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.

No comments: