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

Brilliant disguise.

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

Meat-Shaped Stone

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

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

Caprese salad

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

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

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

Burrata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pesto alla Farina

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

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

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

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

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Tomato gel

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

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

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

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

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

To assemble:

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

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

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

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Tomato tartare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:

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Fish, preserving, Salad, Vegetables

To Russia, with love.

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

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

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

Cured mackerel, compressed celery and apple salad, black bread

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

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Cured mackerel

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

Combine all dry ingredients well.

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

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

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

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

Compressed celery and apple salad

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

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

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

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

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

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

To assemble:

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

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

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Bonus: Beetroot sorbet

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

Beetroot sorbet (1 pint)

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

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

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

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

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East Asian, Fish, Frenchy Things, preserving, Vegetables

Expiration date.

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

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

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

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

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

Smoked trout salad

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

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

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

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

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

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Hot smoked trout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pickled carrot:

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

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

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

Sudachi mayonnaise:

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

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

Store in a squeeze bottle under refrigeration.

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Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Random Thoughts

Civics lesson.

Hey readers! I’ve got a favor to ask. If you read my last entry, you know I prepared risotto for a Marx Foods contest involving riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice. It’s voting time – won’t you please visit the Marx Foods contest page and vote for my dish? Thanks – and thanks to those of you who’ve already voted! (ps: polls close at 4pm Eastern on Friday, June 1.)

Again: the link to the contest: http://marxfood.com/favorite-risotto-recipe-integrale-gauntlet/

Risotto integrale, savoy cabbage, duck breast.

***Update: I’m through to the second round. Thanks for your support!***

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Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Italian

An integral component.

When you hear the words “brown rice,” do you glance anxiously over your shoulder, bracing for the oncoming thud of so many Earth Shoes and the stench of patchouli? You’re not alone. I happen to like brown rice, but the sad fact is that it usually isn’t celebrated for its nutty flavor and firm texture. Instead, it’s most often touted as the more healthful alternative to white rice, appearing as a bland, steaming beige pile beside equally dull crowns of unseasoned broccoli and a broiled salmon fillet. Yawn – and that’s a shame, because brown rice can contribute flavor and texture that polished white rice can’t.

Recently, a Facebook acquaintance asked if I’d be interested in participating in a cooking challenge sponsored by Marx Foods. I contacted Marx Foods and received a kilo of organic riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice – with instructions to cook through a “gauntlet” of dishes. This is the first, a savory risotto. (The next two, sweet risotto and cook’s choice, depend on gaining enough votes in the first round to advance. So please vote! Follow this link to vote before June 1!)

If you’ve ever wanted to work with brown rice but have been brought up short by the differences from white rice in cooking time and water content, I encourage you to try the integrale when making risotto. Ordinarily, the challenge when making risotto is stopping short of overcooking, at which point the rice becomes heavy and mushy. In addition, the cooked risotto will continue to absorb any residual liquid, changing quickly from a slightly soupy dish to a gummy, starchy lump. Using an unpolished rice still bearing its bran, however, slows the pace at which the rice absorbs liquid. Not only does this make it easier to tell when the rice is approaching the ideal texture – cooked through and not hard, but retaining a firm bite – but the fully cooked risotto will not absorb residual liquid as quickly, maintaining its soupy texture. What’s more, the open-pot cooking of risotto relieves you of any guesswork and worry about under- or overcooking associated with steaming. You simply add as much simmering liquid, bit by bit, as it takes to cook the rice.

The keys to a really flavorful risotto are to toast the rice grains well in oil before adding any liquid (a process called tostatura), to use a really flavorful stock (I happened to have plenty of duck stock at home, but any good stock will work well), and to season with salt while cooking rather than waiting until the end. That way, each grain of rice is seasoned through to its core.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast

To complement the nutty, earthy flavor of the integrale, I added savoy cabbage to the risotto near the end of cooking, and served with a simply seared duck breast, with lots of herbs on the finish to brighten the dish. The resulting dish was faintly reminiscent of that broccoli-cheddar rice we all ate as kids – savoy and broccoli both being brassicas – but in a good way, not a fake out-of-a-box way.

1 large duck breast (magret), about 500g (just over a pound)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and small dice (1/4″)
1 medium leek, white and light green only, washed well and small dice (1/4″)
1/2 medium head savoy cabbage, finely chopped
1 tbsp duck fat or unsalted butter
250g integrale rice (about 1 2/3 c)
250 ml dry white wine (a little more than 1 c)
1.4 l strong duck or chicken stock (about 6 c)
1 dried or 2 fresh bay leaves
4 stalks fresh thyme
chives
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
about 1/2 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper

About 45 minutes before service, bring the stock to a simmer and maintain at a bare simmer. Cover if necessary to prevent evaporation.

Mise en place.

Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp duck fat or butter. Add the onion and leeks, season lightly with salt, and sweat until tender. It is not necessary to brown the vegetables.

Leeks and onion.

Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil and becoming somewhat chalky-looking, about 5 minutes (tostatura).

Tostatura.

Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Add some salt – perhaps 1/2 tsp – and the simmering duck stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes and the rice should release starch into the stock.

Releasing starch into stock.

After about 30 minutes, while the rice is still firm but nearly tender enough to the bite, add the savoy cabbage and stir well to continue cooking, adding the remaining stock. Taste for salt at this point and season lightly if more is necessary. The rice takes about 30-35 minutes to cook and, when properly cooked should still be firm as opposed to mushy, but must not be hard in the center of each grain.

Adding savoy,

As soon as the rice is cooked, remove from the heat and stir in 4 tbsp cold butter and the Parmigiano. Beat well to coat with the butter; add 1 tbsp water if necessary to loosen. Your goal is to form an emulsion between the residual liquid in the pan and the butter, slightly thickened and stabilized by the starch (mantecatura). Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and pepper to taste.

Plate the risotto and add the sliced duck (see below). Garnish with herbs. Serves six as primi or as a component with additional vegetables or meat.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast.

Duck breast

This duck breast was cooked at 140F/60C, but the duck may be cooked conventionally on the stovetop and/or finished in a warm oven.

If cooking sous vide: Vacuum pack the duck breast with 2 sprigs of thyme on the meat side. Place in a water bath with an immersion circulator set to 140F/60C for between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove and dry on paper towels.

Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin (you should encounter virtually no resistance when attempting to score the fat). Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and sear the meat side for about 15 seconds. Slice.

140F duck breast.

Searing duck breast.

If you prefer to cook conventionally: Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin. Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and reduce the heat. Cook until just shy of medium rare; remove to a board and rest for about 5 minutes. Slice.

*Thanks to Marx Foods for the integrale!

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Brassicas, Fruit, Pork Products

The Personality Kid.

Fact: admitting to anything less than total adoration of certain foods will result in your ostracism as a “commie.” I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago after publicly declaring that bacon was overused and had become something of a cliché, not to mention a flavor crutch. And I’m probably about to learn it again by saying that, in my experience, pork chops are not always the best the pig has to offer. Next to bacon, perhaps no other part of the pork is as beloved as the chop. Indeed, pork chops and bacon are Homer Simpson’s “two favorite animals.” And in the classic Brady Bunch episode where Peter attempts to reinvent himself as a more exciting character, he Bogarts the name of that evening’s dinner: pork chops … and applesauce.

Before you refer me to the Committee on Un-American Affairs, let me just say that I’ve cooked and eaten some truly delicious pork chops, sure. Brined and smoked, wood-grilled with maple and lemon, or sliced off the bone, fried, and sandwiched within a bun with some slaw, pork chops can be terrific. The problem is that pork chops are unreliable kitchen companions. The blade and sirloin chops contain the most dark meat – usually a guarantee against drying out – but they’re hard to pan-fry because of the bones, never take a good brown crusty sear, and take better to braising. Even after braising, though, the weird bone pattern makes them a pain in the ass to eat. The rib and loin chops have the most manageable bone structure – a curved edge or T-bone, respectively – but the meat is usually very lean thanks to the “other white meat” fetish, and, if too thin, will dry out in the time it takes to get a decent sear.

Enter the ibérico pork chop. Since last fall, I’ve been working with various cuts of ibérico de bellota pork – the rich, sweet cuts of meat from black-footed pata negra pigs that forage acorns in western Spain. Wagshal’s Market provided me a pair of rib chops, which my husband regarded with enthusiasm. Out of one side of his mouth, he gritted the words “pork chops … and applesauce,” jaw firmly locked à la Peter Brady, the Personality Kid. He loves pork chops unconditionally. I knew what I had to do.

Pork chop comparison. Niman Ranch on the left (an admirable chop, but still); Iberico de bellota on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the ibérico pork chop makes up for the shortcomings of the conventional pork chop. It’s got the single bone curving along one side, which leaves you with a nice big eye of meat, and instead of being lean to the point of dryness, it’s got plenty of interior fat to keep things moist and flavorful.

“Pork chops and applesauce”

If you don’t have the ibérico pork chops, don’t worry … you can use a regular pork chop, but try to use one about 1″ thick or so to keep the meat juicy. For these purposes, select a rib chop; the blade chops (cut from near the shoulder), the loin chops (cut to include both loin and tenderloin), and the sirloin chops (cut from near the hipbone) all contain an interior bone or bones that divide the meat. Although I usually do recommend cooking meat on the bone for flavor and moisture, when pan-frying, the meat shrinks slightly, leaving only the bone in contact with the pan. With multiple interior bones, the meat never gets a really good sear. Save those kinds of chops for the broiler.

Cooking the sliced apples sous vide preserves their intense apple flavor. It is not necessary to do so. I have provided instructions for cooking both ways.

2 granny smith apples, peeled and sliced thinly
2 c apple lambic or hard cider
1 c pork stock or white veal stock
3 cloves garlic confit
about 12 oz red cabbage, thinly sliced (about 3/16″)
2 tbsp rendered pork fat or an oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed
several thyme branches
fresh bay leaf
1/4 dry white wine
2 rib chops, preferably ibérico de bellota

For the applesauce:

If cooking sous vide, seal the apples in a bag with two thyme branches and a pinch of salt. Cook in a circulating water bath set to 183F/84C for 20 minutes. If cooking conventionally, proceed to the next step.

Heat 1 1/2 c of the apple lambic in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer. Reduce by 2/3. Add the stock and garlic confit and reduce again by half. If not cooking sous vide, add the apple slices and two branches of thyme, cover, and simmer until tender.

Remove the herbs. Transfer the reduction and the cooked apples to a vitaprep/blender and process to the desired consistency (for a smooth puree, you may need to add more water or stock).

For the cabbage:

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp of the pork fat or oil. Add the cabbage, bay leaf, and a couple of sprigs of thyme and sauté until just wilted. Add the white wine and toss; the cabbage should turn a bright magenta due to the wine’s acidity. Once the wine has evaporated, add 1/2 c apple lambic; reduce heat and continue to cook until completely tender. Season with salt.

For the pork chops:

Season well with salt on both sides. Place a skillet over high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the pork chops, searing on the fat edge first to render, and then on one side. Add the thyme branches to the rendered fat and baste. Turn over when golden on the bottom; reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, basting with the thyme oil, until about medium on the inside. Rest for five minutes before service.

Serve with the apple sauce and red cabbage; garnish with additional thyme and chives if you have them.

Pork chops, lambic-braised red cabbage, chunky applesauce.

*Thanks again to Wagshal’s Market and Iberico USA for the pork chops featured in this dish.

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