Sunday, October 11, 2009

Simple Delicious (with Bacon)

Bacon + garlic + canned tomatoes (seeded, chopped pureed, whatever you feel like) + fresh rosemary + cream = the perfect tomato soup to enjoy with some freshly baked rustic bread.

Bacon + Yeo's sweet chili sauce + a bit of hoisin sauce + a bit of soy sauce = instant, incredible glaze for meat or vegetables (if applying to meat, especially pork, you probably don't need the bacon) that reminded me of meaty and sweet char siu.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gingerbread House (Library, really) Continues

Seeing hours of hard thinking, cutting, rolling, and baking finally amount to tangible progress is cool. It's also cool to see all the 2D pieces I designed forming a 3D building.

Spending all of my precious bakery time on this one project is not so cool. Oh well.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Recently at the Pastry Shop

Assembling a 3-tier wedding cake, rolling and coloring fondant, Chocolate Mousse Cups from start to finish, biscotti, cutting oddly shaped cakes, decorating cupcakes using frosting, planning and assembling a gingerbread house (library, actually).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lunch Today

Roasted vegetables: a medley of potatoes, beets, and winter squash that tasted of chestnuts. A handful of bitter greens from the garden, undressed.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cakes Cakes Cakes

Day 5: cheesecakes with marbled mocha topping, chocolate cakes, roll-out sugar cookies, dipping and filling eclairs, creme brulee.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


"A Return To Cooking" - Ruhlman and Ripert. Successful chef seeks a path back to the essence of cooking, philosophizes along the way. A quiet night with a beautiful moon - low, big, hazy-orange. Where is this all going?


I have also gotten distracted from cooking. The REAL cooking; what I do at home, not at work or at an internship. The food that I make for myself and the people I care about. The process I control to the greatest extent possible. I've maintained my patience and my curiosity, but I've strayed in other ways. My perfectionism gets in the way of enjoyment. I examine and criticize technique and barely acknowledge success. I cook hungry, frustrated, snarly and inhale the meal, never relishing the simple enjoyment of food created, food shared.

It's past time to slow down, start smiling, and get back to enjoying cooking. Find new ingredients and better ones for inspiration. Snack while I cook. Maybe even drink. Do fewer things at once. Be kinder. Worry less and be happy with the results of my labors. They'll never be perfect, but they're almost always good.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lunch Today

Roasted Root Vegetable Trio: sweet potato, All Purples from Applewald Farm, beet from another other local farm.

Party Pies

I baked two pies to bring to a co-workers outdoor party: Roasted Grape and Apple.

The idea for the Roasted Grape pie came one day last week I decided to roast some grapes to go along with baked cod and discovered that they tasted a lot like cherries.

I started the pie by washing and roasting two sheets of green grapes at around 425F. I lightly buttered one sheet and forgot on the other, but it didn't seem to make a difference. Which the grapes so crowded on the sheets, they spent most of the roasting time simmering in their own juices (which were a bit sweet, quite tart, and really tasty) before the bottoms dried out and started caramelizing.

On the second batch of grapes, I had thought to reserve their liquid before it evaporated, which didn't negatively effect the flavor of the grapes and gave me a delicious starting place for a syrup, which I finished with balsamic vinegar and sugar and thickened with a bit of cornstarch. I combined this syrup with the grapes, and my filling was assembled and fully cooked, except for the cornstarch, which I could have cooked in a pot, but I wanted the filling cool when I started doing the lattice design for the top crust.

I pre-baked the bottom crust, then filled it and laid out all the strips going across the pie and a double layer around the circumference to hold everything together, then baked everything together. At some point I decided the top wasn't cooking fast enough, so I turned on my broiler. The broiler was a good idea, but walking away to do something else while the crust cooked wasn't, and I ended up with a charred mess. Luckily, it was easy enough to pick off the top crust and the burned grapes, and I successfully broiled the same design the next morning, and the whole design took only 5 minutes the second time around. The little white thing on top is the remains of my spun sugar cloud, which was really easy to make and fun to look at, but stuck to the rice I used to try to keep it dry. Oh well.

This apple pie was just apple slices, sugar, and lemon juice, but putting together this design with the apple slices took 30 minutes or more. The design had two or three layers of apple slices, and I should have sprinkled each layer with sugar and lemon juice, because the bottom layers came out fairly bland.

I didn't pre-bake this crust because I meant to do an overhang around the edge, but then I decided that the overhang would hide the best part of the design. The bottom crust was not as crispy and flavorful as I thought it should have been. Instead of the overhang, I folded the edge under itself and over the lip of the pan to try to keep it from shrinking, which failed in some spots. I definitely need to get better at how I deal with the edges of my crusts.

For a glaze, I simmered the apple peels and cores in a simple syrup and reduced the syrup until it was very thick, then brushed it on the baked pie. A great byproduct of making a glaze that way is the skins, which turn into a translucent and sticky-sweet candy. Two strips tangled up with each other made an easy garnish (and one that looks a bit better in real life than in photographs, apparently).

Another Day, Another Lesson

Day 4: Pie Dough, these delicate, airy cookies, coating jelly rolls in ganache, and marbled high-ratio white cake.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Internship Continues

Day 2: Genoise Cake, Jelly Rolls, more things I can't remember

Day 3: Pate Choux, Biscotti, Blueberry Pie

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Success, Failure, Disaster

Successes: My first day at the pastry shop was great! We made tiramisu from start to finish, chocolate mousse cakes wrapped in a stenciled chocolate sheath, and mini fruit tarts. The chef is all about spending time imparting her knowledge to me, which is definitely not something I'm used to from my job as line cook.

Failures: Dinner last night was a bit of a nightmare. I spent a lot of time on it, got tired and hungry and frustrated near the end of the process, and wasn't too happy with the final results. The dish was baked cod with a lobster-broth sauce and purple potato and chive croquettes. I ate at the restaurant where Di works a while ago, and was very impressed by the sauce served with their pastry-wrapped fish (Cod? Haddock? can't quite remember). The menu called it a bouillabaisse, but it was refined and subtle and perfect with the mild fish. My idea was to make a tomato-heavy lobster broth some shells left over from the lobster dinner, then finish it with a bit of cream. As usual with stocks, I used too much vegetable, and the flavor ended up sweeter and less lobster-centered than I wanted, but it worked alright when finished with cream. The purple potato croquettes looked really beautiful before frying and actually ended up tasting just fine as mashed potatoes, but my plan for frying them in a tempura batter (I had no bread crumbs) failed miserably because the batter didn't stick to the potatoes. To top things off, I also let the cod overcook a bit. Oh well, lessons learned and a decent recipe idea stored away.

Disaster: Last week I cracked the inner glass panel on my oven while trying to create steam for baking baguettes. A bit of hot water splashed onto the panel and the glass cracked immediately. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Suck At Baking Cakes, Part II

Yep, I suck at that, so today I got an internship at a pastry shop in the same town as my line cook job. I'm really excited to start learning a lot of new skills again!

In other news, finished the Peach-Whiskey Ice Cream. Tons of peach flavor, not so much whiskey except for a subtle dark sweetness. Another struggle with the ice cream maker inconclusively completed.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I've gotten a lot of cooking (and thus learning) done recently. Yesterday I made three separate batches of tortilla-like flatbreads using different techniques and flours. I've decided to go back to my old technique of starting the dough with 50% hydration by volume and then adding flour until the mix is workable. I feel that less mixing (and thus hopefully less toughening) happens this way, and I tend to be happier with the final dough. Also, sandwiching the dough between two Silpats helps make wet doughs less problematic to roll. Resting has a definite positive effect on the rolling process, and rested doughs can probably be rolled thinner. I am still uncertain, however, whether there is any effect on the texture or taste of the cooked dough. Baking on a pizza stone works fine, but it may not be any more effective than cooking in a pan, which is somewhat easier. Finally, I am starting to wonder if what I used to think of as an uncooked flour flavor in my flatbreads may in fact be simply a young dough flavor, and adding flavor, perhaps through a sweetener, might be a good solution.

Today I made a new batch of yogurt, mixed up a Roasted Peach and Whiskey Ice Cream, and baked the three baguettes pictured above. Di got me The Bread Baker's Apprentice for my birthday, and I finally made the defining recipe, Pain a l'Ancienne, starting the dough yesterday and baking today. The baguettes look quite pretty to the untrained eye, but I believe the way the dough split on the slash marks betrays their disappointing crumb, which had much smaller holes than I was hoping for. I think my actual hydration was somewhat lower than what Reinhart called for, or maybe I moved too slowly in getting the dough into the oven, or perhaps it was my failed steam method (following Bittman's advice, a cast-iron pot with rocks in it, pre-heated), or maybe even that my stone (a very thick slab of slate I used for the first time today) was not hot enough yet. Having so many variables is one of the most frustrating parts about bread baking. Anyway, the bread was still very tasty, so I'm still excited to try again soon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Need A Good Head Shop

This post on Ideas In Food about roasting dry pasta (and also about hydrating same in cold water) mentioned a smoke gun, which led me to this awesome post on Chadzilla about making your own smoke gun. I wonder how hot the smoke comes out. If it's too hot, I suppose passing it through some underwater hosing might solve that problem. Also, a story on mentions using a vaporizer to create aroma instead of smoke. Finally, I can cold-smoke liquor like I've wanted to do for a while now!

I need a pipe bowl and filters, so it's too bad the Dancing Bear shop in Brunswick closed.

Lobster Dinner

This was a meal Di and I improvised for two visiting friends. Boiled lobster, roasted sweet potatoes with rosemary, and brown butter polenta with corn and shallots. I used Cooks Illustrated's fast microwave method for the polenta.

And yeah, this stuff probably wanted white wine rather than red, but whatever.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Soup with Purple Rice

I made this dish for lunch a few months ago, before it got too warm and humid for hot soups. I roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and scallions (but mostly sweet potatoes), then pureed them and thinned with water until I got a nicely rich, rustic soup.

For the other components, I started by simmering some canned black beans in a bit of water to soften them (I like to cook canned beans - I feel it softens them a bit and exorcises most off flavors), then drained them and added the beans to the soup and used their cooking water to cook some jasmine rice, which turned the rice a light purple that contrasted nicely with the orange of the soup and the green of the roasted scallions I saved to use as a garnish. Cooking the beans in a small amount of water maintained the intensity of color I needed for the rice, but I think I could have done a better job and ended up with darker rice.

Simple, satisfying, visually appealing. Not bad for an off-the-cuff lunch!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Upcoming Projects

  • "Old Empire" Gin - British gin (Bombay?) infused with spices. How do you make something taste dusty?
  • Agar-filtered melon consomme
  • Sourdough, again

Monday, August 17, 2009

I Suck At Baking Cakes

I need to get better at that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Around and around: Centrifuges and Rotary Evaporators

'Cooking Issues' has two great articles on how and why to use two pieces of chemist's equipment in the the kitchen: centrifuges and rotovaps. Both separate a substance into its component parts: centrifuges by density and rotovaps by volatility. Cooks can use them to separate flavors into purer essences. Thinking about capturing the pure 'truth' of an ingredient led me to think also about the sous-vide technique, often used to cook meat while altering its flavor and texture minimally. Protecting the integrity of the ingredient seems to be the common theme, but what about other goals a cook can pursue? Does using a traditional process lend value to the final dish? I indeed find myself thinking in circles when I try to assign value to tradition, novelty, 'soul,' purity.

Sous-vide filet, rotovap'd red wine syrup, and root vegetable emulsion, or pot roast?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brown Butter Consomme?

I started Harold McGee's Savory Brown Butter Consomme today, and I'm not sure how it's going. The pre-clarification broth seems to have been taken over by the soy sauce and lemon juice, so I'm a bit worried that's how the clarified broth is going to taste as well. Also I used a measuring cup for blooming the gelatin, when maybe I should have used a much wider vessel for more surface area to sprinkle the powder on. I'll have to wait and see. The butter fat that I skimmed off the broth, on the other hand, smells and tastes like the most beautiful, full-bodied, sweetest brown butter I've ever tasted (not that I've tasted that many). To skim the fat, I used a skimmer that I picked up in Hong Kong whose power I didn't grasp until today; its very fine mesh makes it really easy to separate fat and water, probably because fat droplets are much larger than water droplets. It's just like this one, except it cost me maybe a dollar, instead of $24.00, and presumably I still got ripped off.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Chard with Mixed Summer Veg in Brown Butter Balsamic Emulsion

Got rainbow chard and summer squash from the Brunswick farmers market last saturday. First time having rainbow chard - greens were very similar to beet greens, stems were beautifully colored raw, slightly less so cooked, but with a nicely robust texture. Sauce was delicious, though not well emulsified (problem: lack of effort); rich nutty butter + sharp balsamic (unaged, cheap) + mustard + sweet honey. Mixed vegetables were diced and effectively steamed in their own water. They lacked individual character, but were a serviceable bed for the chard. Dianne roasted some small red potatoes we also got at the market; delicious as always, with a perfectly fluffy texture inside.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On the Cutting (Weeping) Edge

I've been fascinated by gelatin clarification, a relatively new 'molecular gastronomy' technique for a while, though I'm only now gearing up to try it. The method attracts me because it's not part of classical technique, works very well, and is totally accessible to the home cook. Gel clarification is at least 4 or 5 years old, which seemed new (and it is, relative to techniques in the classical repertoire) until last night, when I discovered another clarification technique that makes gel clarification look like a dinosaur: agar clarification.

Agar clarification was first written about on Ideas in Food less than a month ago and then explained and simplified on Cooking Issues and later applied there to alcohol. This method uses the same syneresis effect as the older gel clarification technique, but it works much faster because you don't need to freeze the gel; agar gels apparently do not 'melt' at room temperature.

It's really exciting to see these techniques being invented and refined in real time.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

More Bacterial Magic

It turns out making yogurt is really easy. In fact, the bacteria do all the work. You just have to give them a nice place to multiply, and pretty soon you get to eat them along with the delicious product they've made (transformed?) for you. I was still nervous, though, when I tried it out for the first time. I've ended up with decidedly mediocre results from projects that could be described in similar terms. The beer I invested over a hundred dollars in brewing was pretty pathetic. I was afraid to even try my preserved lemons, and abandoned them when I moved so that they're now a safe half-dozen states away. I've turned out a few inedible loaves of bread. But no matter! Making yogurt, as I said, is really easy. I have a 100% success rate.

These were the sources I used, the high and the low: a NYT article by Harold McGee (a culinary guiding light of mine) and a wikiHow entry. Both are highly recommended reading.

Special equipment: a large microwave-safe bowl (I used Pyrex or something similar). A thermometer with range of at least 100 F - 200 F. Either an oven or some kitchen towels.

I microwaved about a quart and a half of milk for around 8-10 minutes, until it reached around 190 degrees F. Using the microwave once more, I kept the milk between 180 F and 190 F for the next 15 minutes, then cooled it in a water bath to 115 F. The cooling happened surprisingly quickly - less than 10 minutes. I then mixed a few tablespoons of store-bought yogurt (a kind with a bunch of active bacterial cultures) with a similar amount of warm milk, and stirred the milk-yogurt blend into the warm milk. After that the idea is to keep the milk warm - around 100 F - for four or more hours. Luckily, the bacterial growth seems to be exothermic, so after failing to wrap the measuring bowl I had my milk in with kitchen towels, I briefly warmed up my oven until it felt around 100 F, then turned its internal light on and stuck the bowl in there. Harold McGee recommends letting the milk (or soon-to-be yogurt) sit for 4 hours; the wikiHow article wants you to start with seven hours. I didn't time my batch right, so it sat in my oven for almost 12 hours, and it still came out fine: pleasantly tangy and a bit sweet. After sitting, the yogurt needs to be mixed and refrigerated to firm up. The next night, I set some in a strainer lined with a paper coffee filter and put the strainer over a bowl in the fridge overnight, which gave the yogurt a super-thick and creamy Greek-style texture.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Garlic Broths

I discovered the satisfying goodness of garlic broths when I put one more clove of the pungent stuff than I thought was reasonable into a vegetable and lentil soup a few weeks ago. The soup came out with a much more rounded, full flavor than I had anticipated, with garlic supplying a mellow low tone that surprised me. Garlic overpowering other ingredients in sauces is a common story, and an overbearing presence in tomato-based pasta sauces particularly irks me, but when simmered in soup it seems to have a different effect and perhaps a different flavor as well. Garlic can serve as a satisfying base flavor for a broth with other big flavors but doesn't distract from brighter herbal or citrus notes. Like so many ingredients, garlic is full of versatility, always ready to help you out with a new flavor or texture, if you let it.

Today, craving the Asian greens (mini bok choy or something similar) staring at me from the vegetable drawer, I decided to go for a garlic broth with other Asian flavors that wouldn't be out of place in a Thai or Chinese soup. First I sweated (well, browned by accident) minced shallots, then added sliced ginger, a good amount of minced garlic, and a few cumin seeds and szechuan peppercorns for complexity and an exotic tone. Once the mixture was fragrant, I added enough water for my bowl of soup and a few cilantro stems to help the ginger freshen up the otherwise rather "brown" tasting broth. Halfway through the 20-minute simmer (longer might be better here), I added ground black pepper. After simmering, I strained everything out of the broth and added plenty of salt. I find that soup takes a relatively massive amount of salt, to the point of actually tasting the salt just a bit, to bring out peak flavor. I simmered some quartered mushrooms in the broth for a few minutes, then brought the whole thing to a boil, added the greens (I boiled these in the broth to retain as much of their nutritional value as possible), and finished with sliced green onions and dried chili flakes.

Satisfying, nourishing, a little (too) spicy on the back of the throat. Good lunch. Next time: drop a beaten egg, perhaps tempered, into the hot broth.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ideas from Charlie Trotter and Elsewhere

Charlie Trotter's Meat & Game was the first cookbook I've taken a good look through in a few weeks. Maybe I missed the best parts of this cookbook (the treatments of meat and the game, of course) since I cook mostly vegetarian these days, but it still gave me a few great ideas and got me hunting for more.

Ideas to look into:
  • spice oils; I'm especially interested by clove oil
  • flavorful emulsions as sauce or second sauce
  • infusions of anything - got this from watching a clip from the TV show Heston's Feasts
  • homemade liqueurs, especially the ones with obvious flavors, like coffee or cocoa
  • that dim sum that's shrimp in a translucent rice flour wrapper
  • Chinese garlic sauce (?) or whatever Shanghai Teahouse puts on its tofu and cabbage dish

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Joys of Eating Unseasonally

Eating seasonal food locally grown is great, but eating wonderfully ripe (and reasonably priced) berries in the middle of winter is better. Breakfast this morning: 100% whole wheat pancakes lightened by mixing in egg whites beaten to fairly stiff peaks (a Mark Bittman recipe from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian) with fresh blueberries (from Chile) and strawberries (California maybe?). The pancakes really are light and fluffy, ethereal even, but they become bone-dry and unpleasant tasting if overcooked.

Slow Cooking Beans

Reading through David Tanis' "A Platter of Figs", one statement grabbed my attention and made me scratch my head a bit: "A bean soup needs gentle cooking and cannot be rushed." No explanation, just a terse pronouncement that assumes you'll take it on faith that the great Tanis would not lead you astray on this or any other point. Tanis' unadorned prose is certainly one of the great things about "A Platter of Figs," and it matches well the book's simple food that pays homage to fine ingredients rather than complex technique. Usually the text offers just enough information, but once in a while, as with the bean soup, it falls short.

"Do beans really need slow cooking?" I asked myself upon reading Tanis' unequivocal statement. I tried to recall what I knew about beans. Not much. What about slow simmering? You have to simmer meat at relatively low temperatures to keep it moist and tender, but that's because meat cells lose liquid at high temperatures. Meat stocks are also simmered slowly, to avoid emulsifying fat into the liquid end product. But surely bean cells are different than meat cells, and for bean soup the fat is probably a non-issue for various reasons. I've never ended up with tough and dry beans; I've always boiled them and gotten satisfactory results.

I probably should have turned to Harold McGee for resolution, but instead I googled and turned up this article by Chef Kelly Myers.

Salient points:
  • Slow cooking "breaks down gas-causing carbohydrates into digestible sugars."
  • "Boiling will eventually blow apart your black-eyed peas, flageolets, and cranberry beans."
  • Boiling might lead to unevenly cooked beans.
  • Simmering leads to "creamy and luxurious beans," though why is seemingly left to the reader to wonder at.
I pulled a few more interesting ideas from Myers' article:
  • use the 'stock' left over from simmering beans to add body to vegetable soups.
  • add fat (for flavor) to the beans after skimming the foam (which is a protein that comes in with the beans). This might mean sweating/sauteing your aromatics/herbs/spices/meat/whatnot in another pan, then dumping it all into the beans post-skim.
And finally, one fascinating point from McGee himself:
  • Acid, sugar, and calcium allow beans to cook for hours and reheat without disintegrating. So ingredients like molasses ( somewhat acidic, contains sugar and calcium) and tomatoes (acidic) preserve structure in slow cooking. Viz. baked beans.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Bread Baker's Fawning Disciple

Complicated, poorly understood topics generally sufficiently intimidate me that I can't sustain real interest in them. Programming was one example for a long time, until I found good teachers that made it easy. Beer brewing was another. There is, however, one such topic that draws me back to itself time and time again: bread baking. Making bread is an almost unbelievably complex process. I don't mean that it is hard to make good bread; in fact, I've found that very simple ever since my sister made me watch Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey's no-knead bread video recipe. Rather, it is understanding why the bread you bake is good or bad that may be an insurmountable challenge. Baking bread is a many-staged process and the way each step of a recipe is performed changes how every subsequent stage will play out. As do minute environmental factors. As do equipment factors. At this level of complexity, the production of even a relatively simple loaf becomes a web of interdependent factors and tasks. Figuring out if you're on the right track in the middle of a recipe can be difficult without experience, and figuring which factors went right and which wrong when looking at a baked loaf is often even harder. Despite these challenges, I find myself retaining deep interest in baking bread, even when my experiments (which I always hope to eat) are relative failures. Perhaps achieving good results with no-knead bread has given me hope of mastery, or the relatively pain-free nature of experimentation (I like kneading, recipes take only hours or a day or two, even mediocre results can be delicious) keeps me from being discouraged, or maybe baking and eating bread is just satisfying and comforting on a basic level. In any case, I forge on.

Lately I've been reading through Peter Reinhardt's Whole Grain Breads (at a bookstore; sadly, I don't own any of his books yet). In his bread books, Reinhardt somehow manages to convey adequately detailed technical information in a way that doesn't seem at all divorced from his obvious enthusiasm for bread, which makes even discussions of yeast strains and enzyme activity compelling. Reading in Whole Grain Breads about his new delayed-fermentation and soaker method has made me reexamine how little I know about my my no-knead doughs work so well. In the interest of organizing my thoughts and being able to refer to this information later, I'm going to note here my hazy understanding of the concepts involved. Don't go imagining any of the following is necessarily accurate.

Apparently, when you mix flour, water, and yeast together, there are at least two main activities taking place. The third, which I won't talk about because I know nothing about it except that it creates acidity for sourdough breads, is bacterial. The first, and the one that everyone talks about, is yeast leavening. Yeast, a type of fungus, break down sugar and sugar chains (starch) in the flour and produce alcohol, a small amount of acid, and carbon dioxide gas, which is what "rises" the dough. So yeast contributes some flavor (its own and some acid) and gas to the final loaf. The last activity, the one nobody talks about, is enzyme activity. Flour contains enzymes needed to break down its own starches because the grain it is milled from were originally intended for growth into a new plant, and that new seedling needs shorter sugars for food. In fact, everyone, including ourselves and yeast, like those broken-down sugars. Hydrating flour somehow activates or releases its enzyme amylase, which breaks down starch, and also protease, which breaks down protein. I have often heard that a long, slow fermentation makes no-knead dough more flavorful. It seems that that long period of time and probably also the high hydration level promote the amylase activity which is responsible for much of that flavor. In addition, protease weakens gluten strands, which makes the dough more extensible and easier to tear, allowing larger gas bubbles to form in the crumb during baking.

Reinhardt's method, which I don't yet understand very well, involves preparing two pieces of "pre-dough" the day before baking: the soaker and the starter. The starter is a pre-fermented, yeast-rich piece of dough. It seems that, as opposed to what I would have thought, the yeast in the starter is not meant to drive fermentation, though of course it does some of that. The starter is so much smaller than the complete dough, and the yeast concentration so low, that it would probably take a long fermentation period for the starter yeast to rise the whole loaf. I guess the idea instead is to give the yeast an opportunity to produce its characteristic flavors. The soaker, which makes up almost all of the eventual dough mass, is much simpler: it's just hydrated flour. The hydration activates the above-mentioned enzymes in the flour, and they do their thing without yeast getting in the way (which apparently is dangerous, because the enzymes can go too far and dissolve too much sugar, making the dough collapse into gumminess) or imposing a time constraint based on full rising. The soaker idea makes a lot of sense: a dough that is hydrated and seeded with yeast at the same time has two (three) processes happening at the same time that are all important, but in a way end up racing each other. If the enzyme activity goes too fast and runs away, you end up with gummy bread. If the yeast win and the dough is baked before the enzymes can do their job, you lose flavor. In the soaker, the enzymes are free to do their thing before salt (which slows enzyme activity) and yeast are added, so if the timing is right (and apparently this is a ballpark thing, like rising the no-knead bread), you know you've developed about as much flavor as you can. When the starter and soaker are combined, salt and quite a bit of commercial yeast is added. The large amount of yeast makes for a quick rise. Since the enzymes have already broken down a lot of sugars in the dough, you don't need a long rise to get good flavor!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Baconic Aesthetic

Friend, ex-coworker, and general "Good Dude" Bronson (BJJ/MMA blog, current post food-related) just linked me to this New York Times story about a 4-lb. grilled bacon and sausagecreation that has gone viral on the Interwebs. That story reminded me of the Bacon Cheese Baconburger, which led to my coining the word "baconic" to describe that characteristic while the BCB story has in greater quantity than the bacon-sausage roll. When I say baconic, I don't just mean "of, or relating to, bacon," though of course that is part of the definition. The term also references a bacon-centric (baconic - see how useful this word is!) aesthetic that seems to pop up regularly among foodies and on their blogs. Part of bacon's appeal among these people is doubtlessly its delectable smoke and pork and salt flavor, carried (and how cool is this?) by its own grease. That bacon taste of course traditionally enhances all sorts of dishes, from salads to soups to mashed potatoes, but it can also work well in strange places like desserts (with chocolate) despite its characteristic assertiveness.

So flavor is one reason why food enthusiasts love bacon. But just as bacon has complex flavor, the bacon aesthetic has many facets as well. One facet is that bacon is contrarian. In an era (and I'm talking here about a length of time measured in decades) that is decidedly anti-fat and anti-salt, bacon is pretty much wrapped in those gastronomic demons. Even smoke is, or should be, controversial because of its carcinogenic effects. Fresh, natural ingredients with clean flavors are another fixation of modern cooks, and deservedly so. Bacon is so heavily processed and distinctly flavored that the uninitiated would probably be unable to identify it as pork. And as a preserved food intended for long-term storage, it's not anywhere near fresh. So of course we love it and love talking about it, because we're all about the naughty stuff. Bacon is a smoky, greasy finger in the eye of conventional culinary wisdom, and the bacon aesthetic is all about going our own way with food, especially if it's the wrong way. Bacontakes a stand for everything that is forbidden us, and it does it in a brash, in-your-face way: when you put bacon in a dish, you simply cannot cover it up. It says, in a most baconic fashion, "I'm here, even if I shouldn't be. And you love it."

XLB Are For Suckaz

This morning my waking thought was a remembrance of Xiaolongbao, a Shanghai specialty consisting of little thin-skinned dumplings filled with both pork or seafood filling and (here's the special part) a bit of pork broth. I first fantasized "Wow! I'll bet people in the States have never had soup in their dumplings! Culinary world, I am about to blow your mind and burn your tongue." Sadly, a quick google search revealed that not only does everybody and their mom know about XLB, but they were even a little food fad in the mid-90s. So much for my dreams of real originality. Or at least the appearance of originality here in the US.

My next thought was a remembrance of actually eating XLB in Shanghai. It took some doing, but eventually I got a seat at Xia Xia Xialongbao Tang, a well-recommended XLB shop in the middle of their neighborhood home to tons of restaurants and nothing else. I remember my eager anticipation of what surely would be a transformative tasting experience, and also the clear "do-not-care" attitude of the waitress (though the old guy who brought me a spoon when she forgot to seemed pretty ok). And the dumplings? The skins were substantial enough to taste, but not at all unpleasantly thick, and they had the tender texture you generally look for. The solid filling (I got the pork) was fine, though nothing stunning. And the crucial bit, the soup? Meh. The stock was delicious, but it felt like there was maybe half a teaspoon in each dumpling. And looking at the picture of the dumplings, I can't see why I expected any more to be stuffed into those things.

A little disappointed, I left the restaurant and started to head back to the hostel to collect my stuff and catch my train west. I was still hungry - those dumplings were expensive, for China, and one steamer basket's worth was surely not enough to satisfy me - so when I spotted someone frying more substantial-looking dumplings across the street, I leaped at the opportunity to get something more in my stomach. Nothing about Yang's Fry-Dumpling restaurant or the dumplings themselves indicated that the Shanghai soup dumpling scene was about to redeem itself in a moment that mixed a bit of euphoria with a bit of searing pain. There was a kind of ridiculous, but understated, yellow sign with poorly formatted english writing and a picture of an anonymous hand giving the thumbs up. In the window that opened onto the street, a big batch of dumplings the size of a child's fist were being shallow-fried in a huge pan. My experience with these fried dumplings was that the restaurants tilted the pan and only used enough oil to active fry things in one corner of it, so often half your dumplings were half cold. I should never have doubted Yang or his fry-dumplings. After buying a set of four, I was walking down the street towards a subway stop when I bit into the first one. I don't know what I expected, but I guess probably some kind of meat stuffing. Instead, steaming-hot (at the least) soup game gushing out, burning my tongue and splattering everywhere. It turned out there was at least like a gallon of soup in each of these things, and the whole deal was super-heated. The bottoms were awesomely crunchy, which of course left the tops a bit rubbery. There were sesame seeds and delicious grease and some kind of solid stuffing that I can't at all remember because of the soup. Oh my, the soup was everything I wanted: hot, delicious, and in quantity. I'd finished all four by the time I got down into the train station, the soup from each one burning my mouth in some new place. But I was smiling anyway.

So there you have it. Americans may think they know about Shanghai soup dumpligs, but they're eating the ones from the wrong side of the street.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Winter Gods Are Anti-Burgin'

So Chef John over at Food Wishes (a long-time inspiration to my cooking, and usually in more profound ways than this) put up a little video showing how to portion sliders with a muffin tin yesterday, which inspired me to make some sort of burger for lunch even though we're in the middle of winter, which is not exactly high burgin' season. I refused, of course, to absorb his lesson about even portioning or mimic the simplicity of his beef + pepper + salt burger formula; instead, I set out to make highly-seasoned, hand-formed pork patties.

Before starting any other prep, I put a non-stick pan on medium-high heat.

The overall plan to was to make a Sichuan-ish version of the pork filling I use most often for pot-stickers/wontons. I got out my mortar and pestle (more on buying kitchen supplies from laboratory supply companies in a future post) and ground together some black pepper, salt, and quite a few Sichuan peppercorns. On later examination, it didn't make any sense to grind the salt along with the peppercorns.

The spice blend was mixed with some decently fatty ground pork (ground at home a while ago then frozen, don't remember the cut), sliced scallions, minced garlic, grated ginger, and a drop or two of toasted sesame oil.

The mix looked like it had a great proportion of fat and smelled excellent, though it could have taken a few more Sichuan peppercorns. I formed two small patties by hand and of course they came out a bit uneven, but as soon as they hit the pan they smelled so great I couldn't make myself care. I cooked the first side for 4 minutes and flipped it over to find beautiful browning.

Then, suddenly, disaster! I was making a bit of sauce (Yeo's Sweet Chilli Sauce, a bit of soy sauce, a drop of sesame oil) for the burgers when out of the cabinet I was opening tumbled a glass jar full of some dried herb. The glass shattered and shards went flying onto the floor, into my prep area, and possibly into the cooking meat.

Goodbye, sweet burgers.

After cleaning up the glass, I found myself still desiring to feed on a hot mass of meat, but now I lacked ground pork. Luckily, I found a bag of half-frozen ground lamb in the fridge. I cut a portion of that off and did a quick-and-dirty defrost in the microwave (managed to only cook maybe 3-5% of the meat). In the de-glassed mortar and pestle, I ground up some cumin seeds, a few coriander seeds, cloves, black pepper, salt, and some fresh-ground cinnamon (what a different fresh-ground makes even with cinnamon, which I think is great pre-ground!) and mixed all that with the lamb.

The resulting patty fried up decently and tasted quite Hui-ish, but next time I should probably put in some sichuan peppercorns and a ton of ground hot chilies. Also, the lamb was far leaner than the lost pork, so the juiciness level was disappointing.

Random note: I guess the Chinese like burgers well enough, but they definitely like them some fried chicken. The familiar Colonel is EVERYWHERE over there.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Muslim Quarter Street Food, Xi'an

One of the most kick-ass cities for street food in China is Xi'an, in Shaanxi province (not to be confused with neighboring Shanxi province, of course). In the northwest section of the walled city lies the Muslim Quarter, a super-touristy ethnic section of the best sort. The Muslim Quarter is home to a large concentration of the Hui ethnic minority (the majority ethnic group in China, as in Xi'an, is Han). These guys are ubiquitous in China's streetfood scene, always selling grilled meat or seafood on a stick and maybe some flatbreads too. In Beijing they sell starfish and sea horses and in Shanghai I ate minced lamb and vegetables on pancakes in a Hui restaurant, but the one item you always see is grilled skewered lamb with generous sprinklings of ground hot peppers.

In Xi'an you can get plenty of grilled lamb, but they also have a constellation of other tasty things to try: grilled breads, more kinds of dried fruit than you have ever seen unless you work in a fruit drying factory, some kind of rice pudding cooked in individual pots over a flame, roast beef sandwiches, goopy mutton stew with crumbled bread (Yang Rou Pao Mo), another goopy soup eaten for breakfast with twisted doughnuts floating in it, and the list goes on and on.

The food that most interested me (enough to buy it twice with so many unexplored options close at hand) grabbed my attention with a huge cloud of steam, in the midst of which a Hui man was shovelling portions of something redolent of Chinese five-spice powder out of a big metal tub. The food turned out to be some kind of starch, mashed or rolled very small, steamed with chewy mutton, and beautifully spiced. I ordered a bowl, but didn't manage to get any of the soft buns he also had steaming in his metal tub. When I brought some back to the hostel to ask the receptionists what the starch was, they said it was wheat. This was the most satisfying dish I had in Xi'an, but I can't figure out its name or how it's made, so if anyone can tell me what it is, please please post a comment!

East Asian Street Food

Alright so a little while ago I spent a few months traveling through East Asia. Plenty of sleeping in backpacker hostels and trying not to get hustled on the street and eating weird unidentifiable sh*t off menus I couldn't read. As goes traveling in general, so too goes eating on the road: sometimes it's scary, sometimes it's fantastic, often it's a huge pain in the a**, but the overall experience tends to be enriching and positive and all that crap that means something but sounds mushy when you put it in words.

Surely the most hassle-free way of filling your belly in an unfamiliar place is street food, at least where such a concept exists in any meaningful way. You get to walk up to a stall and point at food that is at the least clearly displayed and often being cooked right in front of you. The transaction is entirely straightforward and the likelihood of getting ripped off slim, since you probably saw what someone paid for the exact same food a second ago.

In the street food category, China beat the hell out of the other countries I spent most of my time, Korea and Japan. Korea has some excellent stuff that I miss, especially tteokbokki (wonderful chewy rice cakes and other less important things in a moderately spicy red "curry" sauce that the Koreans incorrectly think is burn-your-a**-off hot) and gimbap (sort of Korean sushi rolls that are a lot better than that description makes them sound, but are more often sold as fast food in stores than from street stalls). Unfortunately, a lot of the street food is deep-fried something-or-other stuffed with red bean paste and though the variety isn't too shabby, it can't come close to what you can find in China. In any case, banchan, or little side dishes - pretty much always including kimchi - served alongside your other food, are the real fun of eating in Korea.

street food barely seems like it's trying, even when compared to Korea. In the Kansai region (Osaka and Kyoto and the center of the main island) you can get takoyaki (at its best, bits of octopus suspended in gooey pancake batter with a fried-crispy outer shell - you be the judge) and okonomiyaki (more pancake batter, this time in pancake form and with plenty of bland mayonnaise) and yakisoba (noodles, stir-fried) and whatever-else-yaki. That stuff can be pretty awesome, but it gets old real quick, and then what are you left with? Oh yeah, there's a 7-11 on the corner there, I guess you'll just have to pick up some onigiri (admittedly delicious sticky rice balls filled with something you can't read on the label. Good thing for you this is Japan and everything is color-coded). It's easy to come to the conclusion that street food is too filthy and disorderly for Japan, and maybe that's true. As some sort of consolation, a lot of Japanese fast-food establishments (another area of Japanese cuisine lacking in variety) combine the ubiquitous plastic food items with ticket-vending machines to make for an even more stress-free experience than eating on the street.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rorshach Veesheeswahz, Pot-Stickers, Veggie-Burgers

A three-course meal that I didn't think about very much and revised mid-preparation, which resulted in three dishes that didn't relate to each other and had to be served at different times, which is far too fussy for me.

First up, Sweet Potato and Leek Vichyssoise. I saw this dish in Williams Sonoma's New Orleans cookbook, then found it online at (why reluctant? embrace your snobbery; it's what separates you from the inferior masses). This dish seems a bit contradictory, even in the name; as a cold soup, vichyssoise might be most appropriately served in summer, but sweet potatoes and leeks are fall or winter crops. Whatever.

First, I brought 4 cups of water to a boil in a pot, then plunked in 2 chopped large sweet potatoes. The recipe called for quartered sweet potatoes. I wanted them to cook faster, so I chopped them much smaller than that. I decided to use water instead of any sort of stock to protect the mellow flavors of leeks and sweet potatoes, the stars of this soup, from being muddled or even overpowered. The 2 chopped leeks I thought could wait until later in the cooking time, so perhaps preserve some of their freshness somehow. This idea may have had some validity, but in fact I forgot to put them in until a few minutes after I should have, so they were still a bit stringy when I removed the pot from the heat, which caused minor difficulties later.

After the potatoes and leeks were mostly cooked, but still had some texture, I removed the pot from the heat and let it cool a few minutes. At first I tried to use a stick blender to puree the vegetables into the water, but that lacked the power to get the potatoes to the even texture I wanted, and furthermore couldn't chop all of the somewhat stringy leeks. Luckily, the food processor worked fine and got the soup along with a bit of grated ginger to an even consistency. Added cream, then seasoned with kosher salt and ground white pepper. If I were to make this soup again, I think I might use water to thin the soup instead of cream, for lightness. Also, there's a bit of guesswork in the seasoning at this stage, since you're going to chill and age the soup, which changes its flavor. It might make sense to leave the seasoning until after chilling and be careful with the pepper, which wouldn't then have time to mellow.

After a few hours of chilling in the fridge, I garnished with a bit of cream (couldn't be bothered with anything else, but some green would have been perfect) and got Rorshach Vichyssoise.

Second course: Yao Choy and Fennel Seed Dumplings. Today I felt like making dumplings and also wanted some sort of green vegetable in this meal, so I put together this dish based on a kind of bao (Chinese steamed filled bun) I had in either Beijing or Shanghai. That particular bao was too salty and generally unpleasant, but I understood the green veg + fennel thing they were trying to get at.

I chopped up half a package of Yao Choy (or Green Yu Choy or whatever) in the mini-food processor chamber attachment for my stick blender, then mixed in minced garlic, minced shallots, minced ginger, freshly ground fennel and cumin seeds, a bit of ground hot red peppers, sesame oil, and some salt and ground black pepper. That stuffing went into round wonton wrappers, which were then folded in half and crimped. If I use this brand of wrappers again, I'll definitely roll them out a bit thinner and cut them in half; as they were, they were a bit too large and a bit too thick.

To cook the stuffed dumplings, I first browned them in a combination of canola and sesame oil, then poured a bit of water in the pan and covered to steam/boil them. Dipping sauce was just soy sauce with minced ginger, though I think they would have been better with the soy sauce-rice vinegar combination they serve with steamed dumplings in China.

Finally, Black Bean Burgers with Tamarind-Ginger Sauce. Probably needs a better name. My girlfriend and I saw a recipe for bean-based veggie burgers the other day and we vowed to make them eventually. Being a bit of a jerk, I jumped the gun. Grabbed this recipe off the Washington Post and kind of followed it. Sort of not really at all. Simmered a can of black beans for a while to soften them up while I got everything else together. Mixed some freshly ground cumin seeds with minced shallots, garlic, and cilantro. The recipe wanted panko bread crumbs, but I don't have anything fancy-schmancy like that (actually, I'd like to get some at a decent price), but my father is always making these "tortilla chips" by baking store-bought flour tortillas, so I just ground up a bunch of those in that darn-useful mini food processor bowl for my stick blender. They were dry and kind of sharp-ish, which is what I imagine panko is like. The beans got drained and half of them got pureed in the same food processor before the whole bit was mixed together with salt, ground black pepper, a bit of sesame oil, and two eggs, which turned out to probably be one too many. The whole mix was a bit slimy from the egg, so when I formed it into three patties about 3/4-inch thick, I coated the top and bottom of both with more tortilla-chip crumbs to promote trouble-free browning in the pan.

Most interesting to me was the sauce I put on these moderately-bad-boys, a tamarind juice reduction with ginger. I've never worked with tamarind before, though I've known about it for a long time and in fact had had this vacuum-sealed package of pulp sitting in the pantry for a long time. Well today I finally opened it up, took about about a third of the half-pound package, and mashed it into some boiling water. 10 minutes later, I had this thick, brown, slightly musty, sort of sweet, bracingly tart juice. Strained out the pulp (saved that in a bag for another soaking), brought to a simmer with some minced shallots and ginger. I reduced the liquid until it had a good concentration of the aromatics, then added brown sugar to further tame the tartness and a bit of cornstarch to bring it to the spoon-coating thickness I wanted.

Plated: rice + burger + avocado slices + sauce. The burgers were a bit bland, especially in contrast to the sauce, but their combination of crispy-brown outside and smooth pureed beans inside punctuated by a few whole beans and the other ingredients was excellent. I think next time I might form the patties a bit thinner. The sauce was wonderfully striking with its balanced tartness, but it might have used some more ginger to make the complexity of the sauce more apparent.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


First post! This blog is intended mostly as an informal group of notes on food to myself. I'm attracted to the idea of collecting my food-related thoughts, adventures, and discoveries in the cloud for my own convenience, but I also hope to contribute something to the food blogging community that has so inspired me in the past. The vain hope is that anyone who finds this mishmash will make sense of some small bit of it and come away with a new idea to explore.