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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Seafood, Soup

Life’s a bisque.

Back in the mid-1980s, I waited tables on and off for several years at the Woolworth’s Coffee Shop in the Brookfield Square Mall. In case you ever hoped for a glimpse into my own special brand of psychopathy, here’s one. I loved waiting tables. The tips were awful, owing to a combination of Wisconsin cheapskate-ness and the fact that the food was inexpensive in the first place. I had to work with this guy named Ernie who was studying accounting at UW-Milwaukee and responded to anything I said by telling me “I don’t play penny-ante,” which meant nothing to me at the time and still doesn’t. The busboys and dishwashers were constantly locking me in the walk-in and harassing me by following me around with frozen hot dogs in their pants until I noticed. I had to make all my own desserts, and invariably a family with six kids would demand milkshakes and banana splits during the busiest part of the Saturday lunch rush. But even so, I cultivated a long-term plan to continue waiting tables, possibly even at the Woolworth’s. I’ll finish med school, I’d tell myself, and then when I’m a surgeon or whatever, I’ll cut back on waiting tables to just weekends. You know, just for fun. Sometimes it’s good to let go of your adolescent dreams.

Waiting tables wasn’t simply a matter of taking orders and bringing them to table. In between, we were constantly busy – filling the ice bins, replacing the syrup concentrate in the soda fountains, cleaning everything, making the hated ice cream desserts, dishing out soup. The soup came from the prep kitchen in deep pots, to be inserted into a steam table and ladled out to order. When fresh, the cream soups were pleasantly creamy and studded with bits of broccoli and the like. As they sat steaming for hours, though, they took on the viscous quality of unadulterated Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom. I liked to favor my customers by telling them when the soup was fresh, and when to avoid it (I know, pretentious). When I learned to cook during law school, I realized why the soup changed so much during its time in the steam table. The Woolworth’s cream soups, like many such soups, are based on a blond roux thickened with stock and milk. As it sits, the flour in the roux continues to gelatinize, and as the liquid in the soup evaporates, the mixture eventually becomes somewhat gloppy. Boiling, or the addition of more liquid, would have thinned it out again, but back then I didn’t understand much about starch properties.

When I make cream soups now, I generally avoid using roux for textural reasons. In addition to the dreaded gloppiness, roux can leave behind a floury taste and sensation. It’s also highly caloric, being equal parts flour and butter. If you crave that sort of thick quality, vegetable soups made with pectin- or cellulose-rich foods, such as carrots and onion, tomatoes and squash, all will be naturally thick when blended, and any added cream is purely for fat and flavor. Seafood soups, like chowders and bisques, are lighter and enjoyable without the thickness of roux, which obscures the brininess of the shellfish.

Shrimp bisque

The multiple sous vide preps seem like a pain but they make for a seriously intense shrimp fumet, and I really prefer the flavor and texture of the shrimp cooked at the lower temperature. The bisque will not be thick/gloppy like a typical roux-thickened “bisque.”

1 1/2 lbs whole shrimp (heads on would be best but shell is fine), shelled and cleaned
one large onion, about 10 oz, peeled and sliced pole to pole
1 large banana shallot, peeled and sliced pole to pole
1 large or two small stalks celery, peeled and sliced
3 c fish fumet
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp brandy (I used Torres Jaime I from Spain but cognac also will do nicely)
1/3 c dry white wine
2 fresh bay leaves
several branches thyme
4-6 stems parsley w/leaves
celery salt
piment d’espelette
1 c heavy cream
4 tbsp butter
garniture: pickled ramps, chive, celery leaves, parsley leaves

Season the shrimp lightly with celery salt and seal in a vacuum bag with a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, and about 2 tbsp butter, divided. Keep cold until about 10 mins before service. [note: you probably won’t use all the shrimp for the bisque; feel free to use it for something else like shrimp & grits, etc].

Seal the remaining butter with the celery and onions, and a little celery salt. Seal the shells with the fumet, parsley, the remaining bay leaf and thyme. Set an immersion circulator to 183F; drop in the two bags. Pull the veg after 40 mins and the shells/fumet after 1 hour. Strain the shells/fumet through a chinois lined in a double thickness of cheesecloth; pressing hard on the shells. Turn off the circulator and add some cold water.

[If you don’t want to cook SV, place a skillet over medium low heat and, when hot, add the butter. Once melted but not browned, sweat the vegetables in the butter. Do not brown. Set aside. In another pot, combine the shells and fumet; cover and bring to a simmer for about 45 mins. Blend the shells and fumet and pass through a chinois lined in a double thickness of cheesecloth. Restrain if necessary.]

Bring the tomato paste and cognac to a simmer and reduce by 2/3. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Return the sweated vegetables to that pan and add the strained shrimp fumet. Blend using an immersion blender or transfer to a vitaprep. Return to the pan and reduce until you are pleased with the intensity of the shrimp taste (I reduced by about 15%). Add the cream and bring back to a simmer. Season to taste with salt/celery salt, and espelette.

Set the immersion circulator to 140F. Drop the shrimp and cook for about 8-10 mins depending on size; the shrimp need only be cooked through. [If you don’t want to cook the shrimp SV you can oil poach instead; try to keep it to around 140F.]

Serve the shrimp and bisque together garnished with pickled ramp (optional), chive, parsley, celery leaf.

Shrimp, pickled ramps, chives.

With shrimp bisque.

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Pork Products, Soup, Vegetables

Spargelzeit.

I don’t love white asparagus. To me, it’s a weirdo bitter albino Teutonic thing that’s acquired the hallmarks of fine dining because of its delicacy and relative scarcity. I say “relative” because now, on any given day, you can walk into any WholeFoods in this country and pick up a bunch – they seem to be grown in hothouses in Mexico.

Spargel-y

After eighth grade, I spent the summer in Germany tormenting my former Montessori preschool teacher and her relatives. I won’t go into the sordid details here; my mother reads this from time to time and some questions about my past remain unanswered. To keep it that way, all you need to know for purposes of this piece is that, for about three months, from Hannover to the Bodensee, I gave Americans a pretty bad name. Anyway, it will be no great surprise to you to learn that German food is hearty, even in summer. I gained over ten pounds on liver dumplings (leberknödel), stuffed cabbage (krautwickel), various sausages (wurst), fried potatoes (kartoffeln), and my favorites, schnitzel and spätzle. I also had white asparagus (spargel) in a few of its tastier preparations. White asparagus soup is a favorite in Germany – supplemented with heavy cream, of course – as are the spears simply steamed and doused in hollandaise, or wrapped in Westphalian ham and gratinéed under shredded cheese. I’m still not sure how Germany avoids being the world’s fattest nation.

Being from Wisconsin, I found the white asparagus preparation involving ham and cheese by far the most appealing. Recently, I sought some conventional green asparagus for a spring ricotta gnocchi dish and, finding none (weirdly considering this is April), I picked up the white stalks instead. I decided not to use it for the gnocchi – too much white and white, I felt – and had to figure out how to dispose of it. The ham-wrapped asparagus came to mind. I found a quart of bacon stock in the freezer – a byproduct of a braised bacon dish – and a bunch of parsley root. What could be better than these quintessentially German tastes in a soup?

Parsley root.*

White asparagus and parsley root soup

You will achieve the best results using a chamber sealer and then cooking the vegetables sous vide; they retain incredible flavor. But the soup will be plenty tasty if cooked conventionally, so don’t let me scare you off.

You probably won’t find parsley root unless you order it. I’ve only seen in in the market once. Small parsnips – harvested before they become thick and woody – will do in a pinch. They won’t taste quite like parsley root, but they’ll be delicious anyway.

1 1/4 lb white asparagus, peeled
3/4 lb parsley root, roots only, peeled – substitute small parsnips
2 bay leaves
6 branches thyme
2 tbsp ice cold butter
4 c bacon stock
6 cloves garlic confit
1/2 c heavy cream

Peel and trim the asparagus to 3″ lengths; peel abd slice the parsley root about 1/4″ lengthwise.

If cooking the vegetables sous vide, set the immersion circulator in a water bath at 183F/85C. Stack the asparagus in a single layer inside a vacuum bag with 1 tbsp butter, a bay leaf, and 3 sprigs thyme. Place the parsley root in a single layer inside a vacuum bag, again with 1 tbsp butter, a bay leaf, and 3 sprigs thyme. Seal each in a chamber sealer. Drop the bags in the circulator bath and cook for 25 minutes (asparagus) and 40 minutes (parsnips). Discard the herbs but not the butter. Bring the bacon stock to a simmer. Transfer 2 c stock to a vitaprep and add the parsley root, asparagus, whatever butter remains in the bags, and garlic confit.

[If not cooking sous vide, bring the bacon stock to a simmer and add herbs, garlic confit, and the parsnips, simmering, covered, until still slightly firm; add the asparagus and simmer until both are tender. Discard the herbs and transfer to a vitaprep/blender, reserving about 1 c of the stock.]

Blitz until smooth, resting briefly between blendings. Due to the saltiness of the bacon stock, you probably will not need additional salt, but taste and season if necessary. Add the cream and blitz again; taste again for seasoning and correct. Add more stock if necessary for a fluid soup consistency; you don’t want this to be a thick purée.

Soup, crouton.

To allude to the cheese-y gratin thing, maybe accompany with a frico of grated cheese, or a toasted crouton topped with Gruyère. I laid a thin slice of house-cured ibérico lardo over the top as an homage to the ham, because I have a huge chunk of lardo to use up. You might want to use a slice of aged ham.

*Photo courtesy MarkusHagenlocher, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wurzelpetersilie_Wurzel.jpg (I forgot to take a photo of my own before using it)

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Pork Products, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Seafood, Soup

Land and sea.

When I was a kid, we ate most family meals at home. My mom worked – like most women today – and, every day upon coming home from the local junior high, she’d pull ingredients from the refrigerator and pantry and start making dinner Some nights, we’d have American classics like roast chicken, beef stew, or spaghetti with meat sauce. Other nights, we’d have favorite Taiwanese dishes like soy braised pork with boiled eggs, or steamed fish with black bean sauce. And once in a while, we went out.

There weren’t a lot of dining options in the western suburbs of Milwaukee in the 70s and 80s, short of pizza, burgers, and family-style restaurants. My favorite place was Marty’s Pizza, which turned out enormous pizzas in rectangular pans, cut into squares. I ate it with friends at birthday parties and after high school football games, and there was something about the shallow-crusted pie, with its sweetish sauce and nuggets of Italian sausage, overlaid with bubbling, browned mozzarella, that was irresistible. Part of the lure of Marty’s was the fact that my parents would never take us there, for reasons they never explained – a family feud, perhaps, or a grudge against Marty? If my family went out for pizza, it would be to Shakey’s – where buffet stations entreated us to “Take all you want, but please eat all you take.” Shakey’s – which no longer survives in Milwaukee but as I understand it can still be found in parts of the South and West, and inexplicably the Philippines – seemed exotic in its own way, as round pans bearing thin, crisp-crusted pies would empty and reappear on the buffet stand, alongside fried chicken and battered Mojo potato rounds. Shakey’s had a sort of Olde English theme going, corrupted by pizza-parlor checked tablecloths and player pianos, and from time to time you would notice a wooden sign on the wall, reading “Ye Olde Notice,” that would inform the customer of its check acceptance policy or the superior quality of the pizza.

Once in a while, my parents’ appetites for lobster and crab took us to Red Lobster. While they cracked open lobster claws to dip in drawn butter with lemon, I invariably dined on the clam chowder. I was a picky kid, and my parents – rather than wasting the $15.99 on a frighteningly large pile of snow crab legs I’d probably just push around the plate – went with the safe bet. Having eaten many a can of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder, I could be counted on to enjoy a cup of Red Lobster’s chowder and a baked potato, heavy on the sour cream and butter. At some point in the meal, I usually proclaimed the chowder to be “excellent” and called for a second cup, to be eaten with as many cellophane packets of oyster crackers as I could charm off the waiter.

Red Lobster’s chowder was of the roux-thickened variety, practically as thick as béchamel and with a tendency to congeal once it cooled. In fact, I think I used to amuse myself by standing the spoon up in the chowder and counting the seconds before it would fall to the side. And to be honest, I’m not totally sure it contained fresh clams (which in retrospect would be really strange for a seafood restaurant, but it’s Red Lobster, and it was long time ago). I was six years old, though, and it obviously didn’t matter to me. I went crazy for the diced potatoes, the cream, and the little green bits of parsley sprinkled over the top.

Chowders of all kinds – clam, lobster, corn, chicken – are still a favorite, although I let the potato do the thickening these days, and I always add some kind of cured pork product, like bacon or pancetta. As you know, I’m a big fan of the ibérico de bellota pork products from Iberico USA, and I recently got my hands on some panceta, smoked bacon from the belly.

Panceta de ibérico de bellota.

My husband persuaded me to fry up a few slices – “to sample the product in its pure form,” he reasoned. I’ve cured my own ibérico bacon, but this panceta, having been smoked as well as cured, tasted like a superhero version of regular bacon. More crispy fat, more sweet/smoky meat. Of course, as we ate nearly half the package, only a few slices remained. I decided to incorporate them into clam chowder. Unfortunately, the market was nearly out of clams – the dozen manila clams they could offer weren’t enough for chowder – so we went to Plan B. Oyster stew. We’re still in the cold-water months (the so-called “R” months), and the oysters are plump and sweet.

Why seafood and pork products? They’re a classic combination, an age-old way for coastal communities to stretch scarce meat products with plentiful ocean resources. Most fish and nearly all shellfish are low in fat, and the richness of pork not only adds flavor, but provides additional fat to enhance the flavors of the seafood. Think of shrimp and grits, chowder (of course), the many Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that combine seafood and pork, and the Portuguese classic porco à alentejana. Of course, with the passage of time and increasing affluence, the land/sea combination came to epitomize a certain type of rapacious consumption, far from its origins. The surf and turf available at most steakhouses is an exercise in excessive “luxury,” a parody of fine dining; the carpetbagger steak, a favorite of notorious glutton Diamond Jim Brady, is so over the top it terrifies even my husband. There’s no need to make a mockery of the concept, after all.

Oyster stew

It’s worth the effort to use live oysters in the shell, rather than pre-shucked oysters in liquor. Roasting whole oysters in a blazing hot oven will impart a little bit of a smoky taste to the shellfish, and the roasted whole oysters yield far more liquor as well. Besides, once roasted, the oyster is easy to shuck; in fact, you’ll know it’s ready to go when the top shell pops open. Be sure to strain through the finest mesh possible to remove any grit.

The panceta from Iberico USA is luxurious, fatty, and delicious, and as things go, it isn’t crazily expensive. The fat is especially nice for cooking the leeks and celery. You can use any good quality bacon, though; just be sure to buy a thick cut, and reserve the fat for cooking. You want that smoky taste throughout the stew.

about three dozen oysters, scrubbed under cold water and kept on ice
6 fresh or 2 dried bay leaves
about 12 sprigs thyme
1 c dry white wine, like Champagne
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, washed well
2 ribs celery, strings peeled
1/4 lb bacon, preferably of ibérico de bellota
1 c heavy cream
pepper to taste
3 additional sprigs fresh thyme, about 6 chives, and 1/4 c flat leaf parsley

Oven 500F/260C.

Split the leeks in half lengthwise and slice thinly (less than 1/8″). Slice the celery ribs thinly crosswise about 1/8″. Set aside separately.

Arrange the cleaned oysters in a single layer over the bay leaves and thyme in one or more large, heavy pans (like sauté pans or a heavy roasting pan). Divide the wine equally among the pans. Place the pans in the hot oven and roast just until the oyster shells open. Remove immediately from the oven and, with tongs, move the oysters to a plate to cool, pouring the oyster liquor into the roasting pan as you go.

Ready to roast.

Roasted, with bonus oyster crab

Pour the remaining oyster liquor through a fine filter (such as a mesh tea strainer or a chinois). Repeat, lining the chinois/strainer with a triple thickness of butter muslin or cheesecloth. When the oyster shells are just cool enough to handle, pop the top shell open with an oyster knife and cut the oyster free. Keep the oysters in the liquor. If you find oyster crabs (pictured above), eat them!

Dice the bacon about 1/4″. Place a large, heavy saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add the diced bacon to the pan. Saute until crisp and deep golden brown; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp bacon fat (reserving the rest for a future use). Add the leeks and reduce the heat; sweat until tender. Add the celery and cook about 2 minutes more. Remove from the pan.

Mmm, ibérico bacon.

Strain the oyster liquor once more through the chinois into the pan. Bring to a simmer and reduce to 2 c. Return the vegetables to the pan, then the cream. Bring back to the simmer ad add the oysters. Heat through.

Garnish with the diced fried bacon and the minced fresh herbs.

Oyster stew, panceta.

Special thanks to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta for this dish.

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Beef, Brassicas, Cheese, Offal, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Soup, Vegetables

Cheeky.

One of the most interesting aspects of social networking is its potential to unintentionally reveal the truth about the self, the person behind the crafted public image. Along these lines, a surprisingly large number of self-described “foodies” – the kind of people who TiVo Food Network and would throw their panties at Michael Symon if he turned up in a local supermarket – evidently find certain foods too scary to eat. “I love ya Chef but sweetbreads I don’t think so……LOL!” goes one recent zinger on Facebook. “Ewwww….tongue!” says another. You can’t beat it for wit.

You already know about my low tolerance for this infantile attitude toward food. This goes back a long time. The summer after graduating from law school, I went to Spain and Portugal with some friends, a trip that reached its nadir one night in Seville when, nerves frayed from two weeks of hairpin turns in a packed Peugeot, sweaty nights in a series of hostels without air conditioning, and a couple of travel companions who displayed a surprising lack of dietary sang-froid, we got into an argument at the restaurant. Sitting beside the Guadalquivir and surveying the platters landing at tables around us, one travel companion complained that nothing on the menu was edible because all the seafood and poultry came head-on and bone-in.

“Just … order it,” I gritted tightly. “That’s how it comes in Spain.”

“Well, it’s gross,” she shot back. “I don’t eat food with the heads on. I don’t care where we are.”

“We’re not in Roseville, Brenda*. Shrimp has heads. Chicken has bones. There is no goddamn boneless chicken ranch.”

At this point there was a great scraping of metal on concrete as Brenda pushed back her chair, stood up, and threw her napkin down on the table. “You – are – such – a – @$%&^*@ – $#@&$!” she shouted, storming off and attracting the full attention of the other diners, who I’m pretty sure got the gist of her outburst even if they didn’t speak English. Good times, good times.

Looking back, I probably could’ve been nicer about it. For example, if I were trying to ease someone into the idea of eating offal today, I’d serve them braised cheeks. They’re basically like any other cut of meat but better, with all the flavor concentrated in one small disc, bathed in a glossy sauce. The plentiful collagen in the cheeks – heavily exercised by all that chewing – accounts for the sauce’s body.

Iberico pork cheeks.

Cheeks aren’t always the easiest cut to find, but I encourage you to look around, because they’re well worth the hunt. If you’ve got access to a market that caters to a Latino clientele, you might find them, as they’re a favored cut (and I’ve heard that Wal-Marts with well-stocked meat departments sometimes carry them in the freezer section, so give that a shot – it may be the only time I ever endorse stopping into the Wal-Mart). If you can’t find cheeks, substitute shank, shoulder (in the case of pork), or short rib (in the case of beef). Don’t substitute pork belly; it’s a lot fattier than the cheek, and you’ll wind up with a greasy braise. And don’t substitute hog jowl; it resembles the belly more than the cheek.

Pork cheeks, celeriac pancake, apple

If you subscribe to the textural variation school of cooking – and I do – you will want something firm or crisp to accompany the cheeks, since they’re falling-apart tender and saucy. A celeriac-potato rösti-like cake makes a great accompaniment. Relieve the richness of the cheeks with a fresh apple salad. If you have leftover cheeks, enjoy them with toast points, cornichons, and mustard for lunch.

I used ibérico cheeks and highly recommend them; they had an intensely meaty, nutty flavor that I haven’t encountered in any other type of pork. If you’d like to try them, Iberico USA carries them. The long braising process in the flavorful liquid makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of conventional pork, though, so don’t hesitate to make this dish if you can’t spring for the ibérico cheeks. Keep the cooking temperature low, as near to 180F as you can, to ensure tenderness rather than stringiness. The intention of long cooking at low temperatures is to break the collagen down into gelatin, which then bathes the meat’s muscle fibers. Although it may seem that braised meats cannot become dry, this is untrue; the fibers in the cheek, like those in other heavily-exercised parts of the animal, are long and will become tough, dry, and unpleasantly stringy if they lose too much moisture. If that happens, you can notice the stringiness even when the meat is adequately coated in sauce. So don’t be tempted to cook at a higher temperature, and always be careful when reheating.

One last thing: in a conventional braise, the meat is browned first to develop rich, savory flavors via the Maillard reaction. I dispensed with this step because the cheeks are quite small and I wanted to reduce the possibility that the meat would toughen up. It turns out not to be necessary.

Oh, actually, one last last thing: the ibérico cheeks came in a pretty large Cryovac package and, when thawed, gave up a few cups of blood. I saved the blood, which smelled sweet and clean, and not slaughterhouse-y in that way that factory-farmed (CAFO) pork smells. I’ll be making blood sausage with that in the future, so watch for the post.

2 lb pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
16 oz ale
1 1/2 quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp grated fresh horseradish root
bouquet garni

2 granny smith apples
lemon juice
chives, minced

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the ale and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half. This step is necessary to reduce the booziness of the beer.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

After removing the cheeks

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Heat through.

Prepare a brunoise of the granny smith apples and toss with a little lemon juice to prevent browning. Then combine with the chives.

Serve the cheeks with celeriac rösti wedges and the apple-herb salad.

Iberico cheek, celeriac rosti, mustard, celeriac purée.

For the celeriac rösti:

This isn’t strictly a rösti, which classically features just potatoes and butter. It just sort of resembles one.

1/2 celeriac root, washed and peeled (use a knife to peel, not a peeler)
1/2 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 medium yellow onions, minced
1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp ground celery seed
pinch of cayenne or espelette pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
kosher salt to taste, at least 1 tsp and probably more
black pepper
celery salt to finish
vegetable oil and butter

Oven 425F on broil. Set the rack in the middle position of the oven.

Place a 12″ 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, flour, celery seed, cayenne, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet.

Shred the celeriac in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Toss with about 1/2 tsp lemon juice to prevent browning (try not to use more or it will be sour). 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 and celeriac to the egg mixture and stir well to combine.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add about 1 tbsp each butter and oil to the pan. Swirl the pan once the butter foams to coat the sides about 1″ up. Add the entire mixture and distribute evenly throughout the pan, patting to compress somewhat. Cook until the underside is golden brown and pulls away slightly from the sides; transfer to the broiler.

Cook until the top is golden brown. Remove,cool slightly, and transfer to a cutting board. Slice into wedges. Season with a grind of black pepper and a little celery salt.

Golden brown cake.

Beef cheek, ricotta dumpling, cauliflower soup

Certain cuts of beef taste to me like “generic meat.” Beef tenderloin, for example – I’ve never really understood the great love of filet mignon (although I imagine it corresponds with the fear of offal). Or the round – there’s nothing really wrong with it, but I’ve had a lot of roast beef made from the round, which tastes to me like AnyMeat. It could be the reason why I’ve never been able to get excited about deli roast beef sandwiches.

Beef cheek, though? You’ll never mistake that for anything other than beef. Along with the deckle and the short rib, it is one of the three cuts that deliver the most intense beef flavor per bite. The dish below – beef cheeks with dumplings and a creamy cauliflower soup, garnished with flash-fried cauliflower florets – is pretty rich, and a small-portions kind of thing. If you have fresh truffle, now is the time to use it.

You’ll have leftover beef cheek and braising reduction; you can shred up the cheeks in the reduction and toss it with tagliatelle or pappardelle.

For the beef cheek:

1 1/2 lb beef cheeks, cleaned of the most obvious gristle and silverskin
medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
bouquet garni (leek w/bay leaf, thyme, parsley)
2 c dry red wine
1 quart white beef stock or veal stock

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Sear the beef cheeks on all sides until deep brown (a couple of minutes per side). Remove to a plate. Add the vegetables to the pan and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Return the beef cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Gently heat through.

Serve with the cauliflower soup, flash fried cauliflower florets, and the dumplings. If you have fresh white truffle (or black), slice a little bit over the top.

Beef cheek, cauliflower, ricotta dumpling

Cauliflower soup

2/3 lb cauliflower florets and stems, sliced 1/4″
2 1/2 c white veal stock or chicken stock
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar (to taste)
5 tbsp butter
2/3 c heavy cream
salt and white pepper

To prepare sous vide:

Bag the cauliflower with the salt and 1 tbsp butter. Vacuum seal and drop into a circulator at 183F/84C for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a simmer with the bay and thyme.

Remove herbs. Transfer both cauliflower and stock to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

To prepare conventionally:

Bring the stock to a simmer with the thyme and bay leaf and, when add the cauliflower. Simmer until tender, about 8 minutes; do not continue to simmer beyond that point. Remove herbs.

Transfer to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

For the dumplings:

1/2 lb whole milk ricotta
1 egg, beaten
between 3-5 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
minced assorted herbs – thyme, chives, tarragon, parsley

Combine the beaten egg with the minced herbs, salt, and the ricotta. Incorporate well. Spread out on a flat surface and sprinkle flour evenly over the surface; working quickly, fold the ricotta/egg mixture over itself again and again, using a bench scraper or knife to incorporate the flour into the ricotta, to form a small square. Transfer it back into a bowl and let it rest (you can rest it in the refrigerator for up to a day at this point, tightly covered).

At serving time, bring a pot of salted water to a simmer and, using a small scoop or two spoons, drop balls or quenelles of dumpling dough about 3/4″ into the simmering water. When the dumplings float, let them simmer for about a minute. Remove from the water with a skimmer and drain briefly on a clean kitchen towel.

With a cauliflower soup.

*names have been changed to protect the food-cowardly.

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Garniture, Random Thoughts, Science, Soup, Vegetables

Looking through a glass onion.

Sometimes dining is about pure familiarity. I think this is what people mean when they refer to “comfort food” – things we know well from long experience, possibly even childhood. “Comfort food” has always struck me as a ridiculous term – isn’t eating an inherently comforting experience? – but I have to admit that certain foods spread the warmth more than others. For me, it’s brown butter, runny yolk eggs, pretty much any potato dish, crispy sage, and puréed anything. Melted cheese, especially when it browns and crisps around the edges, roasted chicken about half an hour out of the oven, that peculiarly rich, tallowy taste of short rib, and the unctuous quality of pork belly and fresh ham … to me, these are the ultimate comfort foods. Great flavor, great texture, totally easy to eat, remind you of home.

One of the quintessential comfort tastes, in my opinion, is the caramel-sweet, savory taste of long-cooked onions. Confit onions – golden brown from slow poaching in butter or oil – are one of the great additions to flatbreads (as in pissaladière), and make a rich jam that pairs well with fruit, foie, and roasted meats alike. And they’re a component of the rustic French classic onion soup, which relies on few ingredients – deeply caramelized onions, beef stock, a little wine, and Gruyère croutons – for its complex savor. It’s a brilliant dish, because every aspect of the soup leads to that culinary ideal, umami. The so-called fifth taste, umami signifies depth of flavor, savoriness. Chemically, it represents the taste imparted by the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP). Glutamates are present in onions, wine, cheese, and beef – when they unite for classic onion soup, they form a virtual umami bomb.

Here’s the thing about onion soup, though. No one I know eats it all that often, and you know why? Because onion soup is a pain in the ass. In practice, it’s often the opposite of comfort food. I’m not talking about the cooking process – the best “comfort foods” are not easy to turn out well unless the cook invests some care and attention to detail – but the eating. What could be more discomfiting than fighting your way through a tough raft of toasted bread crust, choking on a tough string of poorly-caramelized onion, or trying to get that long strand of Gruyère into your mouth without alienating your dining companions or getting soup all over your shirt? Bad texture equals discomfort. And that’s why no one makes it anymore, not even all those people who received those stupid handled soup bowls as wedding gifts back in the Seventies.

I modernized the old onion soup by turning its stringy onion component into a transparent, glassy onion chip and a quenelle of onion confit, and by turning the giant raft of cheese bread into crispy Gruyère croutons. Pour in a rich beef consommé and enjoy as the onion transparency – which tastes like a caramelized onion chip – and the sweet onion confit melt into the soup, and you get a cheesy, soup-soaked crouton or two in every bite. It’s kind of a labor-intensive dish, I’m not going to lie, but it’s really good onion soup, and as a bonus you won’t have to figure out how to scrape burned cheese off the edges of your wedding registry soup tureens.

Modern onion soup

If you are intimidated or otherwise put out by the idea of making consommé, skip the clarification step. Just make sure your stock is well-defatted and as clear as you can get it – strain it through a cheesecloth-lined chinois (or if you don’t have a chinois, through a strainer lined with a triple thickness of cheesecloth, or a paper towel). Season the stock well with salt and a little soy sauce (for umami). I encourage you to make the consommé, though. The simmering with the meat and vegetables in the raft imparts additional flavor even as the egg white clarifies the soup.

For the onion confit:

Four large red onions (about 4 lbs), peeled and sliced thinly pole to pole
grapeseed oil or beef tallow from making stock, above
salt
1 tsp sherry vinegar

Place a large sauté pan over medium low heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp oil (better yet, use beef tallow skimmed from making stock). Add the onions and about 1 tsp salt and toss well in the oil to coat. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let the onions cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until deep purplish-brown, sticky, reduced, and jam-like, about 3 hours or more. About an hour before finishing, add the sherry vinegar.

You can hold this in the refrigerator for a week.

For the beef stock:

5 lbs oxtail
2 lbs beef bones, preferably knuckle
1 1/2 lb lean beef, preferably the round and the flank, diced
2 medium carrots, scraped and diced
one large onion, quartered
one celery stalk, peeled and diced
bouquet garni of leek, parsley, bay, thyme
1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
1 small star anise
2 c dry white wine
3 tbsp tomato paste
salt

Oven 400F/205C.

Roast the beef bones on a sheet pan until they begin to brown. Turn over. Add the vegetables to the pan and toss in the beef fat. Return to the oven and brown.

Remove everything to a stockpot and add the herbs, spices, tomato paste, white wine, and cold filtered water to cover. Bring to a simmer slowly, skimming to remove impurities. Simmer for about four hours. Strain through a chinois. Remove as much fat as possible by skimming (or chilling and removing the solid fat). If you are making consommé, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, scroll down past the consommé step.

To make consommé:

10 egg whites
1 lb very lean and flavorful beef (such as flank), ground – do not use a fatty cut
1 each, diced: leek (white and light green only), carrot, celery
2 tomatoes, diced (flesh only)

Beat the egg whites with a whisk until foamy (not an aerated foam, just foamy). Combine with the ground meat, vegetables, and tomato.

Stir the mixture into four quarts of the defatted stock. Bring to a simmer, stirring gently but fairly frequently. As the mixture heats, the egg white will coagulate, trapping the solids and other impurities in the stock. This happens over around 165F/74C. Once the raft begins to form, stop stirring. Let the raft collect on top of the stock. Once the mixture comes to a simmer, maintain a low simmer. Do not let it boil. Using a ladle, push a hole through the raft. Periodically ladle a small amount of stock over the raft to baste it. Otherwise, do not touch the raft, and do not stir the stock. The raft, true to its name, should remain afloat.

Even though you don’t touch the stock during this time, don’t walk away. After about an hour to 90 minutes, the raft will begin to sink slightly. This is your sign that the consommé is done – if you keep cooking, it will fall apart and ruin your beautiful clear soup.

If you have a spigot-type pot, drain the consommé from the bottom of the pot, being careful not to drain any portion of the raft. The first cup of consommé from the spigot may be sediment; drain off first and discard before proceeding. If you do not have a spigot-type pot, remove the consommé by pouring off very carefully so you do not break the raft. Strain the consommé through a chinois lined with two layers of cheesecloth.

1/4 dry sherry
salt
bay leaf (optional)
4-5 thyme branches (optional)
soy sauce (optional)

Flavor the consommé or the stock with sherry and salt. If using just stock, you may want to bring it back to a simmer with bay and thyme for 30 minutes for additional flavor, and season with a little soy sauce as well as salt, for additional umami.

For the croutons:

1 loaf pain de campagne, crust removed, cut into 1/4″ cubes (1/2″ is fine if you can’t manage smaller)
8 oz Gruyère
olive oil

Oven 375F/190C.

Toss the bread cubes very lightly in olive oil and place on a sheet pan lined with silpat. Bake until light golden.

Grate the cheese amply using a Microplane over the croutons. Return to the oven until just melted.

To assemble the soup:

Ladle consommé or soup into individual serving vessels (I use gravy boats or sake bottles, depending on the mood). Heat your soup bowls. Place cheesy croutons in the bottom of soup bowls with a quenelle of onion confit.

Gruyère frico, onion confit, crouton. Oxtail consommé on the side.

Place an onion transparency over the top and serve with consommé in a small vessel.

Onion transparency, consommé.

Tap the transparency lightly with a spoon to break it into the bowl.

Break the glass.

Pour the consommé over all.

Pour the consommé.

Onion transparency

I owe Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food for the glass onion idea; I read about it on their excellent blog three or four years ago and have used the method ever since to produce other fruit and vegetable transparencies. Apple, greengage plum, sweet pickle, and carrot are favorites; kimchi is swell too.

Liquid glucose is available through a baking supply (Michael’s Crafts carries it in small tubs in the cake decorating section).

750g yellow onions (about 2 extra large or four medium), peeled and sliced thinly
150g liquid glucose, about 1/3 c
75g water, about ¼ c
50g agave syrup (about 2 tbsp)
5g salt (about 1 tsp)

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepot. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve all the sugars. The mixture will become more liquid as the onions give up water. Reduce heat to the lowest setting.

The mixture will become golden as the sugar cooks. Reduce until the liquid volume is about 1/3 of the peak volume (after onions give up their water initially). Don’t overreduce or you will have problems puréeing. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If you have one, push the mixture through a tamis (drum sieve) to remove any fine fibers. Cool in the refrigerator for about an hour.

Oven 200F/95C convection.

Perform this step in batches. Place a silpat on a baking sheet and spread the onion purée thinly on the silpat in the desired shape and size. Bake until the onion bubbles up from the silpat and becomes more golden, about 30 mins to 2 hours depending on the thickness of the transparency. Working quickly, remove transparencies using a fish spatula or offset spatula and place on a clean flat surface – they should lift easily from the silpat. The transparencies will be somewhat flexible while on the hot pan but should become crisp immediately on cooling. If not, or if they seem fruit-leathery, they are not completely dry; return them to the oven. If you work quickly while they are hot, you may be able to form tuile shapes.

Store tightly sealed (with a dessicant packet if you have it). Serve with meat or grilled vegetable dishes.

Short rib, beech + maitake, oxtail consommé, onion transparency.

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