runaround)

At this point, I was ready to give the short rib reuben a shot. Or, as I ceremoniously posted to my Facebook status: “Let the corning begin!

What is a boneless short rib? First order of business was to get my hands on at least 5 pounds of boneless short ribs. I wanted to make pastrami the normal way (smoked) as well as sous vide (smokeless). I figured 2.5 lbs of each was the minimum to justify the effort. Here’s where things can get a bit confusing if you don’t know precisely how to identify what you want. I first asked the butcher at my local grocery whether this quantity of boneless short ribs was easy to come by.

Oh, yeah. Boneless short rib is also called a brisket. We do that all the time. There are a few 12 lb briskets sitting in the deli case right now.

Uh … no. I think? I mean, brisket isn’t short ribs, right? Wasn’t that the whole novelty of making pastrami out of short ribs in the first place? That it wasn’t brisket? But I wasn’t confident about it, so I smiled, said I’d think about it, and went straight home to consult the wikipedia entry on short ribs. Sure enough (at last according to the cartoon), brisket is in the breast area, and not at all contiguous with the ribs. The next morning, I called back, spoke to a different butcher, and was politely reminded how many years that particular employee had been a butcher (fifteen), and that, yes, boneless short ribs are the same thing as brisket. I had also contacted several specialty butchers, the first of which had this to say:

Sure. That’s the top of the chuck, and we’ve got … LOTS of chuck.

Huh? I’m certainly no expert, but even I can plainly see that the top of the chuck is basically right behind the head, i.e., nowhere near the short ribs. Now I really thought I was losing my mind. I did some further internet trawling and found this excellent article on CHOW that identifies the different possibilities for short rib (none of which, incidentally, is brisket). What specialty butcher #1 meant to say was “bottom of the chuck.” That made more sense.

Okay, without further laboring the point, the take-home message here is that if you want boneless short ribs with the same meat they use to make kalbi, you ask for “boneless short ribs from the short plate.” That was the magical combination of words that made my request unambiguous to all four butchers I spoke with. As it turns out, unless there is some special at Costco or something, most butchers will simply charge you for the rack, bones included, and offer the cut the bones off for you. If that’s what you end up doing, by all means keep the bones! You could leave them on, you could use them for stock, you could prepare the tendons separately, etc. I opted for 5 lbs of boneless meat from the bottom of the chuck, also called a chuck roll. I did this knowing that the meat was leaner (and likely tougher) than the short plate, but that it would be full of flavor. The meat was sourced from the Five Dot ranch, and I didn’t have to pay for the bone weight. It was cut into 6 strips, roughly equal in size, about 1.25 inches thick. Whew! First task complete. The rest was easy, by comparison.

Why doesn’t the picture look like a reuben? In my previous post about the reuben dinner party, I referred to my dish as A modern, disassembled reuben. I consciously avoided using the term “deconstructed,” because that term, as I understand it, implies some degree of fidelity to the spirit of the original dish. My intent here was reinterpret the dish, using similar elements but arriving at something else entirely. I would say that I had mixed success.

The meat I corned all five pounds of the short ribs using Michael Ruhlman’s recipe from Charcuterie. One modification I made was to weigh out the salt. I found that 10 oz of Morton’s kosher salt per gallon is considerably less than 2 cups. I then rinsed the meat thoroughly, vacuum sealed half of it and put in the freezer (for use later with treatment #4). The other half was vacuum sealed with some pickling spice, onion and celery, and cooked sous vide for 48 hours at 60C. To make it a “pastrami,” I coated the cooked meat with a freshly ground, 1:1 mixture of coriander seeds and tellicherry peppercorns. Inspired by David Chang’s 48 hour short rib, I subsequently fried the meat in about a pint of 365F grapeseed oil in a 10″ cast iron skillet for 3 minutes per side. The point here was simply to sear the outside of the meat. But as you can probably see in the picture above, I way overcooked it. It came out well-done, which essentially negated the 48 hours of sous vide’ing. I think this happened for a few reasons:

  1. Chang’s recipe is for shocked or refrigerated meat. The length of frying is to get the middle warm but not cooked. I was pressed for time, so I took the meat straight from the water bath, patted it dry and fried it warm.
  2. Curing the meat in the corning brine appears to affect the texture of the beef. It definitely emerged from the brine firmer than it was pre-corning. This likely contributed to the firmer texture in the cooked product.
  3. Chuck roll is significantly leaner than the short plate, which is presumably what Chang uses. The cured, lean (firm) meat thus accounts for more of the total volume and mass of the cut.

On the positive side, it was still pretty awesome, as you might imagine deep-fried corned beef would be. Light and crunchy on the outside, somewhat tender (though not nearly fork-tender) on the inside. All the spices I used were ordered fresh from World Spice. I believe that using fresh spices had a profound impact on the flavor and aroma of the meat.

The rest In case you’re curious about the other elements on the plate, I made my own steamed buns so that I could add caraway seeds and do a play on rye bread. I used this recipe here, adding 2T of caraway seeds. The buns were fine, and the caraway seeds did add sweetness and fragrance. But I’d just as soon buy buns from an asian market, since they’re cheap and just as good. Instead of Russian dressing, I made a classic aioli, to which I added sriracha for color and heat. One can probably imagine how that tastes, and suffice to say I’ll be making it again. I also did a braised sauerkraut, which I was unhappy with. I’ve yet to make a cooked version of sauerkraut that isn’t bitter, and would appreciate any suggestions/recipes from people who have.

All in all, I thought this was fun and turned out reasonably well, but it was not the most amazing thing I’ve made. Couldn’t figure out how to plate this attractively, since there wasn’t a broad palette of colors to work with. And there were lighting issues with the photo, etc. I went back to the store and bought some normal short ribs for

Attempt #3: Chang wins

The photo at the very top is my prep of the 48-hour short rib from Momofuku, which, as you may have guessed by now, was my favorite preparation of the four. Apologies to Amy Kim for not trimming the scallions. I don’t know what I was thinking. Actually, I had no plans at the time to blogify this. If I had, I probably would have strained the sauce a little better, as well. But as they say, the proof of the pudding’s in the eating, and I did plenty of that here. The texture was exactly what I had hoped for—a very superficial, crisp exterior and pillowy interior. The flavor of the meat, as in the Keller prep, was simultaneously delicate and rich. The kalbi marinade provides just enough sweet without overpowering the ribs, and is complemented nicely by a light dusting of Maldon salt. This is what sous vide cooking’s about, folks:

48-hour short rib
adapted (more or less identically) from Momofuku

1 1/3 C water
5 T usukuchi (light soy sauce)
4 tsp apple pear juice
1 1/4 T mirin
1/2 T Asian sesame oil (i.e., with pictures of dragons)
5/8 C sugar
5 grinds black pepper
1/4 small onion
1/2 small carrot
2 scallions, whites only
1 garlic clove

4 pieces bone-in short ribs (5 – 6 oz each), trimmed of any silverskin and cut into individual ribs
grapeseed or other neutral oil or rendered pork or duck fat for deep-frying

To make the marinade, combine all ingredients (except the meat and oil/fat) into a small saucepan and rapidly bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain, and cool in the refrigerator. Next, vacuum seal each rib with 1/2 C of marinade. I did not salt the meat in advance, though I see no harm in doing so. Ziploc sous vide bags are pictured above, but you can also get by with normal ziploc bags, as described here. Chang recommends double bagging them; the degree of anal retention is up to you. If you do double bag, I’d recommend putting water (or if you’re paranoid about leakage, marinade) in the outside bag so that you don’t have a pocket of air insulating your meat. Cook for 48 hours at 60C.

When the ribs are done cooking, immerse the intact bags in ice water. Note that the bags will be holding a fair amount of heat, so it helps to have LOTS of ice and a large reservoir of water. Ideally, you want to cool the ribs quickly and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

When you’re ready to roll, liberate the ribs from the bags, reserving the braising liquid. Strain the liquid and reduce over high heat to about a cup.

To finish the ribs, remove bones and trim off the tendons and any chunks of fat. Notably, the bones here slide right out (same ribs I used for the Keller protocol). So that 5C difference in cooking temperature does make a difference. Try to trim such that the large faces are relatively flat, and the thickness is uniform. I reserve the tendons and remnants and fry them, but that’s up to you. Heat grapeseed oil in a cast iron skillet about 1/4″ high to 365F. The goal here is to brown the outside of the meat and get the inside warm, but not to cook it further. You don’t want the oil to get too cold, so for a 10″ skillet, I’d do one or two ribs at a time. As for the timing, you need to determine by trial and error. Chang recommends 3 – 4 minutes on each side. This really depends on how thick the cut is. Odds are, your pieces will not all be of the same thickness, so to be on the safe side, I’d recommend that you try the first rib at 2 – 3 minutes a side, based on thickness. I feel that you get a lot of information out of that first rib, and from there, it’s easy to correct the cooking time.

In the book, Chang gives very explicit instructions on how to plate and what garnishes he uses. I didn’t have all of that stuff. I did have the scallions (blanched for 10 seconds in salted water and shocked). Be sure them to trim them to avoid ridicule and unsightly roots. I did not have/make pickled carrots, braised daikon or mustard seeds, so I quickly pickled a kirby cucumber. Slice thinly and toss with a 3:1 mixture of sugar to salt to lightly coat. Let it sit for about 10 minutes, and it’s ready.

Serve ribs, sliced, over a couple tablespoons of reduced braising liquid and any garnishes. Immediately before serving, lightly dust ribs with flaky salt like Maldon or Diamond kosher salt. Luxuriate.

* * * * *

I had almost forgotten about my 2.5 lbs of corned short ribs in the freezer when our friends Reid and Mary invited us to their housewarming/barbecue, which was to feature both a smoker and a grill from the venerable Old Smokey. Perfect opportunity for

Attempt #4: Going primitive

OK, this isn’t a sous vide prep. But it does qualify as slow and low, though it’s by far the quickest and highest temp treatment of the four. I was very interested to try a traditional pastrami made with this cut of meat. So Reid took the ribs that I sealed off in #2, coated them with the same coriander/peppercorn mix, and cooked them in an electric smoker for about 3 hours at 104C. By the end of the 3 hours, we were pushing on quite a bit past Esme’s naptime. So I was off in a corner entertaining her with Neko Case songs, desperately trying to stave off the inevitable meltdown. An excited Reid came by to give me the heads up:

You might want to go over there and check out your handiwork.

Several people were huddled around the three strips of Five Dot chuck roll pastrami as Matt sliced it into thin wafers. Raquel was already waving one of these pink wafers between her thumb and forefinger, and hounding me about its contents.

What kind of meat is this? What part of the cow has this flavor? It’s pink! Why is it pink? There’s so much FLAVOR!!! What is that? What does that mean?

It went over well. Three people asked for the recipe, including one labmate who just two weeks earlier had dismissed my choice of corned short ribs as “foodie nonsense.” He’s now a believer. My verdict? It was the most flavorful of the four, but the least tender. It had roughly the texture of a flank steak, done medium. As much as I like the lower temp preparations, there’s a deepness and structure to the flavor of the meat that you can only get with browning and smoke. I’ll definitely do this again, but with meat from the short plate.

* * * * *

The Esme rating

Well, let’s see … She was asleep for preparations #1 and #3, and a little overtired when #4 was ready to eat. So I only have the well-done reuben meat to go on. She mostly wanted to try it because it was also what her new friend Naya was eating.

Daddy, I want that red thing.
You mean what Naya’s eating?
Yeah. Mommy said I could have more.
Do you like it?
Yeah. It’s too crunchy. It’s grown-up food, I think. Are we going to have ice cream?

She also liked the buns, though she prefers them white (no caraway seeds), with turkey and cheese.

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thomas keller sous vide short rib

sous vide pastrami reuben

vacuum sealed short ribs in marinade

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Categories
Dinner Party Gluten Free Index Soups Vegetarian

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

[one_half][S]mall details often tell you a lot. For instance, you can usually tell someone’s really into clothes by checking out their accessories. Shoes, socks, belt, watch. Someone who doesn’t care will figure, No one’s looking at my socks. On the other hand, are they kinda funky? Like in a cool way, not an odiferous way? Yeah. Didn’t happen by accident. You kind of have to go out of your way to buy funky socks. That’s someone who’s not capable of letting it slide. Same goes for food. When I’m at a restaurant, I know the kitchen is totally geeked out when they send out an absolute killer soup or salad. Doesn’t happen all that often, actually. Sure, if you’re going high end and paying at least eighty bucks for your meal—it better be good. But what about a more casual spot, like a neighborhood restaurant, or a bistro? How many lentil soups have you had where you honestly thought, This is the bomb… ? Whenever that happens (and for me, that was perhaps once), I’m really excited about the rest of the meal, because I know that kitchen’s too proud to send out another fucking chunky, flavorless lentil soup with carrots.

Given my opinion of soup-as-window-to-a-kitchen’s-soul, perhaps it was a bit ambitious for me to decide, on the day of my (already overly ambitious) dinner party, to add english pea soup to the menu. I had originally bought the peas for a salad, but was concerned that most of the peas would simply accumulate at the bottom of the bowl and then be eaten separately from the greens, or not eaten at all. Then I remembered this cool post on Eatfoo about making a consommé out of pea shells. I wanted to try that, so I decided to wing it with a soup recipe and see how things went. Had I ever made soup before? Of course not. OK, my first post was about soup. But I think Korean soups are a different animal. I mean, to my knowledge, no one makes creamy, pureed soups in Korea. If so, those people have not immigrated here and served said soup to me.

At some point that day, I had what I thought was a pretty good soup. Then I thought, You can never add too much sour cream. Apparently you can. Just barely. I had to make a judgement call as to whether it was OK to send the course out. It didn’t taste awful—it was just out of balance. I hadn’t bought enough peas, so the flavor kind of disappeared in all that sour cream. I went back and forth about this, but ended up serving it. Here it is—this pale, pathetic-looking thing:

Reactions were decidedly mixed. Marc says he liked it. Bernadette ate the whole thing, but didn’t comment. I knew I would get an honest opinion from Naya, their nine-year-old son. Eh. It’s so-so. Thanks, kid. That’s actually the answer I needed, but understandably did not get from the grown-ups. But I knew there was a great soup in there. I tasted a glimpse of it during prep, and I felt certain I would have to go back and try it again.

* * * * *

The week after my dinner party, I was on a mission to find more peas. I knew they wouldn’t have any at my local grocery, so I turned to  The Mission Bay Farmers’ Market, which has been a welcome addition to our culinary wasteland of a campus. It’s small and doesn’t have the most exotic ingredients, but does have reliably good produce. I make it a point to stop by every Wednesday to take a break from endless meetings and benchwork. What I found weren’t the prettiest shells I’d ever seen, but the peas themselves were fresh, and still a bit sweet. This time I bought 4 lbs, to make certain that I wouldn’t run out.

Last spring at around this time, Erin made the Zuni Cafe’s Pasta alla Carbonara, and was excited to have found fresh english peas for the occasion. A couple things stood out to me about that experience: (1) In this context, the fresh peas tasted pretty much the same as frozen peas. (2) For a one-and-a-half-year-old, Esme was pretty good at shelling peas, and seemed to really enjoy doing it. She’s always been a busy kid. I try to allow my daughter to “help” me cook whenever I can. She insists on pouring the dry oatmeal into her bowl before I microwave it, wants to have her hand on the measuring cup as I add water, etc. I thought she would get a kick out of helping shell peas again, despite likely not remembering the work she did last year. So I let her have at it.

At first, she was shelling like a champ. She’d sometimes miss the peas in the corner of the pod, but went about her work at an impressive clip. She particularly liked throwing the empty shells into the large mixing bowl, where I had been collecting them. So much so, that she eventually just started throwing intact pods in there. I had to gently distract her, so that I could go back, fish out the good ones (which was not trivial), and finish the job.

* * * * *

A worthwhile decision to make, though I didn’t see any mention of this in any of the recipes I read online, is whether to use your peas raw or cooked. To some extent, it depends on the freshness and age of the peas. If they are mostly on the small side and are tender, juicy, and sweet, I am very much in favor of using them raw. I like being able to highlight the more delicate flavors that elude us for 3/4 of the year. If the peas are more mature, large enough to fill most of the volume of the pod, or are at all starchy, you probably want to cook them. Either method will yield a fine soup, and a good portion of the flavor will come from your shell stock, which you can’t get from the frozen section. Cooking them accomplishes two things. First, it improves the yield of the recipe. Unless you have an extremely powerful blender, a purée of raw peas will leave behind a significant amount of pulp. This will accumulate in your strainer and less will make it into the soup. Secondly, cooking, even a little bit, tends to mellow out the flavors. Raw peas can be a bit grassy-tasting, but a quick blanch can take that edge off. A superficial benefit to cooking the peas is that (as long as you don’t overcook them) you can get more vibrant color. Something to keep in mind is that any amount of cooking begins to summon the richer, split-pea flavor that is for the most part absent from fresh snap peas, english peas, etc. The longer you cook, the bigger role that family of flavors will play, so it depends on what you want.

Let’s start with the consommé.

English pea shell consommé

about 4 lbs fresh english peas in the shell
water
kosher or sea salt

Make sure to pop a couple of the pods open at the market and taste the peas. They lose flavor rapidly after picking (and even more rapidly after being shelled). Ideally, you want peas that you would have been happy to eat raw. I’ve made this with young, immaculate shells as well as the slightly wizened shells pictured here. I couldn’t tell a big difference, so don’t be put off by discolored shells. Remove peas and reserve. (You may want to enlist a small child to help you with this.) Rinse shells thoroughly. Go through the spent casings and discard any obviously rotting or excessively dirty ones. If there are a lot of woody stems attached to the end of the pod, as there were here, I would go through with a pair of scissors and cut those off. For really young pods, this isn’t really necessary.

In a large stock pot, barely cover the cleaned and trimmed shells with water and bring to a boil, optionally adding about 1/2 tsp of salt. Immediately lower heat and simmer for 20 mins. Remove from heat and strain solids. At this point, the stock will be dilute and very lightly colored. Reduce at medium-low heat until the stock becomes golden and intensely flavored. For me, this happened at about 1/4 to 1/3 of the original volume. (You can mark the original level with a rubber band on the handle of a wooden spoon to track how much you’ve reduced the stock.) Periodically taste the stock and add salt, if desired. Be careful not to add too much at the beginning, since the stock will continue to become more concentrated. You can cook it down quite a bit more, if you want. In the Eatfoo post where I saw this recipe, David reduced the stock by 20-fold. Yowza!

Starting from 4 lbs of peas, this made 6 – 8 cups.

Incidentally, this consommé would be a fantastic vegetarian option to use as a stock for my kong namul guk recipe. For the soup itself, I consulted quite a few recipes, but ended up essentially adapting the Chilled Pea and Tarragon Soup from Bon Appétit.

English pea soup

about 1 lb of shelled english peas (I didn’t weigh them, but I think 4 lbs of pods yielded about 4 C of peas)
2 T butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
salt
4 C english pea shell consommé
1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 T heavy cream
2 T sour cream
freshly cracked black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat butter until bubbles subside and sauté shallots at medium heat until tender, but not brown (about 3 mins). Add consommé and bring to a boil. Add peas and salt and boil until peas are bright and just tender (no more than 3 – 4 mins). Remove from heat and add to blender along with tarragon, both creams, and several turns of black pepper. Purée until smooth (do this in small batches if you have a small blender—safety first!) Correct seasoning and strain through a fine sieve or chinois. I prefer not to force the contents through the mesh, because then you end up forcing fibers through that you were trying to strain out on the first place. If it’s going too slowly, you can tap the sieve and/or use a spoon to stir and redistribute the unstrained fraction. I can’t resist eating the pulp, but you can also just throw it away. Allow soup to cool and serve chilled or at room temperature. If desired, garnish with fresh tarragon and some sour cream. If you use heavy cream, as I did for the top photo, it creates a “slick” on top of the soup, which you may or may not find disturbing.

* * * * *

The Esme rating

Try as I might, I could not convince Esme to taste the soup. She may have had flashbacks to her first experiences with solid baby food. Puréed peas were the first thing that she absolutely hated. My mom got such a kick out of watching Esme grimace with disgust (and perhaps a sense of betrayal?) that she kept feeding it to her to elicit that reaction. Esme does like frozen peas, however. Not just peas that were once frozen. She likes them straight out of the freezer.

Esme, do you like these peas better, or frozen peas?

Frozen peas. But these are pretty good, too. They’re too crunchy.

Did she like the fresh peas enough to eat more than a few? Hard to say, really (see left).

* * * * *

The Ben rating

So Erin and I recently went to this cool restaurant in the Mission called Schmidt’s (as in Christiane Schmidt, of Walzwerk). They sell these light-as-air pea pancakes that beautifully juxtapose deep-fried crunchies with peas so fresh I find myself wondering whether fryolator is their natural habitat. Anyway, after all this, I saw a pea soup with lemon and mint on their menu. I had to order it and check out the competition.

All’s I’m saying is that the head-to-head score is Ben/Esme: 1, Christiane: 0. Not even close, actually. Though I’m sure she’ll come back to haunt us in the braised red cabbage category …

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Categories
Dinner Party Essay Index

Judges’ Table

[one_half][P]erhaps the part of Top Chef I enjoy most is the awkward bit of melodrama that occurs in the last 5 – 10 minutes of each episode. You know, when Padma sends the Elimination Challenge winners back to the stew room to summon “some of your colleagues.” Accompanied by a doomsday gong and some uber tense music, the judges proceed to chastise and infantilize the bottom performers of the week, often eliciting unironic tears. I particularly like the character Tom Colicchio plays—He is simultaneously flabbergasted, disappointed, personally offended, and silently outraged at, for example, a contestant’s decision to pair peanut butter with tomatoes. My wife really has a difficult time watching it, in the same way that she has trouble with Curb Your Enthusiasm or the original version of The Office. But for me, this is pure psychocandy. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But I can’t not watch. Erin and I will often joke with each other:

Did you taste it before it went out?
Did you make the sausage yourself, or is it from Whole Foods? [disappointed eye-roll]
Well. The flavors were good, anyway.

When we say these things to each other, it’s always in good fun. But there are times, particularly if I’ve spent a lot of time on a dish, that I feel like I’m standing in front of my own judges’ table. And not for the winners.

* * * * *

I love cooking for dinner parties. I love everything about it: the menu composition, the shopping, the planning, the mad dash to get each course out … I’m a bit sloppy and slow as hell, but I do feel like these are the rare times that I really try to push myself to do something extraordinary. I used to play it safe, and only choose dishes that have a LOT of latitude. Like braises. I mean, how exactly am I going to screw up cooking fatty meat really slow? But at some point, I figured that if I’m going to try something that’s a bit out there, a dinner party with close friends is one of the lower stress environments to try it. Worst case, they’re probably still going to like you. Plus, they’re generally willing to cut you some slack for being an amateur and free. But it’s still stressful to me. After all the shopping, the anticipation, the prep … it’s a little deflating to screw things up. On top of that, dinner parties are usually hard to schedule, and there’s never enough time. Now that I have a kid, I feel the added pressure of trying to execute efficiently while the limits of my wife’s patience are being repeatedly tested by my two-year-old daughter. But it usually works out. And when it does, it’s very satisfying. The stress is also part of what makes it fun.

So when Erin asked me to cook dinner for her new friends the Javiers, I was all over it. Yes! I’ll make those braised short ribs! No … I’ll make corned beef! No! I’ll do corned short ribs … Wait—I’ll sous vide that shit!!! Over the course of a week, I went from suggesting a main dish that I’d made successfully a bazillion times, to a three course meal (increased to four courses while I was at the farmer’s market on the day of service), that involved baking (which I hadn’t done since my home ec class in 7th grade), and many other things I’d never tried before. Here was the menu:

Yam greens with blood orange vinaigrette

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

A modern, disassembled reuben: sliced “smokeless pastrami” (corned short rib cooked for 48h @ 60C, coated with crushed tellicherry pepper and coriander seeds, and pan-seared); steamed sourdough bun with caraway seeds; sauerkraut braised in apples, juniper berries and gin; cave aged gruyere; sriracha aioli

(above paired with a Dogfish Head 90 min IPA)

Toasted marshmallow milkshake

Couldn’t stop thinking about it. I actually had too many ideas and had to edit down to the menu above. I was completely stoked to try all of these things. Right up until about 2 hours before service, when it finally hit me. I have NO IDEA what I’m doing. I was fairly certain that everything would be edible, but I quickly realized that I was a bit out of my depth in terms of gauging how well things were going. What were the dishes going to look like? What if they didn’t taste amazing? How would I react? Should I have chosen more courses with recipes? Then, the bone-chilling realization: These people don’t even know you. Which means the “friend exemption” doesn’t apply!

As it turned out, the meal was, in fact, edible. Some of the elements were downright tasty (the beer for example, was sublime). But it was not—at all—the amazing meal that I had imagined. I definitely made what were, in my mind, pretty obvious mistakes in execution. So if this were Restaurant Wars, I might be going home, even without a team to compete against.

Fortunately for me, our guests were (and are) an extremely gracious, lovely family. We had a fantastic time, and they seemed happy enough with the food. Additionally, I can now do what TC cheftestants can’t: Go back and rework every dish to my satisfaction. So over the next several posts, I’ll be telling you how I went about making things right with most of these courses. Not sure if I’ll do that salad again, since I can’t find those particular greens anymore, and my mistakes were somewhat trivial (not enough acid, not enough tasting). But if you want to make a great salad, you can start with Spinach with Marcona almonds, Beemster, gremolata & walnut vinaigrette, if you haven’t made that yet.

Coming up (today, in fact, since I made you wait so long for this one): Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

To be continued … [/one_half]

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Categories
Index Sous Vide

Suburban sous vide, Part II: How I chose my equipment

[one_half][O]K, to appease the teeming millions (and by “teeming millions,” I mean “Wendy and Brian”) I reveal the details of my suburban sous vide setup. All the below information can be found elsewhere on the interwebs—I’m not reinventing the wheel, here. But if you’ve ever seen me purchase any kind of appliance or piece of equipment, you may conclude that you want to leave the shopping to me. If you just want to know what I use without reading the explanation, the answer is:

SousVideMagic 1500D, $160
Black & Decker RC6438 38-Cup Commercial Rice Cooker, $55
SC Johnson #70055 Ziploc Vacuum Pump/Bags, $11
ViaAqua 80 Submersible Pump, $10 (totally optional)

Total price, including shipping and tax where applicable, comes in under $250. For those who want to know my reasoning, I’ll break down what I see as the most practical solutions.

To clarify, I am not evaluating what others refer to as “ghetto sous vide,” which involves either a closely monitored stockpot or a beer cooler. Although these solutions are completely fine for some situations, neither is designed to maintain stable temperatures over long periods of time. For example, if you wanted to slow-cook short ribs for 48 – 72 hours, standing over a stove with a thermometer is not a realistic option for most people. So this leaves us with solutions that are somewhat north of ghetto in price.

I was first inspired to put together my own sous vide system after reading this phenomenal post by Scott Heimendinger of Seattle Food Geek. In it, Heimendinger assembles a MacGyveresque, homemade immersion circulator for an eye-popping $75 in parts. It’s awesome. Given the going rate of about $1000 for a Polyscience 7306C (the apparent culinary standard), $75 is one hell of a bargain. And how tough would it be to build it yourself? At first, I was pretty sure that I wanted go down this road. But as I thought about it more, I came to a few important realizations: (1) I don’t have time to do this, (2) I would need to spend more than $75, since I don’t have a soldering iron, a Dremel, etc., (3) If it isn’t a robust solution (e.g., the coils burn out, it electrocutes me, I accidentally leave it in a preheating oven<–this almost made me cry, etc.), I have to deal with it myself. So that’s why I started researching other options.

* * * * *

There are two things that you need in order to do most sous vide cooking: (1) a method of vacuum sealing, and (2) very precise temperature control of a water bath.

Vacuum sealing This is the “vide” in sous vide. To paraphrase Douglas Baldwin’s excellent “A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking,” vacuum sealing prevents flavors and moisture from escaping the food, allows for optimal heat transfer between the sealed food and surrounding water, and discourages aerobic bacterial growth. The most popular consumer grade food sealers on the market these days are made by FoodSaver. In my opinion, these are generally not the best choices for sous vide. The reason is that most of the FoodSaver models automatically aspirate air from the bag, using pressure to know when to stop. This is fine if your sample is dry. However, one of the great things about sous vide is the ability to efficiently marinate your food (in oil, broth, etc.). Under vacuum, this can be done very quickly and/or with a relatively small amount of liquid. Here, I have sealed bone-in short ribs each with 1/2 C of David Chang’s kalbi-style marinade:

With many FoodSaver models, it’s not possible to package this way because the machine keeps sucking until it hits liquid. Aside from creating a mess, the bag now can’t be fused shut because it’s wet. Some people get around this problem by freezing the marinade, but that’s not always practical. Here are the alternatives:

Cheapest: Ziploc handheld vacuum pump with 1 gallon and 1 quart size bags. Costs about $10 for the pump and a few bags, and a few dollars per box of replacement bags. This is what I use, and I think it works perfectly well. I honestly can’t think of a compelling reason to upgrade from this system. It’s not perfect, but all you really need is to hold vacuum. In a pinch, you can simply press the air out of a normal ziploc, but the ability to pump out the residual air without using a straw is a vast improveme

nt, and certainly worth $10. If I’m missing something profound by not having a better sealer, I’d like to know.

More Expensive: FoodSaver GameSaver Turbo Plus. $300. These are designed to vacuum pack freshly killed animals. Of the FoodSaver products, these have a more powerful motor, and also a “Pulse” function that allows manual control of the aspiration. For a very informative guide on how to use these effectively (particularly for sealing foods in liquid), check out David Barzelay’s post on Eat Foo.

Very Expensive: A chamber vacuum sealer. > $2000. These are specifically designed to accommodate liquids. Unless you are Thomas Keller, I find it hard to imagine that you will seriously consider this option at the market price.

Temperature control Minimally, you need a heating element and a PID controller to maintain stable temperature of the water bath. In this context, a PID controller behaves as a fancier thermostat that, when properly configured or tuned, avoids large oscillations in temperature by controlling the power supply to the heating element. Ideally, you also want adequate circulation, so that the temperature of the water bath is uniform. This can be achieved by using a water pump or by relying on convection.

Cheapest: Rice cooker with standalone PID controller (< $250, as specified above)

Rice cooker: Why a rice cooker for the water bath as opposed to, say, a crockpot? One reason is that the heating element of a rice cooker is at the bottom (and not the sides). This generates a convection current, resulting in more uniform heating of the water. Another reason is that commercial rice cookers are significantly more powerful than crock pots, so they can recover temperature drops more quickly. As far as the specs are concerned, you need a simple cooker that turns on or off with a manual switch. This is because you want the power to be regulated by the PID controller and not by the electronics of the cooker itself. You also want a large-capacity cooker, since larger volumes of water will hold temperature more easily. That leaves you mostly with commercial rice cookers as your best options. Black & Decker consistently manufactures the least expensive ones, and are thus popular among the sous vide @home crowd. I chose mine mostly based on price, although it is admittedly a bit ginormous. This one also looks good, is perhaps more reasonable in size, and is the one used by Chadzilla.

Controller: Both Auber Instruments and Fresh Meals Solutions manufacture PID controllers designed specifically for sous vide cooking. The two vendors offer roughly the same prices for their controllers. I purchased the most recent model from Fresh Meals Solutions because it displays the current temperature and set temperature simultaneously, which is a nice feature.

Is a water pump necessary? The answer is usually no. In my observation, a properly tuned PID controller keeps the bath temperature remarkably stable. For anything I envision cooking, even fluctuations of a degree or two are not likely to matter (e.g., cooking a steak for 48 h). However, if you do plan on doing some ultra-precise cooking, buy the cheapest aquarium pump you can find. This one moves 79 gallons per hour, which is more than enough. There are some folks on the eGullet sous vide discussion thread who claim to get temps stable to within 0.1 C using such a pump. There are a couple caveats here: (1) Aquarium or fountain pumps generally aren’t designed to operate at high temperatures. If you keep it below about 80 C (I’ve never gone higher than about 65 C), they will probably work fine. (2) Remember to reconfigure your PID settings when using a pump, since your system reacts differently when there’s circulation.

Overall, I think this is the best solution for a number of reasons. Aside from a serious homebrew solution, it’s the cheapest. It’s insulated, so it doesn’t take much energy to maintain temperature. And you can choose to run a pump only when you need it. Disadvantage is that it takes up a lot of space.

More Expensive: SousVide Supreme. $450. If paying a couple hundred bucks more isn’t a big deal to you, this also looks like a nice option. It’s like a Williams-Sonoma-looking version of what I set up for myself. It’s a one piece unit, comes in an attractive, stainless-steel case, and is endorsed by a number of celebrity chefs. Otherwise, it likely performs identically to the rice cooker setup. It doesn’t come with a water pump, which is further argument for that feature being optional. [Update (12/27/2010): This post was apparently referenced in the forums over at Something Awful. I thought about replying, and then realized that I would have to pay a $10 registration fee for the privilege of doing so. So  for completeness, I will point out that the folks over at SousVide Supreme now offer a model called the Demi for $300, roughly $100 more than my setup. If I had to do it over again, I’d be very tempted to go this route. That said, my rig is still kicking, still slightly cheaper, and delivers comparable results.]

 Very Expensive: Commercial Immersion circulator. > $1000. What you get with these units (such as the Polyscience 7306C) is something that professionally does exactly what you want with very high precision. It is also flexible enough that you can attach circulator to a steam table pan, lexan tub, regular bucket, insulated water bath, etc. If you have the means, knock yourself out. I don’t see the advantage for most people. Other than price, the main disadvantage here is that it’s the least energy efficient. The pump runs constantly, and unless you get an (expensive) insulated bath, the insulation will certainly be worse than with other two options. I used one of these for a couple weeks. It was great and did exactly what it was supposed to. But I don’t think I’m losing anything with the downgrade.

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So there you have it. For under than $250 you can, more or less, sous vide like the pros. But you know, in your own (suburban) way. I hope you’ve found this useful, and please feel free to bring any new info on this topic to my attention. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to not having to do jack with my short ribs for another 24 hours …

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david chang momofuku short ribs with kalbi marinade in sous vide vacuum bag

short ribs being cooked sous vide in rice cooker

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Categories
Index Italian Noodles Pasta Vegetarian

Spaghettini with green garlic and oil

[one_half][F]ellow lo-temp cooking freaks can rest assured that my suburban sous vide rig is up and fully operational. I have so far been using it to make perfectly cooked eggs, unconventionally moist chicken breast, and most recently, a smokeless pastrami. Descriptions of all will come in due time. But I have been meaning to post about green garlic, and given the rapidly changing season, I felt I should do so while it is still actually available.

I like garlic so much that I have to physically restrain myself from automatically tripling it in every recipe. I’ve had dishes in my life that, even for me, had too much garlic—but I can probably count them on one hand (for you Columbians: garlic chicken at the sadly departed La Rosita was one of them). When people make faux knee-slapping jokes about “making sure that we all have garlic” so as not to suffer from one’s bad breath, I profoundly don’t get it. Garlic smells good. It smells like food.

So I was myself surprised when it hit me one day that I had never actually worked with green garlic. I’ve heard people rhapsodize about the ingredient and it always sounded great to me, but I guess I never got around to it. Availability is generally limited to the first month or two of spring, so I was determined not to miss out this year. For those of you who are unfamiliar, most of the garlic we buy comes in the form of mature bulbs, which have been cured and stored dry. Green garlic refers to young garlic plants whose bulbs have not yet differentiated into cloves. When very young, they look more or less like green onions. As they mature, the stalks broaden, and they begin to resemble leeks. They are quite a bit more delicate in flavor than mature garlic, and can, in fact, be eaten raw with little discomfort. When cooked, they take on a nutty flavor, as well as a sweetness and texture one might expect from onions or leeks.

A couple weeks ago, I triumphantly returned from my local farmers market with bunches in hand. Problem was, most of the articles about green garlic I could find online mostly discussed the very young variety, of which the entire stalk can be used. Mine were of the leeky variety, and I wasn’t certain they could be used the same way. Much like leeks, the outer leaves and ends were very tough, and didn’t seem like they would cook down easily. I was reminded of a mishap I suffered years ago when making a caramelized leek soup. I hadn’t read the recipe carefully, and thus failed to realize that you don’t use the tough, dark green part. (That went a ways toward explaining why I couldn’t get it to caramelize.) At any rate, I consulted my sister (of course), and a couple of foodie friends. They also had never used the big, leeky green garlic. So I decided to wing it and treat them like leeks. I’ll give away the answer: Yes. They are awesome. Instructions below.

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There’s a fascinating book by photographer Melanie Dunea called “My Last Supper,” in which Dunea interviews 50 great chefs and asks:

If you were to die tomorrow, what single dish, what one mouthful of food from anywhere in the world or anytime in your life would you choose as your last? What would be your choice for your last meal on earth?

Being a food geek, I was much more interested in the answers than the accompanying portraits (though the pictures, admittedly, are stunning). They ranged from the ostentatious (e.g. Gary Danko) to the elegant (e.g. Nobu—I respect him enough to overlook his desire to listen to a Kenny G CD while eating it). My all-time favorite answer is the one from Eric Ripert, who wants toast with truffles. The reason is made clear in the recipe section at the end of the book (did I mention there are recipes?). He outlines in completely anal-retentive detail how to do everything, even down to the thickness of the bread (1.27 cm), percent acidity of the olive oil (0.3), and why you should use cold butter (so that it doesn’t soak into the bread—thank you!). If anything could cement my not-so-subtle man crush on Eric, it’s this recipe. I love how you can see exactly how much of a control freak this guy is.

Obviously, I’m not a chef. But in the make-believe world in which I’m shooting the shit with Eric Fucking Ripert, my last supper is definitely spaghettini with garlic and oil. I may post about it someday, but honestly I don’t get it right every time. When I figure out how to consistently make it work the way that it does when I have those last supper moments, I’ll be sure to let you know. In the meantime, I felt that the most fitting treatment for my first green garlic experience should be a simple dish with pasta. What I made will not qualify for my last meal on earth. It will, however qualify for many meals between now and the end of May.

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Spaghettini with green garlic and oil

1/2 lb thin spaghetti (no. 11)
kosher or sea salt
2 – 3 C chopped green garlic (or about 2 of the big, leeky kind, trimmed and cleaned as described below)
3 T extra virgin olive oil
plenty of freshly cracked black pepper
about 1/2 C beef stock (probably any stock would work here, as long as it doesn’t come from a can—I used beef because I had recently made it.)

Particularly in the Bay area, you can readily find green garlic at farmers markets or Whole Foods right now. I have regularly seen both the baby (green onion-looking) garlic, as well as the large, leekish ones. When scheduling your shopping and cooking, keep in mind that their flavors fade rapidly in the refrigerator. If possible, cook them on the same day. Otherwise, leave them, bulbs down, in a cup or vase of water in the refrigerator and deploy as soon as possible.

Trimming and preparing the green garlic Like I said, I got the bigger kind of green garlic. The first quandary that presented itself to me was: how much of  it should I use? As you can see above (and incidentally, you can click to zoom on any of the pictures in this blog), each plant consists of a bulb, a light green stalk, and darker green leaves alternating from the stalk. Many people, when encountering leeks of similar description, simply look for the border between pale green and dark green on the outside leaf, and make a single cut there through the entire plant. The problem with this strategy is that you then lose a lot of pale green material in the inner leaves. If you need a lot of trimmed leeks, you may, for example, have to monopolize all of the leeks from 2 or 3 different markets in Brooklyn Heights (hypothetically speaking). A better way to deal with this is to systematically cut away only the dark green parts of each leaf, starting from the outside and working your way in. This strategy can also be used with larger green garlic, so that what you are left with is a tapered stalk.

Next, trim the roots from the bottom of the bulb. You’ll then want to clean the garlic, particularly of any dirt that may be stuck between the layers. The way to do this is to make a cut, lengthwise, down the midpoint of the stalk, leaving the bulb intact. Turn the garlic 90 degrees along the axis of the stalk, and make another slit down the middle. You are now left with a bulb attached to streamers that can be splayed out and rinsed in the sink.

At this point you can either chop the garlic, or slice it into larger (say, 1″ long) slivers. It works either way; I think it just depends on what kind of texture you want.

In a large fry pan, sauté the chopped garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat until wilted and beginning to turn golden (about 10 minutes). Use enough oil to comfortably prevent the garlic from drying out, but no more. Add beef stock and deglaze the pan, if necessary. Add lots of black pepper, to taste. Cover the pan and lower heat, cooking until the garlic becomes tender (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat.

Selecting and cooking the pasta I do think the kind of pasta matters. For sauces like this, I am partial to thin noodles, either spaghettini or angel hair. The commonly found store brands I like best are Barilla and De Cecco. In almost all cases, I will go with pasta made from refined semolina flour. In the interest of keeping my daughter healthier than me, I did briefly investigate whole wheat flour pastas. I uniformly hate them. The flavors are not always offensive, but the texture is brittle, and that really kills it for me. (For the record, Esme doesn’t like them, either. She knows what’s up.) A compromise that I have found acceptable is Barilla Plus, which is not a whole grain pasta, but rather one made from refined semolina durum flour enriched with other grains. I find this palatable, but prefer traditional pastas.

Boil the pasta in a medium stockpot with at least a teaspoon salt, and taste often, correcting when appropriate. In this case, I advise seasoning slightly beyond what you feel is necessary, because salt doesn’t dissolve well in oil. Therefore, the garlic is likely to be underseasoned. Your goal here is to cook the pasta just shy of al dente. At that point, drain the noodles and add them to your warmed skillet. Toss until evenly coated with garlic and oil. Add more stock or black pepper, if needed. Continue cooking over medium-low heat until pasta is done.

In the presentation below, I took some optional steps of tossing the pasta in fresh miner’s lettuce and serving with a farm egg that had been slow-poached and quickly seared.

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The Esme rating

Note to self: When describing to a 2-year-old child what she is about to eat, do not use the word, “garlic.”

I don’t like garlic, Daddy.
Try it. I think you will.
Noooooooooo.
OK, then do you want to try some crazy Daddy noodles?
Yeah. Can I have some of your noodles, Mommy?
(Esme often confuses Erin and me, and then immediately corrects.) Daddy? (She eats about 10 noodles.)
Esme, do you like your crazy Daddy noodles?
Yeah.
Do you want to eat them again for lunch tomorrow?
I want to eat them … right … noooooooow.
OK, baby. I’ll get you your own plate.

 

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green garlic

trim green garlic
trimmed green garlic

slice green garlic lengthwise

layers of sliced green garlic

spaghettini pasta with green garlic poached egg and miner's lettuce

baby esme smells green garlic

child serving of spaghettini pasta with green garlic and miner's lettuce

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