Cheese, Fruit, Random Thoughts, Salad, Science, Vegetables

Brilliant disguise.

There is something inherently fascinating about things that are not what they appear to be. Throughout history, people have engaged in masquerades, discarding their true identities in favor of new ones, even if only temporarily. Insects and reptiles and sea creatures assume other colors and forms to deceive predators; in a sophisticated double ruse, the viceroy and monarch butterflies resemble each other, with each posing as its distasteful counterpart. Objects sometimes even pose as other objects. The National Palace Museum in Taipei maintains on permanent display two pieces of sculpture – one, a slab of jasper, the “Meat-Shaped Stone,” rendered as red-cooked pork belly; the other, a chunk of jadeite carved into a head of Chinese cabbage – that perfectly mimic pieces of food, so perfectly one cannot help but circle the display case, nose to the glass, squinting at the detail, marveling at the success of the deception. The Meat-Shaped Stone in particular is uncanny, having wholly abandoned the hard qualities of rock and in favor of the wobbly, fatty qualities of braised pork, down to the tiny follicle pores on the glazed rind.

Meat-Shaped Stone

Even actual food sometimes masquerades as other food, or even as inedible matter. There’s a certain fetish in modernist cuisine for trompe l’oeil cooking, things that fool the eye. Faux “caviar” tasting nothing like fish eggs is probably the most common deception, but you also will encounter near-perfect facsimiles of garden topsoil made from dried chicory, roots, and tubers at restaurants like Manresa and Noma, or kaolin-shelled potatoes resembling hot stones at Mugaritz. This fascination with culinary mimicry extends to more quotidian foods like cake, which appears in the guise of whole jack o’lanterns, Barbies, and the revolting “kitty litter cake,” in which Tootsie Rolls stand in for cat feces and serving the cake in a genuine cat litter box is considered the pièce de résistance of presentation. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could eat anything designed to look like someone took a shit in a box, but judging from the online popularity of the cake I seem to be in the minority. The height of bacon-sausage gonzo-ness a few years ago yielded grandiose projects like entire football stadiums crafted from summer sausage, blocks of cheese, and crackers. Now, Wisconsin girls love to party with sausage and dairy products, but there’s a point at which fashioning snacks into architectural wonders starts to take on a clown college quality.

A philosophical inquiry into the nature of mimicry deserves its own discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the food. For example, the flesh of a tomato looks like raw ahi. And a mozzarella ball is the same shape as a tomato. Can the tomato become a convincing ahi tartare? Can the mozzarella ball become a tomato?

Caprese salad

The inspiration for this dish is Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit,” one of the most famous trompe l’oeil foods and an homage to the medieval craft of disguising meat-based items as realistic-looking fruit. Blumenthal fashions foie gras mousse into a sphere and dips it in a mandarin gel, yielding an eerily realistic facsimile of a mandarin orange, down to the orange-peel texture. Rather than coating a meat base with the tomato gel, I thought mozzarella would be a better pairing. Taking it one step further, burrata is even more delicious and is soft enough to accommodate an injection of basil pesto. The resulting dish looks like a small tomato, but tastes like a caprese salad.

IMG_8030On the left, the real thing. On the right, the impostor.

A note: store-bought burrata is notoriously expensive and never nearly as fresh as it should be, so make your own if you can or don’t bother spending the extra money on burrata. Just buy fresh mozzarella instead. Due to the presence of rennet, burrata will continue to firm up over time as the enzyme sets the dairy proteins in the cream filling. There is nothing you can do to stop this process short of eating the burrata before it totally sets.

Burrata

I don’t recall where I learned this recipe, but it’s a pretty bog-standard recipe for burrata. Temperature control is pretty important to a good finished product so be sure to use an accurate digital thermometer.

1000 ml whole milk
1/4 tsp calcium chloride
2 tsp citric acid
1/4 tsp liquid rennet
water
1 tsp salt
60 ml heavy cream

Combine the calcium chloride and the milk; whisk thoroughly to dissolve. Then dissolve the citric acid in about 1/4 c cold water and whisk into the milk over low heat. Bring to 88F-90F, stirring constantly.

Mix the rennet with a couple tablespoons of water (precise quantities are not terribly important) and add to the warmed milk. Stir several turns around the pot with a wooden spoon, and then let stand for about 10-15 minutes until the milk has set and pulls away slightly from the edge of the pot. Do not agitate or disturb at all during the setting process or your mozzarella will not form.

Once set, slice into 1″ cubes with a sharp knife. Bring the pot back up to 105F-108F, stirring gently with a silicone spatula to even out the temperature as the liquid heats. The curds should mostly lump together and fall to the bottom of the pot; some bits, ricotta curd-like, will float on top. Once the pot reaches that temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for about 15 minutes, continuing to stir gently from time to time.

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Strain out the curd, as much as you can, with a skimmer, into a fine mesh strainer. Strain out the remaining bits through another mesh strainer and add to the rest of the curd. Remove about 25% of the curd to a small bowl and combine with 1/4 tsp salt and the heavy cream. Set aside.

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Divide the curd into eight equal portions. Perform the following steps on each portion, start to finish, before moving on to the next one. Place in a microwave-safe bowl, microwave on high for about 45 seconds, and, using a wooden spoon, press against the side of the bowl to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle salt on the curd and knead on a ceramic plate, folding over itself and kneading as you would bread, until it is smooth.

Press into a circle with slightly thinner edges; add 1/8 of the creamed curd and gather up like a purse. Place in a square of clingfilm and twist to tie. Set in a muffin/cupcake tin to maintain the shape. Repeat until all the curd and filling are used.

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Pesto alla Farina

I can’t take credit for this pesto method; it’s my guess at the delicious pesto alla genovese I enjoyed at Farina in San Francisco a few years ago. Whereas a traditional basil pesto is made by pounding basil leaves to a paste with oil before incorporating cheese and pine nuts, in this case the pine nuts and olive oil are emulsified first with blanched garlic to form a thick, creamy base; the basil is then spun into the mix until it yields a bright green, smooth paste.

2 garlic cloves
100g pine nuts
125 ml extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian (grassy but not peppery)
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano
3 c basil
Sea salt

Blanch the garlic in simmering water for one minute. Drain.

Combine the pine nuts and olive oil in a blender and process until smooth. Add the blanched garlic and cheese and process again. Then add the basil; process until smooth. Season with salt as necessary.

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Tomato gel

This is a simple gel based on gelatin, which melts in the mouth. If using the tomato leaves freaks you out, you don’t need them. They just add a little bit of fresh tomato taste to the gel (and are not poisonous in the amounts you would typically use). The beetroot powder helps deepen the color intensity of the tomato gel but, again, is not essential.

1 kg ripe red tomatoes
salt
2 tbsp tomato paste (double concentrated)
4 tomato leaves
1/4 tsp beetroot powder
20g gelatin leaves

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh. Place the pulp and any accumulated juice in a strainer and allow the juice to drip out. Blend the juice with the flesh in a vitaprep and set aside for an hour to allow the solids to float up. Skim them off. This will not be a totally clear liquid as one would obtain through agar or gelatin clarification, but rather a more turbid juice; too clear, and it will not be opaque enough for the finished dish.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cold water and squeeze out. Measure out 250g of the juice and combine with the beetroot powder, tomato paste, and hydrated gelatin. Heat until well blended and then cool to about 50F. The gel should be somewhat thick but not set.

To assemble:

Unwrap a burrata sphere and inject the center, through the top, with the pesto. Fill the grooves with pesto as well and place in the freezer on a wax-paper lined plate or sheet pan for 15 minutes, with a skewer vertically through the center.

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Dip the spheres in the tomato gel, holding by the skewer. Return to the wax paper and re-freeze. Repeat twice (you probably will need three or four dips in the gel to achieve the right appearance). If the dipped cheese sticks to the wax paper, use a spoon to lift it off the paper so the tomato gel doesn’t come loose.

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Serve with bread and olive oil; refrigerate “tomatoes” if not using immediately.

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Tomato tartare

Tuna tartare, usually made with ahi, has become somewhat cliché. It’s always formed in a ring mold with mimosa eggs or raw quail egg yolk, “Asian-ized” with sesame oil, soy, and some kind of citrus, or tossed with avocado and served on pita chips. Guy Fieri serves it in tacos at the same Times Square restaurant Pete Wells reviewed, in a blistering takedown, two years ago. Guy Fieri. I rest my case.

It’s more interesting to make a tomato salad that looks like a tuna tartare. A spherified yellow tomato purée stands in for a raw egg yolk; the compressed tomato is a dead ringer for diced tuna, punctuated with onion, mustard, and herbs. When you pierce the sphere, it will run, just like the yolk. If you don’t want to make the spherified tomato, just skip it. Capers or diced pickled vegetables are also perfectly cromulent additions to this salad.

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500g large yellow tomatoes
500g large red tomatoes
1 tbsp shiro shoyu (white soy)
1 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
sodium alginate .8%
calcium chloride .5%
small white onion
small bunch chives
smal bunch tarragon
2 tsp dijon mustard (I used an espelette mustard)
2 tbsp olive oil
black pepper
edible flowers and additional herbs if desired
salt
piment d’espelette

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh, leaving only the exterior flesh. Reserve the pulp, interior flesh, and any accumulated juice.

Combine the vinegar and shoyu. Pack the trimmed red tomato flesh in a vacuum bag, in a single layer, and add the vinegar mixture. Vacuum. Set aside. Note: if you do not have the means to vacuum pack your tomato dice, the tomato will not firm up, as it would under vacuum, and the dice will not remain very distinct. If you do have access to calcium chloride, you can set the tomato halves in a .1% solution for 30 minutes and then dice as specified below.

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Place the trimmed yellow tomato, plus any juice drained from the pulp and interior flesh, in a container and weigh out 250g into a blender. Add 2g alginate, 1/2 tsp salt, and blitz until fully dispersed. Set aside for at least 30 minutes to hydrate.

Blend together the calcium chloride and water (5g per 1000g water; scale down if you like). Drop the alginate/tomato blend by a small scoop or dosing spoon into the calcium bath and set for about 30-45 seconds, until the exterior skin has formed but the spheres are still wobbly. Drain with a perforated spoon and place in a plain water bath.

Finely dice the vacuum packed red tomato. Finely dice the white onion. Whisk together the mustard, oil, and 1 tbsp each minced tarragon and chive. Stir in the tomato and onion dice. Note: again, if you do not have access to the means to vacuum your tomatoes, you can try leaving the dice in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for about an hour. The liquid will drip out. This will not substantially improve the firmness of the tomatoes but it will make them less liquid.

Plate the tomato mixture and add the yellow tomato “yolk.” Garnish with herbs, flowers, and espelette.

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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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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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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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