Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 had a lot of food-and-drink firsts for me.  It was the first time I had:

Fresh huckleberries, yuzu, Rangpur limes, limequats, Bergamots, jackfruit, and young dates;

durian, at least in unprocessed form (I had had, and much prefer, durian cookies and candies);

soft-shell crawfish;

St Germain elderflower liqueur, St Elizabeth allspice dram, Castries peanut cream liqueur, Zirbenz stone pine liqueur, douglas fir eau de vie, Old Gristmill corn whiskey, Cynar, Aperol, Averna, Old Tom gin, genever, Mozart Dry.

I found two unflavored vodkas I like -- Stolichnaya Gold and Heart of the Hudson.

I rediscovered my love for both lamb and lambic.

I continued to explore my tastes in beer and cheese -- discovering that I like feta now, that I love Pecorino Romano, that I don't particularly like stouts or barleywines or beers that are too sweet.  One of my favorite beers, maybe my favorite beer period, was one I discovered right at the tail end of 2008 -- Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron -- but damn near counts for 2009.

Technique-wise, I didn't break a lot of new ground.  I did use the country ham style of curing for lamb and bacon, which I hadn't done before, and used bourbon in a cure for the first time.  I discovered how excellent smoked grits are, not only because of the smokiness but because of the way the stovetop smoker slow-cooks them.  

I got a juicer, and used it mainly to make peach gelatin, apple cider, and unsweetened cranberry juice for cocktails.  I got a bread machine and mainly use it to knead pizza dough and baguettes.

I more or less stopped making sort-of-Indian curries in favor of sort-of-Thai curries -- when I do order curry powder now, it's for Country Captain chicken, not Indian-style curries, and I have seven or eight different Thai curry pastes in my pantry and refrigerator.  

When my coffeemaker died, I replaced it with a 32-ounce French press, and I've stuck with that -- my only means of making coffee are the French press and the Bialetti Moka for the stove.  I haven't yet talked myself into buying a burr grinder.  After being frustrated between buying "the affordable but barely tolerable coffee" or "the extravagant but excellent coffee," I placed a bulk order of the extravagant coffee, ordering straight from the roaster so that the per-pound price came out to less than the affordable-but-barely-tolerable.  

I don't feel like I did anything radically new this year, but I think that's okay.  I certainly played with some radical new ingredients, and when I was making a yuzu meringue pie, I thought to myself, you know, sometimes this is the way to do it -- the yuzu doesn't KNOW it's much more rare than a lemon.  There is no property of rarity written into it, reflected in how it tastes.  Sometimes you don't want to do something unusual just because you're working with an unusual ingredient -- you want, rather, for its unusualness to stand out because the context you've put it in is so ordinary and familiar.  A little saffron and malted milk powder folded into the meringue of the pie, to give that topping more interest; straight up filling with yuzu juice, sweetened condensed milk, and egg yolks; and it's a remarkable dessert, very yuzu-forward, without needing a more dramatic pedestal than that.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

everybody knows about the curd

My camera is maybe dying, so I couldn't get a good photo of this, which is a shame since the color is so distinctive.

You have probably had lemon curd, because if nothing else, the filling in lemon bars is essentially lemon curd that forms in the oven, stiffened with a little flour.  Curd is a custard, with butter instead of milk or cream, making a spread or condiment rather than something you'd serve by the bowlful -- though everyone who makes it does seem to eat it by the spoonful.

Traditionally made with citrus, you occasionally see it made with other tart fruit -- passion fruit, pomegranate -- and even more occasionally, with other things completely, like vanilla bean.  But the creamy richness of it offsets citrus the best, and because the other ingredients don't add much flavor, it makes for a great showcase for citrus.  I had both Seville oranges and Yuzu to use up before they passed their prime, and basically made a list of citrus-centric preparations and then decided which I'd use the Seville for, and which the Yuzu.  For now, curd landed in Camp Seville.

Seville oranges are one of several oranges known as sour or bitter oranges -- oranges that aren't suited for eating out of hand, not only because they have many large seeds but because the juice is almost as sour as a lemon's.  The tradeoff is that the rind and oil are much richer in flavor than those of sweet oranges.  Seville oranges are traditionally used in marmalade, while the peel is used to flavor gin, beer, and candy.  I add a little Seville orange peel to the French press when I make coffee sometimes.

There are many recipes for citrus curd out there, with major differences in their approach -- double boilers are common, to keep the egg from overcooking.  I used David Lebovitz's simple and effective method without a double boiler, whisking constantly with the whisk attachment on my new immersion blender.  Despite the pot having a particularly thin bottom (my thick pots are unenameled cast iron, which isn't suited for acidic things like citrus), it came out terrifically -- and maybe because of the whisking, maybe because of other factors, it came out light and somewhat fluffy, instead of thick and jam-like the way I'm used to.

David's recipe uses less sugar because the Meyer lemons he uses are sweeter than real lemons; I used the same reduced sugar proportions for the same reason.  I also added about a shot of Campari, and about a shot of Aperol, the combination of which gave everything a slightly embarrassed peach color.  

Serving suggestion: with dense, powerful gingerbread; poundcake; or homemade biscuits.

Friday, December 18, 2009

the seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake

For my birthday -- six months ago -- I got some soft-shell crawfish, which have been sitting in my freezer ever since, because they were damn expensive and I wanted to be sure I did something "worthwhile" with them.  Then I realized it had been six months, and that I should just make a dinner I liked.

Now, you probably remember from your biology classes in some single-digit grade that many crustaceans (and other arthropods) molt as they grow, shedding its old exoskeleton so that it can grow a new larger one.  The softshell so-and-so is the so-and-so right after molting, before that hard shell has developed.

I was familiar with two kinds of softshells: crabs and lobsters.  Softshell lobsters are just like regular lobsters to all appearances, except that there is proportionately less meat inside -- but you eat them the same way, boiling them and breaking them open and whatnot.  Softshell crabs, on the other hand, have a soft, pliable shell, and can be eaten whole, shell and all.  In New Orleans, they're usually battered and deep-fried.  The softshell crab poboy is something I'd get two or three times a year; the flavor isn't quite the same as regular crab, but I always liked it.

Softshell crawfish are like softshell crab.  The whole thing is edible, shell and claws and the whole nine yards.  I'm guessing the reason they're so expensive is because of rarity -- for all the years I lived in New Orleans, I'd never heard of them or seen them offered anywhere, though since then the softshell crawfish poboy has become a frequently blogged-about item at Jazzfest.

I really didn't know what to expect.  When I opened the container, many of the crawfish claws had either become detached from the bodies, or detached themselves as I picked them up.  These are fragile things compared to regular hardshell crawfish -- maybe that's another reason for the rarity and expense?  I don't know.

I decided to cook up just a few of them, in case I discovered something critical about them in the process.  It worked out fantastically, and I made the same thing with the rest the next day.


Soft-shell crawfish

Softshell crawfish, tomato sauce, smoked grits.

Softshell crawfish: deep-fried in a batter of buttermilk, cornmeal, self-rising flour, and Old Bay.

Tomato sauce: bacon debris (left over from making the sweet potato bacon hash), roasted tomato puree, chopped hot cherry peppers, demiglace, malt vinegar.

Smoked grits: grits cooked in the stovetop smoker; mixed with boiled peanuts, peppadews, and two cheeses (aged gouda and cave-aged gruyere).  Cooled overnight, cut into squares, reheated in the oven.

So good.  I don't know how to describe the softshell crawfish.  There's a definite crawfish flavor, obviously, which a texture sort of ... halfway between softshell crab and sauteed crawfish tails.  There's not as noticeable a distinction between the shell and the inside as with softshell crab -- it doesn't feel as much like, well, eating a whole animal.  And the crawfish flavor is ... it's like discovering a new part of the crawfish.  You can tell it's crawfish -- not shrimp, not crab, not lobster, but crawfish -- but it's noticeably different from the crawfish you've had before.

I figured there was a chance this was something I'd just have once out of curiosity, but no, I would definitely do this again.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

and shut my mouth

Believe it or not, I think the sweet potato is underrated -- that is, I think sweet potato fries have stolen some of the thunder of a plain baked sweet potato, the best savory preparation of the vegetable.  You do nothing to the sweet potato -- you just stick it in the oven, right on the rack if you like, at about 400 degrees for an hour or more.  It's hard to overcook, though it will LOOK like you've overcooked it, perhaps -- the skin may look a little scorched, the potato may look dried out.

It's not dried out.  The skin will peel away like paper, and the inside is soft and sumptuous, having lost its fibrousness.  It really needs nothing more than salt and maybe a pat of butter, but of course you can do other things to it:

Sweet potato with pecan vinaigrette

Baked sweet potato with pecan vinaigrette.  Toasted pecans (just drop them in a hot dry pan for thirty seconds), pecan oil, malt vinegar, and a little sorghum to sweeten it.


Sweet potato bacon hash, with fried eggs and mustard

Sweet potato bacon hash, with fried eggs and mustard.  

Must mention the bacon here.  Garfields Smoked Bacon, smoked over a blend of corncobs and hardwood, has shown up in various food magazines, as a selection of the Splendid Palate's Bacon of the Month Club, etc.  It happens to be made in New Hampshire, so for most of the year I have easy access to it, and it's fantastic.  I've had a pretty wide variety of great bacon -- fatty beef bacon in Louisiana, double-smoked Hungarian bacon, jowl bacon in Indiana, pancetta, ventreche, guanciale, and of course my own bourbon-cured country bacon -- and Garfield's is very very high on my list.  I would have to try it side by side with the best of the jowl bacons to decide between them.

Onward.  For one fairly large sweet potato, I used six slices of bacon -- thick-cut, remember.  This is two servings of hash, and most of the fat of the bacon doesn't wind up in the final product, thankfully.  Grind the bacon up in a food processor and cook it slowly over medium-low heat until most of the fat has rendered out.  Drain the fat (use for cornbread or biscuits), mix with the baked mashed sweet potato and diced hot cherry peppers, and cook slowly in cast-iron until a crust forms.  That "blackening" isn't burnt sweet potato, just the sugars caramelized.

(As a sidenote, remember the boiled peanuts?  Here's the latest use for them: a bacon cheeseburger, with mashed boiled peanuts on the bottom bun.  Fantastic.)

if you want to go where they chain up the sun

Anyone who knows me outside this blog knows that I love citrus fruit.  I mean, my love for it is kind of ridiculous.  Sure, yes, an orange is terrific, or a grapefruit half for breakfast, or some key lime pie.  Lemonade iced tea, aka half and half, aka the Arnold Palmer, depending on where you live.  Margaritas, made correctly with fresh lime juice, not some weird bottled mix.  And so on.

But I tend to take it further.  My love of citrus approaches reverence.  Unfortunately, I live in New Hampshire.  There is not much variety, and too often what you find on the shelves is dry or bland.  Even in the best case scenarios, it's waxed, which is a nuisance if, like me, you regularly candy fruit or use it in liqueurs.

Last year, flush with a wider and woolier revenue stream than I currently enjoy, I bought citrus from several different orchards, the highlights of which were the variety assortments from Friends Ranches and the many offerings from Rising C Ranches (aka Ripe To You, mentioned in the comment discussion about yuzu, which in fact I've now ordered).  This is not a "free stuff" post or anything -- there are a LOT of online citrus sources out there, and these happen to be the two I've had the most luck with.  Friends has particularly good prices, relative to the quality and variety; Ripe To You's selling point is the exotic citrus fruit they sell that few other people do.

For instance, last year, in addition to some lemons, oranges, and grapefruit, I bought Rangpur limes, limequats, Bergamot oranges, Seville oranges, kaffir limes, and a wide variety of mandarin oranges.  I also bought these, which I've picked up again this year:

Calamondins!

Calamondin are also known as kalamansi, though I've heard some rumbling that they're not the exact same thing; maybe they're two very similar varieties, I don't know.  (I have bought fruit labeled as each, and the distinctive flavor is there in both, but it is true that the fruit sold as kalamansi was noticeably smaller than the fruit sold as calamondin.)  It might well be my favorite citrus fruit -- which logically makes it my favorite fruit, and thus my favorite food.

Bill, what the hell is a calamondin, you're thinking.

Well, it looks like a small orange, as you can see.  The peel is sweet and edible, like a kumquat, and it's a hybrid between a kumquat and an unknown species.  There are a whole bunch of kumquat hybrids -- limequats are obvious in their parentage -- but the calamondin stands out as having its own distinct flavor.  I've described it to people as "like a cross between a tangerine and a lime," but that isn't quite right (and besides, it also describes the Rangpur lime).  It gets you on the right track, though -- there is definitely a "tangerine-ness" to the flavor.  It's nearly as tart as lemons and limes -- technically you can eat it out of hand, but it'll make your mouth pucker like a Warhead.  (I do it anyway.)  It's not until you juice it and try to substitute the juice for lemon or lime juice that you realize it's not quite as sour as them, and that if you're using it in a cocktail, you'll need slightly less sweetener.

It does make fantastic cocktails, in fact.  I've been working on a "winter margarita" using seasonal citrus and winter-appropriate spices, but it's not ready for the public yet; suffice to say a couple drafts have been made with calamondin juice.  

What it goes terrifically with is Aperol.  I'll probably have a post on Aperol later, but it's a potable bitter (Amaro) like Campari, only slightly less bitter, slightly more sweet, and with a far more pronounced orange flavor.  The "homemade Campari" I made a few years ago was in fact very similar to Aperol, I just didn't know it at the time.  Anyway, Aperol and calamondin juice -- nothing else, no filler like club soda, no need for sugar, just adjust until the sugar in the Aperol balances out the acid in the juice -- is pretty damn amazing, and though I had planned to freeze some of the calamondin juice ... it may not make it.

What else can you do with calamondin?  Marmalade, of course, and you can candy them -- I have a number I'm candying, and after juicing the calamondins, I've been candying the leftover peels as well, to add to yogurt.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

dun dun dun dun

This post mentions some free stuff. Check out the free stuff policy here.

IMG_6785

The Mozart Distillery in Salzburg has given me a bottle (well, two bottles, and a glass, and a neck extender, and a list of cocktail recipes) of their new Mozart Dry to play around with, and the first thing you want to note is that this chocolate spirit is 80 proof -- the same as most base liquors -- and unsweetened.

Let's back up and talk about cocktail structure so that you get why that's a big deal.

There are plenty of drinks, and some of them are even good, that are just "let me dump this alcoholic thing into this non-alcoholic mixer."  Rum and Coke, gin and tonic, the Screwdriver, the Mimosa, the Dark and Stormy (Goslings Black Seal rum and ginger beer).  These are generally highballs, like a one-time favorite of Yrs Truly, Scotch and soda.  But I don't want to get too much into the "this is a flip, this is a highball, this is a cobbler" cocktail nomenclature, because I don't find it very instructive or useful except in looking at historical context, which is way beyond our scope right now.

Cocktails, if they involve more than a shot of something alcoholic in a glass of something that isn't, are generally built around a base liquor (or "base spirit").  What base liquors have in common is that they are unsweetened or minimally sweetened (they may retain some sweetness from the ingredients fermented to make them, as in the case of brandy), and they're around 80-100 proof (40-50% alcohol).  Some whiskeys come stronger than that; a number of rums come at 151 proof, but are used in combination with other lower-proof ingredients (or for fratboy horseshit).  

Typical base liquors include whiskey, brandy, tequila, rum, gin, and vodka.  Recent years have added new options to the American bar -- mezcal, shochu, cachaca -- and there are some subtypes within the categories (applejack is "apple brandy," for instance).  Many cocktail bar menus will be divided into categories according to base liquor, rather than other criteria (sours etc).

The other major alcoholic ingredients in cocktails are bitters -- which may be the same proof as base liquors or higher, but which are (by law) considered "non-potable," meaning they're too damn bitter and strong-tasting to drink, so you use them a few drops at a time, the vanilla extract of the bar -- and liqueurs.  Liqueurs include potable bitters like Campari and Aperol, fruit liqueurs like creme de cassis, and things like Kahlua, maraschino, amaretto, creme de violette, etc etc.  They're sweetened -- usually too sweet to drink straight; I can get through a glass of Campari because of the bitterness, but most people wouldn't want to -- and they're usually about half the proof of a base liquor.  (Absinthe is a notable exception.)

You need a base liquor, or something like juice or soda water, in order to create a cocktail -- you can't just mix a bunch of liqueurs together, or the result will be too sweet and syrupy.  Good liqueurs are fantastic and transformative -- people who turn their noses up at cocktails because they're hardline about drinking their liquor straight up are really missing out.  While a Boulevardier may cover up the whiskey more than they'd like, a whiskey sour just accentuates good whiskey, and an Old-Fashioned or Sazerac is almost entirely whiskey with a little sprinkle of something else, like cooking your steak with a little herb butter.

So that's the really, really interesting thing about Mozart Dry: it's a base liquor.

Base liquors give you a shit ton of options.

Think about it, every other chocolate-flavored alcohol product I can think of is sweetened, oftenly highly so -- a lot of the creme de cacao on the shelves is like Hershey's syrup mixed with cheap hooch.  You may as well make that at home.  There are some good cream liqueurs -- I've got nothing against cream liqueur -- but for me, those are dessert drinks, I don't particularly use them in cocktails.

Mozart makes a number of chocolate liquor products, and Mozart Dry is the first item of its kind that I'm aware of: an unsweetened chocolate spirit, a chocolate distillate as they call it.  Cocoa beans are mixed with high-proof alcohol (the higher the proof, the more flavor the alcohol extracts) and barreled for two months while the sediment settles out.  The final product is perfectly clear -- which makes it all the more surprising when you open the bottle and smell premium chocolate.  

That's when things get a little ... unusual: Mozart "sound-mills" their products by storing them in stainless steel tanks affixed with loudspeakers that play Mozart's music for 24 hours before the liquor is bottled.  Hey, whatever works.  The company has a page devoted to their sound milling, but you may have to go through the front page and enter your birthyear and whatnot.

As you can see from the level of the bottle, I've played around with Mozart Dry a bit.  The lack of sweetener gives you a lot of flexibility, and as the company notes, it takes well to acidity.  I had a few very nice drinks using Mozart Dry and unsweetened cranberry juice and a little liqueur of one or another type to balance out the cranberry, but you have to be careful to keep the cranberry from overwhelming the rest (this is true of using unsweetened cranberry juice in general).  A couple of the recipes on the web and included by the company pair Mozart Dry with Campari, which leapt out at me, so this was the first real home run I came up with:


Unnamed Mozart Dry cocktail

1 oz Mozart Dry
1/2 oz Campari
1/2 oz Canton ginger liqueur
1/2 oz Sazerac 18 year old rye whiskey

Rye and ginger of course go well together, and the ginger and Campari provide the sweetener here.  It's a nice, nice drink.  It's very cool to see chocolate acting as a participant.  I'm sure many people will come up with "chocolate-covered cherries" and "chocolate truffle" cocktails with this, sure, but the chocolate flavor of Mozart Dry is layered enough, developed enough, that it is much more interesting when you let it play with other flavors instead of just being accented by them.

Other successful combinations, without photos:

A Mozart Dry Sazerac: Mozart Dry, a dash of absinthe, a dash of Peychaud's bitters, a little lemon juice and sugar;

Mozart Dry, Wasmund's single-malt whiskey, Creole Shrubb orange liqueur, and St Germain elderflower liqueur.

This is a go-to bottle.  This could definitely become a staple in my bar.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

he'd like to come and meet us but he thinks he'd blow our minds

This has nothing to do with cooking, but if anyone from Adult Swim, World Leaders Entertainment, etc., ever sees this, I promise I will make you dinner if you give the Triad from The Venture Brothers their own show.  Thanks.

This DOES have to do with cooking:

One of the most popular things I make is also the simplest: roasted pineapple.  Just take fresh pineapple -- it really needs to be fresh -- and drizzle with some kind of sweetener.  Roast at whatever temperature is convenient for you until it looks like this:

IMG_6779

The cooking concentrates both the sweetness and the acidity.  Very flexible.  Goes with plenty of desserts, good as a sweet side, good in various savory dishes as long as you watch the sweetness.  Excellent with yogurt.

(Served here with sliced starfruit.  Yes, I see the weird lines too ... sorry about that.)

and the white knight is talking backwards

This post involves free stuff.  Read the free stuff policy here.

Speaking of free stuff -- Marx Foods sent me a sampler of various dried mushrooms: shiitake, porcini, lobster (the most colorful but least flavorful, I found), black trumpet, chanterelle, and maitake.  They carry a number of other varieties as well.  (I want to point out that Marx has added more product categories since the last time I mentioned them, including the ones most appealing to me, exotic fruit and exotic citrus.  Though I admit, I wish nonperishable items like the yuzu juice had a cheaper shipping option -- at least I assume a large part of that price is shipping.)

Bunch of dried mushrooms

Forgive the usual lighting/photo issues.

I've never used dried mushrooms much.  I've primarily used them in tomato sauces, if you don't count the dried white truffles in my truffle salt, so I wanted to toy around with other things here.  While I ground some up and used them to coat a steak, what really brought out the character of the mushrooms was using them in vegetable soup.  There's a more intense mushroom flavor from these dried mushrooms than I'm used to getting from fresh, as they reconstitute in the broth, and it goes so well with many fall vegetables.  After a couple trial runs with small servings of soup with just a couple ingredients, I wound up with this mushroom vegetable soup:


Mushroom soup

There's a whole bunch of dried mushrooms there, along with cranberry beans, parsnips, turnips, carrots, and celery.  These were the vegetables the mushrooms seemed to complement best -- particularly turnips and parsnips (the parsnip is related to the carrot, and is a little firmer and starchier, less sweet, and with more of that "rooty" sort of flavor that carrots tend to lose when they cook).  It's that simple -- just those ingredients, a little broth, a little salt and pepper.  Very tasty and harder, a rainy November sort of lunch -- or dinner, with a salad or a buttered piece of fresh bread.

But interestingly, the mushrooms -- that is, the mushroom solids -- were my least favorite part.  That's often the case with mushrooms, their texture isn't like other vegetables.  So I also made a soup in which the mushrooms were ground up while still dry, and a vegetable stock that used the mushrooms but then discarded them with the other solids, after they'd given up all their flavor.  This felt wasteful at first, but you know, it's like making beef stock and throwing out the bones -- you just make sure all the flavor came out first.

And in fact, it led to my most successful soup, because of an ingredient I didn't have on hand when I made the previous soup:

Celery root

Celery root, or celeriac, is a member of the celery family that's grown for the root instead of the stalk.  The root is, as you can see, big and gnarly and a pain in the ass to wash.  You should shop for them the same way you do potatoes, yucca, or any other root vegetable -- it should feel heavy, not light and spongy.  (Melissa's celery roots often feel spongy to me -- this may simply be the result of low turnover in my local supermarket -- so I tend to only buy celery root in the fall, when I can get it at the farmstand.)

It's a fantastic vegetable.  When you peel it, feel free to use a knife and be liberal in your peeling, rather than relying on a peeler and trying to deal with all those nooks and crannies.  You can always dump the peels into a vegetable stock, after all.

The taste is celery-like but not quite the same.  Grated and baked with a ton of salt before being ground up, it forms Fergus Henderson's celery salt, which is terrific on -- well, anything, but especially boiled eggs.  It's often served with remoulade.  But here, it formed a fantastic soup:

Celery root soup

Remember the crabs I bought in Little Cambodia?  I had made a strong crab stock with them which I then froze in portions.  I reheated a portion of that crab stock with some diluted roasted tomato puree and the rest of the dried mushrooms, let it simmer for a couple hours, and then strained the solids out.  In that resulting mushroom-crab-tomato stock, I cooked cubes of celery root, carrot, salt, and a tiny bit of ground red chile for kick.  I added celery leaves and stalk right towards the end.

Really, really good -- the celery root and crab flavors really meld together, with the mushroom and tomato providing backbone.

free product policy

It makes sense to have this set out in one place, for me to link back to.

Sometimes I get free things from manufacturers, retailers, or other companies.  Federal regulation and good freaking sense says that I disclose this to you, so I always will.  My agreement when I accept free things for the blog is very simple: I agree to blog about it (and when applicable, to provide links to where it can be purchased, etc).  I don't promise to like it or say that I do, just to check it out.

Hypothetically, there are circumstances when even that might not happen -- if the product is lost or damaged in the mail, maybe if the business is deceptive about what they're selling, perhaps if it were sent to me unsolicited (though since neither my address nor my full name is on the blog, I might just have to reward their initiative there), or if I were allergic to peanuts and they sent me peanut butter (but I'm not! feel free to send me peanut butter!)  None of that seems likely, but I'm pointing it out as long as I'm making this dedicated post on the topic.

Makers or sellers of things that fit the "interesting ingredients" description of this blog (food, drink, maybe tools if we stretched things), feel free to email me at okaycheckitout at gmail.com

I have lots of partly-composed entries to finish in the coming week, some of which involve free goods, most of which don't.  At the moment the pizza post is delayed because I haven't renewed my Flickr pro account, so can't access my pizza photos!  I'll take care of that once I've finished Christmas shopping.

Monday, November 23, 2009

whiteboard

for the blog

Turkey-free Thanksgiving week whiteboard update.

The "Szechuan peppercorn black tea rum" is an infused rum, you dig.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

who is killing the great turkeys of europe

The turkey white chili I made isn't really white chili -- because it isn't white.  Typically, white chili is this weird interzone between chili and cream of chicken soup -- chicken, beans, and chiles in a sour-cream-thickened creamy sauce.  It usually lacks the conventional chile con carne seasonings like cumin, but might have some oregano, maybe a pinch of cinnamon.

But I included those, so it's really an orange chili, I guess.  Simplest thing in the world: I tossed some chopped turkey thigh with a little flour and a little red chile pepper and then quickly browned it in turkey fat; added onion, garlic, salt, and smoked turkey stock; simmered for a while until tender, and then removed it from the heat and stirred in sour cream mixed with The Spice House's chile con carne seasoning.  Good, rich, hearty turkey chili.

I didn't cook it with the beans because I'm using black beans, and I didn't like the mental image I was getting from black beans cooked with sour cream.

on the matter of turkey

I want you to notice I did not make any turkey burgers with all that turkey.

There are no acceptable turkey burgers.

wild bikini

How To Stuff A Turkey (or Chicken) Wing:

Proceeding without photographs, I'm afraid.  

The wing has three parts: the wingtip (the mostly meatless flappy bit the furthest distance from the chicken), the flat (the middle portion with two parallel bones), and the drum (the drumstick-shaped portion which attaches to the chicken).

My experience with turkey wing drums is not very positive.  They cook confit style okay, and are excellent for making stock, but the meat tends to be tough -- which is true of turkey wings in general, compared to chicken wings -- and is inclined to drying out.  Thankfully, they aren't needed for stuffed wings.  Do something else with them.  And use the wingtips for stock -- they're rich in collagen and extractable flavor.

So now we've got the flats.  And you gotta get the bones out of there, see.

Imagine the flat in front of you on the cutting board, horizontally.  Using a heavy cleaver if possible, you want to chop the ends off.  Doing this will remove the joints that connect the two parallel bones.  At that point, you can slowly run your fingers -- or the point of a paring knife -- along each bone, pushing the meat away from it so you can pull the bone out.

Now, while this can be a bit labor-intensive with turkey wings, it is a serious pain in the ass with chicken wings, and by the time you have enough de-boned wings for more than a couple people, your fingertips may be sore from pushing on sharp little bones.  It's a nuisance.  The nice thing about the turkey wings is that they're so much bigger that it takes fewer of them per portion.

Once you have the bones out, you want to wash the flat, because it's very possible that the cleaver left little bone fragments.

NOW, you can stuff the flat with something.  I used smoked grits mixed with pecorino romano.  It doesn't take much stuffing, and I don't think you want to use cheese by itself, since these need to cook for about half an hour.  Sausage would be another good option.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

how do you solve a problem like three turkeys

Turkey stock: carcasses and wing tips simmered for 24 hours in the lobster pot, at which point I strained it and brought it back to a simmer with turnips, carrots, celery, and onions.  This is nice, nice stock.

Turkey "gai kaprao": breast and thigh meat ground up and sauteed with prepackaged Thai holy basil sauce (chiles, Thai holy basil, soy sauce, garlic); because I had a pound of meat and the sauce was for half a pound, I stretched it with culantro and oyster sauce.  So not only is this not really gai -- chicken -- but it's not really kaprao either.  Same basic idea, though.

Hot wings: I had two turkey wing drumettes for dinner last night, cooked confit style and then tossed with Buffalo wing sauce and served with a little blue cheese on the side.

Turkey pot pie: chunks of white meat, roasted carrots and celery, reduced stock and a little cream, baked in a pie crust.

Smoked turkey stock: the other four turkey wing drumettes, along with the popes' noses, were smoked for hours and are simmering in the crockpot.

I also froze about 2 1/2 pounds of breast meat.  Tomorrow there's white chili and stuffed turkey wings.

Gonna have leftovers for quite a while.  I avoided turkey soup specifically because making the soup is always one of my Thanksgiving duties when I'm up here in NH, so there'll be plenty of that anyway.

No photos cause I'm out of batteries; maybe some of the stuffed wings, which are a little tricksome, if I can find some in a drawer somewhere.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I'm not gonna lie to you. This is gonna get kinda weird.

First: I'm watching Eric Ripert on Charlie Rose while eating lunch, and although it's not a very good interview, it reminded me to mention Ripert's PBS show, Avec Eric.  I don't like very much food television.  Most of it is either too recipe-oriented, too voyeuristic/foodpornish, or just straight-up reality show bullshit.  (I am addicted to Top Chef, but it took me four seasons to be talked into watching it.)  But Avec Eric is great stuff.  Worth finding.

Second: this post features more free stuff for me: dried wild mushrooms from Marx Foods.  Like I said, I'll always point out when I'm using free things.  I'll have a post specifically about the mushrooms later, though the short version is that after trying them in various ways, I think soup is far and away the best use for them.  But they did make a nice gravy here.

Third: I bought three turkeys.

"Bill," you're asking, "what the hell? How many Thanksgivings does one man need?"

None of these turkeys is my Thanksgiving turkey.  They're three turkeys ABOVE AND BEYOND Thanksgiving.

See, here's the deal.  I'm at the supermarket with a few bucks, I'm picking up some Pepsi Throwback and some pretzels, and I see the frozen turkeys.  Forty cents a pound.  Forty cents.  You know how much the cheapest chicken in the store is?  Three times that.  You know how much the ground beef is?  Twice as much as the chicken.  Forty cents a pound.  That's cheaper than soup bones.  You could drop the turkey in a lobster pot, simmer it all day, and throw it out -- keeping only the broth -- and you've still saved money.

Basically, I would be an irresponsible asshole if I didn't buy a bunch of turkeys.

So for twenty dollars, I got three turkeys, a blue bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, and a pound of Jimmy Dean sausage.  My family has always made Pepperidge Farm stuffing, with sausage.  Even when I shake it up and do my own Thanksgiving, in the ten years when I didn't live near my family, I still used Pepperidge Farm; that's just stuffing for me.  Traditionally, "my" stuffing has been Pepperidge Farm, shredded rabbit, lots of sage, and tart apples.  But the only place around here that I can buy rabbit is a store that I dislike enough that I don't want to give them my business.  So I compromised: Pepperidge Farm, sausage, tart apples (Roxbury Russet).

Why was I making stuffing if this isn't Thanksgiving?  Well, because turkey and stuffing is fucking awesome, and there's not going to be much leftover at Thanksgiving.  So I'll get my fix now, and let my brother have the leftovers next week.

But first I broke down all the turkeys -- cut off the leg quarters and the wings, sliced the meat off the breasts.  I have no need to roast a whole turkey -- I'm going to do all sorts of OTHER things with the turkey parts.  I used one of the carcasses as a stuffing roasting vessel -- packing the stuffing into it, roasting it until the stuffing was cooked, and then cleaning the carcass off and tossing it into the stockpot with the other two and the wingtips.

The thighs?  I used three of those to make turkey confit, cooking them at a low-temp covered in duck fat for hours.

After roasting the three turkey carcasses, I had plenty of fond in the pan, so that became my gravy.  I cooked a little flour in the drippings, deglazed the pan with one part apple cider to four parts turkey stock, and cooked it down until thick, with a healthy pinch of salt and a handful of Marx's dried mushrooms (chanterelles and oysters) ground up in the Cuisinart.

So that's our first (rather out of focus) meal from those turkeys: turkey confit, apple/sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes, and wild mushroom cider gravy:

Turkey confit, stuffing, potatoes, wild mushroom gravy

The mushrooms add a nice, nice note to the traditional sage-and-apple flavors of the rest of the food.  Very satisfying.

Friday, November 13, 2009

back in the saddle again

These days, I guess people learn to cook from TV or blogs -- jumping in head first, scouring the internet for recipes, planning a complete meal. A generation before me, people -- okay, girls -- learned to cook from their mothers. But in between those two, my generation learned to cook through that great adolescent tradition of trial and error, the same basic "add this, tweak that" process which leads to Midwestern hot dish or Jello salad in one direction, and the Taco Bell chain in another, the modification of prepared food that is basically already a meal rather than the from-scratch manipulation of ingredients.  That is to say, "doctoring."

You know, you start with boxed macaroni and cheese, and add a can of deviled ham and some chopped olives, because fuck, you're fifteen and that sounds like a good plan. Or you grab the tuna fish, the raisins, the Miracle Whip, and come up with your "secret formula tuna salad sandwich" with a secret ingredient no one will ever guess (a Ramen seasoning packet). You take a frozen pizza and add canned mushrooms and extra pepperoni, and then invert ANOTHER frozen pizza on top of it to make a "calzone." It's not that this isn't cooking, exactly. It's just cooking with a lot of the ordinary kitchen activity disabled -- cooking in safe mode. This is to cooking what high school/college dating is to real relationships, or your Barnes & Noble cashier job is to the job you get later in life. Some of the risks and rewards are there, yes, but it's just a hint at the real thing, a sketch approaching its shape.

There is a whole cohort that never leaves that zone when it comes to cocktails, of course -- they never stop thinking of drinks as concoctions of corn syruped liqueurs diluted with vodka, hidden with mixers, and given names like Mind Eraser or Panty Dropper. But most people who are genuinely interested in cooking eventually leave the safety zone -- if nothing else, they figure out that it's cheaper to buy food and turn it into a meal than it is to buy prepared meals and alter them, a factor that doesn't have a whole lot of impact on us in our adolescence.

But the zone does teach you. And there are transitional dishes which basically employ the same mindset as doctoring, without relying on prepared foods. Chili is perhaps chief among them -- it certainly was for me. There is a clear core chili concept -- which, conceptually, acts as the frozen pizza you're altering, the fundament on which everything rests -- but despite its clarity, it will allow you to do all sorts of things to it without suddenly failing to be chili.

Nevermind regulation chili -- the barebones, stripped-down version of chili served in cookoffs, which for instance cannot have visible vegetables in it. Nevermind the Texan insistence that chili doesn't have beans, it is simply served with them, the way bolognese doesn't have pasta, it's served atop pasta. Those are sentiments which, though valid, are extremely boring and have no place at this table.

There are so many personal touches you can add to chili, and so many common variants. In New England, it seems to usually be soup-like, with chunks of tomato and kidney beans, and sometimes no perceptible spice at all. I never particularly liked this, and the chili I grew up with at home was considerably thicker, like an Italian sugo di carne (a thick ragu in which the tomato is reduced to the point that it is clinging to the meat, rather than the meat floating in a tomato sauce). Stew-like chili would be somewhere in between.

You can serve it as a bowl of soup with oyster crackers; with cornbread; with tortilla chips and salsa; over Fritos with cheese and onions; on spaghetti. Sometimes I have it with garlic bread.  

You can add chopped mango, cinnamon, pulled pork, venison, cigar ashes, coffee, red wine, beer, melted cheese, and it's still chili. An ingredient like roasted garlic, chicken, or cilantro can totally change the character of the dish, but it's still chili. You can use canned tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, tomato paste, no tomatoes. Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, no beans at all. Onion or no onion, pepper or no pepper, fresh chile or dried chile or powdered chile or Tabasco sauce. You can stew oxtail with sriracha and beans, and boom, you have three-ingredient chili.

I don't have a tried and true chili recipe, because chili isn't that kind of food for me. I do, on the other hand, after twentysome years of making chili various ways, rely on premixed chili seasoning instead of mixing my own. The main reason for this is simply that Penzey's and the Spice House -- whichever one I happen to be ordering from when I run out of chili seasoning -- make very very good seasoning blends, and if I have one in the house, I don't have to stop and ask myself "wait, do I have the ingredients I need for chili?", whereas I might if I were mixing it myself, since there are only a handful of spices that I will reliably repurchase as soon as I run out. I nearly always add additional Mexican oregano, but even then there's an exception -- this summer I grew Cuban oregano, and used that instead whenever I was making chili. Sadly, it neither dried nor froze well; I'll have to get more plants in the spring.

Mexican and Cuban oregano deserve a paragraph here. Neither is the same as Mediterranean oregano. I mean they're three completely different plants, and were simply called "oregano" by European settlers who found the New World herbs vaguely reminiscent of the one they were already familiar with. Mexican and Cuban oregano are both more pungent than real oregano, and they go very very nicely with spicy food, but if you were to substitute them in your grandmother's spaghetti sauce recipe, I think you would find the results a bit off. (I don't know how to compare Mexican oregano to Cuban oregano. They're noticeably different from one another, but have more in common than either has with Mediterranean oregano.)

Chili is basically comfort food for me. And you know, after two weeks of H1N1 -- about which, let me say only that I do not recommend it -- I had some comfort food coming to me. I went basic. I browned ground beef and coarsely chopped steak (really browned them, mind you, not greyed them) and held them aside. Shredded onion and red bell pepper in the Cuisinart and then cooked them down and added the beef back to the pan. Added pinto beans, the Spice House's chili con carne seasoning, additional Mexican oregano, New Mexico dried red chile, salt, a splash of Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron beer, and a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes that I pureed with a head of garlic and about a quarter cup of demiglace. Added some water and let it cook back out, and -- this is the most important thing with chili -- let it rest in the fridge overnight. Chili is always better the second day. I always make it a day in advance.

Now, I'll tell you a weird Taco Bell-ish guilty pleasure that I actually originally came up with for some fictional teenagers to eat in a story I was writing, and then tried for real out of curiosity: you wrap chili, cheese, and salsa or sriracha in a tortilla, along with ... onion dip. Or ranch, ranch would work fine. It's not that bizarre, because you're just seasoning the sour cream element of a conventional "soft taco supreme" -- it's not like you're adding any more fat than that, and you don't even necessarily have to add that much more salt -- but somehow it makes all your junk food sensors go into overload. If you wanted to really knock yourself out, you could use a burrito-sized tortilla and add fried potatoes or Tater Tots while you're at it, and a handful of green onions.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blogging will resume when I am no longer H1N1-stricken.  When we return:

Persimmons (pictured)

The epic pizza post? (Matt and I have to go check out a couple places around town for research.)

Quinces

Wild hare

The world's hottest chile pepper, and the world's hottest onion dip

Wild mushrooms

Monday, October 26, 2009

i love the way your underwire bra always sets off that x-ray machine

I'll make a lengthier post about Filipino cooking when I have time, but today let me tell you about adobo.

Long before fusion cuisine had risen to the heights of fine dining and trickled back down into southwestern eggrolls at your local TGI McHooligan's, it was one of those things that occurred naturally all the time.  All cuisine is fusion cuisine, just as every language contains elements of other languages, every culture includes modifications of other cultures.  American cooks sometimes pooh-pooh regional American cuisine because, even though some of it's as exotic to them as the food of Macau or the Pyrenees, there is this perception that there's nothing new in the US, that it's all borrowed from somewhere else -- germ theory, alive and well in the popular imagination more than a hundred years after Turner showed what a crock it is.

All cuisine melds and borrows and smears.  There is simply no other way to go about things.

Some cuisines fuse their influences more obviously.  Filipino cuisine includes Chinese and Spanish influences, mediated by the very particular pantry of an island kitchen.  Adobo, for instance, originally made without soy sauce, has been made on the islands since before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.  Over time, the rest of the ingredients have been added -- garlic and peppercorns probably come from the Spanish influence, soy sauce from the Chinese, who knows about the bay leaves.

The basic technique is to take your meat -- usually chicken or pork -- and marinate it in soy sauce, vinegar, whole smashed cloves of garlic, bay leaves, and peppercorns.  There are variations with chiles or chile sauce instead of the peppercorns, or an addition of rum.  After a few days of marinading, you cook the meat -- either braising it in the marinade, or pan-frying it while reducing the marinade separately.  This is home cooking, so there are a million variations, and if you google adobo for a while, you'll find arguments about the right way to do it.

The adobo I made this week?  Straight-up traditional, and the sauce is the best I've ever had.  I mean, I'm freezing the leftover sauce, that's how good it is.

The thing is, the chicken adobo I started with wasn't so good.  That large hard chicken ... maybe it needed to braise more, but it had a weirdly dry texture that I wasn't too crazy about.  I don't know how to describe it.  I don't mean dry in the same sense as a regular overcooked chicken.  It was all right, just not wonderful.  But the sauce ... oh man.  Just from braising in the sauce, the chicken imparted this amazing flavor to it.  I ended up fishing the bay leaves out and pureeing the sauce to blend up the garlic, and added a little sriracha, and it's ... delectable, it's this perfect combination of tangy and a little spicy and rich ...

Using real Filipino vinegar helped, but if you don't have it, use white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or even distilled white vinegar.  Filipino vinegar is nothing fancy.  This is not about using balsamic or Minus 8, though I too am curious about an adobo variation using something like that.  But the basic dish not only doesn't require it, it would be distinctly different with it.

Soy sauce deserves its own lengthy digression, but the upshot is that a) different countries have slightly different styles of soy sauce, so a soy sauce like you have with your sushi is not quite the same as the soy sauce in your stir fry; b) the cheap soy sauces these days are made from hydrolyzed soy protein instead of being traditionally fermented from soy beans.  When I first moved here, I was amazed that though my supermarket carried organic spelt and ground buffalo, they had no traditional (or "brewed") soy sauces, only the cheap shit, but I guess that tells you how white New Hampshire is.  Thankfully, they now carry one brand of brewed soy sauce, and it's just fine.

So, what did I do with the leftover sauce, before freezing the leftover leftovers?  Well, the real question is, what did I do with the salmon heads?

The salmon heads were simmered for an hour, cooled, picked apart, and then the bones, gills, etc., were returned to the pot and simmered for the rest of the day, making a rich salmon stock.  Picking the heads apart gave me this:

Salmon heads, the good bits: 1

Those are salmon eyes, salmon skin, and salmon cheeks, which are succulent and lightly flavored, like the "oyster" of a turkey.  I could have gotten more scrap meat out of the heads, but in part because they were so cheap, I focused on the easy things -- and they were in fact quite easy.  The hardest thing about picking apart a salmon head is simply accepting that you're picking apart a salmon head, and then stop acting like a twelve year old and just fucking do it already.  The cheeks are easy to identify, the eyeballs rather moreso, and there are several areas of skin that peel off with just a little coaxing, with a lot of subdermal fat that will make it crisp up well.

Before simmering the heads, I removed the collars, which was pretty easy to do with kitchen shears, and smoked those.  Here they are before and after smoking:

Salmon heads, the good bits: 2
Salmon heads, the good bits: 2

The collar meat is fantastic -- slightly fatty, flavorful, succulent like crazy.

So this gave me a nice assortment of salmon meat, both smoked and unsmoked, and I combined some of it with leftover adobo sauce and roasted fingerling potatoes, along with some crisped-up salmon skin, for a nice lunch:

Salmon, potatoes, adobo

It's cold out, so I had to take that photo quickly, and the light is all weird.  You get the idea.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

lookit here son

Right now, this is what I know about "hard chicken":

Some butchers used to sell chicken as "soft," "medium," or "hard," referring to their tenderness, which is usually a function of age. Older hens and roosters -- egg-layers no longer laying eggs, and roosters no longer fertilizing them -- have tough meat. Now, a general rule of thumb where meat is concerned is that the more a muscle is used, the tougher the meat will be, but the more flavor it will have; if you can braise it to get at that flavor, you're in business. This is why beef cheeks are so flavorful: that's the cud-chewing cow's most-used muscle.

As a point of comparison: we raised chickens when I was a kid. Chickens of the age we're talking about are going to be about two years old, chickens that had time enough to see all the best parts of Arrested Development. Maybe a little younger, not much. That Perdue chicken in the supermarket? Maybe two months old if that, never saw the seasons change.  Chicken used to have flavor.  Even the white meat.  The last fifty years have nurtured it out.

Another google hit says that some chickens are bred to be hard -- to keep a firm texture after cooking, making them suitable for soup. I suppose that's possible too.

Whether this chicken was bred hard or just aged its way into it, this is what I learned by cutting it up: the joints are unusually tenacious. I have a Wusthof knife, and while it does need a professional sharpening, it's still sharper than most home knives and never gives me trouble with chicken. But not only were these joints trickier to get through, the chicken didn't want to move around much -- one of the thighs was resistant enough that as it twisted in my hand, I wound up slipping the skin off by mistake in the process of severing the joint.

Furthermore, the drumsticks are disproportionately large -- relative not only to the chicken as a whole, but to the thigh. This is a long-legged bird.

What do you do with old chickens? Usually you make soup. There's also coq au vin -- "rooster with wine" -- which takes advantage of the toughness of a rooster to put it through a process that a young spring chicken wouldn't tolerate, marinating it in wine for days before braising it. You can do the same thing to make adobo. I find there is not much good in a rooster's breast, so that's best for stock ... but I don't know if that's going to be true for this bird or not.

I'm thinking I'll freeze half the chicken, for coq au vin at a later date, and make adobo with the other half.

Here's the kicker: I don't have any soy sauce (except for that Bluegrass soy sauce, and I need more than that for adobo).  Battambang Market has some odd elisions -- not much of a candy selection (notice there's no Pocky, no weird Mentos, no gummi candies in the photo spread), and I swear to you, as much as you think every Asian market has a soy sauce aisle ... I've never found it at Battambang.  Granted, things are sometimes organized along a logic I don't follow, with oyster sauce in two different places (different brands - different national origins?), but ... I'm just saying, I couldn't find any soy sauce yesterday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

process

I'm averse, these days, to getting too behind-the-scenes about how I write.  Writing is ... what I do, you know?  I have said for years that writers should be like teakettles: work hard and shut the fuck up about it until you're done, at which point you can whistle for someone to come a-runnin'.  I don't want to be a part of writers' groups, writers' communities, I don't talk shop, I don't have a social outlet connected to writing.  That just isn't how I am.  I think about what I do and how I do it and why -- I'm not like people who don't want to look at the sausage factory -- but it's not a community event for me.

Some of that is also true of cooking.  I blog, yeah.  But that's a broadcast, not a knitting circle.  I read other blogs, and sometimes read eGullet, but I don't participate much, because I'm more interested in skimming and listening a bit than I am in getting a conversation going.  To tell you the truth, I don't even read cooking magazines or all that many cookbooks, and when I do read cookbooks, I usually have a goal, like "tell me what I don't know about Cuban cooking."  But I am much much less averse to getting into details when it comes to cooking, obviously -- I just lack an interest in community, in general.

So the question the Little Cambodia post raises is, what do you do when you have new ingredients in the kitchen?  Particularly if they're ... randomly new ingredients, and not things you went questing for, for the sake of some specific recipe or use?  Things you just buy, because the appeal suggests itself or for the simple reason that you don't know what it is but you know someone somewhere loves it.

See, I find that an interesting question.  I find that an interesting process.  That is an angle on cooking, an approach to cooking, markedly different from cooking activities with clear endpoints, like "making Thanksgiving dinner" or "perfecting a grilled cheese sandwich."  Not a better or more interesting angle, just a different one.  There is maybe more engaged here.  There are maybe more neurons pricking up their little neuronic ears and going "do you need me? do you need me?" all eager to do their part and get their name in the box score.  Every choice eliminates possibilities.  There is a blind date sort of intrigue lurking on a blank page.

Sometimes you know a little.  Consider the salmon heads.  Obviously I've eaten salmon before.  I've cooked salmon before.  Usually fillets (I know steaks are popular, but fillets give you the skin, you dig).  My seafood prep experience lags far behind my meat and vegetable prep; I haven't dealt with whole fish often, which means I simply don't have fish heads around all that much.

But I know salmon.  I have associations with salmon, both first- and second-hand.  I know it takes well to smoke, salt, sweetness, dill, richness.  Can I smoke a salmon head?  Can I make "Indian candy," the sweet chewy smoked salmon?  Should I just make stock?

I have some understanding of the use and usefulness of fish heads.  I know the combination of meat, bones, connective tissue, skin, and fat is great for making stock.  I know that, just as lobsters are large enough to have sufficient claw meat while crawfish generally are not, larger fish like salmon have sufficient cheek meat.  I know, further, that fish cheek meat is sometimes prized and sometimes unscrupulously passed off as scallops.  I can't remember ever specifically hearing about salmon cheeks, which doesn't mean I haven't.

I know you can eat the eyeballs, one of those divisive areas of food.

I know fish collars are prized for the meat on them, but I'm not sure if my heads include the collars or not.

I know that salmon can be eaten raw, but that I obviously won't be eating this salmon raw, since it wasn't sold for that purpose so I can't be sure of its sufficient safety.  (Though I suspect a 24 hour freeze at sufficient temp would make everything A-OK.)

So that's what I know.  Out of the gate, game 1, salmon head on the mound, that's what I know.

Then I google, or try to, since Google is crapping out on me tonight.  I find salmon head soup.  I find praise for the meatiness of the salmon cheeks.  Mention of the eyeballs.  Mentions of grilling.  A couple pages that show up point out the skin on the head, and the delectability of salmon skin, which gives me second thoughts about using them for stock -- if nothing else, maybe I'll cook the heads first, make use of that skin, and then make stock of what's left.

For the moment, that's where I stop, because I have to decide what's going to go in the freezer (probably all of the pork), and what to do with the crabs and the hard chicken, and because of the perishability of culantro and my previous inability to freeze it without it going bad, I have already roasted one package of oxtails until well-browned and am now simmering them in the crockpot.  Destination: Chili with oxtail, ground chuck, and culantro.

Furthermore, tomorrow morning I need to work.  So I'll think about salmon heads tomorrow, and not longer than that -- fish will not wait for long.

I'll tell you this much, I'm glad I got the salmon heads.  I often don't consider too seriously anything at the counter, because my experience has been that it's hard to get anyone's attention without raising my voice to the point of seeming rude -- I think they assume that I'm only browsing, particularly if I happen to be standing in front of salmon heads or pork blood (used in a Filipino stew, for the record).  But for seven bucks, at a minimum I'm likely to get good rich fish stock out of this -- and really, the experience itself, the process of raising these questions, is good exercise.  A fully foreign ingredient without any conceptual handles doesn't always offer that, but salmon heads are right in that zone where you have some built-in expectations, some existing understanding to work with.


eat them up yum

 Lowell, Massachusetts, isn't just the home of Jack Kerouac and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America.  It also has the second-highest Cambodian population -- highest by percentage -- in the United States, which inevitable leads to part of the city being nicknamed Little Cambodia.  It's the only place I've been where you can easily get not only Thai and Vietnamese food, but Cambodian, Laotian, and Malaysian food.

As it turns out, my favorite pizza place (Stromboli's) is in nearby Billerica.  So Matt and I will periodically head out to get pizza for lunch and then hit Battambang Market in Little Cambodia so I can stock up on both staples and oddities.

There will be a lot of photos in this post.  You may need to click through to see some of them in full on Flickr (where you can also see what Matt and I had for lunch).

I gotta tell you right now, straight up, just in case you haven't figured me out yet.  I don't know what some of this stuff is.  That's why I bought it, see.


Crabs, pig tails

Crabs and pig tails.  I hardly ever buy crabs ... and I'm not even sure why I did this time.  In fact, I had just left the fish counter and had decided against the whole crabs, and then for some reason bought these when I saw them.  Go figure.

Pig tails are terrific.  Pork is pork.  That's the beautiful thing about a pig, you can eat the whole animal except for the bones and a minor amount of other bits -- and the meat is all recognizably pork, with varying ratios of meat to skin to fat to collagen.  Pig tails are very baby-back-rib-like, but with skin.  Fantastic barbecue.


Pork belly

Pork belly.  Sadly, in Asian markets I'm only able to find pork belly cut this way, not larger pieces the way you'd ideally want for making bacon or for roasting.  Oh, don't get me wrong -- I'll probably still use this for bacon.  You just have to cure a little more carefully, and the thin cut makes it harder to slice.


Salmon heads

Salmon heads.  Four salmon heads for $6.66.  This required some gesturing and clarifying to make sure the gentleman at the fish counter understood I wanted the salmon heads, and wasn't just a) commenting on the fact that "hey, you have salmon heads" or b) trying to order the much more expensive whole salmon.  I'm used to this -- I'm the only white guy in a large Asian supermarket, and I'm buying fish heads instead of Pocky.  I have no problem with the fact that this means I sometimes have to clarify that I really do what to buy what I'm buying.

What will I do with the fish heads?  Man, I have no idea.  My theory is that there is sufficient cheek and collar meat to make a meal, and then I'll make stock.


Green chile-garlic sauce; sriracha; lotus nut paste; jackfruit

Green "chili sauce for seafood" (chile, garlic, vinegar, sugar, salt, and water).

Sriracha -- not the "cock sauce" brand we're all familiar with, which from what I understand is an Americanized version (though of course I love it, and have you tried it on Tater Tots or Boars Head natural-casing hot dogs with a little mustard?), but some other brand, so I can compare.

Lotus nut paste, like they use in pastries.

Jackfruit in syrup.


Oxtail

Oxtail.  Oh, I have such good associations with oxtail.  My first meal at my apartment in Gentilly was oxtail.  Kathy and I had spent all day lugging stuff up to my apartment as I moved in -- since I had hardly any furniture yet, this meant mostly boxes of books which I had drastically overpacked, and because I lived in a gated complex, this meant carrying a box out of the car to the front of the complex; somehow balancing the box or putting it on the benches that were out of reach of the gate; unlocking the heavy gate and quickly darting through it before it closed again (we were expressly forbidden to wedge the gate open, and it was heavy enough that this was frankly pretty hard to do anyway); walking past the first fountain in the courtyard until getting to my stairs, going up one flight, and then opening my door.  In New Orleans summer heat.  This sucked.

I was exhausted by the end of the day and had done a cursory grocery shop at the closest market, Zuppardo's on Elysian Fields.  My new neighborhood was weird.  It had been the German neighborhood at one point, and the older residents in my complex were single white German men.  My complex was surrounded by cemeteries: German Jewish, German Catholic, German Lutheran.  But by this point, the neighborhood was predominantly black, with a lot of Vietnamese-owned businesses.  The nearest restaurant was a Vietnamese-run "soul food" joint that sold turkey necks, fried rice, and Cajun meat pies.  And Zuppardo's, Zuppardo's sold a mix of Asian and Hispanic ingredients alongside the ordinary stuff.  I learned a lot about cooking because of living there, and taking advantage of the cheapness of things like chicken feet.  Anybody can cook a chicken breast.  But go on, cook me a chicken foot.  Takes some doing.

Oxtail was cheap.  So that's what I made my first night.  I sat there drinking Sunny Delight and Captain Morgan's, waiting and waiting and waiting for my oxtail to finish braising in its Cajun tomato sauce.  It took for-fucking-ever, three or four hours.  But man, it was tasty.


'The

The sign said "large hard chicken."  I know what you're thinking.  You wish it had said "large hard cock."  You dirty bitch.

Asian markets seem to be the only place where they'll still label chickens according to breed.  The "small hard chickens" next to this one were leghorns.

(Keep fucking that chicken.)


Filipino sugarcane vinegar

Filipino cane vinegar!  A couple of the Asian markets in Bloomington were heavy on the Filipino ingredients, and I have haphazardly learned to love many of them: coconut jam (think dulce de leche made with coconut instead of milk), balut (the fertilized eggs with partially developed baby chickens inside), kalamansi (extraordinary citrus fruit), and yes, coconut vinegar and cane vinegar.  These tend to be very vinegary vinegars; Americans, when they see anything but distilled white vinegar or cider vinegar, think in terms of something they'll use in a vinaigrette.  Raspberry balsamic and whatnot.  This is not that.  These are just practical vinegars made from ingredients that grow on the islands -- as in Hawaii, the economics of domestic goods vs what gets imported from the mainland has a big impact on Filipino cuisine.

But anyway: cane vinegar is good in that fantastic Filipino dish, adobo.  Meat (chicken, pork, whatever) is first marinated in, and then braised in, a combination of vinegar and soy sauce, with bay leaves, garlic, and peppercorns or chile.  Outstanding.


Thai curry pastes

Thai curry pastes.  I have red and green in the fridge already (bought from Importfood.com, with whom I've dealt several times and can recommend for both pantry items like this and fresh produce).  This rounds out my options considerably.


Frozen jackfruit

Frozen jackfruit!  Okay, dig it.  A whole jackfruit would cost $135 by mail order.  I happen to know this off the top of my head.  Just accept me for who I am.  A pound of frozen jackfruit, already peeled?  Two dollars.  Sure, fresh is better, but ... TWO DOLLARS.  And it's just the fruit itself, not packed in sugar or anything.  I've only ever had it in syrup.

Anyway, what is jackfruit, you're wondering.  It LOOKS like a durian a bit, but is nothing like it.  The canned stuff I've had tastes a little like melon, a little like pineapple, a little like lychee, and is fucking awesome.


Rambutan
Rambutan

Speaking of lychee: there's some rambutans for you.  The rambutan is a fruit like the lychee, but the outer covering is all ... whiskery like you see there.  The fruit is sweet and mild and delicious.


Thai okra

Here's what I want you to notice: there are two apparently very different vegetables (one is ridged and over a foot long, the other looks like a gourd but is light and spongy-feeling), both labeled "Thai okra."  I have never used either of them.


Lily roots

Lily roots.  Yeah man, I have no idea.


Shredded green papaya

Shredded green papaya.  Convenience food.  You can make a fantastic Thai salad using shredded green papaya, a little fish sauce, a little lime juice, a little chile.


Young ginger

Young ginger.  I don't know about your supermarket, but at mine you never, ever see the young thin-skinned stuff.


Wonton noodle

Fresh noodles.


Chinese watercress

Chinese watercress.  Good for stir-fry, soup, or combined with western greens.


Culantro

Culantro.  Oh how I fucking love culantro.  This is cilantro's rougher, more intense, more aggressive cousin.  Nothing goes better with super spicy food.  In hispanic cooking, culantro is sometimes called recao.


Taiwanese sarsaparilla

Taiwanese sarsaparilla.  Such good stuff.  I should have bought more.  As soon as I was out of the store I was thinking I should have bought another dozen cans, not just four.  Unlike American root beers, this sarsaparilla has a bitter aftertaste -- not the gentian of Moxie, nor as strong as that, but just the effect of the natural extracts used to flavor the soda.


Mooncake

M O O N that spells cake, right here and now.  Moon cakes are eaten in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival which ended a week or two ago.  They're elaborately decorated, as you can see, and often expensive.  These were cheap because it's after the festival -- like putting the Easter candy on sale, you dig.  I don't know what flavor this is ... let me go see if the label says.  Nope!


Tamarind candy

Tamarind candy.  Not sure if there's salt on it or just chile.


Pa piey

Pa piey.  Yeah, no idea.  I'll look it up, obviously, but I'm blogging before looking things up.


Ngo om

Ngo om.  I should have bought more of this too, but it didn't all look as fresh.  Also known as "rice paddy herb," this is a Vietnamese herb with a very very lemony flavor, but a little ... spice note, too.  Really good stuff.  You could build a meal around this.  I suppose I should.


Persimmons

Persimmons!  Fuyu, by the looks of them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

hanker for a hunka

Cheese is weird.  You take milk and you coagulate the fat and protein by injecting it with bacteria that eats lactose and turns it into lactic acid.  If you hadn't been eating it all your life, you'd freak out over the concept of it.  If I told you, hey, I'm going to take that beverage you're drinking and ferment it, drain the solid chunks out, and turn those into a couple hundred different variants depending on the type of bacteria I use, whether or not I let it get moldy, and how long I let it sit around, you would probably not come over for dinner.

Most "foodies," when they like cheese, like the smelly, oozy cheeses.  Not me.  I've never even particularly liked blue cheese.  No, the cheeses I like are aged cheeses.  Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano.  Well-aged Gouda and Manchego, which are noticeably different in character from their younger selves, as we all should aspire to be.  Beemster's aged Goudas in particular are ridiculously good.  And above all else, a really good, sharp, aged Cheddar.

It's probably not coincidence that my favorite cheeses are all prone to forming crystals.  Aged cheddars form calcium lactate crystals, like little flakes of salt embedded in the cheese, as a result of the interactions between the lactobacteria and the lactic acid.  The parmigiano-type grating cheeses (and that Gouda) can form either calcium lactate crystals or tyrosine crystals from protein breakdown.  Either way, if there are enough crystals, you get a little crunch in your cheese.  It's great.


10 year old cheddar

There are two cheddars I especially love.  The above photo is a ten year old -- yes, ten year old -- cheddar from Carr Valley.  This is the IPA of cheddars.  It's downright bitter, but in a good way, a beer-sort of bitter.  A slightly milder but also more crystal-laden cheese is Grafton Village's four year cheddar, which is also cheaper for me since it's made in NH.  For purposes of comparison, the sharp cheddar in your supermarket is usually less than a year old.


Grilled cheese

I used the Grafton four year in a grilled cheese sandwich, with sourdough bread and beer-braised onions.  The onions are like caramelized onions (though I should have caramelized them first and then reduced the beer with them, rather than cooking them in the beer the whole time -- but they're good this way too) which have been cooked all day in beer ... specifically Old Viscosity, a hoppy and very roasted-malty beer that works perfectly with the onions and cheddar.

Now, I know I'm a big fan of sandwiches in general, but this particular sandwich, this combination ... this is one of the greatest sandwiches ever.  The funny thing is, I was planning on using rye or pumpernickel, but the store where I buy the Grafton cheese didn't have any, so I went with sourdough (from local bakery the Dutch Epicure).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

merrily

There was a time when no one was a "foodie" -- there were "gourmets" instead, known for their love of French food, not a passion for a good cheeseburger or a need to find the best bahn mi in the city, and associated with "delicacies" that were thought to be "acquired tastes" and came from the undesirable parts of animals.  Goose liver.  Snails.  Thymus glands.  Fish eggs.

This is unfortunate, and not a little bit stupid, but some of the gourmets of the 1950s and 1960s played that up, just as some geeks will play up the idea that liking some robot show or dragon book makes them fundamentally different from the general populace, just as some teenagers will promote the idea that their iPod playlists explain what kind of person they are.  Any silly stereotype that groups people together and draws conclusions about those groups will find people within the group who embrace the idea of that deeper difference, that impenetrability.  But you know that.  You've seen the X-Men movies, or read Eco and Saussure, or whatever it is you've done.

The truth is, most of those 1950s gourmet club staples are not at all acquired tastes in the same sense that Talleggio cheese is, or uni, or even a gueuze lambic.  Foie gras is rich but not very strong-tasting, per se.  Escargots taste like the garlic butter they're cooked in, and little else.  Sweetbreads have almost no flavor, and are vehicles for sauce.  And caviar -- any roe -- tastes like fish, reasonably enough.  Fish eggs taste a good deal more like fish than chicken eggs taste like chicken, that's for sure.

"Roe" is the general term for fish eggs.  It's contained in a sac, but if you don't catch the fish yourself, you'll rarely see it that way.  There are a variety of camping/fishing recipes for roe sacs, which some outdoorsmen love -- which makes you wonder how they'd feel about caviar on toast points, I don't know -- but roe sold in stores, caviar or otherwise, has been cured.  Curing roe simply requires separating the eggs from the sac and one another, and immersing them in a brine of saltwater and a little sugar.  Otherwise they'll go bad too quickly.  The saltier the cure, the longer the shelflife, which is one reason roe has a reputation for being very salty.  It doesn't have to be.  The trout roe you see in this entry is malossol (Russian, "little salt"), meaning it has been cured with the minimum amount of salt.  It can be refrigerated or frozen before being opened, but once open, you have about a weekend to use it up -- which is why there are three different photos here, you dig.

"Real" caviar is the roe of the sturgeon, and is expensive partly because of demand and partly because of overfishing.  As a result of the demand, there's a lot of pasteurized shelf-stable caviar on the market, sitting on your supermarket shelves for months before someone buys it for a dinner party.  I would say not to bother, but I have never really been thrilled by sturgeon caviar to begin with, so I'm really the wrong person to ask.

You sometimes see "salmon caviar" mentioned, with the modifier necessary just as you can't call a turkey burger merely a "burger."  I think it makes more sense to refer to salmon roe, but whatever.  You can get salmon roe at any sushi joint, though I don't think it really suits sashimi well -- you get a bite of just roe with no other flavors, which can be overwhelming.  I order salmon roe sometimes at my sushi place, but after one piece, I don't particularly want another.

There are all sorts of other kinds of roe available in different countries, different types of stores.  Because the sturgeon is not generally considered kosher, and because fish eggs go so nicely with cream cheese, these non-sturgeon roe have long been found, even before America's gourmet clubs, in "appetizing stores," those stalwarts of Jewish-American cuisine which sell "things that go well with bagels": smoked fish, fish eggs, herring salad, etc.


Bagel, cream cheese, belly lox, trout roe

That's where I got my trout roe, in fact, from Russ & Daughters.  Here it is on a bagel, with cream cheese and belly lox.  Fantastic.

Trout roe is even milder than salmon roe.  It's little slightly salty spheres that burst in your mouth and are somewhat oily, with a light fresh fish flavor.  While belly lox has to be eaten with something else to keep from being overwhelming, trout roe can actually easily get lost.  Think of fish sauce, in Southeast Asian cooking, or anchovies on a pizza if you don't use too many.  Yes, there's a fishiness evident, but the presence doesn't automatically turn the dish into "a fish dish."  (To be clear, anchovies -- the ones I've had, anyway, the ones typically used in Italian-American checkered-tablecloth cooking -- are considerably stronger than trout roe.)

Fried eggs, fingerling potatoes, trout roe

Roe goes well with foods that make good platforms for flavor, like potatoes and eggs.  Brunch today -- I guess it's brunch, it was noon and there were eggs -- was fried eggs, roasted fingerling potatoes, trout roe, and a little of my reconstructed Buffalo wing sauce (roasted mild red chiles reduced to a jam, brown butter, homemade pepper mash) which I'll talk about in the epic hot wings post that will follow the pizza post.

And finally, I took a cue from culinary adventurer Heston Blumenthal, who pairs caviar with white chocolate.  My "trout roe bark" began with melted cocoa butter, sugar, and Bluegrass soy sauce, and dropped the roe in once the cocoa butter had cooled to room temperature.

Trout roe bark

It's surprisingly good, but the sort of thing you'd serve as an amuse or small dish before some other food.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

just like that film with michael caine

Eggs and celery root

It's autumn. I mean full-on no shit could snow any fucking second now autumn.  Yesterday I picked up Northern Spy apples, big and heavy and crunchy.  Parsnips.  Turnips.  Rutabagas.  And celery root.

Celery root is a bitch.

It's dirty -- filthy, really -- from all the nooks and crannies of the outside.  It's woody, and peeling alone won't take care of that.  Maybe there are differences in freshness, I don't know, but every time, I under-peel, and I end up with a couple bits of celery root that are just too woody to eat.

But it tastes great.  The celeriac (celery root) salt that I make from Fergus Henderson's recipe in Nose to Tail is amazing -- you basically just shred the celery root, mix it with salt, bake it until dry, and break it back up, but the taste is so deep and ... in a weird celery way ... very complex.  

My favorite thing to do with any celery salt is to put it on a boiled egg with hot sauce.  So for dinner last night, I took those tastes and threw them around each other: I peeled, chopped, and simmered celery root until soft, put it in a cast-iron pan with a little bacon fat, a little pork stock, and some Texas Pete hot sauce and roasted it until the celery root had soaked up the stock and turned crispy (this is a good technique for all your root vegetables), made some of those unctuous eggs, and garnished with Marx Foods Himalayan pink salt and Hawaiian black sea salt.  The crunch of both those salts is perfect for eggs in particular, but the Himalayan pink salt, a mined rock salt, was the winner here -- it has a little minerality to it that I really dig.  That and the green chile salt are my favorites so far, of these free salts.

Monday, October 12, 2009

loo loo loo

Apple/pear coffeecake

This combines a few recipes I've seen here and there, with my own addition of the liquor and ginger salt.

I had a few pears to use up, so, hey -- apple-pear coffeecake.

Grease a square baking dish and preheat the oven to 375.


1/2 cup sugar + 1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon or more cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon Marx Foods ginger sea salt

A tablespoon or so of whiskey

A tablespoon or so of allspice dram (ignore if unavailable)

1 stick butter, divided into 5 1/2 TBSP and 2 1/2 TBSP

1 egg

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup apple cider

3-4 fruits (apples and pears), cored and sliced


Combine the 1/2 cup sugar with the cinnamon and set aside.

Cream together the 5 1/2 T butter and 1/4 cup sugar, beat in the egg, stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, and apple cider.  Pour half the batter into the pan.  Top with 2-3 layers of sliced fruit, sprinkling each layer of fruit with cinnamon sugar mixture, allspice dram, and whiskey, and dotting in between layers with pieces of butter.  Top fruit with the remaining batter, a little more cinnamon sugar, and the ginger salt.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, depending on how brown you want the edges.

The ginger sea salt, the latest of the Marx Foods salts I'm trying, is nice here -- desserts benefit from a little salt, and this doesn't make a noticeably "salty" dessert like salted caramel or something, but it adds a little crunch and interest to the topping, and the ginger obviously goes well with everything involved.

Also: I haven't had a chance to figure out why, but the photos are cut off on the right-hand side on the blog, which is a particular issue with the latest whiteboard post.  This problem isn't noticeable in the RSS feed.  In any case, you can always click on a photo to go to its Flickr page.