Categories
American Beer Can Chicken Fusion Index Poultry Vietnamese

Beer can chicken, 7 more ways

[one_half][M]y least favorite aspect of graduate school is the process of saying goodbye. There is ceremony. Stifling tears, the departing student delivers a PowerPoint deck filled with inside jokes and parent-friendly illustrations. This is usually followed by a reception, maybe a barbecue, sometimes an evening out with friends and extended family. Then, suddenly, this person—with whom you’ve spent more time in the past several years than your own spouse—is… back at work. They continue to answer to greetings like, “You still here?” “I thought you had graduated…” or “Is it OK if I start moving my stuff into onto your bench?” After an awkward, lame-duck phase lasting from 1 – 16 months, there is another going-away party. This one doesn’t involve parents or thesis advisors. It’s in the secondary goodbye situation that you seriously begin to contemplate what your life will be like without this person.

Being a bit long in the tooth, I’ve experienced my share of goodbyes. Each time, I face the same, harsh reality: Another beer can chicken contestant out the door.

I’ll admit that I’ve had concerns about the long-term viability of our quasi-annual Battle Beer Can Chicken competition. We’ve lost countless contestants to academia, industry, civilian life… Sure, we’ve had some new blood in recent years. But I needed to find a more consistent source of food-obsessed, hyper-competitive people unlikely to have alternate 4th of July plans.

* * * * *

BATTLE BEER CAN CHICKEN IV: SCIENTISTS VS. FOOD BLOGGERS

As a pot luck organizer, my job was made criminally easy by the abrupt influx of food bloggers to our invite list. Need a legume/nut-free vegetarian non-dessert? Check. Baked goods? More than we can sensibly consume. Also cameras. Lots and lots of cameras. You’ll notice that Mrs. Babychili got a much needed break from photo duty this time around.

The question, of course, was whether my stranglehold on the coveted Golden Gob award would be more seriously threatened, given the culinary skill of this new class of contestant. That said, the scientist contingent was certainly nothing to sneeze at. Scientist/food blogger Rice and Wheat, perennially responsible for the most photogenic chicken (pictured above), competed with renewed vigor.

Also returning was BBC I silver medalist, Matt. A pure scientist and non-food-blogging entity, Matt brought a certain swagger to his game.

Overall, 5 out of our 7 cheftestants this year were food bloggers. 4 out of 7 were scientists, with Angi and me serving as dual citizens. Game on.

* * * * *

GRILLING INSTRUCTIONS

As in previous years, all birds were cooked on a Classic Old Smokey Barbecue Grill (#18), which can comfortably accommodate 3 large (> 4.5 lb.) chickens or 4 smaller birds. One tweak we made this year was to mount each chicken on a trimmed pie tin, which mitigates scorching by blocking flames and preventing chicken fat from falling onto the coals. The chickens were then grilled with the lid closed, at a target temp of 350F for about 1.5 hours, depending on size. Most competitors cooked their birds to an internal temperature of 165F – 175F in the thickest part of the thigh. To maintain temperature, 10 – 12 hot coals were added to each grill at the 1 hour mark.

* * * * *

THE RECIPES

Last year, Angi brought a Korean-inspired chicken into my home, hoping to take home the gold. In the closest Battle Beer Can Chicken vote in history, I managed to “out-Korean” her entry. This year, I knew I had my work cut out for me. Shortly before the competition, Sunday Night Dinner informed me that he was bringing a Ga Ro Ti inspired chicken, based on a family recipe. My heart sank. That’s exactly what I had planned to do (except without the Vietnamese family recipe on my side). Would I be able to out-Viet a Viet?

I knew I had to do something drastic to avoid a split vote. One way was to change the marinade to be fairly unlike a traditional Ga Ro Ti. My other idea was to go over-the-top: Chicken liver pâté underneath the skin. Without going into details, I’ll tell you that pâté underneath the skin is definitely not a good idea. You’re just going to have to trust me on that one. After suffering through the worst test-chicken I’ve made to date, this is what ended up doing:

“The FauxViet,” by Babychili

A 4 – 4.5 lb, high-quality chicken
2 T kosher salt
2 tsp black pepper

The marinade:
1/4 C soy sauce
2 T grapeseed or vegetable oil
2 T sesame oil
3 T fish sauce
2 T honey
2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp white pepper
2 tsp ground five spice
1/4 C chili garlic sauce
juice from 2 limes
6 cloves garlic, minced
roughly the same amount of fresh ginger, minced
4 green onions, thinly sliced

1 12 oz can beer (It probably doesn’t matter, but I used a Boont Amber.)

I’m personally not a fan of the “giant chicken strategy.” Proponents of that strategy contend that a larger bird is more difficult to overcook, and will thus be more tender. In my opinion, a small-to-average-sized bird is better because there’s less of a temperature gradient from the surface down to the bone. That gives me more control over texture, which is important. The tenderness will come from both the brining step and the acid in the marinade.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper, inside and out. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Combine ingredients for the marinade and allow to stand at room temperature for 15 – 20 minutes. Pat the chicken dry again, discarding any liquid that may have oozed out of it. Using your hands, massage the chicken with a liberal amount of marinade inside and out, and underneath the skin. Put the well-rubbed chicken into a giant zippered plastic bag, and pour the rest of the marinade on top. I double-bag it at this point, and refrigerate for a day and a half, turning once.

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 lime. Use the other half of the lime (trimmed if necessary) to fashion a plug at the neck hole to trap steam.

Prop the chicken onto a trimmed pie tin (a beer can chicken holder helps, but is not strictly necessary). Grill @ 350F for about 1.5 hours, or until the temperature reads 170F in the thickest part of the thigh. Allow the chicken to rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes prior to carving.

Some notes from the rest of the field:

“Chicken of My Childhood,” by Sunday Night Dinner:

The recipe is sort of here… I quadrupled the marinade for a 4.9 pound chicken, added 10 minced Thai chili peppers, injected the breasts and marinated for 36 hours, rotating every 6 hours. I didn’t get any heat after the bird was grilled, so I would use a few habaneros instead next time! 

“Hawt Chick,” by Beyond the Plate (full recipe HERE):

I was going for a spicy Southeast Asian theme and knew that I wanted to beer-brine our bird, which we bought from Jim at Pampero Ranch. M selected Hefeweizen for our beer as it was similar to the types of light lagers commonly drunk with spicy dishes back home.

To the beer we added a few stalks of cilantro, lemongrass, thick chunks of galangal and many kaffir lime leaves, in addition to the usual characters of water, salt and sugar. We ended up perfuming the whole house with the aromatic concoction that brined our bird for 18 hours.

I initially planned to prepare a spicy chili paste to marinate the chicken, but after realizing the complexity of the brine, I made a dry rub featuring coriander seed, dried chilis and pink peppercorns instead, to flavor and crisp the skin without overpowering the subtlety of the meat. After the brine and letting the bird dry out for a bit, I rubbed it all over with the spices and let it marinate for another 18 hours before setting it on the grill.

“Chicken of the Colonies” by Rice and Wheat (full recipe to be posted shortly, over at r+w):

For the 2nd year in a row, we employed the ‘giant chicken’ strategy. This year though, we were less fortunate and could only find a 5.5 lb chicken. Chicken was dry-brined for 36 hours. We then rubbed it with the marinade for african chicken (which is more like a paste) and left it for another 24 hours. Sauce was served on the side.

“Boozy Bird,” by The Tomato Tart:

My air chilled organic chicken was not brined due to a brining mishap, but I would seriously recommend dry-brining with salt and maple sugar for 36 hours. Under the skin, I stuffed the chicken with bacon, rye, and maple butter. The rub was a mixture of sea salt, mustard, onion powder, habenero powder, and muscavdo sugar—and was inside and out of the chicken. The sauce was roasted and fresh peaches blended with a can of dark beer + four oz maple syrup reduced to 6 oz of liquid, habenero powder, rye whiskey, and stone ground mustard. I started glazing the chicken about 20 minutes before it’s done time.

“Cold Smokey,” by Matt.

Started with a small, 3 lb, Mary’s chicken.  Dry brined for 1 day.  Wet brined for 1 day.  Cold smoked at 70F for 4 hours using apple and hickory wood.  The bird sat on a block of ice throughout, so that internal temperature was maintained at less than  50F during the smoking process.  Cooked on grill with patriotic Budweiser beer can providing wetness (“The essence of beauty,” DZ, 2001).  Finished by soaking the chicken in an Alabama style white BBQ sauce – mayo, vinegar, horseradish, lemon, spices.

“Asian Street Chicken,” by Holly.

The chicken was dry brined overnight. I made a marinade consisting of a mixture of vegetable oil, soy sauce, five spice powder, turmeric, fresh garlic, fresh ginger, fresh lemongrass, salt and star anise.  Half of the marinade was applied to the chicken overnight, the other half was used to make the glaze.  Glaze: I strained the marinade and added honey, sugar and rice wine vinegar, and reduced until syrupy.  The glaze was brushed on the chicken during and after grilling.  Soy-lime dipping sauce: soy sauce, lime juice, rice wine vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, jalapeno.

THE OUTCOME

Yay Science!
—Jesse Pinkman

OK, so maybe home-court advantage is beginning to be a little on the unfair side. I will say this: Either Holly and Matt should be writing food blogs, or the rest of the food bloggers need to seriously step it up for Battle Beer Can Chicken V! Scientists claimed the top three spots, with Holly being just a couple ballots away from stealing this one.

In the meantime, much to my wife’s chagrin, The George Oscar Bluth II Golden Chicken Award will remain on our mantle for one more year.

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(photo: angi @riceandwheat)

(photo: angi @riceandwheat)

(photo: danielle @BeyondPlate)

(photo: danielle @BeyondPlate)

(photo: angi @riceandwheat)

(photo: angi @riceandwheat)

(photo: sabrina @thetomatotart)

(photo: danielle @BeyondPlate)

(photo: angi @riceandwheat)

(photo: angi @riceandwheat)

The “prize.”

My filthy hands. (photo: jun @JunBelen)

Nathan’s filthier hands. (photo: elaine @e_eats)

Spectators. (photo: chuck @chuck415)

Closest I got to a picture of The Baking Barrister. (photo: sabrina @thetomatotart)

Number three. (photo: angi @riceandwheat)

Largemouth bass. (photo: jun @JunBelen)

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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]
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chicken dance
sweet, sweet victory

vegetables on stovetop grill
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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
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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