Saturday, May 31, 2008

CSA - Two Malaysian recipes using curry leaves

Note: I've made a bunch more using curry leaves; some Malaysian, some Indian, one Mauritian; since I made this post. Click here to see the lot.

The CSA's first summer a la carte week was today and amongst other things I picked up some fresh curry leaves. Curry leaves are common in Indian cooking and in cuisines it's affected such as Malaysian. I haven't invested in a full Indian pantry, but the other seasonings in Malay cooking come from Chinese and Thai (and some Arab) which I do have so I was able to find some interesting recipes that highlighted the curry leaves, but otherwise used ingredients I already had in the house.

I made Fried Chicken with Curry Leaves and Stir Fry Shrimp with Curry Leaves both of which I found on

I didn't mess with the fried chicken recipe much, but to save you a clickthrough, here it is:

Fried Chicken with Curry Leaves

oil for deep frying
3 chicken thighs, cut into 2" pieces (whenever you're using bite-sized pieces of chicken, thighs are a better choice than breasts or whatever "chicken tenders" actually are. Dark meat both has more flavor and stays moist better)
2 Tablespoons curry leaves, about 2 stems' worth
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon corn starch
1/2 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
100 ml chicken stock (that's about halfway between 1/3 and 1/2 cup), low sodium preferably

1. Combine chicken with marinade and marinate for 1 hour.
2. Deep fry in oil until golden brown and crispy and drain on paper towels (the recipe author, ponikuta, suggests 5 minutes, but I found mine done in half that time.)
3. Heat 2 Tablespoons oil in wok on high heat, add curry leaves and sauté until fragrant
4. Add chicken and glaze and stir fry until dry
5. Serve immediately with rice

The author suggests adding a dash or two of rice wine to mellow the flavors. Definitely a good idea to cut the saltiness of the concentrated soy and oyster sauces.

The shrimp recipe you'll have notice if you've looked is rather vague. It doesn't mention the size of shrimp to use, the amounts of most of the ingredients and, I think, leaves out an important step with the tamarind. Here's what I did:

Stir Fry Shrimp with Curry Leaves

12 extra large shell-on shrimp
curry leaves stripped from 3 stems
2 teaspoons tamarind paste dissolved in 3 Tablespoons water
2 teaspoons turmeric
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, halved and thickly sliced
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar

1. toss shrimp with turmeric.
2. Heat 3 Tablespoons oil in wok on high heat. Add garlic, onions and curry leaves. Stir fry until onions are soft and everything is aromatic, 1 - 2 minutes
3. Add shrimp. Stir fry 1 minute
4. Add tamarind liquid (straining out solid bits), salt and sugar. Stir fry 1 minute
5. Add 1-2 Tablespoons water, turn heat to low, cover and simmer for 2 minutes
6. Serve immediately with rice

Both dishes came out very nicely. The intense oyster/soy glaze on the chicken does over power the curry leaf most of the time, but if you have a piece with a couple of the fried leaves they add an herbal note that rides on top of the sweet and saltiness adding a balancing accent. The shrimp, I think, is the better dish. The tamarind/curry leaf combination is beautifully light and aromatic and a fine compliment for the shrimp. And both dishes were really easy so, if you've got some curry leaves, you could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mexican-style hot pickled carrots

It's been a good while since I've done any pickling so I decided to pick up some likely looking vegetables last time I was at Whole Foods. I ended up with some petite carrots, actually thin carrots cut into short lengths. At least they weren't claimed to be baby carrots which I suspect are the same thing just whittled down to round off the ends.

There are a few different ways to pickle carrots--dilled, sweet and hot primarily. The particular variety I'm making is the sort of hot carrot you'll find bowls of in the better sort of Mexican restaurant which means they're probably unheard of in Miami. Ideally, they should have a strong vinegar bite, be eye-wateringly hot but still have carrot as the foremost flavor. I became fond of them when I lived in San Diego I've been meaning to try making them on my own for some time. I'm hoping this will prompt me to actually cook more Mexican food as somehow I never quite get around to doing so.

I found a promising recipe here. Pickling in general is pretty straightforward and this recipe is no exception. Put vinegar and water in a pot along with spices and usually plenty of salt and/or sugar. (There was no salt in this recipe which is quite unusual. I added a couple Tablespoons as the carrots I sampled for texture were tasting a bit blah.) Bring to a boil, with the vegetables in if they, like carrots and cauliflower, need a little cooking or not if they, like cucumbers and tomatoes, don't. Once the texture is at the point you're looking for, dump the vegetables into a jar, cool and let sit in your refrigerator for a month. I was surprised to discover that soaking in a vinegar brine doesn't change vegetables' textures very much. If you don't get them right at the start they aren't going to improve. On the other hand, the flavor slowly and continually changes. I've sometimes found notable differences even from the fourth to the fifth week.

Beyond the salt, my only modifications were to cut down the amounts to fit in one of my pickling jars (actually ceramic coffee containers) and, as I was one jalapeño short, using a chipotle which should add a nice smoky touch to the final result. Remind me in a month to tell you how they turned out.
Nobody reminded me, but I noticed in my stats that people are finding this page and, more surprisingly, actually reading it so I thought I'd better give you some closure. It's a bit over a month later and basic flavor and texture of the carrots are right on what I was hoping for, including the hint of smoke, but they're not nearly hot enough. It is the right sort of heat, though, so the solution is just to add more jalapeños next time. This batch, because the flavor isn't overwhelming, will make a nice condiment for fajitas or the like. I've got a good easy recipe from Jim Fobel's Big Flavors cookbook; I'll add a link once I've made it and posted about it. Here it is, although I forgot to use the carrots when the time came.
It's now three months later and I just found the carrots in their pickle jar in the back of my refrigerator. Surprisingly, not only were they still perfectly fresh, they're finally really hot just the way I wanted them and they taste great. So that's the key: three months aging. Plan ahead!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Strawberry banana sorbet

[Note: I recently made a strawberry banana ice cream that turned out quite well. If you're not dead set on a sorbet, you might take a look at that recipe too.]

Strawberries were on sale this week so I bought them without any immediate idea of what to do with them. Once it became clear that I wasn't going to snack my way through the entire carton I looked around for ways to use them in ice cream. There were a lot of not-terribly-exciting options. I did notice an interesting lack of chocolate/strawberry ice cream recipes, though, which I may follow up on later. I also considered taking another shot at the basalmic strawberry ice cream I made to try to fix the textural problems I encountered. (Probably by using all real sugar instead of Splenda blend and by excluding the vinegar from the strawberry maceration instead just drizzling it in during churning.) But this week, it's strawberry banana sorbet. Given the magical psuedo-custard properties of bananas, I was curious how it would affect a sorbet's texture.

Also, I wanted to try using red bananas. Most people in the US only have access to the standard supermarket Cavendish banana. In Miami we're lucky to be able to get a few other varietals. Red bananas are the second most common banana and I understand that they have a more berry-like flavor than Cavendishes. (Yes, I know bananas are berries and, by the way, strawberries aren't, but you know what I mean.) Unfortunately I'll never find out myself as I've had these red bananas for two weeks now and they're just as rock solid under-ripe as the day I bought them. So I went out and bought some Cavendishes so I can make this before my strawberries start to rot.

Most of the recipes I found on-line for strawberry banana sorbet were actually sherbets (with milk or cream as an ingredient) or extra-thick smoothies so I decided to cobble together a version from a banana sorbet and a strawberry sorbet in Lebovitz's Perfect Scoop recipe book along with some standard sorbet tricks he didn't use.

1 large banana, as ripe as available
2 pints strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 Tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 Tablespoons light rum
1 pinch salt

1. Peel banana and place in freezer.

2. Hull and slice strawberries. Toss with sugar and let macerate for 1 hour at room temperature.

3. Add all ingredients to blender (breaking up banana). Blend until smooth.

4. Cool mixture in refrigerator at least four hours until 40 degrees F. Churn and then ripen in the freezer.

That includes a couple refinements I thought of after I made the recipe myself. I neglected to freeze the banana (which breaks down the bananas' cells and gets it goopy. The blender probably does a fair job of this as well, but the freezer is more thorough.) or add the salt (which brings out the sweetness), but it turned out fine anyway. Here it is straight out of the churn. That's rather thicker than I've seen most of my sorbets get, but my new churn provides a full 25 minutes of freeziness and for a change it isn't over 90 degrees in my kitchen today so it could just be the extra cold and not the banana causing it. The real test will be the mouthfeel after ripening. I'll see tomorrow...

It's tomorrow and I'm quite happy with the creamy texture. If you didn't know, you'd swear there was milk in there (but not cream; let's not go nuts here.). And you'd think it was artificially colored with its vibrant strawberry red. Unfortunately, you might also be wrong about it including banana as that flavor is a bit subtle. On the other hand, the strawberry flavor is bright and clear and yummy. Let's just say the banana is there for textural support.

I'd like to try it again with a different berry and a larger riper banana to see how how the extra refinements I didn't put in this time work out.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Frogmore stew a.ka. low country boil

Frogmore stew is a Carolinas specialty and it's something that's been on my to-cook list for a while now. It finally made it onto the menu when I was shopping at Whole Foods earlier this week and saw that they were having a sale on local produce. I thought I'd simulate a CSA box and pick up whatever they had and figure out what to do with it later. This recipe stems from the corn on the cob from Pioneer Growers Coop in Belle Glade, Florida. I was suspicious when I saw corn at a farmers market a while back, but I was wrong. Live and learn.

Along with the corn, frogmore stew also contains redskin potatoes, sausage and shrimp. And that's it. No frogs, sadly. There are an enormous number of recipes for it on the web and, for once, they're not the same three copied and pasted all over the place. And even more oddly, despite them all being keyed in individually they were all exactly the same: potatoes, sausage, corn and shrimp, optionally crab and and optionally a lemon.

There seem to be two key points to getting this dish to turn out right. The first is the timing; Boil the potatoes for 20 minutes, then add the sausage for ten, then the corn for five, then the shrimp for three. The second is in the spices; not many recipes specified exactly what sort to shrimp/crab boil to use, but then not many had anything sensible to say about the timing either. The recipes that were written with care said to use both sweet and spicy boils. That's Zatarains and Old Bay if you're going mass market. My southern style boil is from Spice House. I'm still boiling as I type, but even a suburban boy from Delaware like me gets visions of picnic tables and surf from the smell coming off the pot. I used a couple Tablespoons of each for a gallon of water (for six medium red potatoes, half a pound of sausage, three ears of corn, and a pound of shrimp). That's probably on the high end, but I always bump up the spice a bit.

Most recipes aren't very specific about the sausage--just something smoked and garlicky. I had some andouille on hand as I had intended to make gumbo this week. I hit a few snags with that. First, I had a hard time finding the andouille. Oysters in bulk were tough to come by too. Maybe they're out of season? None of the supermarkets carried them and I didn't get a chance to check the fishmongers before I realize a bigger problem. And that's that there's just no way gumbo is a weeknight recipe, at least not with a chicken involved. With a chicken you have the choice of long or complicated. The long way is to start with a pot of water and boil the chicken for a few hours to make soup which you then add a bunch of other ingredients to to make gumbo. The complicated, and much better way, is to start by frying the chicken, shredding it and adding it at the end after making the gumbo with a pot of pre-made chicken soup. See, that way you get double the chicken flavor. So, I set that aside and I'll find some other use for that chicken.

OK, now that I've had my dinner, those times were spot on, everything was cooked quite nicely. The flavor infused by the boil spices were subtle. I may use even more next time. I served the dish with butter, sour cream and cocktail sauce and, to simulate the picnic style, got a bit sloppy about what went on what. Cocktail sauce on corn is surprisingly good. Sour cream on sausage, less so. All in all, not bad, but I think I must be missing some element that makes it a classic. Maybe it's because I didn't cook it over a bonfire on the beach with friends and family. I'll have to try that some time.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Triple garlic Spanish-style shrimp

This is an elaboration on a Cook's Illustrated recipe for gambas al ajillo tapas. Traditional gambas al ajillo is made by poaching shrimp in garlic oil, but, as usual, CI tosses out the traditional method as too difficult and unreliable and instead develops convolutions to approximate it.

I kept their three-way garlic technique but I added elements to bolster it into a main dish. I cut their recipe in half so this should double well if you want to serve more than two.

1/4 cup pancetta, diced
7 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined (tails on or off is up to you)
4 Tablespoons flavorful extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 dried chile, broken
1 1/4 teaspoon fine-grained salt (adjust for flakes of kosher or sea)
1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika (optional. You might substitute plain paprika or a broken up dried pepper.)
1 medium tomato, diced (good quality and quite ripe by preference)
2 Tablespoons flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 large scallion, finely sliced
1 teaspoon champagne or sherry vinegar

1. Finely mince or crush one garlic clove. Toss with shrimp, one Tablespoon olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and maybe some red pepper flakes if you'd like a bit more heat. Marinate shrimp at room temperature for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, cook pancetta over medium-high heat in an 8" non-stick pan until browned and crispy. Remove pan from heat and remove pancetta to a bowl. Either leave ~1 Tablespoon rendered fat or discard and replace with a Tablespoon of olive oil. If you're going to do that, feel free to substitute in jamon serano or prosciutto.

3. Smash two garlic cloves. Add to pan with two Tablespoons olive oil. Return pan to medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally until garlic is crisped and a light golden brown, 4-7 minutes. Remove pan from heat and remove garlic to small bowl. Save garlic until you've stopped reeking from all the garlic from this dish. When you need another dose grind up the browned garlic in a mortar with a little salt and olive oil or butter and spread on toast.

4. Thinly slice 4 cloves garlic. Return pan to low heat and add garlic, bay leaf and chile. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is soft and translucent, 4-7 minutes. Turn down heat if it starts to brown; turn it up if it doesn't sizzle. Increase heat to medium-low and add shrimp (with marinade) in a single layer. Cook until top side of shrimp starts to show a little pink, about 2 minutes. Flip shrimp with tongs and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove shrimp to a bowl.

5. Turn heat up to high. Add tomato and smoked paprika. Cook briefly until tomato begins to break down to create a sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in parsley, scallion, pancetta, shrimp and vinegar. Cook until shrimp is cooked through, no more than 30 seconds.

6. Serve immediately with hearty fresh-baked (or at least fresh-toasted) bread.

The dish turned out very nicely. Even with the added ingredients, all the trouble with the garlic was worth it. It infuses both the shrimp and stands up to the tomato and herbs in the sauce.

A citrusy and flinty white wine would be the obvious pairing, but I tried a Belgian-style white beer and was quite happy with the match.

Curry coconut peanut butter ice cream

I discussed the origin of this ice cream a couple weeks ago at the end of this post. (and now that I look at it, I forgot about adding in bits of banana. It may not be too late yet. Nope it's already solidified into concrete.) And this week seemed a good time to give it a try. I started with equal parts peanut butter and coconut milk and then I had to judge how much sweeter it needed to be and what sort and how much curry to add.

Both peanut butter and coconut milk have a bit of natural sweetness but only enough that they hover at the midpoint between sweet and savory and can be pushed either way depending on what other ingredients you add. As I was going to be adding curry powder I decided I needed to add just a bit of sugar to ensure it stayed on the sweet side of things. Next was the curry. There are an infinite variety of curries spice blends from all over southern Asia but all I had on hand were a South Indian blend and a Singapore blend (I thought I had Thai as well, but I was mistaken). Both contain coriander, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek and red pepper, but the Singapore blend adds black pepper, lemon peel and citric acid for a much brighter flavor. I thought the Singapore worked well with the peanuts so I used that. I also added vanilla to mellow out the brightness and to keep it tasting like dessert.

At this point I could have called it pudding and served it, but since I was going to freeze it I had to unbalance the flavors to add both more sweetness and more spice to compensate for the muting of flavors at low temperatures. I also decided that the mix was a bit too thick so I added the sweetness in the form of honey to thin it out a bit.

Not thin enough, though. After a night in the refrigerator the mix had nearly solidified. I decided to giving churning a try anyway (as most mixes that solidify loosen right up with a good stir), but it just wadded itself up on the paddle so I had to take it out and add some milk to make it workable. I only added a half cup but I don't think that was really enough so I suggest a full cup in the ingredient list below. That does make it too much mix for many churns, though. You might want to cut the peanut butter and coconut milk down to a cup apiece instead.

1 1/2 cups natural (but salted) peanut butter
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 Tablespoon Singapore curry
1 cup milk

1. Just mix, chill, churn and ripen.

That worked a bit better but not perfectly. I found that my ice cream churn's bucket doesn't really fit snugly on the base so it wobbles around as it spins. It seemed to work out OK last week as I didn't even notice and the pear ice cream came out just fine, but this time nearly a third of the mix ended up stuck to the sides and bottom of the bucket. I wonder if I have a mismatched set. Maybe it was just the unreasonably thick mix that caused it to become a problem; I'll have to make something quite thin next time and see how it works out. I haven't gotten rid of my old churn yet so I can always revert.

I'm not entirely happy with the flavor of the ice cream as it came out of the churn. The peanuts dominate and everything else is relegated to grace notes. The flavors should shift again after ripening, though so I'm withholding full judgment for now.

Well, they didn't shift all that much. The curry is noticeable and give an agreeable complexity to the peanut flavor, but the coconut and the other flavors are too subtle to notice. The curry is a nice compliment to the peanuts--I'll be adding curry to my next batch of peanut butter cookies--but it's still disappointingly straightforward. Nothing that chocolate sauce can't cure, though.

Almost no knead bread (adjusted for the climate)

I mentioned recently that my bread baking hasn't been working out. The doughs have been too moist and haven't been able to hold their rise while they bake. This time I decided to deliberately skimp on the water by an ounce and started with a dough that looked far too dry (but otherwise I kept to the standard almost no knead technique with the exception of substituting in a couple ounces of rye flour. Click on "bread" in the left column to find the post with my usual variation on the recipe.). It seemed to moisten to a reasonable state over time as it sat, but it also tended to dry out around the edges. I ended up spritzing it with water from a spray bottle once in a while.

When it came time for the knead, the texture felt just about right. It formed into a nice springy ball ready for a second rise. I decided to try keeping it in an oiled plastic bucket instead of sitting out on a silpat this time. That way I could suspend a moisten cloth over it without it actually touching the dough and risking sticking. It worked quite well; no sticking problems at all. I may use a smaller bucket next time so it doesn't spread out as much.

Here it is after a two hour second rise just before it went into the oven.

And here it is afterwards. Not too bad. It's a lot lighter than other recent loaves, but it still could be better. I think it kept nearly all of the height from the second rise so maybe I should add a bit more time to that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

White lasagna with chicken, spinach and mushrooms

What the heck was I thinking making a lasagna? What the heck was Gourmet doing publishing it in April anyway? For my part, it seemed to make some sense in the overly chilled confines of my workplace and supermarket and after I bought all the ingredients it was no time for second thoughts.

The original recipe is just noodles and sauce but I wanted something substantially more substantial. First off, I traded out the no-boil lasagna sheets for pre-boil-requiring whole wheat. That was a gamble; There's a lot of variation in the flavors and textures you get in whole wheat pasta and in how it reacts in different applications. In this particular case I ended up fairly happy with the flavor and not actively unhappy with the texture. However, in a normal lasagna the pasta absorbs some of the sauce and expands physically holding the dish together and keeping it from getting waterlogged. The whole wheat pasta didn't do such a good job there. Maybe it would have worked better if I hadn't pre-boiled them, but the risk of undercooked whole wheat pasta was a gamble too far.

I also added a pound of ground chicken. I ground my own using 3/4 lb. of chicken breasts and a 1/4 lb. of gizzards to add a bit of extra flavor. I also sautéed some sliced cremini mushrooms and wilted a couple handfuls of baby spinach.

The sauce is a pretty standard bechamel, just a whole heck of a lot of it.

So it was a layer of bechamel sauce, a layer of noodles and a layer of chicken.

A layer of sauce, a layer of noodles and a layer of spinach.

A layer of sauce, a layer of noodles and another layer of chicken.

And finally a layer of sauce, a layer of noodles, the rest of the sauce and a half cup of Parmesan and Romano.

And after an hour in the oven it looked like this.

And after cutting into it it looks substantially less lovely. Bechamel, theoretically, hardens like foam insulation and bonds the whole dish together. At least that's how it works with pastitio in my experience. I think my oven got too hot and my bechamel curdled. Or maybe I just didn't wait long enough after it came out of the oven to cut it open (although I'm pretty sure that's just pieces of meat that reabsorb their juices). Anyway, the flavors are quite nice with nutmeg as the primary spice working better than I expected. If I eat it in a bowl I can pretend it's just a sloppy thick sauce on sheets of pasta and enjoy it for what it is instead of what it might have been.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spiced caramelized pear ice cream

I have a mixed history with fruit ice creams. Banana works out great but other fruits tend to give grainy hard-freezing results. In an episode of Good Eats a few years ago Alton Brown talked about this: "the complex chemical composition of the bananas perfectly replaces the eggs that usually hold an ice cream together and provide it with a smooth mouth-feel." So, when I found a recipe in David Lebovitz's highly acclaimed and generally reliable The Perfect Scoop recipe book that uses pear the same way, I was pretty interested in trying it out.

On the other hand, I think Lebovitz made the recipe a little harder than strictly necessary and gave it a rather simple flavor profile. It's just pears, sugar and cream. Now if you've got perfectly ripe, heirloom pears whose flavors you want to highlight, why not? But I've got some fair-to-middling Bartletts from Publix so they could use a little help.

Here's my version:

3 medium ripe pears, peeled, cored and roughly diced in 1 cm cubes
3/4 cups (170 grams) sugar
1 Tablespoon (10-15 grams) honey
1 Tablespoon butter
2 pinches allspice
1 pinch cinnamon
1 dash powdered cloves
1 dash powdered ginger
2 cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt
a few drops lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Spread the sugar in a large, nonreactive, heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven. Add honey and butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring as butter melts and honey gets less viscous to moisten the sugar and help it to melt. (Lebovitz only used the sugar which requires a good bit of finesse to melt and caramelize without burning. The fructose in the honey and the fat in the butter break up the sucrose crystals in the refined sugar and get it in a liquid mood. The water in both helps dissolve the sugar too. They also buffer the impact of adding the pears which will cause straight sugar to seize up significantly worse than the mixture does.)

2. Continue stirring as the sugar melts until it is all liquid and the color has deepened to a deep amber. Stir in the pear pieces and the powdered spices. Some of the sugar will seize, but just keep stirring until it melts again. Cook for 10 minutes. The liquid won't be entirely evaporated but it should have thickened up a little.

3. Remove from heat, stir in 1/2 cup of the cream, then mix in the rest along with the salt, lemon juice (which is just to keep the pear from browning, not for flavor) and the vanilla.

4. Cool to near room temperature, blend until smooth and then pass through a strainer if you think you missed any tough bits when you cored the pears.

5. Chill to 40 degrees and then churn in your flashy new Cuisinart ice cream churn!

Before we get to how the ice cream turned out, take a look at the dashers in my old Deni and my new Cuisinart churns. It's a very complicated design and they're almost exactly the same. If Cuisinart doesn't own Keystone Mfg (who make the cut-rate Deni line of ice cream makers) they really ought to sue. Since the design isn't different, I'm hoping the higher quality manufacturing will keep it scraping down the sides of the bucket and mixing the frozen bits back in to seed the ice cream mix the way the Deni didn't (particularly as the design of the Cuisinart precludes me getting a spatula in there to do it manually.

After 20 minutes, here's the result. It's a good level of creaminess/firmness although I could have left it in a few more minutes if it wasn't a rather larger batch than usual and was threatening to overflow the bucket. The bucket was still solid at that point so a longer churn was an option. The dasher did a pretty good job of mixing in the frozen bits; there was just a little left to scrape out at the end. Straight out of the churn the pear flavor is mild and the spices a bit too forward for my tastes. But the real test will be both the balance of flavors and the texture after ripening.

After eight hours in the freezer it looks like this. It's nicely soft and scoopable, which is better than most of my fruit-based ice creams turned out. I think that's due to the incomplete caramelization that left a lot of sugar syrup to mix with the cream. The flavors re-balanced nicely with the pear holding its own against spices. But it isn't perfect, the mouth feel has a hint of the gummy texture of cheap ice cream as, like cheap ice cream it melts into a foam instead of liquid. I think that's the fruit pectin at work, or, in the cheap ice cream, guar gum and carageenan. I noticed this in the other fruit ice creams I've made, too. Well, that just means you should eat it fast which is hard not to do anyway when it tastes this good. And I think I've learned how to keep future fruit-based ice creams from turning into concrete so all's well that ends well.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pork Estofado

This is a pretty simple (and very tasty) Filipino dish. I did look around for ways to complicate it, as is my wont, but I couldn't find any variants. Or rather, there were a lot of recipes by the same name--the term "estofado" is actually pretty generic--but the biggest variation of pork braised in sugar I found added a garnish of scallions to the recipe I had. I ended up making the cooking process more exciting by knocking my glass measuring cup over (with a quarter cup of soy sauce in it) to smash on the floor and then, rattled by the first mistake, over-adjusting my adjustable measuring cup and splooshing out half the sauce ingredients all over my kitchen counter.

The recipe I'm working from is Reynaldo Alejandro's The Flavor of Asia, a cookbook I have mixed emotions about. It has a great range of recipes from China in the North all the way down to Indonesia and it was my first introduction to many of the cuisines in between, but as I learned more about cooking and about those cuisines I discovered that many of the recipes have been over-simplified and there are a lot of areas of confusing vagueness. In this particular recipe Alejandro doesn't specify if the plantain garnish is supposed to be ripe or green. His previous cookbook was Filipino; He knows what it's supposed to be, he just doesn't say. In my research I think I found that it's supposed to be ripe and that it's substituting for saba bananas, whatever they are. I've used ripe before and it turned out well, but I'm using green today to compare and contrast. Luckily, the same skills that let me notice the cookbook's shortcomings also allow me to compensate for them so it's still usable. Here's how I figure this recipe ought to go.

* 1/4 cup vegetable or corn oil
* 2 tablespoons minced garlic (or 2 Tablespoons crushed)
* 1 pound lean pork, cut however you like (the low slow cooking will tenderize any meat. If the pieces are over an inch and a half cube add an extra half hour cooking time)
* 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
* 1/4 cup soy sauce
* 1/3 cup sugar
* 1/2 cup water
* 1 bay leaf
* 8 peppercorns, crushed
* 1 carrot, cut into 1-inch strips (It's not really a strip if it's 1 inch thick so I think this means 1/8-inch thick strips, 1-inch long)
* 2 ripe plantains, cut 1/2 inch thick diagonally and fried at medium high until cooked through and browned
* 2 pieces French bread, cut into 1-inch squares and fried at medium high until browned and crisp (that seems like a lot more plantain than bread so I think saba bananas must be smaller than the plantains you can get around here. Or maybe they cut their French bread into larger pieces. I use equal amounts of bread and plantain for each serving.)
2 scallions, shredded

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

2. Add garlic and oil to cold dutch oven. Turn on medium heat, cook until garlic starts to brown. Remove.

3. Add pork cubes and brown in batches, about 3 minutes on each side.

4. Remove from heat. Let cool briefly and carefully add vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, water, bay leaf and peppercorns.

5. Cover. Place in oven. Cook for 1 hour.

6. Add carrots. Cook for another hour.

7. Remove dutch oven from oven. Remove pork and carrots from sauce. Reduce sauce on stovetop over high heat until it's reduced in volume by 3/4 and starts to get syrupy. Return pork and carrots and heat through.

8. Meanwhile, fry plantains and bread (a sprinkling of salt boosts the flavors nicely here) until crisp and brown.

9. Serve garnished with plantains, bread and scallions possibly over rice depending on just how much starch you want with your meal. But if you do make sure the croûtons have a chance to absorb some sauce before the rice sucks it all up.

At the end the meat should be fork tender, the carrots about to fall apart and the sauce richly sweet and vinegarly tart. The croûtons and plantains (Definitely go with ripe. The plantain chips I ended up making this time weren't nearly as good.) add extra flavors and crunch as well as bursts of the sauce as they release what they soaked up. It's an unusual combination of flavors and textures for many American palates, but very accessible so I've found it a good introduction to Filipino cuisine for the folks I've fed it to.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Abokado review addendum

I didn't look at any Abokado reviews before I wrote my own because I didn't want to be influenced by others' impressions. But afterwards I looked around and found a New Times review by Lee Klein who backs me up on a lot of my points and sums things up better than I did. Lee writes:

"The décor is accessible, comfortable, and utterly soulless. Just like the food."

"...the kitchen's consistently timid hand..."

"...numerous menu items here that seem to have been conceived according to how they read rather than how they taste."

"Why put jalapeño with hamachi? What good can it possibly bring to the fish?"

"Abokado, like other places of its ilk, proves satisfying to a majority of diners by playing things cute and safe."

What satisfaction is to be had came from some heartier main courses and the extensive beverage options so I missed them. Have any of you been to Abokado? What do you think? And if you're an Abokado chef who stumbled on this while ego-surfing please feel free to defend your dishes.

NOTE: a month after I posted this the Miami Herald published a much more positive review of Abokado. Maybe they're improving? Or maybe it all depends on your tastes. I think you'll have to judge for yourself.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Restaurant review - Abokado

Mary Brickell Village,
900 South Miami Avenue,
Miami, Fl., 33130
T 305.347-3700
F 305.347-3777
Open Sun.-Wed. 12:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.,
and Thu- Sat. 12:00 p.m.-midnight

I don't really get out much so maybe everyone already knows about Mary Brickell Village. I only heard about it last week. Tucked away at the east end of Calle Ocho, the mall is a bit hard to find and when you do its pretty unassuming until you get inside and see the central plaza laid out in front of you. There's a fair bit of shopping, but we're here to talk about food and Mary Brickell Village has a pretty impressive line up of restaurants:
Abokado Sushi Restaurant
Balans Restaurant
Blue Martini
Grimpa Steakhouse
P.F. Chang’s
Oceanaire Seafood Room
Rosa Mexicano
Kuva Restaurant & Lounge
Blu Pizza e Cucina

The standout here is clearly Rosa Mexicano which was mobbed fairly early on both the Monday and Thursday nights I was in the area. Tonight I wasn't planning on going there anyway, I was headed for Abokado.

On its website, Abokado describes its concept:
"Abokado’s Japanese Pan-Latin menu is born of the union of traditional Japanese and Latin American cuisines, preserving the natural balance, taste, aroma and texture of fresh seasonal ingredients from both worlds.

"The restaurant’s distinctive signature dishes - handcrafted to perfection by expert chefs - create a cuisine that redefines fusion presenting a true evolution of flavor. The menu incorporates and respects the distinctive character and essence of each cuisine and culture represented."

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? I definitely thought so, so, with my waiter's help, I picked out a selection of dishes that you can't find anywhere else.

I tried
The Abokado "Nachos" - spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber and kaiware sprouts served on top of crispy shiso leaf,*

the tiradito sampler, which included:
Tuna Tataki - tuna, apple-daikon relish, aji-amarillo sauce *
Salmon - avocado, Asian pear, salmon roe with jalapeño and key lime ponzu
Hamachi - serrano, cilantro, avocado relish with chile-sesame ponzu *
Beef Filet - crispy shallots, jicama, micro arugula with yuzu truffle aioli,

the Viva roll- spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño wrapped in warm flour tortilla, served with Spicy Crab Mix *

I'm sorry I don't have any pictures; I wasn't really planning to do a review after just one visit so I didn't bring my camera along. It's a shame as all of the dishes were beautifully laid out. I think I tried enough different dishes and saw enough of a pattern emerging that I can make a make something of a judgment. Just keep in mind that a) I didn't try any main dishes and b) I like big bold flavors. If you're the sort who's always finding food too spicy, you'll have a very different experience than I did.

Let's start with my waiter's primary suggestion, the "nachos". I was served tempura fried shiso leaves, each with a dollop of tuna paste dotted with tiny bits of diced avocado and cucumber. I can't say I noticed the sprouts. It's a fun idea and quite pretty with the vivid green of the shiso leaves contrasted with a bed of threads of deep red beets. Unfortunately, the tuna was extremely mild and a 5 millimeter cube of avocado doesn't add anything. This was finger food, so you pick up each leaf like a tortilla chip and take a bite. The flavor starts with a hint of tuna but that's quickly overwhelmed by the tempura batter. And that's all there was to it. If it wasn't trying so hard to be clever I wouldn't mind so much. I still wouldn't like it, but I wouldn't be actively insulted by the idea that I'm supposed to like it. Cleverness is never more important than flavor.

The tiradito sampler was a step up, but still didn't wow me at all. The tuna had a microgram of relish and a couple drops of sauce so it was just a piece of tuna with a hint of burn. That's something that particularly bugged me about all of the spicy dishes. (The ones marked with a star, theoretically.) The spice was always the heat of a raw slice of pepper; It was never incorporated into the dish to work with the other flavors. On the other hand, I did like how the tuna was marinated as a chunk and then sliced to mimic pieces of seared tuna.

My first impression of the salmon was that the pear was a puzzling addition that didn't make any sense. But the real problem was that it was undersauced. My waiter brought me a little sauce sampler dish and an extra drizzle of ponzu really tied the dish together. So this one was well-conceived but poorly executed.

The hamachi I liked just the way it was. The avocado relish (It was guacamole. Why couldn't they just call it guacamole?) paired well with the fish and there was enough of the ponzu for the chile and sesame add some extra notes.

The beef I liked as well, but it was essentially beef carpaccio with a bit of crunchy vegetable in a mayonaise. Nothing wrong with that, but in a blind tasting Japanese-Pan Latin is not going to be in your top ten guesses.

Finally there's the Viva roll which can best be described as a nice try. Again all the flavors of the fillings were so mild that the primary flavor was the carrying vessel, in this case, warm tortilla. I found myself wanting a salsa of some sort to finish the dish, to give it some character. But the real tragedy was the "spicy crab mix"; it had the unmistakable flavor of a scoop of school cafeteria crab salad.

And to drink I had a pot of nice enough darjeeling tea. Along with all the various booze options, Abokado offers nine teas. My waiter brought out a box with little vials of each of the tea blends to sniff. Other than the darjeeling, they were all strongly fruity or herbal which I like but I'd never have with a meal.

My overall impression is that not enough thought has gone into how all of the pieces fit together both in the individual dishes and overall. Everything from flavor components that don't balance to the host disagreeing with the waiter's recommendations to putting the dishwasher right next to the sushi bar so you can smell the detergent wafting out. It's those stupid little mistakes and the fact that all the flavors were so muted that add up to a dining experience that have no desire to repeat. And I suppose I should mention that, with tip, the meal cost me around $75, but I'd have felt a bit ripped off at half that.

So that was my first restaurant review. What did you think? What should I have mentioned that I didn't? I know I should have photos of the food and decor. The decor was nice enough, sleek modern and all that. The place was nearly empty and the service a bit over-attentive right up until I got my bill and then my waiter vanished.

[Note: The reviewer for New Times agrees with me. See excerpts and a link to the whole thing here. The reviewer for the Miami Herald doesn't. See the same link.]

If you really want Japanese-Latin fusion, Sushi Chef on Coral Way does a few dishes in that area and I think they do it better. The plates aren't laid out nearly so prettily, but their spicy tuna is actually spicy, their ponzu has a sharp citrus tang and their flavors actually work together. And isn't that what's important?

[Note of 8/14: My last visit to Sushi Chef was mediochre I've heard from a couple other people who weren't thrilled either. A couple of off nights? Or has it gone downhill? Tough to say. I stand by my disappointment with Abokado, though.]

Nutella and peanut butter ice cream (with pretzel bits)

I bought my first jar of Nutella in quite some time recently after realizing the bread I had bought for tuna salad/cucumber/squash sandwiches (sadly lost in the refrigerator debacle) needed to be re-purposed for room temperature applications.

As I mentioned a while back, I've decided that I need try unusual recipes from cookbooks for a while to pick up techniques and possibilities for my own purposes. Peanut butter ice cream was on my list as, like banana ice cream, the main flavoring also has thickening and structural roles. Putting that together with the half-a-jar of Nutella that usually sits neglected in my pantry after I get sick of Nutella sandwiches (or run out of appropriate bread), gave me the idea of a Nutella and peanut butter ice cream.

Google doesn't turn up any pre-existing recipes for such a thing, but there were plenty of peanut butter recipes to sort through. I didn't get far into that process before it occurred to me to search out Nutella ice cream recipes. I only found two and I was intrigued by this one which consists of a cup and a half of Nutella, a cup and a half of evaporated milk and that's it. The creator, Clotilde Dusoulier, found her first try too sweet and toned it down by using an all-natural organic knock off. I followed suit by switching out half the Nutella for natural, unsweetened peanut butter. Other than that I just added a dash of vanilla and a bit of salt and I was done.

I mixed in a large handful of pretzel nuggets (chopped in half) too, but they got a bit soggy so I can't recommend that. Maybe those really thin pretzel sticks would hold up better. Alternatively, you could mix in slices of frozen banana. I was tempted by that idea, but I want to find out what happens when I use all peanut butter and swap out the evaporated milk for coconut milk and I'm saving the banana for that. I'm torn over whether a dash of curry powder is going to make or break that recipe. Well, only one way to find out.

Hmm, I just did a quick search and discovered that you can buy commercially manufactured coconut curry ice cream (if you live in Luxembourg, anyway). At least theirs doesn't have any peanuts in it.

Anyway, back to the Nutella and peanut butter ice cream. It turned out like a dense rich premium ice cream. The fat in the Nutella and peanut butter must have compensated for the lack of it in the evaporated milk. It's somewhat healthier fats though. The flavors are Nutella and peanut butter, no surprises there, but nothing wrong there either. Some of my coworkers were quite excited about the idea of this ice cream; I wonder how they'll react to the reality. (The color balance in my picture of the final result went wonky and it ended up looking unappetizingly yellow. I'll try again tomorrow.)