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.

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!