03 September 2013

Food Lab 25: Smoked Mollusks

We knew it had to happen sooner or later. And it's not like we haven't had previews: the bourbon eggs, attempts to make cheese, homemade rice paper, lobster thermidor, gluten-free pizza crust...I could go on. But this is the first time that the main lab idea was a total #FAIL.

The day started so well. Mad Kitchen Scientist, Chef Spouse and I gathered at the Maine Avenue Fish Market to stock up. We bought big and little clams, mussels, oysters, head-on shrimp, crawfish, some octopus and a piece of salmon for The Empress and Chef Spouse, who's not huge on bivalves.

Upon arriving back, the first thing we did was put the mussels in a brine, consisting of:

4 qt water
1/2 c kosher salt
1/4 c brown sugar
Bay leaves
Dried hot peppers
1 dozen allspice berries
Fennel seed
Mix of peppercorns

Looks promising (and pretty), doesn't it?  Just you wait....

Chef Spouse then valiantly started opening the oysters, even though he'd never done it before and we had no oyster knife. It did not go well, to the point that, after destroying the shell on one, semi-successfully opening two more, and determining that there was no way to open the rest without the right tools, he left to purchase an oyster knife. While he was gone, the IAs arrived. Turns out, Papa IA is a man of hidden talents, including the fact that he worked as an oyster shucker at one point. Once Chef Spouse had the right tool and a good coach, he dispatched the rest of the oysters in quick order, and we proceeded to slurp them all down poste haste.

In the meantime, the octopus went into a marinade of:

Olive oil
Lemon juice
Hot peppers
Chopped fresh rosemary
Chopped fresh sage

And Mad Kitchen Scientist fired up the Big Green Egg.

Next we par-boiled the crawfish in a simple Old Bay and salt mix, since we were planning to smoke them. Why did we par-boil them first? Visions of still-live crawfish scattering the second they hit the grate in the smoker.

Then it was out of the brine for the mussels, out of the pot for some of the crawfish, and onto a slow smoke heat (around 225) until the mussels opened up, signaling that they were - or should have been - ready to eat.

Here's the thing. I've had smoked mussels before. I know it's possible. But it wasn't this weekend. Instead of forming into tasty, juicy little pockets of chewy deliciousness, the mussels were rigid and nearly impossible to pry fully open and, when we did, there were two flat bits of flesh against the inside of each shell that were kind of the consistency of pate. They didn't taste bad, exactly, and you could taste the smoke, but they were profoundly disappointing. The crawfish fared a little better, although you couldn't really taste any smokiness.

After that, we cranked up the heat in the Egg (I still think it needs a name), and put together a sort of clam bake in Mad Kitchen Scientist's new 9 qt cast iron dutch oven. It included:

3/4 L white wine
2 fennel bulbs, quartered
1 onion, chopped in eighths
Head on shrimp
2 red and 2 yellow tomatoes, also in eighths
6 ears corn halved
all 3 dozen clams

Once again, looks pretty good, right? Oh my, were we wrong.

So we kept the Egg closer to 400, smoked until the clams started to open, then popped the lid on to steam briefly.

The clams were not terrible. They were a little tough, but not inedible, and again, you could taste the smoke. The shrimp overcooked to the point that they fell apart. I couldn't eat the corn - banged one of my teeth slightly loose in an accident earlier this summer, and it's still not 100% - but the tomatoes, onions, and fennel were not great, either.

Thank goodness we had those oysters, that octopus, which we grilled, and salmon, which we also grilled, or we would've had nothing to eat but the cheese and olives The Executive Committee had put out for us.

So our first disaster. Doing a little additional research now, I realize we left out the key step with the mussels: that they needed to be briefly boiled and de-shelled THEN smoked. Same thing with the clams. The shrimp should have also been removed from their shells and dry-smoked, preferably after being treated to a rub or marinade of some sort. To paraphrase The Wedding Singer, this is information I would have found useful YESTERDAY. Fortunately, we had plenty of champagne, sparkling wine, and white wine to console ourselves with.

02 August 2013

Food Lab 24: Smoking

No labs since March, then two in two weeks. Schedules: what can you do?

Like the crepe lab, this wasn't a *pure* lab. As I mentioned, The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist have been providing a home to a Big Green Egg since late last fall, which means they've had plenty of time to get quite good at smoking meat, aka "Real Barbeque."

Our task for this lab was to figure out if you could get a reasonable facsimile of smoking inside a gas grill.

The answer, we discovered, was yes, with some caveats.

You start with soaked wood chips and some sort of container for them, thusly:

(Did you know you can pre-soak your chips, store them in bags in the freezer, and use them without thawing? Efficient!)

Step two is to cover (or, as we later learned, PARTIALLY cover) the chips to keep them from burning too fast and to regulate the smoke:

(Nice alternate use of grill fork there, Chef Spouse.)

Then you start a LOW flame under JUST the chips (so your chip container needs to correspond with how your grill burners light, left/right or front/back). The chips go over the flame. The meat DOES NOT go over flame. Remember, smoking is all about INDIRECT heat.

So what's the caveat?

Flare ups.

They are not your friend.

In order to maximize grill space and also because we were smoking both boneless (pork chops) and bone-in (pork ribs) meats, we were using the upper rack, a portion of which was directly over the covered chip basket. Without constant vigilance, and with dripping grease, you get this:

 (That's a little TOO much char, Son.)

With constant vigilance, on the other hand, you get this:

(Now THAT'S what I'm talking about! Also, notice the partially covered chips.)

The other thing with a grill is that it's much harder to regulate the temperature, which means the chips burn unevenly. So you cycle from too hot/too much smoke, through "the chips are burning too fast!" to too cool/not enough smoke pretty regularly. The Big Green Egg is very Low Maintenance. It's Lauren Bacall. The grill is definitely HM. It's Sally Albright.

We used pecan chips.

The Egg (I feel like it needs a name, no?) got the pork shoulder, some chorizo, and some sweet Italian sausage. Also hickory chips.

There didn't appear to be any significant taste differences between hickory and pecan, at least not that our palates could discern.

What goes with Real Barbeque?

Collards and beer, natch.

We labbed two collard recipes, one with ham hocks, one without. We had no seasoned salt, so we altered the spicing in the ham hock recipe to:

1 Tsp salt
1 Tsp black pepper
1/2 Tsp turmeric
1/2 Tsp sugar
1/2 Tsp smoked paprika
1/2 Tsp onion powder
2 crushed cloves of garlic
2 Tbsp sriracha

The only alteration we made to the no ham hocks recipe was that we omitted the bacon, too. Vegetarian collards, y'all.

Now, you would expect the ham hock recipe to be better. But you'd be wrong. Even when we amped up the salt and sriracha, it was surprisingly boring. The veg version, on the other hand, was delish.

On the beer front, Mad Kitchen Scientist is quite the accomplished home brewer, so we had plenty of good stuff to choose from, but we decided to get fancy with Beertails (aka, cocktails made with beer).

We tried a shandy, traditionally 1/2 beer and 1/2 lemonade, with fresh homemade lemonade and four different beers:
  • BBQ ale homebrew
  • ESB homebrew
  • Rye Pale Ale homebrew
  • Hop Crisis IPA
The rye pale ale was best, but all the beers were better without mucking them up with lemonade.

We then tried a Hoedown. I'm not even linking to a recipe. Suffice it to say, it uses fresh watermelon juice, and it was AWFUL. You should NEVER mix fresh watermelon juice with beer, particularly when there are such better options, like this, for instance, which we also tried with basil in place of the tarragon (an improvement), and lavender simple syrup in place of regular (which was not - too floral, like when you overdo the Creme de Violette in an Aviation).

But the real winner, of course, was watermelon margaritas. Take your normal favorite margarita recipe (I personally like 2 tequila, 2 lime, 1 Cointreau, 1 agave nectar) and add watermelon juice. It's extra awesome if you happen to have jalapeno-infused tequila around.

How do you make jalapeno-infused tequila?

Take the seeds and membranes from three jalapenos and steep them in one cup of silver tequila for at least an hour (longer if you like it hotter). Strain and bottle. Go, go, garde manger!

Mama IA also did some experiments in gluten-free cooking, making corn bread and cupcakes with The Empress, but she'll have to detail that for you (if we can persuade her).

So yes, you can smoke meat quite successfully in your gas grill, as long as you remember:

25 July 2013

Food Lab 23: Crepes

OK, it hasn't actually be four full months since the Food Lab crew assembled. We had a lab planned
back in the middle of April: candy making. We were going to do caramels, lollipops, and chocolate truffles. Unfortunately, at the last minute, the IAs were unable to join us, and seeing as Mama IA was the instigator of Candy Lab, we didn't feel right about proceeding without her.

So, blessed with extraordinarily good weather that day, Chef Spouse and I hung out with Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee in their backyard playing with the Green Egg smoker to which they're providing a temporary home, grilling flat bread and veg of all sorts, and trying out the molecular gastronomy kit The Executive Committee got for Christmas. We made lemon foam (for our grilled asparagus) and balsamic vinegar pearls (for our grilled romaine). And chocolate truffles, which wasn't really a lab because Chef Spouse makes them all the time, but he did NOT use the Super-Secret Recipe provided to him be a friend of ours for purposes of, I quote, "sexual blackmail."

But I digress.

May and June were busy travel months for various members of your Food Lab team, which left us next able to gather on Sunday, July 14, also known as Bastille Day.

Bastille Day food lab?

Crepes, bien sur!

First, to get you in the mood, go ahead and start the video below of Edith Piaf singing La Vie En Rose.

So we used both Julia Child recipes, sweet and savory, an extremely simple sourdough (using the sourdough starter I've grown over the past several months, who goes by Fred), and a buckwheat batter. All were made the previous day.

The thing about crepes isn't the batter, though. The batter is simple: flour, eggs, butter, salt, milk, and water.

It's the flipping technique.

I should back up. Several years *before* he started getting serious about cooking, Chef Spouse decided he wanted to learn how to make crepes. So we got him official French steel crepe pans (sorta like these), and he perfected his flipping technique. He can actually flip with both hands at the same time. It's pretty impressive. Like a dope, I didn't take video.

Anyway, according to his notes, here's how it works:
  1. Combine the wet ingredients, then beat in the flour and salt until the batter is the consistency of a milk shake
  2. Heat your crepe pan, add a little butter, then pour in just enough batter to cover the pan
  3. Flip when golden brown by making sure the crepe is loose, then slide the crepe away from you until 1/4 is hanging off the pan, then flip with a flick of the wrist
In more detail:

Butter: use a full stick of frozen butter and rub it on the pan between crepes to avoid using too much. The butter should sizzle but not brown.

Pouring in the batter: a traditional crepe pan will take about 1/3 of a cup of batter. When pouring it in, tilt the crepe pan so the batter runs down it and fills the pan. Pour the batter across the top from left to right (10 o'clock to 2 o'clock) across the top, with the bulk of the batter pouring out at the top of the pan (12 o'clock). The batter will slowly pool to the bottom and join up.

When to flip: never let crepes cook until they smoke or the edges get brown, or they will crack when you roll them. The crepe should shake loose in the pan before flipping. A very quick shift (forward/back) of the wrist will let you know if the crepe has separated from the pan yet.  You can't flip a crepe that is still stuck to the pan.

How to flip: as Julia Child states, you must have courage. Hesitation will kill your flip, a la -->

We did discover one key thing. If you’re short, you need to stand back from the stove for the flip because your arm needs to be lower  than stove height. If your arm is too high, you can’t do the motion correctly, and you end up with a mess. The problem, of course, is that if stand back from the stove to flip your crepe and miss, the crepe hits the floor.

Now, you don't have to have a crepe pan. You can use a more traditional fry pan/skillet. The problem is that it ups the degree of difficulty on the flip significantly. SIGNIFICANTLY.

So what did we fill all these crepes with? Spinach sauteed with onions and pancetta, mushroom duxelles, lightly steamed asparagus, home-smoked salmon (see above, re: Green Egg), homemade duck confit (which we also tried adding to the crepe batter itself, tasty but hard to flip), goat cheese, and Gruyere.

Of course, at the end, we had sweet crepes. We had all sorts of plans for them, but it came down to two things: a gooseberry/blueberry compote Mad Kitchen Scientist had made with mascarpone cheese and, of course, Crepes Suzette (because setting things on fire in the kitchen on purpose is fun).

What did we drink? Well, wine, of course, and French 75s, one of my very favorite cocktails ever. Booze, simple syrup, lemon juice, and champagne. Ah, but what booze? The traditional is gin v. cognac, and we tried both. They were both lovely, with gin clearly the winner for warm weather, and cognac clearly the winter version. We then moved on to trying rye and silver tequila. After all, a French75 is basically a Tom Collins topped with champagne rather than club soda, so why NOT try it with a whiskey sour as the base? And we needed a comparison booze. Well, the silver tequila blew us all away, so we then moved on to the inevitable silver v. resposado comparison. Resposado was better.

Finally for Mad Kitchen Scientist, who was sad we didn't have a recording to play:

23 March 2013

Food Lab 22: Irish Cooking (Sort Of)

Chef Spouse has a good friend who lives in Pittsburgh who is a pretty serious cook himself (Mr. Pittsburgh even considered throwing over computer work for culinary school), so since he and his good friend who is a girl but not a girlfriend were visiting us for the weekend, we decided to lab it up.

The IAs were able to join us as well, so we had a full kitchen and MANY, MANY ideas. After quite a bit of back and forth (and speculation about where we might be able to procure liquid nitrogen), we arrived on "Ethnic cooking: Irish" in honor of St. Pat's weekend. And since we all still have lots of tasty, tasty lamb, we decided to go in a shepherd's pie direction, plus The Executive Committee was interested in learning the mashed potato technique Chef Spouse learned in his cooking course at L'Academie de Cuisine.

This quickly expanded, as it tends to do, to include making fresh farmer's cheese (two versions, one with cow milk, one with goat milk), making three different types of mashed potatoes, making a traditional colcannon mash, making cabbage cooked in bacon, making a Meyer lemon cocktail (as Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee had found some lovely Meyer lemons at the grocery), and testing various brown liquors against each other in a manhattan.

As usual, we had "an absurdity" of ideas, and we also had "an absurdity" of cooks. (We've decided that "an absurdity" is the official Food Lab term for excess, so in other words, every single Food Lab we ever do).

Lesson one: eight cooks really is too many, even for our relatively spacious kitchen. So all y'all who've been hinting that you'd like to join us (you know who you are): you really, really do need to franchise this idea. We don't have room.

Drinks first:

We looked at a bunch of recipes that specifically called for Meyer lemons, and ended up choosing this one, for a Meyer lemon blossom, in part because it called for celery bitters. Of course we have celery bitters, along with at least 10 other types of bitters ranging from the typical (Angostura, Peychaud's) to the obscure (rhubarb, gin barrel orange, the aforementioned celery). Hey, we're serious about our cocktails in this house. It was decent, but it really amped up when Papa IA had the idea to muddle some fresh sage in.

We also decided to try 3 brown liquors - Irish whiskey, rye, and bourbon - in a manhattan and taste test.

While all three were delicious, Mad Kitchen Scientist and I clearly preferred the rye version (spicy and not as sweet as bourbon, but still with a solid kick), while Papa IA like the "gentleness" of the Irish whiskey version.

Why is Irish whiskey more "gentle"? The proof is lower.

On to the mashed potatoes. We labbed Yukon golds versus russets, and boiling versus baking. Why would you bake potatoes you're going to mash? The secret to creamy, decadent mashed potatoes is: one, don't over-mash as it breaks down the starch too much and renders them gluey; and two, and perhaps even more important, potatoes can only absorb so much non-potato material. The less water they absorb, the more space there is for butter and cream.

You know another way to make them even more decadent? Reduce the cream before you start adding it. Yowza.

Mad Kitchen Scientist preferred the Yukon golds, but I liked the baked russets best. They had a really nice roasted (no other way to describe it) flavor.

Then again, all versions had so much butter and reduced heavy cream in them that, even though they had been a little over-processed and weren't texturally perfect, Chef Spouse had to take them away from us in the "tasting" (aka "gobbling down") process so as to retain enough to top our shepherd's pie.

Speaking of, we started with Alton Brown's recipe, and then reorganized it, because it seemed like the order of operations was a little backwards, at least given our ingredients. Alton calls for you to saute the veg first and use ground lamb, but we had cubed lamb leg, so after consulting with Chef Spouse, we decided to process the ingredients more like you would for bouef bourgignon, which he makes every year for Christmas. We browned the meat in batches first, then sauteed the vegetables in the meaty fond goodness, then moved the veg to a large pot so we could saute the meat again with flour (which you need to form the gravy), then combined the meat in the large pot with the veg and added lamb stock, tomato paste, and herbs. We reduced the sauce, popped the lamb mixture into a pan, topped with the reserved mashed potatoes, and baked. It was REALLY delicious, and heated up quite well the next week, which I appreciated, since Chef Spouse was out of town and I have late classes some nights.

On to the cheese: The Executive Committee and Mad Kitchen Scientist had also procured rennet and citric acid. We just followed the process on the rennet package, other than skipping the final heating, so the cheeses that resulted were more like dryish ricotta in texture rather than fresh mozzarella-like. Actually, it was exactly like real Pennsylvania Dutch schmercase, which is a fresh cheese farmers make when they have too much milk, as opposed to the weirdo spread that includes cottage cheese and Worcestershire sauce you'll find if you Google it. Both were very tasty, particularly on homemade bread with a little honey (which is also the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch way to eat schmercase). We had enough remaining to cure a ball of each in brine for at least a week, as recommended, which means we get to try it this weekend, so I'll report back.

13 February 2013

Food Lab 21: Dumpllings

Happy Year of the Snake!

Mad Kitchen Scientist has been hankering to play around with Chinese mother sauces, so with Chinese New Year taking place this past weekend, we decided to make dumplings and homemade duck sauce.

We decided to lab:
  • Steamed v. potsticker cooking
  • Homemade wrappers v. bought
  • Rice paper v. wheat based wrappers
  • Jam-based duck sauce v. cooked fruit-based duck sauce
In vegetable, lobster, and pork varieties.

We had ALL KINDS of fillings ready to go - finely chopped pork, finely chopped lobster, bok choy, Chinese mustard greens (which were DELICIOUS), Napa cabbage, red pepper, jalapenos, reconstituted Chinese black fungus, reconstituted shiitakes,  carrot, scallions, garlic, ginger, cilantro, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, mushroom essence (the shiitake soaking liquid boiled WAY down), ginger juice...I might be forgetting something. As usual, we an "an absurdity" (The Executive Committee's term for Food Lab overindulgence) of ingredients.

The wrappers are relatively easy to make. We followed this guy's instructions, both on the recipe and on the process for filling them:

As far as the ingredients mix, he's right: you can put anything you like in there. You do need to cut things up REALLY finely, though. We even tried pulsing some of the pork mixture in the food processor. It made the dumplings easier to stuff, but it didn't taste as good - we lost the differences in texture from the meat to the veg. Like making ravioli, you need less filling than you think you do. No, even less than that.

We also found that the wrappers started drying out pretty quickly, which made them a little harder to manipulate and, particularly, seal. Next time we do this, we'll have the filling completely made up in advance, and one person will roll and cut and the other will fill and close. The process needs to move a little faster.

The bought wrappers were a bit larger (just a factor of we didn't have a larger cutting round) and more uniform in size. They come heavily dusted with corn starch, and we ended up dragging them through water before filling so we could close them and get the edges to stick together.

Ultimately, there wasn't much of a taste difference between the bought and homemade, but making them is so easy and fast, I don't know why you'd bother to buy wrappers.

The biggest taste difference came in the cooking method. The potsticker method described in the video was VASTLY superior to just a plain steaming.

We also had our first true disaster: the rice paper. In theory, it should be easy to make. You combine rice flour and water to a paste-like consistency, spread on cheesecloth or a metal screen, steam for a few minutes, remove from your cloth or screen, allow to dry, voila.

One small problem: we could NOT figure out how to get the cooked dough off the screen. We tried everything and nearly ruined our metal screen in the process. What little we were able to peel off intact ended up in gelatinous globs.

This lady makes it look simple, but I'm thinking there's something she's not telling us:

The Executive Committee speculated that she might make ALL the rice paper in the world, being the only one who knows how to do it. You'll notice that there are MANY recipes online for what to put in rice paper, and almost none for how to make it. We now know why.

On to duck sauce. The formula there is pretty simple, too: fruit (either cooked or in jam), soy, rice vinegar, seasonings to taste. The jam-based version won, hands down. The cooked fruit based version was bland by comparison, and even boosting it with some sriracha didn't help. And it's simple to make: a mix of fruit jams (apricot, plum, fig - really, your choice), garlic, ginger, soy, rice wine vinegar, chilies, whir it up with your immersion blender or food processor, finis. Also, tasty.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out what was probably the best thing made: Chef Spouse came up with a blood orange Mai Tai that was out of this world. He used the recipe from In the Land of Cocktails, (Bruce McAlpin version), but replaced the grenadine and orange juice with blood orange juice. Also, he didn't bother making orgeat punch, using the plain orgeat syrup instead. Finally, he added a float of really outstanding dark rum to the top. Mai Tais can be cloying and chemical tasting, but this one was AMAZINGLY good. It may become one of the official summer drinks of the house.

30 January 2013

Food Lab 20: Butchering, Part 2

The thing about getting a whole lamb (or two) is that you get the WHOLE lamb (or two).  So after you've separated your shoulder meat, and cut your chops, and prepared your tenderloin, and gotten all fancy with your lambchetta, and boned out your legs, you're left with scraps. Lots of scraps. About 10 pounds all together from the two original lambs. Plus organs.

Being thrifty, nose-to-tail types like we are, we weren't just going to throw that out.

No way.

So Chef Spouse, Mad Kitchen Scientist, the Executive Committee, and I gathered to make merguez, make a second batch of stock, and have some fun with cooking offal.

If you recall, we had made sausage before, and it turns out, we did learn some things! We used the merguez recipe straight from Whole Beast Butchery, with one small change. WBB calls for a whole bunch of yummy spices, and some "wet works" (jalapeno, garlic, red onion, etc.), but it does not call for any additional fat. Who in the what where? That seemed unacceptable to us, so we added about 1/2 pound of lamb fat for every 3 pounds, totaling at just about 2 pounds of lamb fat all together. Hey, we'd rendered all that beautiful lamb fat; we had to use it for something.

OK, so what is it that we'd learned from last time?

First, DO NOT attempt to stuff 20 pounds of sausage in one afternoon.

Two, soak the casings for a while before you use them to cut down on the nasty smell (MAJOR improvement).

Three. you need the BIG tray for your Kitchen Aid sausage stuffing attachment,

Four, Mad Kitchen Scientist had improved his casing handling technique, and Chef Spouse had improved his forcing the meat through technique.

And we were only stuffing about 4 pounds of sausage - we packed up the rest loose. One thing that was kind of cool is that the added fat, which stayed fairly intact in the pieces I'd originally shaved/hacked it into in the loose sausage, basically emulsified into the meat in the process of putting it through the mechanical sausage stuffer. Can't wait to see how it cooks up!

At the same time, we had two lamb hearts (above) and four lamb kidneys (below) to deal with.

The hearts we simply stuffed with (hearts have chambers) and wrapped in bacon and roasted. Verdict? As The Executive Committee observed, fat brings flavor, and the heart is a VERY lean muscle. The bacon added some flavor and salt, and the texture was very like liver, but not quite as rich. Mad Kitchen Scientist and I liked it. Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee were more "meh." We all agreed it might benefit from some sort of marinade.

The kidneys were BEAUTIFUL. And we didn't have a lot of fancy ingredients. So we just used Julia's base recipe from Mastering (this one is very like it). You carefully remove all the fat and silver skin from the kidneys, saute them briefly (only about 4 minutes) in hot fat (we labbed butter versus lamb fat), remove them and deglaze the pan with shallots, white wine and lemon juice...and then the magic happens. You remove the pan from the heat, take your pre-mashed butter/Dijon mustard mix (did I forget to mention that?) and melt it into the pan juices, slice the kidneys VERY thin, then return them to the pan and reheat the whole thing on low briefly. Sprinkle with parsley.

Again, Mad Kitchen Scientist and I thought they were great. Chef Spouse and The Executive Committee were less enthusiastic.

So now I've butchered a whole animal, gone a second round on sausage, and tasted two new types of offal.

Next up? Something in honor of an upcoming holiday (no fair guessing!), and the return of my (now former) colleague and his spouse.