06 July 2023

Food Lab: Velouté

We're back!

Your intrepid Food Labbers have still been cooking, of course, both together and individually - gotta eat! - we just haven't been doing much labbing lately.

We have, however, been planning our three-years-delayed (Thanks a lot, coronavirus!) Ten (now 13) Years of Food Lab trip to....France! No, we're not there yet, but we're headed there this fall. It will be a third return for Chef Spouse and me, but Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee have never been, so we're looking forward to sharing some of our favorite sights in Paris with them and then heading to a lovely villa in Provence for a week of farmers markets, bakeries, vineyards, cooking, eating, and drinking together with some additional friends. 

Our pending trip to France and Chef Spouse's shiny new account with ProFish (acquired in support of the Summer of Poke, which is a story for another time) did inspire our most recent Lab though: velouté.

Velouté, for those who don't know, is one of Escoffier's "mother" sauces and is a simple combination of a blond roux and a light stock, generally chicken or fish, that is then served over poached chicken or fish (or as a base for a sauce for veg or pasta).

The ratio we were using was 1 Tbsp each flour and butter to 1 cup of stock, finish with salt and WHITE pepper to taste (no black pepper spots in your pristine velouté, s'il vous plaît!)

We set our plan over oysters and bubbly: 

Test one would be: Should you start with fish stock or with water, wine and aromatics?

Test two would be: If you wish to enhance your velouté, should you use cream or an egg yolk?

Chef Spouse had procured snapper for the poaching that would give us the stock in the first place and branzino filets for the actual poached fish over which to serve the finished sauce. We also had some adorable little cabbages from our CSA that we poached and then seared on the Green Egg (which was at the ready because Mad Kitchen Scientist was also smoking some salmon, aka "Bacon of the Sea") because we figured, correctly, that we were going to have more velouté as a result of our tests than needed to sauce branzino filets for four. (That Bacon of the Sea got turned into snackies for hungry cooks spread on individual endive leaves with cream cheese enhanced with The Executive Committee's fresh-snipped chives.)

That is some good-looking fish.

Seriously, that is some GOOD-LOOKING fish.

Fortunately, Mad Kitchen Scientist had fish stock already waiting, so we pulled together a pot with water, white wine, fennel, carrot, celery, green onion, and thyme, cut the snapper in two, and poached.

The water/wine/aromatics combo was the CLEAR winner, both as a base for the sauce and as a cooking liquid for the snapper. Starting with a fish stock and then adding MORE fish, even as mild a fish as snapper, was...too fishy. (Although we did eat ALL the snapper regardless.) 

So that was easy, and we had our sauce for our poached branzino at the ready.

But what about an enhancement? To cut to the chase: Save the cream for something else, use an egg yolk, and, per Food Lab tradition, make cocktails (or something else) with the white. Even after reducing the sauce, the cream still left it thin and didn't add much by way of richness or mouthfeel. The egg yolk, on the other hand, turned what is a mildly flavored sauce into something with the richness to stand up to our wee cabbages. 

Did you notice I said "cocktails or something else" with the egg white? Turns out, The Executive Committee had gotten a soufflé mould for her birthday that had, as yet, not been christened. She decided she would very much like a late birthday / early July 4th soufflé for dessert, so while the boys were playing with the fish, I followed Julia's recipe for orange soufflé from Mastering. 

A few notes:

  • Definitely bother with the "rub two sugar cubes over the surface of the orange before zesting" thing - it sounds silly, but it adds depth.
  • If you don't have Grand Marnier handy, Cointreau makes a perfectly acceptable substitute (I wouldn't do a regular triple sec though - I suspect the sugar content is too low).
  • You can prep the entire thing up to the point of whipping the egg whites and incorporating them! This is clearly how restaurants manage soufflé for service with only a LITTLE extra time required to prepare it, rather than diners having to sit there for an extra hour to wait for their dessert.
  • It's better to slightly *under* do the folding in of the whipped whites than to overdo.

How did it turn out?

Also, the kitchen smelled DIVINE, and I can report that there was not a CRUMB left over.

Yes, I *will* be making more of these when we're in France this fall. Although since we'll be eight, I will probably need to make TWO at a time. 

23 March 2022

Food Lab: Chocolate

Seeing as our last Food Lab was last summer, have your intrepid Food Labbers been subsisting on nothing but carry out and boxed mac & cheese since then?

Fear not! 

We've been cooking and eating together QUITE well and QUITE frequently, just not Labbing much, partially because we've all been suffering from a bit of topic-block. Given everything we've taken on since we first launched this crazy project in 2010, what remains?

I'll tell you what remains: CHOCOLATE

Mad Kitchen Scientist was the one who started the whole thing off, observing that "chocolate is something that WE do not know, and knowing about tempering and all such things is becoming something fashionable among foodies." 

How did it take us more than ten years to take on chocolate? How did we not notice we hadn't taken on chocolate? That I do not know, and yet, here we are.

Will it surprise you to learn that our initial plan turned out to be a bit ambitious?

We did manage to head one excess off at the pass: we decided NOT to revisit mole lab in making dinner. Chef Spouse gently observed that that might be a bridge too far for a Sunday afternoon. 

Our initial list included:
  • Taste test various % cacao 
  • Make chocolate from cacao beans 
  • Differences between Dutch process & natural process cocoa powder
  • Different methods of melting chocolate
  • Fixing seized chocolate
  • Tempering chocolate
Chef Spouse regularly makes me homemade truffles, and we were currently out, so we had our base already chosen for the tempered chocolate (my other idea was coconut and/or peanut butter Easter eggs, but I was overruled). Because the ganache base needs time to cool before it can be formed into truffles and dipped, Chef Spouse prepared it before everyone arrived. He favors alcohol as a flavoring agent, so we went with my two favorites: absinthe and añjeo tequila. (He used to use sweet liqueurs like Amaretto and Chambord, but we both realized they tend to be cloying.) 

We had seen chocolate made by hand from cacao beans on a recent trip to Mexico, so Chef Spouse was eager to give it a shot and ordered 1 kg of organic cacao beans. They arrived fermented - the first processing step - but not roasted, so after tasting the pre-roasted beans (pleasantly fruity and bitter), we went on to roast about 10 oz. immediately following the simple 5 minutes at 400 - 5 minutes at 350 - 5 minutes at 325 - then 300 until done (~10 minutes) recommended pattern. 

(I should point out that eating the fermented but not roasted beans can be a little dangerous - similar to eating raw eggs or meat, both of which you already know we do - so roasting not only allows you to remove the beans' husks, it also kills any pathogens on the beans. Anyway, we each tried a bean, we didn't chow down on handfuls. But do so at your own risk.)

Sooooo....getting the inner beans out of the husks turned out to be a bit of a production and put the whammy on most of the rest of our plans, including the plans to turn those beans into chocolate. We now each have a container of nibs waiting to be chocolatized in the hopefully near future. Fortunately, if you store them carefully, they have a pretty substantial shelf-life of up to two years. 

However, while everyone else was fooling around with the hot beans, I decided to get onto the cocoa powder tests. I had done a bit of advance research at Serious Eats and Sally's Baking Addiction, where I learned that in addition to slight taste differences (Dutch process, to my taste buds, is more chocolatey, while natural is "brighter"), it comes down to acidity. Dutch process produces a neutral pH of 7, while natural process is more acidic, coming in at a pH of 6 or even 5. 

Why does that matter?

Well, what are you making? If it's a baked good that depends on baking soda for its leavening, it may matter quite a bit, as alkaline baking soda requires an acid environment to be activated. 

So I pulled out my mom's simple chocolate eggless cake recipe, which I remembered relying on baking soda, and got to work. I measured out all the dry ingredients into two bowls, one with natural and one with Dutch process cocoa powder.

Then I turned to the wet ingredients: canola oil, water, vanilla....damn it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the recipe also includes a small amount of vinegar. FOR ACIDITY. 

So much for that test. Both layers rose just fine. 

So I said screw it, made some cherry icing, and turned them into a cake. 

Meanwhile, the hullers were still at work.

Eventually, they finished and were able to return to the ganache and form the truffle centers.

At this point we broke for dinner: cacao-crusted hangar steaks and roasted cauliflower and steamed green beans with Mad Kitchen Scientist's take on a Cacao Picada Sauce

Cacao Picada Sauce (loosely adapted from Saveur)

3/4 c olive oil
8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 c almonds
1 c fresh parsley
~3 T of dark chocolate (baking chocolate at least 60% cacao)
~2 T sherry
salt, freshly ground white & black pepper

Toast almonds. Simmer garlic in olive oil until just getting some golden color.

Put almonds, chocolate, parsley in food processor or blender. Process in chunky salsa. Add sherry and garlic & oil. Blend to desired consistency. Season with salt & peppers and adjust other flavors as desired.

After eating, it was on to the idea that started this whole thing: tempering chocolate and, more specifically, covering the truffles in the tempered chocolate.

After diner, it was back to the truffles. 

(Due to a promise to an old friend, I am forbidden from taking part in the making of truffles, so I was merely an observer at this point.) 

So I asked Chef Spouse what he learned about working with tempered chocolate, and he replied that it gets hotter than you think it will faster than you think it will, it keeps rising in temperature longer than you think it will, it's harder to get it to working temperature than you would think it would be, it's harder to hold it at optimum working temperature that you would think it would be....and having three pairs of hands to dip the truffles was a MAJOR improvement over his usual solo process.

I'm sure that's all true, but the finished product is so delicious, who cares about your troubles, Chef Spouse? ;) 

Drinks to accompany? A take on a Oaxacan old fashioned (reposado tequila, mezcal, agave nectar) that we tested with both mole and chocolate bitters, universally agreeing that the chocolate bitters win. (I think we should rename it a Mayan old fashioned.) 

We never got to playing around with seized chocolate or the chocolate tasting or, of course, making chocolate by hand. As I said, overly ambitious. 

06 July 2021

Food Lab: Brewing

Confession time: this wasn't really a Food Lab. Mad Kitchen Scientist has been home brewing for more than 30 years and is, truly, expert at it. But I've never brewed beer, and wanted to at least learn what the process is, so this was more like a tutorial or demonstration than an actual lab.

Beer-brewing is conceptually simple:

  • Crack the grain 
  • Combine with warm water to form the "mash" 
  • Cook the mash at a low temperature
  • Strain the grain out of the mash water
  • Add the "sparge" water to form the "wort"
  • Add your other flavoring ingredients (hops, malt)
  • Boil the wort
  • Chill the wort QUICKLY 
  • Strain the wort into your VERY VERY CLEAN fermentation container
  • Add the yeast and a little more clean, cool water 
  • Let the yeast do its job (aka ferment the beer)
  • Bottle the beer

As Mad Kitchen Scientist is fond of reminding us, no known human pathogens can survive the brewing process (as long as you're careful not to introduce them in the fermentation and bottling), so beer is not only, per Ben Franklin, proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, it's also proof that She doesn't want us to die from drinking bad water, a major concern throughout much of human history. 

In fact, historically, beer tended to feature at every meal, even for children, due to the aforementioned water quality problem. Of course, those beers were not juiced to the high alcohol levels of today's imperial stouts (the beer we brewed this weekend), Belgian IPAs, and Scotch ales (or the even higher levels of speciality beers than can start to approach the proof of distilled spirits). Still, our forefathers - and foremothers - were likely rarely sober as judges. Of course, while alcohol abuse is very serious, it turns out the communities of tipsy apes do better than the communities of sober apes, and beer can be an excellent way to induce that cooperation and sense of bonding. So on to the brewing! For the good of our community of tool-using apes! 

If brewing is conceptually so simple, what's the deal with good versus bad homebrew, and the dizzying variety of beer options available? 

Recipes (and temperature control). And Mad Kitchen Scientist has been refining his for decades. 

The grain is primarily barley, but there are all different types of barleys for brewing at all different levels of roast.

Mad Kitchen Scientist's super-secret
Imperial Stout blend

Cracking the grain is cracking the grain - and it's a delightfully analog process.

The next stage at which the brewer really influences the product is in what you choose to add to the wort by way of hops (type, quantity) and malt or other sugars (same). This is also when you can get into experimenting with things like fruit beers or other flavors. 

Look at those pretty hops!

Once the wort is ready for fermentation, two things are VERY important:

  • You need to chill your wort FAST
  • Your carboy needs to be CLEAN (so does your filter and your airlock)

Mad Kitchen Scientist created a clever gizmo from copper tubing to cool the wort by plunging the coil of copper tubing into the wort, attaching one end to tubing that runs from the cold water tap and letting the water run out the other end back into the sink.

Clean carboy? Bleach solution, scrub scrub, rinse rinse rinse.

Then you filter the wort into the carboy, add the yeast and cool, clean water to fill, insert the airlock, and let those little guys get to work eating, digesting, and, per Alton Brown, farting, which is what creates the fermentation and, ultimately, the fizz.

Saturday was glorious, so we also smoked (and ate) a brisket and played with the dog. To drink? Homebrew that was already aged and ready to go, duh. 

Get to work, Yeast! 

How did Mad Kitchen Scientist's brewing expertise come to be? Well, it turns out, a little more than 30 years ago, he was housemates with his "Brew Daddy." Both of them were also competitive Ultimate Frisbee players, and their house was definitely the hip hangout for that crowd. Brew Daddy was already an accomplished brewer, he showed Mad Kitchen Scientist how to brew, and then it became a situation of iron sharpening iron as they inspired each other to up their game. It's been many years since they shared a living space, but, unsurprisingly, Mad Kitchen Scientist has continued down the path set all those years ago.

I will likely not start down that path - Chef Spouse doesn't drink beer, so I'd just be brewing for myself, and I already have a good source of homebrew at the ready - but I am glad to understand, conceptually, how to do it.

I'm also looking forward to cracking one of these babies at Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee's resumed New Year's Eve house party later this year....

11 April 2021

Food Lab: Under Pressure

In at least one way, Chef Spouse and I have had an unusual pandemic experience: We haven't bought much stuff for the house. We already both worked from home full time prior to the pandemic, so we didn't need any office set up items, and we had the athleisure wardrobe thing covered. We redid our yard a few years ago - new porch, new patio, nice yard furniture, landscaping - and it's too small to ensure six foot spacing between groups, so we weren't part of the run on outdoor heaters and electric lap blankets in the fall.

We've been doing our damndest to keep a few small vineyards we love in business, buying every time an allocation is released (SO MANY BOXES OF WINE IN THE BASEMENT right now), but other than that, there just really wasn't anything much we needed to comfortably hibernate. 

Well, almost. 

One of our ongoing Food Lab jokes is "no uni-taskers!" (with much love to Alton Brown)

We have exceptions, of course, and we give each other unending shit about them (Mad Kitchen Scientist's rice cooker, Chef Spouse's asparagus pot, etc.). 

It's all part of the fun, along with jokes about ramekins, exploding shrubs, flying chocolate, cleaning lobster off the ceiling, Mad Kitchen Scientist and me not being allowed to shop unsupervised, and me laying on the floor with Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee's dog after our second Food Lab moaning: "ATE. TOO. MUCH. STEAK."

At Christmas 2018, Mad Kitchen Scientist turned in his rice cooker in favor of an Instant Pot. Out: one uni-tasker. In: one Instant Pot convert.

Chef Spouse, who never met a decision he couldn't research to the nth degree, has been pondering getting one ever since. Yes, that means he's spent more than two years dithering over a device that costs about $75. 

So we finally decided to test it out.

There are many potential uses of an Instant Pot, but it's really best suited to pressure cooker or steamer type applications. Mad Kitchen Scientist has mostly used it for beans and grains (rice, oatmeal), and making homemade yogurt.

We decided to test it with beans, kidney beans to be precise.

One batch, we prepared the traditional way: Soak overnight, stovetop cook.

The other batch went into the Instant Pot, no prior prep required.

One of the advantages touted for the Instant Pot is that it's faster. In this case, it wasn't - the stovetop beans were ready first. Then again, we had done a FULL 12 hour soak, and stovetop didn't beat the Pot by much.

But the real question is: Which were better?

There, it was the Pot, by a nose. Slightly creamier, and definitely much more consistent texture. Which you can see in the photo below - the stovetop beans are on the right, the Pot beans are on the left.

The other thing, of course, is that we ALL do the thing of planning to have a bean dish for dinner, forgetting to start soaking the beans the night before, and then either bagging it in favor of carry out or eating at 10 pm because it took that long for the beans to soften in whatever the planned dish was. In that, the Instant Pot is the CLEAR winner.

Now that we had all these beans, what were we going to do with them? Red beans & rice of course! 

We cooked the rice in the Instant Pot, with no stovetop comparison.

Per Mad Kitchen Scientist, the big rice cookery advantage of the Pot is seen in brown rice that takes half a lifetime on the stovetop and about 30 minutes in the Pot (including time to come up to and off pressure). The other big advantage is that, like a rice cooker, it can hold cooked rice at temperature without getting gluey for an extended period of time. 

We also made some mango sticky rice for dessert.

That is traditional sweet rice - the reason it's light brown is that we cooked it in coconut milk with a little palm sugar (rather than white sugar).

We had talked about Labbing stock making, stovetop versus traditional pressure cooker versus Instant Pot, but we quickly realized that was pointless: Why would one ever make only 3-4 quarts of stock? That's just silly.

Verdict? Pretty sure Chef Spouse is going to be getting an Instant Pot, as soon as he decides whether he's OK with a "regular" Instant Pot or if he wants to pay extra for this bad boy:

What about drinks? I had ordered something special for Chef Spouse a while ago that took some time to come in, but arrived just prior to our Lab and inspired our libations.

Let me preface this by saying there are a few kitchen tools I've been leery of getting. A mandoline and a kitchen torch top the list. Chef Spouse has had a mandoline for some time, and had cut himself, badly, on it. Never using it - always setting it up or cleaning it. Still, my caution was justified, and I'd sworn he was not getting a kitchen torch because I was afraid he'd burn the house down.

Call it pandemic insanity, but I broke my rule to buy him a drink smoker that was recommended by a friend of mine who's a licensed bartender and swears by this particular brand.  

I gotta say: a smoked whiskey drink is truly special - and delicious - and, as of yet, Chef Spouse has NOT burned down the house. Fingers crossed. 

30 January 2021

Food Lab: Celebration of America

We had another plan for a Food Lab for Saturday, January 23, but Mad Kitchen Scientist pointed out that it felt like it should be more of a celebratory thing, drawing from the heritage and background of our new President Joe Biden (Delaware, Ireland) and Vice President Kamala Harris (California, Jamaica, India).

We decided on the following menu:

Kerala hurricanes
Crab cakes with cilantro chutney and champagne
Fried plantains with mambo sauce (tostones because they weren't ripe enough to be maduros) 
Oxtail stew
Curried collard greens
California cabernet
"I cannot tell a lie" cherry pie
Irish whiskey

The table, decorated for Mardi Gras bien sur!

Although we didn't plan on it, we did end up doing a little labbing in the process.

The hurricane is a much-maligned drink, in part because too many people have only experienced it as red kool aid plus cheap rum. That is NOT a hurricane. A real hurricane is a sophisticated tiki drink that requires a variety of fresh juices, including passion fruit. What made it a "Kerala" hurricane? The addition of local DC Pratt Standard True Ginger Syrup, Kerala being the region of India where ginger was first grown commercially.

The crab cakes were a nod to Joe's Delaware roots. The key to a good crab cake is to have as little non-crab binder as possible. Chef Spouse generally goes with the minimum amount of panko bread crumbs and mayo that will allow him to form the cakes. Mad Kitchen Scientist had brought along some shrimp, which is another direction you can go: shrimp puree. We had a few extra, so we fried them up as a topper.

The plantains are a staple across the Caribbean, with the addition of Mambo sauce as a shout-out to Kamala's years at HU (You Know!). We ordered them from Baldor Foods, so of course the minimum 
order was 10 pounds. The only difference between tostones and maduros is the level of ripeness of the plantains, and with a 10 pound order, you would THINK that would be plenty for us to wait until some were completely ripe so we could try both kinds, and you'd be right, but we've had to intentionally restrain ourselves from frying up the last two. 

The oxtail stew was where we got into the labbing. Speaking of Baldor, that's also where we got the oxtails: 15 POUNDS of oxtails, and they did NOT come sectioned. Chef Spouse started with the cleaver, and quickly realized that was not going to cut it (see what I did there?). Fortunately, we remembered our Food Lab: Butchering lessons and immediately reached for the hack saw. 

Chef Spouse started with the Jamaican oxtail stew recipe from the NYT Cooking column, and it mostly worked well, although we did have a few notes. 

One, it takes MUCH longer than the three hours they list as a cooking time. Two, it should really be made over two days. On day one, take it up to the place in step five BEFORE you thicken the sauce. At that point, take it off the heat, remove the oxtails, let them cool, remove the meat from the bones, and chill the whole thing overnight. On day two, DEGREASE, reheat, and THEN make the water (or stock) based slurry to thicken the sauce. DO NOT DO IT AS A ROUX - which we did - because, trust me, it does not need any more fat added. 

Even day of, it was delicious - although greasy - and we were able to degrease some the next day before having the leftovers, although since we'd done a roux as a thickener, a lot of the fat did not separate to allow for degreasing. Oh, and it's DEFINITELY a "better the next day" type dish.

On the side, we had curried collards and naan (which was a throwback to our last lab), and accompanied the main meal with a lovely California cabernet. All of this, of course, in tribute to MADAM VICE PRESIDENT. 

Finally, in honor of a return to truth and accuracy to the White House (and to bad ass woman, White House press secretary Jen Psaki), a cherry pie made with a little Ginja cherry liqueur and MORE of the 40 pounds of sour cherries from our last Baldor order (there's a theme here) and a tot of a lovely gift from Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee (which I think is also now the official house Irish whiskey) Writer's Tears.

Welcome, President Biden and Vice President Harris! You have NO idea how happy we are to see you! 

05 January 2021

Holidays and Some News!

Happy New Year, Foodies!

Now that our pandemic pod has met a few times, I think I can safely call it an unqualified success and, as we move into the annual darkest time of the year and what's likely to be the hardest time yet in the pandemic, a total sanity-saver.

Of course, the holidays are normally a time to gather with family and friends to feast and make merry. We normally spend Christmas Eve with a larger group of friends at the home of an Italian-American friend, and if you have any of those or grew up around them, you know what that means: Feast of the Seven Fishes. Then Chef Spouse makes a big meal - traditionally Julia's boeuf bourguignon - and we have some folks over on Christmas Day. Then we sometimes also gather with more friends to celebrate the British Boxing Day holiday with more yummy food and fellowship. The holiday week is then capped off with Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee's annual New Year's Eve party, always imaginatively themed to organize the food and drink.

This year, none of that was happening. 

When we started chatting about this with our pod - MKS and TEC - we were like: "Seven Fishes, Boxing Day, or NYE?" We quickly realized AND was the key. 

Mad Kitchen Scientist was scheduled to be on call for his office on Christmas Eve and The Executive Committee had planned a virtual family cookie competition, so we pushed Seven Fishes to Christmas Day. And since it was only four of us, we decided to go fancy-schmancy. 

Fish 1: Osetra Caviar on MKS's blini with creme fraiche

Fish 2: Oysters on the half shell

Fish 3: Chef Spouse's fresh fettuccini with clams

Fish 4: Polpo with romesco sauce

Fish 5: Whole salt-baked snapper (pre-oven)


Fish 6: caesar salad with white Spanish anchovies

Fish 7: timbales with MKS's home-smoked "bacon of the sea" (salmon)

We finished up with Italian cookies (chocolate almond biscotti, amaretti, anise pizzelles) and amaro in front of the fire.

For Boxing Day, Chef Spouse and Mad Kitchen Scientist decided they wanted to try making a beef wellington, seeing as we were celebrating a British holiday. Beef wellington, for those who haven't yet had the pleasure, is a full tenderloin slathered in yummy stuff, wrapped up in puff pastry, and baked until perfectly medium rare. It takes time to make because you have to allow the components to cool and firm up after each step. In short, they take a fair amount of time, but are, surprisingly, not that complicated to make. 

What yummy stuff? Recipes vary, but we went with mushroom duxelles, prosciutto, and foie gras (because we had some canned that another friend had brought back from a trip to Paris when that was still a thing one could do). You make the duxelles, tie up and sear the tenderloin, chill them both down, and then assemble. Roll out a sufficiently large rectangle of puff pastry to accommodate your tenderloin. Add a layer of prosciutto, making sure to leave a small clear space along one long edge for sealing. On top of that, layer your foie gras (should you be fortunate enough to have some), then your duxelles. Trim the strings off your tenderloin, place it in the middle, wrap up the whole delicious mass, seal it, then wrap TIGHTLY in plastic wrap and chill again. Bake until the meat registers 125 degrees. 

One tip on the baking: we had placed the wellington on a rack in the roasting pan so that the bottom wouldn't get soggy. That worked, but the puff pastry puffed through the rack, which made it a little challenging to remove. Next time? Parchment paper between the rack and the beef. 

How was it?

I think that picture is worth AT LEAST one thousand words.

New Year's Eve brought cioppino, champagne, cannoli (this time, we made a MUCH smaller batch), and Cards Against Humanity (which Rando Cardrissian nearly won, that bastard).

Had to include a picture of our NYE table just because

In other Food Lab news, you may have noticed that everyone referenced on this blog has a nickname, aside from me, your correspondent. After TEN YEARS, the rest of the Food Labbers finally noticed my trick, had talked amongst themselves, and planned to choose a name and name me on our ten year celebration trip to Paris and Provence this past fall.

Which did not happen.

So they decided to name me anyway. 

Many names were proposed, discussed, and discarded, until Mad Kitchen Scientist had the idea to check with Escoffier on kitchen positions. The team decided my role was somewhere between Chef de Brigade and Garde Manger in its more modern interpretation of one of ensures all parts of edibles are used. That morphed into Brigadier Manger, the one-star general who's on the field leading and organizing the troops. 

In sum: "Hi, I'm Brigadier Manger. Nice to meet you!" 

16 December 2020

Food Lab 47: Indian Breads

Your Food Labbers enjoyed a fantastic first pod/bubble meal together on Thanksgiving (cream of chestnut soup, Brussels sprouts salad with warm bacon hazelnut dressing, turkey with wild rice stuffing and gravy, Chef Spouse's decadent mashed potatoes, cranberry chutney, steamed green beans, sour cream dinner rolls, FOUR kinds of pie), and then gathered this past weekend for OUR FIRST FOOD LAB SINCE 2019.

Chef Spouse and I have been enjoying a fair amount of Indian cuisine during the pandemic, both due to cooking our way through the several Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks we have and due to the many excellent Indian carry out places walking distance from our house (one of which makes vindaloo so I hot I can't eat it all in one go - and that's saying something - and the other offering so many delicious vegetarian options, ordering without ordering WAY TOO MUCH is nearly impossible). And when we get take away, we always get bread - naan, roti, stuffed paratha - but when we cook at home? Not so much.

Well, that just cannot stand any longer.

We decided to tackle the three classics: roti, paratha, and naan. 

Roti and paratha are both unleavened breads that start with the same base - flour, water, a little salt (very similar to tortillas). The difference comes from the cooking method.

Naan is a leavened bread that generally also includes some animal fat/protein.

Seeing as the naan was going to have to rise, we started there. I had found various recipes that included egg, milk, or yogurt. However, Madhur Jaffrey's naan recipe included ALL THREE. Winner. 

Kneading the naan

The first challenge I ran into is that the dough was pretty dry. Jaffrey says to knead for ~10 minutes until smooth & satiny. I added about 1/4 c. additional milk as I went, but my dough never got "smooth & satiny" and by ten minutes in, it was developing a pretty firm gluten structure, so I figured I better stop and set it to rise and see what happened.

In the meantime, I moved onto mixing up my roti/paratha dough. Couldn't be more simple: two parts flour to one part water. Jaffrey did NOT have you include any salt, which we all felt might be a mistake (we were correct). 

Ah, but WHAT KIND of flour? 

Traditionally, folks use atta flour. We did not have atta flour, but the thing that makes it unique is that it has a high gluten content. King Arthur to the rescue! We decided to lab regular King Arthur whole wheat against King Arthur whole wheat pastry flour. Pasty flour, of course, is *pastry* flour because it has less gluten, so it stays soft and flaky rather than forming a firm structure. Yes, that's sort of counter to what you're ostensibly looking for in trying to make an unleavened bread, but we figured it would be an interesting test.

Anyway, you mix it up, knead it a bit, and then then it sit, covered with a damp towel, for ~30 minutes.

Roti/paratha dough in process

While that was resting, it was time to get ready to cook the naan. It's cooked a lot like pizza - set your rack about 6 inches from your broiler, pop your stones onto it, and then heat them as hot as your oven will go for a good 45+ minutes before baking.

Meanwhile, even though it never got smooth & satiny, the naan had doubled in size, so it was time to portion it, roll it out, and bake it. Three minutes on your HOT-HOT-HOT stones in your HOT-HOT-HOT oven so it puffs up, then turn on the broiler for ~30 seconds to brown it on top.

Patting out the naan dough

Portioning the naan dough

Rolling out the naan dough

Into the oven

Out of the oven

Easy-peasy, and it was DELICIOUS. It also held up the best the next day.

So why didn't the dough ever get "smooth & satiny"? I have a theory: Jaffrey calls for yogurt. I used the yogurt I normally have around - plain, whole milk Greek yogurt. Did you spot the problem? Greek yogurt is just regular yogurt....that's been strained again TO REMOVE EXTRA LIQUID. That straining that makes it so delightfully thick and creamy? Yeah, I think I maybe needed some of that to give the dough the right consistency. Next time, I'll start with more like 1 c. of milk to compensate, because once I was at the kneading stage, I was anxious about trying to add too much milk because I was afraid it wouldn't incorporate properly.

Onto roti and paratha! 

As I mentioned, the base is the same - the difference comes from how you cook it. 

Roti is just portioned out, rolled out, cooked on a hot comal or cast iron skillet, and then finished directly on the flame (gas stove or grill) to make it puff up. 

Roti puff from the whole wheat pastry flour

Roti puff from the plain whole wheat flour - now THAT's a puff!

Everyone else preferred the flavor of the pastry flour, but I like the regular whole wheat best - it was deliciously nutty, and you can't argue with that puff. Sadly, neither really held up the next day - the leftovers got fairly tough. Then again, it mixes up so fast and you can store the mixed up dough in the fridge (no worries about it over-rising because no leavening), so just cook what you're planning to eat right then. 

Paratha, on the other hand, is laminated first. Yes, like croissants. Only for paratha, you use ghee rather than cold (or even frozen) sheets of butter.

We found two methods of laminating. Jaffrey's was quite simple - roll out a disk, laminate with ghee, fold in half, laminate again, fold in half again (to give you a quarter), roll *lightly* one final time.

First lamination

Folding the dough

Second lamination

Folding the dough again and dusting with flour to roll out

Rolling out the dough 

Jaffrey's paratha then gets cooked immediately, in a cast iron skillet that's been brushed with ghee.

Cooking the paratha

Of course, while you're doing all that laminating is when you can slip in herbs or spices - the Indian carry out near us with all the amazing veg options does a masala spice paratha that is to die. We didn't mess around with flavors, but I plan to this coming weekend, when Chef Spouse and I will be making paratha again.

Serious Eats offered a more complex laminating method. You start with a much larger disk (basically two portions of your dough rather than just the one), roll it out thin again and laminate, but then roll it up like a carpet, stretch it, and roll the ends in like a palmier cookie. 

Rolling the laminated paratha up, carpet-style

Stretching the paratha

Aw - isn't that cute?

Then you rest ~45 minutes, roll out again, and cook, first dry frying on your comal and then finishing with a quick fry in ghee in your cast iron. 

Now remember, we had TWO versions of the dough: one with regular whole wheat flour and one with pastry flour.

I suspected we might be in trouble with the pastry flour when I couldn't stretch it and had to do a single coil as a result, and I was right. Pastry flour lacks the gluten structure to be able to sit at room temperature all buttered up and still be able to work.

The rolled out regular flour paratha cooking 
(and yes, it's OK to giggle - it 100% looks like a butt)

Pastry flour = Food Lab FAIL 

Once we had all that bread, we needed something to eat it with, so Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee whipped up some butter tofu and palak paneer for us, while Chef Spouse kept us occupied throughout the afternoon with various tamarind-based cocktails: a tequila version, a rum version, and a tiki-style drink that used the extra coconut milk from the butter tofu. No coconut milk left behind! 

They were all quite tasty, although Mad Kitchen Scientist observed, accurately, that they would be better served in opaque glasses, since the color was a little...odd. So we went with G&Ts for the meal. 

Your Food Labbers enjoying a yummy Indian feast

In conclusion, there is no reason not to make your own bread when you're making your own paneer or pindi or makhani. Naan requires a little thinking ahead - that rise takes about 60-90 minutes, so the whole thing start to finish is about 2-2.5 hours - but with roti or paratha, you could start the dough when you start work on the rest of the meal and have hot bread ready to go just as your main dish is finishing up. Chef Spouse and I will, in fact, be testing that theory this weekend.

Or, even shorter, homemade Indian meals will, henceforth, feature delicious Indian bread, too.