Categories
Essay Index Sous Vide

The search for sustainable skate, or How I became obsessed with the concept of suburban sous vide

[one_half][I] sometimes find myself wandering off the deep end. My wife now hears me thinking out loud, and offers, with an air of mild concern: “Sometimes?

It all started weeks ago, when I began to go through what I fully expected to be a trivial exercise of selecting any of a number of vivid, food-related memories to attempt to recreate and write about. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be recounting the first time I had eaten skate. OK, let’s see … Kabab Café in Astoria … Big flavors … Chef Ali El Sayed’s lyrical description of ingredients … Got it! I was excited and energized. It had been years since I had last eaten it. Summer ’01, at the dearly-departed Patois on Smith St. (Brooklyn), classic preparation—pan-fried with a beurre noire. This was going to be good. I just needed to source the wings. I knew that skate wings weren’t expensive, but that they might be tricky to find. So I started researching specialty markets in the Bay Area, particularly ones that consciously support sustainable fishing practices. Unfortunately, the search terms “sustainable,” “seafood” and “skate” yielded discouraging results. According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch:

Previously discarded as “trash fish”, skate has become an increasingly important fishery as the populations of other bottom-dwelling fish (such as cod and haddock) have declined. As a result, several skate species in the Northeast are overfished or in serious decline. Skates, like their close relatives, the sharks, are highly vulnerable to overfishing since they grow slowly and are long-lived.

In addition, the majority of skates are caught using otter trawl gear, which causes considerable damage to seafloor habitats. Otter trawling is also indiscriminate, catching both intended and unintended species. These unintended species are unmarketable, illegal or undersized fish that are subsequently discarded dead or dying as unwanted catch.

Rating: Avoid

Well, that certainly is a pisser.  But I’ll admit that aside from carrying around their convenient, wallet-sized recommendation cards, I really don’t know much about Seafood Watch. What if they’re just a bunch of raving lunatics? I did a bit more digging. I did find that Seafood Watch is considered to be one of the more conservative voices, and that they are often criticized by (wait for it …) industry organizations. OK, that tells me absolutely nothing. Ultimately, my decision-making calculus goes something like this: Seafood Watch and The Monterey Bay Aquarium are very well respected by scientists. Though I haven’t examined the data myself, they do make arguments for their recommendation. I have not heard argument #1 on the other side. (And not for lack of looking. Remember that I really want to hear the other side). So by presumption, I am forced to play it safe and assume that Seafood Watch knows what they’re talking about.

So basically, the upshot of all this is: Crap! Stupid otter trawlers! What about my food moment? What about my damn blog post? What am I going to do, post a rambling, recipe-free essay about sustainable skate? Somewhere in midst of my man-sized hissy fit, I stumbled upon the apparently ingenious, yet contextually absurd notion of making “imitation skate.” I’ve heard several times (always anecdotally) that people used to make imitation scallops out of skate wing. That idea always seemed strange to me, since the textures aren’t really alike. But if it’s true, what about trying the inverse transformation? What could possibly be better than reproducing a protein that costs $2.99/lb out of ingredients costing at least 5 times that?

I immediately consulted my sister, who, as you may have gathered from my previous posts, knows everything about cooking.  Her response:

You are getting into the realm of molecular cooking, which is outside my knowledge comfort level.

We both had the same first guess (which in retrospect, was not a good guess): cook the scallops sous vide. Sous vide? Like many of you, the first I had ever heard of this technique was when Hung Huynh used it in Season 3 of Top Chef, presumably after going all kinds of tasmanian devil on a chicken. Since then, it’s made a regular appearance on the show, with mixed results. Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” and describes a technique in which food is vacuum sealed and cooked in a water bath for a long time at relatively low temperature. On TV, this usually involves an immersion circulator (pictured above, in a gorgeous photo by Deborah Jones), a piece of lab equipment that can reliably maintain water temperature within a very narrow range (+/- 0.1 C). The technique has a very simple premise, which is that food will not be overcooked if you do not raise the temperature beyond the point at which you want it done. Therefore, you can hold the food at this temperature for a long-ass time, if you want to. Creative chefs have applied the technique to coax flavors and textures out of their food that are ordinarily not attainable by other means.

As a parent, I am firmly entrenched in the trailing edge of culinary (and most other types of) fashion. So while I may have missed the initial burst of popularity of sous vide @ home, this still sounded pretty damn high tech to me. So high tech that it must be able to make fake skate! Now, where to get the immersion circulator? If you don’t have $1000 to blow on a piece of equipment that might make the dish you want, it helps to have foodie friends. I was fortunate enough to be able to test drive a commercial quality immersion circulator. The result? My wife can attest to the fact that when I got this thing, I was like a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Trust me, I was sous vide’ing everything in sight. In doing so, I learned several key things:

  1. Cooking scallops sous vide does not make them taste or feel like skate.
  2. Just because you use a fancy technique doesn’t mean your food will necessarily taste good.
  3. When properly deployed, the sous vide technique can yield astonishing things.

Since I can’t borrow a $1000 immersion circulator forever, my next goal was to figure out how to rig up a device that could accomplish the same thing with a substantially lower price tag. After all, if you really need to do it, you could get similar results the old-fashioned way, by using a large pot of water on the stove and obsessively checking/adjusting its temperature. That’s what is now affectionately known as “ghetto sous vide.” But I wanted something a bit more refined than that. I wanted something safe, cheap, and automatic. Something a little nicer than the ghetto—more of a “suburban sous vide.” Fortunately, these problems have been solved by many other people. I am currently in the process of assembling my rig, and will digest the information I’ve learned about this process in the very near future. Subsequent to that, I will return to documenting tasty things cooked by me, some of which may involve suburban sous vide. Stay tuned! [/one_half]

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(photo © Deborah Jones Studio from Under Pressure by Thomas Keller)
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Categories
Desserts Index Korean Vegan

Yakbap (steamed sweet rice cake with nuts and golden raisins)

[one_half][I]’m no dummy. When I see David Chang getting flak for not including more desserts in his book Momofuku, I know better than to make the same mistake. Consider this entry Dessert #1. (Now I just need to open a white-hot NYC restaurant, and I’ll be in business …)

Yakbap literally translates to “medicine rice,” though this dish is a far cry from the foul concoctions my mother had me drink as an ill child (which, on at least one occasion, included red potato juice.  Don’t try it.). Rather, yakbap is among the many varieties of dduk, each of which I was likely to sample one, two, perhaps seven times after church every week when I was growing up. The post-sermon release of food was always a major highlight of my week. Sometimes we had donuts, other times kimbap, and on certain occasions, bowls of yuk gae jang. But the gauntlet of dduk remained a welcoming constant. Those unfamiliar with dduk may recognize some of its other forms: “New Year’s cake” in Chinese cuisine; or Mochi ice cream, a staple of Trader Joe’s frozen confections. What they all have in common is glutinous rice (also called sweet rice) as the dominant component. This results in a decadently starchy texture that would cause any God-fearing Atkins dieter to recoil in horror.

I’ve always been a big fan of this dish. A couple years ago, I was tempted to buy some at the dduk counter at our local Korean grocery. My mother waved me off.

Don’t get that. I’ll make it when we get home.
Oh, for real? How do you make it?
You just put the rice in. Cook it.
I see …

I had to bug my Mom to make this several times, and she kept not getting around to it. So I consulted my trusty guide, Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, and found a recipe that looked to be a royal pain in the ass. It involved cooking the sweet rice first, tossing it in the seasoning, and then resteaming it in a makeshift double-boiler consisting of a breadpan and a dutch oven. This could not possibly be what Mom does. Indeed, when confronted with this information, she admitted that she basically does everything in a covered pot, carefully listening at the stove for when the rice is done. That also didn’t sound appealing to me. Sensing this, my Mom looked over at my rice cooker and suggested the brilliant.

Why don’t you just put everything in there and turn it on?

I did, and the yakbap came out perfectly. I’ve read other recipes online that involve the double-boiler method, pressure cookers, microwaves, etc. But in my mind, nothing beats being able to take an ordinary piece of equipment, set it, and forget it.

* * * * *

Yakbap (steamed sweet rice cake with nuts and golden raisins)
adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen: A Cookbook

2 C sweet rice
1 T soy sauce
2 T corn syrup, honey
or molasses
**
2 T rice wine or vermouth
1 T sesame oil (label bedragoned)
1 C walnuts, skinned; or chestnuts, cooked, shelled and skinned
1 C pitted jujubes (dates) or 1/2 C raisins
2 T pine nuts
1/2 C brown sugar
1 T ground cinnamon

A few notes on the ingredients:

  • Make sure you use sweet rice (glutinous rice, pictured above). You need the high amylopectin content of this type of rice. Other types of rice (which include a normal percentage of amylose) won’t be sticky, and will therefore not make dduk.
  • Many Asian markets now carry roasted, shelled chestnuts packaged in foil or mylar (pictured above). They are perfectly fine for this recipe, and for $1.19, the value of not having to roast/steam and shell chestnuts yourself can’t be beat. I thought my Mom’s head was going to explode the first time she saw these. She took about 10 packs back with her to LA.
  • For the dried fruit component, jujubes are more traditional, but I don’t prefer to use them because the peels have a tough texture. Raisins are a common alternative, and I used about half the amount recommended in the book. My wife doesn’t like raisins, so I have tried using currants before. They are wonderfully tart, but do not hold their shape when steamed. So they do get a bit messy.
  • Though they are significantly more expensive, I use pine nuts of European origin, lest I once again make my thesis co-advisor’s wife suffer from the dreaded “pine mouth” (sorry, Heidi).
  • **Update 24 October, 2010. I spoke with my mom about this post, and one tip she added was to use molasses instead of corn syrup or honey. This secret she carefully guarded for years, feeling that molasses was an ingredient that gave her dish a familiar flavor that other versions could not capture. I suspect that she used molasses as a proxy for maltose or rice syrup, which was not commonly available when she immigrated here. Any particular kind of molasses? The one with the rabbit on it. I tried this and found that it’s definitely not as sweet if you use only molasses. I’ll probably try molasses + honey next time.

* * * * *

Soak rice in lukewarm water for at least 1 hour. Rinse rice thoroughly about 3 – 5 times in cold water. With all types of rice, my Mom often says to rinse until the water is clear, but even she will acknowledge that this will not happen for a very long time. You can safely stop at 5. If you have a rice cooker, combine all ingredients, and add just enough water to cover. Press the button. 30 minutes, and one delicious-smelling house later, you’re done!

Serving I think it tastes best warm, and because it’s so dense, ramekins are a good serving vessel. Commonly, people will pack the cooked rice into a baking dish (grease it with a bit of sesame oil first), let it cool, and then cut into brownie-sized squares. It will keep nicely in the fridge for about a week, but I always nuke it for 10 – 20 secs to get it nice and warm before eating.

Additional tips This recipe makes a lot of yakbap. If you’re not going to a potluck, you can halve the recipe, as I did when making it for this post. However, keep in mind that with a medium or large rice cooker, a relatively thin layer of rice at the bottom of the insert is more likely to scorch or cook unevenly. Your alternatives are to use a small cooker, or cook on the stovetop in a smaller pan with low heat. The latter is the way my Mom does it, but this method requires a bit more attention to make sure you don’t burn the bottom. If you don’t feel that you added enough water during cooking (or if it dried out in the refrigerator), simply add a small amount of water and zap it for about a minute on medium.

* * * * *

The Esme rating I told her that I made special rice. She eyed it, suspicously.

I don’t want it.
Try it. It’s sweet.
I don’t want to try it. I don’t like it.
[takes bite] I like it. I like sugar. What’s this, daddy? It’s a chestnut.
Chess-nut. It looks like a little bit like chocolate. It tastes like chocolate, too. It’s a little bit like chocolate, Daddy.
Do you like chestnuts?
Yeah. I don’t want this anymore.

* * * * *

And now, a moment of bliss … [/one_half]

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sweet rice

korean yakbap in spoons

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Categories
Fusion Index Japanese Meats

Sunday Dinner, Part II: Coke-braised pork shoulder

[one_half][I]t’s been a long time since I’ve regularly read The Onion. But when thinking about this post, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the numerous Coca-Cola-related articles I’ve read over the years. Particularly considering that the beverage happens only to be available at my local grocery store in an unwieldy size. Given my directive to avoid feeding the family junk, was I really doing anyone a favor by acquiring multiple liters of high-fructose-corn-syrup-water? Believe it or not, I actually grew up in a household where sugared soda of all kinds was, in all practical terms, in infinite abundance. My father was once a minister of a Korean church, which (if you lived in LA) meant that as a family we received odd gifts from the congregation in astoundingly vast excess. Around the holidays, it wasn’t uncommon for our family (of four) to take physical delivery of several crates of apples, mackerel, funeral flower arrangements, or whatever a religious small business owner might have on hand. There were several deacons who owned convenience stores, so we regularly had cases of soda stacked about ten high in our basement. And not just the regular stuff. My favorites were Cactus Cooler, Mexicola, and a long since decommissioned apple soda called Aspen. To top things off, my mother (who is, shockingly, somewhat of a bargain enthusiast) always bought soda. Give her a double-coupon and a $0.05 net price on two liters of 7 UP, and it was against her principles not to buy it. We were, of course, discouraged from drinking it. To this day, my non-soda-drinking mother always has cans of 7 UP and Diet Hansen’s in her second refrigerator, along with her kimchee, bulk greens, and the occasional entire pumpkin pie from Costco.

So when my sister mentioned the existence of a coke-braised pork, it sounded … magical. I’m uncertain on the origins of this dish, but we first learned of it from a recipe that appeared in Bon Appetit in 2004. What struck me about the Bon Appetit recipe was that it differed quite a bit from my expectations. For some reason, when I heard, “coke-braised pork,” I instantly thought shoulder, and not the country-style ribs called for in the recipe. Also, when I read ginger and green onions, I immediately assumed that the dish would be spicy, since that’s the type of food I tend to associate with those flavors. But there wasn’t the least bit of heat, despite the fresh ginger. Nonetheless, the dish as is compels me to pour it over rice and drink whatever broth remains. But ultimately, I still wanted to make a dream coke pork. My coke pork. So I put together what I’ve learned about braising and took a stab at it. The results may be habit-forming.

* * * * *

Coke-braised pork shoulder

4 lbs pork shoulder (I used a boneless Boston butt, but I think a picnic shoulder would also be great)
kosher or sea salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper (buy 2 or 3 to make sure you get a spicy one), trimmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 T vegetable oil
2 C of non-diet cola (Caffeine-free Coke may have less bitterness, but I used Classic)
1/4 C soy sauce
about 1 ounce of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
about 2 lbs daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 bunch of green onions, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
freshly cracked black pepper

Preparing the pork  Could I, in good conscience, advise you to braise a piece of meat without salting it down first? Of course not. When it comes to things like this, my experience tells me that Judy Rodgers knows what the heck she’s talking about. The pre-treatment of the pork shoulder that I prescribe here is similar to what she calls for in her “mock porchetta.” First, trim any obviously thick chunks of fat from the pork. This may sound counterintuitive coming from me, but trust me that there is plenty of  fat in this dish. What you want is to prevent too much melted fat from accumulating in the pan in the subsequent browning step. As it turns out, there were actually very few chunks of fat in the cut of meat I bought, so it may be worth watching your butcher to ensure that you’re not paying for a lot of weight in solid fat.

Next, unfurl the meat into a continuous, branched strip. This is done by carefully separating the muscles along their natural seams with the tip of a knife and your hands. The goal here is to generate more surface area for your seasoning, but you don’t want to cut the meat into separate pieces. Rub the unfolded meat evenly with 1/2 tsp of salt per pound. Spread the garlic and jalapeno pepper on all surfaces of the pork, as well. You may wish to use more of either. If you know me very well, you can see that I really checked myself on the garlic (“The ketchup of intellectuals”). The amount of jalapeno is also your call. I always taste a small piece before using it. It should deliver a distinct kick of heat in the back of your throat, but sometimes it tastes like nothing. So it’s good to have backup—you could also use a (hotter) serrano chile, if you prefer. When I made this, I used 1/2 of a spicy jalapeno. I ended up with meat that definitely tasted of jalapeno, but wasn’t very spicy. I’ll add more in the future.

Finally, reassemble the meat into its original shape. Tie it tightly and uniformly with 5 – 6 pieces of 16-ply cotton string, with at least one long piece tied around the length of the pork. Cover loosely and refrigerate for 1 – 3 days.

Browning the meat This step takes approximately 15 minutes. Add oil to a skillet or dutch oven and gently brown the pork over medium heat, evenly and on all sides and ends. I use large, slotted spoons or turners to rotate the meat. I don’t like using tongs because they tend to tear things. I also don’t use forks for this, because they pierce the meat and cause fluid loss. It’s important to avoid scorching the meat. Trim any pieces that are overly browned.

Assembling the braise Preheat the oven to 325. Remove meat from the pan and discard all but about 2 T of drippings. Add coke and soy sauce to the pan and deglaze. If you used a dutch oven to brown, put the meat right back in. Otherwise, you could transfer everything to a large, earthenware baking dish. Add the ginger and surround the meat with daikon radish, crowding the vessel. If you’ve used a dutch oven or sauce pan, bring to a simmer on the range. Otherwise, add 30 minutes to total cooking time below.

On the daikon radish: I’ve found that radishes of this variety can truly transform both themselves and the braise. I actually prefer to use Korean radishes (mu), but suggest daikon since they are generally more available. Particularly, fresh daikon radishes are much easier to find than fresh mu. When selecting the daikon, choose firm, unsprouted radishes, and generally take the smaller ones. Incidentally, other vegetables would also do quite well in this braise—for example, carrots, onions and parsnips. But I would definitely include asian radishes in the mix.

Braising the meat Transfer vessel to the oven and cover tightly (with foil, then the lid). After about 2 hours, turn and check for doneness. Check again about every 1/2 hour until the meat is fork tender. In my case, it took a total of 3 hours, starting from a simmer.

Finishing the sauce and serving Remove the pan/dish from the oven and raise the heat to 450. Remove the meat and set aside. Remove vegetables and set aside. Thoroughly skim fat from the remaining liquid, and strain. Bring braising liquid to a low boil. Taste and reduce, if desired. Correct seasoning with salt and black pepper. Add green onions, cooking until tender but still bright green. Return the meat to the oven and brown for 10 minutes, until nicely glazed. Recombine meat, braising liquids and vegetables. Serve with rice.

Note that this dish, as most braises, tastes even better when it has been cooled and reheated at 300 (which happens faster if you bring to a low simmer while you are preheating the oven).

* * * * *

And one more picture taken by my talented wife. Nicely shows off the effect of the final glaze. See you next week!

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cutting strings off of pork

braised daikon

braising liquid and scallions

coke braised pork

coke braised pork

pouring grave over coke braised pork
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Categories
Gluten Free Index Rant Salads Vegetarian

Sunday Dinner, Part I: Spinach with Marcona almonds, Beemster, gremolata & walnut vinaigrette

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“If you have time, confidence, and energy for no other cooking endeavor on a regular basis, focus on the salad.”
—Judy Rodgers

[F]ollowers of my Facebook status may be aware that I braised a pork shoulder this weekend. In Coca-Cola. So why, then, an entire post about salad? Why waste everyone’s time? The short answer is that in This Household, you have to have your vegetables before meat or dessert. All kidding aside, isn’t that how many of us were brought up? OK, we Asians may have gotten a slightly different message (“If you’re not hungry, then just eat the meat”). But we seem to be told, over and over again, that salads aren’t eaten for pleasure. They’re eaten for nutrition, losing weight, “being good,” or whatever other guilt-inducing reason. As a result, the ability to make a good salad continues to be shockingly underrated. Think about the typical family restaurant in your neighborhood. What does the “side salad” look like? It’s often leathery, wilted iceberg or romaine lettuce; pink, mealy tomatoes; sliced cucumbers; and your “choice” of thousand island, french, blue or ranch dressing from a jar. Not that any of these ingredients itself needs to be terrible (OK, the dressings are terrible). But they are so often thrown together in an uninspired, thoughtless and unappetizing way. So what do you do? If you’re like most normal people, you throw it away. If you want to be good to your body, you choke it down. Have you ever thought about how ridiculous this is? Is this why you came to the restaurant to begin with? To suck-it-up/choke-it-down/take-one-for-the-team? For chrissake, you’re paying someone to make you a salad. That thing better be goddamned delicious! Similarly, if you’re going to go through the effort to make yourself a salad, why not make something that you’re not just willing, but excited to eat? The answer, for me, for most of life, was that I didn’t know any better.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: Next to my sister, the person from whom I’ve learned the most about cooking is Judy Rodgers, via her informative and superbly written Zuni Café Cookbook. In it, Rodgers describes, in eloquent, anal-retentive detail, how to make great salad. The book has turned my wife, the unlikeliest of herbivores, into a salad-lover. For Erin, the revelation was proportion. She previously thought that she hated salads because the dressing was, by definition or necessity, too sour. Truck out your ancient bottle of Paul Newman vinaigrette (or virtually any other brand, for that matter), and you’ll see what I mean. Mouth-puckeringly sour. And it makes perfect sense that this would be the case. People hate salad. That dressing’s going to be in the fridge for years. So how do you make sure the dressing doesn’t spoil? Bring its pH down to point where nothing could possibly survive in it. They’ll definitely be happier with that. Unfortunately (for your tongue), there is such a thing as too much acid, particularly when that acid is white vinegar. Enter Rodgers. We learn that by using a lighter touch, and a trusty 4:1 ratio of oil to acid, salads suddenly become infinitely more palatable. Interested? Almost? Stay with me. I’ll do my best to convince you further.

I work in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco. There still isn’t much here (except for nonstop construction), but there are oases of foodie-dom, particularly in the nearby, possibly-still-up-and-coming Dogpatch. I’ve walked past an inviting restaurant called Piccinomany times, and have been consistently struck by how gorgeous the salads are. People who know me are generally aware that I’m a big meat guy. But I appreciate a beautiful plate when I see it, even if it “just” has plants. So I finally ate there, managed to not try their signature, thin-crust pizza, and was absolutely blown away by a spinach salad. I actually didn’t remember a ton about it, except that I couldn’t place some of the flavors. So I looked it up:

Spinach Salad
Mariquita Farms spinach, shaved sunchokes, parmesan, and truffled gremolata in a walnut vinaigrette

I thought, OK, I know most of this stuff. But do they carry truffles at my neighborhood grocery? Well actually, yes … But I thought that it would be a tad obnoxious to suggest to you a recipe that includes any ingredients costing more than $1000 per pound. So I set out to make my own version of the salad.

* * * * *

Spinach with Marcona almonds, Beemster, gremolata & walnut vinaigrette
Inspired by the Spinach Salad @ Piccino Café, San Francisco

1 1/2 T champagne vinaigrette
2 shallots, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp Dijon mustard
6 T roasted walnut oil
Freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 C chopped parsley
Zest of 1/2 lemon, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
3 ounces of hard, salty cheese, finely grated (Parmesan would work great—I used Beemster because I accidentally bought it twice)
1 oz roasted, salted Marcona almonds, finely chopped
Several bunches of fresh spinach (however much you want to eat)

Choosing and washing the greens I prefer to buy bunch spinach, because it’s much easier for me to judge its freshness. If I see significant discoloration of the leaves, I can induce that the whole bundle/head is no good. My mom says that it’s a good sign when there’s a reddish tinge on the stems near the root end, so I look for that, too. For this salad, I like spinach with slightly larger leaves and a firmer texture than baby spinach, but not so firm that the stems are tough. Cut off the stems and discard any wilted, damaged, or discolored leaves. Add the “good” leaves to a large bowl of cold water and gently swish around, changing the water until it remains clean. Gently spin dry, taking care not to bruise the leaves.

Making the dressing This vinaigrette is a classic dressing, but I got my proportions from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I wanted to explore a couple different oils and three different vinegars for this dressing. So I geeked out and screened a 2 x 3 matrix of small dressing batches. I tried almond oil, because several friends and family are allergic to tree nuts. But as I feared, it lacked the richness of the walnut oil, which I thought was crucial to this recipe. I also tried mixing almond oil with olive oil. This held up better than almond oil alone, but didn’t taste very almond-ey to me. Sorry, guys—anaphylactic shock, it is. I was also curious to see how Verjuice might work. It was wonderfully fragrant, but disappeared in this dressing. This left me with the two different champagne vinegars that they carry at Andronico’s. Both worked quite well. The Vilux was a bit oakier, while the one in the pretty bottle (by O Olive Oil) had a clean, bright acidity.

To assemble the dressing, add the vinegar, shallots and salt to a bowl and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. Then add the mustard and slowly add the oil, whisking to emulsify. Correct oil/vinegar levels to your preference. Add a sprinkling of grated cheese, and black pepper to taste.

Making the gremolata Shortly before serving, freshly chop and mix the parsley, lemon zest and garlic.

Dressing the salad If you take nothing else from this post, remember to dry the leaves  thoroughly  before dressing. Failing to do so will effectively dilute your dressing 1- to 2-fold in tap water, resulting in salad that my pal Judy repeatedly describes as “insipid.” If you zoom in on the spinach picture above, you can see tiny droplets of water. These can be removed by tossing the leaves with small pieces of dry paper towel.

In a large salad bowl, toss the (now dry) spinach in slightly more dressing than is necessary to wet the leaves. Dust the leaves with chopped almonds, gremolata and cheese. Toss again. Adjust ingredients to your taste.

* * * * *

The salad was definitely a winner in our house. My wife tells me that, combined with the entrée, this may be the best meal I’ve ever made. (The caveat, of course, being that I’m more or less completely new to cooking.)

Up next week—Sunday Dinner, Part II: Coke-braised pork shoulder

To be continued … [/one_half]

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spinach leaves in paper towels

meyer lemon and shallot

champagne vinegar and walnut oil

gremolata

coke bottle with champagne vinegars

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Categories
Gluten Free Index Italian Poultry

Chicken with two lemons

[one_half][Y]ears ago, in what could fairly be described as a life-altering moment, my wife and I first tasted the Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad, a dish that has rapidly developed a cultish following among foodies worldwide. We instantly concluded that there was no reason to roast chicken any other way. We made it repeatedly, with and without the salad. We used a similar technique on Thanksgiving turkey. Erin even tried to enter it in my annual beercan chicken competition. So I was more than intrigued by the following email from my sister  Daisy (who had clued me in on the Zuni chicken in the first place):

I tried her roast chicken from that book you gave me.
You take a chicken and you stuff two small lemons in it. Salt the bird, sew it up and lightly truss. Roast for 90 minutes, until the skin is golden and puffed up so that the chicken looks like a crunchy balloon. When you slice into it, the meat is so juicy that the balloon explodes, and this intensely, surprisingly flavorful meat falls off the bone, deeply basted in its own fat and the lemons, which had totally deflated and caramelized in there.

It was shocking. Just chicken, lemon, salt.

With a Viognier, it was basically heaven.

“That book” was Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I had already been toying with the idea of this blog, and the thought of posting a picture of this magical, juicy, non-Zuni-yet-somehow-relevant, balloon–chicken was too appealing to pass up. So I was on it.

Like I’ve said before, though I’m very interested in and passionate about food, I’m still a bit of a n00b when it comes to cooking. So while someone with a bit more chops in the kitchen might be able to take a roast chicken recipe and adapt it on the fly to account for nonideal circumstances, I followed the recipe (mostly) by the letter. I was disappointed to find that the chicken was:

  1. Not a balloon! Possibly the most disappointing aspect of the bird. Erin, with her trusty Nikon D80 cocked and ready to shoot, just patted me on shoulder. “We’ll get ’em next time …”
  2. Not crispy on the outside. I’ve come to expect the wonderfully salty, parchment-like skin that accompanies a Zuni chicken. And this one just didn’t have it.
  3. Not actually cooked enough for my taste (although safe to eat at 165). A little reddish, and a still a little rare in texture.

So what had gone wrong? This was supposed to be a simple recipe. Was it the case, as I had suspected all along, that one needs innate skills to cook anything of consequence? I got on the horn with tech support (Daisy) and made some very minor modifications to the recipe. I tried it again a week later and it knocked my socks off. My daughter inhales it. Yes, there apparently is life beyond Zuni roast chicken. It’s not better than Judy Rodgers’s classic recipe, but different and equally satisfying. I now make some variation of it every week.

I’ve since passed on my modifications to Hazan’s recipe numerous times, and felt that they would be useful to share in this forum. However, I was recently chagrined to find that I was partially “scooped” by Michael Ruhlman, who wrote a witty and insightful post about American food culture, laziness, and roast chicken. It even inspired my brother-in-law (himself terrified of the kitchen), to give it a whirl. Via SMS txt:

A chicken + 1 hr = I cooked something. AWESOME.

The one criticism I would have about Ruhlman’s post is that, in its glibness (which is arguably a huge part of its appeal), it does gloss over the fact that someone who has never roasted a chicken in his life could very easily make the same mistakes I did, and end up with something … uninspiring. To be fair, these people are somewhat unlikely to be reading a professional food writer’s blog. I have instead chosen to go over things in pedantic detail, hoping to show that anyone can make this elegant and practical dish.

Note:  I’ve made this at least a dozen times, and I still have never gotten the skin on the bird to puff up like a balloon. Every time, I think: “This chicken is going to be The One.” I’ve googled around, and found that this has mostly to do with how intact the skin is on the bird upon purchase. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. If anyone can actually get this to work, could you please email me a picture? I just want to see what the SOB looks like!

* * * * *

Chicken with two lemons
adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

A 3 – 4 lb. chicken*
Salt
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
2 rather small lemons

*I have successfully used a larger bird—see below

Selecting the bird I believe that it’s worth paying up for a quality chicken. Particularly in the Bay Area, it’s very easy to find sustainably farmed chickens. They tend to cost about twice as much as the factory ones, but the advantages include (1) the animals are treated humanely; and (2), related to point (1), birds taste significantly better when they’ve been treated well. You don’t have to go crazy. If you live near a Trader Joe’s, they usually offer several varieties. One thing that is sometimes difficult to find, however, is a bird that actually weighs only 3 – 4 lbs. The first time I made this, I couldn’t find one. So I used a 4 – 5 lb chicken. What’s the difference? Cooking time, for one. Huge difference. That’s why you can’t just count on putting the chicken in for an hour (as Ruhlman suggests) unless the bird is actually this size. Also, there is a lot more skin per ounce on a smaller bird, which, in addition to being delicious, does a better job trapping moisture and keeping the meat  tender, particularly for high-heat recipes like Zuni or Ruhlman’s. I’ve done it both ways, but I usually buy a larger bird, because I’m busy and I want to stretch it to more meals. If prepared as I describe below, it still tastes great.

Salting the bird Marcella suggests rinsing the bird, removing all the fat, patting it dry, and letting it sit for 10 minutes for the liquid to drain out. I don’t do it this way.

Rinsing is OK, but I think optional. As Jacques Pepin has said, anything that survives the heat of the oven deserves to live. Also, the FDA recommends against rinsing and potentially contaminating your sink. Doesn’t really matter to me. If it makes you feel better, rinse it.

But for the love of God, DO NOT CUT OFF THE FAT. This recipe was originally published about 35 years ago, and since then, chickens are bred to be quite a bit leaner, especially if they’re big. But don’t worry, much of the fat will come off in the drippings. And you’re not required to eat the delectable skin. You want what fat stays in the bird to give it moisture and flavor.

I also think that you need more than 10 minutes to drain. What I do is salt the bird down at least a day in advance. That’s Judy Rodgers talking. If you’ve made the Zuni roast chicken before, you don’t really question this step. But long story short, the “dry brine” technique gives the meat flavor, moisture and tenderness. Also, letting the bird sit for this long ensures that excess liquid drains out. What you want is for the skin to be blistered and dry, while the meat inside is juicy and tender. The draining step accomplishes this. It also makes it faster for me to prep the chicken on the day of roasting—it’s almost ready to throw in the oven when I get home from work.

To salt down the bird, put a generous amount of kosher salt (about 1 – 2 T, depending on grain size) and mix it in a small pinch bowl with plenty of freshly crushed black pepper (amount is a matter of taste). Set the chicken in a large bowl or baking dish and rub the salt/pepper inside and out, rubbing more salt on the meatier parts (e.g., the breast meat). Cover loosely with saran wrap and put it in the refrigerator for 1 – 3 days. In a pinch, overnight is better than nothing. On the day of roasting, pat the chicken dry with paper towels.

Preheating the oven I often hear or read 10 minutes to preheat an oven. I don’t know where people come up with this number, but 10 minutes is definitely not enough time for my (gas) oven to come to 350 degrees. Buy an oven thermometer for $2 and get the oven to 350. In my kitchen, this takes at least 20 minutes.

The lemons The recipe calls for washing two lemons, softening them by rolling with pressure on a hard counter, and poking 20 holes in each. I use a poultry lacing needle (although a toothpick will do—they just tend to break) and put as many holes in those lemons as I can without injuring myself.

Preparing the bird Put the two lemons in the cavity and close up the openings with toothpicks or needle/string. Hazan suggests very loosely trussing the bird only to prevent the thighs from splitting apart as the skin balloons. Well, like I said, I don’t really have that problem. I think the trussing is optional. I’ve done it both ways. What you get with trussing is more even cooking. What you get without trussing is more exposed skin to get brown and crispy. Up to you.

Put the chicken into a roasting pan, breast side down. I use a 10″ skillet for this. What matters most here is not the material (I use cast iron), but the size. The bird is self-basting, so you want a pan just large enough to hold it, but small enough that the drippings don’t evaporate.

Roasting Put the pan/skillet in the upper third of the oven and cook for 35 minutes. Turn the chicken to have the breast side facing up, and cook another 35 minutes. Increase the oven thermostat to 400 (mine will actually only get to around 375 before the chicken is done). Using a meat thermometer, check the temperature of the meatiest part of the thigh about once every 20 minutes. Cook until the thigh is between 170 and 175. For my 4 – 5 lb bird, this ends up at around 2 hours of total cooking time. You don’t need to turn the chicken again.

Resting Remove the chicken from the skillet and let it rest on a serving platter or large plate for 15 minutes before serving. A lot of juices will flow out of the chicken during resting and carving (particularly if the chicken was wet-brined). Spoon these over the chicken slices when serving. [/one_half]

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Categories
Gluten Free Index Korean Pescatarian Soups Vegetarian

Inaugural post: Kong Namul Guk (soybean sprout soup)

[one_half][I]f you’ve read my About page or been over to our house for the dinner hour, you know that my 2-year-old daughter Esme is what our pediatrician calls a “small eater.” We’ve been reassured several times that she’s getting plenty of nutrition, is just showing age-typical behavior, yada yada. Whatever. As a parent, all I can do is wonder where my daughter summons the energy to do anything when she barely eats. I try to keep things in perspective, but it definitely stresses me out. I can’t help it—it’s the Asian mom in me. So imagine my delight when Esme, after eating the solids from a soybean sprout soup that my mother made, picked up the bowl and drank the broth. I had to get her more of this stuff.

Energized by my new I’m-going-to-be-a-great-Dad-and-start-cooking-for-my-family-so-watch-out attitude, I picked up the phone and asked my Mom for the recipe. “Just boil it!” was her reply. True to her Korean roots, my Mom’s not so much into recipes. She pokes fun at me for measuring things, and shoots me suspicious glances if she senses that her actions at the stove are being mentally recorded.

“You just want to measure it!”
“I’m just trying to determine, when you say ‘add x,’ whether you mean 1 tablespoon or 100. I know it doesn’t have to be exact.”
“Just taste it! You’ll know!”
etc.

So I did a little digging, and found that making this soup is a bit more complicated that just boiling the sprouts. Fortunately for me, it’s not much more complicated. So I offer my take on it below. Just so I don’t get dirty looks at daycare from my friend Amy over at Kimchi Mom, I’ll tell you up front that I don’t cook a ton of Korean food.Yet.

* * * * *

The first important thing to know about making soybean sprout soup is that it’s made with soybean sprouts, and not the visually similar and more readily available mung bean sprouts. They are typically available at Korean grocery stores (though, oddly, not at Park’s Farmer’s Market in the Inner Sunset, where I live). Occasionally, I will see them at Chinese markets, so if you live near one, it’s worth a look.

At the market, inspect the sprouts for freshness. They should be clean-looking and crisp. The heads should be evenly yellow and the shoots silvery-white. If they look at all dodgy, then forget it. Try again next time. You can’t recover from bad produce, and the next step will take far too long. If they look good, then you’re in business. You’ll need about a pound for this recipe. Keep in mind that they have a very short shelf life, so be sure to cook them on the same day.

The first step is to clean the sprouts. This is by far the most time consuming step. Rinse them several times in cold water. Go through and pick out any obviously bad/rotten ones (there are bound to be a few). Trust your instincts here. If you see browning or liquifying of the shoot, dump it. Here are some groddy-looking ones that I picked out, as well as what they should look like when clean:

You’ll notice that the clean, unbroken sprouts still have a thin root attached to the end of each shoot. I’m told that some people snip those off. Hey, if you’ve got that kind of time, more power to you. I leave them on, and my Mom claims “that’s where all the vitamins are.” There will also be a lot of yellow heads that have broken off and accumulated at the bottom of your bowl. I usually toss these, as well. I don’t like getting a spoonful of just heads, and they don’t look as good in the soup. At first I was self-conscious about wasting them, but remember that you’ve paid about $1 for all of those sprouts. You can let the loose heads go.

* * * * *

The one major decision you’ll want to make is whether to used canned or homemade stock for your soup. This soup works very well with chicken, beef or anchovy stock. (I’ve never tried using vegetable stock, but presumably that would also be OK. **Update 24 October, 2010: Made this with pea shell consommé, and can confirm that it still rocks.) You may be familiar with Michael Ruhlman’s rant against canned stock, in which he famously encouraged people to use water instead. While I admire Michael’s culinary purism, I’ll warn you that this dish does fall into the 10% of cases where canned stock is probably better than water. It used to be that you could make this soup with water, but with mass agriculture the way it is, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have soybean sprouts with enough flavor to carry the soup by themselves. So to summarize, with this soup:

homemade stock > canned stock >> water

Fortunately for you, stock is ridiculously easy to make. Many of you are aware of this, but still resist. So to prove my point:

Chicken Stock
5-6 lbs meaty chicken parts (not just the necks and backs—dark meat works best, or a whole chicken)
3-4 quarts of water (to cover)
1 carrot, peeled, cut into 4 pieces
1 rib of celery, cut into 4 pieces
1 large yellow onion, peeled, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 bay leaf
2 sprigs parsley
1 tsp kosher salt

Rinse the chicken. Put the ingredients in a stock pot that holds at least 8 quarts. Start warming the pot on the stove while preheating the oven to 180-200 degrees. When the pot has barely reached a simmer, put the pot into the oven. Take it out in 3 hours. Strain it very well. Cool it down. Remove the fat (you can skim it, but it’s easiest to wait until it’s refrigerated, and remove the solid fat from the top).

That’s it. I used to make it on the stove, monitoring the heat with a thermometer, but Ruhlman’s tip on using the oven makes it super easy. Don’t have all the ingredients? Doesn’t matter! The most important parts are the chicken, water and salt. You can more or less improvise the rest of it without doing much harm. Want to get crazy? Don’t put the vegetables in until the last hour. That’s honestly as complicated as it gets, and using your own stock will drastically improve your soup. Oh yeah, and don’t throw away the chicken meat. I usually remove the skin (which has become rubbery and gross) and eat the wings right away with a little bit of salt. The rest of the meat is great on salads, or dipped in yangnyum soy sauce, which I’ll tell you how to make below.

Still not convinced? OK, use low-sodium chicken stock from a box. But you’ll always wonder… (**Update 21 February, 2011: Though it can’t compete with homemade stock, I do find Imagine Chicken Cooking Stock—NOT the Chicken Broth, which is disgusting—to be usable, in a pinch.)

* * * * *

Now that you’ve sourced your sprouts and made your amazing stock, the rest is relatively easy. In a large stock pot, saute 2 cloves of freshly minced garlic in 1 T of sesame oil for about a minute. Which sesame oil? The one with the dragons on it, says my Mom. That’s the good sesame oil.

Add the sprouts  (1 – 1.5 lb), toss them a bit in the oil, and then add 6 – 8 cups of stock. Cover the pot and turn the stove to medium-high heat. When it has become clear that the stock is boiling (steam shooting out from beneath the lid), allow the contents to boil with the lid on for 3 – 5 minutes. It is important not to uncover the pot, because, by some unknown mechanism, prematurely uncovering the pot will impart an off-flavor to the beans. I have not done a rigorously controlled experiment to verify this, but it suffices to say that it’s very easy to just leave the lid on, so I do it.

Once this crucial time has passed, it is safe to uncover the pot and lower the heat. Taste the soup and correct the seasoning (salt). The sprouts should still be slightly crunchy, but if you’d like them cooked longer, cook them longer. The soup is basically done. At this point, I usually prepare a dressing to make a salad with half of the cooked sprouts. Whether you want to do this is completely up to you. You may like the ratio of sprouts to liquid as is, which is fine. I like cooking with a lot of sprouts because they flavor the soup, but I end up putting a lot of liquid in the bowls, so if I don’t do something else with them, I’m left with a lot of sprouts at the end.

* * * * *

Again, the following step is completely optional, but you may find the recipe useful. Kong namul is a classic banchan, or side dish. If you want to make the salad without the soup, boil the sprouts in 1/2 C of water instead of stock.

Kong Namul (seasoned soybean sprouts)
adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen: A Cookbook

roughly half of the sprouts from the soup you made above
1/2 T soy sauce
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 T sesame oil (pref. from a bottle adorned with dragons)
1 green onion, chopped
sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds
black pepper to taste (opt.)
red pepper flakes to taste (opt.)

At some point (e.g., while you’re waiting for the soup to boil), add the above ingredients, minus the sprouts, to a medium-sized mixing bowl. When the soup is done, remove about half of the sprouts and drain thoroughly, reserving the broth to return to the soup. Add the sprouts to the bowl, toss, and refrigerate.

Note that the dressing for this recipe is essentially yangnyum ganjang, or seasoned soy sauce. This is a wonderful dipping sauce, which I use on pa jon and muk, as well as leftover chicken from stock, leftover beef shanks from stock, leftover brisket from stock, etc.

* * * * *

Now you’re ready to serve the soup. I like to garnish the bowl with some chopped green onion, and season with black or red pepper. I particularly like the red pepper flakes typically found in Japanese noodle shops—S&B Ichimi or Nanami Togarashi. Here they both are, nestled among my various red spices in the fridge. If you look closely, you can see a small ziploc bag of Korean kochu karu peeking out from behind them (Yes; I am a traitor).

So there you have it. Not only is this dish a big hit with by daughter, but with barely more effort than boiling water, I can now recreate one of my favorite dishes from childhood. It’s both comforting and light, and (I’m told) a mean cure for hangovers.[/one_half]

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soybean sprout bag
Yes
mung bean sprout bag
No
funky, rotten soybean sprouts
compost
cleaned soybean sprouts
keep

sesame oil with dragons

kong namul ingredients

kong namul mixing

kong namul plating

togarashi and other red pepper
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