Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eggplant casserole with shrimp and country ham

Regular readers of my blog will know that I'm a fan of Mark Bittman's minimalist style of cooking. He's got a food blog for the New York Times, Bitten that I've recently begun reading. A couple days ago he was talking about his acquisition of a big chunk of high quality domestic prosciutto and how he was making use of it. One example was sautéing it with garlic, onion and peppers, adding a past-it's-prime eggplant and then cooking it down into a tasty mush. As I've got a past-it's-prime eggplant languishing in my vegetable drawer I took note.

However, I'm fresh out of prosciutto. What I do have is a pack of country ham chips. Fresh Market has just started carrying country ham in a few different forms. As a suburban boy from Delaware I haven't a clue what to do with it so I picked up chips as the lowest buy in for my experimentation.

Country ham changes my flavor profile substantially so the Italian flavors Bittman had in mind weren't going to work. While I was looking around to see how others have used ham and eggplant I came across this recipe that also includes shrimp and stale bread. I've got plenty of both of those at the moment so I was leaning towards that recipe. However I didn't really want to run the oven today so I ended up making something somewhere in the middle.

I started by chopping up and soaking the remaining quarter of the loaf of bread I baked last Sunday. I put in a good bit of rye flour so it was pretty hearty and had a nice rustic flavor.

Next I put a dutch oven on medium heat with a couple teaspoons of butter, an equal amount of olive oil, and a half dozen crushed garlic cloves. Once they got soft, but not browned, I added a small onion and a small bell pepper, both chopped, about a quarter pound of the country ham, a bay leaf, a teaspoon of thyme, a teaspoon of creole spice mix (paprika, garlic powder and cayenne primarily), a couple pinches of salt and a couple dashes more of cayenne.

Once the vegetables had softened and the spices and herbs were aromatic I added the eggplant, coarsely chopped, the bread and a half cup of chicken broth. I probably should have held off on the bread and broth to give the eggplant a chance to cook down a bit first. But I didn't, so all in they went. A stir and a bit more salt and on goes the cover. I cooked it for twenty minutes, stirring every five minutes and adding a bit more water. The bread broke down pretty quickly, the eggplant a little more slowly, but both were a thick mush at the end.

Meanwhile, I had a quarter pound of shrimp in a salt and sugar brine. The brine was strong enough to do the shrimp some good, but not so strong that I couldn't safely slosh some in to the casserole to add flavor and thin it out.

After the twenty minutes were up I chopped up the shrimp along with a large scallion and a handful of parsley. I added those to the pot, gave them a couple minutes to cook through and that was it.

I'll freely admit, the end result isn't the most texturally presentable dish around but I really like how the flavors play off each other. The bread has taken up flavors and now tastes like a particularly good bread stuffing. Each bite is a bit different; the bread/eggplant mush is first flavor in each bite, but it doesn't overwhelm whatever combination of firmer-eggplant, ham and shrimp you happen to have on the fork. Those three components do work well against each other and I think I made a good choice of herbs and spices to tie it all together.

A shame about the texture though. Maybe cooking it in an uncovered casserole dish would have let it firm up more. Certainly, browned breadcrumbs on the top wouldn't be a bad thing. I've put a couple extra servings into the freezer for later; when I take one out, if I remember, I'll reheat it an oven and add breadcrumbs to see how it goes.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beefsteak fajitas with fresh tomato salsa

I mentioned a little while back that I had picked up some skirt steak for the first time. It has a reputation as nature's Steak-Um--flavorful, quick to cook, flat--but it was an impulse buy and I didn't have any particular recipes in mind. A bit of later research turned up that this is the traditional cut for fajitas and since I've got a fajita recipe I like (from Jim Fobel's book Big Flavors) easy enough for a summer kitchen that sounded like a plan.

What I particularly like about Fobel's recipe is how he marinates the meat. On the bottom of a flat container lay out thin slices of tomato, onion, jalapeno and garlic and some chopped cilantro. (Leave in the stems; cilantro and parsley stems are just as flavorful as the leaves. In fact you can use all stems here and save the leaves for other applications.) Down goes the meat and then another layer of vegetables on top. For the second layer I used my pickled jalapenos and added a little salt to release juices. Seal it up and refrigerate overnight. It infuses the beef with some nice flavors and tenderizes it a bit. I've also done this with chicken breasts pounded flat which works well, too.

The salsa is just:
1 large juice tomato, 1/2-inch dice
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
1 whole scallion, minced
1/2 jalapeno, fresh or pickled, minced
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Mix and let sit on the counter for an hour for the flavors to meld.

Fobel actually serves this as whole steaks dressed with the salsa but I always slice it up for fajitas. If you're going to do it as beefsteak ranchero, Fobel suggests matching it with corn tortillas, pinto beans, corn-on-the-cob and grilled scallions. If you're going with fajitas, you'll need flour tortillas and grilled onions and peppers.

Since I don't have a grill, I toss the onions and peppers in a high-smoke-point oil and a bit of salt and then throw them into a piping hot cast-iron skillet. Let them sit long enough to start to scorch, stir them up and let them sit again. Maybe a third time, maybe not, depending on if they've gotten tender yet.

But before you do that, take the beef out of the marinade, pick off all the bits of cilantro and onion that stuck on and pat it dry. Cut it up into bite-sized pieces (on your special beef cutting board of course). Thin slices against the grain is best but I went with a chunkier option. That was a mistake as the results were a little chewy. Sprinkle on a little salt as there wasn't any in the marinade and you're ready to add them to the cast iron pan when the vegetables are done. Less than a minute per side should do the trick but the exact timing depends on how thick your pieces are.

Serve in flour tortillas with the onions and peppers and a spoonful of salsa. A dollop of guacamole's not a bad idea either if you've got some handy. And that's a pretty tasty fajita right there. The best bit is how the juices from the beef and the liquid from the salsa mix into a flavorful sauce that coats each bite and leaks out of the bottom of the tortilla over your hand. That second part's not so good, but the first part makes up for it.

One issue I do have with this recipe is the waste of all those vegetables in the marinade. They're a little mushy from the night in the refrigerator but there ought to be some use for them. I decided to run them through the blender and then boiled the mix on the stove-top for a couple minutes as there is some raw beef bits still in there. The result isn't the most pleasant color but it's got lovely flavors of onion, pepper and cilantro in a tomato base. It could live to marinate another day or it could work as a dip for chips. It's a nice contrast with the more tomato-forward flavor of the fresh salsa. I'll have to see how it tastes after it's been chilled before I figure out what I want to do with it.

Turns out when it's cold it loses all its zip. So, along with the leftover fajita bits and some pickled carrots, both roughly chopped, some white beans that have been sitting in the fridge, pepper jack cheese and rest of the (no-longer so) fresh salsa, it's topping some nachos. Not bad, but Garden of Eatin' organic corn chips sure go soggy quick. I should have trusted to the agrobusiness complex to engineer a better chip. If there's anything they know, it's designing corn products.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Shrimp in Escabeche

I mentioned a while back, after making nanban zuke, that I wanted to try making the European dish that evolved from, escabeche. I've been slightly sidetracked from that because when I went to buy the whitefish for the recipe I found that Publix was having a 2-for-1 sale on Greenwise shrimp. So now I've got three pounds of shrimp to get rid off. I suppose that doesn't sound like a lot but I'm not really a sit-down-and-eat-a-pound-of-shrimp sort of guy.

By the way, has anyone seen an investigation of Publix's Greenwise program to see if the animals actually get the humane conditions claimed? The website is high on marketing crapola and low on useful details. There's a lot of lip service paid to humane treatment in this sort of thing and even beyond any interest in the animal's welfare taking away antibiotics without improving living conditions has been shown to reduce safety of the resulting meat. None of which probably has any relevance to shrimp, though. Publix doesn't say anything more specific than that they're farmed in Thailand which isn't helpful as there's a wide range of qualities of farming practice over there. But since none of the places I shop offer certified organic meat or fish of any sort (except for some whole chickens at Whole Foods I think), Greenwise plus some wishful thinking will have to do.

Anyway, I found this recipe on which it says is originally from a 2007 issue of Gourmet. It's attributed to Maggie Ruggiero but I don't know if she developed the recipe for the magazine or just typed it into Epicurious.

1 small red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Turkish bay leaves or 1 California
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 pound large shrimp in shell (21 to 25 per pound), peeled, leaving tail intact, and deveined

Toss together onion, vinegar, oregano, and 1 teaspoon salt in a shallow glass or ceramic dish.

Simmer oil, bay leaves, garlic, and peppercorns in a small saucepan 10 minutes, then let stand until ready to use.

Add shrimp to a medium pot of boiling salted water (2 tablespoons salt for 4 quarts water), then remove from heat and let stand, uncovered, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain well, then stir into onion mixture along with oil mixture.

Chill shrimp in escabeche, covered when cool, stirring occasionally, at least 12 hours. Discard bay leaves and serve shrimp cold or at room temperature.

I used just a half pound of shrimp as I'm not cooking for a crowd here but I only halved the amount of marinade. I've found it to be a good rule of thumb in scaling down recipes to only cut down marinades by half as much as I cut the amount of stuff I'm marinating. It tends to be too skimpy otherwise.

Another important note here is that 21 to 25 count shrimp called for are not large as the recipe says, they're jumbo. I found a handy guide to shrimp sizes here. The actual large shrimp I had cooked through almost instantly. One thing I'm working on with my surfeit of shrimp is learning to properly poach them to get that nice tender texture boiling and steaming won't give you. I didn't get it this time as I was confused by the inaccurate "large" in the recipe, but maybe next time.

And a third thing, there's no emulsifier in the marinade so I found the olive oil tended to separate out and solidify over the 12 hours in the refrigerator. Got to watch that.

So, there's a nice garlic vinaigrette and some shrimp. I decided to poach a few extra shrimp at the last minute that just got a dunk and a drizzle for comparison to see if it's worth the twelve hour soak. I'm going to say yes. The marinated shrimp are infused with the marinade's flavors but not overwhelmed like a full pickling. There's a mild tang from the vinegar, the warm richness of the fried garlic and the aroma of the herbs all blended fully with the shrimp. The fresh shrimp the sauce just rolls off of.

So, on the whole, pretty good and not a whole bunch of trouble beyond the fact that you have to make it before heading off to work in the morning. Or you could have it for breakfast I suppose.

I still want to make a fish escabeche. I understand that most recipes call for the fish to be fried and I'm curious how those nice browned bit react to being pickled. Plus, this recipe wasn't suitable for storing for a month. I want something I can keep for a while.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Caramelized Mango Ice Cream

One year ago today I made my first batch of ice cream. It was mango season and a co-worker had dumped a bag full of mangoes on me with the demand that I make something out of them and bring it back in. There are not a great many appealing mango recipes out there but I did find one for caramelized mango ice cream that looked promising. Failing to find an ice cream churn to borrow I went out and bought a cheap one from Sears. The recipe I made was this one and the results were not so great.

My inexperience was partially to blame as were the inadequacies of my ice cream churn. The big issue was that I didn't realize that Miami backyard mangoes tend to be larger than supermarket mangoes directions calling for "two large ripe mangoes" need some reinterpretation. Combine that with not remembering that ice cream tends to expand as air gets churned in and comic hijinks ensue.

I figure, though, a year's experience counts for something. I should be able to make a few adjustments and make the recipe turn out right.

First off is the question of how much mango I'm actually supposed to be using. The recipe says it makes one quart. The main ingredients are "one mango", "two large ripe mangoes" and two cups of heavy cream so that's two cups of chopped mango. I split it half a cup for the one caramelized mango and one and a half for the two large mangoes that get blended with the cream. I used the firm but fiberless Ford mango I got at the Mango Festival last week for caramelization and for half of the blend-in. I had good results blending the more fibrous backyard mango I got this year from the aforementioned co-worker for sherbet so I used that for the rest of the blend-in. The Ford turned out to have a fairly mild not-too-sweet flavor so the stronger and sweeter flavor of the backyard mango was important too.

I didn't want to make a lot of other changes so I could actually say I made this recipe so I just lightened it up by using half and half instead of heavy cream and bumped the sugar from 1/3 to 1/2 a cup and added a bit of vanilla.

The first time I made this the caramelization went poorly as the mango just dissolved into the sugar. The Ford mango held up better but I didn't didn't cook the sugar long enough for it to harden and give the pieces a good coating. I used turbinado sugar and the retained molasses gave some nice flavor but threw off my judgment of sugar cooking stage by color. Still, I don't think anyone's going to complain about streaks of caramel mixed through the ice cream.

So, into the churn with it and twenty minutes later it's nicely thickened up. The texture is a bit grainy but the flavor is a straightforward mango and cream with notes of molasses even before I mixed in the caramelized mango bits. Not bad.

After ripening, however, the grainy aspect of the texture was more pronounced and the mango flavor faded away. It's really not a whole lot different from a year ago and it's not a whole lot of good so I'm going to go ahead and say that this recipe just doesn't work.

The interesting question is why not? The mango colada sherbet had a creamier texture and stronger mango flavor event with other fibrous and flavorful fruit in it. I'm going to have to blame the fat in the dairy. I can understand how that's damping down the flavor of the mango but I don't understand what's going on with the texture. Not sure I care either as I have no intention of making this recipe again. Well, maybe I'll try again next year.

OK, I've had another bowl and while the flavors don't really pop like many of my recipes have been doing lately, it's not really bad. It's just on the mild and simple side and the texture's fine if you let it melt a bit. I'll bet if I switched up the cup of milk for coconut milk and added some ginger that would be enough to get it to work. I'll have to make a note for next mango season.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pappardelle with caramelized onions, skirt steak and fresh tomatoes

Despite my talk about avoiding the kitchen as soon as I restocked my supplies I found myself leaping straight from "I'm hungry" to throwing together something worth writing about. (There are no prep pictures this time as I didn't know it would be post-worthy until after I tasted it.)

Specifically this came about because had purchased more skirt steak than I needed for a fajita recipe you'll see later this week. I don't eat a lot of beef so I haven't tried a lot of different cuts. This is the first time I've tried skirt steak and I'm pretty impressed with it. It's nicely flavorful, has an unusual loose texture that grabs on to rubs and marinades, and it gives tender results when cooked up quickly. It's not a traditional steak but it seems like a good choice for dishes that call for small pieces of beef which are far more common in my repertoire. So, anyway, I was cutting a large skirt steak up into serving-sized pieces for freezing and decided to give it a try. Here's what I came up with:

Pappardelle with caramelized onions, skirt steak and fresh tomatoes

3 nests pappardelle or two generous servings of another pasta
1/4 lb skirt steak, sliced into thin strips against the grain
1 medium onion, sliced thin
3 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
4 large cherry tomatoes, roughly chopped (or 1 medium full-sized tomato)
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons steak spice rub (I used Spice House's Milwaukee Avenue polish-style steak seasoning, but anything smokey and peppery will do)
2 Tablespoons parsley, roughly chopped

1. Heat cast iron pan over high heat. Add oil and butter. When butter stops foaming add onion and garlic, stirring so they're well coated in oil, and immediately turn heat down to medium-low. The vegetables will get a head start on browning from the residual heat. This works best with cast iron on an electric stove. Stir onions frequently. Lower the heat if they look like they're starting to get crisp.

2. Put water for pasta on heat.

3. Coat steak in spice rub. Set aside.

4.When water is at a rolling boil add pasta (with generous amounts of salt). Cook to al dente, for pappardelle six minutes.

5. When pasta is almost ready, remove onions to serving bowl draining the oil back into the pan. Add tomatoes and vinegar to bowl along with salt and pepper to taste. Stir briefly. Turn pan up to high heat.

6. When pasta is ready, drain but don't rinse and add to serving bowl. Toss with onions and tomatoes. (You'll be tossing again later, but don't neglect this one or your pasta will stick to itself instead of to the sauce.)

7.Add steak to pan, making sure the slices are well scattered over the surface. Let sit for 20 to 30 seconds to get a good browning on one side and then stir fry until finished. This should only take around another 20 seconds. Remove to serving bowl, add parsley and toss again.

If you used a non-stick pan, you might want to deglaze it, but that generally doesn't work so well on cast iron unless it's enamelled or very well seasoned.

8. Serve immediately.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mango colada sherbet

After my (entirely incidentally low-fat, low-calorie and vegan) piña colada sherbet surpassed expectations so spectacularly a couple weeks ago I've been eager to try some variations both because they'll probably taste really good and to figure out exactly what I did right.

This week, with the bounty of mangoes from both festivals and backyards, the variation to try was obvious. I could have just switched out the bananas, but I decided to increase the amount of mango. I wanted the mangoes to be predominant and also I was using freezer-burnt pre-packed pineapple chunks instead of the really nice fresh pineapple I had last time so best if they don't stand out too much. Also, I changed up the fiddly bits to match the new flavors. As I'm newly educated as to mango varieties I gave the sort to use a bit of thought. I wanted something with a bit of fiber to help the sherbet thicken, sweet so I can use less sugar and with a bold flavor as the cold tends to tone things down. But after all that thought I remembered that I didn't actually have a lot of options and I used the mangoes a co-worker brought in. Close enough.

Here's what I came up with:

1 1/2 cups chopped mango (extra-ripe mushy bits are fine. It's all going into the blender)
1 cup chopped pineapple
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup sugar (or 1/4 cup Splenda blend)
juice from 1/2 lime
2 Tablespoons light rum
1 pinch salt
1 dash dried ginger powder (or equivalent in ground fresh ginger. I have a dried ginger root that I grated using a microplane.)
1 dash cinnamon (fresh grated again is better)
1 dash allspice (you could probably use a spice grinder on dried allspice berries if you wanted. I haven't tried it so I don't know if it makes much of a difference.)

Put it all in a blender. Blend smooth. Chill to 40 degrees F. Churn and ripen.

I also chopped a frozen banana into 1/2 inch cubes and mixed it in as I removed the sherbet from the churn, but that's optional.

The results are about as good as the original piña colada, which is to say very good indeed. Each bite starts with pineapple, fades into mango and lingers with the richness of the spices unless you get a bite with banana which takes over as the mango fades and gives a nice chew to contrast with the creamy melt-away smoothness of the sherbet. This would work perfectly in bellinis with a particularly dry champagne. The sweetness of the sherbet isn't cloying but it lingers and it could use something to cut through. Failing the champagne, a cup of coffee isn't a bad idea.

So it looks like the bananas weren't necessary to the texture of the sherbet. I'll have to compare coconut milk and milk milk to see how much difference that substitution makes both to texture and to healthiness. Coconut oil is just about the least healthy fat out there and while I don't think it's made from the same bits coconut milk is I can't imagine the fat in coconut milk is any better. Luckily there's not a heck of a lot of it in one cup. Substituting in real milk would also expand the possible flavors beyond the tropical. Like I said, I'll have to give this some consideration.

Summer posting slowdown

Let me start by apologizing for not posting in a while. I finally let the summer heat drive me out of the kitchen and distraction keep me away from the replenishing my grocery supply. That combination means that I've been scrounging minimalistic meals from my ever-depleting pantry. I've had a bit of help. Just about a year ago the New York Times ran Mark Bittman's article: Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less. (He just did 101 Picnic Dishes as a follow-up. That's interesting reading, too.)

I had big plans last summer to work my way through the most interesting entries but I never quite got around to it. I managed a few this year with what I had on hand and as I've put together a shopping list with the ingredients that pop up regularly in the recipes so I might have better luck this year. However, there's not much about that worth posting about so we'll see how it goes.

I do have to keep cooking dishes to freeze in batches for work-lunches (which is why my repetoir is so full of stews, stir-fries and such) so maybe I'll find something worth sharing there. And I'm still working on ice cream. Still, you should probably expect a posting slowdown for a bit.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My visit to the Mango Brunch

For those who didn't read my previous post, the Ninth Annual Mango Brunch was held today (see this post's header for the date) at the Sixteenth Annual International Mango Festival. The menu included dishes featuring mangoes from seven prominent local chefs. I'll go over exactly who made what as I talk about each plate but I'll just say up top that there was a lot of tasty and interesting food and I had a pretty good time.

The brunch was held in the Fairchild's Garden House. It looked like it held about 150 people at around 20 round banquet tables. The guests were mainly members of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden where the festival and brunch were held. A lot of people knew each other and folks seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was also a stage piled high with 200 varieties of mango taken from Fairchild's collections. Later that afternoon they were all auctioned off, but without samples to taste I presume everyone was just donating money and getting some random mangoes as a thank you gift.

Before heading in we all had to check in with the organizers at a table outside to find out which table we were assigned to. As is entirely typical for me, mine was the one name that got left off the list. So while everyone else was inside the air conditioned room mingling and sipping mango Bellinis, I was outside in the muggy heat waiting for them to set up a card table in the corner. The Bellinis weren't that good anyway.

Actually, I didn't mind. When they found my seat half way through the pre-dinner speeches it turned out to be uncomfortably cramped and I would have bothered people with my note-taking and photography so I went right back. The card table was roomy and they sat a couple guests of the festival there so I wasn't a spectacle all by myself. One of the guests was a fellow from India who, as a hobby, worked to overturn the ban on exporting Indian mangoes to the U.S. That consisted of finding a viable method of eliminating Indian fruit flies from their mango shipments. He traveled to the festival at his own expense to introduce Indian mangoes to the American market. I guess that means there's a more professional element to the festival that we gawping tourists don't get to see. (...OK, I read in the schedule that that was Friday's Grower's Summit, Field Tour and Reception.) We talked a bit about the U.S. public's perception of mangoes and where other varieties than the two standard supermarket types could make in-roads. He hadn't heard of Slow Food so I may have been helpful by recommending he look into working with them.

The meal itself began with an amuse bouche trio. There were a couple slices of mango: one of the tied winners of the previous day's taste test, Nam Doc Mai (described in the brochure's Curator's Choice section as having "a smooth, silky texture and extreme sweetness and bouquet") and the first runner up, Champagne, which didn't make it into Curator's Choice at all. I preferred the Champagne mango myself as I thought it had a deeper, more complex flavor. And there was also a small piece of brie with a mango chutney (out of a bottle from Whole Foods according to the menu). Not a terribly successful pairing I thought. That took us through the speechifying, the contents of which I included in the previous post, and it was time to line up at the various chefs' stations and see what they've got on offer.

First up was the Florida crab salad with mango vinaigrette, citrus mint salad and crispy potato by Chef John Suley from Joley. That's what it says on the menu, anyway. No citrus mint salad was in evidence and the little cubes of mango were unadvertised. It could have used some mint salad; the sweetness of the mango paired nicely with the sweetness of the crab, but the mango's flavor faded fast and then you were just eating crab. Pretty good crab, though. The potato crisp wasn't crisp but it was plenty potato which gave the straightforward pairing some needed complexity. I'm curious if fried potato and mango would work together without the crab. I might give that a try.

Next was a selection of appetizers and desserts from Chef Phillipe Ruiz from Palme D'or. I saved the desserts for the end, but the appetizers included a baby shrimp salad with tropical fruit and fresh coriander, a foie gras terrine with brioche toast and mango chutney (not pictured as I missed it and went back for it later) and a slice of banana in a spiced mango sauce. I didn't much like the baby shrimp dish mainly because these are the same mushy baby shrimp you can buy frozen in the 99 cent store. The flavor combination was nice enough--I've made ceviche with similar ingredients--but the texture was unpleasant. I didn't care for the foie gras dish either. For me, foie gras and mango just aren't going to work together and an over-sweet crumbly brioche toast doesn't help. On the other hand, the banana was very nice, mostly due to the coriander and citrus rounding out and blunting the sweetness of the mango sauce. Maybe that was supposed to be a dessert, but it was savory enough to work at the beginning of the meal. That's Ruiz's version of a mango Bellini in the background there. I liked his flavors better than the one I had earlier, but his mango caviar gave me the creeps the same way bubble tea does. The mango ice in the one that opened the brunch was a better presentation.

The next course was an alligator sausage with white bean ragout, mango chutney and an herbal confetti garnish by Chef Allen Susser from Chef Allen's. I think this is the first time I've had alligator. They say it tastes like chicken and, in this case, it pretty much did. But I like chicken sausage with white beans so that's fine by me. When I cook something like that I'll usually compliment the flavors with cumin and chili, but the cilantro, marjoram, thyme and mango pushed it into a different direction I wouldn't have thought of but makes sense in retrospect. The earthy flavors of the beans and alligator make a base that a variety of bright flavors can work on top of including sweet and herbal. So, not my favorite of the day, but nice.

Next up, a spicy bigeye tuna and mango taco by Chef Sean Bernal from Oceanaire Seafood Room. Despite spicy being there in the name (and a bottle of Tabasco at the chef's table), the taco was more of a fine balance of savory and sweet with a good use of finishing salt to brighten up the flavors and give a little bit of extra texture. The tuna itself was chopped very nearly into a paste so it was a creamy contrast to the crisp shell and crunchy salt.

On the other side of the plate was my favorite dish of the day: coconut encrusted pineapple with smoked duck bacon, mango sauce and tangy mango chutney by Chef Sean Brasel from Touch. I had a very hard time getting my impressions down on paper for this dish because each of the components was multifaceted on its own so the combination had a great deal going on. The pineapple by itself was crisp then chewy, savory then sweet and shocking with the unexpectedness of hot pineapple. The mango chutney is entirely unrecognizable as mango and barely seems like fruit with its deep spice and firm bite. I've had pickled watermelon rind that was similar but that's about it. The mild smokiness of the duck and the sweet mango sauce are more familiar. Despite the complexity, it all came together harmoniously. I was very impressed and I'm definitely going out to Miami Beach for dinner at Touch. [Note from a year later: I didn't.]

And that leaves dessert. Chef Erick Jones from Talulah made Belgian waffles with fresh mango and mango butter. This didn't really work out well, probably because it sat out too long. A good Belgian waffle should be crispy on the outside and airy on the inside, but this was spongy all the way through. Combine that with the almost slimy texture of the mango butter (not mango infused butter, but mango butter in the apple butter sense) that you probably can't see in the back of picture and the experience was rather unpleasant.

But there were still Chef Ruiz's pastry chef's mango profiterole and trifle which were both straightforwardly yummy and beautifully presented. A very nice finish with a cup of Rwanda Karaba fair trade coffee.

And I nearly forgot the basket of mango breads and pastries by Chef Frank Randazzo from Creative Tastes Catering. In fact, I did forget about them during the meal so I wrapped a couple up in napkins and took them home. There's a mango cream cheese strudel. It's interestingly light on the sugar--nearly savory. I wonder if the mango was supposed to sweeten the pastry, but this particular mango turned out to be rather tart. Well, I like it the way it is; a little sugar in the tea compensates nicely. And there's a scone which I thought got the texture just right--bordering on shortbread but slightly more moist. That's incredibly rare in scones which are nearly always either dense, dry and crumbly or far too moist and cakey. Not very mango-y, though.

And that's everything! A lovely meal with a good progression of dishes (completely by happenstance, actually) and serving sizes that weren't so large to leave me stuffed. I learned something about mangoes, too, including some recipe ideas which is a nice plus. And maybe if I write up enough of these sorts of things I'll get some Miami-food-blogger cred and I'll start getting some respect around here. Well, maybe not, but it was still fun. It seemed like half the other diners were taking pictures of their plates; I wonder where else this will get written up. [Note from a year later: nowhere.]

My visit to the Mango Festival

The 16th annual International Mango Festival was held this weekend at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. I went on Sunday so I could attend the 9th annual Mango Brunch which offered dishes from seven local chefs all featuring mangoes. I kind of regret not going to the taste test on Saturday, too, but I didn't realize until I got there the sheer number of different types of mangoes available. I only got to taste a few at the tasting tent and another one at the brunch. The chefs didn't specify what sorts they used in their dishes; I think that would be a good touch they could add--have the chefs come by to try different varieties and create a dish that brings out the best of one they pick. Probably too much extra trouble for everyone involved, though.

That's not to say what they had this year was bad. I was pleased with most of the dishes on offer and, as far as I could tell, a good time was had by all.

Beyond the brunch, the festival consisted of a small ring of food vendors with mango dishes. There were Caribbean, Ethiopian, French crepes along with ice cream, cupcake and smoothie vendors. I would have liked to have tried a meal at one; another reason to go on two days next year.

There were also a couple of sauce and marinade vendors. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing; after going through the tasting I always feel obliged to buy something even if I know I never end up using these things and I'm perfectly capable of making my own sauces. I'm marinating a pork chop in a tamarind molasses ginger sauce as I type. And somehow once I've bought one it's a much lower hurdle to buy a few more that I liked. You probably can't make out the labels in the picture, but those are a hot pepper sauce, a jerk sauce and a curry spice mix from Hey Mon Caribbean Cooking Magic and two hot mango sauces and a tamarind chili sauce from Chef Allen's. I can't recall why one's in a Ball canning jar and the other in a bottle. I'll go into any details when and if I ever actually use them. One of things I want to try this next CSA go-around is stir fries using non-Chinese spice profiles. These should work well for that sort of thing.

Another booth at the festival was from Schnebly Redland's Winery. They claim to be the southernmost winery in the U.S. and they make wine from carambolas, mangoes, lychees and the like completely grapelessly. For seven bucks I got to taste everything they brought (and keep the glass. I didn't have a champagne flute so that was nice). They had three sparkling wines, one sangria-esque wine and a couple dessert wines. The sparkling wines lacked real distinctiveness, I thought; they're not going to be great wines so they should at least try to bring out the unusual fruits they're made out of and go for unique. The dessert wines succeeded more at that, but they could have been fruit syrup with a shot of vodka. Of the lot, The lychee dessert wine the best as the flavors strayed into brandy territory; I liked it, but I certainly didn't thirty-five dollars worth of like it so I didn't buy any.

There was also a mango market with a large amount of four varieties (two of which were the usual supermarket mangoes) and a few of maybe a dozen more varieties. Alongside was a tasting tent with samples of three non-supermarket sorts. There was a banana mango, one I don't recall, and a champagne mango. The banana mango had an interestingly banana-esque elongated shape and color and maybe some banana in the flavor, but that could just have been suggestion. The one I don't recall apparently wasn't interesting enough to make a note of. The champagne mangoes were particularly small and had an intense not-too-sweet flavor and a smooth creamy texture. It had the flavor I'm looking for for mango ice cream, but the mango-smoothie-booth-lady happened to be stocking up nearby and she explained that mangoes with no fiber would completely fall apart during cooking so they wouldn't work. I took her advice and I shopped around when went over to the market. I settled on a Ford mango which I'm told has an interestingly complex flavor and should be firm enough to hold together during the candying process. We'll see once it's ripe.

Finally, there was a mango tree booth selling a couple of varieties specifically bred by the horticulturists at Fairchild to be suitable for Florida gardens: the Angie and the Jean Ellen. (Jean Ellen herself was at the brunch and was presented with a plaque and an armful of her namesake mangos. Most of the crowd there were Fairchild members so they knew who she was and why she deserved a fruit named after her and the outburst of applause was no doubt genuine and heartfelt. I was there as a foodie not a plantie so I just applauded politely.) I was tempted to buy a tree but a) I don't think my landlord would appreciate it and b) I don't know if I'll be living here in when it's ready to give fruit and c) one of my co-workers brought in a bunch of mangos last year and she may well do so again.

Well, that went on a bit long. I'll put the brunch stuff in a separate post.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

White chocolate banana cherry ice cream

Cherries are finally in season and Publix is carrying some surprisingly fine examples at a pretty good price these days. I was tempted to just eat the whole bag straight, but the blog has its demands so an ice cream application it's going to be. My first thought was make a straight cherry ice cream using a Philadelphia style base--that's ice cream that doesn't use an egg-based custard, just milk, cream, sugar and flavoring, something I've been meaning to try for a while. But I've thought of another, more interesting, context for a Philadelphia-style ice cream (which I may not get around to doing unless I find a better ice cream audience, but I live in hope) so I set that aside.

My second thought was to use the chunk of white chocolate I've had sitting in my pantry for some time. I've made a couple white chocolate ice creams before both of which had very smooth creamy and light textures, but both of those also had a custard base and I was curious if I could melt some white chocolate into an eggless cream mixture and get good results. White chocolate and cherry is not an exceptionally unusual flavor combination, but I came up with it independently on my own so I'm going to give myself some credit on this one.

My third thought was that I should try to lighten up my recipe so my co-workers might actually eat it. To that end I cut the amount of white chocolate I was going to use from eight ounces down to four and added half a banana instead. So that makes my base:
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
4 ounces white chocolate
1/2 banana (frozen and defrosted)
1/3 cup Splenda blend (or 2/3 cup sugar)
1 pinch salt

1. Chop chocolate finely.
2. Add chocolate, Splenda blend and salt to cream and milk in medium saucepan. Heat over medium low heat stirring frequently until everything is dissolved.
3. Place banana and cream mixture into blender. Blend until smooth.
4. Cool on counter for 1/2 hour then refrigerate to 40 degrees.

As for the cherries, I wanted some syrup but I didn't want to cook them. I pitted and roughly chopped 1 1/2 to 2 cups of cherries, sprinkled them with a Tablespoon or so of sugar, added a dash of vanilla, a squeeze of lemon juice and a couple Tablespoons water, stirred well and let sit in the refrigerator for a day. And then, once the ice cream base was in the churn I put it in the freezer for 15-20 minutes to get good and cold.

As for the churning I'm disappointed to say that my fancy Cuisinart churn has been no real improvement over the bargain Sears brand one it replaced. I've noticed that the bucket wobbles back and forth on top of the motor. I think it fits securely when it's warm, but it shrinks a little when frozen so it doesn't sit on the base correctly. You'd think it would be designed better than that. The wobbling means that the dasher can't stay firmly against the side of the bucket and scrape the frozen bits out into the mix for even freezing. In my old churn, there was a large enough hole in the top that I could get in there with a spatula and scrape down the sides while the bucket spun. Not with the Cuisinart. Instead I shut the machine down every five minutes, grab the dasher, manually scrape the sides, replace the lid and start it back up again. The weak motor in the Sears churn wouldn't be able to get going with a half frozen mix in place, but the Cuisinart doesn't have any trouble. On the other hand, the motor is strong enough that a fully frozen mix doesn't stall it out so I can't judge readiness by the pitch of the struggling motor's whine any more. No big deal either way, really, but for the extra expense I was hoping for better.

Anyway, I made slightly larger batch than usual so I had to shut the churn down before it overflowed while the ice cream was still a little softer than I would have liked. But it'll probably work out fine. I alternated scoops of ice cream with spoonfuls of cherries, Folded everything together a few times to distribute the syrup and stuck it in the freezer for ripening.

So how did it turn out? Pretty well. The texture is about the same as a light custard, say made with just two egg yolks: smooth and creamy, but a bit chewy and quick to melt. I'll call it a success. As for the flavor, it's interesting. In the sherbet I made last week the pineapple, coconut and banana flavors merged synergistically. That's not happening with the banana and white chocolate. The two flavors aren't really very far apart, but the flavor of a spoonful of this ice cream keeps switching back and forth as my attention shifts like the optical illusion that can be a vase or two faces. It's kind of weird, really. Both flavors are surprisingly strong given how little of either ingredient is in such a large batch of ice cream. The combined flavor is on the mellow side and the sharp berry tang of the cherries cuts through and clears it away until the next bite. So, the full effect if you're paying close attention is of at least three flavors (with hints of vanilla and citrus) shifting around with each bite. If you're not paying close attention then it's just really really good.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Pantry-clearing chili

Long long ago I bought a chunk of tasajo--Cuban-style dried beef--intending to use it for a dish of oil down. I had no luck finding the breadfruit I needed for the recipe and I'm sick of looking at it so I researched alternate uses. Other than just snacking on it, as it is beef jerky essentially, most applications are stews, either simple or with a long list of what I assume are vegetables that I've never heard of.

The seasoning on those stews are the standard minimalistic Cuban set, but I"ve been thinking about chili since my southwestern hominy stew got out of control and turned into something not quite close enough to chili to satisfy (although it's fine if you're not holding it to that standard). I've still got some black beans and chilies left from that, plus a sack full of CSA onions starting to go past their prime. Add a can of tomatoes, the right spices and maybe some corn meal to thicken and that's chili. It's not the traditional bowl of red, but by using dried beef it's closer to cowboy chili than most recipes come. I've never tried that before so I was curious how it would go.

The first step is an overnight soak for the tasajo, the beans and the peppers (in individual bowls). That yellow on the beef is colored beef fat, part of the preservation process. I scraped off a good bit so the water could get through.

The peppers seemed to be done soaking in the morning so I poured their liquid onto the beans and put them in the fridge for later. The other two soaked until I got home from work.

At this point the tasajo was nicely rehydrated and hard to distinguish from an oversalted, slightly overcooked piece of fresh beef. I scraped off some more of the fat and chopped it up into pieces and inch or two on the side. I figured they'd either hold together at that bite-sized size or fall apart into strands as they cooked. I also added a pound of fresh beef (the "for stew" scraps you get at the supermarket). To make sure it would have a different texture than either of the dried beef possibilities I ran it through the food processor. During an episode of Good Eats on ground beef Alton Brown recommended ten pulses for burgers and seven for chili. When he actually did a chili episode he just cut the beef into cubes, but I wanted to try this. The results are a bit uneven, but I figured the big pieces would fall apart once the connective tissue melted during cooking.

I also chopped up two and a half onions (one red, the rest yellow), a few cloves of garlic, and a couple fresh small hot chilies.

And now to cook. I preheated the over to 300 degrees and heated some oil (and some of that yellow beef fat. Why waste it?) in a dutch oven. First order of business was to brown the ground beef in a few batches. Then I tossed in the dried beef just to melt off the rest of the fat. Both those out, I added a bit more oil and tossed in chili powder, cumin, ground chilies and some Mexican oregano. Once they got fragrant I added the vegetables, turned down the heat, and gave them a bit of a sweat until they softened. Once they were ready I returned the beef, added a 14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes in juice and my rehydrated peppers and into the oven it went for two hours.

The black beans I decided to cook separately for a couple reasons. First, you want to salt a stew early, but if you salt beans they take forever to get soft. Second, you need to simmer beans to cook them, but you want to keep a stew under a boil to keep the meat tender. So I cooked the beans on the countertop in the bean and chili soaking liquid with a bay leaf and some bits of hot Mexican carrots, onion and jalapenos I pickled last month. They never got hot enough to be great on their own, but they make a good ingredient. The beans took about an hour to cook and I added them to the stew when it had 45 minutes left to go.

At the same time I added a few handfuls of corn meal to thicken the dish. I didn't have any masa so I ran some polenta through the food processor (before I did the beef) to try to get a finer grind. It didn't really work.

Forty-five minutes later and the dish was done. The tasajo didn't fall apart so it's in chewy chunks. It's pretty much the dried-out texture you get if you actually boil a stew for a couple hours. Not jerky-esque at all. It's still a bit saltier than fresh beef, but palatably so. Hardly worth the bother unless it's the only meat you can get your hands on after you've at sea for a month.

I really like the texture of the fresh beef, though. It didn't fall apart like fully ground beef would in a stew so there's something there to chew on, but it's tender enough that you don't have to really work at it. I think that's the takeaway from this experiment: seven pulses in the food processor. I'll have to see how it works in a beef bourguignon when the weather cools off a bit.

I used too much polenta so the chili clotted right up. I'm trying to think of it as cornbread pre-crumbled in for your convenience. I had to thin it out with some chicken stock which I'm hoping the polenta doesn't suck up too.

As for the the flavors, it's pretty much kid's chili. Kind of sweet, from the corn and peppers I think, and only a little heat in the aftertaste. A bit of lime, a shot or two of hot sauce and a few garnishes perks it up, though. Not bad, but nothing special. I've been too timid with the peppers lately; next time I'm going to take my chances and toss a bunch in.