Grains, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Just right.

Not long ago, a chef I know posted on Facebook about his horror of composed plates. He explained that, for his entire life, he has not been able to stand for the different components of a dish to touch each other. Meat is not to touch side dishes, and sides are not to touch each other. His revulsion evidently is not uncommon*: the internet is replete with obsessives who cannot abide the thought of carrots nudging beef. This fear, which amazingly has a name (brumotactillophobia), seems almost universal among children, perhaps accounting for the necessity of those partitioned lunch trays in grade school.

That said, pointing out to a fully self-actualized adult that his eating habits stand him in good stead with the second graders of the world wins you no friends. Sometimes it’s better just to set an unavoidably good example. For instance, one might make a dish in which every bite was perfect and complete, and so well integrated the committed brumotactillophobe would have no choice but to accept his fate.

Farro porridge, smoked pork, pickled cabbage

Many laughs have been had at Brooklyn’s expense over the past few years, and justifiably so. I’m as fond as anyone of mocking the borough’s Warby Parkerization, a process so thorough I no longer associate Brooklyn in any way with the opening credits to Welcome Back Kotter, with its tenements and pushcarts and working-class juvenile delinquency. And so I rolled my eyes last December at the news that an “artisanal porridge shop” had opened in Park Slope.

But as with so many things that initially appear ridiculous, there was a tug, an irresistible impulse to turn back for a second look even as you feel sheepish for doing so. I laughed at the Three Little Bears-ness of the artisanal porridge vendor, but the fact is, I looked at the menu and totally would have eaten the hell out of any of the savory porridges. Back in the early 90s, I had a barley “risotto” at Joachim Splichal’s Los Angeles restaurant Patina, and, on replicating it at home, found it far more delicious and easier to prepare well than its namesake. For one thing, whereas risotto leans heavily on the quality of the stock for its flavor, whole grains like barley, farro, and rye are hearty and earthy even prepared with water. For another, risotto’s perfection is fleeting; once attained, it vanishes almost immediately, leaving the dish gummy and soft. Porridges made from whole grains absorb liquid more slowly, and retain their bite even after being held for some time. I’ve used hulled barley, unpolished carnaroli rice, farro, rye grains, winter wheat, malted wheat … pretty much anything the beer supply store carries – to make savory porridges over the years. I’ve even made it from malted grains left over after my husband drains off the wort during beermaking. On my last trip to Copenhagen, I enjoyed a tremendous rendition featuring wheat berries, red cabbage, traditional Danish pickled cucumbers, and ham from Mikkel Marschall of Kadeau Bornholm.

Porridge is best made from things you already have lying around. For example, I don’t recommend actually going to the trouble to cure and smoke a pork shoulder specifically for this dish. It just happened that I did smoke about fifteen pounds of shoulder in the early fall, vacuum sealing slabs of the pork with its own fat and freezing it for the winter. We always have some form of cabbage in the house during the cold months. And we have a huge bin of various grains for making beer. You don’t need to buy or prepare anything special for a delicious pot of porridge. If you have brown rice or barley lying around, use that. Stir in bits of leftover mushrooms, or diced roast beef. Any foods that taste good together will be delicious combined in porridge. Make sure to include a tart element, like pickled onions or similar, so every bite is complete and perfect.

For the smoked pork shoulder:

Note: This yields far more than needed for this recipe. If you’re the kind of person who would go to the effort to cure and smoke a pork shoulder, having a surplus of smoked pork shoulder will not bother you in the least.

4 lb/1800g bone-in pork shoulder (picnic)
75g salt
50g brown sugar
5g smoked granulated garlic
5g pimentón dulce
5g onion powder
5g ground black pepper

Combine the dry ingredients. Rub the pork shoulder well on all surfaces, and in any cavities. Wrap tightly in clingfilm and cure, refrigerated, for three days, turning every 12 hours.

Set up a smoker with wood of choice (I prefer fruit woods for pork and smoked this shoulder over applewood). Smoke the unwrapped shoulder fat side up for 4 hours at 200F, rotating 180 degrees once about three hours into smoking.

Wrap the shoulder in foil and return to a 225F oven. Cook to an internal temperature of 190F. Remove from oven and rest about 45 minutes or so. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat in as large a piece as possible from the bone, being sure to extract the big nuggets within the bone hollows.

For the smoked pork stock:

This yields about 4 liters of stock.

4000g chicken stock (use water if stock unavailable and add 1000g chicken wings, necks, and backs)
smoked pork bone from shoulder, above
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 allspice berries
2 cloves
12 black peppercorns
250g each diced onion, carrot, and celery

Bring the stock (or water and chicken wings/backs/necks) the smoked pork bone, and the herbs and spices to barely a simmer (around 190F). Keep covered and hold at that temperature, skimming if needed, for about four hours. Add the mirepoix and simmer another 45 minutes. Strain.

For the compressed cabbage pickle:

about 10 leaves savoy cabbage (medium sized head)
75 ml white wine vinegar
75 ml filtered water
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar

Combine the vinegar, water, spices, salt, and sugar and bring to a simmer. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved, cool.

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Shred the cabbage about 1/8″. Bag (in 2 separate bags) with equal quantities brine. Seal and drop in a large pot of vigorously boiling water. Boil 6 minutes and chill in ice bath.

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For the farro:

250g farro
45g unsalted butter
one small onion, small dice
125g dry white wine
500g smoked pork stock from above
80g unsalted butter
175g cabbage pickle from above
275g smoked pork from above, diced
Dehydrated spinach**
Chives
Garlic chive blossoms
salt and pepper

Soak the farro for about 6-12 hours in cold water. Drain well. Set immersion circulator to 194F.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Reduce heat. Add the onion, season with salt, and sweat; add the drained farro and toss well in the butter to coat. Sauté for about 3 minutes until well toasted. Add the wine and stir, allowing the grain to absorb the wine. Season with additional salt.

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Transfer to a plastic bag. Add smoked pork stock and vacuum seal. Drop into circulator and cook for 25 minutes. If necessary, chill in ice bath until ready to serve. [The bag will contain a substantial amount of unabsorbed liquid; absorption will continue to some degree during cooling. This is normal.] If you have neither the means nor inclination to cook the grains sous vide, continue ladling in hot stock as you would for risotto, stirring constantly over low heat. Expect the cooking process to take about 45-50 minutes.

Transfer bag contents to saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until farro is soupy but liquid is thick and creamy.

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Beat in remaining 80g butter; season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in diced cabbage pickle and smoked pork. Spoon into serving bowls and garnish with dehydrated spinach, herbs, and flowers. Serve immediately.

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*YumSugar polling is obviously unscientific.
** You can dehydrate spinach leaves in the microwave or dry at 150F on silpat-lined sheet pans in a convection oven.

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Fish, preserving, Salad, Vegetables

To Russia, with love.

There’s an expression that goes something like this: “He (or she) knows just enough to be dangerous.” When it comes to culinary expression, a little bit of information plus a lot of ignorance can turn cultural homage into caricature. Who among us has not cringed at some hamfisted effort to honor a particular cuisine? I place in this category basically anything The Olive Garden has ever produced in the name of abbondanza, myriad attempts by clueless schools to celebrate Black History Month with fried chicken and watermelon, and the time when, in law school, I cooked a perfect salmon florentine out of the Pierre Franey 60 Minute Gourmet book for a date who promptly requested soy sauce, because “that’s what goes on Chinese food.” Cue sad trombone.

Recently, our Supper Club assembled around a pre-Soviet Russian theme, inspired by Chekhov’s praise in The Siren for the classic Russian dish, kulebyaka, a giant brioche enclosing sturgeon, kasha, and mushrooms. In a turnabout of the czarist predilection for all things French, Escoffier brought the kulebyaka back to France, where its complexity and richness thrilled gastronomes. The selection of this theme made me mildly anxious. I primarily associate Russian food with the folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful, about a kind of creepy talking doll whose eyes would light up like fireflies whenever it was about to dispense profundities like “the morning is wiser than the evening” to the little girl who fed it bits of cabbage soup, black bread, and kvass. You get what you pay for, I suppose. To expose the depths of my ignorance even further, I can’t think about this story without hearing Yakov Smirnoff in my head, saying something like “…In Soviet Russia, creepy little girl doll eat YOU!” Like I said, just enough to be dangerous.

Under the circumstances, it seemed best to steer clear of anything that might resemble a mockery of Russian cuisine. Pickled vegetables are popular throughout Russia, as are hearty breads and smoked fish. Why not combine cured and lightly smoked mackerel with black bread, not as a sandwich, but as a first course? To reinforce the cold freshness of the dish, a salad of pickled apple and celery is compressed for crispness, and scattered on the mackerel with herbs, peppery radish slices, and toasted bread crumbs.

Cured mackerel, compressed celery and apple salad, black bread

This dish combines smoky, briny mackerel, with a compressed, vinegared salad, and slightly bitter toasted black bread. It’s not Russian in any traditional sense, but surely could be served at the modern Russian zakuski table.

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Cured mackerel

1 whole mackerel, about 4-5 lbs after gutting
100g sugar
50g brown sugar
120g sea salt
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tbsp coarsely ground coriander seed
120g Bakon vodka or another smoke-flavored vodka

Combine all dry ingredients well.

Fillet the mackerel. (For a treat, roast the rack and the head at 400F until the meat is just opaque. Pull it off the bone and eat with a squeeze of lemon and some salt, or some chimichurri.) Remove any pin bones with tweezers and trim off any portions discolored with bile (depicted in photo) as they will be bitter.

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Place the fillets in a container just large enough to hold both. Coat the mackerel well with the seasoning on both meat and skin side (about twice as much on the meat side as underneath), and set in the container skin side down. Drizzle the Bakon vodka over the top. Cover the container tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate 12 hours.

By this time, some liquid should have leached from the mackerel and mixed with some of the curing spice to form a light amber liquid. Flip the fillets over so the meat side is down in the liquid. Cover tightly and cure for another 3 days.

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After a total of about 3-4 days, depending on thickness of your fillets, the mackerel should be ready. Test by slicing off a thin bit. If the mackerel is satisfactorily cured, rinse lightly, pat dry, and cold-smoke using alder or oak chips and a smoking gun for about 30 minutes, over ice. Wrap tightly to store. You can hold this cold cured mackerel for about 4 days under refrigeration, but otherwise should freeze it. As the curing process removes a substantial amount of water, cured fish freezes nicely. In fact, the mackerel photo above came straight from the freezer – we ate the other one before I remembered to take a picture. Bonus: frozen mackerel slices more easily.

Compressed celery and apple salad

The purpose of the Vitamin C is to prevent the apples browning. If you intend to serve immediately after compressing, you probably don’t need it, but if you intend to hold for more than a few hours, be sure to use Vitamin C or lemon juice.

10 mg ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
30 ml filtered water
30 ml white wine vinegar
1 sprig tarragon
2-3 ribs celery
1 large Granny Smith apple

Dissolve the ascorbic acid in water. Stand 15 minutes and then combine with the wine vinegar and tarragon in a plastic bag. Vacuum on high for 90 seconds.

Peel and slice the celery, and slice the apple, into paper-thin slices using a mandoline or by hand. Bag separately and add about 1.5 tbsp vinegar solution to each bag. Seal and compress in vacuum chamber. Hold under refrigeration until ready to serve.

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Pumpernickel bread prepared according to recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Berenbaum

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Slice the bread very thinly. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the bread slices and turn to coat with butter on both sides; continue to toast until browned. Cool and break into bits or crumbs; hold for service, tightly covered.

To assemble:

Thinly slice the mackerel and pound it out as carpaccio, between sheets of clingfilm. Thinly slice a red or watermelon radish (black radish is appropriate as well).

Plate the mackerel, with the herbs, salad, radish, and toasted black bread crumbs evenly distributed, or in any other configuration you like.

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Bonus: Beetroot sorbet

This is a bonus dish. Initially, I planned to pair the mackerel and rye with a beetroot sorbet, thinking it would seem especially Russian. When I tasted it, though, it really just tasted really beet-y and sweet; even a meaty, strong fish like mackerel was tasteless beside it. Incidentally, this is why it’s a good idea to taste a dish before serving it the first time (I say this as someone who rarely follows my own advice, except when I have some doubts at the inception). The beet sorbet is far too strong for most pairings but makes a great intermezzo.

Beetroot sorbet (1 pint)

12 medium beets, about 700g
200g sugar
300 g water
100 g liquid glucose
2 leaves gelatin
1 tbsp sherry vinegar

Scrub clean and roast the beets at 400F until tender to the center, about 75 minutes. Cool and peel. You should have about 550g beets. Slice into chunks.

Heat the water, sugar, and glucose in a pan and bring to a simmer. Add the beets and simmer about 20 minutes until the beets are extremely tender. Hydrate the gelatin leaves and add to the beet mixture with the vinegar.

Puree until completely smooth in a vitaprep or blender (if you cannot achieve a velvety consistency in your blender, strain the mixture through a chinois). Chill and process in an ice cream machine. Freeze at least 4 hours to set.

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Grains, Midwest-y, Random Thoughts, Science, Soup

Ten thousand lakes.

The year before I left Milwaukee, I worked occasional catering jobs for a woman in Shorewood who made things like cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles and buckeyes, and served Eighties-sophisticated dinner menus of roast Cornish game hen nestled alongside wild rice stuffing, and cream puffs piped into the form of swans atop pools of strawberry coulis. I loved those jobs because, in additional to being paid for plating and serving, I’d always go home with a few extra twenties from the host folded into my purse, which was the kind of tip money I normally made on a busy Saturday slinging plates at the Woolworth’s Coffee Shop. And all while wearing street clothes, rather than a royal blue polyester smock and a “my name is WENDY” pin.

Because my own cooking repertoire had not advanced that far beyond pans of lasagne and spaghetti with meatballs, I considered wild rice the essence of class and fanciness and began serving it at my own dinner parties in Minnesota. A few months into law school, I borrowed a car from a friend for a shopping trip to Byerly’s market in the suburbs just south of Minneapolis, where the wild rice soup – creamy, spiked with sherry and studded with diced ham and carrots – struck me as even more elegant than wild rice stuffing, if that was possible. It quickly became part of my “for company” repertoire, much like virtually anything wrapped in puff pastry or simmered in cooking wine, and as such was similarly doomed to fall from favor once I actually learned to cook. Incidentally, if any of my old law school friends are reading this, I’m sorry I served you the same chicken breasts in white wine sauce with wild rice mushroom pilaf at practically every dinner party, and even more sorry about the omnipresent snow pea and red bell pepper sauté. I don’t even like red bell peppers.

I hadn’t eaten wild rice in perhaps fifteen years, but after a Minnesota friend visited a couple of summers ago, with a gift of maple syrup and wild rice, I decided to give the soup another shot. I gave my Byerly’s cookbook away over twenty years ago, but it wasn’t hard to recall the components and figure out the technique. Like most cream-style soups of midwestern origin, it’s built on a roux base with chicken stock, and finished with actual cream. Sometimes you find mirepoix throughout, but more often just carrots. Most versions include a generous handful of diced ham, and toasted almonds for texture. It’s the soup that eats like a meal, and once it starts to cool, the starch in the roux base gelatinizes, turning the soup into something closer to wallpaper paste.

So I took it in a different direction. I remembered reading once that, during his tenure at Porter and Frye in Minneapolis, Steven Brown updated wild rice soup to feature a delicate vegetable bisque in lieu of the roux-thickened soup, poured about a heap of sautéed brunoise and puffed wild rice. I’ve never eaten it, but I’ve long admired Chef Brown and his role in modernizing Midwestern cuisine, particularly at Levain. This is my homage.

Celery bisque, pork belly, puffed wild rice

“True” rice and wild rice represent different genera, but both are cereal grains from tall, water-dwelling grasses. Wild rice, common to the thousands of lakes dotting northern and central Minnesota, is sheathed in a nearly-black husk, far tougher than that of true rice, and never polished off. It is nuttier and more fragrant than true rice, and the husk provides an interesting texture. Most people boil the hell out of wild rice until the innards spill out and curl like the scrolls of an Ionic column. Once that has happened, the rice is overcooked and waterlogged. Stop cooking and drain the rice once the husk splits lengthwise and the interior is tender, not soggy.

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As with most starchy grains (think popcorn or puffed wheat cereal), wild rice can be puffed. For puffing to take place, a small quantity of residual water within a dry husk must come to a boil, generating steam that causes the husk to rupture. In addition, the starch must be gelatinized. This is why you can’t just toss a handful of dry raw rice into a pot of boiling oil; rather than puffing, it will simply fry to a pile of rock-hard nibs. To puff any grain successfully, you must first gelatinize the starch by cooking, and then dry the cooked grain until the outside is completely dry and only a small quantity (perhaps 5-8%) remains within. Drop the dried grains in hot oil and watch them bloom to the surface after a second or two. Note: you can accomplish this with true rice, rye, farro, wheat berries, and lots of other things. The process is a lot like making tapioca-based chips or chicharrón.

For four people.

For the smoked pork belly:

Between one and four days in advance, prepare the smoked pork belly described in this post, through the smoking step. You will need about 8 oz, plus an additional four for the brunoise below.

Coated in cure.

Coated in cure.

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You can substitute whole slab smoked bacon, which is after all what you are making.

Just before service, slice the bacon 1/4″ thick and pan-fry until crisp on the outside and warmed through on the inside.

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For the bisque:

3 bunches celery, sliced
1 celeriac root, diced
4 leeks, white and light green section only
1 qt chicken consommé (for consommé method, see here, but substitute a strong stock of roast chicken bones for the beef bones and use ground white meat chicken in the raft)
2 bay leaves
1 c heavy cream
2 leaves (silver) gelatin
1 tsp white wine vinegar
celery salt
celery leaves (from stalks)
parsley leaves
thyme sprigs

Juice the vegetables separately in a masticating juicer. Discard the fiber or reserve for a future use (note the celery fiber tends to be very stringy and may not be suited for later use unless dehydrated and crumbled).

Bring the bay leaf, the juices, and the consommé to a simmer for about 10 minutes; add the cream and simmer another 5. Do not allow the soup to boil or it will turn an unappetizing olive color as the chlorophyll degrades; your soup should rather be the shade of Crayola “spring green.” Soften the gelatin leaves in hot water and whisk in. Season with the vinegar (more or less than 1 tsp, to taste) and the celery salt. Set aside. You may reheat the soup by bringing back to a simmer for 5 minutes. Do not boil or the cream will break. This recipe makes far more soup than you need for four people; you can freeze the rest.

Note: if you don’t have a juicer, you can simmer the vegetables (starting with the celeriac, then adding the leek, then at last the celery) in the consommé with the bay until tender; remove the bay and then blend in a vitaprep until completely smooth. Strain through a chinois lined with muslin and then strain again. Omit the gelatin. Add the cream, vinegar, and salt as specified.

For the vegetable:

4 oz smoked pork belly or thick-cut bacon; diced 1/4″
2 carrots, peeled and brunoise
2 stalks celery, peeled and brunoise
small bunch chives
2-3 branches thyme
salt and white pepper

Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the diced smoked pork. Fry until crisp but not hard. Drain and set aside. Add the carrots to the fat and sauté until just becoming tender; add the celery and continue to cook until both are tender. Combine with the lardons and herbs; season to taste.

For the rice:

1 c wild rice
4 qt water
1 tbsp salt
2 c rice bran or grapeseed oil

Bring the salted water to a boil and add the wild rice. Cook until the grains are not yet split but tender enough to bite to the interior. The grain at the interior should not be hard or chalky but the husk should remain intact. Drain well.

Spread in a single layer on Silpat or parchment on a half sheet pan. Place in a 160F oven for about 45 minutes until the rice is dry to the touch and, when bitten, seems firm and dry but not rock-hard.

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Heat the oil in a deep pan allowing at least 4″ headspace (preferably 6″ or more). Once the oil reaches 370F, drop the rice in small batches (not more than 2 tbsp at a time). It will fall to the bottom of the pan and rise immediately, the oil boiling furiously. Skim immediately and drain on paper towels.

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To assemble the soup, place 2 portions of crisp pork belly in a shallow bowl with about 1/4 c vegetables and 1/4 c puffed wild rice. Garnish with celery leaves and parsley. Pour the bisque around and serve immediately.

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Beans, East Asian, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southern

Mystery of the pyramids.

Every kid who grows up in Wisconsin considers Chicago The Big Time, usually with a certain amount of contempt and possibly even undisguised hatred. Chicagoans in turn regard Wisconsin residents as ice-fishing hicks and drunks. Kermit the Frog-style man on the street interviews in both cities tell the tale pretty quickly. Mention you’re from Wisconsin anywhere in Chicagoland and you’ll get one of three loud responses, the first two with a mocking accent: “eh, dere,” “ya der hey,” or “Cheesehead,” each of which means, roughly, “go home, Sconnie.” Ask a Wisconsinite for his or her opinions on Chicagoans and you will be treated to a tirade about FIBs, particularly their incompetence behind the wheel when driving outside their home town and inexplicable support for sports franchises like the Cubs and the Bears. If you aren’t from Wisconsin and don’t know what a FIB is, try sounding it out with various swear words at the beginning and end until you get it right. Hint: the middle word is “Illinois” and there are two possible correct answers.

Even so, most of us if pressed would admit to intense jealousy over Chicago’s cultural opportunities and urbanity. My own family made the pilgrimage a couple of times a year, to visit the museums down by Soldier Field – the Museum of Science and Industry was my favorite, with its giant walk-through model of a human heart – or window-shop on Michigan Avenue. We never stayed more than a day or so at a time, though, and Chicago remained a mystery to me for years, even though only 90 minutes separate it from Milwaukee. Once I got my driver’s license, I sometimes begged off Saturday night parties to drive to Chicago, alone, tossing forty cents after forty cents into each of the toll booth baskets the way down just so I could cruise up and down Lakeshore Drive, and all around the Loop (at least once forgetting to save any cash for the drive back). At the time it seemed the height of risqué worldliness to parallel park my mom’s 1977 Olds Toronado and walk around downtown at 10 pm looking for a Vienna beef dog. After graduating from school, I even took a job in Chicago, living on Clark Street right next to the infamous Wieners Circle. The Circle, as habitués like to call it, serves great char-dogs and cheese fries but I avoided it from Thursday night through Sunday evening, when it attracts the very worst people in Chicago. It all comes back to FIBs, after all.

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Now, my dad traveled to Chicago on his own from time to time, and he often returned from those trips with a plastic bag full of pyramid-shaped, bamboo leaf-wrapped bundles from Chinatown. The Taiwanese word for those bundles is bah-chàng, and they were something of a special occasion item in our home, partly because any food that comes in a wrapper seems inherently fun, like a present, but mostly because bah-chàng are damn tasty. I associate bah-chàng completely with Chicago because we only ever ate them when he brought them back from his visits, much as we only ever ate lobster when he came home from Boston, or crabs after his trips to the DC area. In any case, at such times, my mother would set a big metal steamer over a pot of boiling water to reheat the bah-chàng, filling the kitchen with the sort of green-woodsy, slightly floral scent of bamboo leaves. Cut the string, and unwind the moist parcel to release a pyramid of glutinous rice, filled with soy-marinated pork belly, black mushroom, pungent dried shrimp, and a salted duck egg yolk. I visited Chicago for work last week, and spent so much time thinking about bah-chàng that I had to make them as soon as I came home.

Smoked pig and peanut rice dumplings

Only two ingredients are really mandatory for bah-chàng: glutinous (sticky) rice and some sort of leaf for wrapping. This rice dumpling combines these two basic bah-chàng ingredients with American Southern ingredients. Using bamboo leaves to wrap the dumpling lends an unmistakably Taiwanese aura to the dish, even though nearly all of the other ingredients come straight from the South. Sautéing the glutinous rice after soaking helps the grains retain some distinctness and lends some additional flavor from the shallot and fat – skipping this step ensures the rice will stick together more, yielding an almost tamale-like texture. Both preparations are acceptable. If you want to try this out with other things you find in the freezer, know that any fatty meat (like chicken thighs, pork shoulder, etc) works well.

2 c glutinous rice (note: you may find both black and white glutinous rice. Black cooks to a deep purple and makes for a striking and unconventional presentation)
12 bamboo leaves (alternatively, you may try lotus leaves or banana leaves, each of which lends its own distinctive flavor)
1/2 lb pork belly, cured and smoked as for bacon, or 1/2 lb slab bacon
2 tbsp usukuchi soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp American corn whiskey, like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels
2 tsp sorghum syrup
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
1 c shelled boiled green peanuts (see below)
2 shallots, sliced thinly
1 1/2 tbsp bacon fat
dozen pickled ramps, sliced in half lengthwise (substitute pickled onion)
kitchen twine

Rinse the rice several times in cold water and then leave to soak in a bowl, with about an inch of water to cover, for 3 hours.

Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the bamboo leaves. Boil for about five minutes until soft and remove from heat. Keep the leaves in water until nearly ready to use.

Slice the smoked pork belly crosswise into six equal pieces (about 1/3″ each). Combine the soy, whiskey, sorghum, white pepper, and espelette and marinate the sliced belly for about an hour. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already shelled the boiled peanuts, do so.

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Drain the rice well and leave to sit for about 10 minutes. Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon fat. Add the sliced shallots and allow to brown on both sides until golden. Remove the shallots but leave behind the hot bacon fat.

Add the drained rice and sauté until each grain is well coated with fat, about 3 minutes. You may skip this frying step for a more compact, tamale-like texture.

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Assemble the dumplings. Drain the bamboo leaves and overlap two, with the leaves slightly off-center as to form a long and narrow “X.” Fold in the middle to make a cone.

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Divide the rice into six portions and add half of a portion inside the cone, making an indent in the bottom to contain fillings; press the rice up around the insides of the cone. Add a spoonful of the boiled peanuts, a slice of smoked pork belly, some fried shallot and slices of ramp. Fold the pork over if necessary to fit and top with some more peanuts and the remaining portion of the rice.

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Drizzle with about 1 1/2 tsp of the pork marinade. Fold the tops of the leaves over the cone to close securely, and tie well with kitchen twine. You should have essentially a pyramid (tetrahedron) shape.

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Set in a steamer over boiling water and steam for about 3 hours (a little more won’t hurt). At this point, you can serve immediately or allow to cool and chill for up to four days. They also freeze well. Reheat in a steamer over boiling water to serve. For enhanced Southern-style deliciousness, serve with some pickled peaches.

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Boiled green peanuts

Green peanuts are fresh young peanuts still in the shell. The kind of peanuts you find in cocktail mix or even ostensibly raw in bulk have been cured through air-drying once they reach maturity, and do not taste the same. These are only generally available in-season (typically summer), and even then only where there exists sufficient demand, as they are perishable.

There are few exercises more frustrating than shelling freshly boiled peanuts. The shell sticks to the papery skin, and the peanut within tends to mush somewhat under the pressure of peeling. When making these dumplings, I discovered serendipitously that frozen boiled peanuts shell easily – probably something about the water freezing between the shell and the skin, expanding it just enough to prevent sticking. If you are lucky enough to find fresh green peanuts and boil your own as directed below, do yourself a solid and freeze them in a single layer on a sheet pan overnight before thawing and shelling. As a bonus, any you aren’t ready to use right then you can freeze, sealed tightly in a plastic bag.

For the very simplest preparation, you can simply boil in salted water (about 1/4 c per gallon), but the vinegar and spices lend a very slightly pickled character that tastes great with the fatty, sweet nut. If you don’t feel like dealing with boiling your own, or green peanuts aren’t available in your area (likely in most parts of the country, especially out of season), you can buy them canned in the soul food/Southern section of your supermarket, or by mail order. You’ll probably still have to shell them yourself.

1 lb fresh green peanuts
3 tbsp salt
2 tbsp seafood boil spices + 1 tsp celery salt, or 1 tbsp Old Bay + 1/2 tsp allspice berries and 1/2 tsp black peppercorn
1/4 c cider vinegar
1 gallon water

Bring everything to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 6 hours, stirring from the bottom occasionally to ensure even cooking. Test a peanut to see if it is cooked through to the center and if not, continue cooking a while longer until it is cooked through.

Drain and chill immediately. I recommend freezing and thawing before shelling, but once they cool, you can attempt to shell them right away.

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East Asian, Fish, Frenchy Things, preserving, Vegetables

Expiration date.

The modern freezer is both great and terrible in its possibilities. On the one hand, you never have to let anything go bad again if you remember to package and freeze it in time. On the other hand, if you’re not careful, you end up with a lot of mystery product, or even worse, freezer burn spoilage. Who among us has not watched Gordon Ramsay explode in tomato-faced rage at some incompetent restaurateur’s two year supply of frozen gnocchi and fried chicken wings?

A few weeks ago, I found a couple of whole trout in our freezer, unblemished within their tight plastic wrap and forgotten for over two years. Not really forgotten, actually – they were gifts from a friend and former member of my staff. Patrick was a midwesterner like me, and he returned to his native St Louis to fish for trout every summer. On returning from his first trip after he began working for me, he stopped by my office. “There’s a trout in the freezer with your name on it,” he said. “It’s wrapped in a Cubs towel.” From then on, he always brought me a trout, somewhere in the 2 pound range, on returning from those summer fishing trips.

As it happens, my husband loves smoked trout. His enjoyment of smoked fish represents a paradoxical type of pickiness in which the diner asserts great dislike of a specific food, but makes so many exceptions as to swallow the rule. For example, my husband claims not to like cheese, but layers it generously into sandwiches, omelets, and the like. In fact, he has been known to eat macaroni and cheese using a shoveling motion. As far as I can tell, his cheese dislike is more or less localized to the waxen, sweaty chunks found on supermarket deli trays and an abomination known as the Huntsman. In the same vein, he claims to dislike fish, but is a sashimi connoisseur and avid consumer of smoked salmon, trout, tuna, and so on. When our local steakhouse, The Prime Rib, took the smoked trout appetizer off its menu earlier this year, citing “lack of interest,” he was nearly as disappointed as if they’d started cutting the roast prime rib into sensible portions.

Patrick and I never did discuss how we cooked his catch. Early in our acquaintance, he told me, “you’ll probably find me kind of boring, food-wise. I’m what I guess you’d call a meat and potatoes guy.” I always assumed he would go for the grill, but I never found out. About two years ago, Patrick died unexpectedly one winter morning, about a year after he married and only a couple of weeks after the birth of their child. He was forty-seven years old. The last two trout he gave me have been in the freezer ever since. If pressed, I would probably admit they remained untouched as a sort of memorial.

Remarking on the challenges of forging personal connections in the modern office setting, a colleague of Patrick’s observed that, when people we know die, we don’t remember them for the quality of their work or the amount of face time they gave at the office. “No one’s going to say, hey, that guy was a really competent lawyer and he really enjoyed working late,” he said. “They remember that he was a great guy.” He was a great guy, a superb fisherman, and a thoughtful friend. This trout salad is for him.

Smoked trout salad

I have provided the method below (following the salad recipe) for curing and smoking trout. You can use it for most hot smoked fish – it’s a simple 4% salt brine. Although winter is not a good time for smoking generally – the cold outside temperatures increase the difficulty in maintaining a temperature adequate for meat smoking – it actually is a good time for fish smoking as you want to maintain a temperature just high enough to cook the fish through, but low enough to minimize albumen coagulation and leakage. In plain English, that’s the goopy white stuff you might find leaking out of fully cooked trout or salmon, especially when it’s been overcooked. A smoker temperature of about 160F/71C should accomplish both goals.

Sudachi are a lime-like sour citrus native to Tokushima Prefecture in Japan. Outside Tokushima, they are totally unavailable out of season and difficult to find even in season. You are more likely to find sudachi juice in the bottle at a Japanese (or possibly Korean) market. If unavailable, combine half and half lime juice and sour orange juice (such as Seville).

1 large avocado
1 Granny Smith apple
2 heads little gem or Boston lettuce, washed and spun dry
1 c pickled carrot (see below)
1/2 c sudachi mayonnaise (see below)
320g hot smoked trout (see below)
2 tbsp minced chive

Break the trout into 1″ chunks. Peel, halve, and thinly slice the avocado; brunoise the apple; separate the gem lettuce into leaves..

Plate the lettuce, curls of pickled carrot, avocado slices, apple brunoise, and the smoked trout. Garnish with a generous quantity of the sudachi mayonnaise and the chive.

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Hot smoked trout

Naturally, I don’t endorse keeping a couple of trout in the freezer for two or three years before use. You should use the freshest possible product. That said, the trout in question were tightly sealed in heavy plastic and their texture was beautiful, even after so much time in the deep freeze. It brought to mind a scene from Northern Exposure in which Joel excavates a long-frozen woolly mammoth, which, to his horror, Walt soon dispatches in his belly. “One man’s life altering experience is another man’s tenderloin.” I suppose that’s true.

If you butcher your own trout and have a lot of trim left over, you can cure and smoke it; just pull it from the brine after about an hour or they will be too salty. Check the smoker at about an hour; if the fish is fully cooked and well smoked but moist, the fish can come out.

Four filets of freshwater trout, pin bones removed
2 l ice water
80g kosher salt
40g sugar
1/8 tsp TCM (optional but extends preservation)
about 1 tbsp each whole white peppercorns, true red (Pondicherry) peppercorns, and coriander seed

Bring the salt, sugar, TCM, spices, and 100 ml of the water to a boil, covered, and simmer until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Cool completely and then add to the remaining ice water. Be sure the brine is cold before adding the trout.

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Add the trout filets to the ice water brine. Refrigerate 3-4 hours (do not brine overnight). Rinse and pat dry. Place skin side-up on a rack over a sheet or hotel pan in the refrigerator and dry, uncovered, about 24 hours or until dry and somewhat tacky to the touch. This dry outer layer is the pellicle and is essential to protecting the fish as it smokes.

Smoke in an offset or vertical smoker with your preferred wood (I like pecan, alder, or apple for smoked fish) at 160F for 75 minutes, less if your trout is well under 1/2″/13mm thick and a little longer if it is more than 3/4″/20mm. Chill immediately and use or freeze within four days.

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Pickled carrot:

2 large carrots, peeled
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp filtered water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

Square off the carrots and slice thinly with a mandoline. Place in a single layer in a vacuum bag.

Bring the liquids, salt, and sugar to a boil and pour into the bag. Seal under vacuum. Chill.

Sudachi mayonnaise:

large pinch salt
pinch white pepper
one egg yolk
1 tbsp dijon mustard
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sudachi juice (substitute yuzu, or half and half lime and sour orange)
1 1/2 c rice bran or grapeseed oil
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette or ichimi togarashi

Place the salt, white pepper, egg, mustard, vinegar, and half the sudachi juice in the bottom of a sturdy bowl. Whisk to emulsify and then, whisking constantly, drip in the oil until you have a stable and thick emulsion. Continue whisking in the oil until the mayonnaise is the desired consistency. (You also can prepare this by dripping the oil into the ingredients in a blender). Whisk in the remaining sudachi juice, espelette, and additional salt if necessary to taste.

Store in a squeeze bottle under refrigeration.

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East Asian, Holidays, Science, Soup

Gobble gobble hey.

Thanksgiving dinner is the one meal you’re not supposed to screw with. You know the drill. There’s the roast turkey and gravy, the mashed potatoes, the stuffing or dressing, an orange vegetable, a green vegetable, and a cranberry sauce. You finish up with apple, pumpkin, or maybe mincemeat pie. The boundaries of acceptable creative exercise are pretty well-circumscribed: you can use cornbread or white bread for your stuffing, and you can throw in sausage, oysters, or dried fruit if you like; you can glaze your turkey with maple syrup, rub it in southwestern spices, or bard it with bacon; you can put marshmallows on your sweet potatoes or spin your squash into soup with apples and curry. As much creativity as enterprising cooks can deploy, though, the meal ultimately always registers the same familiar notes.

This doctrinaire approach to the national meal loosens up considerably if your ancestors didn’t grow up eating turkey for a couple of weeks between late November and early December each year. My husband’s second-generation Italian relatives up in New Jersey, for example, do serve the turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, along with an orange vegetable known as “fluffy carrots,” which taste more like whipped carrot halvah than anything else, but they also begin the meal with giardiniera and a big platter of sliced salami, capicola, and mozzarella. Back in the day, when the Italian-born immigrant generation and their kids surrounded the table, the meal started with antipasti, moved on to meatball and escarole soup, then pasta, and then the turkey, which was shoehorned into the meal like the obligatory cheerleader in a teen movie. My husband’s father, an Englishman until the day he died, mastered the quintessential American meal despite never relinquishing his British passport, and served his turkey surrounded with bangers and the abomination known as bread sauce. Other friends of immigrant parentage tell similar stories – roast turkey surrounded by kimchi and other banchan and eaten in lettuce with gochujang; arroz con pavo; yoghurt-marinated turkey with dal and pilau rice. Other families just made their favorite festival foods like tamales, fried noodles, or biryani, and threw in the turkey as a cursory nod to the holiday.

Recently, my husband and I spent a couple of weeks in Shanghai and Taipei, where we ate a lot of steamed dumplings. My husband’s favorite place to eat in Taipei is Din Tai Fung, made famous worldwide in 1993 by a New York Times article about the top ten restaurants in the world. The pièce de résistance at Din Tai Fung, and the source of their enduring fame, is the xiaolongbao, or small steamed soup dumplings. If you haven’t had them – and in the US, outside of NYC and maybe a place here or there in San Francisco, Seattle, or LA, you probably haven’t – their xiaolongbao are a form of tang bao, or soup dumplings, that originated just east of Shanghai in Nanjing. They’re not dumplings in soup; they’re dumplings with the soup inside. The unitiated typically bite right into the dumpling straightaway and burn themselves on the gush of soup (which ends up on shirt sleeves and fronts), but the way you’re supposed to eat them is to lift one out of the bamboo steamer, place it in a soup spoon, tear a small hole in the side using a chopstick, and slurp the soup out of the spoon before eating the dumpling with a little fresh ginger julienne in black vinegar. Alternatively – and considered bush league, but a better way to get the soup out in my opinion – you can bite the top knot off the dumpling and suck out the soup. Good xiaolongbao require a thin wrapper strong enough to support the weight of the soup and filling; when you lift it out of the steamer, the dumpling should droop like a sack instead of retaining its shape.

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So let’s say, instead of just plopping a turkey in the midst of an otherwise unrelated festival meal, one were to combine the two? Maybe as xiaolongbao filled with turkey as a first course?

Smoked turkey xiaolongbao

Most people think the mystery of xiaolongbao lies in the soup. Where does it come from? How does it get inside the dumpling? Actually, though, the soup mystery is easy to solve. You make a strong stock using lots of collagen from pork skin or hocks; when cold, the stock sets to a firm gel from the dissolved gelatin and is easy to fold into a dumpling skin. The far greater challenge when making xiaolongbao is to achieve the proper texture for the dumpling skin. For a skin strong enough to hold the soup and filling, but thin enough to be delicate, you must use a hot water dough (actually a boiling water dough). The boiling water gelatinzes the starch in the flour.

Don’t be tempted to substitute turkey breast for the thighs. You need the fat in the thighs to stand up to the high heat of steaming and keep the filling moist; ground breast will steam to hockey pucks. More expensive, and wasted in this dish. The other components of the meat filling must be minced so finely as to be indistinct from the meat; jutting chunks of celery or garlic will tear the wrapper.

For about 5 dozen xiaolongbao

For the smoked turkey gel:

900g/2 lbs pork hocks or feet
900g/2 lbs smoked turkey necks
2 stalks celery, chopped
dozen scallions or trim from several bunches of scallions
water to cover
salt

Place all the ingredients other than salt in a stockpot and bring to about 180F (not quite simmering).

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Cover and maintain temp. Cook for 8-12 hours, taking care the liquid never breaks a simmer. Strain and chill. Scrape off any fat before use. The stock should be a fairly firm gel. Refrigerate until using. This recipe makes more soup gel than you need; freeze what you don’t use.

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For the filling:

900g/2 lbs boned out skinless turkey thighs
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
4 medium sage leaves
8 cloves garlic confit
1 stalk celery, finely minced
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp piment d’espelette
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp celery salt
1 1/2 tsp usukuchi soy sauce or shiro shoyu

applewood chips

Grind together all the solid ingredients through a medium die with the cornstarch, and then again through a small die. Combine with the spices, salts, and soy sauce. Do not overwork and leave somewhat loose in the container.

Cold smoke over applewood for about 2 hours at 40F or using a smoking gun. Chill, covered tightly, until using.

For the compressed apple pickle:

1 granny smith apple
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

4 tbsp cider vinegar
2 tbsp shiro shoyu

Julienne (1/16″) the apple and combine the liquids, salt, and sugar until dissolved. Place in a bag in a chamber sealer for 90 seconds.

Combine the cider vinegar and shiro shoyu.

For the wrapper:

85g AP flour
85g bread (high gluten) flour
100g boiling water
50g cold water

Combine the flours in a stand mixer and add the boiling water. Mix thoroughly (the mixture will be ragged). While mixing, add the cold water (slowly at first to avoid overhydrating). You may not use all the cold water. Knead for about 10 minutes. If the dough is really sticky and wet, add a little more AP flour about 5g at a time, but don’t worry if it’s soft and just a little sticky. Cover and rest for at least 1 hour but up to overnight (under refrigeration).

When ready to use, flour a wooden board and cut off 5g portions of dough (about a medium-sized marble). Flour both sides of the dough and roll it out using a small wooden pin, to a diameter of about 3 5/8″/9 cm. Ideally, the round will be slightly thinner at the edge than at the center.

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Fill each round with about 2 tsp of meat mince and a chunk (heaped 1/2 tsp) of gel. Pleat all the way around, ideally 14-18 pleats, and twist to seal at the top. Set in a bamboo steamer lined with parchment about 1″ apart.

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Set the steamer over boiling water and steam until just cooked through in the center, about 3-4 minutes. Serve with the compressed apple and the vinegar dip.

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A final word: These cook up darker and more yellowish than those from Din Tai Fung. I have two guesses at the reasons: they might use bleached flour, whereas I always use unbleached; and the dough or the steam are possibly slightly alkaline. To hedge your bets against alkalinity, you can add a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar to the steaming water, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t help. I’m pretty sure this is all about the flour because this recipe does not include any alkalinizing components like baking soda or baking powder. If the slight yellowness distresses you, try a bleached flour.

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Cocktails, Confectionery, Science, Summer

Ever green.

Anyone who’s ever maintained a culinary herb garden is familiar with this problem: what does one do with all those herbs? Here’s how it usually goes. You decide to make something like a sauce gribiche, which requires four kinds of herbs, and by the time you’re done, you’ve spent $15 on a bunch of little plastic clamshells so you can have a tablespoon each of parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. A couple of months later, you discover the remains of those herbs, reduced to foul slime, beneath the celery in the vegetable drawer. In disgust, you seek out the spinning seed racks at the supermarket or home and garden center and buy half a dozen packets of seeds, anticipating fresh herbs at tremendous savings, not to mention plenty of pesto and crisp fried sage leaves. A few years later, the rosemary and sage are the size of shrubs, the mint and marjoram have spread to half the garden, and your freezer is filled with tubs of pesto. What to do, short of clipping great bunches and abandoning them in the office coffee room with a “TAKE ME” note?

Consider preserving their aromas in spirits. Countries with a Mediterranean coast share a tradition of anise- or fennel-flavored spirits and liqueurs, scented with local herbs. My favorite comes from the Balearics, where monks and nuns have been collecting wild herbs to prepare a strong and allegedly medicinal tincture to mix with sweet anise liqueur for a drink called hierbas mallorquinas. Our first encounter with hierbas was in the dining room of friends who had recently returned from a trip to Spain. While in Barcelona, they visited a small shop called Caelum, in the Barri Gòtic, specializing in products made by nuns and monks. The tiny glasses of hierbas mallorquinas our friend poured glittered clear green and tasted of sweet fennel, chamomile, lemon verbena, and rosemary. A year later, we sought out Caelum and returned with our own small bottle of hierbas. It didn’t last long, but a number of companies – most famously Túnel – produce it for retail distribution. According to Túnel, the seven herbs essential to hierbas are fennel, verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, lemon leaf, orange leaf, and chamomile.

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Túnel makes a special line – 14 Reserva – featuring fourteen herbs grown on the company’s family farms. The following recipe is inspired by that idea, and features all the herbs my husband has been growing in our back garden. The only one missing, in my opinion, is sweet cicely, which we aren’t growing right now but hope to have next year.

Hierbas

This is really a showcase for local herbs, so use what you’re growing in your garden. You can buy herbs, of course, but the point of this is to avoid costly herb shopping. Also, most of the really interesting stuff isn’t available in the market anyway. The recipe below sets forth the herbs from our garden (other than the citrus leaves); feel free to substitute whatever you have, in the proportions you like, as long as you include fennel, chamomile, and rosemary. A few caveats:

* Some herbs, like chives, dill, and Cuban oregano, are unsuitable in this liqueur. Consider whether you want the taste of the herb in your drink before adding it.

* Rosemary, cilantro, sage, and lavender are powerful herbs that can take over if you use too much. They are not out of place in hierbas (and rosemary is essential), but proceed with caution.

* For optimal results, the herbs and grain alcohol must infuse for at least a month. Stir or gently shake the mixture from time to time to redistribute the plant matter. After the first two weeks or so, the tincture will be bright green; with time, this brightness will fade to olive and eventually amber. This is normal.

A final note: true hierbas is distilled, not simply infused. Unless you have a still or rotovap, you’re not going to distill this. Once mixed, expect it to be slightly viscous from the sugar and cloudy, unless clarified, from herb sediment.

750 ml (1 bottle) grain alcohol, like Everclear (95% ABV (alcohol by volume))
1 head fennel, with flowers, stalks, and fronds
12 branches thyme
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks basil
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks mint
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks anise hyssop
6-inch rosemary branch
4 4-inch stalks of tarragon
12-inch stalk of lemon verbena
12-inch stalk of marjoram
2 12-inch stalks of lemon balm
12-inch branch of parsley
4 bay leaves
8 lime leaves
8 fig leaves
2 tbsp dried chamomile flowers or 1/4 c fresh
1/4 c Corsican mint leaves
4 inches of lemon zest (no pith)
1 tsp aniseed
4 juniper berries
1 tsp fennel seed

filtered water
white granulated or superfine sugar

In a nonporous, nonreactive container, combine all the herbs and the grain alcohol. Press down on the herbs so the alcohol covers them completely. Seal tightly with a lid or, if your lid is not tight-sealing, cover with plastic wrap, secure with a band, and then cover with a lid,

Infuse for at least 30 days. If the plant matter still appears green, not brown, continue to infuse until all the chlorophyll has dissolved.

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Strain the tincture through fine filters (such as a chinois, or several fine mesh tea filters stacked together) into a nonreactive clean container. The volume of the strained tincture will be greater than 750 ml, because the alcohol dehydrates the plant matter and adds water to the tincture. Measure the volume in ml. You should have nearly 900 ml. Do not add more grain alcohol to increase the volume; just note the amount so you can compute the ABV of the tincture.

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Make a simple syrup of 500 ml water and 500g sugar by combining the two in a pot over medium heat and stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Measure the volume in ml and note the total volume so you can compute the sugar concentration in the syrup. Note: If you hated/are not good at maths or are lazy, you can skip the computation steps and just skip to the instructions to mix equal portions of tincture, syrup, and water.

C(a): 712.5/Total volume tincture

C(s): Total weight of sugar (in grams)/Total volume finished liquid sugar syrup

There are three formulations of hierbas: one sweet (dulces, about 30% sucrose by weight and 20% ABV), another dry (seques, about 10% sucrose by weight and 35% ABV), and another medium-dry (mesclades, about 20% sucrose by weight and 25% ABV), which once was simply a mixture of the sweet and dry. If you haven’t tasted hierbas mallorquinas before, it can be hard to know which option you will like the most, so start with the mesclades recipe set forth below, and decide whether you want to add more alcohol or more sugar.

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For a medium-sweet liqueur, combine about 291 ml tincture with 324 ml sugar syrup and 395 ml water. Start with 300 ml water and taste; increase as necessary. Note: to be precise, you should compute the ABV of the finished tincture and the concentration of the sugar syrup before mixing so you can mix them correctly. If this is too much measuring for you, try equal proportions of water, syrup, and tincture (33% each by volume).

Once you have mixed your liqueur, you can decide whether to clarify or not. The sugar syrup captures and suspends the fine herb sediment present in the tincture, so it will be rather cloudy. This is normal. If it bothers you, clarify using hydrated gelatin finings and let the mixture stand in the freezer for up to two weeks before straining. Note: the hierbas used in the following candy recipe has been clarified. The advantage to not clarifying, though, is a more pronounced herbal flavor.

Hierbas wine gums

At Heston Blumenthal’s influential restaurant, The Fat Duck, the final phase of the tasting menu includes Whisk(e)y Wine Gums, an ingenious take on gummi candy that showcases the flavors of five different whisky (or, in the case of Tennessee, whiskey) producing regions, mounted onto a map of those regions. These have tremendous appeal for me, not just because I love whisk(e)y, but because I have a lifelong mania for gels. Given a choice between a gel- and non-gel formulation of any product, I will always choose the gel.

Different hydrocolloids yield different gel characteristics. Gelatin and certain pectins produce relatively soft, clear gels that melt at around body temperature and are responsible for the consistency of jelly, aspic, and ketchup. Using agar-agar makes for brittle gels like the almond jellies popular in Asia; gum arabic, firm, chewy gels like gummi bears. In the recipe below, developed from Blumenthal’s Whisk(e)y Gums recipe (Fat Duck Cookbook, 304-05), gelatin and agar combine for a soft but highly elastic gel that lets the hierbas shine.

15 g powdered gelatin
2 g powdered agar
30 ml hierbas

100 ml glucose syrup
55 g caster (superfine) sugar
1.4 g tartaric acid (substitute 2.5 g cream of tartar)
40 ml hierbas

35 ml hierbas

Combine the gelatin, agar, and 30 ml hierbas and wait 30 minutes to hydrate completely. Bag and seal in a chamber sealer. Drop into a 185F/85C circulator or in a pot of water on the stove at the same temperature.

Combine the glucose, sugar, tartaric acid, and 40 ml hierbas to hydrate completely. Bring to a simmer and then to a boil. When the mixture reaches 255F/124C, remove from the heat. Whisk in the hydrated gelatin mixture. The mixture will foam and appear opaque. Take the temperature, which should have dropped considerably. At 212F/100C, stir in the remaining hierbas. The mixture should become clear. Note: this entire mixing process should not take more than a minute or two.

Transfer immediately to small polycarbonate candy molds (to ensure easy unmolding, you can wipe a very thin film of neutral vegetable oil in each mold, but this may not be necessary). Cover and chill.

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Unmold not more than 30 minutes before service (or unmold and keep refrigerated). These gums can be rather sticky from the glucose but are not brittle, so if you need to use the tip of a knife to unmold, any scars will self-repair. To prevent sticking to the plate, dust the base of the gums with caster sugar before unmolding.

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