Saturday, February 28, 2009

Who are restaurants feeding, anyway?

Okay, the reason I haven't been posting much lately is because I haven't been cooking all that much. I've had a few days of Indian take-out, partially because it's incredibly tasty, but also because they give those little re-useable plastic bowl things with their curries and I like those things way better than the glad-lock or whatever crap you can actually buy. My wife's not down with eating every bit of rabbit food that I crank out, so for things like a butternut squash soup I made earlier, its nice to have modular food containers I can break batches into. Win-win, right?

It got me thinking about the state of food in America, which I guess is ironic to get that epiphany over Indian food, but that's where I am. I got an order of chana masala (tomato and chicpea curry) one day, and began bharta (eggplant curry) the other. For meals that are supposedly for one, I've broken each of them down into at least three individual meals in their own right. Part of it is that I've gotten accustomed to eating small portions (at least by American standards) and the other part is that what's being doled out IS that much. It's bizarre to see the rituals people will go through in order to make sure they have the gastronomic endurance to clean their plates. There may be starving kids in China as your parents say, but there are obese kids in America. If you try to finish all of that just for the sake of finishing, you're going to eat way too much food and you're going to feel terrible. We really have to re-learn how to handle the dinner table here as a society I think. If you really have to put your body through that kind of binge and discomfort to "finish the meal", then maybe think about how much is on your plate to start.

I've had some pretty downer thoughts about this, and I think that a lot of people have abdicated any demands they have on food quality and food taste, in exchange for a bigger portion. Food is getting bigger, fattier, saltier, or more sweet conversely. Instead of making sure that the meal is something made of a few ingredients that are carefully chosen to make the best out of a dish, people are out for the best value, ignorant as to what that might mean exactly.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Focaccia alla Salvia e Formaggio and other Italian words as well!

(Aka, Italian hearth bread with sage and cheese for y'all anglophones)

I've been baking a lot of bread to sell to friends and coworkers, and the big hit lately has been my focaccia bread, so I figured I'd share the love here.

This is the yield for one loaf, but I always double up and bake two at a time. If you have people over, the first one will be half gone before it gets cool.
  • 3 1/4 cups bread flour
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup pinot grigio
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp dry yeast
  • About 30 fresh sage leaves
  • Extra virgin olive oil, for topping
  • Coarse salt for topping
  • Small handful of a hard cheese for topping (I use either manchego or asiago, whichever is on hand)
Basically, combine the salt and flour in a big mixing bowl and form a well. In another bowl, combine yeast and a half cup of water, and let the yeast wake up for 5 minutes. Mix the yeast solution up and add to the well, then stir in a little flour to form a watery paste, and cover for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, set aside ten sage leaves, and finely chop the other 20. Add those to the mixing bowl, and add the olive oil, wine, and remaining water, and mix until fully combined. Turn out onto your work surface and knead for ten minutes. If you need to flour it, go ahead, but I never do. If the dough is sticky, it shores up after kneading, and comes together nicely. After kneading, put the dough into a greased bowl and cover for about 90 minutes, or until doubled.

Punch the dough down, chafe it into a smooth ball, and let it rest for ten minutes, then come back with a rolling pin and spread it out until its a flat circle about a foot in diameter, and around an inch and a half to an inch thick. Cover that, and let proof for 50 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400, and spread a little extra virgin olive oil on the dough until coated. Spread out the sage leaves remaining on top, then press them into the dough about halfway deep with your little finger. Continue to poke the dough with your pinky until there are dimples all over the surface, then add salt evenly.

Pop the dough into the oven. I like to steam the oven with a spritzer bottle, but its up to you if you want steam. It helps make the crust a little crispy, so do what you want. Let it bake for about 20 minutes, then open it up, and sprinkle your cheese on top, and let it bake for another ten minutes. Remove and let it cool on a wire rack.

Now, I used manchego on this, which doesn't melt like other cheese. It crisps and browns a little, so it's going to be a little different than melty stuff. Either is good, it's up to you.

Rough crumb shot. I don't bother cutting this, just tear a bit off as you go. People like to dip this in olive oil,but I think its rich enough really, with all of the oil used in baking. You don't really need any extra, but go hog wild if you like that.

This stuff pairs with other dishes pretty well, but it's even more fun just as a party pass-around. People just take a plug out and go along.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Farewell to the Flesh

Today is Mardi Gras, or as people more than a two hour drive away from the coast call it, Tuesday.

As I hinted in the salsifried gumbo post, I have been making plans to give up meat for Lent, so tomorrow I begin my forty day foray into vegetarianism. To keep with the spirit of the day, I didn't party, wear beads, or anything super fun, but I did have a farewell to the flesh dinner:

A roast beef sandwich on my homemade rosemary buttermilk bread, with horseradish dijon mustard, arugula, heirloom tomato, red onion, and smoked Swiss Grüyere, washed down with a Chilean merlot.

As good as it was, I'm actually looking forward to this. I'm sure it will be difficult at times, but cooking 40 days without meat should force my hand and give me an excuse to go down culinary paths that might otherwise be less traveled. I'll probably be making a lot of South Indian food until the weekend, when I can get a good grocery shopping trip done.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pretzel & Bagel, baking soda edition.

After my recent blog postings on bagels and pretzels, a Jewish buddy of mine and another fellow foodie made a suggestion of adding baking soda to the simmering water to dunk both in. The idea is that the shiny dark brown edge you get on classic pretzels and bagels really shines through with that kind of treatment.

Seemed like a good idea, so I did a big double batch of pretzels and bagels, using the dough setup for the bagel recipe rather than the pretzel one, so I got the same super stiff dough. I essentially treated them identically, and the only difference may be that I let the pretzels proof before parboiling about 20 to 25 minutes opposed to the bagels ten minutes. It's still a drastic cut from the 45 minutes I used last.

So the water goes on for a boil and back to a good simmer, and I add half a cup of baking soda. I'm not sure of the science behind it, but the heat activates the alkaline nature of the baking soda, so when you dunk your pretzel or bagel in, it gets all fizzy and kind of looks like soapy water with bubbles. Parboil only momentarily, then set aside for topping, then bake like normal.

See how dark? It's almost ridiculous. And no, not burnt at all. That's just the effect of the baking soda to get that wonderful color.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Unrelated, but I got cool art!

A friend of mine made me a piece of art. I've been listening to a lot of Red Army choir and band music when I've been baking (one of my many musical fads, whatever gets me moving) , and she drew this very motivational bit for me:

The cryllic font says "DELICIOUS BREAD", though I don't think it's in actual Russian. I think it's just the english typed using the Russian font, but either way, it's very motivational!

Now, back to the doughy gulags!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pretzels, what a tweeest!

If people can have Christmas in July then I can have Oktoberfest in Februrary. I wanted an excuse to drink beer, and since I really only drink with food these days, I figured this was a great time to bust out some Salzbretzeln.

What you'll need:

1 packet (2 tsp approx) dried yeast
1 1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 1/4 cup bread flour
1 egg for egg wash, plus 1 tablespoon water
Topping of choice (I use poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and coarse sea salt)

Combine your yeast & half a cup of water. Let sit for five minutes, then stir it up. Add the flour and salt to a large mixing bowl and combine thoroughly. Form a well in the flour, and pour in the yeast solution:

Stir a little of the surrounding flour into the yeast to form a thick paste. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and let it rest for about twenty minutes. It should be a bit frothy:

From here, mix the rest of the flour toward the center, adding water when needed to moisten the dough. Once it's thoroughly mixed, take it out of the bowl and begin to knead on your work surface for about ten minutes.

Once that's done, grease a bowl lightly and chafe the dough down until it's roughly ball-shaped. Add it to the bowl, and cover with a damp towel to let it rise about an hour and a half, or until doubled. Didn't get a picture of it going in, but here's the shot of it after the rise:

Punch that down, chafe into a ball, and let it rest about ten minutes. Take a sharp knife, cut that down into eight even pieces, and chafe those into ball shapes as well.

Each of these, slowly start to work into a long rope shape, I'd say about a foot and a half long, with the center be slightly thicker than the ends.

This next part I didn't really have an in-process shot or anything, so I'll try and describe it. Bring both ends up, and cross them with about an inch or so sticking out each way. Then twist once, and turn the ends over so that the ends are facing the thick center of the dough. Raise up the bottom, and tuck each end underneath.

Arrange each finished pretzel on your baking sheet and let them proof under a damp towel for about 45 minutes. Once that's done, uncover and mix your egg with a tablespoon of water to make an egg wash. Brush this lightly over your pretzels (too much and you'll basically get scrambled egg on your bread, so keep it light) and sprinkle your toppings on each. I put salt on all of them, and poppy seeds on three, and sesame seeds on three more. Go ahead and preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. I steam the oven every five minutes or so with a spray bottle. If you want to steam, go ahead, it's just my preference. Should come out a little something like this:

Booya! Pretzels are so awesome. Some people like cream cheese on them, but I like the biggest, grittiest mustard I can find. It goes so damn well with beer. Either as a snack:

Or, with a meal:

At any rate, it's an excuse to drink beer. Mission accomplished, me!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Day!

I got a real treat yesterday, as my wife decided she was going to cook her spaghettini alla bolognese. It's one of the things she makes, and I have no idea how she does it. All I know is that it takes about six hours to prepare the sauce, and that trotters are involved somehow. Since she'll never tell me how, I'll just be a happy recipient of her good graces. I love it any time she decides she's going to cook, because she's a lot better at it than she'll admit.

So, to keep me from going insane by smelling bolognese all day, I decided to make few light little munchies in the afternoon to tide us over until dinner was ready.

This is a great way to give an appearance of classy food without really spending anything. The caviar on top is whitefish roe, which tastes great and really doesn't cost anything. You can get a jar that'll make about twenty of these things for around three dollars at Target. The spread beneath is crème fraîche I picked up at Whole Foods for about $2.50. Then again, you can pretty much make the stuff at home with a little heavy cream and milk, but I've never done it. Beneath that are little crostinis from the baguettes I made in a previous blog posting. Crostini are such a great way to get rid of bread endbits that you don't want to go stale. A little quick toast on thin slices and they're up.

My wife made me a blue vodka drink thing, so I served it up with the caviar because vodka just goes like that. The blue thing is a bit of nerdiness in that we used to pass an aisle with an electric blue hurricane mix at the liquor store. I would pause, and in my best Shatner stutter-lilt, would say "Romulan Ale? Why Bones, you know this is illegal." It's something only really funny to us I think, so for V-Day, she gave me a decanter of blue vodka. I love her!

After many hours of waiting, my wife's dinner was served, with a toasty & buttery glass of Merlot:

The best part of the dish is that some tomatoes are fully sauced, and some of the (San Marzano?) tomatoes are essentially in big halves or something. They fall apart against the flat of a fork, and you get that really big burst of sunny tomato coming on strong in the midst of the rest of the sauce. I have no trouble admitting that my baby makes better spaghetti than I ever will. I guess it's a Sicilian thing, but I won't question it. The only thing I ask now is that I get this treat more often than not.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fresh Truffles

I've had a very Quixotic sort of quest for months and months on being able to find fresh truffles. If you've never had the pleasure of having truffles, they are insanely hard to find little perigourds (similar to mushrooms) known for their sultry & musky scent and unbelievable flavor. If you want an experience pretty close to the mark (but still not quite), you can buy truffle-infused olive oil and truffle-infused salt for far less, though even that's still not the same.

My first experience with the fresh stuff was back to my all-time favorite dish, back on my honeymoon in Lake Tahoe. We ate at a haute cuisine place called Plumpjacks, and I had a dish of english pea risotto with organic chicken breast and bean sprouts. Fallen like marbled snowflakes all across the dish were wonderful paper-thin slices of Alba white truffle. That one dish turned the volume down on every single meal I've tasted in my entire life. Since then, I've vowed that if I could find an opportunity to buy them and cook with them, I would take that opportunity. Since I'm not willing to hit up ebay and to buy somebody's "truffles" that might be the bland and flavorless chinese variety, this means I really want to shop in person.

I've gone to local restaurants in Birmingham to ask where the chef sources his supply. I've gone to grocery stores. I've gone basically everywhere. Usually my best case scenario is to get a suggestion to browse the Dean & Delucca website, which sometimes sells them when they don't quickly run out. While D&D is reputable, I don't really feel comfortable spending the high price and not be able to see the exact product I order, or worse, risk spoilage when its shipped in the mail. So, I vowed to keep on looking, and my quest stretched for months and months.

Yesterday, my quest came to an end. I did a quick grocery jump over to Whole Foods to pick up some lox for my bagels. I always sort of scout the produce area and the cheese area as a rule, just in case I find something really yummy I might want. Well, I did.

One ounce of black winter truffles. These are domestically grown from Oregon, so they're not the ones from the south of France, but I could tell by the smell that I'd done the right thing. I've tried to think of a way to describe the smell, but I always fall short. In my brain, it smells like sex. That isn't to say that it smells like anything in particular, but it's a smell that wouldn't really fit anywhere without context, but in the context of making really excellent food, it's a thing that can't be faked or imitated. People left and right of you might be making delicious food with truffle oil and truffle salt, but you know by the smell that you're in something a cut above.

Dino at Alternative Vegan puzzled at me a few weeks ago on my purchase of a paring knife, and it's his opinion that you don't really need one. Fair enough, since the boy's got knife skills out his ears and he does very well with a good chef's knife alone. Now with the exception of scoring my proofed bread loves and slicing sushi, he's generally right in that the paring knife doesn't do many things that a good chef's knife or a santoku can, but I found something that I would never be able to do with my big knife, and that's slice truffles. The trick is to maximize the pleasure of these things by spreading their appearance and flavor out as much as possible. You can buy specialty equipment like truffle shavers for this, which supposedly get them very very thin, but I don't have one, so I used the paring knife. A quick quarter of a centimeter slip of the blade on the warty skin of the truffle to break it, and then just very very gently shave downwards. Are my slices as thin as a shaver? Some maybe, but not all. Then again, it's pretty damn thin. I love looking at sliced truffles, because they're so gorgeously marbled. It's like looking at a cut of meat in a microcosm.

Now, it may not be very creative of me, and it may be me falling square into my comfort zone, but I wanted these truffles in risotto. First, risotto has a wonderful taste even generally plain, and the texture you get is in my opinion the best of any cooked grain starch dish. Second, part of me wanted to see if I could capture the magic of that honeymoon meal. Since Valentine's Day is here, why not, no?

I'll gloss over the risotto prep since I make tons of it already and I have probably already explained that in another post, but I heated two quarts of chicken stock in a saucepot on medium heat, then melted two tablespoons of butter in my saute pan. In that pan, I sweated down two minced shallots and a little sea salt for about ten minutes, then added two cups of arborio rice. I stirred the rice to coat each grain with fat, and turned the heat to almost high, stirring quickly until the grains turned slightly translucent and smelled a little nutty. Then, added a half cup of pinot grigio to the hot pan, let it boil off quickly, and reduced the temp to an energetic simmer. Ladle at a time, I started to add stock to the pan, stirring very quickly to get the grains to release their starch into the liquid around them. After many ladlings, I tasted a few grains to make sure I'd gotten them al dente, then took the pan off heat and added pepper.

Now here, I would normally add some shredded parmesan (or a similar nutty-flavored cheese like romano, asiago, gruyere, or manchego), and another tablespoon of butter to stir in and thicken. With truffles, I wanted no interference in my shroomy love affair. The parm had to go. Instead, I upped the butter to two tablespoons, and took the slices of truffle and added them to a pot where the butter was melted. I let that simmer very gently to let the truffles begin to leak a little of their flavor into the butter. After about five minutes of that, I poured the butter and truffles into the mix and stirred.

Dished it up in a pre-warmed dish, had a glass of that pinot grigio (Tiefenbrunner sounds German, but the wine is from Italy. Look it up if you can find it, it's cheap and really pleasant), and just shut the world out for about thirty minutes. I'll admit that it wasn't the singular moment of bliss like the dish at Plumpjacks, but I'll be damned if I wasn't eating some of the best stuff I've ever made. The moral of the story is that nobody can make a habit out of truffles. But similarly, don't let opportunity pass you by. If you live life without ever eating this, you're missing something special.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I feel like Neo in the Matrix with the whole "I know kung fu" except its "I know how to make bagels" and also Morpheus is a kindly old Jewish Bubbeh.

Okay, so my latest bread-related conquest is bagels. Everybody (even my dad!) loves these in my family, and so many people are dependent on places like Panera Bread to fleece them for some breakfast. While bagel shops can make tasty bagels at times, having the ability to have control over the process is awesome.

Here's what you need:

  • 3 1/4 cups bread flour, plus a little extra set aside
  • 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (already mixed in the flour in that picture)
  • 2 teaspoons of dry yeast
  • Whatever you want to top your bagel with (optional)
Okay, put the sugar in the bowl with half a cup of the water and the yeast. Let it sit and give the yeast some time to wake up, then stir it a little.

Form a well in your flour bowl, and gently pour in your yeast mix. On top of that, pour half of the reserved water in.

Stir from the center, gradually working in more flour. Add a little more water to make it a viable dough. You want to just barely get it to come together, because this should be a really firm dough with a lot of flour relative to water. Once it forms, knead that on a floured bench for ten minutes. You'll get worn out from this if you aren't careful. No pics of mixing / kneading due to my hands being criminally filthy.

After the mix and knead, I chafed the dough down a bit, and dropped it into an oiled bowl to sit for an hour, covering it with a wet paper towel as I finished.

An hour gives the yeast plenty of time to make little air bubbles in the dough. Should be double its size, or roughly such:

Punch that down and let it rest for ten minutes, then take a sharp knife and cut your dough into eight pieces.

With each piece, give it a good firm roll on the table, maybe chafe it a little to smooth it into a ball. Flour your index finger and poke a hole in the middle, gently pushing through and tucking the loose ends in with finger and thumb. Gently widen the hole, making the bagel uniform as you go, until you've got something like this:

Cover those with a damp towel and let rest for another 10 minutes.

Now here's the fun part. While they're resting, fill a pot about halfway with water and bring the heat to a boil, then back down to simmer. While you're at it, pre-heat your oven to 425. With a simmer, add each bit of bagel dough gently into the water.

Flip em when a minute is up, and when another minute passes, transfer them with a slotted skimmer to your baking sheet. If you're topping them with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or things like that, now's the time to add them to the top.

They're ready to bake. Pop em in the oven for 20 minutes, and if you're a steam fiend like me, apply as needed. They come out something like this:

Let them cool, set one aside, and while it's still warm, cut it open and enjoy the chewy amazingness. Seriously, never give another bagel shop money if you can get these so easily.

Name this dish for me

Never cooked Thai food before, and I had a vague idea of a Thai-influenced dish I wanted to cook. Couldn't find any recipe in my books that really struck close to the mark, so I sort of arranged a slapdash noodle dish with chicken, cabbage, peas and carrots. With that was some ginger, coconut milk, chilis, green curry, and a little citrus to brighten it up. So it needs a name, but since I completely pulled this one out of thin air, I'm turning to you guys.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I'm now a food mercenary

Well, apparently my breadmaking has caused a splash among friends and coworkers, and I've had people ask to buy bread I bake. I'm incredibly flattered, but also I get to use this as an excuse to bake way, way, way, way more bread than we could ever really eat in my home. Getting paid to offset the costs of the ingredients is also a great bonus. I get to practice baking stuff over and over until I get it down to an exact science.

Last night, I whipped up a huge batch of French baguette loaves:

The crust on this stuff was amazingly crackly, and the loose crumb inside was extremely chewy and resilient. Nothing fancy in flavor, but baguettes are such a joy for texture, and you can use them for little sandwiches, crostinis, or just tear a bit off one into a hunk to accompany soup.

I ended up keeping a pair, and selling off another pair. Hopefully everybody likes the stuff.

When life gives you lobsters, make lobster stock.

My wife loves shellfish. It's a love bordering on obsession, and I guess it's due to her navy brat upbringing. She has loads of stories about going crabbing in Annapolis with her dad, and putting traps all along the sea wall, to pull up loads of crabs that they'd cook up. Her biggest obsession is lobster though. She's had a pretty inflexible rule for years. On her birthday, she doesn't want me to take her out to a restaurant. She doesn't even want me to cook something nice. Her single demand is that she gets a live lobster, gets to cook it herself, and gets to eat it at home, where she can be as messy as she pleases. Now I like shellfish well enough, but I've never been able to fuss with things like lobster in the shell. One, it's just too much work to get at food, and it's usually just served up with butter and not much else. That said, I know the rules. The lady gets her lobster. Not just on birthdays either. Last Christmas, her dad came to stay with us and brought her four live lobsters. In the span of two days, they were gone. I've bought live lobsters to win arguments. I've bought live lobsters whenever I need brownie points to get on her good side. I've bought lobsters just because I'm a nice guy, and I love my baby.

Now, this isn't entirely an altruistic endeavor on my part. It's mostly altruistic, yes, but there's a silver lining in store for me. Lobster eating leaves lobster bits and lobster shell pieces. Most people trash that sort of thing. I make lobster stock! By putting the dearly departed sea-bug remains in a stock pot, adding a mirepoix (1 quartered onion, 2 stalks of rough chopped celery, and 2 rough chopped carrots), a sachet of two bay leaves, and leveling that off with water, I can boil that up for a while and simmer for a few hours to make a delicious lobster stock. Run the pot through a collander to strain, and you can reserve this golden elixir for so many wonderful things.

One of those things is lobster risotto. As with any risotto, you ladle a bit of hot stock bit by bit into your risotto rice, stirring as you cook to let the rice absorb the liquid and get all swollen and creamy. Usually risotto pairs with cheese to add a little flavor note, but with seafood risotto, I like to add a little saffron to give a delicate flavor and a beautiful color. For this one, I finished up with some seared scallops, which isn't relevant other than the fact that they're delicious.

At any rate, my point is to never throw out lobster carapace. Lobster stock can be bought at specialty stores, but it's kinda expensive and if you've already sunk cost into a nice lobster, why not maximize the benefit?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Bread Epiphany

So it should be no secret that I love bread, right? I've made several loaves of the stuff here and it's one of those things I'd just love to make for the hell of it, and give it out to people. I just plain love the act of making it.

Well, Dino at Alternative Vegan knows I love bread, so he clued me in on a little cookbook on Amazon called, quite simply, "Bread" by Ursula Ferrigno. It's a pretty wide-ranging book that gives a lot of insight into the tools used in baking, the general techniques, and a lot of recipes for a pretty large amount of breads. I gave it a go on some fairly basic white bread, figuring that if I could make this taste better, then I was in for a wild ride. Now, usually when I make white sandwich bread, I like to throw in a little dried oregano and rosemary because they're pretty tasty.

I could tell that the generic stuff they offered was differing radically from what I was used to. They combine yeast & water with flour using a sponge, which I hadn't done before. It also asked for much longer rising times, longer cooking times, and higher temperatures, as well as other things, like sustaining steam in the oven to crisp the crust. Figuring that I might as well give it a shot, I went ahead, half afraid that I'd turn out a burnt loaf of bread right?

Negative, Roger Wilco. This bread is out of this world. If anybody's seen Ratatouille (and if you haven't, you really should, because its a wonderful movie even if you don't love cooking), you'll remember Colette explaining the true way to find good bread as the sound the crust makes, which she shows by giving a baguette a nice crackly squeeze. Now I wouldn't advise you to go hug loaves of bread at the store or anything, I can attest that having a good crust is something you don't appreciate until you nail it, and then every other piece of bread you make or eat just seems lesser in comparison. None of my previous breads had this crust. It makes a difference of the sort I never imagined.

Here's a shot of the crumb. What you won't get just by seeing is how chewy the inside is. Again, nothing I've made before even approached this. Something about the sponge method, the longer rise and cook times, and the steam combined to make bread that was incredibly supple, but also resilient. I've made sandwich loaves before that were soft enough, but didn't hold together the way you'd want them to, and you'd break a slice of bread pretty easily. These have bounce that I'm not used to.

So, if anybody needs me for the next month or so, I'm going to be really busy in the kitchen baking endless bread. If you stop by I'll probably just give it away because I want to try all of this!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Two sandwiches

Making four loaves of bread in one weekend makes it imperative to eat some sandwiches. I had a notion to do just that tonight.

One on the left is made with rosemary, oregano, and basil bread. It's smoked turkey with a roasted red pepper & eggplant sauce, arugula, red onion, and heirloom tomato.

One on the right is made with garlic & aged cheddar bread. It's roast beef with a spicy horseradish dijon mustard, spinach, and the same onion and tomato.

Sadly, I could only eat one. It was a choice almost too difficult to choose. In the end, it was the roast beef. Turkey, you'll have to settle for being a lunch buddy!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's like a cross between food and bowel surgery!

I'm not impervious to dumb ideas. In fact, a stupid idea gets attempted by me in the kitchen at least every month, and I usually pay for it with dire consequences. This has roots all the way back to my childhood when I tried to make a chocolate chip cookie bundt cake. It tasted like burning and wet cement, but this didn't stop me from hair brained ideas.

Lately, I get stupid ideas by watching old Red Dwarf DVD's. For those who haven't seen, the show is a cult sci-fi / comedy series that ran in the 80's and 90's in the United Kingdom. Usually, the culinary crimes against humanity are invented and perpetrated by Dave Lister, who is a total slob and unfortunately the last human being alive in the universe. Lister's foil, a hologram named Arnold Rimmer, is usually mortified by his terrible food, which is the appropriate response to anything Lister cooks. My first foray into this cooking calamity was months ago, when I made chicken vindaloo and a beer flavored milkshake. To my amazement and horror, I actually enjoyed it. So, when I woke up this morning after a few drinks the evening prior, I figured I'd try and tie on Dave Lister's patented hangover medicine: A fried egg & chutney sandwich with chili sauce.

Now, Dave Lister uses three fried eggs (over easy I would guess) between four thin & untoasted slices of bread. I went with two eggs on two thick toasted slices of some homemade bread I'd made the day before. Personal preference I guess. For the chutney, I went with a really strong garlic chutney, and the chili sauce was Sriracha.

There's the kitty. This is a really tall sandwich, and you'd better eat it with a napkin because yolk & chutney go everywhere.

At first, I kind of liked it. It was full of...flavor. Then, my reaction turned to something similar to Arnold Rimmer's:

"I feel like I'm having a baby!!"

Verdict: food-grade weapon. Never eat unless you're really, really, really hung over and need to reset your gastrointestinal tract.

Salsifried Gumbo

One of my major weaknesses is a love for creole & cajun cooking, and this time of year is perfect for tucking into a bowl of gumbo, ladling some thick etouffee onto rice, or packing a jambalaya full of andouille sausage. With the Mardi Gras season nearing on the Gulf coast, it just feels perfect to have something warm and filling on these slightly cold days.

That said, I also take this time of year to consider what I will do without for my observation of Lent. This year, with my culinary tastes expanding by the day, I figure that by the time that Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday, I'll have the chops to embrace a vegetarian diet, at least for those forty days. To prepare for that, I consulted Dino at the Alternative Vegan for some ideas on my plan. Specifically, I wanted some way to enjoy creole & cajun cuisine without feeling that I'm working under a handicap. One of the things that came up in our discussion was Salsify, which is a taproot of a big wild flowering plant that grows all over the place. One variant of Salsify has a sort of umami funk to it that a lot of people swear tastes of oyster. I was intrigued.

Now, I could have gone and tried a vegetarian gumbo from the start. Hell, I already love okra in gumbo, so that's a given. That being said, I wanted to try to add salsify into a gumbo I knew I loved, to see how it would taste in that. What I made isn't vegetarian, but I have time before I take that plunge. As Saint Augustine said, "Give unto me chastity O Lord, but not quite yet." So in that light, give me vegetarian options for Ash Wednesday, but not quite yet!

I decided to take a big seafood gumbo, and instead of ladling it over rice, to top the gumbo with basically french fried salsify. It's starchy enough to act as a full-bodied filler, so why not? Hence, Salsifried Gumbo.

Here's what I used:

  • Two pounds of salsify root, peeled & julienned like french fries (the funk that makes these so desirable also makes salsify sticky as hell, so you may want to use gloves! Seriously, this is stickier than Christmas tree sap! Good luck getting it off your hands you poor sad deluded fools!)
  • A pound of crawfish tails
  • Half pound of shrimp
  • Half pound of baby scallops
  • Two medium yellow onions, finely minced
  • Two green bell peppers, finely minced
  • Two stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • Two roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • A handful of parsley, chopped
  • Four cloves of garlic, minced
  • About two quarts of stock (fish, chicken, or veggie stocks work interchangeably well)
  • One and a half cups of all purpose flour
  • One cup of olive oil
  • Two bay leaves
  • A teaspoon of dried thyme
  • A teaspoon of dried basil
  • A teaspoon of paprika
  • A teaspoon of white pepper
  • A teaspoon of cayenne pepper plus more to taste
  • Two teaspoons of kosher salt
  • One to two tablespoons of gumbo file, to desired consistency
  • Two tablespoons Louisiana Hot Sauce, plus more to taste
  • Hickory salt optional to taste (if available)
  • Canola oil for frying
Whew thats a lot of stuff! Okay, begin by combining your flour and olive oil in a big stock pot. You want to whisk it all together until its a uniform sludge, and crank the heat to medium-high-ish. Now, this is the hardest part about making this. I will wish you, as they say, bon chance. You're making a roux, which is a derivative of a French mother sauce. Basically, you're trying to brown the flour in the oil. It takes a bit of time, a lot of patience, and an iron will. There's a saying in Louisiana that you know somebody is marriage material by whether or not they can make a roux, because it is seriously that important to all of the good cooking down there. What you want to do is to get the whole thing to the color of hot cocoa, roughly. It should be a nice rich brown. The entire act of browning a roux makes your kitchen smell like you're cooking popcorn, but just keep stirring relentlessly. If you slack off, your flour will clump and scorch and you will ruin that roux. Whatever else, KEEP STIRRING. Eventually, it should look something like this:

Once you get to a color like that, you're good. Some guys like Justin "I GAR-OWN-TEE" Wilson can make a roux even darker than that, but I've found it hard to push the envelope too far. Crank your heat down to a medium and add your chopped onion, celery, and bell pepper. It'll saute energetically, so keep stirring that energetically to keep both veggies and roux from burning. When it's sauteed for about five minutes or so, add in your stock, garlic, tomato, dry spices (minus bay leaf and file), and salt, and bring it to a boil. Come off the boil and bring it to a simmer, and add your file and bay leaf. Let it simmer with an occasional stir for about half an hour.

From here, you're set to add your seafood and parsley. Do that, and bring the heat up to medium-ish. I let it cook for about five minutes, or until a shrimp I pluck out looks fully pinked.

Once your seafood is cooked, just park the pot on the lowest setting and let it relax a bit. Now, you want to make your french fried salsify, so heat oil in either a deep fryer or whatever. I don't have one so I use a cast iron skillet, which is perfectly fine:

Don't look at my stovetop it is a total mess, I know. Either way, you want to let these guys fry for maybe about three or four minutes per batch. Brown them a little, but don't go overboard. The browning you get is partially the sugars that give salsify its oystery taste carmelizing, so you don't want to lose that. Fish them out when done with a skimmer, and lay them out on a plate with paper towels. From here, Dino suggested the use of hickory salt, and while it's not true blue cajun style, I'm a country boy and hickory is good on so many things. If you don't have hickory salt, please don't buy any. It's a lucky shot that I had some in my spice rack and I'd been kicking myself about an impulse buy I had almost no use for. Just use sea salt, kosher salt, or fleur de sel if you're a fancy pants. You'll be fine. Ladle your gumbo in a bowl and add some salsifries to it!

I really have no talent for plating, and I figure that just throwing a handful of salsifries on top of this in place of rice would be good enough. At any rate, this stuff does a great job in helping to give the gumbo a starchy mouthfeel, so you don't really need the rice. The salsifries have a little body, but soften up and you can break them up with the edge of a spoon. The flavor really helps to push this seafood bonanza over the top. Now, I gave portions for a pretty diplomatic level of spice in this recipe. I highly recommend just piling on some Louisiana Hot Sauce when you eat it. One, the stuff tastes great, unlike some hot sauces that are just awful, and two, with a roux that good, you really should pack some heat into it.

All in all, this was a great pre-game warmup. With a bit of salsify, I have no doubt I'll be able to go through Lent and still be able to have some good home cookin like ol Boudreaux used to make.

As they say down on the Gulf Coast, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! Bon Apetit!