Sunday, October 28, 2007

Slow wines

Last Thursday I attended a Slow Foods new member wine tasting (and mixer, I suppose) at Cofalos Wine Cellar in Coconut Grove. I asked the organizer about the new member part and she told me that the invitees, seventy-some of us, joined in the last nine months. That's a heck of a lot of new members, paticularly considering that the convivium's full membership, she confided, is only around 150. Plus, one guy there was in the process of starting up two new chapters in central Florida. That's impressive growth and I wonder if it is just one energetic person stirring things up or if, for some reason, now is just the right time for Slow Food in Florida. Looking through the Florida message board archives reveals years of whining about South Florida's philistine ways without much to set this year apart.

But back to the wine tasting. I didn't take any pictures; I didn't want to be _that_ guy. Sorry. Cefalos' wine director selected a couple of reds and a couple of whites all around $12/bottle. The average price in the shop looked to be more like $60, but since $12 bottle are what I actually buy it was fine by me. The concept he was going for was that all four of the wines matched well with the Itallian meat, cheese and olives they provided. That worked pretty successfully. I think that might have surprised some of the folks there, but I've always been ecumenical when matching wine to deli plates.

The reds I didn't think were anything special, but the whites were interesting. The Terra Andina Sauvignon Blanc had a lot more citrus and less grassiness than I expect from that grape. The director said that that's typical of the Chilean version so I'll have to keep an eye out for those. I've been wary of Chilean wines in general due to a few bad early experiences, but I really shouldn't rule out a whole country like that. The other white was Monte Nova Godello. Godello is a Spanish grape I wasn't familiar with. The wine was very crisp and almost bitter with a very short finish. The director described it as a good sipping wine, but I found it too harsh to drink on its own. I did like the way it cut through the fatty meats and cheeses, though.

After a while, the director brought out an $80 bottle for us to try. It was an Italian Amarone blend made specifically for the shop by Masi. The point of interest was that it was made by leaving the grapes out in the sun on mats for a few days to concentrate the juices (kind of like ice wines are concentrated). Knowing that beforehand, you could sense it in the rich mouth feel. It was pretty nice, but not $80 nice. Maybe $40 nice.

As for the mixer part of the evening: eh. I'm not good with crowd noise so I tend to linger on the fringes at parties. That means I mostly meet the exuberant folks glad-handing their way around and the hired help. As a rule, I prefer the help.

I get the sense that a lot of the people who join Slow Foods, rather than just attending the dinners, are behind it as a movement. I've got nothing against that, but I'm in it for more selfish reasons. I don't want to change the world; I just want all that good food available for me. The people who want to talk to me about how they're setting up vegetable gardens at schools or their dream of growing organic rutabegas make me as uncomfortable as if they wanted to talk to me about my relationship with Jesus. I really need to find a group of avowed generalists and dilletants where everyone is as half-heartedly enthusiastic as I am.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ice Cream Experiment #13 - New fruit

The aforementioned mamey sapote ripened surprisingly well over just one day in my pantry. Of course, my pantry spends most of the day at 90 degrees so it usually looks like that time lapse film of a rotting fruit bowl in there. I pulled the mamey out just in time and it was close to its peak when I put it to use. The texture was creamy and smooth, not like banana, but more like papaya or avocado. The flavor was unmistakably tropical--somewhere near papaya or guava--with maybe a touch of sweet squash.

I substituted it in for bananas in this recipe. I also switched out the corn syrup for Spenda blend. That let me cut the calories a bit and I figure leaving out corn syrup is its own reward. I know a bit of corn syrup can keep a sugar syrup from crystallizing, but I can't figure out why you'd use just corn syrup in an ice cream recipe. I also used milk instead of the cream. I didn't need the cream when I made banana ice cream (ice milk really) before and I figured I'd do fine without now.

That banana ice cream was actually a bananas foster ice cream so I included nutmeg, allspice, orange zest, brown sugar and rum to complement the banana (I'll post the full recipe next week some time). From my reading on mamey sapote, the complementary flavors are vanilla, cinnamon and lime. I decided to go all out and scrape out a vanilla pod, grate off some whole cinnamon (well, cassia. I don't have any real cinnamon) and squeeze in some fresh lime. A full pod was probably a bit much, but I only thought of that after splitting it all the way.

Those three, plus a bit over a pound of mamey and a cup of milk went into the blender. The end result was thicker than your average ice cream mix and stuck to the inside of the blender so after scraping it out I added a bit more milk and gave it a spin to dissolve. The end result still turned nearly solid in the refrigerator after a few hours cooling.

Churning went quickly, but the texture actually went from smooth to a bit lumpy. That was probably the start of a more solid freezing, but I have a habit of pulling out my ice cream a bit early. I tend to be afraid the bucket is losing its chill in my hot kitchen and more churning will see the process start to reverse. Be that as it may, here's what it looked like coming out of the churn. Here, in the soft-serve stage, the texture on the tongue is a bit gritty; unlike the banana ice cream, you can definitely tell it's mostly fruit. The flavor is not as complex or rich as I would have liked; the grace notes of vanilla, cinnamon and lime are pretty much lost. Or maybe not, I don't have a clear recollection of what the fresh mamey tasted like. Maybe the current flavor is a melange.

After ripening, the texture turned out more solid than I'd like. I should have treated it like a sorbet and added some rum or vodka to break up the sugar crystals. That must be what the corn syrup is for, too. I'd think the fructose in the fruit would be sufficient, but clearly not. The bananas foster ice cream had a full 1/4 cup of rum which may account for the resulting texture as much as the bananas did (and the roasting of the bananas may well have had an effect, too).

Next time I get my hands on a mamey, I'll add rum and I'll roast the fruit which I hope will break it down and lose the gritty mouth feel. Also, I think I'll put a half cup of cream back in. Couldn't hurt. Still and all, I'd call this a good first-attempt mamey sapote sherbet.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ice cream experiment #12 - This is only a test

This week's ice cream is even more experimental than usual as it's a trial run for a more complicated version I'll be making in a few weeks. The inspiration was this post in the Desert Candy blog about making Thai iced tea ice cream using condensed milk instead of the cream. It would be easy enough to just switch the infusion from tea to coffee, but I think half the experience of Thai iced whatever is the swirled uneven mix of the two elements which is not just a pretty visual but makes each sip a slightly different flavor and texture. I'll have to do a coffee ripple sort of thing to emulate that, which is going to be another problem which will have to wait until my new coffee maker is delivered.

But first I wanted to make something closer to her recipe to figure out how to work with the condensed milk and to see how much it tastes like Thai iced coffee. Also, I wasn't sure the recipe was going to work at all. I've recently made another recipe from the same blog for fish in a pomegranate lime sauce that really didn't turn out at all well. I don't think she actually tested the version she had modified for the American kitchen.

So, I had to halve her recipe to fit into my churn, I switched out the tea for coffee, and I used just the yolks instead of whole eggs, but otherwise I followed the recipe unchanged. Trouble first arose when the solid-ish bits of the condensed milk just would not dissolve. That meant that when I strained out the post-infusion coffee, I strained out a lot of that, too, leaving this ugly muck:

I added a bit more along with the egg yolks and heated it up to 170 degrees for the custard. I think the heat makes the condensed milk coagulate a bit as there were still a lot of clumps despite all the stirring. (There were lots of specks of coffee left in the mix too, but that's my own fault for grinding a bit too finely.) Even after some serious whisking the results were pretty ugly and unappetizing.

Fortunately, the churn managed to break those bits up and the final results don't look too bad.

The texture is a bit more gooey than standard ice cream and it melts pretty darn quickly (which is typical of low fat ice-creams). The flavor is pretty much standard coffee ice cream. I think the 50/50 mix of condensed with regular milk diluted out the characteristic flavor that makes Thai iced coffee distinct. Also, it's rather more sweet than I'd like.

I wrote that last thought after tasting the ice cream straight out of the churn. After a night of ripening in the freezer, the sweetness has been dampened leaving an intense, pleasant coffee flavor. Most of the air I churned in had escaped leaving the ice cream with a dense, pudding-esque texture which isn't bad at all, even if it is disconcertingly sticky. It's good, but it isn't ice cream.

On the whole, I don't think the trade off of control over the sweetness (and the freedom to use sugar-substitutes) for the slightly lower fat of condensed milk is worth it. Particularly without added interest in the flavor and with a marked decline in texture. I've decided that when I do the coffee swirl, I'll just use a standard ice cream mix; the real question there is how to prepare the coffee for swirling and how to swirl without mixing.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

This was another Bee Heaven Farm subscription week. They're still in the Summer set-up where you pick and pay for individual items; The pre-paid box-of-stuff system doesn't start until mid-November.

Against my better judgment, I got another tilapia. Here it is, straight from the ice bin:

I'm getting better at scaling and I remembered to take out the gills this time. Since the foil packet method of cooking almost worked last time, I figured I'd give it another shot, this time flipping the packet halfway through.

I went with a Carribean spice rub, stuffed it with limes, onion and ginger, surrounded it with garlic chives and some spinach and poured on a splash of rum for steaming.

All very pretty, and it cooked up nicely, tender and moist so it slipped right off the bones. But the bones slipped right off the bones too so I had to pick through every bite. It's definitely not worth the trouble. Sure crab and lobster are just as big a pain, but tilapia is, at its best, just mild-flavored white fish. There's no real reward at the end.

I do wonder if the flesh would firm up in a way that would make deboning easier if I pan fried it, but it's rather thick for that and I can't imagine it turning out well.

Beyond the fish, I also picked up a couple carambolas and this thing:

That's a Magana mamey sapote. I had never heard of mameys, but according to random people with websites they're popular fruit in Mexico and Cuba that don't get imported into the US much. The online desciptions mention a coconut-like skin, so I figured it was OK that it was rock solid. But when I cut out a test slice, I found it to be far from ripe. And now that I cut it, it'll probably rot instead of ripen. Ah well. The descriptions of a firm creamy texture made me think it would work in cream-less ice cream like bananas do. I may still get to find out.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chocolate plus stuff that has no business being in chocolate

A new Whole Foods location opened up near my work recently and, while it didn't have much that will make me switch from the grocery-shopping ruts I've already dug, it did stock a couple of chocolate bars I've been looking for for a while now.

In case you can't read the small print there, that's white chocolate with kalamata olives and milk chocolate with bacon, both from Vosges. It's interesting to see these sorts of exotic combinations moving out of experimental chefs' kitchens and into supermarkets. Vosges and Whole Foods are both sufficiently upscale and exorbitantly priced that I don't think the existence of these bars spells the death of the trend. But I can buy Frey white chocolate with cinnamon and blood orange at Target so the long term outlook is not good. (That the chef who did a bacon ice cream on Next Iron Chef got dressed down by the judges for lack of originality is a pretty bad sign too. Although he was doing a riff on french toast and even I could have come up with that.)

The real problem here is actually how banal both bars taste. The kalamata olives are identifiably that, but in all that white chocolate they taste no more unusual than, say, almonds. The bacon bar was even worse off because it tastes so familiar. Katrina Markoff, Vosges' founder, spells it out on the back of the box: chocolate chip pancake breakfast. I missed the pancake.

It really shouldn't be surprising that these bars weren't very surprising. They both were strong hits of sugar, salt and fat. Everything else was grace notes. (I had to take a shot after trying them to include the fourth food group, alcohol, and complete the experience.) There's still something interesting here, but it's going to have to be more complex. It's got me thinking, anyway.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ice Cream Experiment # 11 - With other fruit flavors

Most other food blog posts start with some sort of scene setting--a dinner party or a wretchedly hot day requiring a refreshing adult beverage or some such--but mine generally start with background research. In this particular case, research on guava sorbet recipes. Most of them start with guava nectar or frozen guava puree, but I did find one that called for fresh guava which seemed like a decent enough starting point as I had some guavas I had to do something with.

What it didn't mention is that guavas are full of tooth-crackingly hard tiny little seeds. I suppose they might blend out, but I decided to pass it all through a sieve instead.

That took a fair while. At the end, I had guava nectar, but at least mine was 100% guava. Since I had a bit less than a cup of it, I had to see what other fruit I had around to bring it up to a full two cups. I had about a half cup of frozen strawberries I had sprinkled with sugar to draw out the juices. I had a nearly-overripe apririne or nectarcot or some other odd hybrid which I chopped up and tossed in and a quarter cup of frozen pineapple. Then a couple tablespoons of rum, a tablespoon or so of lime juice and a teaspoon of vanilla to finish it off. So, lots of different flavors in there, but I think the guava remains notably on top.

Simple enough at this point. Add all that mess to a cup of water and a 1/4 cup of Splenda/sugar blend, simmer for 15 minutes and blend smooth.

Then chill, churn and freeze. I got a really nice texture this time around.

That's partly from the alcohol in the rum, but also because I've started scraping down the sides of the ice cream machine bucket every few minutes.

You know, other than deciding to add strawberries and then padding it out with every fruit in the house this was actually a pretty boring recipe. Sorry about that. I've got a few more interesting things lined up for coming weeks.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ice cream Experiment #2 - As seen on TV

Ever since seeing last year's Haagen-Dazs flavor search, I had been intrigued by one of the early eliminees: mocha malt ball. It never had a chance really, not with those malt balls, but I'm surprised Ben and Jerry's didn't throw the creator a few bucks and bring it out themselves. But since they didn't, it was up to me.

There are lots of coffee ice cream recipes out on the Web, but surprisingly few recipes for mocha. Of the ones I found, I settled on this. It's from Emeril so it's not going to work as written, but I was planning on some alteration anyway. While looking around for flavors to try out, I had been reading the 2005 series of ice cream posts at the Haverchuk food blog where he suggested infusing coffee ice cream instead of using instant coffee powder. That ended up working pretty well. The real problem was with using all cream and melted chocolate. It's the only ice cream I've made where the mix solidified in the refrigerator before churning. It would have made a fine mousse served as is (and I may well repurpose the recipe just that way), but it made a really small batch and the texture was a bit weird when it was frozen.

The next decision was the malt balls. the fancy malt balls from the gourmet grocery tend to have far too high a chocolate to malt ratio, but at least they've got real chocolate and not just a chocolatey coating like Whoppers do. I suspect the difference would be hard to tell when they're frozen, but since I wasn't going to use the whole bagful in the ice cream, I got the fancy sort. I used too much for the amount of ice cream I had, but it was popular anyway. I thought it could use some improvement, so here's the recipe as I would make it today:



* 3/4 ounces unsweetened cocoa powder, approximately 1/4 cup (Dutch process dissolves more easily and has a better color, but tastes about the same as the regular sort)
* 2 cups heavy cream
* 1/2 cup milk
* 4 large egg yolks
* 1/4 cup Splenda/sugar blend (Splenda loses it's chemical off-flavor when frozen so it's just fine to use in ice cream)
* 6 T medium roast coffee beans, ground mediumly
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1/2 cup unevenly crushed malt balls with some large chunks, many small pieces and a fair bit of malt dust (freeze them, put them in a plastic bag and whack'em with a mallet)

In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and milk to a simmer. Remove from the heat. Stir in coffee, cover and let steep for 15 minutes.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks until they loosen up and change to a brighter yellow color. Gradually whisk in Splenda blend until fully incorporated.

Strain out coffee beans from cream and whisk in the cocoa. Add 1/2 cup of the cream to the egg mixture. Whisk well. Add another 1/2 cup and whisk again. Pour the egg mixture back to the cream and stir well. Return to heat, turning heat to medium-low. Bring mixture to 170 degrees F, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan frequently using a heat-proof rubber spatula. Check temperature frequently using an instant-read thermometer. The moment it hits 170 degrees, remove from heat, stir and scrape one final time and pour into a plastic container. Do not strain unless the temperature got a little too high and your custard turned into scrambled eggs.

Cover loosely and let sit on counter for a half hour. Seal the container and place in the back of your bottom refrigerator shelf for at least four hours.

Churn and freeze according to your ice cream machine instructions. When the mixture has thickened almost to the point of stalling the machine add the malt balls and allow the churn to mix them in. Transfer back to the container, seal and place in your freezer overnight to ripen.

Prelude to Ice Cream #2

Do you remember the Food Channel reality show last year following the Haagen-Dazs' contest to create their new feature flavor? The winning flavor was Sticky Toffee Pudding, which turned out OK if you've never had an actual sticky toffee pudding to compare it with. I had a couple of problems with the result, myself. First, that flavor's creator was a freelance food writer from New York city which kind of ruined the whole populist aspect of the contest. And second, taking something you usually put vanilla ice cream on top of and mixing it into the ice cream instead isn't a creative process that's going to lead to very interesting results.

By the way, when looking for the name of the contest (Perfect Scoop, I think), I stumbled across this year's results. The winner was Caramelized Pear and Toasted Pecan and the runners up were Blueberry Belgian Waffle and Coco y Cacao. None of those seem terribly interesting beyond the challenge of keeping the texture of the waffles recognizable. Of course, interesting me isn't the target they were aiming at, so its not too surprising that they missed it.

Haagen-Dazs also made a limited edition of the first runner up from last year, toasted coconut with sesame brittle, which was pretty good other than the particle-board texture from the toasted coconut. There's no way to get around that with toasted coconut, but I think you could make an infusion with raw coconut; I might try to make a coco y cacao that way.

This was all meant as an introduction to my reproduction of another of last year's runner-ups, but it's gone on a bit long. I think I'll rename this this and talk about that in a new post.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Not angel food cake either

I have learned that the second attempt is too early to start winging it for angel food cake. My success with my first method of ridding myself of my leftover egg whites (pretty much this recipe, but using Splenda, sans frosting and paired with a mexican chocolate ice cream) made me overconfident. I did my usual thing of mixing and matching various bits of different recipes, but I hadn't adjusted the instructions properly to match the ingredient list, but I figured I could handle it. Unfortunately, those egg whites just refused to stabilize into a meringue. It's possible that there was a bit of egg yolk in there and I was doomed from the start, but I think it's likely because I mixed all the sugar in with the flour so didn't have any to add to the whites. The sugar adds structure and stability to meringues, right? And possibly I added the cream of tartar too early. I'm pretty sure I shouldn't have made a slurry out of it and the lemon juice. How does cream of tartar react to acid? Not well, I think.

I could hear the bubbles fizzing out of the egg whites while I was folding in the flour, but I rushed it into the oven and hoped for the best. Here's the results:

Better than I expected, actually. It turns out that a fallen angel food cake is hard to distinguish from a low-fat sponge cake. As you can see in the picture, it browned up nicely too. The key to making it an actual success, rather than just a passable failure, was adding a glaze. Just powdered sugar, lemon juice and a bit of zest, mix, let sit to thicken and pour over the cake (after punching it full of little holes to help it soak in).

OK, enough failed dishes. The next post will be a successful ice cream and then we'll see how that guava sorbet turns out.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Not quinces

That fruit I picked up last week? They're guavas, not quinces. Easy to see how I made the mistake, though. It's not like they were clearly labeled.

So, guavas. A quick search shows them to be just about as useless as mangoes. It's all jams and fruit butter, smoothies and the like. I suppose it's guava sorbet, then. Guava/strawberry actually, I think, as the two guavas I've got left aren't quite enough on their own. Good; It's about time for another sorbet.

Ice Cream Experiment #1 - nowhere to go but up

It was the start of mango season, back in mid-July, and a co-worker had brought in a big pile of mangoes. I already had cooked and brought in a few things so the mangoes were deposited outside my office and I was given instructions to do something with them.

I didn't much care for being taken for granted after only being there five months, but I can't honestly claim that that wasn't what I was going to do anyway. It was pretty tough finding an appealing recipe; There's not all that much to do with mangoes. Eventually I settled on this recipe for mango ice cream. And, since I was feeling ambitious, I figured some sesame brittle mixed in would go nicely.

I had hoped to borrow an ice cream maker, but the only one anyone had was the old fashioned sort with the ice and the salt and who wants to deal with that? Thirty bucks later I had one of my own and I was ready to go.

There were a couple of problems right off. Primarily, the ingredient "large mangoes" is rather less precise than it might be. The mangoes available here in Miami are huge and it just didn't occur to me that they meant those dinky little things you see in supermarkets up north. It didn't help that the particular mangoes I set aside for the recipe serenely sat in my kitchen for over a week neither ripening or rotting like some sort of fruit zen masters divorced from the flow of time.

The second bit of grief was the instructions for caramelizing the mango: "Cook until the caramel dissolves". What does that even mean? Caramel can't dissolve; it's already a liquid. You know, I don't think I've ever successfully caramelize a piece of fruit in my life. I read recently that the trick is cooking it until all the fruit juice released evaporates, but that sounds like a split second of goodness before you end up with a pan full of burnt ruined fruit and I can't recall another recipe that described it that way. I'll figure it out eventually I guess.

But, back to the ice cream: even without all the extra mango and the extra mix-in of the sesame brittle (which I only scorched a little), the recipe would have over filled my modestly sized ice cream machine so I ended up with ice cream churned up all over the place. It all would have been worth it if it had tasted OK, but the bland under-ripe mangoes were like a big blanket of blah smothering the other flavors. Not a great start, but that first failure inspired me to figure this whole ice cream thing out, and 10 weeks later I've got a decent handle on it.

I still think the recipe could work just fine. Next mango season I'll give it another shot.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Oh, I forgot to mention...

I recently joined the local Slow Food chapter and the local Community Supported Agriculture farm subscription service which delivers a box of random vegetables each week. That box to the left is actually twice what I'll get each week, but you get the idea. Since this is Miami, they've warned that there's usually something unusual (at least for the average American supermarket-dweller.)

The weekly deliveries haven't started yet, but they've done some summer specials so last week I ended up with garlic chives, lemon grass, quinces and half of a squash of some sort. Also, some honey and a whole tilapia. That was the first time I ever scaled and gutted a fish. Easier than I expected, but then everyone says it's pretty easy so I don't know where I got the impression that it wasn't. So the garlic chives got stuffed into the fish, the lemon grass flavored a Vietnamese drunken shrimp recipe, and the squash got stuffed with ground turkey and baked which gave me a chance to use the Gateway to the North seasoning from Spice House which has maple syrup crystals in it. (The leftovers I mashed which I think I'll make croquettes out of.) The quinces: I still haven't a clue.

My point is that it'll be a challenge each week to figure out what to do with whatever arrives before it rots. And you get to watch.

I'll also post reviews of the various Slow Food stuff I do. There's usually a dinner or event every month or two.

That should alleviate the tedium of an all-ice-cream posting schedule.

Hello World

Welcome to Tinkering with Dinner, my new blog. I don't suppose I'll get many readers who don't know me, but if you have just happened by I should introduce myself. I am a science librarian by trade and a foodie by nature. Or maybe a chowhound. I get the sense that there is some sort of philosophical struggle going on in the food world between the sub-groups laying claim to those two names, but I really don't know anything about it. Personally, I'm serious about eating and cooking good food and I enjoy talking about it, too.

I've poked around in the food blog world a bit but I haven't come across any that match my experimental approach to cooking. I take different recipes and mix and match pieces. I adjust ingredients and techniques to fit what I have on hand and what I feel like bothering with. And I try again with variations if something doesn't quite work out. That's the sort of thing I'll mostly be posting about here.

I'm starting with a bit of a backlog. For the last couple of months I've been making a new flavor of ice cream each week, bringing it in to work and sending out an e-mail talking about what I've done and how it turned out. I'm going to go back and revisit those here along with whatever I come up with in the present. Let's see how it goes.