27 August 2007

Science!

Martin Lersch, whose blog I will be devouring over the coming weeks, left a comment which makes me realize I didn't adequately represent my feelings about the previous Crispy Booze post. It wasn't meant to be a shot at molecular gastronomy, really. I just like the idea of hard-won scientific knowledge ending up at the same place as folk wisdom. It doesn't mean nothing was gained. Knowledge can be expanded upon. We can look back from the stepping stone of the latest knowledge and see the path back to the bank we came from, and sometimes can begin to pick out the nearer stones that will take us to the far bank. Folk wisdom is usually just one stone in a murky stream. It might keep you out of the current, but it won't take you anywhere new.

Crispy Booze

So back in March, Harold McGee posted on his blog an explanation of how Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck had developed a science-y way of creating a near-perfect crust on deep-fried fish, one that protected the fish from being overcooked, but would not steam off the fish once the cooking was done and the thing had to sit on a plate for a while.

The big triumph is that they were able to dumb down or reverse engineer or whatever this recipe into something that the home cook would be able to benefit from. Their breakthrough: vodka. As I understand it, the alcohol's lower boiling point means that the crust crisps up faster with a shot of alcohol than with water. This allows the crust a head-start on the rest of the packag, which means that it can get some structural integrity before the fish overcooks, and will maintain that integrity by both better-
resisting the steam that comes off the cooked fish, and making sure that the fish doesn't give off too much steam. That's all really impressive, but in both articles, they fail to mention a pretty strong precedent for the use of hard alcohol to achieve better texture in deep-frying: The Brazilian pastel, basically a deep-fried empanada or raviolone, has long called for a shot of cacha├ža in with the water for the dough. It is considered essential to giving it a crispy, resistant texture.

All that molecular gastronomy to reverse-engineer something that already existed.

21 August 2007

Restocking

So I've posted a live link to my pantry list on the right hand side of this page. I've reformatted it to be grouped less by the type of stuff I want to have on hand, and more by where I expect to find the things on the list. So, I can go through my spice rack and make sure I've got everything on the spices and seasonings list. The things that are in boldface are things that I don't currently have on the shelves. M and I stepped off a plane from London a week ago tomorrow and we've really yet to do a big supermarket shop. Part of this is dread at going across the street to D'Agostino's and being overcharged for nearly everything. I have been shopping, of course, but it's been at the fruit cart, the butcher shop, the cheese store, the fishmonger.

Speaking of all that, my friend Josh, who runs shortshrifted.com gave me a welcome home present that really made me glad to be back. It was the Zagat New York Gourmet Shopping Guide. It listed Ideal Cheese Shop, Simchick Meats, and Pisacane Seafood (but not my fruit cart guy) and gave them all rankings over 25. (For those who don't know, that's really, really good.) It gave me a new appreciation for just what we have here on First Ave. Really, it's rare to find a concentration of good food stores like this anywhere, but having all three within a block makes me really count myself as lucky.

I was a bit shattered at what I thought was the bad news of Simchik's having closed while we were away for the summer. I surmised this based on a "Store For Rent" sign in their front window, seen from across the street. I went by for a closer look and found that they had just moved down the street to swankier digs. Phew!

Anyway, restocking. We've been running a pretty lean operation since we got back. Not willing to eat out (much) and not willing to do a big shop at D'a-gross-tino's (ah, le mot juste) has pretty much left my buying bits and pieces as we need them. A big help for the two days M was away was baking up a loaf of Lahey bread. I'm pretty well convinced that I will build any number of meals around this chewy, crusty bread based on the meager contents of the fridge rather than subject myself to a big shop. And I think that's a pretty good thing. One sticking point is the fact that I haven't gotten the energy together to go buy some real butter. All I have is some months-old stuff that I clarified on our return to make it taste less stale (which it does). I know that sounds gross, but this was Ronnybrook butter from a local dairy. Very fresh. Okay, 80 days might be pushing the boundaries, but it's fine. Really. Anyway, this culinary equivalent of dry-farming has yielded some triumphs:

  • open-faced cream-cheese, tomato, and white-peach chicken delice sandwich.
  • bread bowl (more of a bread canoe, actually) filled with chicken livers sauteed in clarified butter with herbes de Provence, deglased with sherry and lemon juice.
  • griddle-toasted, garlic-rubbed crostone with Sardinian extra-virgin olive oil and Marmite.
  • Stilton and apricot jam sandwich
Okay, okay, so it's all pretty much sandwiches, and I've been remiss in my vegetable consumption, but it all sounds pretty good, and I have been pretty resourceful.

Anyway, take a look at the pantry list, if you like, and let me know your thoughts or possible additions. I'd love to know what other people can't do without.

19 August 2007

White Peach Chicken Delice

Question: What do you do with sub-par white peaches? I got three for a buck from the fruit cart across the street. They were half hard, half mushy, basically not worth a damn. I'm not going to cry over a dollar. A couple days ago, the guy sold me the best mango I'd ever had. Ever. And that was a buck, so I figured he had some leeway.

The peaches were not good hand-fruit, but did have that perfumed white peach flavor to them, even if they didn't have the texture or the sugar to make them shine. I'd made a delice sauce (1 cup bechamel, 2 tbsp ketchup, 1 tsp cider vinegar, pinch curry powder) to put over some leftover poached red snapper from the house rewarming party, so decided to just use the leftovers of the sauce as a venue for the peaches. I cut away everything that wasn't firm, peeled, pitted and chopped the three fruits. Then I threw them in, with a teaspoon of apricot jam, a good shot of fresh-ground white pepper, and a dash more cider vinegar to punch up the flavor. The taste was rich and round and yet perfumed. Fruity chicken dishes are not really in vogue right now, but I figured it would be the perfect accompaniment to some poached chicken breast.

I'm amazed at how overlooked poached chicken breast is. It's always grilled or sauteed, both methods which dry it out terribly. Since it's basically just lean protein that's going to be the vehicle for other flavors, I just don't understand why people feel the need to subject this delicate meat to such harsh temperatures. I used Jacques Pepin's technique. Boil water, salt, and aromatics for about five minutes, then throw in the chicken breast, return to boil, take off heat, cover and leave for 15 minutes. In this case, the cupboard was a bit bare, so I just used white peppercorns and bay leaves.

I sliced the chicken, topped with sauce, and there ya go! The peaches had softened and given the sauce a wonderful flavor and texture. I good lunch for almost no effort.

It's good to be back in my own kitchen. It's also kinda fun to restock the fridge slowly, one meal at a time.

White Peach Delice Sauce

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1 cup milk (warmed in microwave)
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar (or any vinegar, balsamic included)
1 tsp apricot jam
1/2 tsp curry powder
2-3 white peaches (under-ripe is okay), peeled, pitted and diced
salt and white pepper to taste

1.) Melt butter in a skillet until foam subsides, then add flour and stir until lightly browned.

2.) Whisk in warm milk and bring to simmer. Add all other ingredients and simmer for 5 minutes.

Serve warm over poached chicken breast, or chilled over chilled poached chicken breast.

Mock Bunny Chow

M and I had a house re-warming party on Friday. A few friends attended (short notice) and I made Durban curry for bunny chows. M went and got a bunch of fresh-baked rolls, and I made this in the morning. Tragically, we were both too shattered at the end of the night to clean up fully, and the leftovers spent the night on the stove, so we didn't get to enjoy the second-day curry. We did bring back some stuff from South Africa, but I refused to lug Durban curry powder around with me, stinking up the luggage. So this was an experiment to see if I could duplicate the style of Durban curry without using actual Durban curry. Aleppo chili to the rescue! I'd been thinking about this for a while, that one could mix the very flavorful, but not very spicy aleppo chili with regular curry powder and get the intense chili flavor of Durban curry. It is possible to order Durban curry mix from several places in the Victoria Spice Market in Durban. They'll ship anywhere in the world, but one worries about safety. A lot of the deep red color associated with Durban curry comes from tartrazine-based red dye, which is not good for you.

This is all based off our friend Gertie Sumner's lamb stew recipe, which is sort of Durban curry without the curry and is simply awesome. The only ingredients I used that are specifically South African (as in imported by me) are the beef-flavour powder--which is actually vegetarian--and the tomato paste, which in SA comes in plastic packets rather than cans, which makes just too much sense.

I think this recipe could maybe stand the addition of a good shot of paprika for a bit more color, but the taste as it stands is awesome, so I'm not going to mess with it. This is by far the best curry I've ever made.

Durban Curry

2 lbs lamb stew meat (I used coarse-ground lamb with good effect)
2 tsp oil (I used olive)
3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons good (mild) curry powder
As much Aleppo chili as you can take (I think I used a full quarter-cup!)
3 medium-large potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2" cubes
1/2 can tomato paste
2 medium fresh tomatoes, diced or about a can of diced tomatoes
1 tsp Inamann's beef powder, or your own stock cube/stock/flavor powder combination
2 bay leaves
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise
2 black cardamom pods (not traditional, but used on a whim and loved the musky flavor)
1-2 tablespoons apricot jam

1.) In a large, heavy, non-reactive pot, brown the lamb in batches, keeping it spaced out in the bottom of the pot so it doesn't boil. Set the lamb to the side, add oil to pan, then the onions and fry until they become translucent and start to break down. (This is very important, as having chunks of onion in the final product ruins the texture.)

2.) Add the curry powder and Aleppo to the frying onions and stir until fragrant (about a minute). Re-add the lamb and all other ingredients, along with water to cover. Bring to simmer and simmer one hour. Halfway through simmering, taste for salt and heat. Add salt and more Aleppo to taste.

Serve in hollowed-out bread rolls.

Serves 12.

06 August 2007

The South Africa Food Post

So, what do I have to say about South African food after seven weeks in the country? Two words: biltong and naartjies. Like other wine-producing countries, the South Africans have a lot of good raw materials to work with here, but I must say that they don't really seem to have capitalized on them in the same way that the Californians, French, Italians, or Australians have. The quality of the ingredients is good. The steaks are good, and the produce is stunning, but the expertise is just not there yet, at least in the restaurants. Granted, we haven't been eating at national-park-run restaurants and some hotel or lodge restaurants where we were a captive audience. Maybe we'd have a different experience in the halls of haute cuisine. We did have a very good meal at Haiku, a swanky, pan-Asian place in downtown Cape Town, but Chinatown dim sum would have won out any day, and at half the price. We just haven't found that sweet spot where good ingredients shine through without pretension. But maybe I'm being harsh. I'll report back after a couple days in wine country.

We have enjoyed the biltong, though. It's basically just beef jerky, sometimes seasoned with coriander seed, but it's far superior to what we get in the States. Plus it's relatively cheap and available everywhere. Quality varies a bit; it's easy to get a batch that's too soft or too dry. But in general, biltong is widely available and of very high quality. My favorite was in Namibia, where for $7 (US), I got nearly a half-pound stick of biltong, plus the pocket knife to carve it up with. In addition, the pocket knife had some surprises: a.) it was a switchblade(!) and b.) it included a tiny LED flashlight. Random, but cool. It's not a dangerous weapon at about 2 inches long, but it was very fun to freak M out by flicking out the knife in the car to slice off a hunk of dried beef.

Naartjies are just tangerines, but they're sweet and plentiful here. With biltong, they make fantastic travel food. The biltong is often preservative-free, so the pair can keep you going quite a while, and they're infinitely more wholesome than a Slim Jim and a candy bar.

Other things:
  • Burgers with fried eggs on them. Why was this innovation not adopted in the US? Too long have we labored under a regime that has left our burgers un-egged.
  • Nougat. This stuff is all over and really good. Not like the stuff in a Three Musketeers bar that's supposed to be nougat. This stuff is pillowy, nutty, honeyed and delicious. I must figure out how to make it.
  • Woolworths. It's a different brand down here. Not only is it a clothing store, it's sort of like Trader Joe's is to the States. They have only one or two brands of everything, and usually favor their house brand, which is often locally and responsibly produced. We like everything we've gotten there... particularly the nougat...
  • Bread pudding and custard. Yum.
  • Savory pies. Steak & curry, steak & kidney, Thai chicken. Delish.
I've figured out a great Durban-style curry recipe with lamb shank. I guess I'll post that next.