Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rescue browning

Cooking is a crap shoot. You think something will work and it just doesn't.

"I'll throw it in the oven," you say, "it'll get a nice crisp crust."

But no. Sadly that crust requires a bit more planning. We've all been there. It's done, or almost done, but it's just not BROWN.

What to do? Jack up the broiler?

Always an option, but there's the risk of overcooking.

I discovered a few months ago that you have the option of browning on the stove AFTER you've cooked in the oven. In fact, it almost works better. Anything hot and covered in grease is made to brown.

I was making salmon when I made the discovery. This wonderful recipe from Jerry Traunfeld where you slow cook it for half an hour at 250. It comes out amazing. The texture of sushi, but cooked.

Unless you're my father-in-law. He couldn't deal with the texture. No problem, I thought. I'll brown it on the stove.

And unlike many of my cooking experiments, it worked perfectly. It browned like a champ, maybe better than if I'd tried to brown it first. Cold salmon sticks to the pan, this searing hot salmon almost bounced off. Developed a perfect crust in minutes.

The other night I was cooking for myself and I ran into the same problem. This time with pork loin.

I had plopped it in a pan at 400 degrees thinking it would just brown on its own at that temp, but after 30 minutes it was far from brown. It was about 130 degrees at that point (just shy of the beautiful 140 degrees that renders pork edible) so I pulled it from the oven and plopped it in a hot skillet, scraping off as much of the garlic and ginger as I could so they wouldn't burn.

A few minutes on each side and I had a nice golden crust. Then I pulled it out of the pan, splashed in some red wine, put back in the garlic and ginger and cooked that down a bit till I had a nice sauce. Poured it over the pork loin.

Amazing. Can't even describe. As luck would have it, this would happen on a night Cobe was away so I had no one to congratulate me.

But I thought I should tell you about it. Because in cooking as in life, you're going to make mistakes. You just have to know how to fix them.

Pork loin with soy sauce and ginger

1 pork loin (~1.5 lbs)
peanut oil (~2/3 cup)
soy sauce (~2tbs)
rice vinegar (~1 tsp)
sesame oil (a few drops)
honey (~1tsp)
ginger (~1 T)
garlic (~1 T)
black pepper
green onions (2-3) sliced
red wine (a splash)

Okay a warning, I did not measure (thus, the parentheses, which you should read as guesses).
So why should you measure? Mix it all together. Taste it. See what it needs. More vinegar? More soy?

Into medium size bowl pour some peanut oil until it more than covers the bottom (~1/4 cup). Then pour in some soy sauce until it seems about 2/3 as much as the oil. Next rice vinegar, a smaller amount (~1tsp). Then a blob of honey also ~1 tsp. A few drops of dark sesame oil. Around 1 Tbs each of minced ginger and garlic. A few grinds of black pepper. Taste the marinade and see if it needs something for balance. Experiment. You'll get the hang of it.

Put the pork loin in the marinade and let sit ~30-60 minutes. Prehead oven to 400 degrees. Put pork loin in 9x9 pan lined with foil and cook ~20-30 minutes or until thermometer reads 130 degrees.

Heat up cast iron skillet over medium heat. Put in small amount of peanut oil and drop in pork loin (after scraping off as much marinade as possible). Brown a few minutes on a side until golden. Ensure pork loin has now come up to 140 degrees.

Place on platter. Pour drippings from 9x9 pan into skillet and add a splash of red wine (1/4-1/2 cup). Cook down until slightly thick and good tasting. Pour over pork. Sprinkle with sliced green onions. Serve.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Taming the yeast beast (aka, bread in 5 minutes a day)

I always love a good shortcut.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in the importance of the little things in cooking. Washing the lettuce three times. Cutting the onion into fine dice. Deveining shrimp.

But I think it's important to decide when those things matter and when they don't.

So I was very excited to hear about no-knead artisan bread. Bread making somewhere along the way morphed into these long recipes where you have to measure the temperature of the water and punch the dough down five times precisely 40 minutes after rising.

It's just not necessary.

Many years ago, Natalie Colwin wrote this book "Home Cooking." If you haven't read it you should. It's wonderful writing.

Anyway. Natalie had a small child and couldn't deal with the fussiness of bread baking so she set some limits. It would rise when she wanted it to rise, bake when she wanted it to bake. She used less yeast, extended the rise, used a cold rise. She made the dough in the evening, let it rise all night, and baked it in the morning.

And it worked!

This transformed my idea of breadbaking. It's not a delicate thing, that yeast. Kick it around, put it in the fridge, let it rise for days, it still works.

I started experimenting, letting the dough rise 12 hours, 15 hours. At some point it needed to be punched down, but maybe even that wasn't necessary.

The key is to use less yeast. The less you use, the slower the rise, the more the gluten can develop. And what's amazing is the bread is better this way. The flavors become complex, like sourdough.

Your thought process changes when you bake bread this way. You realize that you have control over when the bread rises or doesn't rise, not the reverse. You are freed from the binds of those obsssively detailed recipes.

So a few months ago Lynn Rosetto Kasper of "The Splendid Table" (this very cool radio podcast) had these bread bakers on and they took it a step further. Use very little yeast, don't knead the dough AT ALL, and let it rise in the fridge for days. From what they said on the broadcast, the bread was amazing.

Of course, I had to try it. I made the dough two days ago (it took 10 minutes despite my spacy slow post-call state), let it rise on the counter for 2 hours, then punched it down, put it in the fridge, and forgot about it. Today I punched it down again, tore off a hunk, made a roll and baked it. Oh and I let it rise a little before I threw it in the oven. Like 20 minutes.

It was fabulous. This rich sourdough taste, the perfect crust. So simple.

This all comes from a cookbook called "Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a Day." You can find the recipe here.

Those people are geniuses.

p.s. if you want to be fancy you can use a pizza stone which will give you that thick artisan crust. I didn't have one and it was just fine without it.

p.p.s You can also top the bread any way you like. I chose to sprinkle on a little water and then some rock salt. You could use butter or oil if you like a softer crust, cornmeal for a crunchier taste, or egg whites for that shiny look. So many options.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

We've got the beet

Damn it's beautiful in Seattle.

I just got back from a week-long trip visiting friends and family on the east coast (that's my cousin's son above). As the plane approached Seattle we glided over greenlake and lake union and puget sound to touch down at Sea Tac. The surface was like glass.

After I got home I went for a walk and the temperature was 50 degrees, the sky clear blue and the mountains etched in the sky. It felt like spring.

It was not so balmy on the east coast. Mostly it was cold and rainy. Perfect roasting weather. I stayed with my cousin for a few days in Jersey and we went on a pilgrimage to Wegmans, her 2 1/2 year old son in tow, to collect salmon and bok choy and golden beets. We also got some asparagus. A bit of ginger. Scallions.

When we got to her house I decided to roast everything. Except the bok choy, which I just love to stir fry. I cranked the oven to 400 and got started. First the beets, then after a while the asparagus and salmon with an asian marinade. At the last minute I sauteed the bok choy.

It came out beautifully. But I forgot to photograph.

I will vouch that her son ate all of it, which is no mean feat for a 2 1/2 year old. Of course this is a kid who eats salsa (the spicy kind).

But he especially loved the beets. They were sweet and slightly glazed from the pan and crunchy with rock salt.

I had been struggling with beets, I used to boil them and make a vinaigrette but it was never satisfying. We wouldn't eat the leftovers. But roasting was perfect. They tasted earthy and sweet.

I tried to recreate the whole meal tonight, but sadly the salmon in our grocery store was disappointing. Isn't that sad? New Jersey had better salmon than Seattle. Of course it was atlantic and farmed...but still.

Instead, I roasted beets again, the red ones this time. And I braised some baby bok choy, in halves (it's actually less work). Oh and I made chicken wings, because I'm a buffalonian so I love them. They came out great, a spicy garlicky rub with a honey glaze, but I'm still playing with them. I think that's for another day.

The beets were wonderful, as earthy and sweet as their golden new jersey counterparts. You have to leave the skins on, so scrub them well. And halving them helps--they cook faster and caramelize a bit. The bok choy is good both ways, chopped or halved but this way definitely has more class.

Roasted beets

3-4 beets (any variety)
rock salt
good quality olive oil

Scrub beets and trim off ends, cut in half. Don't peel them. It gives them more flavor. Dry well. Rub with olive oil, and sprinkle with rock salt and pepper (you can use regular salt, the rock salt just has a nice texture). Place cut side down in a roasting pan without touching (I used a 9x9) and roast at 350 for 30-60 minutes or until tender. You can roast at a different temperature if you like, just check them if it's higher. My oven runs hot, my cousin's runs cool. I split the difference.

Braised Baby Bok Choy

3-4 whole baby bok choy
soy sauce
dark sesame oil
peanut oil
sesame seeds
1 tablespoon minced ginger
black pepper

Wash bok choy well especially at the base but leave whole. Dry. Cut in half lengthwise. Heat peanut oil in a heavy pan on medium high. Add bok choy cut side down (only as many as will fit without touching). Cook ~2-3 minutes covered (until golden brown). Carefully flip with tongs and cook another 1-2 minutes covered. Place cut side up on a pan. Drizzle with one drop sesame oil per bok choy half, and a bit more soy sauce. Sprinkle on sesame seeds. Saute ginger in hot pan, then sprinkle on top. Serve.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Salad Days

It's time to talk about salad. Or really-- salad dressing.

I admit it. I'm a salad snob. Growing up my brother and I would go to our father's house on the weekend and he always made his own dressing. There was a jar of it on the counter, redolent of mustard. Salad seemed naked without it.

I soon learned to make my own, measuring olive oil and red wine vinegar (2/3 oil to 1/3 vinegar), and adding mustard, salt, and pepper.

In college, my tastes evolved. I read Marcella Hazan and was persuaded to buy really good olive oil (frantoia) and even better balsamic. I changed from mustard to honey mustard, liking the subtle sweetness. I added garlic. And I no longer measured, preferring to eyeball it in a small jar and shake it, then taste and retaste until it was right, adding oil or vinegar as needed.

The perfect taste is neither oily nor vinegary, but somewhere in between.

One day everything changed. I read in a cookbook about layered dressings, the true italian way. First you wash and dry the greens. Then you add a dribble of olive oil, mix to coat. Rock salt. And finally a splash of vinegar. Be generous with the olive oil, and frugal with the vinegar.

This was a revelation to me. So simple, and yet so different. The flavors are layered on top of the leaves.

In the past few years I've digressed even more. I no longer use vinegar, just lemon. Sometimes I make other dressings, miso-rice vinegar, or the trusty balsamic, but I make this 90% of the time. And Cobe says it is the best.

Simple Lemon Salad Dressing

Good quality olive oil (frantoia is my favorite, it should be rich and green, extra virgin)
Rock salt
1/2 Lemon
fresh cracked pepper

1. Wash the leaves and dry very well. Do NOT underestimate this step. Dirt in the leaves will completely ruin your salad, I have done it believe me. I usually wash the leaves in 3 rinses. And the drying is doubly important. Water and oil do not mix, the oil will not coat the leaves if they are wet. Even after spinning the leaves I still use paper towels.

2. Coat with olive oil. Use a little splash. You can put your thumb over the spout to slow the stream. You need less than you think. Mix with your hands or two spoons.

3. Sprinkle rock salt. You can use regular salt but the thick chunky rock salt adds a nice texture.

4. Squeeze on half a lemon. Mix with hands or spoons again. Taste after mixing and decide if you want more lemon.

5. Sprinkle on fresh cracked pepper.

Other additions
- parmigiano reggiano in thick shreds
- lemon rind shredded on a rasp (the flavor is beautiful)
- thinly sliced pear or green apple (coated with lemon to keep from turning brown)
- toasted nuts
- bits of creamy cheese, such as goat or feta or mascarpone
- dried fruits, such as apricots or dried cherries
- sliced persimmon
- pomegrante
- shredded bacon

the list is endless.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Crock Pot Chronicles (Parts I & II)

First an admission: I used to have a crock pot and I gave it away. It failed me too many times and I couldn't take it. It went into the little "good will pile" before I left Philly. There's probably a Philadelphian family eating out of it right now.

Then the other night I'm at this blogger dinner and I somehow win this raffle and end up with this cute little crockpot.

It's like getting a goldfish at the fair. You think, what do I do with this thing?

I brought it home and set it on the kitchen floor and it just sat there, begging me to make something. I kept thinking about it. And then I realized...it's just a slow braise. I'm fond of the slow braise.

In my mom's day the whole point of the crock pot was to dump everything in in the morning and have instant dinner by the evening. Usually it involved a can of cream of mushroom soup.

I didn't have to do that. I could brown the meat first, saute a few onions, use a spice rub, some wine. Let it cook for hours. And then adjust the sauce, boil it down, fix the seasoning.

I tried it for the first time last week.

My first mistake was doing this while I was home. Why use the crockpot when you're home? In the oven you have full control over temperature, you can add fluid or take it away, turn things, adjust how well it's browning or not browning.

In the crockpot there are two temperatures: high and low. And mine is this little squat thing, so it's hard to tell what's going on in the bottom.

Besides, the best use of the crockpot is to save you time. To be able to cook when you're not home.

The results were actually pretty good, but it didn't cook long enough. I made beef spareribs and they needed a few more hours. Of course we ate them anyway. Partly because the sauce was amazing--red wine, shallots, and the bits of the puebla mole spice rub that fell off the ribs, mixed in with the juices of the spare ribs.

Today I decided to go for the pork ribs. Increase the cooking time, decrease the liquid. I browned the ribs, and then coated them with the same puebla mole spice rub.

I discovered spice rubs this summer, they're my favorite for quick dinners. This one is mostly cocoa and chipotle, with oregano, marjoram, cloves, allspice, coriander and black pepper. You could make your own. Mix whatever spices you like.

So I loaded the crockpot, this time standing the ribs up so they didn't just boil in the liquid. I added carrots, sauteed onions, garlic, a little red wine. Turned it on high and walked out the door.

When we got home the house smelled WONDERFUL. The ribs were, admittedly, almost too well done. But they were succulent and flavorful. The sauce had an unforseen problem, too much grease from the cooking ribs. I don't have a separator so I decided to blend it all together. This worked fairly well, as the carrots soaked up the grease. The flavor was wonderful, but the texture wasn't what I was looking for. I made a little arugula salad and we were sitting down to dinner in 5 minutes.

I can't bring myself to post the actual recipe though, even if it is just in my head. It needs more tweaking. I promise, a few more crock pot mishaps, and we may have something. I just wish the little thing had a temperature gauge, I'd be in heaven.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why does dairy hate me (aka, butterscotch pots de creme)

Dairy and I used to get along like wildfire. There were some long nights by the TV with a little ben&jerry's heathbar crunch. We were tight.

Then one day I noticed I didn't feel well after we hung out. My stomach hurt. I didn't sleep well. And slowly, we stopped seeing each other.

Don't get me wrong, I still eat ice cream. I just pay for it. I've messed with those lactaid pills, but they sometimes help, they sometimes don't. And they're not cheap.

And lately I've discovered, my taste is changing. I'm starting to fear the creamy white stuff.

But I couldn't resist when I saw Orangette's last post: butterscotch pots de creme. Heavy cream, two kinds of sugar (muscovado and demerara), vanilla, and eggs. The results are heavenly, like pudding made of dulce de leche.

Or they would be heavenly, if I didn't secretly hate dairy.

It's like dating someone who abuses you. I'm going to stop doing it. Tomorrow.

By the way...muscovado tastes like the best brown sugar you've ever had, deep and rich with molasses and ginger undertones. You could thus substitute brown sugar, and it would just be a tad less good. Demerara is raw sugar. If you can't find it near you, stop by your local Starbucks and grab a few of the brown packets of sugar. You'll be all set.

recipe here

Monday, February 4, 2008

Shrimp with Tamarind and Avocado

Another grey day. How many of these do we get? How many hours?

I went to IKEA today and there was a moment, in between browsing rugs and eating the requisite IKEA hotdog, when I saw the bank of lights. I was drawn like a moth.

When I moved to Seattle a friend told me about being drawn to lamps in the winter. I didn't believe her. Lightbulbs just aren't that bright. But 50 of them, all clustered together, it's like the sun.

I miss the sun.

So tonight, I made some hot food. I can't do any more european grey mush, the world is grey enough. Spicy shrimp with tamarind and avocado.

Bought some shrimp at the fish market near the junction (it's not mutual fish, but it will do in a pinch). They looked charming, really. Nice and moist, a good size. Can't imagine they came all the way from Indonesia but I'm pretending I don't know because I need hot food.

Then off to PCC for tamarind. They didn't have the block of tamarind that the recipe calls for, but they had something called tamarind concentrate which worked splendidly. I used about 3 T, you could probably cut it back to 2 or 2.5 T.

Made it home just minutes before Cobe pulled in the driveway. I started mincing and had him make some rice. The whole thing was done in an hour.

Oh and in case shrimp freak you out, I took a picture to show you how to devein them. It sounds hard, but it's easy really. They have a vein (or really two veins, but the ones I got had one vein already removed). You cut the shell and pull it off. Then use a little knife to pull out the vein on each side.

I kind of like doing it. It's like a medical procedure.

The dish came out wonderfully. A bit indonesian even, though I'm not sure they have avocados in Indonesia. I used 2 serranos. It needed more.

Of course it's possible my taste buds have been dulled by Cobe's habanero obsession.

Recipe here