Monday, December 27, 2010

Real Family Meal

Parents' newly renovated kitchen

Any cook who is in the business because they really love cooking will tell you that their favorite kitchen is the one in their home. We love the comfort, the relaxed pace, the control over the menu. Holiday feasts are perfect opportunities to apply (show off?) our technique; they give us an excuse to make as many dishes as we want, with as much fat and salt and expensive ingredients as we want (it's a special occasion!), and force it on a bunch of people who might even consent to doing the dishes later! I was talking to another cook the other day about how much we enjoy cooking big holiday feasts at home. His wife, a good cook herself, always rushes about trying to get food on the table so the meal can start, just like we have to do at work. For me, and I'll bet for many others, it is the cooking itself that is the real event, the great challenge and celebration, while the meal itself (and for my family, its attendant hours of sitting and chatting) is the denouement. I didn't cook a big Christmas feast this year - I was at work, unsurprisingly. I did, however, take charge of dinner on the 26th. I only made a few dishes, but it was still one of the most enjoyable parts of my short, happy stay with my family. Forget the music, the gifts, the lights, not to mention the Christ part of Christmas, and give me instead a few hours (or a few days) in the kitchen, doing what I do every day anyway, but loving it much more.

Dad and John with Pan-Roasted Chicken with Dijon-Sage Sauce, Roasted Garlic Mashed Yukons, and Asparagus and Broccolini in Brown Butter, Walnuts

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tackling the Monster

Finally tackled a large Blue Hubbard Squash we bought at Eastern Market a few weeks ago for $2. Pretty easy to cut into, not too hard to peel (though I had to go at it with a knife - too big for a peeler), appealing bright orange flesh that tasted pretty good too! Roasted it and tossed with roasted chickpeas, brown rice, wild rice, wilted winter greens of some sort from the Adams Morgan farmer's market, parsley, and olive oil. Tasty picnic lunch for tomorrow Shenandoah trek.

Pancetta, Weeks Later

After weeks wrapped in plastic in the fridge, the pancetta's moisture levels have evened out significantly and stopped dropping. It's perhaps a bit dryer than it should be, which happily means it's easy to slice. When cooked, it's less sweet and more aggressively porky than when it was younger. The meat has been sitting in my fridge for somewhere near two months, so even though I know the curing has probably made it quite safe, I'm not up for trying it raw any more.

Friday, November 5, 2010

English Muffin Success?

Haven't tried them yet, but they look great!

Followed this recipe, mostly. Where I went off the reservation: used 50% whole wheat flour, proofed/rested the dough for a few minutes after I rolled it out and again after I cut the muffins out, and I used somewhat lower heat in the pan (still burned a few).


Burgers That Don't Rot

From the same guy who brought you "How To Make Peking Duck At Home" comes an experiment in using hamburgers as vector for mold growth.

A bunch of websites/people have kept McDonald's hamburgers around for ill-advised amounts of time under ill-advised refrigeration conditions to demonstrate that they don't grow mold. The lack of mold is said to in turn demonstrate that said burgers are not "real food," but in fact some kind of chemical-laden horror show. Perhaps they are, but J. Kenji Lopez-Alt demonstrates that it's not chemicals that are inhibiting mold growth, but low moisture levels. It turns out that a similarly-shaped burger made at home from freshly ground beef, sans preservatives, also does not mold, whereas the larger 1/4 pound patty does grow some mold. Moisture loss rate is the difference. The regular McD's burger, and presumably the home-made version of the same (though moisture loss information was not provided for all specimens), lost moisture far faster than its larger cousin.


Recent Tasty

Steeped some ginger batons in thick coconut milk the other day for dinner, ended up with a delicious breakfast the next morning:

Coconut milk + ginger + yogurt + pear + mango + crispy-crunchy cereal.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pajeon Success At Last!

Recipe here. Never should have doubted Di.

Yay Bread!

Using this recipe and this mixing technique (the French Fold), I made some beautiful rolls and a braided loaf that was not quite as perfect. I was hoping the folding technique would make kneading feel less onerous, but I still got bored and frustrated at times. Perhaps with practice...

Also, the pastry chef at work and I have started a little series of cooking competitions with each other. Of course, as the first contest I proposed an item straight from the sweet side of cooking: cinnamon rolls. Needless to say, hers came out much better than mine, though I was pretty happy with my results and I learned a lot from watching her work (which was the whole point for me). Lessons learned: proof the rolls right up against each other and the walls of a pan to limit the outer surface area, which will get dryer and brown; put some brown sugar-cinnamon mix under the rolls so they get extra-gooey; baste with lots of butter that white glaze is important to the overall cinnamon roll experience. I actually preferred my bread to hers because it had a little chew, whereas hers was almost like cake. I used this brioche recipe, which I must try again, but only with a stand mixer: the dough took forever to mix, and was very stiff.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I like the technique shown in this Marco Pierre White video for making ginger batons palatable: simmer for a few minutes in water with a bit of lemon juice to preserve the ginger's color, then drain and cool.

Szechuan Green Beans

This doesn't taste like anything I ate in Szechuan, but it does taste pretty good...

Szechuan Green Beans
Serves 4 as a side. Feel free to multiply or divide

250 g Green Beans, rinsed and trimmed
6 g Sesame Oil (the roasted, strong, Asian kind)
16 g Unseasoned Rice Vinegar
24 g Yeo's Sweet Chili Sauce (or ketchup, maybe with a little sambal oelek or cayenne mixed in)
48 g Soy Sauce
25 g Chee Hou Sauce or Hoisin Sauce
5 g Ginger, grated
11 g Honey or Agave Nectar (if you're a vegan) or Corn Syrup (if you're a soulless corporation)
2 g Szechuan Peppercorn Oil; I got mine at a store, but you could make your own.
One or two drops Vanilla Extract
.13 g Xanthan Gum (optional in the extreme)

Bring a large pot full of well-salted water (the water should be salty like the sea) to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water or an extraordinarily large bowl or pot of very cold water nearby. Also have a spider or strainer handy. Boil the beans in the salty water for a minute or two or three until they taste how you want them to, texture-wise. Plunge them into the ice/cold water to stop them from cooking further. Let them chill out there for a while.

Combine all the other ingredients. You can do this with a fork or whisk, in a bowl. If you care about the oil and the water not separating, you can slowly emulsify the oils into everything else. If you're a real stickler for emulsion stability, you can put everything in a blender, put the blender on high, and shear in the xanthan gum until fully dispersed.

If the beans are completely cooled by now, drain them and toss them with the sauce. Refrigerate and serve cold or at room temperature.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pancetta: First Tasting

Tried my pancetta for the first time today. It's been drying in the fridge for about two and a half weeks. The outside constantly over-dried, so I ended up trying a bunch of methods to make it dry evenly. Covering the piece with parchment and rotating it frequently seemed like the best solution. It's now wrapped in plastic, so hopefully the moisture content will even out.

Predictably, I couldn't resist the urge to try the meat uncooked, but frankly it made for a pretty unpleasant experience. The meat was fine, though it had a too-strong nitrate flavor. The fat, on the other hand, was so chewy that I ended up spitting it out. No matter, just like with the duck bacon at work, rendering and crisping the pancetta brought out its porkiness and sweetness. I found myself looking a wider breadth of flavors, so next time I may dry-rub with spices, garlic, and herbs during the drying phase.

I'm interested to see what happens to the moisture level of the piece when wrapped, and with smoked bacon, Chinese bacon, and Lop Chong already sitting around, I'm also wondering what to do with so much cured pork...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pig Skin Braciole

Love it! Thank god for the internets, once again.

Pig Skin Braciole

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Great Dumpling Schism

There's a war on out there for the soul of the soup dumpling. No, not the kind with soup inside. The kind that sits in, or maybe floats on top of soup. But to start at the beginning...

Yesterday, as I was making fresh pasta for dinner (very satisfying, served with a super-hearty tomato and vegetable soup), I got lazy on my last piece of dough and decided to roll it into a very long thin log and cut it into tiny pillow shapes instead of the fettuccine shape I'd made the rest of the dough into. The pillows, about 1 cm on each side, proved impossible to cook thoroughly - the starch on the outside of the pasta hydrated, gelated, and swelled, keeping the interiors from hydrating. I wasn't surprised. I had been hoping to find a super easy gnocchi substitute in these pillow-shaped pastas, and when they failed, I had one of those moments where my mind runs in a bunch of different directions at once to try to solve a problem. One track was to make a dough with very hot water, to try to hydrate the flour before it is even shaped. Another idea was to make a leavened batter and drop it into the hot water to cook. Yep, dumplings. The other ideas were probably stupid, because I've already forgotten them.

Unsurprisingly, I'm not the first person to think of making leavened dumplings and cooking them in hot water or broth. In fact, Chicken and Dumplings is I guess pretty classic Americana, though I never ate it growing up. Too bad; I was missing out on a great culinary feud. This war is between supporters of two different shapes of soup dumplings: the sliders, or slicks, and the floaters. According to this book, the war is not based on lineage, not geography. Alton Brown agrees, and indicates that the two styles of dumplings have different roots in the Old World and are a epicurean manifestation of the Norman-Saxon conflict.

For now I've got to cuddle up to the floater camp because this whole jaunt is all about learning how to make light, fluffy leavened dumplings, not flat noodles. Alton's floaters are choux pastry, which is interesting and definitely worth exploring, but I'm looking to make a chemically leavened dumpling, not just the mechanically-leavened sort. According to that Appalachian Home Cooking book, you can get the fluffy sort of dumpling by gently simmering biscuit dough, but that's not exact enough information for me. This article has a recipe for something that sounds similar. From a whole different track and indeed a different part of the world comes the Czech/Sloval parená knedľa, basically a steamed yeast bread that is then sliced into 'dumplings.'

In the end, however, I want a super light, fluffy dumpling if possible, at least for the first try. Based on my experience with pancakes, light and fluffy means either baking soda to go along with the baking powder, or whipped egg whites. Naturally, there are plenty of recipes for buttermilk and baking soda dumplings like this one. Googling "egg white dumplings" returned this recipe and story of not-quite-success, which I think is worth a shot and some modification. Onwards to the tests!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Duck Bacon Results

At work on Saturday, I pulled the duck legs out of their cure and smoked them. Total curing time was 12 days, first in the Ruhlman/Polcyn basic cure for 5 days vacuum-sealed and then 7 more days in a mix of equal parts by volume white sugar and salt with added brown sugar, garlic, and whole coriander, allspice, and black peppercorns, this time in a normal ziploc-type plastic bag. After the first cure period, I thought they weren't fully cured, so I decided to do another week in a cure with the brown sugar and spices that I didn't have time to add on the first try. I didn't have pink salt on hand, so I didn't vacuum-seal the legs for fear of botulism, but from the interior color of the final product I suspect nitrite penetration was quite thorough after the first week.

After 12 days curing, the meat was quite firm, slightly translucent, and wrinkling at the edges. The legs got rinsed, patted dry, and left for an hour to air-dry in the walk-in while the smoker got going. I hot-smoked them over hickory for about an hour and a half, but I think the smoker was only producing good smoke for about 45 minutes to an hour of that time. First I turned the burners under the smoker (just a deep hotel pan rig we use at the restaurant) too low and then fat rendering from the legs dripped down onto the woodchips, effectively forcing me to abandon the smoker and finish the legs in a low (250F) oven for another hour or so. I gave the legs a sniff before I put them in the oven, and the level of smokiness seemed appropriate, so I wasn't unduly worried.

After the duck came out of the oven, I crisped up a few small pieces and it was FANTASTIC. The smokey flavor was perfect and well balanced with the intense meatiness and saltiness, with the brown sugar taking the delicious up another level. I was slightly worried about texture, since duck legs sometimes get a dense sponginess if not cooked long enough, but the texture of even the un-crisped meat is pleasant - dense and a bit chewy in a good way. With some crisped skin and fat thrown in - the ratio of meat to fat is also excellent - these legs are really a great eating experience.

I'm still trying to think of good ways to feature this stuff in our family meals - pasta carbonara and pizza are the only things that have come to mind thus far.

Fresh Whole Wheat Pasta

Inspired by all the fresh pasta making going on around me at work every day. In this case, meditative was the flip-side of tedious.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Mushroom and Tofu Dumplings in Miso-Genmaicha Broth

For lunch, Di and I made simple mushroom and tofu dumplings in a shiro miso and genmaicha broth with bok choy. A fun little project and satisfyingly warming lunch for a dreary, rainy, cold Sunday.

Also a good reminder of how well seasoned dumpling filling needs to be to stand out in a bowl of richly flavored soup.

That's Some Well-Hung Meat, Sir

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Duck Bacon

12 duck legs are in Ruhlman/Polcyn's Simple Cure (recipe here), hopefully I'll get to smoke them on Saturday, when there's more space in the kitchen. The last few Saturday's we've done more elaborate projects for family meal, and I hope to keep that new tradition alive.

On the home front, I've got a few pounds of pork belly I bought at a Chinese market in Rockville curing in the fridge for pancetta. I'll hang it somewhere on Saturday.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


We have an insane amount of duck legs in our freezer. At least 100 pieces. Probably more than 150. I am allowed to use them for family meal, and I have. Am I allowed to cure them and hang them from the ceiling?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flavor Purism

Just another internal contradiction.

One voice inside of me is obsessed with purity of flavor. Some preparations, at least those that bear the name of a single ingredient, like 'apple puree' or 'chicken stock,' should taste like the concentrated essence of that ingredient, unsullied by other flavors. I want chicken stock to taste more like chicken-y than chicken does, and apple puree to punch me in the mouth with its clarity and force. Flavor enhancers are acceptable: salt, acid, spiciness, MSG are all fine by me. But ingredients that add their own flavors can bother me. I am always hesitant to add mirepoix to my stocks. I don't think a vegetable soup should be made with chicken, or even vegetable, stock. Black pepper has its own flavor: nix it. I am always most impressed when a flavor shocks me with its purity.

On the other side of my brain is a love of dishes with complex, even muddled, flavors. Braises, stews, curries. I love all of them, and I'm much better at making them and other rustic fare than at making clear, simple, bright preparations. Maybe the more complex preparations are inherently easier, or maybe it's just my lack of experience with the others. I've given up choosing one philosophy over the other, but I'm still searching for a balance, or a harmony.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


When my cyclical interest in cooking is at its most intense, I experience a sort of manic need to absorb food-related information across a ridiculously broad spectrum. I read Cooking Issues and 101 Cookbooks, stumble on interviews with food scientists (informative, illuminating) and make special trips to the library to browse through impractical cookbooks (my favorite kind). I get excited about everything all at once, but I don't follow through on any one of my possible obsessions. Even when my cooking powers and patience should be at their zenith, sometimes I still end up just throwing together whatever I happen to have in the pantry. I want focus; I want a specific passion. Maybe I should just read some more...

Turning Point

DC Restaurant Week for me was a crucible of 6 13-hour days in a row. I had no idea what to expect, what my mise was going to be, or even which days I was working (pretty much all of them, as it turned out). The only thing anyone would tell me was that we were doing 200+ covers a night. This fact was relayed to me constantly by chefs, cooks, dishwashers, and food runners alike, with only the shades of dread and/or schadenfreude varying by source.

The Restaurant Week pickups were designed to be dead simple and blazing-quick. I had to deal with just four different proteins, all of which should either be already cooked or extremely fast to cook. Inevitably, hiccups arose and the whole endeavor turned into a slightly more complicated beast, but not by a degree that made it unmanageable. Nevertheless, by the end of the second day I was exhausted. The shear amount of new information and procedure, as well as the unusually hectic atmosphere of the kitchen, took its toll on me mentally. Of course, on Day 2 there's no stopping and there's no end in sight, so I just had to grit my teeth and dive in every morning, then slam some energy drinks before service.

Somewhere in the fray, I turned a corner, stopped being depressed and angry, and started performing acceptably. My mind cleared up a bit during prep and I was actually ready by the time we opened. I have no idea how that happened, but the energy drinks definitely helped.By Friday, service was boringly easy and heaping on another day of work didn't faze me. My sous-chef even went from being constantly frustrated with me to only being intermittently pissed off. Now I'm just hoping that week was a real turning point, not just a statistical blip.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


A word my new chef throws around a lot is "love," and when he says that he means paying attention to details, going the extra mile, making it perfect. Pondering his use of that word got me thinking about my relationship with my old kitchen, which by the end of my stay had certainly evolved into "love" in one of the other senses of the word.

When I first started, I was, quite naturally, The New Guy. I didn't know what was going on, where things were, what I needed to do. I often felt incompetent and out of place. Even knowing one of the other cooks before I started didn't help me feel like part of the family. Despite the overall positive energy of that kitchen, there were times when I got so down on myself that I wanted to leave the job. Ironically, the night that my friend left our kitchen to move to another state was when I started to really become a part of the kitchen. I've never been able to figure out what about that night made it transformative; it could have been me loosening up and having a few drinks with everyone else or maybe it was just being part of that combination ceremony/celebration/parting of ways. After that night, I got more and more involved in keeping the kitchen going and trying to improve our food. I started contributing more specials and developing dishes. I became somehow emotionally invested in what we were doing, which naturally lead to giving more "love" to everything I did there. I don't think that kind of caring attitude can't be invented or imposed. For me, whether it develops or not has everything to do with love for the kitchen, which itself surely has unknowable roots.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hi, I'm the New Guy

I started a new job about two weeks ago on Monday the 12th. I changed restaurants because, though I loved my old kitchen to death, I felt that it would never take my skills to the next level of refinement. My new job, butchering and cooking all the proteins for one of the top fine dining restaurants in DC, is definitely already shaping me into a faster, more precise cook. I am shedding old habits and gaining new ones (especially keeping everything clean clean and neat neat!) and making a real effort to open my mind to everything I see and am told. It's far too easy to act receptive outwardly while in fact rejecting new ideas out of arrogance or laziness.

I believe my learning curve at the new restaurant is going to be different than at previous jobs. At my first real restaurant job, things were tough at first, and then I quickly got competent and lazy and my learning rate dropped steadily. The kitchen that I just left kept me learning because it had a great spirit of curiosity and valued experimentation. I learned about new techniques and products because we were all enthusiastic about educating ourselves and doing new things. At my new job, I hope the learning rate with stay high for months to come. Right now I am focused on learning how to be fast on the line. It sucks to be the one holding everyone else up. Tonight was the first super-busy day (almost every day is busy) that I really handled decently, so I'm hoping that I'll start focusing on improving my butchery skills. After I've mastered the butchery I'm responsible for, I hope to start learning the mise for other stations, because there's a lot of really interesting technique being applied elsewhere in the kitchen. People are always curing fish or making gels or doing other stuff that I'd be thrilled to be learning, but right now I'm too busy just trying to keep my head above water to get involved.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Agar Shots

850g juice
200g vodka
juice from two limes (not much)
6g agar (around .6%)

boiled part of the juice with zest of 2 limes, dispersed agar (not all of it dissolved, since I have the flake kind - I think the powder would work better). Strained and combined with the vodka and the remaining juice. Only partially gelled; was edible, but will use slightly more agar next time.

Developments at Work

Experimented with cooking some chicken sous-vide for the next. We have abandoned that for lack of knowledge and equipment.

Pork Belly is definitely going on the summer menu. My original idea was an app with a corn juice reduction and a mini spicy-sweet salad. Connor's (pretty much genius) idea was to put the belly on sliders with a bit of fruit-based BBQ sauce and some sort of tropical-tasting slaw. Right now we are putting the belly on a bed of garlic and shallots and a few vanilla beans, pouring in a bit of water or wine or stock, drizzling the fat (skin) side with some oil, and baking covered for about 4 hours. Super unbelievably delicious. The BBQ sauce will probably be peach and maybe whiskey, and the slaw right now is pineapple. We served the sliders as an app special on Tuesday, and they were absolutely delicious, though it seems like we're going to have to educate the front of the house on what pork belly is and how to sell it.

Katie has started us growing our own sprouts from a bunch of different seeds - alfalfa, chickpea, dill, lentil, and a few more. They are absolutely delicious and fast and easy to grow, but they unfortunately require attention several times a day, every day. I hope we can find the discipline to put the process into full production.

Still haven't made our own cheese, but I left my rennet supply at work, so hopefully we'll do it some day soon.

Today I'm going to start some mini burger bun recipes at home and bake them at work tomorrow. The commercial one's we've gotten so far are absurdly expensive, though also quite good.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jacques Pepin Just Blew My Mind boning a whole chicken in an awesome way.

I think I will run down to Whole Foods, get a chicken, and come right back and do just that.

Great Success!

Corn Many Ways

Inspired by a recipe from Under Pressure and a quote from The Flavor Bible, I took two ears of corn and made four preparations from them: cooked corn juice (what Thomas Keller I think called "Corn Pudding"), corn powder, cob stock, and husk stock. The corn juice was excellent, with a nicely coating (and totally adjustable) consistency and super corn flavor that needed no seasoning. I pureed the kernels and then pressed them in a paint straining bag to extract the liquid, then cooked the liquid for just 3 or 4 minutes in a pan until it thickened. I spread the pulp from the bag on a silpat and put it in a low oven for the corn powder, but it wasn't dried when I went to work, so I still haven't tried it. The cob stock was very corny on the nose, but lacked great corn flavor and was mostly just sweet. I used too much onion in the husk stock (half a small onion for 2 husks), so it ended up smelling like a New England Clam Bake, which wasn't all bad but grew tiresome quickly.

Chicken Ballotines

At work, I boned two chicken legs (badly), stuffed them with sauteed maitake mushrooms, dried cherries, pistachios, and panko (could've done without the panko), rolled them into ballotines, then poached them in our steam table (sous-vide style) at 140-145F for 2.5 hours. I ice-bathed one of them and deep fried the other. Slightly crisp, super super moist, a bit under-seasoned. Today I'm going to try deep frying the other from chilled to see if the stuffing comes up to service temperature.

I'd never boned and stuffed a chicken leg before, so this video was my guide.

Next stuffing: apricot, sage, some kind of nut.

Pistachio Semolina Crackers

Last week got great results with this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, so we made the same crackers again, but wanted to incorporate pistachios. Katie and I both had dreams of pistachios compressed by the pasta roller into beautiful emerald ovals, but it was not to be. Instead we ended up rolling the dough out to about the thickness of the pistachios, which luckily worked quite well. For a second batch, I pureed some pistachios with water, then mixed that into the dough, turning it a nice green color, then pressed more of the nuts into the rolled dough discs before baking.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I am not a clothing or cleanliness or anything else perfectionist. I am only a food perfectionist.

To me, making anything but perfect food is deeply disappointing. Obviously, that means I'm frequently (almost always) disappointed with my food. Whenever I taste something I've made, my attention inevitably focuses on the flaws as much as the successes. I might say "Good flavor, not great texture," when I'm really just thinking about the texture: how it is, how it should have been, where I went wrong, how it can be perfect next time.

Professionally, that means I taste everything on every plate of food that leaves my station, if it is at all possible, to make sure it's as perfect as I can make it. It also means that, though I never let it show externally, I rage inside whenever somebody shrugs "it's good enough" or serves food that's been sitting under the heat lamp too long, or commits one of a million peccadilloes that cooks and food runners and waiters are guilty of every day.

My perfectionism is also putting me in an uncomfortable spot career-wise (also, I feel like the word 'career' somehow cheapens what I hope is a journey towards knowledge, not professional advancement). My current kitchen is the great place that it is because everyone cares about what we're doing, and I'm no exception. I awkwardly left another restaurant an hour and a half into a trail last week because my chef called and asked me to come in and help solve a crisis brought on by our sous-chef caring too much about the job for her own health. I barely even had to think about that decision then, and I haven't regretted it since. So our level of dedication is not what holds us back from turning out incredible food all the time. The problem is that we're just not good enough to be perfect. To try so hard and still always fall short just about breaks my heart once every few weeks when I get to thinking about it.

Now I'm looking for a place where I can become a sick as hell killer cook. A place where they put out awesome food AND have a culture of perfection. One is not good enough without the other. I've trailed at a place where the cooks are super-focused and the chef inspects every plate before it goes out, and tastes many of them. I could see him boiling inside when someone handed him a salad with some yellowing arugula in it, and I identified immediately. Sadly, the food was very good, but not spectacular. Another place served what could be really excellent, exciting food, but the cooks lacked that perfectionist drive, and maybe the food that went out was all it could have been.

I'm still looking.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Early Low Temp Experiments

Finally riding the "Sous-Vide" wave.

Using just a big pot, a steamer insert as a riser, and an analog thermometer, I've started doing some low-temp (or low delta-T) work.

First experiment was, of course, steak in a bag. Got a small bit of beef tenderloin from Whole Foods (not great quality), put it in a Ziploc using the water technique in a bath that I started at 120F and let creep up to about 123F. I think it was in there for 1.5 hours or so. Interior temp was 120F when I pulled it out. Perfect, adjusting for the quality of the meat.

Next up was "Shrimp Sausage" - minced shrimp, shallots, and lime zest, seasoned with salt and wrapped up with plastic wrap into a log. Poached for 1 hour (probably unnecessarily long) at 135F (maybe unnecessarily warm).

At work, we have a steam table that I am working on calibrating. I think I got 125F down yesterday, but I left it overnight to be sure. I'd like to do a several-day braise of one of our lamb shanks.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Recent Pastry

I've slowly assumed more and more of the pastry duties at my restaurant. Most desserts are now collaborations between myself and Katie, another line cook. Recent triumphs:

Rum Whipped Cream
If you've had a dessert at my restaurant in the last two weeks, chances are you got some of this. We keep making too much and having to serve it on the next dessert. Good thing it goes so well with everything! Turns out that the secret to great rum flavor without terrible alcohol burning is maple syrup. Who knew?

Green Apple Peel Juice
Granny Smith peels, pureed with a bit of water and a bit of lemon juice. Super refreshing, with a unique flavor that is apple-y and yet not quite apple as you know it. Beautiful green color that fades under refrigeration, so I kept it frozen between services. If only we had some Pectinex Smash XXL.

Gingerbread Dust
This stuff started as an attempt to make some delicious leftover gingerbread into a crust for a cheesecake. When I ground the gingerbread into crumbs, I found they were far too moist to make a crust with the texture I wanted, so I dehydrated them in the oven overnight. Some got turned into a fragile crust (which I eventually bound together by pouring on a layer of caramel sauce) while the remainder was turned a fine powder in a spice grinder. Right now we just use it to dust the top of desserts, but really it's like having a whole new spice in our pantry - Essence of Gingerbread!

Also, the cheesecake this stuff went onto may have been overcooked. If a cheesecake is made of use a bunch of tiny curds, like this one, does that mean it's overcooked? Or is that normal? Or is it normal for cheesecake to be overcooked?

French Toast Crepes
Dwayne, another cook, told me about some guys on Future Food (terrible name!) turning cooked French Toast into crepe batter, so after brunch service one day I decided to give it a try. I took a few pieces of leftover french toast (fully cooked) and blended them with some milk, an egg, and a tiny bit of flour, adjusting the consistency as I went. The resulting crepes tasted (surprise!) just like cooked French Toast, which may be more exciting in real life than it sounds to be on paper. All of the spice flavors came through, of course, but there were the characteristic browned and cooked-egg notes also. The crepes were quite fragile, probably because the french toast they were made from was perfectly cooked, with that creamy inside. If I did it again, I'd probably overcook the toast and add some maple syrup to complete the flavor experience.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Still Looking

Still in search of a good cookbook...looking at regional Italian right now.

"Cucina Di Calabria" sounds good...

In other news, following the French Toast Crepe Experiment, I plan to make pretzels and blend them into a pancake batter. Inspired by Pretzel Pancakes I saw (but did not order) in a restaurant near Minneapolis. Apparently they just put some pretzels in their pancakes as they cook.

An approximated recipe from that kitchen, that I have not tried yet:

Oaxaca-Style Relish

Lime Juice
Lemon Juice
Small Radishes, sliced thin
Red Onion, sliced thin
Habanero Peppers, gutted

Combine all ingredients, refrigerate overnight. Adjust seasoning.

I had this served on top of mini brauts with cabbage and avocado mousse (whipped cream). Tangy, spicy, and deceptively complex-tasting.

Monday, April 19, 2010

French Toast Crepes


2 pieces cooked french toast
1 egg
milk to thin

vitaprep. crepe batter!

Friday, April 16, 2010

I Need a Cookbook

One with lots of vegetarian options. Ethnic would be good. Focused on a cuisine or a place or a time or something. Not technical, not reference, just recipes.

The only cookbooks I have right now are once I use as reference materials When I have a specific question about technique, they serve me well, but they don't inspire me. My library reflects, and maybe informs, my mindset. Over the last half-year or so, I have grown more concerned with technique, theory, chemistry, equipment. I have lost interest in humble, earthy, accessible food, and even begun to dismiss it, in my own mind. A colleague cooked a bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken tender a few weeks ago. On the inside, I sneered at the lowbrow concept while admiring his perfect technique.

I haven't cooked a curry in months.

My cooking at home has suffered, as has my creativity at work. Uninspired, I've settled into a rut of making uninteresting food at home. Sauteed vegetables on pasta again. My technique is much improved: the vegetables are almost perfectly cooked. They are also the same vegetables I cooked yesterday, and I'm bored with the dish. I've gotten used to being bored with the food I make, and now it's hard to think of things I won't be bored with. Most of my own ideas I dismiss as uninteresting, tired.

So it's time for a fresh start. Time to get back to being open minded and exploring delicious peasant food. I need to continue educating myself about technique and theory, but without developing an arrogant mindset than denigrates anything. I think a new cookbook is a good start.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Aroma Molecules and Solubility

Chef and I were talking last night about the possibility of unsaturated fats "absorbing" flavors better than saturated fats. I realized then that I don't actually know much about the chemical properties of aroma molecules and how they dissolve into water, oil, alcohol, or whatever. Reading McGee this morning, I learned that the different aroma molecule families have different characteristic structures, but they tend to be more similar to triglycerides, and so they are more soluble in fats than in water, although the family with the characteristic aromas of cinnamon and clove have an OH group that is similar to water, which is why those flavors last so long on the palate. I need to do some more digging and figure out the exact mechanist of these compounds dissolving into solutions of various things. Once again frustrated by my lack of chemistry knowledge, but happy that the information is so easy to access.

Hydrocolloid Experiments

I've been doing a bunch of gel experiments lately, and I want to get my conclusions down before I forget them.

Whipped Gelatin foam: for powdered, 1% seems like a good concentration, though the resulting gel is quite fragile. About 2 or 2.5 sheets (gold I think) for a quart of sorbet base did well at work - much stiffer than the 1% powdered, but the mouthfeel was excellent. Whipping when the gel is more firmly gelled seemed to give larger bubbles and a more aggressive bubbly mouthfeel. Almost carbonated-seeming at times.

Agar: .5% worked well for a soft gel that melts quickly in the mouth. I had to add water to readjust the concentration before chilling because so much water evaporated during the hydration and dissolution process. Made a fluid gel around 1%. No structure without added starch, felt almost like water on the palate. A higher concentration lasted too long in the mouth in an unattractive way. A little added starch (Ultratex 8) gave an ok sauce-like mouthfeel and slightly more structure on the plate, but might change flavor release at a higher concentration.

Pine Mouth

I have Pine Mouth and it is terrible. Everything tastes bitter and horrible. The sensation started yesterday morning with a bowl of homemade yogurt, and I almost threw the whole batch of yogurt out, thinking it was contaminated. Nope, just Pine Mouth. I made a pretty delicious-seeming lunch of sauteed sweet potato gnocchi and vegetables, but I threw half of it away because it tasted so bitter. The annoyance became a serious problem at work, because cooking things that taste good is hard to do when EVERYTHING TASTES TERRIBLE.

I hope it will be over soon. Fuck you again, China.

On the bright side, the butter & brown sugar candied pine nuts that I got Pine Mouth from were pretty delicious.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Playing with Cornstarch

Last night, my Chef and I were wondering whether a cornstarch-thickened fluid would lose viscosity when subjected to shearing forces, so this morning I started doing some research. Unfortunately, my limited efforts turned up technical abstracts and youtube videos, and nothing much in between. On a side note, the youtube videos were pretty cool. "A Pool filled with non-Newtonion liquid" anyone?

So, I decided to do my own sloppy little experiment. First, I made a relatively concentrated cornstarch and water slurry and cooked that until milky-translucent and very thick. After noting the viscosity, I turned off the heat and started shearing the mix with a stick blender. The change in viscosity was obvious just from the way the blender worked. At first, with the blender submerged there was no movement on the fluid surface. After half a minute or so, the fluid was thin enough that immersing the blender caused great distortion even at the surface. Shearing had diminished viscosity considerably. Curious about whether letting the fluid sit would allow the gelling network to reform itself, I removed the blender and let the fluid rest in the still-hot cooking pot. it regained all or almost all of its viscosity in a few minutes. Unfortunately, I didn't design my experiment to separate the temperature and shear variables very well, so some of the thickening may have been due to cooling, rather than the absence of shear. I wondered about how further cooling would effect viscosity, so I transferred a small sample to a ice water bath. Both the sample in the ice bath and the sample in the pot cooled to a solid, soft, opaque gel that I could pick up with my hands.

A morning well spent.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fine Dining

A few weeks ago, I trailed at a very polished, professional kitchen putting out nicely plated, well-conceived food. I talked to a cook there about where I work now, which is a bar in Adams Morgan, a sort of gritty, wild-partying neighborhood. I talked a bit about the food we put out there, which I like to think of as often interesting and well-executed, especially for a bar. He said "well, it's not fine dining, is it." No question mark; a statement. I quickly agreed. A lot of our food is definitely pub grub and our prices are modest. We're a bar first and maybe last.

Last night changed my thinking. For Valentine's Day, we offered four special items, each featuring a game animal: a quail app, and entrees with duck, venison, and rabbit. Prices were still modest, though a bit higher than the regular menu. The quail app went for $7 and the most expensive plate, the venison, went for $20, which was probably still not enough to justify the food cost. The plates that went out, however, looked and tasted as good as the stuff coming out of that fine dining restaurant I trailed at. They could easily have fetched ten dollars more at a restaurant whose service, decor, and reputation matched the quality of the food. I don't think we'll ever do fine dining, but we served food on a higher level last night, and I couldn't be more proud.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Day of Chocolate

I had two great chocolate successes yesterday: bacon-chocolate truffles and emulsified hot chocolate.

The bacon truffles I made at work by steeping two strips of diced cooked bacon in the cream from a normal truffle recipe. They came out beautifully balanced, delivering both bacon and chocolate flavors in a way that really made the eater think about how those two play together.

Emulsified hot chocolate started as a concept because I wanted to serve hot chocolate to a vegan. In retrospect, just melting chocolate into enough water probably works fine, but I was drunk and thought instead of the old 'chocolate and water are enemies' maxim. Of course, that maxim made me think of Heston Blumenthol's Chocolate Mousse, made of chocolate and water. In the end, I decided to think of making the hot chocolate as making a fat in water emulsion for something like salad dressing or mayonnaise. I first melted some bittersweet chocolate, then added hot water a drop at a time. At first the chocolate did seem to sort of 'seize,' getting dry and clumped very quickly, but as I added more water, it turned fluid again. In the end, I got a perfectly smooth drink and my friends were presumably duly impressed by the process (and by the amount of time it took me to make a few cups of hot chocolate).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bean Stews

The rustic nature of bean stews can keep me from making them when I'm consciously trying to produce food that is more challenging, technical, refined, or whatever. Luckily, the other day I needed lunch and my limited pantry was not inspiring elevated cooking, so I somewhat reluctantly prepared a bean stew. The result was one of the most complex soups I've ever had, and though I'm just a hair ashamed to be proud of it, that's not stopping me. Each bite offered a different flavor profile than the one before, as if the soup were constantly changing in the bowl. A few days ago, a coworker and I were talking about a dish of hers from our current menu that I am quite taken with. She said that it had been called one-dimensional or something like that, and I replied by saying (only half-jokingly) that we weren't good enough to cook in any more dimensions than one. Funny how this soup accidentally proved me wrong.

Ever-Changing Bean & Mustard Soup

Simmer onions, garlic, canned tomatoes, dried tomatoes, cannellini beans, pinto beans, bay leaves, and fennel seeds in water to cover. The idea is to make the beans creamy if they are not already, cook the onion and garlic, and leach the flavors of the bay leaves and fennel seeds into the soup. Fish out the bay leaves. Stir in steamed kale. Add water or reduce the soup for consistency - it should have some loose liquid, but not a huge amount. Season with black pepper and salt. Stir in a (TINY!) bit of Dijon mustard and some minced sage. Check seasoning and balance. No flavor should dominate the others.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Breads Breads and Pretzels

Finally made use of the ready-to-go dough by fermenting it overnight and then baking some pretty decent rolls this morning. I feel like the dough held up quite well in the fridge. The outside of the dough ball oxidized despite being coated in oil, but the rolls had great wheat flavor and decent texture in the end.

In other news, starting a pretzel experiment right now

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Made potato gnocchi for the first time yesterday. Slightly gummy, but still delicious when browned and sauced (nut and sage puree). Must try again soon.

Also, need to do this soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Effort

I need to start cooking at a much higher level at home, at least once in a while when I have the time and I'm not distracted.

Also, started the ready-to-go dough trial today.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Starter Dough

I'm going to start keeping a big ball of hydrated and salted flour in the fridge for easy conversion into pizzas, breads, and flatbreads. I think having this 'starter' around will encourage me to make those items more, diversifying my grain diet a bit. In addition, keeping the flour pre-hydrated should mean I get more flavorful products. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rice Paper Wrappers

Last night I tried wrapping rice paper around some marinated and baked tofu and then searing the packages on each side that I could reasonably sear - some were too small. I used medium-high flame, which I think was probably too high, because the thin rice paper went past golden-brown quite quickly. The end result was Not Delicious. Even the perfectly browned parts of the paper had little flavor of their own, so the coffee-like too-dark flavors dominated. More salt may have helped (the filling was underseasoned too), but it may also have just made it salty.

In looking for guidance on how to improve the technique before I experiment with it this afternoon, I came across this recipe from Ming Tsai, but his technique is essentially the same as mine, though he uses high heat and doesn't season the paper at all. This person baked the packages, which I will definitely try. Deep frying is the obvious alternative, but that would make this technique far less useful and I'm not willing to make that compromise.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What I Want

Hojicha broth (with ginger? spice?), udon noodles, fish with crisped skin. Salmon?

Maybe some water chestnuts.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Molecular Mixology Source

Great stuff, especially the videos on the Aviation, Vessel 75, and Rosewater Rickey