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  Adobo, for instance, originally made without soy sauce, has been made on the islands since before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.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


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.  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 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, 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.


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.  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.


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!  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


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.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

what a super-strong guy

Concord grape cocktail

I like Concord grapes, but the problem is that having had fox grapes this summer ... well, the Concords just make me miss the fox grapes.  It's the difference between farmed and wild salmon, let's say, or a decent burger and a really great burger.

Luckily I preserved some fox grapes in maraschino liqueur, which made a good addition to this cocktail:

3 oz tequila

1 oz lemon juice 

3/4 oz St Germain elderflower liqueur

12 Concord grapes

Muddle (smash those grapes up), mix, and strain.  Add a couple maraschino fox grapes.

My thinking was that the St Germain has a note that reminds me of white grape juice, and another that either reminds me of agave or just smells like it would go well with agave ... I can't decide.  Either way, this all gets along nicely.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

they asked me how I knew

Smoked grits

I have, and love, a Cameron Stovetop Smoker.  This isn't a piece of equipment you'll often find praised, because what it isn't is a substitute for a proper outdoor smoker (or an indoor smoker with its own ventilation).  If you want to make real barbecue -- a big hunk of pork or beef, or a chicken or turkey, smoked until it develops a smoke ring -- this is not the way.


Many people, like me, can't use a "real" smoker without considerable inconvenience (there are a couple places in my condominium development where I could use one, none of them near my kitchen) and don't have the means to install a professional indoor smoker.  What's more, even a basic and not terribly great outdoor smoker is an expensive piece of equipment.

The stovetop smoker cost me $30.  It comes with enough wood chips that most people will never use them up, and if you do, refills are cheap.

The way it works is you put it on your stove, put fine wood chips inside, put the tray over those, add your food, and close it up.  The wood chips smolder, and after about twenty minutes begin smoking your food.  The smoke alarm will not go off.  Trust me, mine goes off during oven cleanings sometimes, while searing steaks, and so on, and the smoker has never once set it off.  That's an improvement on the way I used to smoke things.

Essentially, your food is cooking in a small, somewhat moist, low-temperature oven.  That's why it won't work for everything.  This isn't an ideal cooking method for everything, and it's a pretty slow cooking method.

That's also the strength.

It's excellent for fish (I don't think I've tried shellfish yet).  I love using it for smoked meatloaf.  It's great for cooking potatoes in the smoker and then mashing them to make smoked mashed potatoes -- though the potatoes take 2 to 3 hours to cook, rather than the 20-30 minutes if you simmered them.

But some things benefit from a slow cooking time.  I'm able to smoke butter -- I just put it in a small pie plate and put the pie plate in the smoker tray -- because it can sit in the smoke for a long time before coming anywhere near to burning.  Fresh mozzarella will take on some smoke flavor by the time it starts to melt.  

And grits ...

Grits apparently benefit tremendously from a slow cooking time.  Not only does the combination of smoke and salt give them a bacon-like appeal, but cooking slowly -- these took three and a half hours, maybe four -- makes them silky and luxurious without being mushy.  Ridiculously good.

I cooked 3/4 cup grits in 3 cups of water in the smoker, with just a little homemade celery salt for seasoning (I make crazy good celery salt, it's a weird thing to take pride in).  Once they were cooked, I added a pat of smoked butter, a little crushed red pepper, and a generous shredding of Pecorino Romano cheese.


The greens, well -- nothing goes better with grits than greens.  These are turnip greens, collards, and Swiss chard, simmered for about four hours in plain water with two bay leaves.  I then adjusted the pot liquor with a little demiglace (super-concentrated pork stock), Texas Pete hot sauce, that homemade celery salt again, homemade smoked turnip salt, and a dash of Worcestershire.

Smoked grits, greens


Thursday, October 1, 2009

stupid winter

Man, it is chilly today.  If only we could do something about it.  I don't like the thought of putting the heat on, because it's still warm enough when it's sunny that I've been opening the doors to get some fresh air.  Opening the doors in one part of the day and turning the heat on in another part just seems counterproductive, you know?

I mean, I could make champurrado, I guess, that's this Mexican hot chocolate thickened with corn meal, and I've got some nice cinnamon and some whiskey --

-- what's that?  I should make the champurrado?

Well c'mon, gang, let's go!

Champurrado is an atole, a class of masa-thickened beverages which can be served thick enough to need a spoon or thin enough to barely coat the glass -- sort of the way milkshakes vary.  Chocolate and cornmeal are the constants with champurrado; milk (half and half in my case), spices, etc. all vary.


I ground up some Callebaut dark chocolate in the Cuisinart -- when your kitchen is cold, this is easy to do without the heat of the blade melting the chocolate -- and added yellow cornmeal, two kinds of cinnamon (Saigon and Ceylon), and a touch of chile powder, as well as a little sea salt you can't really see in the photo.

Ideally, you would combine this with hot water and/or milk using a special wooden whisk, but whatever.


I tried to use the espresso sea salt from Marx to rim the glass, but it just didn't want to stick -- so most of what's rimming it is actually just sugar.

from my head down to my legs

So those eggs.

Eggs are a good example of why I say to get to know your ingredients.  When you take the rote approach to cooking, just memorizing different methods, you don't really know what you're doing.  You're Berlitzing it, reciting phrases.  You know what you're saying, you know the meaning is getting across, but you don't apprehend the structures and grammar.

Everyone knows how to hard-boil an egg, most people know how to soft-boil an egg.  Everyone's got different tricks, you know, whether you start the eggs in the water before heating it, whether you let them cool in the water, how to peel the eggs, all that.  The thing to keep in mind is how sensitive eggs are to temperature, and how much the texture will differ between an egg cooked at a hard boil for thirty minutes and an egg simmered for 15.

These eggs, what I call unctuous eggs, similar to hot spring eggs, are neither hard- nor soft-boiled.  They never come out exactly the same, because there are too many variables and my kitchen is not a laboratory of controlled conditions.  But the idea is that the white comes out set but not rubbery -- nor even as solid as that of a nice hard-boiled egg -- and that the yolk remains unctuous.  It's not liquid like a soft-boiled egg.  But it has none of the chalkiness of a hard-set yolk, and may in some cases -- we hope for these -- remain orange and custardy.  This is not a hard-boiled egg.  This is not a soft-boiled egg.  This is some other egg.

You bring the egg up to room temp, or let it sit in warm water a while.  You bring your pot of water to a simmer.  You put the egg in the water for 6-8 minutes and then immediately plunge it into ice water, for the same reason you do with blanched vegetables: you don't just want to remove it from the cooking environment, you want to halt the cooking.  Otherwise that egg's going to retain heat and keep cooking the yolk.  Once the egg has cooled down, you can peel it, and you can marinate the thing if you like -- soy sauce is good, hot sauce is good, in either case I'd dilute some with water.  Eggs can suck up a lot of marinade, as you know if you've ever et a pickled one.  I didn't marinate my eggs because I don't want the marinade to clash with my lima beans.

Eggs, lima beans.

You really can't tell from looking at these how custardy and unctuous the eggs are, particularly the yolks.  A minute less of cooking and they might have been too soft; thirty seconds less would probably be just right to keep the yolks completely orange with none of that canary yellow.  With the eggs, I'm having a lima bean salad, which is just cooked limas marinated with pecan oil -- nut oils in general are terrific for this kind of thing -- with smoked paprika, salt, sage, and a little homemade pepper vinegar.  It's best at room temperature or slightly warm -- I microwaved it a bit, because it's cold lately and room temperature's not what it could be.

On the eggs: Hawaiian pink sea salt, and more of the green chile salt.  The Hawaiian pink sea salt is nice and crunchy -- maybe the sort of thing you'd usually have with French fries instead of egg, but I dig it here.

shaky city

Two things:

First, this post features stuff I got for free.  That'll happen, you know, people send stuff to bloggers, bloggers review it.  I'll always point out when that's the case, and I won't ever rave about something just because I got it for free.  

So this time, what I've got is a sampler of the many sea salts sold by online fine foods vendor Marx Foods, and even if I didn't dig the salt, I'd've mentioned them in an eventual post on "Bill, where do you get the unusual ingredients you sometimes mention, and why aren't they in my supermarket," aka the online mail order post.  Marx Foods isn't cheap, but if you want turtle meat, they're the place to go; and they're the only place I know of with such an extensive selection of wild produce (not just ramps and fiddleheads, but miner's lettuce and wood violets).

I can't review a dozen salts at once.  So as I use them, I will point them out.  For instance:

Potatoes, cracklins

Potatoes and pork cracklins, with green chile sea salt and fine smoked sea salt.

The number one change most home cooks can make that will make their food taste more like it does in the restaurant?  Use more salt.  I don't know if it's health concerns driving people to undersalt their food, or if it's always been this way -- I'm just saying, half the time you ask yourself "why does their version of this taste so much better than mine, I know I'm doing everything right," it's because they used more salt than you did.

Potatoes, pork, and eggs are the foods that I think benefit the most from salt -- in fact, shit, I need to go start the eggs I was planning to have later, they take a long time.  Hang tight.

Okay, so anyway.  The green chile salt is great.  There's a pronounced green chile flavor, distinguishable as such, not just generic heat.  This would be nice on a hot dog, definitely on a hamburger.

The smoked sea salt has less pronounced smokiness.  I can't decide how to feel about that.  It's probably good, in that it keeps the smoke flavor from being overpowering, but it's also easy to lose it completely.  One way to use it that would keep the smoke flavor from being lost would be to use it as a rimming salt, so that you're getting a hit of the salt before you get anything that's going to overpower it.

The second thing: sometimes when I take a photo of some food, especially if I take a second one because I see on the camera screen that the first one isn't in focus, I feel a twinge of guilt.  I don't like photograph-centric food blogs, or blogs that toss a photo of some meal up onto the internet without any discussion of it, any information.  It's pointless.  It benefits no one and only creates noise.  I think the prevalence of cheap reliable digital photography has made the blogosphere significantly worse.  Everyone's posing their sandwiches, snapping pretty pictures of their rack of lamb ... but who gives a shit?  It doesn't make them taste any better.  It's just mindless food porn, as bad as the nonsense on the Food Network.  Food doesn't need or benefit from Myspace angles.  Learn how to cook, not how to pose.