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.

Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Beef, Holidays, Random Thoughts, Sandwich, Science, Summer

National Burger Month.

Reliable sources inform me that May is National Burger Month. This seems uniquely fitting – burgers are the food of warm nights on the patio and summer days at the drive-thru. And those of us from the upper Midwest have always regarded Memorial Day as the start of the official grilling season.

Despite its official-sounding endorsement, the “National … Day” appellation is somewhat misleading, suggesting that some arm of the state has conferred recognition on a particularly deserving food. As a matter of fact, no such honorific has been bestowed on any of the hundreds of food days, weeks, or months. Although it is indeed possible to obtain official recognition for a particular cause, through act of Congress or presidential proclamation, that process is cumbersome and generally reserved for subjects with more gravitas or general relevance than, say, a chili dog or saltwater taffy. Indeed, but for Ronald Reagan’s exaltation of frozen food on March 6, 1984 (mark your calendars), not one president has recognized the national significance of any food, whether commodity or local speciality – not even the burger. (If you’re interested, the University of Houston political science department maintains a searchable database of presidential proclamations.)

Rather, the National Food Days are a creation of food industry groups and corporations, with no more formality than selecting a specific date to honor a particular food, and trying to remember to celebrate it from year to year. If you liked, you could simply declare a national day for a preferred food, although odds are that someone’s already though of it. If you were really committed, you might instead start a festival to celebrate in more elaborate fashion. You might have heard, for example, of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a late July observance of the annual garlic harvest, or the longstanding ramp festival in Helvetica, West Virginia. Harvest festivals are an ancient and universal tradition; a couple of summers ago, toward the end of August, my husband and I found ourselves in Arles just before the Feria du Riz, or Rice Bullfight. The festival, meant to both mark the Camarguais rice harvest and celebrate French tauromachy, takes place annually in mid-September. The next year, passing through Vézénobres in Languedoc, we encoutered remnants of the annual Fête de la Figue, an apt celebration as the town overlooks a vast garrigue punctuated with fig trees both wild and cultivated. In the case of the hamburger, Seymour, Wisconsin hosts an annual Hamburger Festival in early August, reinforcing its claim as the rightful home of America’s preeminent dish. (As an aside, the burger’s invention remains a matter of dispute. Although my home state has recognized Seymour as the birthplace of the American classic, the Library of Congress has identified Louis’ Lunch of New Haven as the home of the burger, and perhaps half a dozen others, from Texas, Oklahoma, and the too-conveniently named Hamburg, New York, also lay claim.)

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The garrigue below Vézénobres, viewed through a fig tree

The garrigue below Vézénobres, viewed through a fig tree

There exists no harvest (or slaughter) season for burgers in this modern era of year-round meat production. Indeed, the hamburger has become so ubiquitous that it is synonymous with cheap, instant gratification – an unfortunate association, because a well-made burger is unbeatable. What makes a great burger? First, whether your patty is made from beef or turkey or plant matter, don’t skimp on the fat, and add some if you must. Burgers aren’t diet food, and if you’re concerned about calorie counts or fat content, the solution is to eat a smaller burger, not to serve yourself a dog chew toy. Second, if you use meat, grind it yourself from whole cuts. Mince is a great way to use up trim and scrap, and that’s good for long-cooked dishes like chili, but the best burgers require high quality meat. Third, the burger is as much about the accompaniments as the meat. Without tang, salt, and crunch, the burger-eating experience is somewhat soft and bland. And finally, a burger requires a bun, preferably a tender and fluffy one. If you’re an anti-carbohydrate fetishist, or committed to heresy as a way of life, you are free to reject the bun, but you’d then be eating steak hâché, not a burger.

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Ready to eat.

Ready to eat.

Burger architecture

Your goal, when crafting the perfect burger, should be to achieve the right balance of savory and sweet, tender and crisp, rich and acidic.

The meat:

If you’re making a beef burger, choose a meat with a prototypically “beefy” flavor. This means, of course, choosing a fatty cut from a well-exercised part of the cow. Filet mignon won’t do; apart from being far too costly to grind in good conscience, it’s also not very flavorful and somewhat mushy. Think about the beefiest cuts you’ve eaten, like a ribeye, or short rib, or tri-tip (as much I I love hangers, I don’t use them for burgers as they can taste somewhat kidney-ish when cooked to or past medium). Go for between 70 and 80 percent lean, and 20 to 30 percent fat. This is a mix I use, which takes away a lot of the guesswork and leans toward the fattier side (ratio by weight):

2 portions beef short ribs
3 portions beef chuck
salt

I use the KitchenAid food grinder attachment, which seems a popular way to grind meat at home. Cut your meat into 1″ chunks and freeze on a sheet pan for about 30-45 minutes if you can, to firm up the fat and connective tissue and reduce the chances of smearing. Grind with the smaller die. Your first pass through will be somewhat loose; if you grind a second time, the mince will more closely resemble ground beef from the market. You’ve probably been told not to “overwork” your meat when making the patty. It’s not because the meat changes character when you touch it; rather, the more you squeeze or pack the mince, the more tightly-knit your patty will be. Using a single-ground mince alleviates this problem because you just won’t be able to pack it that close, leaving plenty of room for the meat to shrink without becoming hard. A double-ground mince will, if over-packed, shrink and tighten more firmly. At the same time, however, single-ground mince can be harder to form into a patty that coheres.

The optimal patty size for a generous burger is 5 ounces/140 grams. Larger than that and you will overwhelm the typical bun. If you grind your own meat, don’t worry too much about packing too tightly – especially with a mince made from whole cuts with a decent amount of fat, your burgers will not become hockey pucks. If you buy store-ground mince, especially cryovacked meat, be sure to avoid packing too tightly as its high connective tissue content all but guarantees it will toughen as it cooks. Flatten the patty slightly in the center to account for tightening-up; if you don’t, you’ll be left with a golf ball at the end of cooking. Salt the hell out of both sides, or your burger will be bland however high quality the meat.

Grilling enthusiasts may consider this heresy, but a juicy burger with a crusty, browned exterior is the province of the flattop/skillet, not the grill. If you use frozen or pre-formed patties from the store (see Note below), you probably will have greater success on the grill than you would with fresh product.

Patties from freshly-ground beef (single-grind).

Patties from freshly-ground beef (single-grind).

By way of comparison, frozen Ripken Burger patty.

By way of comparison, frozen Ripken Burger patty.

The bun:

As important as the meat is, you should consider baking your own buns if you have the time. It sounds like crazy talk, but baking buns is easy and requires nothing more than a sheet pan, an oven, and about two hours of mostly hands-off time. I’m not a baker so I rely on others for these recipes, and the best is a recipe from Comme Ça, published a few years ago in the New York Times. It is foolproof, less rich than a standard brioche, and sturdy enough to absorb meat juices without disintegrating.

Light brioche bun

Light brioche bun

For added savor, toast your buns (on the cut side only) before serving, or place them, cut-side down, in the hot pan of burger drippings so they can soak up the fatty, meaty goodness.

Everything else:

Burgers require pickles, or something pickled to cut the richness of the meat and perk up the blandness of the bun. This is where you can have some fun. Crunchy cucumber pickles are pretty standard, but provide crunch and sourness, especially when you make your own. For a Korean twist on your burger, top it with spicy-sour kimchi; for Vietnamese flair, with pickled carrots and daikon. My favorite pickle for burgers is rounds of flash-pickled red onion, tart with sherry vinegar.

Flash-pickled red onion in sherry vinegar.

Flash-pickled red onion in sherry vinegar.

Burgers do not require raw vegetables. Unless they’ve been partially dried (or compressed), tomatoes just turn the bun into a soggy mess. Raw onions are just harsh and you’ll be tasting them for days. Although I almost never use it for any other purpose, I recommend iceberg lettuce, stored in ice water in the refrigerator, and dried well. Cut the lettuce into thick-ish (1/3″) shreds and toss with mayonnaise. Butter lettuce, although delicious and sturdy, slips around too much and delicate salad greens are immediately wilted by the burger’s heat, becoming slimy.

If you like cheese on your burger – and many people consider it essential – choose a cheese that melts well. Not only does it coat the meat uniformly, but it helps some of the more slippery toppings like pickles stick to the sandwich. American cheese is the obvious winner in the meltability category, with Port Salut a close second, but other, stronger cheeses may stand up better, flavor-wise, to the meaty burger. I’m partial to smoked Cheddar, or a five-year aged Cheddar from Vermont, but the older the cheese, the more crumbly. If you are of a scientific or adventuresome turn, consider making your own “processed cheese” from your preferred cheeses: it melts like Velveeta, but tastes like something you’d rather be eating. You can make it in varying quantities; ratios are expressed below in percentages by weight. I typically use the cheese scraps and ends in my refrigerator, and ale, like a copper ale.

100% cheese, any rennet-based type (note: non-rennet, acid-curdled cheese like ricotta does not melt and is unsuitable)
105% non-dairy liquid, including water or beer
6% sodium citrate
5% salt

Shred the cheese or break it into very small chunks.

Combine the sodium citrate, salt, and liquid in a pot and bring to a simmer, dissolving the sodium citrate and salt entirely. The mixture will have the consistency of a gel. Maintain a bare simmer

Using an immersion blender, blend the cheese bit by bit into the simmering liquid, pausing to incorporate the cheese completely before adding more. Blend until the sauce is completely smooth. Pour into a clingfilm-lined mold, fold the clingfilm over the top, and chill.

Slice with a wet, sharp knife when ready to use. Refrigerated, this will keep for several months.

Note: as an exercise in doing things a little differently, I agreed to try the Ripken Burger, a frozen product of Maryland’s esteemed Roseda Black Angus Farm. Roseda supplies beef to a number of esteemed restaurants in the Baltimore area, including Woodberry Kitchen, so I looked forward to good quality meat. The resulting burger, cooked in a skillet, was pretty juicy and tasty, for a frozen product.

The Ripken Burger, on a brioche bun with house-made "velveeta"

The Ripken Burger, on a brioche bun with house-made “velveeta”

At six ounces, it was about 20 percent bigger than I typically would serve – see how it is out of proportion with the bun. I haven’t cooked a frozen burger since my grad school days (a ritual, with Swiss cheese and mushrooms atop a toasted English muffin, before Golden State Warriors games), and I’ll stick with my habit of grinding meat just before cooking, as it only takes a few minutes, but if you are the sort of person who wants to keep burger patties in the freezer for impromptu grilling, you certainly could do worse than these. Their firmer texture makes them good candidates for the grill, as they are far less likely to fall apart when turning.

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Holidays, Potatoes, Quick Meals, Vegetables

Hats off to Hanukkah.

Note: I usually don’t republish old posts, but if you’re thinking of making potato latkes this week for Hanukkah, try these out. They’re delicious. I’ve omitted the discussion of sweet potato latkes and celeriac-potato latkes; if you want to try those, visit the original page. If you ask me, though, the classic potato latke, without embellishment, is the only way to go.

From R., 1 December 2009, Hanukkah: the best latkes?

Q: Thanksgiving is over, but Chanukah is just around the corner. Can you give me some latke advice?

What is your preferred potato? I assume there’s some ration of wax versus starchy that would yield the optimum pancake. Also, do you have some new vegetable variations I could work in the mix?

I’m thinking of making ahead and freezing, then reheating for the festivities. Anything special I should know?
Finally, since I’m being a nudzh, any other special Chanukah nosherai you’d like to share?

A: Thanks for your question! When you make latkes – or any other potato pancake – you really want to rely on the starch in the potato to hold the cake together, rather than a batter, which make the cake heavy. So you want to use a starchy potato. You’ll still need to use some egg and flour or matzo meal to bind the potato, but you won’t need much.

What’s a starchy potato? Potatoes run the gamut from “waxy” – meaning high water, low starch – to starchy. How can you tell? Starch content varies by variety, but, generally speaking, russet potatoes – large, with a dark, tougher skin – are starchier at 20-22% than the thinner-skinned, smaller red potatoes (16-18% starch). Yellow varieties, like Yellow Finn and Yukon Gold, are in between. There’s another difference relating to two components of starch – amylose and amylopectin – which relate to the way the starch diffuses or holds its shape. Waxy potatoes contain more amylopectin, and hold their shape better. But that’s more information than you need for this purpose. Brown good, red not so much. And that holds true as well for hash brown potatoes, when you want them to stick together.

So here’s my recipe for latkes. Good any time of year, and not just Hanukkah. I recommend you pre-sauté your onions to deepen their flavor and avoid any potential for a sharp raw bite. If you consider this fussy or want to save about five minutes, you can skip this step, but I recommend it. Finally, I use a food processor with the julienne disc to shred the potatoes into long thin strands, but a box grater works well also. Either way, squeeze the potatoes in kitchen towels as dry as you can – do it twice if you have time.

1 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 large yellow onion, minced
2 tbsp flour [you can substitute matzo meal if you like; I prefer it because it makes a crisper latke]
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
2 scallions, washed and root end removed, minced
kosher salt to taste (you will need at least 2 tsp)
black pepper
oil – preferably a blend of olive oil and canola, or just canola. If you intend to serve with a meat only meal, consider schmaltz, duck fat, or beef tallow for a really delicious treat.

Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to color slightly. Do not brown. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Combine the eggs, matzo meal or flour, nutmeg, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet (or wash and return to the stove).

Shred the potatoes in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Place in a clean kitchen towel (one that does not smell of detergent or dryer sheets), fold the towel over, twist the ends, and squeeze the towel over a bowl.

Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato. If necessary, repeat in another towel. Add the grated potatoes to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Don’t take too long with this step or the potatoes will discolor.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add up to 1/4″ of oil to the pan. Cook a test spoonful of latke mixture to ensure that the pan isn’t too hot (or too cold); adjust the heat accordingly. Fry heaping tablespoonfuls of the latke mixture, mostly the potato. Much of the egg mixture may remain in the bottom of the bowl – don’t feel compelled to use it all. (You can use it at the end to make more of a crêpe-y pancake.) Do not overcrowd the pan – in a 12″ skillet you probably can cook about four at a time. Drain cooked latkes on a rack and hold in a preheated 220F oven. Repeat until all the latkes are cooked. If the oil becomes dark or dirty, start over with fresh oil.

Season with salt if necessary (it shouldn’t be, in my experience) and a grind of black pepper. Serve with applesauce or sour cream. Enjoy!

Latkes (with a little black truffle, why not)

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Cheese, Holidays, Soup

Erratum – FYI to Blog Subscribers

Hey y’all! This is just an erratum for subscribers.

In my last post, Packers Packers Packers, the recipe for Beer cheddar soup contains an error. The recipe calls for 2 cups of stock or water. It should call for one cup.

The correction already appears in the online edition but will not appear in the version e-mailed to subscribers. I apologize for the error.

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Cheese, Holidays, Pork Products, Soup

Packers. Packers. Packers.

Last week, I received this question from a reader:

“It’s only 16 days and 2 hours until the Super Bowl…Super Bowl recipe time?”

Normally, I like to respond to reader questions in the Answers section, but I’ll take this question up front this year. Why? Because my Packers are in the Super Bowl! I don’t like to brag, but Wisconsin women are likely both to profess interest in the game and to possess serious knowledge of the sport, so don’t act so surprised.

I’m not going to present you with recipes for fussy tenderloin canapés or sushi. This Superbowl could not be more steeped in tradition – Packers and Steelers? Green Bay and Pittsburgh? Titletown, USA and the Steel City? It calls for traditional foods. Start off with warming cups of beer cheddar soup, a Wisconsin classic, using two of my home state’s best-known products. Move on to fiery crispy sriracha wings – and don’t be put off by the multiple steps. You’re just brining the wings first to keep them moist before coating in a light batter and frying, and if you want to skip the brining you can. Finish off with bratwurst-flavored meatball sliders, which admittedly have a stupid but descriptive name, and provide the flavor of bratwurst in a cute little meatball sandwich.

Enjoy the game! Go Pack go!

Beer cheddar soup

It may surprise you to learn this, but the Wisconsin lowbrow classic, beer cheese soup, relies on sound food science principles for its smooth texture. When you place a crouton and grated cheese on top of onion soup and melt it, the cheese becomes stringy, but when you whisk that same cheese into a béchamel sauce and then add a slightly acidic liquid – like beer – before heating the soup, it becomes smooth. Why is that?

Cheeses that are neither extremely moist nor very crumbly tend to become stringy when melted because the casein (a type of dairy protein) strands become linked to each other by calcium ions in the presence of heat. Starch – as in flour or cornstarch – coats the casein strands and interferes with their ability to link with the calcium ions. In addition, the acid in beer or wine (or lemon juice or vinegar) interferes with the action of calcium, preventing it from connecting to the casein, a key reason why fondue is so smooth. Finally, large quantities of liquid keep the particles far apart, reducing their tendency to link. The tendency to stringiness is far less pronounced in crumblier cheese, so select an aged, crumbly Cheddar (which also packs better flavor). How will you know if your cheese is prone to stringiness? Try to break off a piece. If it breaks easily into a crumbly chunk, you have a crumbly cheese. If it is rubbery and flexible, it’s string-town.

one medium onion, small dice
one small leek, white and light green only, washed well and diced
one carrot, peeled and small dice
one stalk celery, peeled and small dice

4 tbsp Wondra or flour
7 tbsp butter, divided
3 c milk
1 tsp dry mustard
1 1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
a few dashes of hot sauce
1 large bay leaf
4-5 sprigs thyme, tied together
1 c chicken or vegetable stock, or water
1 bottle of beer, preferably not light beer
1/2 lb extra sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
optional: popped popcorn to garnish

Place a stockpot or dutch oven over medium heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp butter. When the butter melts and begins to foam, add the carrots and lower the heat slightly, stirring. Cook until tender and then add the remainder of the vegetables. Continue to cook until the onion is translucent and the other vegetables are tender. Add the remaining butter to the pot and heat until it begins to foam.

Add the Wondra or flour to the pot and stir with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring, for several minutes so the flour loses its raw taste. The mixture will be like a paste around the vegetables- it will not be liquid. Add the milk slowly, stirring constantly as it comes to a simmer. It will thicken as it simmers. Do not let the mixture boil, or it will become less thick.

Add the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, hot sauce, thyme, and bay leaf, and then add the beer and stock, and continue to stir to keep the mixture smooth. Once it comes to a simmer, keep the mixture at a simmer for about five minutes.

Whisk in the cheese, keeping the mixture at a simmer, until the cheese all is incorporated and the soup is smooth. If the mixture is too thick, feel free to thin out with a little more beer. Serve in small bowls or cups and garnish with popcorn.

Beer cheddar soup.

Crispy sriracha wings

Before we get started, I know someone’s going to ask, and the answer is no – you can’t bake these wings, at least not once they’re battered. If you want to bake the wings, dispense with the battering step, but I tell you – they’re not an everyday food, so you probably shouldn’t sweat eating a couple of them fried as nature intended.

The secret to crispy chicken is to fry at the right temperature, and to use cornstarch in the batter. Yes, cornstarch. If you’ve ever had Korean fried chicken, you know how crisp that fried chicken can get. This batter is half cornstarch and half all-purpose flour, because cornstarch on its own fries up too hard – obnoxiously hard. If you can find it, substitute potato starch (potato flour) for the all-purpose flour.

Use a frying thermometer and don’t overcrowd the frying vessel. If the oil temperature dips below about 330F/165C, your food will absorb oil and will become greasy. Fry in batches, and hold the fried wings on a rack set over a sheet pan.

2 lbs chicken wings, trimmed and divided into two pieces each, or purchase “buffalo wing” cut

Brine:
1 quarts plus 2 c ice water
2 c water
1/2 c salt
1/4 c sugar or 2 tbsp honey
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds

Batter:
1 c each all-purpose flour or potato starch, cornstarch, and filtered water
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp hot (not smoked) paprika

1 gallon oil (I recommend grapeseed or canola)

Sauce:

1 tbsp water
3 tbsp sriracha hot sauce, more or less, depending on taste
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp celery salt

Cheese dip:

1/4 lb cow’s milk blue cheese, such as Maytag or Point Reyes
1 c sour cream
1 c mayonnaise, either prepared or from this mayonnaise recipe
1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
salt and ground black pepper

celery sticks to serve

If you are pressed for time, you can dispense with the brine. Lightly salt the chicken wings before battering. Otherwise, combine all the brine ingredients except the 1 quarts + 2 c ice water in a small saucepot and bring to a simmer. Cool down with a handful of ice cubes and add to the remaining ice water in a very large stockpot or hotel pan. Add the chicken wings. Brine for about 2 hours.

Combine the cheese dip ingredients except the blue cheese, incorporating until smooth. Add the crumbled blue cheese and stir just to mix. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Pour the oil into a large vessel leaving at least 6″ of space at the top (preferably more, especially if the vessel is deep). Bring the oil to 350F/176C. Meanwhile, combine the batter ingredients in a large, wide bowl. If the batter seems too thick and somewhat paste-like, add a tbsp or so more water to loosen it up. Drain the wings and spread out on a rack lined with a paper towel to dry on both sides. Discard the towel (or towels – you may need a few to pat dry).

Prepare the butter sauce: Place all the sauce ingredients except the butter in a pan and bring just to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add the chunks of butter and swirl the pan until the butter melts and emulsifies. If necessary, turn the heat back on the lowest setting while swirling to warm just enough to continue to melt the butter.

Add the wings to the batter and toss to coat evenly. Add wings one at a time to oil, using a wooden spoon to keep them separate as they first enter to keep them from fusing.

Cook until golden brown and cooked through, about 4-6 minutes. Drain on a rack and repeat until you have cooked all the wings. Cool the wings slightly before tossing in the sauce – pour the sauce into a bowl and toss the cooked wings in the sauce. Depending on volume you’re preparing, send out some wings about 1/3 of the way through tossed in sauce and served with cheese dip and celery sticks.

Sriracha wings, Maytag blue cheese dip.

Bratball sliders

I don’t usually go in for stupid food names, but this one happens to be merely descriptive. In case you want to make something more substantial and less snacklike, you can turn these into bratburgers by forming patties instead of balls, and frying them as you would burgers. Just be sure to cook them all the way through – being pork, you can’t cook them to rare or medium rare.

I’m providing two methods – a ridiculously easy method, and a more time consuming one. Use the ground meats for the easy method, but buy from a responsible source such as a butcher whom you know grinds his/her own meat. To make things really, really easy, dispense with my spices altogether and pick up the Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning from Penzeys – a company which, by the way, is based in my very own home town, Brookfield, Wisconsin. In Packerland. If that doesn’t say something about destiny, I don’t know what does.

1.5 lbs ground pork or pork shoulder
1/2 lb ground veal or veal breast [note: if you can’t find ground veal, you can use all pork in this sandwich]

one medium onion, diced [note: omit if you are using the pre-made Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning]
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c panko

EITHER:
1 3/4 tsp Morton’s kosher or 1 1/4 tsp Diamond kosher salt
1 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp celery seed
– OR –
2 tbsp Penzeys Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning

about 18-24 soft potato dinner rolls or 8 burger buns
whole grain mustard or spicy brown mustard
pickled red onion

Easy way: combine all the seasonings with the eggs and panko. Remember that the seasoning already contains salt. Pour evenly on the ground meats. Combine quickly, tossing rather than mashing, until evenly distributed. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning or salt and add more as necessary.

More difficult way: Obviously, you will be grinding the meat. Combine all the seasonings. Cut the pork and veal into about 3/4″ cubes and toss with the seasonings and diced onion. Spread the cubed meats and onion evenly on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.

Once the meat is firm but not solid frozen, grind the mixture using the coarse die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Pass it through again if you like a fine texture. Note – if you want to stuff these into casings at this point, consult my earlier post on sausages for instructions. You should add 1/4 tsp Prague Powder #1 (pink salt) to the seasoning mixture if you’re stuffing it. Combine the panko and egg and spread evenly over the ground product and combine quickly, tossing rather than mashing, until evenly distributed. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning and add more salt, nutmeg, white pepper, mustard, etc as necessary.

For sliders, form lightly into balls about 1 1/2″ in diameter. For bratburgers, form lightly into patties. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, film with oil. Fry the meatballs or burgers on one side until browned, and flip with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook through completely. Don’t overcook them, though – they need to be moist.

Serve with spicy brown mustard or grain mustard, and pickled red onion, on dinner rolls or burger buns. Many Upper Midwesterners consider ketchup an abomination with brats, but I won’t judge.

Bratballs on dinner rolls. Mustard, pickled onion.

Imp ‘n’ Arn

I’ve never been to Pittsburgh – not to stay, anyway. I’ve connected through its fine airport several times and have passed through its southern suburbs on the way to Ohio on I-70. But I don’t know anything about Pittsburgh, other than its location, its association with several fine universities, and its close relationship to the steel industry. Recently, NPR ran a great story about Pittsburgh’s transformation from industrial city to tech center, and how this diversification has buffeted the city against the recession to some degree. Give it a listen – it’s a surprising story, if you used to think Pittsburgh = Rust Belt.

I do know one more thing about Pittsburgh, though. One of my brother’s college roommates, a great guy named Steve, was from Pittsburgh and from time to time, when my brother returned home on winter breaks from Cornell, he would occasionally refer to “Imp ‘n’ Arns,” usually with a Pittsburgher accent, especially if he and Steve were on the phone. It’s a shot and a beer, basically, so if you don’t have the Pittsburgh-specific raw materials, just have whatever.

12 ounces of Iron City beer
1 1/2 ounces of Imperial whiskey

Do the shot. Chase with the beer.

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Holidays, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Science, Vegetables

Gratinizing.

This summer was the warmest weather on record for DC, and New York, with 52 days over 90F in June, July, and August, and no relief at night. Those sweaty days are a distant memory now – the entire east coast, from the Carolinas to New England, is either digging out from under a couple of feet of snow or being slapped by 35 mph winds. A thick, even coating of salt spray coats my car, and the gales in Baltimore are so strong that even the interior doors are rattling.

Seasonal eating! That’s why we do it. During the hottest days in July and August, we ate nothing heavier than chilled zucchini soup and completely raw salads of peaches and corn. Melons went straight from the refrigerator to the blender with a squeeze of lime; tomatoes, sliced thickly and spread with cooling mayonnaise, dripped juice into a thick slice of sourdough. Today, though, the shiny and identically pale pink tomatoes in the supermarket are about as inviting as the rock-hard, sour peaches from the southern hemisphere. When the temperatures head south of freezing, it’s time to turn on the oven and start thinking about braised meats, turnips, cabbages, potatoes.

It is no secret that potatoes are my favorite food and I look forward to autumn every year so I can cook all the potato dishes I want and more. Tonight, on the way home from the office, my husband and I stopped at My Organic Market to pick up some vegetables. As always, I was drawn to the potatoes. This time, though, I spotted something unusual: the heart-shaped potato.

Our potato god.

I put the heart-shaped potato in the basket. “This is very exciting. I’m going to buy it,” I informed my husband.

“Excellent,” he said. “Are we going to worship it?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Yes. It will be our potato god.”

The heart-shaped potato was of particular interest to me not merely because of its deistic qualities but because the USDA maintains fairly particular standards for grading produce for sale to the public. Potatoes, for example, generally must be classified as No. 1 to be sold as whole, unprocessed raw produce at retail. Among other things, U.S. No. 1 potatoes must be “fairly well shaped,” which means such a potato has “has the normal shape for the variety,” and “is not materially pointed, dumbbell-shaped or otherwise materially deformed.” A “seriously misshapen” potato – one which does not meet even U.S. No. 2 standards – is “seriously pointed, dumbbell-shaped or otherwise badly deformed.”

So what of the heart-shaped potato? By no means is this the “normal shape for the variety,” Russet Burbank to be exact. At the same time, however, I have a hard time imagining a potato grader giving the heave-ho to a heart-shaped potato. Who would be so cold? I picked up two heart-shaped potatoes tonight, as a matter of fact (the other one bore a closer resemblance to the state of Michigan in 3-D and was perhaps a more marginal candidate for retention). And just to hedge my bets, I put two Yukon Golds in the basket as well.

Yukon Golds (medium starch, non-deistic)

What were my plans for these potatoes? Just before Christmas, the New York Times T magazine interviewed Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food. The culinary innovators stated in closing that they were “bringing back the potato gratin.” I actually started from my seat (and bumped into my desk, since I was reading the piece in the office), since I too am bringing back the potato gratin. Of all the great, classic potato dishes, potato gratin has the potential to involve the most work for the lowest payoff. The best gratins feature thinly sliced potatoes, layered atop each other and pressed into a soft cake of multiple layers. More often, though, the resulting dish is a series of slippery, too-distinct layers, separated by a mass of curdled protein and grease, not a thick, firm, and creamy potato cake. You go through the hassle of slicing all those potatoes, layering them in a gratin dish in precise overlapping shingles, seasoning each layer and pouring cream over all, and in the end the whole thing isn’t all that great.

I’m not sure why – maybe it’s something in the water of the mid-Atlantic – but this year, I decided to change my gratinizing technique. The time just seemed right. I knew from making various pasta gratins, for example, that the best way to prevent melted cheese from separating and clumping is to make a mornay sauce, which is basically a béchamel with grated cheese whisked in. In the classic mornay sauce, the starch from flour keeps the cheese proteins from clumping together as they melt. I wasn’t planning to bake the potatoes in mornay sauce – you don’t need or want cheese in a classic potato gratin – but the lesson is to protect the dairy proteins with starch. Sliced potatoes release quite a bit of starch, and it seemed to me that potato starches could serve the same purpose as the flour in a mornay sauce – to coat the dairy protein and prevent it from clumping together. How to get the potato starch into the milk? Cook the potatoes in the milk.

The result is not only a perfect gratin, but a much faster one as well. By cooking the sliced potatoes in seasoned milk before turning them into a gratin dish, you achieve four-fold benefits. The potatoes cook much more quickly than they would in the oven and are seasoned more evenly, while the released potato starch prevents the milk proteins from clumping and separating. Meanwhile, the starch thickens the milk, yielding a creamy sauce. Depending on the thickness of the potato slices, the gratin can be finished in fewer than 20 minutes.

Perfect gratin.

Potato gratin

I’ve found that medium-starch potatoes retain their shape best but release enough starch that the slices cling together in a fairly thick cake bound in a creamy sauce. Yellow potatoes like Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn tend to be medium-starch, medium-moisture. “Waxy” potatoes, which tend to have red skins, don’t release enough starch for my taste, and starchy potatoes like Russets (the heart-shaped potato god depicted above) tend to break apart during cooking.

One more thing. I’ve read some crazy things about the French expression of potato gratin, pommes dauphinoise, including those that assert that the milk really is supposed to curdle (to approximate some sort of ersatz cheeselike state). No less an authority on gluttony than Jeffrey Steingarten has made this claim, which seems to me ridiculous. Why would the French bake potatoes in milk until it curdled? That seems to me contrary to anything the French would do. Now, some recipes for pommes dauphinoise call for cream – single (light) cream, half and half, or heavy cream – rather than milk, and that seems to me plausible, if kind of heavy. So if you like, feel free to substitute cream for some of the milk. But don’t let it curdle. The gratin should be smooth, with a fine, dense texture.

2 lbs (about four to six) medium-starch potatoes, such as Yellow Finn or Yukon gold, peeled
About one quart of milk (you probably will not use it all), or substitute up to 1 c cream for every 3 c milk
Leaves from three or four thyme branches
scant 1/2 tsp salt per pound of potatoes
One or two large garlic cloves
Optional: Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
Oven 400F

Heat about ½ cup of the milk to about 120F and stir in the salt and the thyme. Ensure that the salt is dissolved and add to the rest of the cold milk or milk/cream mixture.

Using a mandoline or benriner, slice the potatoes thinly (you also may use a food processor) and add them all to a pot. Pour seasoned milk over just to cover, and place over medium low heat. Bring the entire pot to a simmer. Be careful not to let the milk boil, as it may curdle and will certainly boil over. If your potatoes are sliced very thinly (as they would be if you use a benriner or a mandoline set to 1/16”), the potatoes should be just tender virtually as soon as the milk simmers. If they are not just tender, simmer for another minute or two until they are tender.

Rub a large shallow gratin dish (or several small gratin dishes) with the garlic clove. Dispense with the painful layering process – gratin is, after all, a rustic dish – and pour the potatoes into the gratin dish, with milk to cover. Sprinkle with cheese, if you’re using it. Bake until bubbling and golden brown. Cool slightly. Don’t worry if the dish appears somewhat moist – the potatoes will absorb any remaining liquid, firming up and becoming thick and creamy.

Gratin.

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Holidays, Q&A

Holidays on the shelf.

It’s the holiday time of year again, and if you partake in gift-giving traditions, you might be wondering what to buy the cook in your life. As I posted last year, cookbooks are never wrong. Now, there’s been a lot of talk recently about mobile apps – and it’s true, you can use apps to search for recipes and create shopping lists on your iPad or iPhone while commuting on the bus, or what have you. I’ve been trying to find someone who’ll help me develop an app for my cookbook, matter of fact, so if you know someone, give me a shout. But when you’re actually in the kitchen, there’s nothing like a paper-and-binding cookbook. You can lay it flat on the counter or hold it open on one of those stands; you can run your finger down its pages when trying to recall your place in the recipe; you don’t have to squint at its tiny type, or swipe your poultry-smeared fingers across the screen of your phone. You can write your own notes, when you want to change something in the recipe to make it your own. There’s no real substitute for paper.

So I received a couple of reader requests for my top five cookbook recommendations. That’s tough, because some of them are from last year’s list. On Food and Cooking, for example, and The Flavor Bible, two selections from last year, are books I will recommend year after year. Neither is a cookbook. Both are guides to understanding food that anyone who takes a genuine interest in cooking should read. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee provides the story of the foods we eat in their scientific, historic, and cultural contexts. He’s not Alton Brown, either. Does that make it sound like school? Maybe it is, a little, but in a good way. It’s like going to college, where you get to study what you want, and what you want to study is food. The Flavor Bible is a stunning reference work on building complex flavor. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, in consultation with hundreds of professional chefs, will tell you how to put together any one ingredient with any other ingredient, and if it shouldn’t be done, you’ll know. If you read this book in conjunction with McGee’s, combinations that might have been inapparent before will seem obvious. It’s genius.

So what does this leave for my top five? It took some time, but I narrowed it down. Leaving aside those top two, here are five other books I strongly recommend. They cover the bases – classic French technique; component-building; quick guides to the basics; dim sum; and local cuisine par excellence. Only the last book is new. The others have provided years of service in my kitchen – what better recommendation do you need?

Happy holidays, everyone! And now, the list.

1. Jacques Pepin, Complete Techniques. When I was first learning to cook, this book only existed in its original two-volume format, and was long out of print. I couldn’t find both volumes, and the second volume (mostly desserts), besides being less valuable for my purposes, was outrageously expensive. When this combined volume was released in the mid-1990s, I bought it immediately.

This is a softcover book. The step-by-step illustrations, in the original black and white, are an immense help to anyone who wants to learn classic French technique. If you want to learn to make a ballotine or Paris-Brest, don’t even think of trying Julia. Consult Jacques.

2. Diane Forley, Anatomy of a Dish. Why do eggplant and tomato taste so good together? Why do we often pair onion and garlic? How do we decide how to pair certain proteins with certain accompaniments? Diane Forley, formerly of NYC’s Verbena Restaurant, took the scientific approach to constructing her plates. If you’ve ever struggled with constructing a harmonious dish out of multiple components – much less a cohesive, progresssive menu – this book provides a thoughtful method for developing sound pairings and progressions. And although this isn’t a vegetarian cookbook – in fact, the vegetables and grains often provide a platform for animal proteins – Forley emphasizes the role of botany in developing vegetable combinations. You’ll learn why quinoa and spinach pair so well together, and be pairing crucifers like a pro.

3. Filip Verheyden, Basics: The Foundations of Modern Cooking. It’s a tiny book – the height and width of one of those Moleskine journals, and not a whole lot thicker. But in it, you’ll find instructions for everything from roast chicken to braised short ribs to ham mousse, “seawater” gelée, the technique to cook vegetables sous vide, and the foams essential to modern cuisine. Who needs an app when you can carry this book in your bag?

4. Huang Su-Huei, Chinese Snacks. Dim sum is a dismal affair in most American Chinese restaurants – greasy, heavy, flat. Why put up with it? Because you could never make it at home. Well, that’s nonsense. You certainly can make dim sum at home. This is the authoritative guide for the home cook. The instructions are in both English and Chinese; the book is part of a series on various Asian cuisines by a Taiwanese processed food company that makes admirable frozen dumplings as well as a wide variety of condiments. With this book, and ingredients available in any Asian grocery (and many supermarkets), you can make everything from fried meat dumplings to glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves to those little egg tarts that finish off every visit to a dim sum restaurant. Once you’ve tried your hand at the obvious, turn your attention to the moon cakes eaten at the autumn harvest festivals.

5. René Redzepi, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The only new book on the list, this is a must-read if you want to understand the future of local cuisine. René Redzepi, the Danish chef who put Noma on the map with two Michelin stars and the Most Important Restaurant sobriquet, presents the essence of Scandinavia in each dish. Redzepi harnesses modern techniques and technology to make the climate and geography of Denmark – one of the world’s most culinarily forbidding places – his allies rather than his enemies.

This book isn’t for everyone. It’s not for the home cook who’s putting out family meals, and it isn’t for the cook who needs a lot of instruction. This book provides a thoughtful insider view of the limits of local cuisine, and if you’re buying for someone who seeks the ultimate local challenge, or a “locavore” who wants to explore the full implications of that word, this is the book.

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