Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Blues

Unless you're living under a rock, you all know by now about the BP Deep Water Horizon spill that's threatening essentially the entire Gulf of Mexico, if not the entire North Atlantic down the line. It's an environmental disaster, it's an economic disaster, it's a tourism disaster, it's a personal livelihood disaster. Let's face it, it's hard keeping up with the different sorts of disasters we have on our hands and will have for months and years.

Since this is a food blog and I try to stay on topic, a disaster that hits close to home is that I may be an old man before I'll ever have another gulf coast oyster again. That's tough to swallow. Tougher still when I remember what is probably the best dish of my life.

Last year on Mother's Day, I took my mom out to a nice little restaurant called Satterfield's. There were a few options for the special holiday prix fixe, but the starter I picked (paired with champagne) was a little flight of oysters.

The first oyster was a no-frills classic Oyster Rockefeller, with a touch of tarragon and rich creamy flavor that reminded me of every trip I've taken to New Orleans. The next oyster was a blue point, served raw on the half shell with shredded cucumber and a granita of passionfruit on top. Contrasted with the fatty Rockefeller, the brisk cold and acidity in that oyster completely wiped my palate clean and left me tasting the sea and sun all at once. The final oyster was such a bizarre presentation that I still smile thinking about it. A cordial glass was filled with a Bloody Mary, and nestled into the bottom of that glass was a raw gulf oyster, like the olive at the bottom of a martini. The salt and umami in the oyster really brought out the Worchestershire of the Bloody Mary, and the tart and the alcohol swept everything along as I chased it down. Three completely different directions with an oyster, and I was thrilled to be along for the ride.

I don't even really remember what else I ate that day. It obviously wasn't that important. But those oysters sure were, even as far away from the coast as we are in Birmingham. You see, even if we're not on the coast, the South relies on the gulf more than most people realize. It's our livelihood, sure, but it's also largely our culture. And with our culture involved, it certainly involves our food. The thought of a shrimp gumbo containing shrimp flash frozen from California or Mexico sickens me. The thought that I probably won't have another raw oyster unless I travel to some place with shores that aren't befouled by oil is almost unthinkable. It wasn't too long ago that I can remember being in the company of friends at a dive bar in New Orleans, down a few dozen bottles of Chimay and many more dozen empty half shells. I was a late bloomer liking those little things, and now that this has happened, I regret every day that's gone by that I didn't squeeze in an oyster or two. You just don't think about these things simply not being around anymore.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Strawberry Limeade Créme Brûlée

Yes, it sounds absurd, but you see I had a lot of strawberries and a lot of limes and my idiot brain is prone to run with hair-brained schemes.

As a cap-off to yesterday's Mother's Day spread (Steak Ducasse, thyme potatoes, haricot vert, baguettes, and red pepper pesto) I knew I would be making Créme Brûlée for dessert. Now, I'm not much of a dessert guy, so when I decide I'm even gonna bother, it's a moment of terror.

I've made Créme Brûlée before, so I know it's something I can do, but I didn't want to re-hash the same flavor. To top that off, we did get some very good fresh strawberries from Grow Alabama, and I had a general idea to top them on top of the sugar crust.

But...Créme Brûlée & berries alone is so played. It's the generic presentation. While there's something to be said of simplicity, I wanted to try it different than I've had it a million times over. That's when I remembered the limes we bought to make sparkling limeades (lime juice, carbonated water, sugar, mmmm), and I realized we had a ton left. Since both my wife and my mom are huge fans of Sonic's strawberry limeade drinks, it seemed like a sure thing. Most of this crap is a copy-paste with tweaks from my previous Créme Brûlée, so whatevs

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3/4 quart heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar + more for the top + more for macerating strawberries
  • zest of two limes
  • juice of two limes
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • About 6 strawberries, sliced
Begin by splitting and scraping your vanilla bean. You can do this with a good pointed knife by jamming it in the middle and pulling on it until it unzips, then turning it around to fully split it. Once split, scrape out the tarry inside of the bean.

Combine the bean and scrapings with heavy cream in your sauce pot. Bring this just to the threshold of a boi and remove from the heat. Cover and let cool completely. Remove the bean and discard. Whisk in the eggs and sugar, and add your lime zest to the cream.

Preheat the oven to 325. Get 4-6 ramekins and fill them with the cream. Put into a casserole dish and add hot water until it reaches halfway up the ramekin sides. Cover with foil. Bake for about 50 minutes or so, or until just barely set.

Cover and refrigerate a few hours, or up to a couple of days. About 30 minutes prior to eating, remove from the fridge. Dust enough sugar on the top to coat evenly. Using a blowtorch (you do have one, right? Get one!) start running the tip of the cone of blue flame around the surface of the ramekin. Turn as you apply heat. Avoid buring sugar. Keep your flame moving and your sugar moving. Work outside in.

When you're done, you should have a nice sheen of caramel-colored sugar armor on top of your custard.

From here, add sugar to the lime juice until it's fairly thick, then add your strawberry slices. This is called maceration. By putting your fruit into a very sugary mix, you will both soften the strawberries and also leach some of the strawberry juice into the sugar-lime syrup.

Last thing to do is to spoon some syrupy strawberry slices on top:

This was an awesome idea. The lime zest in the custard meets the lime juice on top and the strawberries and the acid punches through the fat in the custard. Feels very light.

It was a great end to the Mother's Day lunch. Mom loved it, and after that, we sat around enjoying some french pressed coffee and listened as my wife played some tunes on the piano. Happy Mother's Day, mom.

Steak, the Ducasse way

I've been eating a lot of steak lately.

Mind you, this isn't a backlash to my Lent days. You see, I'm on a mission to understand steak. I mean, I think most guys get the whole primal 'piece of meat, insert on grill here' thing. And yeah, that does produce a tasty steak when you're not using a crappy cut, cooked to medium or worse, and drowned in "steak sauce" (blech). But isn't there something else out there, man?

If you've been paying attention, you've seen the signs. I fiddled around with cast iron searing for those nice ribbon-thin italian steak salads (arugula mandatory, y'all). I've scourged my soul against the bottom of the barrel of French depravity with steak au poivre, and still I want more.

Enter Alain Ducasse, some French guy who cooks and apparently also likes steaks. Being French, he overcame his first instinct to surrender to the daunting challenge, and instead opted for the second instinct, which is to drown the hell out of a random thing with butter. Ahhh....buerre! Look, nobody said steak was a staple. If it's a staple for you, you're probably gonna die. Enjoy it as a treat, because it is a treat. And when you do, be EVIL. Seriously.

What Monsieur Ducasse does is two-fold. First off, hot fat (butter, also rendered beef fat) is a transport mechanism for flavor. You ever see those premium-priced flavor-infused olive oils? Well you're paying a premium for non extra-virgin oil that's basically heated with whatever it wants to taste like chucked into it. In that same respect, by adding aromatics and herbs into a pan with hot fat and cooking on a medium-low clip, you can pull the flavors out of those things into your delicious fat, which is...

...then basted over a steak in cast iron, cooking over a fairly low temperature. Why low? Doesn't this go against everything good and sacred in the Tome of Steak? Well...not really. For a thin steak (like, say, hanger steak), yes you want very very hot temperature on your grill, pan or whatever. That's because you want to spend as little time inducing the Maillard Reaction as possible.

Pause for a moment. Go up, click that link. The ideal crust for a steak is BROWN. Black is burnt. Black is carbon. Black is coal. You have gone too far. Unless you're a bad kid around Christmas, I don't imagine you have plans on eating coal, so STOP doing this to steak you spend your hard-earned money on, capice? There are grill-stripe fetishists out there and I guess y'all can toe the line if you must, but please don't overdo that stuff. Dry your steak off as completely as you can, season with salt and pepper, and you'll find that crust is easy to get, and you'll never look back.

Anyways, sorry for the segue. The gist is that brown is good, and makes us all happy campers. If you're keen on living on the wide open ranges of Flavor Country, you'll also want a little moo in your steak. I fully admit I used to be a medium to medium-well guy. I also fully admit I used to un-ironically listen to Chumbawamba. Bad choices only become mistakes if you don't learn from them, so I fully own up to being human. If you're an overdone steak afficionado and you're reading this, I've probably offended you. I'm not going to apologize for that, but I'm not going to prosthelytize either. You'll either try a little strange or you won't. I will tell you that if you're one of those weirdos, I've got to absolutely adore you as a friend or you've got to be a blood relative for me to overcook a steak for you. And even then, it kills me to do it these days.

So, let's assume here that we're all fans of that range between rare to medium-rare. To get that, and to get the Maillard crust, a thin steak has to be seared off fast, and is essentially over and done in maybe three or four minutes. I recommend even using it straight from the fridge so you've still got a bit of pent up chill for a cool center. For example, here's how my hanger steak turns out using that method:

Note both crust and center. That's about as money as it gets.

Now for a steak in the Ducasse style, we're basting the steak in that tasty flavored butter, right? Well to get the most flavor into that steak, we cook slow. We also do that so that we can cook a very thick steak and not have the outside a blackened mess and the inside still cold and raw (not to be confused with rare, y'all). I found most of my success to be with New York Strips. Here's the kicker, I would shoot for a cut that's two inches thick AT MINIMUM. This seems like madness, doesn't it? Well, at that thickness, I consider a cut of strip can be split to feed two people. Instead of imagining steak as some plate-covering thing, think of it instead as a fist of meat. Equal x, y, and z dimensions give or take. I highly recommend you get chatty with your local butcher if you can. Don't trust any place that just has meat out in shrink-wrapped packages and nobody to talk to. Talk to a butcher. Tell them you want some cow cut up the way you like it. That's why they're there.

With the steak being thick like that, you'll also want to bring it closer to room temp. How close is up to you. I've brought a steak all the way up to room temp and it was a bit too done through for my liking. I usually let it out of the fridge for an hour as a guess. The great thing about NY strips is that they also have this substantial strap of fat running along the back. After you rub both sides with salt and pepper, you can heat a dry cast iron pan and rest the steak on its side. This renders the fat off that strap and into your pan, so it contributes to your baste.

Once you slap a side down, DO NOT move it. Moving a steak, lifting it up to see "is it done yet?" is a great way to make sure you never get a crust at all. Busy your idle hands by putting herbs and aromatics into your skillet, then tabs of butter until you've got a liquid you can collect with a tilt of the pan, and can spoon over the top. Keep the steak where it is. If you must check on it, give the steak a prod on top. As a steak cooks, it will "tense up" a bit. Raw steak does not recover from a prod. As it cooks, it gradually gets more resilient. I'm loathe to throw out a real number of minutes to expect, but at a low gas setting on my burner, I usually keep a steak on each side for about ten minutes. Don't let this numerical estimate betray your instincts. Imagine I'm Ben Kenobi and you're Luke Skywalker, and there is a Steak Force. Use it.

Once you flip and repeat, all the while basting, you'll eventually be done with the task. I rest my steak on a cooling rack over a plate. Don't tuck into it immediately. I recommend resting it for about ten minutes after cooking to redistribute the juices inside. If you are a greedy pig and eat it piping hot, you'll leak all of the flavorful juice all over your plate and the rest will be a bit dry. The time it takes to rest will make for a better steak, trust me.

Something else to consider is that if you're like me and add shallots to your pan to flavor your butter (for mine, I ideally use rosemary, thyme, garlic, and shallots), you might be able to reserve a few of the now french-fried shallot rings as a tasty topper for your steak. I highly recommend it.

Here's a good idea of the finished product.

I made this one for my mom yesterday for Mother's Day, and it's a pretty solid medium rare. I'm happiest at the threshold between med-rare and rare, but it takes a bit of nuance to get consistency. If you've got a digital thermometer, you may want to consider catching a reading to see what is ideal, and then get used to the tell-tale signs of when you get there.

At any rate, I would highly recommend trying this method. It makes for one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Spring Potluck

Last week, we had the first of what I hope to be many season-oriented potlucks at my house. It was really awesome to have friends come over, bring either food or booze or both, and spend a night chatting about everything and nothing over some food and drink. The weather cooperated about as well as you can expect it to in Alabama; which is to say, it didn't rain but it was about 200% humidity all weekend and looked at any moment as if a hurricane would drop out of the sky. Nevermind, we mainly stayed indoors, but under the light of tiki torches my wife played grillardin and worked both of our grills to put out a never-ending flow of kebabs for hungry folks.

She also made me these delicious stinky sardines!

These ginormous Portugese sardines own incredibly hard. I gutted them and cleaned them, then marinated them in some sherry vinegar, olive oil, thyme, and salt & pepper, and the wife grilled 'em whole. Good in a focaccia sandwich with some aioli, or equally good to yank the head off on the spot and eat it with your hands, like a bear.

I spent a good chunk of the party being the fry slinger, which actually works because my station behind the kitchen island gives me clear view of the dining area and the living room so I can chit-chat, drink, and fry whatever I please. Mainly for this evening, it was Spanish Calamares.

Calamares are awesome, but I firmly believe you can't get a good batch at a restaurant because they use wheat flour batter and fry at too low a temp. By the time their batter's set, the squid inside is tough. Instead, my batter is based on rice flour, I ramp the fry temp to the max, and those things stay in oil for 45 seconds to a minute, TOPS. The result is a completely crisp batter coating that isn't too thick and obnoxious, and the meat inside is so tender you can cut it with the flat of your fork. That's perfect. I'm normally not a guy that plays in absolutes but I'd put my calamari against anyone's, and I expect to win. Especially with the pesto I made, which is from roasted red peppers.

I made other stuff too. You have to bear with me, it's all a blur at this point. It was mostly a tapas sort of thing. We had spanish almonds, chorizo & mushrooms in a red wine sauce, some chorizo empanadillas, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, hommous, pita bread, rosemary focaccia, etc. We also had tacos de lengua and chicken qandahari on deck, but it was plenty clear that by that time, we had no need to serve them. Our guests also came in full force, bringing tons of fantastic stuff. Lots of Leinenkeugel beer, Jefferson whisky, a fantastic fresh fruit parfait, and a Three Philosopher's beer cheese soup.

That being said, the food's only part of it. Here's the reason I love these events:

Spending hours upon hours with nothing on the agenda but hanging out, chatting about everything and nothing, and having a great time. Thanks once again to all our friends for coming out, and I hope that we can get our act together for another round of fun in the summer!