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.

Base:
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.

Flavorings
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.

27 March 2016

Food Lab 34: Sugar Syrups

As any cocktail aficionado knows, many cocktails benefit from the addition of a little something sweet. Whether it's to curb the booziness of an old fashioned or absinthe frappe, to tame the bitterness of a Sazerac, or to take the edge off the citrus tartness of a margarita, a little sweet can nicely balance other flavors. And if you start keeping a container of basic simple syrup (1:1 ratio sugar to water, cooked until the sugar dissolves) in your fridge, you will find additional uses for it: sweetening iced beverages, taking the edge of a vinaigrette that's too sharp, etc.

So simple syrup makes a good starting point for sweetening your cocktails. But what other options are there? Partially inspired by The Executive Committee having read a piece in Imbibe magazine on the topic, we decided to try to find out.

Now, there are some classic pairings: agave nectar in a margarita, the sugar cube drip of an absinthe fountain or Sazerac, the bitters-saturated-and-then-pulverized sugar cube of my favorite take on an old fashioned, double syrup in a mint julep. But Imbibe opened all our eyes to other possibilities. So we set up some comparative taste tests.

Batch 1 - multi-ingredient
Orgeat (commercial Fee Brothers versus homemade, from the Imbibe article)
Grenadine (commercial Rose's versus homemade, similar to this)
Molasses syrup - 1 c sugar, 1/2 c water, 1 TBSP molasses
Ferrnet syrup - using the Imbibe technique
Barley syrup - using the Imbibe technique

Batch 2 - simple syrups (1:1 ratio) using various granulated sugars
Brown sugar
Turbinado sugar
Palm sugar
Demerara sugar
Coconut sugar
White sugar - double syrup (two sugar to one water)

Batch 3 - syrups we could use pretty much as is
Karo (aka corn syrup)
Honey (which we did end up making into a cooked syrup to keep it from getting too thick to emulsify into cocktails)
Agave nectar
Maple syrup

One thing to be aware of is that different substances have different amounts of sugar per TBSP.  We couldn't get precise measurements for all our ingredients, but those we could included:

Karo: 10g sugar/TBSP
Turbinado: 12g sugar/TBSP
Maple syrup: 13g sugar/TBSP
Molasses: 14g sugar/TBSP
Coconut: 16g sugar/TBSP
Agave nectar: 16g sugar/TBSP

We then tasted everything straight. Yes, that was a LOT of tasting of sugar. Don't tell my dentist.

Orgeat: homemade didn't taste enough of almonds and was too thin, but in comparison, the commercial was VERY sweet. The viscosity was nice for cocktail applications, though.

Grenadine: homemade wins, hands down. Commercial tastes chemical in comparison.

Molasses syrup *really* tasted like molasses, but it was quite good and did well in cocktails (see below).

The Fernet syrup was DELICIOUS all by itself AND in cocktails. I've been wanting an excuse to start keeping Fernet in the house, and I think now I have it.

The barley syrup was light, nutty, and not quite as sweet. That subtleness was somewhat lost in cocktails.

Of the various granulated sugars, the double syrup is, of course, very sweet, but it also has a really nice viscosity that lends a good mouth-feel to cocktails. It would be good for applications where you want concentrated sweetness without watering things down - so drinks like highballs, that are going to be served over ice (Tom Collins, rickeys, etc.). The turbinado sugar syrup tasted like molasses, while the palm sugar had very caramel-y notes. The demerara was basically identical to the brown sugar.

Of the ingredients that started as syrups, the Karo/corn syrup was the least sweet and the thickest, so it would be good in applications where you wanted a thicker mouth-feel with less sweetness (say, a vinaigrette). The honey syrup was kind of a bust - you lost the honey-ness of the honey, and it basically just seemed like regular simple syrup. The agave nectar was quite sweet, as you might guess from the table above, and the maple syrup tasted of itself.

We then tried out some cocktails:

Milano sour - here's the thing. The recipe includes straight Fernet Branca, so you didn't really taste a difference in different syrups, because the Fernet masked it.

Vodka sour - 2 vodka, 2 lemon, 1 grenadine (homemade versus commercial) - the homemade won in a landslide

Rum sour - 2 Mount Gay rum, 2 lime, and then we tested

Palm sugar
Coconut sugar
Double simple syrup
Molasses syrup
Agave nectar
Fernet syrup

The molasses was the hands-down winner. The double was the sweetest, of course, and palm versus coconut didn't make much of a difference. Nor did the agave, surprisingly. The Fernet syrup was also outstanding. The "darker" flavors of both the Fernet and molasses syrups seemed to play very well with the rum.

Cold Spring cocktail - we had gotten some Meyer lemons from the CSA, so we decided to make the most of that. Now, this is basically a sidecar, so we decided to go with molasses versus maple. They were both good, although with the molasses syrup, you could tell what the sweetener was, where with the maple syrup, you really couldn't. That is, the cognac masked the distinct flavor of the maple syrup, so all you got was the sweetness.

Old fashioned - Bullet rye and angostura bitters, then we tested:

Fernet syrup - CLEAR winner (at least to me)
Double simple syrup - cocktail turned out too sweet
Palm sugar - caramel notes came out
Orgeat (both homemade and commercial) - homemade was too subtle, and while you got the almond from the commercial, it was also WAY too sweet
Barley syrup - very light and well-integrated cocktail
Maple syrup - the distinct taste came through clearly, and it was overly sweet

One other thing became very apparent through all this cocktail taste-testing. While we were focused on sugars and sweetness, bitters are the key to a great cocktail. But you probably already knew that.

24 August 2015

Food Lab 32: Chorizo

No, I did not get the numbers out of order. As I'd mentioned in my last Food Lab post, we had made something that required aging. Well, the wait is over. We successfully dry aged sausage and didn't kill anyone!

Some of our out of town friends were visiting and wanted to see how sausage is made. Having successfully made sausage a few times, we decided to up the ante, with fresh Mexican chorizo and dried Spanish chorizo.

For the Mexican chorizo, we started with the recipe at honestcooking.com. What did we lab? The vinegar: cider versus white wine versus red wine versus sherry. Of course, Mexican chorizo is also intended to be fresh sausage style, so we didn't stuff it in casings. When we fried up the patties, we discovered that structural integrity was an issue (the pork shoulder we got from the McLean Organic Butcher may have been higher fat than the recipe stipulated).



You might think that the sherry would be the winner, and that's actually what The Executive Committee preferred, although the rest of us preferred red wine vinegar. We also pretty quickly realized that we needed to up the red pepper flakes. And we'd forgotten the garlic in the test batch. Oops! We corrected that in the full batches, which we made with red wine vinegar and a Tbsp of crushed red pepper flakes for each pound of meat.

But that wasn't the real test - the real test was making Spanish style chorizo. We started with the same base recipe, but divided the paprika between sweet and smoked, added cayenne, used sherry vinegar, and DOUBLED the salt.

And then we stuffed them.

And then Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee hung them to cure in their basement for about two months. Yes, really. Raw meat.



When they were finally ready, we decided that we'd have to try eating them together. If we were going to go down to food poisoning and/or botulism, we were going as a group. So we gathered this weekend for an evening of eating raw meat we'd dry cured ourselves, making paella, and planning our upcoming foodie trip to Italy this fall (more about that in a future post).

The first thing we did was slice up one of the sausages and eat it. And we all survived! And it was DELICIOUS.

When none of us had dropped over dead immediately, we celebrated with white peach sangria, paella, and flan.

The sangria was very loosely based on this recipe, although I reduced the pineapple juice by about half, and the simple syrup by about 3/4. I was using berries and mango as the additional fruit, rather than apples and pears, and I thought it would be too sweet otherwise. And instead of goosing it with brandy, I used anjeo tequila. When I served it, I topped it with a little champagne, since I think white sangria benefits from bubbles.

The paella was loosely based on this recipe. We substituted chicken for the rabbit, mostly because we had a chicken and were too lazy to go over to Eastern Market for a rabbit. We didn't like the idea of using green beans, so we used some gorgeous red and green poblano peppers I had from the CSA, and we used far more than a "pinch" of saffron. It was also delicious, but it makes A LOT. We were each left with two quarter containers of paella leftovers. I know what I'll be having for lunch this week. The method is very similar to making risotto, which is logical when you think about it: force a lot of yummy liquid into a short grain rice, add tasty goodness in the form of meat and/or veg, and eat.

In keeping with the Spanish theme, we decided we needed to make some flan, too, based on this extremely simple recipe. Interestingly, they have you caramelize the sugar without any water. You have to go slow and keep an eye on it, but it got to a lovely dark brown color without any danger of burning, so I have to say that I recommend it. It didn't call for any salt, which I thought was bogus, so I added about a teaspoon. We baked in individual flan cups rather than one big pan, so we did the water bath method even though the recipe doesn't call for it, and cut the cook time back to about 40 minutes. It was probably about 5 minutes too long, or perhaps the specified temperature is a bit too high (Mad Kitchen Scientist said he's usually done flan at 300 rather than 350), so it was a little more firm that ideal, but still quite tasty.

I don't know that I would necessarily recommend attempting to dry age your own sausage to everyone. There is a very real risk of serious illness. If you're going to do it, make sure to use top quality meat, don't be shy with the spices or salt, and watch the sausages carefully as they dry. If anything feels, looks, or smells off, don't hesitate to dump them. That said, life is risk and this one was deliciously worth it.


03 August 2015

Food Lab 33: Thai

If it's the case that the motto of Cajun cooking is "first, you make a roux," (and it is), I would say that it's equally true that the motto of Thai cooking is "first, you make a paste."

This weekend, the Food Lab crew gathered for some experiments in Thai cooking. The idea was inspired by International Dilettante's international travles. Unfortunately, she and Dr. Fruit Bat were unable to join us (although they will be part of a fabulous trip to Villa San Lorenzo in the Piedmont region of Italy with us this fall).

In our previous experiments with regional cooking, we've discovered that, while the techniques may be unfamiliar, they're not generally complicated. The key, as our previous Rick Bayless / Diana Kennedy-inspired mole and Hana Market-inspired sushi labs have demonstrated, is quality ingredients. But where to find quality for Thai cooking in the DC area?

Fortunately, Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee live in a suburban neighborhood with a large southeast Asian population, near the appropriately-named Grand Mart. We went a little crazy - as we tend to do - and walked out laden with bags full of delicious ingredients we then proceeded to spend all afternoon and part of the evening cooking at a shockingly low price.

This was more of a "cooking together" experiment than a lab per se. That is, we weren't taking a technique or ingredient and trying to perfect it. We were just trying to learn some of the mechanics of Thai cooking and make food that tasted good.

We were assisted in this endeavor by David Thompson's encyclopedic tome Thai Food, which Mad Kitchen Scientist received as a groomsman's gift from Dr. Fruit Bat many years ago. Seeing as it is a published and copyrighted book, I will not be sharing the specific details of the recipes we made, although if you are interested in Thai cuisine, I can highly recommend it.

As per usual, when we actually unpacked our haul, we realized we'd purchased too much. There was no way all that veg was going to fit into one curry! So Mad Kitchen Scientist quick stir-fried the lovely Chinese broccoli we'd picked up with some hoisin sauce, ginger, and garlic, for a snack while we planned our attack.

Course one: Thai cucumber salad
Course two: Green papaya salad
Course three: Pork satay
Course four: larb gai
Course five: veg green curry and steamed sticky rice
Course six: fresh coconut, fresh lychee nuts, sugar plums, jackfruit
Course seven: coconut milk ice cream



Chef Spouse and I have tried making the Thai cucumber salad before, and it's never turned out right. He thinks the problem is that we've been using white wine vinegar rather than rice vinegar (or ideally coconut - which we couldn't find at Grand Mart and appears to be something we'd have to make ourselves if we want it, and yes, Thai Food does have a recipe). I'd argue that it's because we've been going WAY too wimpy on the chiles. The long-leaf Thai coriander might make a difference, too, and using shallots rather than re onion. Regardless, this was DELICIOUS, even if Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee proclaimed it "too hot!"



The green papaya salad was my first "make a paste" dish, which is in fact what you start with. Mad Kitchen Scientist had already ground up all the ingredients for the green curry, but he cheated and used a mini food processor. I ground my damn paste with my damn mortar and pestle. He declared that I had more dedication. Damn right. One of the things that was interesting about Thompson's method for the green papaya salad is that he had you grind some snake beans and cherry tomatoes into the paste, and then combine it with the shredded green papaya and lightly mash it all together, with a liquid made of "tamarind water" and fish sauce. We couldn't quite figure out what "tamarind water" was, so we dissolved some tamarind paste in water. Seemed to work, and a gentle hand with the pestle turned out to be perfect for the mashing. Once again, delicious, authentic, and, for our two supertasters, "too hot!"



Why does anyone ever make satay with chicken? Seriously. My thoughts about chicken are well-known, but EVERYONE agreed with me. Once again, this was one of those "we've tried making this before and been disappointed at the results." Not this time. "First, you make a paste..." and the recipe made a ton of the peanut sauce/marinade, which we divvied up, so Chef Spouse and I plan to have MORE satay tonight.




I feel like the larb gai was our least successful dish. We finely chopped the chicken legs and thighs we used, but I think we should've gotten out the Kitchen Aid and the grinder. Following Thompson's recipe, it was delightfully sour (due to large quantities of lime juice and fish sauce), but not spicy at all. And I think the amount of toasted ground rice was too much - it thickened too much. I'd experiment with this again, but would want to tweak some of the processing and ingredients.




Even with the mild satay and larb gai, our spicephobics were asking for us to take it easy on the final course (the fact that they both kept eating the delicious but fairly spicy cucumber salad may be to blame). So we did, and went vegetarian too, to The Executive Committee's relief (she's always the voice of trying to be reasonable, not purchase too much, and eat something green. In other words, she's the adult in the room most times). This was another "first you make a paste..." activity, which was very simply combined with coconut milk to make the sauce that went over lightly stir-fried king oyster mushrooms, Thai eggplant, Chinese okra, baby corn, and steamed sticky rice.



The fruit was interesting. If you ever get the chance to have fresh lychee, take it. Choose pink/red ones that give slightly to a gentle squeeze. Peeling them is a breeze, and they're about a million times better than the ones in the cans - and the ones in the cans are pretty good. 

(We never ate that cute little yellow Chinese melon at the front - TOO FULL. The sugar plums taste like regular plums, but they're smaller, so you can just pop them in your mouth, and they have a slightly firmer texture, even though they tasted fully ripe.)

Jackfruit was an adventure. Freeing the edible part from the non-edible part is a bit of a challenge. This was the best explanation I was able to find:



And it is delicious - subtle, lovely flavor and interesting chewy texture. The one thing he neglects to mention is that it is INCREDIBLY sticky. The goo had to wear off my hands, and we had to get out Goo-B-Gone to get it off the handle of the knife.



The Executive Committee was our coconut huller. She punctured green, young, and aged coconuts to get the coconut water (which we proceeded to use in cocktails) and then bashed the coconuts open with a rock (how Robinson Crusoe of her!) and cut out the flesh. The more "seasoned" the coconut, the tastier the flesh was, so if you're not just after the water, get the dark brown version that's your prototypical image of a coconut (the dude on the left above).

Speaking of coconut, we finished with a simple coconut milk-egg-palm sugar cooked custard ice cream. And more jackfruit.



On the cocktail front, we were playing around with lime juice, coconut water, and the tamarind in various applications. Nothing really jumped out at any of us, other than the fact that Thai basil makes an excellent addition to cocktails, and anything with tequila seems to benefit from the addition of a little salt. And sweet white wines go well with spicy food.

Verdict? Don't be afraid of cuisines that are outside your normal range of cooking. But make sure you visit a Grand Mart first.

(A note to the observant: food lab 32 *is* missing. That's because some of what we made required aging, and it's not done yet. So we'll be addressing that out of order and at a future date.)