11 November 2018

Food Lab 44: The Perfect Reuben

Having on hand a 4 pound chunk of brisket, curing salt (aka “pink salt”), and a Big Green Egg, one’s mind drifts to pastrami. Upon learning than pastrami starts from corned beef (was I the last person to learn this?), Reuben Lab seemed obvious.

It goes without saying that the Reuben is one of the best sandwiches known to humankind, and, sure, we know that corned beef is the typical foundation of a Reuben. But in the spirit of Food Lab, why not try a pastrami Reuben to compare? Plus, a fully homemade Reuben brings together other fermentation activities that warrant regular practice as well.

To prepare the meats and to ferment as needed, this Food Lab had to start well before the actual day of Food Lab.

First off, the sauerkraut. Or more specifically, the sauerkrauts. Would a Reuben be better with a red cabbage kraut? How would a sweet pickled red cabbage fare on a Reuben? I started with the regular kraut: thinly sliced half a cabbage, layered into a ceramic crock with sea salt, celery seed, allspice, juniper berry, and caraway seed. I used the perfect amounts of each, good luck getting those data out of me. After about three weeks, the kraut was sufficiently sour but still a bit crunchy. A couple weeks later, I followed the exact same recipe with a small red cabbage.

Next was making a corned beef from scratch. From the Interwebs, I decided to largely follow Tori Avey’s recipe, although I made a homemade variant of “pickling spice.” The brine for the corned beef used was:
  • 3 quarts of water
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup pink curing salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • ~3/4 inch ginger root
  • 2 Tbsp mustard seed
  • 1 tsp whole allspice
  • 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1 tsp dill seed
  • 4 tsp whole coriander
  • 1 tsp ground mace
  • 4 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 whole dried red pepper
After heating the brine until all the sugar and salt dissolved, I cooled it back down, dropped the chunk o’ brisket in and put it in the fridge. Five days later (yes, flipping the beef daily as recommended), I removed the now-corned beef, drained it for a few minutes, then into a Ziploc and into the freezer.

Fast forward to Food Lab eve morning, we soaked the defrosted corned beef to desalinate it. In the evening, after cutting off a chunk of corned beef (to compare to commercial corned beef), we gave the beef a good rub (below) to rest overnight.

Into the spice mill and grind:
  • 4 Tbsp whole black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp whole coriander
  • 2 tsp minced, toasted onion
Then add:
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp paprika
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
Then we proceeded to day-of meat preparation:

For the home-corned beef, I boiled the small chunk of meat for about an hour and 45 minutes (thinking the boiling time should be somewhat scaled to size). The commercial-corned beef was boiled for three hours. Upon tasting, the flavor of the home-corned beef seemed richer, but the fat didn’t seem to fully infuse all the meat. So perhaps the shortened boiling time was an error (albeit not so severe as to lead to ordering pizza).

For the pastrami, it was smoked for about four hours in the Egg at ~225 °F, until the meat reached an internal temperature of 165 °F. After about an hour’s rest for the meat, we steamed the pastrami for about two hours. About all I can say is “yum.”

The next variable to prepare for: regular caraway rye or pumpernickel? So I made two “torpedo” loaves of sourdough pumpernickel bread and two regular-style loaves of milk-based (soft crumb) caraway rye.

Pumpernickel Sourdough Rye
  • About 3 cups of freshly fed sourdough starter
  • 2 cups of pumpernickel flour
  • 1 cups of whole wheat flour
  • 1+ Tbsp salt
  • ~2 Tbsp caraway seed
  • About 2 cups of all-purpose flour
With those ingredients, I made a sponge the weight of a thick batter and left for an overnight rise. For each of two halves of the sponge, we kneaded in about about 1/2 cup of flour to form the torpedo loaves. After a second rise of about three hours, the loaves were baked at 425 °F directly on a stone, spritzing some water into the oven at the beginning of the bake. For these loaves, I might have added a bit more flour and kneaded each loaf a bit longer before the second rise, because the loaves as baked flattened out a bit. They still had a decent lightness, but made for skinny sandwiches.

Caraway Rye Bread
  • 1 1/2 cups of milk
  • 1 1/2 cups of water
  • 2 Tbsp yeast
  • 3 cups rye flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1/4 c caraway seeds
  • Enough all-purpose flour to make a decent dough (about 2 cups)
After the first rise of almost two hours, I kneaded a bit more flour into the dough and placed in two 9” loaf pans. After a second rise of a bit over an hour, the loaves were baked at 375 °F for roughly 40 minutes.

Finally, with all the elements assembled (thinly sliced Bavarian Swiss cheese and homemade Thousand Island dressing, based on this recipe but using homemade mayo, and with more garlic, shallot in place of the onion, and added Worcestershire sauce and sriracha, filled out the basic ingredients), we were ready to assemble our Reubens and test our variables...

First test: griddled vs ungriddled Reubens, classic ingredients (caraway rye, corned beef, regular kraut, cheese, and Thousand Island). Quick and simple outcome: griddled wins.

Second test: corned beef vs pastrami on caraway rye. Though we all loved the pastrami eaten out of hand, the Reuben was actually better served by the corned beef rather than the pastrami. Across the board, we all favored the traditional.

As we started thinking about additional testing, some other friends piled in and we started making different variations and serving ‘em without formal tasting and comparison. It did seem that the red kraut was well received, and the pastrami Reuben on the pumpernickel seemed popular. The pumpernickel maintained better structural integrity for the sandwiches as well. Our guests brought some excellent potato salad and cucumber salad, to join the green salad with pomegranate arils and walnuts and various and sundry pickled yummies.

Meanwhile, Chef Spouse plied us all with tiki drinks, details of which I’ll have to leave to another correspondent...

10 July 2018

Food Lab 43: Hawaiian Cuisine

Last winter, Chef Spouse and I celebrated a milestone anniversary with a trip to Hawaii. We spent our first week on Kauai, and our second week on Oahu. I don't have enough time to tell you all the things that were wonderful about the trip (although perhaps the above photo, of what was functionally our private waterfall, beside which we drank our coffee every morning we were in Kapa'a might provide a clue), but one thing we loved in particular was our Hole In the Wall food tour of Honolulu's Chinatown (and thanks to one of my good foodie friends for recommending it).

After consuming kalua pork and manapuas and saimin and a zillion varieties of poke and shave ice and Leonard's famous malasadas and Liliha's equally famous coco puffs and fresh-made chow fun noodles and discovering the wonder that is li hing powder (and buying a GIANT bag of it to bring home), Chef Spouse and I knew we'd want to try to recreate some of these dishes at home.

Obviously, that full list is a little too, well, full, and this time (for once) we exercised some restraint BEFORE we committed ourselves to making 4,365 dishes in one day. From that list, Chef Spouse selected manapuas (which involved making regular kalua pork and char siu style pork) and poke (four varieties - tuna and salmon, traditional soy-based and spicy). I also wanted to make malasadas with guava and lilikoi (passionfruit) filling, but I got over-ruled, not least of which because Mad Kitchen Scientist has already made from-scratch ice cream sandwiches with from-scratch hazelnut ice cream (verdict: the Good Humor version can suck it).

Mad Kitchen Scientist took over prepping the kalua pork, and Chef Spouse and I took on sourcing the  fish for the poke.

Kalua pork recipes are interesting. They don't tend to start in a smoker, but rather recommend liquid smoke, Hawaiian alaea salt, and a slow cooker. And it *is* supposed to be quite soft. But Mad Kitchen Scientist has a Green Egg, so we decided to do the salt sub as prescribed, skip the liquid smoke, and smoke the pork, THEN put it in the slow cooker overnight. That turned out to be a good plan. The pork was resting in the slow cooker in its cooking liquid (aka FAT) when we arrived, and when we pulled it out shortly thereafter to sample, it was DELICIOUS.

You can put all sorts of things in manapua, but we opted for some of the kalua pork just as it was and some turned into more of a chai siu (Chinese barbecue) style pork. Inspired by the recipe at Genius Kitchen, we made Chinese barbecue sauce and dressed a pile of the shredded kalua pork with it.

That was all pretty straightforward.

The manapua dough, on the other hand, was not. Actually, making the dough was quite simple. We followed the recipe at Genius Kitchen and did two risings (each about an hour outside the fridge, although I would be interested in trying it again with the slower cold rise). The place we ran into trouble was with the "divide dough into 12 pieces" instructions. The dough uses six cups of flour.

Those look reasonable, right? I'm really kicking myself that I didn't get pictures of the manapuas post-steaming because they were ENORMOUS. Manapuas are supposed to be a palm-sized snack (or breakfast). Because they were so large, the ~15 minute steaming time instruction was not enough, either - several of the first batch came out unpleasantly raw doughy, so those went BACK in the steamer with the second batch.

Verdict: I want to try these again, but I either need to make a LOT less dough or cut it into a LOT more pieces.

The poke was pretty straightforward, particularly given our previous runs at raw meat. Buy good quality fish, cut it carefully, dress it yummily. Traditional poke uses a soy base. What else you add is pretty much up to you: furikake, fresh ginger, lime, onions or scallions (or both), avocado (or not), maybe a little sugar (for sweetness) or crushed red pepper (for spice), maybe top with a little fresh cilantro, or some fried shallots or garlic for crispiness, maybe serve with some sushi rice (for a poke bowl) or in nori (for a hand roll). We made tuna and salmon, and I thought the salmon was better, but they were both quite tasty.

However, I insisted that we had to make Foodland-style spicy poke, too. If you're never been to Hawaii, Foodland is a local grocery chain. "Wait! You're getting RAW FISH from the deli counter of a restaurant?" Damn right - Foodland has about a dozen varieties (or more) at any time, and they're all fresh and delicious. When we were on Kauai, we were staying in a cottage, so we made ourselves dinner many nights. We'd have our coffee by our waterfall, climb back up to the cottage where, coming through the yard, we'd pick fresh organic oranges and tangerines to squeeze for breakfast (and feed some deadfalls to the owners' pet pig Lucy), go out and hike or snorkel or kayak, and swing into Foodland in Kapa'a on the way home to pick up some poke to nosh on while we grilled our fish and cooked our veg, accompanied by daiquiris made with fresh organic limes from the yard and local Koloa rum. Yeah, you right.

The main difference is that you still marinate your fish in a soy base, but then you add a Sriracha and mayo combo sauce and, if you're feeling ritzy (which we were this weekend), some tobiko. It was SO GOOD.

(The poke was actually all so good that I neglected to take photos. Oops.)

This summer, I also challenged Chef Spouse to up his tiki drink game. Tiki gets kind of a bad rap, due to too many crap, processed, high-alcohol-and-not-much-else-to-recommend-it "tiki" drinks. Having had the opportunity to visit several authentic tiki bars in the past few years, I've learned that REAL tiki drinks are works of art that showcase an incredible range of rums, matched with complex combinations of freshly squeezed juices, accent alcohols, bitters, spices, and (ideally) from-scratch syrups (like homemade grenadine and orgeat).  To get a sense of the potential of tiki, I highly recommend checking out the Smuggler's Cove book. Chef Spouse used it as a guide to make us Dr. Funk, Planter's Punch, chartreuse swizzle, and hibiscus punch (using the homemade hibiscus liquor Mad Kitchen Scientist made with some of the MASSES of dried hibiscus flowers we had leftover from our homemade bitters lab). Incidentally, Dr. Funk may be my new favorite cocktail. Don't let the list of ingredients in tiki drinks intimidate you - most are relatively easy to come by (although you almost definitely WILL have to augment your rum holdings), and even the "make it yourself" stuff isn't too challenging (well, other than the orgeat - that's a bit of work, but it really is better than the bottled stuff).

I guess I'll have to do malasadas another time.

08 June 2018

RIP Anthony Bourdain

Your gonzo approach to food and life was a major inspiration to the Food Labbers.

A few personal favorite quotes:

  • Good food and good eating are about risk. Every once in a while an oyster, for instance, will make you sick to your stomach. Does this mean you should stop eating oysters? No way. The more exotic the food, the more adventurous the serious eater, the higher the likelihood of later discomfort. I’m not going to deny myself the pleasures of morcilla sausage, or sashimi, or even ropa vieja at the local Cuban joint just because sometimes I feel bad a few hours after I’ve eaten them.
  • Margarine? That’s not food. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? I can. If you’re planning on using margarine in anything, you can stop reading now, because I won’t be able to help you.
  • I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one's own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.

You had more impact than you knew.

13 February 2018

Food Lab 42: Alkaline Noodles

It's been quiet on the blog, but that's because your intrepid Food Labbers have been quite busy.

Mad Kitchen Scientist has changed jobs.

Chef Spouse and I spent two weeks in Hawaii celebrating a milestone anniversary.

I've been on several business trips (including two outside the US - fancy!).

We shared a peaceful Friendsgiving together at which we had the same number of desserts as we had guests, and a unique desert tipple to pair with each. (Apparently, Mad Kitchen Scientist and I are trouble together at the liquor store AND the fish market.)

We prepared our usual themed New Year's Eve feast with Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee for their annual party (this year: nouvelle Russian, to prepare us for our new overlords, comrade).

We put on the annual Super Bowl party, and this year, winning their FIRST Super Bowl ever and ending a 57 year conference championship drought, celebrated the victorious Philadelphia Eagles! But we did not have as good a day as Jason Kelce, who truly was living his best life.

The man is wearing an authentic Avalon String Band
Mummers costume WHILE RIDING A BIKE
We also had the opportunity to use our cooking skills to benefit some members of our local community here in DC, and Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee visited and re-created Chinese banquet for International Dilettante and Dr. Fruit Bat.

But after all that cooking and eating and drinking and serving and celebrating and traveling fun, we decided it was time to get back to labbing this past weekend.

Several years ago, a tiny ramen joint opened in our neighborhood. Turns out, it's outstanding - some say, better than Momofuku (I would be one of those). Chef Spouse has been obsessed by ramen ever since.

Here's the thing: it's always a long wait for a table there (it is TINY, no joke), but they do carry out, and you can easily order kaedama (extra noddles) for your leftovers for lunch the next day.

But he wants to make his own anyway, because that's how we do. (Hey, if you're a regular reader, you already know that.)

Ramen has four basic components:

  1. Broth
  2. Tare
  3. Noodles
  4. Guts/goodies

Chef Spouse has made some progress on a rich pork stock to form the basis of the broth. And he's messed around with pork belly (and Mad Kitchen Scientist's homemade kimchi and nori and soft-boiled eggs and kale and homemade pickles) for the guts/goodies on top. But he hasn't really worked on the tare or the noodles yet.

Here's the thing, though: I can't remember the last time I had pasta from a box. Chef Spouse makes fresh pasta ALL THE TIME. In fact, he's so fast at making it now that he puts the water on before he starts and he has the noodles ready to go before the water boils.

But you start reading recipes that call for kan sui (lye water), sodium carbonate, or potassium carbonate, and you get scared off. LYE IS DANGEROUS STUFF, YO.

We resolved to overcome our fears and give it a go.

In theory, you can get kan sui at an Asian market, but we have several VERY well stocked examples nearby and struck out at all. Potassium carbonate is something you have to order online.

But sodium carbonate is another story. All that is is baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) that's been baked in a 200 degree oven for about an hour, which bakes off water and carbon dioxide. Voila! Sodium carbonate!

Interestingly, Chef Spouse had baked up a batch probably two years ago, and it's been sitting in the pantry patiently waiting ever since. We also had about two quarts of pork stock hanging in the freezer.

For our Lab test, we tried the following:

Test 1 - old sodium carbonate
2 3/4 c. all purpose flour
3/4 c. water
1 tsp. sodium carbonate
1 tsp. salt

Test 2- new sodium carbonate (baked fresh that day)
2 3/4 c. all purpose flour
3/4 c. water
1 tsp. sodium carbonate
1 tsp. salt

Test 3 - MORE sodium carbonate (new stuff)
2 3/4 c. all purpose flour
3/4 c. water
1 1/2 tsp. sodium carbonate
1 tsp. salt

Test 4 - commercial ramen

Yep, this stuff:

Noodles only! Not the "flavor" packet. Anyone else flashing back to college?

All the sites we checked warned that the dough is dry and hard going in the kneading, and they were right. Start it in your Kitchen Aid with the dough hook and let horsepower do the job as long as you can. We took dough out when the dough hook stopped making any progress on forming it into a whole, and then had to knead each by hand for another ~5 minutes, which doesn't sound long, but this is TOUGH dough. As one site we read noted, "If you're not sweating, it's not ready yet."

We then rested them for ~20 minutes each, wrapped in plastic wrap.

When the dough came out of the plastic wrap, it was significantly more supple.

We also tested making two thicknesses of noodles. In the first test, we rolled the dough to the "five" setting on the Kitchen Aid before cutting. For the second test, we rolled it only to the "three" setting.

In handling the dough, there wasn't much difference between the old and new sodium carbonate batches. The MORE sodium carbonate batch was different, though - much less smooth.

Then we cooked them all - including the Top Ramen - in batches in the pork stock. We didn't mess around with tare or guts because we were trying to assess the noodles qua noodles.

We all agreed that the fresh sodium carbonate noodles had the best texture. The MORE sodium carbonate noodles had a slight off flavor. The Top Ramen had the customary curly texture (how DO you do that with fresh noodles? we couldn't figure it out), and were lighter but less flavorful than fresh, and oddly sweet. Opinions differed on preferring thin to thick (I thought the thick seemed a little gelatinous, but not everyone agreed). All stood up well to the broth over time - they didn't get mushy at all.

To go with? Mad Kitchen Scientist had gone pig-crazy (in fairness, we started it by tasking him with picking up and smoking a pork shoulder for a fundraiser we're hosting this coming weekend), so we had Chinese red pork and roasted pork belly to nosh on the side.

We experimented with making seaweed salad from scratch, too. Since the packages were mostly not labeled in English, we just picked up a variety. First step is to reconstitute the seaweed with hot water - and man, did the dining room smell like the ocean when we did - and then drain it and squeeze out as much water as possible.

Then you just create a basic dressing of Asian flavors - sesame oil, soy sauce, etc. (we also used rice vinegar, ponzu, honey, and some grated ginger), dress it, add sliced green onions and sesame seeds, done. We had picked up some prepared seaweed salad to compare it against. We hadn't lucked on grabbing the same type of seaweed you usually find in ready-made seaweed salad, and I do love the texture of that type, so that was a bummer. But the flavor of the homemade, by comparison, was much better. Once we had it to compare, we realized that the stuff you normally get at sushi joints is REALLY REALLY sweet.

Commercial on the left - homemade on the right
All the delicious nibblies (including some tiny pickled octopus
we picked up and a quick spicy Napa slaw with sriracha pickled radishes)
What did we drink? Chef Spouse started us out with a rum-based cocktail with ponzu and pimento bitters, garnished with lychee. Mad Kitchen Scientist had taken some of the absurdity of dried hibiscus flowers we were left with from making homemade bitters (which I never wrote about, because there really isn't much to say - you buy a bunch of odd ingredients from places like Mountain Rose Herbs, put really small quantities of them in Everclear, and wait) and turned them into a hibiscus liquor (rum based, with some "warm" spices and a little honey), and Chef Spouse was messing around with rum and rye and bitters and citrus, and what we eventually realized is: just put the hibiscus liquor in a glass with some silver tequila. Simplicity on the other side of complexity, my friends.

What we learned is that it takes a little longer to make fresh alkaline noodles than fresh pasta - but not much. They taste a lot better than Top Ramen. And you can do it with ingredients you already have in your kitchen, so don't be afraid of the mad chemist-sounding names.

(But Chef Spouse ordered some potassium carbonate and kan sui from Amazon anyway.)

07 November 2017

Food Lab 41: Dim Sum

As you might have guessed from my previous Lab post, the Chinese Banquet lab was a bit of a blur. The Pathological Entertainer had the full picture of where we were, where we were going, and how we were going to get there in her head, but the rest of us were merely the sous, following her instructions as we moved from task to task. And we brought it off - 8 courses totaling 15 different dishes, all prepared in about 6 hours, and none of us too exhausted to enjoy eating the meal.

We figured we better hit some of these again pretty soon to solidify our techniques. And it turned out to be a good thing we did, because we still need some work on a few.

Our Dim Sum menu consisted of:

  • Red stewed eggs
  • Roast pork loin (which Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee prepared in advance)
  • Sichuan eggplant
  • Momofuku-style pork buns (with two different pork belly preparations to fill them)
  • Salt and pepper squid (that ended up being salt and pepper octopus, because I bought the wrong cephalopods at the fish market)
  • Potstickers (shrimp, veg, and pork)
  • Shao mai (shrimp, veg, and pork)
  • Rambutan for dessert 
I think the rambutan look kind of like sea urchins.

Following The Pathological Entertainer's lead, we did this in three major courses: eggs, pork loin, and eggplant; buns and octopus; dumplings.

As I mentioned, the pork loin arrived ready to eat, so our first course prep was fairly simple: red stewed eggs and the eggplant (provided by a volunteer plant in The Executive Committee's garden).

Red stewing is a simple technique. For eggs, you hard boil them, peel them, and them simmer them in enough liquid to cover in roughly the following proportions

1/3 c. soy sauce
1 1/2 c. water
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. dry sherry (or, in our case, shaoxing wine)
Seasonings (in our case, a little sugar, star anise, pink and white pepper corns, quite a bit of sliced ginger)

How long? A while. Once the eggs color up, take one out to taste. If you like it, you're done. If not, let them simmer a while longer. (Oh - and save the liquid when you take the eggs out, because you can use it again.)

Red stewed eggs, stewing

For the Sichuan eggplant, Mad Kitchen Scientist sauted the chopped eggplant with appropriate seasonings (garlic, ginger, jalapeƱos), then sauted ground pork, them combined them with a "combo of Chinese flavors" sauce (I know soy and vinegar went into it, but I'm not sure what else he grabbed - hot bean paste is traditional, sherry or shaoxing wine can go in, chili sauce works, too, as does sesame oil - it's up to you how you like it flavored and how spicy you want it), then cooked it down and topped it with a blizzard of chopped scallions before serving.

Then it was on to the buns. Momofuku-style pork buns are like little steamed bun tacos, rather than being a solid bun with the pork completely encased inside, so the buns and the pork are cooked separately and then combined before eating.

The buns are a yeast dough that has multiple types of leavening (yeast, baking soda, and baking powder), and quite a bit of fat (milk powder or, as we did it, milk and rendered bacon fat), so it's lovely to work with.

We pretty much followed the bun recipe as written, other than when it came time to roll the buns out, rather than painting the middle with plain vegetable oil, I used sesame oil for more flavor. Warning: it makes A LOT. We had 50 total before one of our cats got bored waiting for her dinner and swatted a few off the tray where they were rising to play with/attract our attention (she is DEFINITELY the cat who is willing to be naughty to get attention).


Into the steamer

Out of the steamer
For the pork belly, we tried two options: the simpler Food 52 preparation and the more complex Woks of Life preparation. Chef Spouse was not fully pleased with either one. The Food 52 texture was better, although we quickly discovered that starting it at 450 degrees was much too hot. The Woks of Life flavor was better (not surprising, considering it calls for adding more flavors to the meat). But neither developed nice cracklings. On both, the skin ended up so hard as to be totally inedible and mostly even uncuttable. So that was disappointing, because pork cracklings are DELICIOUS.

Woks of Life pork belly (sorry about the steamy-ness)

Food 52 pork belly (as I said, starting it at 450 was too hot)
We then stuffed the buns and added hoisin sauce and homemade pickles. The buns were tasty, no doubt, but I think we could up our pork belly game with a little more experimentation.

Salt and pepper squid is a favorite dim sum dish of mine. Actually, I pretty much love anything with tentacles. Unfortunately, at the fish market, I wasn't paying close enough attention, and got small octopus rather than squid. They tasted just fine, and we were able to use the same prep method, but they were a little less tender than the squid would have been.

It's a pretty simple technique: rinse, drain, chop, and marinate your tentacles (we used a combo of sesame oil and more shaoxing wine). Dredge in a combo of regular wheat flour, semolina flour, corn meal, salt, and white pepper. Deep fry. Drain. Sprinkle while hot with more salt and pepper. Stir fry with garlic, ginger, and jalapeƱos. YUM.

Then it was on to the dumplings. We'd prepared three fillings: shrimp, ground pork, and veg (well, really mushroom) to use with two techniques (shao mai and potsticker). The fillings were pretty simple: the main ingredient chopped fine, plus ginger, garlic, napa cabbage, green onion and some soy and sesame oil.

For potstickers, you fill your wrappers (not too full), seal them, sear them in as little oil as possible, then finish them with a short steam. In the first round - the shrimp - we added a little too much water to pan for the final steam, and they sort of fell apart on us. The pork and mushroom were more successful. But we did notice that the wrappers we had purchased seemed to be on the thin side.

Shrimp - see how the ones at the bottom are kind of falling apart?

Mushroom - more successful

Pork - also more successful
Yeah, that thing with the thin wrappers totally bit us in the ass for the shao mai. For shao mai, you fill your wrappers more full and gather up the sides into a little bag, leaving the top open, pack them into a single layer, and steam.
Looks good, but don't be deceived
Simple, right? Looks pretty, right?

Yeah, those thin wrappers completely stuck to each other. We ended up with a solid mass shao mai cake. A shao make, if you will.

Clearly, dumplings are going to require further investigation. And probably using a different brand of won ton wrappers.

To drink, Chef Spouse made us Mai Tais with his latest bar ingredient addition: velvet falernum. We also made a round of ponzu-based drinks: gimlets and last words, where we replaced half the fresh lime juice with ponzu. The last words were good, but the gimlets were outstanding. I think the green chartreuse kind of muted the ponzu, where it really shone in the simpler drink.

As Mad Kitchen Scientist pointed out, this is the second time we've been defeated by Asian cuisine (remember our disastrous attempt to make our own rice paper?), which clearly means another lab is in order.

05 September 2017

Food Lab 40: Chinese Banquet

With the holiday weekend upon us, your Food Lab crew decided a Food Lab Field Trip might be in order. So the Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist secured the gracious hosting services of undergrad/grad school professors/mentor/friends, Pathological Entertainer and The Wine Steward for a weekend of Chinese Banquet, Pathological Entertainer being a long time student of and expert in Chinese cookery.

The appetizer course on the table awaiting the guests 
Mad Kitchen Scientist started from the idea of the Chinese mother sauces, but Pathological Entertainer suggested that an all-saucey evening would make for a boring and inauthentic banquet, and suggested that we instead focus on classic Chinese flavors.

To back up: What is Chinese Banquet? If you've ever seen The Wedding Banquet or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?), you've seen Chinese Banquet in action. It's a celebratory multi-course meal created from a mix of tastes, textures, and techniques (making it a perfect Food Lab subject!), where (to quote the extensive Chowhound thread on the subject), the hosts aim to "provide his/her guests with a wide range of dishes, often including rare, fancy, or expensive ingredients or preparations that would not generally be seen at a family dinner."

Having agree on a "classic flavors" theme, we began work on our menu about a month ago. As Pathological Entertainer explained: "When I plan a banquet, I try to alternate types of flavors; saucy vs. dry textures; type of cooking (steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, etc); type of protein (meat, fish, shellfish, tofu, eggs) and so on as we move through the courses."

As our plan developed, we realized that we wanted to include:
  • Technique: red stewing
  • Technique: dumplings (both shao mai and "crystal" dumplings, a new item for Pathological Entertainer)
  • Ingredient: roast pork (despite the fact that roasting is not terribly common in Chinese cookery, as not all kitchens come equipped with ovens) 
  • A soup course (which is traditional, and Pathological Entertainer pointed out that she has an EXCELLENT hot and sour soup recipe and she was not joking)
  • Two "wow" dishes: diamond shrimp and Shanghai duck with handmade sesame pancakes
Our final menu ended up being an auspicious eight courses (which is considered lucky because the Chinese word for "eight" sounds like the word for "wealth"):
  • Appetizers (considered one course): Sichuan eggplant, seafood shao mai, Sichuan dry fried long beans, Chinese roast pork, red stewed eggs, marinated cucumbers, chive crystal dumplings
  • Hot and Sour soup
  • Diamond shrimp
  • Ma Po bean curd, gai lan with garlic and peanuts
  • Sweet and sour pork, stir fried julienne carrots and zucchini
  • Shanghai duck with sesame pancakes, scallions, and hoisin sauce
  • Almond floats with lychees and mandarin oranges 
  • Sesame candies and fresh lychees 
The only advance prep Pathological Entertainer had to do, prior to Saturday, was to hard boil the eggs and marinate the pork loin. On the way out of town, Chef Spouse and I hit the fish market to get the shrimp, and The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist swung by the local Asian grocery to get gai lan, fresh lychees, and fresh bamboo shoots. 

Saturday morning, we got coffee, got out the knives and aprons, and got to work. 

The first thing to go in was the eggs for red stewing, which is just a simple process of simmering them in water, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, and seasonings to taste (we chose sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, a few thick slices of ginger, and a generous amount of anise seed). 

We also started the duck simmering, in basically the same sauce (it starts out red stewed, then gets brushed with honey and roasted just before serving to crisp the skin). The roast pork also went in the oven. Then we went out to the garden to pick the long beans.

We didn't really start work until around 11 am, and the other guests were due at 6:30 pm, and I was worried, looking at that list of dishes to prepare that, even with five cooks, we might not make it. One thing I quickly learned from Pathological Entertainer is that THE KEY to Chinese Banquet is ORGANIZATION, and thankfully, it was not her first time at the rodeo. 

The appetizer course is planned around things that can be entirely cooked (eggplant, long beans, eggs, roast pork) or at least fully assembled (the crystal and shao mai dumplings) in advance. So while the eggs and roast pork were doing their thing, The Executive Committee, Chef Spouse, Mad Kitchen Scientists, and I started chopping: the eggplant, bread, the beans, lots of bean curd, chicken, mushrooms, pork, onions, red bell peppers, pineapple, carrots, zucchini, and gai lan. We then staged ingredients in groups by dish. Chef Spouse also made up the almond gelatin for the dessert, as it would need time to set. 

Staging Area Number One
Meanwhile, Pathological Entertainer made up the dough for the sesame pancakes so it could rest and got started cooking the eggplant. Mad Kitchen Scientist then started deep frying the long beans. They get deep-fried first and THEN dry fried with ground pork. He got a little over-enthusiastic with putting too many fresh beans (that contained a lot of water) into the oil and nearly set the kitchen on fire, but Pathological Entertainer is highly experienced with that and averted the danger.

(Come to think of it, The Executive Committee may be the only one of us who HASN'T almost set her kitchen on fire. That may be why SHE's The Executive Committee, and we're not.)

Ma Po bean curd in process
While the long beans were draining prior to their dry frying, Pathological Entertainer started the Ma Po bean curd and got me rolling on making the sesame pancakes. The process is pretty simple: you make two small disks, brush one side of each with sesame oil, pat them together with the oiled sides facing each other, and roll them out to the desired size. Mad Kitchen Scientist then cooked them up on two comals. The only hard part is that you then peel them apart WHILE they're still hot. The sesame oil gives a nice flavor and lets you roll them out by hand but still get them thin enough, at least after the cooking process helps them separate.

Pathological Entertainer then made the filling for the shao mai, which also serves as the seafood paste that allows you to stick the bread croutons to the diamond shrimp. She fried some up for taste testing, and then Chef Spouse and I assembled the shrimp and the shao mai, while she started work on the Hot and Sour soup (after a brief digression for me to re-cut the chicken that I had originally julienned too wide).

The roast pork and eggs had already come out of their respective cooking processes, so The Executive Committee assembled them on the serving plate.

They were then stored on the top of the chest freezer in the garage, aka Staging Area Number Two, and it's a good thing it was a cool day, because they joined the eggplant, the long beans, the trays of assembled diamond shrimp, the fruit salad that would go with the almond gelatin for dessert, the plates of assembled shao mai dumplings, the platter of the Ma Po bean curd, and the stir-fried carrots and zucchini out there.

By this point, we were getting down to it: we still needed to make the crystal dumplings (for which Chef Spouse had already made the filling) and the marinated cucumbers, the pork chunks had to be pre-fried for the sweet and sour, and the Shanghai duck needed to be covered in honey to await its final roast and it needed its scallion brushes cut.

Chef Spouse and Mad Kitchen Scientist took on the crystal dumplings. The dough is an odd mix of wheat (or potato) starch and tapioca flour that, when mixed together, looks a lot like Sculpy modeling clay.

The idea is that when it's steamed, it becomes translucent, so you can see the filling inside the dumplings. We were intrigued but skeptical. So we made up the dumplings and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, The Wine Steward was finishing up the menus, checking the compatibility of our various signs of the Chinese zodiac, setting the table, and plying us with cook wine (not to be confused with cooking wine), while The Executive Committee and I prepared the marinated cucumbers. Then Chef Spouse did final prep on the duck and Mad Kitchen Scientist fried up the pork chunks.

Soon it was time to get changed and get the dumplings steaming. The other guests arrived shortly, and Pathological Entertainer announced that dinner was served.

Chef Spouse and I had managed NOT to screw up assembling the shao mai, and the crystal dumplings WORKED (and sorry their picture is fuzzy, but they were actually still giving off steam when I took it). They were still opaque when we took them out of the steamer, but when they're exposed to the air, they become translucent. It's like magic.

We cautioned everyone not to fill up TOO much on the appetizers, because lots of other good things were coming, although the Sichuan eggplant was so good even Chef Spouse liked it, and eggplant is one of the few foods he's not fond of, and we all had a hard time stopping ourselves from consuming ALL the red stewed eggs.

The soup course followed quickly, and it was seriously the best hot and sour soup I've ever had. It was so good, it's the only recipe I'm reproducing here in full.

Hot and Sour Soup 

½ ounce dried Chinese mushrooms (about ½ cup before soaking)
1 c fresh shiitakes, julienned
1 pound chicken breasts, boned, skinned, julienned
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 cups homemade chicken broth
½ cup fresh bamboo shoots
¼ cup white vinegar
 2 tablespoons soy sauce
 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger root
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups firm bean curd cake, cut into julienne strips (about 8 ounces)
Sliced green onions
Sweet and Hot Sauces (recipes follow but this soup is more than sufficient without added sauce)

1. Place mushrooms in large bowl; cover with warm water. Place plate and water-filled bowl on top to keep mushrooms under water. Let stand 30 minutes: drain, remove and discard stems and cut caps into julienne strips. If there are any dry spots, soak strips for longer.

2. Parboil the bamboo shoots for about 20 minutes (otherwise they are INTENSELY bitter) and julienne

2. Stir fry chicken in sesame oil in 3-quart saucepan until chicken is tender, about 5 minutes; stir in chicken broth. Heat to boiling. Stir in mushrooms, bamboo shoots, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, cayenne and black pepper.

** To hold, cover and refrigerate at this point.

3. Heat soup over medium heat just until it simmers. Stir together cornstarch and water; stir slowly into soup, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens slightly and all ingredients are hot, about 5 minutes. (the cornstarch thickening is necessary for the egg threads to form when you add the egg yolks).

4. Remove from heat; add egg yolks gradually, stirring constantly. Stir in bean curd. Serve in small bowls. Garnish with sliced green onions.

Pass Sweet and Hot Sauces in separate bowls.

Sweet Sauce
Makes about 1/3 cup
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce

Stir together sugar, vinegar and soy sauce until sugar is dissolved. Store at room temperature no longer than 48 hours.

Hot Sauce
Makes about ¼ cup
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon sesame seeds

Stir together pepper, oil and sesame seeds. Store at room temperature no longer than 48 hours. Stir just before serving.

The pace of the evening then slowed down a bit, as the remaining courses all required some last-minute prep. Fortunately, the kitchen was adjacent to the dining area, separated only by wide counter, so Pathological Entertainer could still enjoy the company and conversation while she finished up the mains.

We started with the Diamond shrimp, and they were a show-stopper. Chef Spouse and I weren't sure that the bread croutons would stay stuck as they fried, but we had forgotten that ground up shrimp is basically fish glue, and it worked like a charm.

Pathological Entertainer then stir-fried the gai lan a la minute and served it with the Ma Po bean curd.

Then it was on to the sweet and sour pork, accompanied by the carrots and zucchini.

Then it was the piece de resistance: the Shanghai duck with sesame pancakes, hoisin, and green onions (and like a dummy I forgot to take a picture, at least in part because I was stuffed and possibly a little drunk by that point).

Some of the guests had made candied walnuts to accompany dessert, which is also traditional, and which we enjoyed.

I will say that, giant food babies aside, a good time was agreed to have been had by all when the party broke up well after midnight, and we're already planning our next trip for next spring, likely taking on Moroccan cooking, which is another passion of Pathological Entertainer's and to which I can at least bring the experience of having EATEN my way through Morocco.