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.

29 May 2017

Food Lab 39: Burnt Sugar

Because Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee have been providing long-term shelter for a homeless Big Green Egg, we've gotten pretty good at making real smoked barbecue. What we haven't done - at least not until this weekend - is played around with sauces.

According to the rather informative Wikipedia article on the topic, there are several major types:

  • A basic vinegar sauce (East versus West Carolina coming down to: does it include any tomato products or not) - recipe from Garden & Gun's The Southerner's Cookbook
  • Memphis/Kansas City - tomato products, sugar, vinegar, spices - recipe from same
  • Texas - still uses tomato products, but thinner, with meat drippings and/or smoked flavors (plus, in our case, bourbon) - recipe from the Reata Cookbook 
  • South Carolina - the famous mustard-based sauce - recipe also from The Southerner's Cookbook

We skipped the Florida sauce, which is similar to Memphis, only with tropical fruit added, and the Alabama sauce, because mayo does NOT belong in barbecue sauce.

Mad Kitchen Scientist procured the squeals (pork shoulder and ribs), and Chef Spouse and I procured the squawks (chicken and duck).

The pork shoulder went into the Egg and the ribs went into a low, slow oven early in the morning.

When Chef Spouse and I arrived, after making us a round of juleps, he spatchcocked the birds while The Executive Committee and I started on the sauces.

Here's the thing about barbecue sauces: aside from the Texas version, which had to simmer for two hours pre-bourbon and one more hour after, they make up in no time. The vinegar sauces you just mix. The Memphis style sauce cooked for about 20 minutes, and the South Carolina mustard sauce only cooked for 10. In short, there is NO reason to buy that bottled shit from the grocery store.

The shoulder came off the Egg after several hours to finish in the oven.

Meanwhile, Mad Kitchen Scientist upped the heat in the Egg and on went the birds. We did make a tactical error: the duck should've gone on before the chicken. Although it was up to temperature on the instant read thermometer at about the same time as the chicken (remembering, of course, that duck doesn't need to get as high), it hadn't really had enough time to break down its tougher connective tissue or render as much of its delicious fat as it needed. (So they kept the legs and we brought home the breasts, which we sliced up and quickly seared in a hot pan to top an entree salad for dinner the following night, which worked great, and the smoke flavor was outstanding.)

Finally, the ribs came out of the oven, we painted them by thirds with the Texas, Memphis, and South Carolina sauces, and they finished on the Egg, too.

The vinegar sauces really are just vinegar, salt and pepper, a little ketchup (or not), and hot red pepper flakes. They're intended as dipping sauces, but we all felt that they might make better marinades - and that they'd also benefit from the addition of some fish sauce, which of course, basically turns them into nuoc mam.

South Carolina mustard sauce:

1 tsp vegetable oil
1 generous TBSP grated white onion with liquid
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. French's yellow mustard
1/2 c cider vinegar
1/4 c honey
2 TBSP brown sugar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp celery seed
1 tsp hot sauce

Heat the oil to medium in a medium saucepan. Saute the onion and garlic briefly, add all the other ingredients, raise the heat until bubbles starts breaking the surface, stirring frequently, simmer for 10 minutes.

Memphis sauce

1 1/2 c ketchup
1/2 c Sriracha
1/3 c cider vinegar
1 TBSP tomato paste
1 TBSP Ancho chili powder
1 tsp dry yellow mustard
3 garlic cloves pounded to a paste (use your mortar and pestle)
2 generous TBSP grated white onion with liquid
2 TBSP brown sugar
1 TBSP smoked paprika

Combine everything in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, stirring frequently, simmer for 20 minutes.

Texas sauce

1 1/2 c ketchup
1/3 c tomato sauce
3/4 c Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 TBSP allspice (too much - probably cut to about 2 tsp)
1 TBSP dry yellow mustard
1/2 tsp cayenne (next time, I'd probably go more like 1 tsp)
1/3 c white wine vinegar (I'd probably replace with cider)
1/4 c lemon juice
1 1/2 TBSP garlic powder
3/4 c  brown sugar
1/4 c white sugar
2 c water
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 TBPS black pepper

Combine everything in a large saucepan, simmer two hours.

Bourbon variant

After the initial two hour cook, add 1 c. bourbon and another 1/2 c. brown sugar, simmer for another hour.

With regards to the thicker sauces, all of us had low expectations of the mustard sauce, but it turned out to be my favorite. My second favorite was the Memphis style, mostly because we replaced the Heinz chili sauce the recipe called for (which is really not very spicy) with Sriracha. Now we're talking! The Texas sauce was good, but we all felt the recipe used too much allspice and the version we used DIDN'T call for drippings, so we didn't use them, and I think it would've been better with.

Of course we needed something to eat all this delicious smoked meat on, so I suggested homemade potato rolls. I used to make potato bread all the time, but I've moved more to French bread and rustic loaves that use sourdough, have long rise times, and form their own gluten structure so don't require being cooked in pans. Potato bread - or rolls - basically consists of brioche to which you've added cooked potato. It really is delicious, to the point that Mad Kitchen Scientist thinks he may replace his traditional holiday milk rolls with something like this.

We did have some veg too - in addition to the home-pickled cabbage (red and white variants) shown above, Chef Spouse has lately been obsessed with crispy (aka deep fried) kale. He keeps trying to do it on the stove top at home, and I keep pointing out that that is highly dangerous because of the amount of water in kale, and that it really needs to be done in the deep fryer. Two problems there, though: one is going through the hassle of getting out and setting up the deep fryer, the other is that you're going to have to change the oil after. We were about due to change the oil, though, so we brought the deep fryer along. I was right, of course, and one of the key things to note is to load the basket with kale, get it into the fryer but not down into the oil, PUT THE LID ON, and then lower the basket. Much safer.

We also started something that won't show up for another month or so (not homemade sausage again, and no fair guessing), so you'll have to check back later to find out how that turned out.

04 April 2017

Food Lab 38: Dolce

A few weeks ago, Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee were at their neighborhood trattoria. As the dessert cart rolled by, they were inspired by what they saw (and by a recent article in the Washington Post on making cannoli from scratch) and proposed Italian desserts, aka "dolce," as our next lab.

We started out with a pretty extensive list: profiteroles, semolina cake (torta della Nonna), cannoli, biscotti, and tiramisu (with homemade madeleines as the base, natch).

Day of, we realized we needed to scale back a smidge, so we went with biscotti, torta della Nonna, and cannoli.

Let me start with the biscotti. I make biscotti all the time. In fact, when Mad Kitchen Scientist proposed it, he was a little sheepish, because he knows I don't really need the practice. But The Executive Committee loves it, and he doesn't regularly make it, so he wanted a quick workshop.

2 c. flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar
2 large eggs

If you want a chocolate base - and I often do - go with 1 3/4 c. flour, 1/2 c. cocoa powder, and 5 TBSP butter.

3/4 c. "chunky" flavorings (nuts, dried fruit)
1/2 - 1 tsp appropriate extracts (vanilla, almond, anise, etc.)
1-2 Tbsp appropriate herbs/spices (lemon or orange zest, lavender, thyme, etc.)

You can flavor the base pretty much any way you like. We went with hazelnuts and blood orange zest. I usually do chocolate with almonds, or plain with pistachios and dried cherries. But really you can use any flavors you like.

You think they look good? You should've SMELLED them!
I think this recipe, with butter, is superior to those without. It may not be as "traditional," but the dough is much easier to handle than egg-only biscotti.

You form two "logs" and bake at 350 for 35 minutes, rotating your baking sheet once. Then you cool for ~10 minutes, cut into 1/2 inch slices and bake again at 325 for 15 minutes, flipping your cookies over once.

The great thing about biscotti is that, since it's pre-stale due to the double baking, it keeps pretty much forever.

For the torta della Nonna and the cannoli, of course we had to kick it up a notch and use homemade ricotta cheese. Every time we've tried to make cheese prior to this, it's been a disaster. Sounds like an excellent lab project! And this time it worked! I think that's because ricotta is really easy (seriously - this is the recipe/process we used, and it could not be more simple) and we weren't trying to do 14 other things at the same time. Also, we were only one cocktail in, which may have helped.

Check it out! Cheese!
Speaking of cocktails, we had done a mini-lab about 6 weeks ago where we informally messed around with making homemade bitters. We had planned to do a full-on bitters lab, and then realized we were missing some key ingredients that you seem to need to order online. So we made simple grapefruit bitters and lavender bitters.

That second featured prominently in a Chef Spouse-d-up version of an Aviation. I love me an Aviation any time: gin, lemon, maraschino, float of Creme de Violette (which gives it it's lovely color). Keeping to our "no egg white left behind!" motto, Chef Spouse added the extra egg white generated by our other activities and topped it off with a bit of the lavender bitters. 'Cause we're fancy like that.

First round, side view
First round, top view

For our torta della Nonna, we used Little Baker SF's recipe, replacing 1/2 c. of the all-purpose flour in the pastry with semolina flour and omitting the raisins in the filling. You probably could make the pastry in a mixer, but super-pasta-maker Chef Spouse followed the instructions and did it by hand:

Mad skillz, he has dem
Meanwhile, I worked on the filling. It's a little bit like making pate au choux, where you're looking for the filling to get smooth and pull away from the sides of the pan and then you get it off the heat quick because it's ready. We *did* push the ricotta through a fine sieve, and I guess if we were REAL Labbers, we'd have made TWO cakes to see if it made a difference, but we didn't have enough homemade ricotta for that.

The pasty was super easy to handle - lots of fat and we'd replaced some of the regular flour with semolina, as I mentioned above, so no toughening gluten problems, and the tart pan had a sharp enough edge that I was able to get a neat edge just by pressing the dough against the edge of the pan and removing the excess. Of course we added the almonds to the top.

Pretty pretty!
Which brings us to the cannoli. I will tell you, making cannoli by hand is a labor of love (otherwise known as a pain in the ass). The funny thing is, although we were inspired by the Post article, we didn't use their recipe - we used the one at AllRecipes.

The dough is easy enough to bring together, particularly if you use a food processor to chop in the butter (NOT SHORTENING - why would you NOT use butter in dessert, yo?) before you add the liquids. It didn't need to be kneaded anywhere near 10 minutes, and in fact, you should NOT do that because you're not trying to create a strong gluten structure. Just the opposite, as you'll see in a minute.

You also ABSOLUTELY do NOT want to run the dough to your thinnest pasta roller setting, at least not if you're using the Kitchen Aid pasta roller. Number 4 of the 7 settings - the midpoint - was correct, and yes, we know because we labbed that. Chef Spouse, the aforementioned pasta master, took care of the pasta rolling duties and found that he did have to handle the dough gently or it would stick and bunch up.

Then I cut the circles, then he wrapped them on the forms. Two tips there: one, be generous with your flour sprinkles when handling the rolled-out dough. It helps the fried cannoli slide off the forms more easily. Two, do NOT get any of the egg white you're using to seal the cannoli edge on the forms or you will NEVER get the fried cannoli off - well, at least not without shattering them.

Ready for the fryer

Mad Kitchen Scientist handled the frying, and worked out a technique using tongs, a chop stick, and an oven mitt to manipulate them in the hot oil and get the cannoli quickly off the forms. Which is another tip: you need to get a hot cannoli off the forms immediately or they start to stick. And then The Executive Committee would wash and dry the forms so we could start over, because you need perfectly clean forms or, once again, the cannoli stick.

Out of the fryer

Did I mention you can only fry about 3-4 at a time? And did you notice that we had an assembly line going that involved all of us? Also, once you're rolled out the dough once, the gluten gets activated and you can't roll it again without a fridge rest to get it to relax. Of course, on the first pass with all dough, we ended up making about two dozen cannoli and still had half the dough leftover, so you get plenty from the recipe. By that point, we were tired of rolling and cutting and sealing and frying and draining and washing and drying, so we decided that the rest of the dough could definitely be tightly wrapped and frozen to roll another day. Plus we wanted to EAT the stuff we'd made.

The rest of the homemade ricotta that was leftover from the torta della Nonna went into the cannoli filling. We skipped the chocolate bits, but we DEFINITELY added the Cointreau (and some heavy cream, because the homemade ricotta was a little drier than commercial).

Of course, we accompanied our dolce with grappa and espresso. You can tell we were at a quality joint by the accompanying lemon peel, or so Mad Kitchen Scientist says, and since we were in his house, I wasn't about to dispute him.

Bella, bella, bella!

07 December 2016

Food Lab 37: Crackers

Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee host an annual New Year's Eve party, and it always has a theme, and that theme always informs the heavy hors d'oeuvres menu. Chef Spouse and I traditionally go over early in the day to help with the cooking, followed by dinner with a quality bottle of bubbles, getting ourselves and the kitchen cleaned up, and the party.

If the food theme is going to be something new, we often try to have a dry run cooking day.

Our travel schedules over most of the fall had been incompatible, so when we realized we were all available Sunday, we decided we better jump on our test cooking for New Year's Eve, which is less than a month away.

When I asked about a theme, Mad Kitchen Scientist responded that, given recent current and political events, they were thinking crackers, and *both* definitions of that would be applicable (and provide ample opportunity for tasty dips and spreads to put ON the crackers). So we decided to get together to lab homemade crackers. 

Crackers, it turns out, are surprisingly easy to bake. We chose two base recipes: one with butter and one without. We made the butter-based dough first, because it was going to require a rest in the fridge before rolling out and baking. The recipe was taken from one of The Executive Committee's southern cookbooks (she's originally from Texas, ya'll):

1 1/4 c flour
2 tsp curry powder
1 stick butter
3/4 c grated cheddar cheese
2 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp black onion seeds
1 egg yolk
cumin seed to top

You mix the dry ingredients, cut in the butter, and add the spices, cheese, and egg yolk. We divided the recipe in half to lab cheese versus no cheese. The Executive Committee made her half - with the cheese -  totally by hand, while I used the food processor, to which I've become a total convert for recipes that require cutting in butter. It really does do a more consistent job than by hand, I think, and it's certainly quicker. We both found that the dough was WAY to dry to form, so we each added about 1/4 c. of water, at which point we were able to ball them up and stash them in the fridge.

We then moved on to the non-butter recipes, and they could not be more easy. Mix - roll - cut - bake. That's it. We used the recipe from The Kitchn as our base, but once again halved the recipe and made semolina rosemary and rye caraway variations. That simply involved replacing 1/3 of the regular flour with semolina or rye, and seasoning the actual crackers (in the cracker, not as a topping) with about 2 tsp. of dried rosemary or caraway seeds.

Rolling the oil-based no butter doughs to 1/8 in thick was a breeze - all that rye/semolina flour reduces the overall gluten content, so the dough is less likely to shrink back on you. We were initially cutting the crackers too large, and then we went to too small, but that's why we lab - so on New Year's Eve, they'll be just right. I don't have a pizza cutter, but my metal bench scraper worked in a pinch.

That's the rye dough, and yes, I initially tried cutting the crackers with a knife. Don't do that.
We brushed the tops of the some of the crackers with water and sprinkled on a little flake salt - for the rye - and regular sea salt - for the rosemary. The flake salt looks cool, but makes the crackers a little too salty. Without anything at all, though, they're not salty enough. I think the ideal thing would be to up the salt in the dough just a little.

Then you just bake for 6 minutes at 450, rotate the pans and bake for another 6 minutes, and voila: crackers. REALLY REALLY DELICIOUS crackers.

Rosemary crackers, fresh from the oven
By the time we'd baked all the no-butter crackers, it was time to bring out the butter-based doughs and roll them out. The recipe recommended cutting in rounds, so we did. We tried sprinkling the tops with cumin seed before baking, but it mostly just fell off when we took them out of the oven, so I would say if you want your curry crackers to taste of cumin, put it in the dough.

Both types of butter crackers were more flaky than the non-butter ones, of course, but I didn't think there was a significant taste difference between the cheese and non-cheese versions. I think if you wanted your crackers to taste strongly of cheese, you'd need to use more (maybe reducing the butter somewhat to compensate for the extra fat?) or use a MUCH more strongly flavored cheese. Or you could just cut a slice of cheese to put on TOP of the cracker (we were eating pate we'd made from the innards of the chicken we were roasting to have for dinner).

These recipes make a lot and don't take long. Of course, with no preservatives, I'm not sure what their shelf life will be. We made them Sunday, and while they were still good last night, I'm hoping they're still good now because I'm planning to use them for the cocktail hour for the dinner party we're throwing this evening. But I suspect you could also have the dough made up, divide it, and stash some in the fridge or freezer for a while for on-demand baking.

18 September 2016

Food Lab 36: Paella

Chef Spouse is not a huge shellfish fan (other than shrimp), so with him out of town, we decided that it was the perfect time to play with paella. Fortunately, Die Künstlerwranglerin and Eggman (and their offspring) were available to join us.

We decided to lab stovetop versus Green Egg (since Eggman was there). We realized that in order to lab this properly, we should use the exact same recipe for the two methods, so we were truly comparing the method rather than introducing ingredient variables.

We went with:

1/4 c olive oil

1 lb. marinated boneless chicken thighs, chunk cut about 1-2” in size, marinated in 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika, 1 tsp. paprika, 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion, diced
½ green pepper, diced
1 ancho pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced

 7 oz. Spanish chorizo, sliced into ½ moons

1 c. bomba rice
1 c. arborio rice (we ran out of bomba rice)

4 c. poultry stock (1/3 duck, 2/3 chicken)
1 hearty pinch of saffron
1 bay leaf

1/2 bunch parsley

1/2 bag of mussels
16 little neck clams
1/2 lb. medium shrimp (about 16)

Nice mise!
Saute the chicken in the olive oil until it starts to brown and give you a little fond. Then add the veg and saute until the onion gets translucent. Add the chorizo and saute until it is giving up its fat. Add the rice and saute until it's fully coated with the fat, then start adding the stock. It's not risotto - you're not trying to have the rice absorb all the liquid before you put the next bit in, but you don't want your pot to overflow either.

As you start getting close to the rice being done and the stock all being absorbed, add the parsley and the shellfish. You'll want to position the mussels and clams so that the side that opens is facing down into the rice, with the hinge facing up, so that as they start to cook/open, all that goodness drops into the rice. Cook until shellfish are done (we put them all in at the same time, but the shrimp should've been put in AFTER the clams and mussels, so they got a little over cooked).

The stovetop (in cast iron, natch) started faster - the Egg was still warming up - but the Egg finished faster. I'm guessing that's because once the Egg is up to temperature, you can't really decrease it.

The stovetop paella was clearly creamier, and the Grenn Egg paella was notably smokey and crunchy. Eventually, though, we reached the caramelized sofrito that is the epitome of paella. The stovetop’s sofrito was superior, being a bit thicker and more even. But we wouldn't have kicked either to the curb for eating crackers in bed, as the saying goes.

Mad Kitchen Scientist had procured some Savory and James amontillado sherry for us, that went admirably with both versions.

Chef Spouse totally missed out.

05 June 2016

Food Lab 35: Soft-Shell Crabs

It had been some time since your faithful Food Labbers had gathered, so we set a date without a plan for the third weekend of May. As date approached, we debated what to lab. Was anything interesting showing up in people's CSA boxes? The Washington Post had just run a story on making bagels - maybe we should revisit that? What about paella? Or the flambe lab that got canceled? Or alliums - aren't ramps coming into season?

And then your author noticed: that weekend would be the full moon in May. Which means something else would just be coming into season: soft-shell crabs. Assuming the Maine Avenue Fish Market got them in on the first day of season, we had our topic. And they did.

WARNING: if you're squeamish, you might want to skip this particular Lab report.

I love soft-shell crabs. I love them fried, sautéed, in Spider Rolls, in sandwiches, you name it. But I'd never tried preparing them, and the rest of the Food Lab crew hadn't even eaten them much. In short, we bought a dozen and had no idea what to do with them.

Well, it turns out that prep is pretty simple: once they're cleaned and ready to cook, you lightly dredge them in spiced flour, and then deep fry, sauté in butter, or broil. Seeing as we had a dozen, we decided to try all three methods. (Spoiler alert: sauté in butter. Trust.)

The key there is: "once they're cleaned." I'll let Chef Smarty Pants (Erica Wides) explain in more detail:

Yes, you heard that right: you cut their faces off with kitchen shears. When we heard that, we kind of looked at each other like: "Um, who's going to do this?"

If you eat animals - actually, even if you don't - something has to die in order for you to live. But working with creatures you get live, which for most of us extends only to various crustaceans (lobsters, crawfish, crabs, mussels, oysters, etc.), really brings that home. It reminded us of the lamb butchering lab in some ways - confronting what it really means to eat animal protein.

In the end, Chef Spouse plucked up his courage and the kitchen shears, and did the deed. The Executive Committee had to excuse herself, Mad Kitchen Scientist stayed in the kitchen and started the cooking process - because you want to get them on the heat as soon as they're prepped - and I was the sous, helping manipulate the crabs for cleaning and then dredging them to hand over to Mad Kitchen Scientist for cooking. Many inappropriate jokes were told, but it was a sobering reminder to be thankful for creatures who die so we can live.

On a lighter note, obviously, this was not a lengthy process, so we also decided to make a batch of bagels. We used to Washington Post recipe proportions, but not the process. One, I kneaded the dough by hand, because come on! And we did 1/4 whole wheat flour, 3/4 regular all purpose. The WaPo's fussing about protein content is just silly - use King Arthur flour and don't worry about it. Two, we didn't do an overnight rise, but we did do two rises: one as a full boule, the other a short rise once we'd formed the bagels. Then we did the water bath, top (with combos of poppy seed, sesame seed, and onion salt), and bake as the recommended. They came out great. The barley malt syrup, which you can order from King Arthur really does make a difference. Next time, I think what I'll do is make the dough in the evening, rise the boule in the fridge overnight, then let it come to room temp in the morning, form the bagels, do a second rise, and then water bath and bake. The longer the rise, the more complex the flavor.

It's getting to the point that no Food Lab out in Falls Church is complete without a trip to the H Mart, and this was no exception. Chef Spouse has been experimenting with ramen, and there were some ingredients he wanted he'd been unable to find in our neighborhood, and we picked up some lovely yellow mangoes to nosh on while we cooked and some artichokes and green beans to eat with the crabs and hollandaise (another lab thrown back). They also had a good deal on some beautiful mirliton (aka chayote squash) that we ended up pickling in rice wine vinegar, with black and white peppercorns, dried hot peppers, coriander seed, bay leaf, garlic, and salt.

Of course, that left egg whites, and "no egg white left behind!" Having picked up a can of lychee nuts at H Mart, we made lychee rickies to start with, and, once we had the egg whites, lychee silver fizzes - basically just a regular silver fizz with a little lychee syrup in the mix and lychee nuts as garnish.

We had also picked up some salmon and cod at the fish market where we started the salting process for lox, gravlax, and salt cod, and Mad Kitchen Scientist had made lemon lavender sorbet in the morning for us to enjoy after our crabs.

Even with the somewhat gruesome prep method, would I do soft-shells at home again? Yes. But I'm not going to lie when I say it's definitely less disturbing to order them in a restaurant.