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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Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southeast Asian, Summer, Vegetables

Be inspired.

Sometimes inspiration in the kitchen is easy to find. Maybe you’ve just returned from a trip abroad and you’re eager to incorporate new flavors into your cooking. Or you just had a great meal, and looking forward to trying some different techniques. Sometimes, though, inspiration is harder to summon – say when you’ve returned from The Bahamas in May to a couple of months of 90+ degree days, and a kitchen without air conditioning.

After a couple of weeks long on cold soups and salads but short on culinary innovation, I unearthed a chunk of pork belly in the freezer. Add one more item to the list of pork’s magical qualities: it has the power to end writer’s block. The belly, and a few ears of corn from the farmer’s market, brought to mind a dish I tasted only once in San Francisco, but that has stayed in my memory for over a decade. During my last visit about a decade ago to The Slanted Door, Charles Phan’s modern Vietnamese restaurant, I scored a bite of a stir-fried pork and corn dish off one of my dining companions’ plates. In that one bite, I tasted sweet corn, fried up with bits of pork (I believe it was ground), punctuated with lemongrass, ginger, the umami quality of fish sauce, and a hint of palm sugar. I was instantly sorry I didn’t order the dish – as much as I enjoyed whatever I ordered, and as great as I’m sure it was, the pork and corn completely eclipsed it.

Soon after, Phan took the pork and corn dish off the menu, whereupon it attained for me a unicorn-like quality. I did become obsessed for several years with tracking down its origins, without success. No Vietnamese cookbook mentioned the combination of pork and corn; hours of web research turned up a lone reference – in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. “My inspiration,” he told the WSJ, “was the way my mom cooked — just dishes like sautéed ground pork with corn, but it would always be the freshest thing.” And that was it. One sentence in one article from 1999. Years later, toward the end of the decade, I noticed that Susan Feniger (of Street and Border Grill) briefly featured a pork belly and sautéed corn dish that sounded a lot like what I’d eaten, but I missed my chance – by the time I made it out to LA, the dish was gone.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about emulation and the evolutionary process in the kitchen. This week, I sought inspiration in that one terrific bite from 2001, changed up with some modern technique. I cured the belly before slow-cooking en sous vide, and then marinated it in the classic Vietnamese flavors of Phan’s dish before finishing off in a hot pan to crisp the fat and caramelize the palm sugar. Fresh corn appeared twice on the plate – first in the guise of a satiny purée, and second sautéed in pork fat with shallots and lemongrass, made savory with scallions.

Pork belly, sweet corn, lemongrass

Does the appearance of corn in this dish seem strange to you? It shouldn’t – sweet corn is eaten throughout Asia. Grilled corn on the cob is a favorite street food in Vietnam, served with a scallion-infused oil. Corn fritters – bound together by a light, crisp lattice of fried cornstarch – are a popular Indonesian snack. Heading north and east, corn makes somewhat more dubious appearances – on a trip to Tokyo as a kid, for example, I became acquainted with the repellent practice of topping pizza with sweet corn, mayonnaise, and seaweed.

Back to Vietnam. Corn isn’t a Vietnamese staple, but it gets a certain amount of play, especially in summer, when it appears in cold dessert soups and puddings, on streetfront grills (as mentioned above), and cut off the cob and sautéed quickly with fish sauce and savory spices. In this dish, corn’s sweetness and crunchy texture are a perfect foil for the soft, rich pork belly.

For the pork:

2 lb pork belly slab, skin removed
salt and sugar
Five spice powder
Fish sauce

Combine 2 tsp each salt and sugar with 1 tbsp fish sauce and 1/4 tsp five spice, blending to form a paste. Season the belly with the paste. Cover tightly or, if cooking en sous vide, place in a heavy plastic bag, vacuum seal, and cure in the refrigerator overnight (12h or more).

2-inch segment of ginger, chopped
4 stalks lemongrass, bulb only, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
3 shallots, chopped
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp palm sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp ground black pepper
juice of half a lime

Combine the ingredients in a food processor and blitz to a smooth paste. Transfer to a lidded container and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. This recipe makes more than you will need for this dish; reserve the rest for marinating chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, lobster.

If cooking conventionally:

225F oven.

Place the belly in the smallest possible vessel and cover with foil. Roast for 5 hours. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. Cover the vessel tightly with clingfilm and foil, and weight with another vessel or cutting board under tomato cans, or something similarly heavy. Refrigerate under weights for at least 6 hours.

If cooking sous vide:

Remove the belly from the refrigerator. Bag and seal; cook in a circulator for about 48h at 140F/60C. Chill in the bag immediately upon removal; place in a small vessel (in the bag), weight with another vessel or cutting board under tomato cans, or something similarly heavy. Refrigerate under weights for at least 6 hours or overnight.

For the corn:

4 ears corn, shucked and cut off the cob; 2 cobs reserved
6 sprigs thyme
1 large bay leaf
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp lemongrass, minced to a paste with a little oil
1 large shallot, minced
1 tsp ginger, grated
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green)
pork fat or vegetable oil
1 tsp fish sauce

Prepare the purée.

Simmer the cobs (broken in half) in about 1 1/2 c water with the bay leaf, thyme, and about 1/2 tsp salt. After about 30 minutes, strain the liquid through a sieve and discard the solids.

If cooking conventionally:

Transfer half the corn kernels to a pan and add 1 c corncob broth. Simmer until the kernels are tender, about 6-7 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and blitz with the butter until totally smooth. For the smoothest possible purée, pass through a tamis/sieve – it is impossible to blend whole corn kernels to a totally smooth consistency.

If cooking sous vide:

Transfer half the corn kernels to a bag and add 2/3 c corncob broth. Seal the bag and cook in a circulator at 185F/85C for 20 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and blitz with the butter until totally smooth. For the smoothest possible purée, pass through a tamis/sieve.

Corn in circulator.

Remove the pork belly from the refrigerator (and remove from the bag, if it was bagged). Trim off the meat jelly, remove the bone, and square off the edges of the belly. Slice into equally-sized portions.

Coat with the lemongrass marinade and return to the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Oven 250F/121C.

Place a sauté pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp oil. Shake the excess marinade from the pork and place, meat side-down, in the hot oil Turn over when golden brown so the fat side of the meat is down, brown for 3-4 minutes, and then transfer the pan to the oven. Cook until just heated through.

While the pork heats, prepare the corn sauté:

Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the ginger, lemongrass, and shallots, and saute until tender. Add the remaining corn kernels and scallions, season with fish sauce and increase the heat slightly. Sauté until the corn is glossy and beginning to crisp.

Serve the pork with a large spoonful of corn purée and corn sauté. As pictured, the dish is finished with scallions and a strained reduction of shallot, rice vinegar, star anise, dry white wine, pork jelly, and sweet soy.

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Fruit, Quick Meals, Salad, Soup, Summer, Vegetables

Summer Food 2010: The Raw Edition

Quick meteorological fact: by this time last year, Washington, DC registered ten days with high temperatures over 90F. This year, so far, we’ve experienced forty, with more to come in August. Welcome to summer on the eastern seaboard. In the spirit of the season, I’m participating in the Summer Food 2010 Project, where other foodical types will write and podcast about the many foods of summer. Picnics, beach food, barbecues, putting up jam and pickles … if it’s about summer, we’ll be talking about it!

I don’t need to tell you that, once the temperatures rise, firing up the stove seems less and less appealing. On the hottest nights, I don’t cook anything at all. That doesn’t mean we don’t eat. After all, summer dinners are about simplicity and taking advantage of the season, and few things are easier or tastier in the summer than fresh produce.

Two things. First, complicated raw preparations are out of the question. Could you simulate cheese with raw cashews, or make a raw mushroom “burger”? You could, but it takes time, planning, and effort. Could you make some kind of kale-mint-broccoli drink? Yes, but it would be gross. Second, a number of foods aren’t edible or tasty when raw. Some, like most mushrooms and most beans that you usually find in a dry state, must be cooked to neutralize toxins before eating. (There exist some exceptions, like button, cremini, and porcini.) Others aren’t tasty without cooking. Raw potatoes and sweet potatoes possess an unpleasant crispness and starchy taste from the free water and starch. Raw plantain and okra are slimy. Eggplant/aubergine is astringent and bitter unless cooked; quince, usually used for preserves like membrillo, is mouth-puckeringly tart. To me, raw brassicas like cauliflower, broccoli, and kale, are unpleasantly cabbage-y, although I know some people who love uncooked kale.

Instead of trying your damnedest to whip up a raw potato salad, try these refreshing light dishes. Each one can be prepared in minutes, without heating up your kitchen. You can use the time you save to sit around doing nothing in particular.

Cantaloupe soup with mint

I came up with this one evening when I finally got tired of the half cantaloupe taking up space in the refrigerator. Coincidentally it was about 90F outside even though the sun had set, and I wasn’t interested in firing up the stove. This might be the easiest and most striking summer dish in your repertoire. Don’t limit yourself to cantaloupe – honeydew and watermelon work just as well. If you elect to use watermelon, you might consider a seedless variety to save time.

one cantaloupe (or other similar melon), halved, and seeds scooped out
one lime, halved
about 4-6 mint leaves
yoghurt, strained
sea salt
mint and basil leaves, chiffonade

Scoop the cantaloupe flesh – I use a giant metal serving spoon – into a Vitaprep or blender, add a pinch of salt, the mint leaves, and the juice of about half a lime (use less if the cantaloupe is not very sweet). The lime juice is not meant to make the soup tart – you want to bring out the flavors of the cantaloupe with a little acid. Add more if necessary. Purée until completely smooth.

Pour into cups or small bowls. Garnish with a quenelle of yoghurt, a little sea salt, and the chiffonade herbs.

Chilled cantaloupe soup. Mint, basil.

Zucchini, peach, ricotta salad

Strictly speaking this is not a “raw” dish. Ricotta cheese is made from whey or milk that has been heated before curdling. (Arguably, the same is true of the yoghurt garnish for the cantaloupe soup.) That said, most of you aren’t making your own ricotta – or yoghurt, for that matter – so don’t let this technicality bother you unless you are a raw food enthusiast.

1 zucchini/courgette, washed well
1 large peach, washed well
1/2 c ricotta cheese
one lemon, zested and halved
1 tsp green peppercorn mustard or Dijon mustard
olive oil
espelette pepper (if you have it) or sriracha chile sauce
salt and pepper

Slice the zucchini thinly, lengthwise. Halve the peach, remove the pit, and slice each half thinly. Squeeze the juice of half the lemon over the peach slices.

Whisk together the juice of the other lemon half with the mustard. Season with a pinch of salt and a little pepper. If you do not have espelette pepper, add two or three drips of sriracha. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to form an emulsion (you will use between 2-3 times the quantity of oil as you have lemon juice).

Arrange the zucchini and peach on a platter. Drizzle with the emulsion and season with lemon zest, a little sea salt, and pepper. Spoon ricotta in 1 teaspoon bits over all.

Zucchini, peach, ricotta.

Sauce verte

Drizzle this sauce onto tomatoes, peaches, or nectarines, stir into steamed green beans, or use to sauce grilled or roasted meat. This sauce is equally at home with grilled chicken, halibut, and roast beef (or bison – see the photo below).

1 c watercress leaves
1 c arugula leaves
1 c basil leaves
1/2 c Italian parsley leaves
2 salt-packed anchovy filets
1 tbsp green peppercorn Dijon mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 1/2 to 2 c extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Purée the herbs and greens in a Vitaprep or blender with anchovy, mustard, a grind or two of black pepper, and olive oil until completely smooth. You may need to turn off the blender from time to time and turn the contents to move the raw greens to the bottom, tamping everything down. When puréed, add half of the lemon juice and the vinegar and process again. Taste and add salt and additional lemon juice if necessary. The anchovies may make further salting unnecessary. Set aside in tightly sealed nonreactive container.

Sauce verte.

Roast bison trip-tip, sauce verte.

Tomato salad

This is a true summer salad – tomatoes out of season are no good. If you grow your own heirlooms or otherwise have access, this is the time to use them. The pictured dish used red zebras and Cherokee purples, but nearly any tomato will work. The only tomatoes to avoid are the paste tomatoes, like San Marzano – these are less juicy by nature and are too dry for use in salad.

2-4 heirloom tomatoes
Sauce verte
sea salt and pepper

Square off tomatoes and garnish with sauce verte, drizzle of olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Retain tomato trimmings for another use (like saucemaking or just plain eating).

red zebra, cherokee purple.

A summer meal.

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