Saturday, November 29, 2008

CSA week one - Chicken stock, modestly improved

After cooking yesterday's Cornish game hen I had accumulated enough poultry scraps to make a new batch of stock. The ingredients I've got on hand are pretty close to what I had last March when I first posted about making stock: about two pounds of scraps (including a fair bit of offal this time which should improve the flavor. I tossed the livers though which I hear make stock bitter.), a couple carrots, a spare turnip or two, an onion, stems from assorted greens. Looking back, I noticed that my spices were on the basic side. This time around there are more cooked scraps in there and since they were all cooked with Gullah spices so I may as well roll with that. I added another teaspoon of Gullah baking spice mix along with some thyme and a bay leaf. I also added a couple handfuls of onion peels which I understand will improve the stock's color.

The process remains the same: Everything into the pot along with enough water to cover, bring it to a boil and then a low simmer all day long. Thanksgiving weekend is a good a day as I'm going to get for such an endeavor; It's not like I'm going anywhere. I did use 14 cups of water instead of the 10 last time to make sure everything stays well submerged. If necessary I'll cook down the final stock.

Six and a half hours later, after I've strained out all of the chunky bits, I've got this. Turns out cooking down isn't an issue as I've once again done a crappy job of topping off the pot. I really should mark the water level on the side next time. I suspect some good flavor was left behind due to my negligence. The flavor is quite intense so I watered it down to 10 cups which gives me proper stock flavor levels. I like the slightly more complex, but still bird-forward flavor I got this time around. It's not so distinctively geographically localized that I can't use it in any cuisine in small quantities, but I'm not sure I'd want to make Chinese hot and sour soup with it.

I notice that there's very little fat considering. I had to keep skimming semi-solid films throughout the cooking time; most of the fat must have been caught up in that. Also, the color is a much richer bronze, even when thinned out, than previous stocks I've made. Even if the flavor isn't improved by the onion skins that's a marked improvement in the overall stock multi-sensory experience.

Again like last time, I'm making a cottage pie. I've been calling it a shepherd's pie, but I've learned recently that a shepherd's pie is a cottage pie made with mutton and this one isn't so it's not one. I want to bulk it up so I sauté just about everything suitable I've got around: some onion, mushrooms, squash, the rest of the turnips (minus one I planted as an experiment), and some southern-style sausage. I added to that corn and peas as well as quite a bit of chicken picked from the bones in pot and a quarter of a game hen leftover from last night. Some green beans wouldn't have been bad, but I really don't feel like doing all the prep they require. Plus I ought to keep a full half pound for whatever other recipe I find to use them in.

I followed the green bean casserole methodology from this point: adding a Tablespoon of flour, cooking a minute, adding 3/4 cup chicken stock, cooking a minute, adding 3/4 cup milk, cooking for six minutes, removing from the heat and adding the topping.

That topping is made of the turnips and carrots (along with a few stray bits of onion and greens) from the stockpot blended well with a bit of butter and some milk. Too much milk actually, so I added some havarti cheese to thicken it up.

Even with that, it's spread rather thin over the pie filling. Well, nothing to be done about that. I sprinkled a good handful of bread crumbs over top and into a 350 degree oven for as long as it takes. It was bubbling nicely after 20 minutes so I moved it up to the top rack and turned on the broiler for 5 more. That pan can't really take 500 degrees but I figure it won't be in there long enough for anything really awful to happen.

And here it is. Tasty, but not entirely successful texturally. The sauce seems to have clotted up and the topping is a little too light and far too scant. The fillings are cooked well, though so there's a nice variety of textures and flavors there and the carrot and turnip topping is much more interesting than using mashed potatoes. I think the problem with the sauce may have been because the sauce to stuff ratio was too low and the thin topping didn't keep the moisture from evaporating. I'll adjust things next time around and see how it goes.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

CSA week one - my Thanksgiving meal

I'm not visiting family this year so I thought I'd make a little thematically appropriate dinner for myself. Mainly, I wanted to try making a green bean casserole. As I mentioned in a previous post I've never had it before but I've known about it for decades and I've been curious what the big deal was. I used the Good Eats recipe; it says "Best Ever" right there in the name and the many reviewers agree so I was sold. Maybe I should have used canned ingredients to get the authentic experience, though.

I didn't make any major changes to the recipe beyond halving it, changing to an 8" cast iron to accommodate, and fixing the thoughtless oversight of not including any bacon.

Here's my slightly modified version:


For the topping:

  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Nonstick cooking spray

For beans and sauce:

  • 1 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 pound fresh green beans, rinsed, trimmed and halved
  • 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 6 ounces mushrooms, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 thick-cut slices of smoked bacon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half


Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.

Combine the onions, flour, panko and salt in a large mixing bowl and toss to combine. Coat a sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray and evenly spread the onions on the pan. Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake until golden brown, approximately 30 minutes. Toss the onions 2 to 3 times during cooking. Once done, remove from the oven and set aside until ready to use. Turn the oven down to 400 degrees F.

[This is not nearly as easy as Alton Brown makes it sound (and again the reviewers agree). My onions stuck badly, despite a well oiled pan, so tossing didn't work so well and I lost maybe a third of the onions to burning and much of the rest didn't get the contact with the pan they needed to crisp up. I should have used my non-stick cookie sheet instead of a glass baking dish.]

While the onions are cooking, prepare the beans. Bring a gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil in an 8-quart saucepan. Add the beans and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately plunge the beans into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in an 8-inch cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, bacon, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and nutmeg and continue to cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute. Add the broth and simmer for 1 minute. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the half-and-half. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, approximately 6 to 8 minutes.

[I should have crisped the bacon first, removed it from the pan, cooked the mushrooms and added the bacon back in with the green beans. As it was, the bacon, while adding good flavor, was kind of flabby. I forget to adjust for the thick cut of the bacon I've been buying recently.]

Remove from the heat and stir in 1/4 of the onions and all of the green beans. Top with the remaining onions. Place into the oven and bake until bubbly, approximately 15 minutes. Remove and serve immediately.

[And you'd better serve immediately because it's good for five minutes while it's bubbling hot and then it rapidly fades in quality. When it's just warm, the textures get kind of icky. Personally, I would have liked a shorter blanch on the green beans so they'd stay a little crisp, but maybe that's just because my onions weren't. I think both the flavors and textures were best out of the refrigerator the next day. Although neither were really any great shakes; it's beans, onions and mushrooms in a cream sauce. The smokiness of the bacon was a nice addition to that, I think ,but still this is probably a dish enjoyed more out of tradition than for it's own sake.]

Anyway, that's the side dish; I still need some poultry for a proper Thanksgiving. Cornish game hen is a popular choice for those dining solo on this day, but I think it looks rather sad on a little roasting dish in the toaster oven. In an aside at the end of a how-to-cook-your-Turkey TV special I saw Alton Brown cook one in a panini press (probably standing in for a George Forman Grill which is likely far more common in American homes). I haven't got one, but I thought I might be able to cook it the same way I cook grilled cheese sandwiches without one.

Step one is to spatchcock the bird. From what I read on-line that's the same as butterflying, but I suspect there's some subtle distinction in arrangement of the limbs afterwards that I'm missing. I've decided I prefer the word 'spatchcock' so that's what I'm saying from now on. That's simply cutting out the backbone, slicing the meat away from the keelbone, flipping the bird over and flattening it out. That's generally followed by seasoning and oiling both sides. In this case I used the Gullah baked chicken seasoning blend I bought when I passed through the Carolinas last year which gives a good straightforward southern cooking flavor to a bird.

Step two is to heat two cast iron pans over high heat for five minutes or so. I don't know why my camera couldn't capture the cherry red of the back burner you can see there. It would be nice to have burners that could get white hot, though.

Once the pans were piping hot I lightly oiled the large one, turned down the heat to medium high, laid out the hen skin-side up, put the small pan on top (with it's hot bottom against the hen), put my heavy cast iron pot lid on top and squished it down. It took a bit under 20 minutes to cook through and since the small pan cooled I flipped the bird a couple times.

The results are rather better than I expected from a novelty cooking method: crispy browned skin and flavorful not-too-dry (although not noticably juicy either. Maybe I should have brined it.) meat.

And that's my Thanksgiving meal. If I had thought of it, I would have gotten a can of cranberry sauce too. To be honest, I prefer the canned to the fresh. Instead I had a couple chunks of membrillo--the Spanish quince paste that's traditionally paired with manchego cheese. The combination didn't make sense to me at first but it's grown on me over time. I suppose cranberry sauce with turkey makes just as little obvious sense. Membrillo is chewier and not as tart as canned cranberry sauce, but it substituted fine. I considered roasting some turnips and then mashing them up, but I decided to save them for stock which I'll post about tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

CSA week one: Suon Nuong Xa

a.k.a. Grilled Lemongrass Pork Tenderloin Skewers

When I posted about the CSA box this week I wrote that lemongrass meant Thai cooking but when I actually looked around for recipes I found Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian recipes using it too. Since it's going to take four recipes to use up all the lemongrass I'm going to make a point of cooking recipes from four different cuisines.

First up is Vietnamese. This recipe is from Corinne Trang's cookbook Authentic Vietnamese Cooking via Sara Moulton's show Sara's Secrets. It's for a dish you'll recognize--those skewers of pork served over a big bowl of rice noodles in every Vietnamese restaurant on the planet (excepting banh mi stands, of course. Can you get banh mi anywhere in Miami? I think I'd actually drive some distance through Miami traffic to get some).

I didn't make any big changes to the recipe so here it is straight from the Food Network website:

Prep Time: 30 min
Inactive Prep Time: 1 min
Cook Time: 20 min

Level: Intermediate

Serves: 4 servings

1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 stalks lemongrass, outer leaves and tops removed, root ends trimmed, and stalks finely grated
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound pork tenderloin, thinly sliced
16 bamboo skewers, soaked for 20 minutes and drained
1 recipe Rice Vermicelli: Bun Thit
1/2 cup chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
Nuoc cham, as needed, recipe follows

Stir together the fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and oil until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the lemongrass, shallot, garlic and pork and mix to coat the meat evenly. Allow to marinate at room temperature for 20 minutes or refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to overnight.

Slide 2 to 4 slices of pork onto each skewer so the meat is flat with the skewer going through the slices several times. Grill over a barbecue (make sure that the flames have subsided and the coals are red with white ashes). Alternatively, heat a well-oiled grill pan or non-stick skillet over high heat and, working in batches, cook the skewers until the edges crisp, about 1 minute per side. Remove the skewers from the grilled pork.

Divide the grilled pork among the bowls of rice vermicelli. Sprinkle peanuts and drizzle nuoc cham over each serving. Serve immediately.

Fish Dipping Sauce: Nuoc Cham

5 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup lime or lemon juice
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 or more bird's eye or Thai chiles, seeded and minced
1 shallot, peeled, thinly sliced, and rinsed (optional)

Whisk together the sugar, water, fish sauce, and lime juice in a bowl until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the garlic, chile, and shallot, and let stand for 30 minutes before serving.

Yield: 2 cups Preparation Time: 5 minutes Cooking Time: 5 minutes Non-Active Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Recipe courtesy Corinne Trang, Authentic Vietnamese Cooking, Simon & Schuster, 1999

Personally, I don't particularly like rice vermicelli (There's not a whole lot there to dislike there either, but I don't think it adds anything much to a meal.) so I served the skewers over a bowl of mizuna and a big scoop of white rice instead. The picture's harder to parse than I expected. Those are wedges of tomato on the left hand side and the fiddly bits on the pork over on the right are sprinklings of ground peanuts.

I also added dollops of hoisin sauce and sambal chili garlic sauce to complete the trio of sauces you need for a proper Vietnamese meal. Actually, I thought the hoisin and sambal were better accompaniments than the nuoc cham. I'm as big a nuoc cham fan as much as the next guy, but it was the weakest complement to the dish.

The marinade used most of the same ingredients so the nuoc cham just watered down the intense flavors of the pork which actually was best--hot, tender and juicy, bursting with complex pungent and herbal flavors--right out of the pan. The couple minutes it took for me to fix up the bowl all pretty were much to its detriment. On the other hand, the sambal and hoisin worked with it nicely and lots of other things will benefit from being dipped in the leftover nuoc cham.

Oh, and I should say something about grating the lemongrass. I only had to remove one outer leaf and a little wedge of woody stem out of the bottom before running it through my microplane grater. It was surprisingly easy and released lots of flavor that you could taste even through the fish sauce and pork fat in the final dish. Beats crushing it with a cleaver and fishing it out later by a long shot. That's the benefit of having fresh local ingredients.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Makeshift muffuletta

After last post's sandwich-related musings the idea of making a muffuletta stuck in my head. I still wasn't going to go out and buy tiny amounts of a dozen ingredients to make a proper one, but maybe I could throw something together with what I had in the fridge.

I've got the suitable bread, of course. I'm a bit light on lunch meats, but some serano ham and salami will suffice. The important bit is the salad. I've got a leftover pickled pepper (stuffed with and ham), some mixed olives, roasted red peppers, capers and half an onion. All that chopped up ought to make a fair approximation. I don't have time to let the flavors meld (as my bread is rapidly going stale) so I used the salty brine from the pepper and olives instead of fresh olive oil in the dressing.

I spooned the dressing over the bread, piled everything up and wrapped it up tight until lunch.

That helped the questionable structural integrity quite a bit and the well-soaked bread softened up a little and took up a lot of flavor. The flavor of the salad's just about right, but the bread's inherent whole grain flavor doesn't really match and I could have used another quarter inch of cold cuts. Still, pretty darn good overall.

OK, maybe this post was more about me wanting to tell somebody about this than your edification. I just think it's neat when I can throw together something fairly complex and fairly palatable out of whatever happens to be on hand.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pain a l'ancienne

That's French country bread to you and me.

I've complained in earlier posts about the texture of the bread I've been baking. It's generally been a chewy and tender, but it's not the airy texture I'm looking for. So I did some research to learn how to achieve the large irregular holes I'm after and found a few different things I can do to get an open crumb.

First is to increase the amount of water; those lovely bakery loaves in the stores generally have a hydration in the 70-something percent rage. First-and-a-half is to use a recipe that measures by weight instead of volume so I can accurate gauge my hydration levels.

Second, use a starter instead of commercial yeast. I decided to hold off on this one. I've used starters before--both home-brewed and quality mail-order versions--and they can be unpredictable. I'd rather limit my variables for now. I'll probably try to capture some local microflora eventually, but as Miami isn't known for its quality sourdough I don't have high expectations.

Third, stretch and fold the dough instead of kneading during the rise. This redistributes the yeast without getting the gluten strands all tangled up.

Fourth, add some gluten flour to increase the dough's strength so it can hold itself up better. I was planning to do that anyway.

I looked around a bit and I found this recipe interesting. If I'm going to increase my hydration I may as well push it to the limits at 80% to see what happens. I'm not sure I buy the explanation of why to keep it in the refrigerator overnight but I'm willing to play along for now.

I did modify the recipe from straight white flour. Instead I used a half cup of rye flour, a quarter cup of whole wheat, a Tablespoon of gluten flour and enough bread flour to bring the total up to 500 grams. That went into the mixer with 400 grams of ice water, 2 teaspoons of yeast and 1 Tablespoon of kosher salt. So, pretty much my usual recipe.

Once it was fully mixed I switched in the dough hook and let it go. At first the very wet dough was just shoved around a bit, but once the gluten started forming it got a bit of body for proper kneading. Pretty wet and sticky though. After ten minutes of kneading it had climbed right up the hook and it took a bit of doing to get it off and into the bucket for its rest in the refrigerator. And despite the oiling, it looked like it was grabbing onto the bucket pretty well too. Getting it out for it's fold without mangling it will be a challenge.

First thing the next morning I took it out of the refrigerator and put it in a warm spot (on top of the DVR is the warmest spot in the house. I've got no idea why that thing pumps out so much heat even when it's turned off.) to start it's rise.

A few hours later it had doubled and it was time to decant onto a very well floured plastic cutting board. It wasn't stuck quite as badly as I feared so I managed to get it out without losing more than a half cup of dough. I set aside that, plus a bit more cut off of the main mass, to add to my next batch for some extra flavor. Its reluctance to come out of the bucket stretched the dough plenty so I figured I didn't have to do any more once it was down on the work surface. I'm glad of that as I don't think it would have responded well to the attempt.

Once it was on the board I floured the top too and then used my dough scraper to flip it up and over on itself a couple times.

I was quite concerned about getting it into my dutch oven for baking so I decided to let it do its second rise in a well-oiled non-stick paella pan which I was pretty sure I could get it out of again without deflating it. To get it into the pan in the first place I had to flip over the cutting board over top and scrape the dough off and down.

I let it sit for an hour and a half and I wonder if I should have let it rise longer. I think the limit on the rise of my loaves is the drop into my deep dutch oven which bursts the more delicate bubbles, and the longer the rise the more delicate the bubbles. I'll have to brainstorm some gentler way to make that transfer.

Once the dough was in the 500 degree preheated dutch oven it immediately spread out to cover the bottom. I didn't realize until that point that I was making ciabatta. Well, not really ciabatta as there's no olive oil in it, but it was clear it was going to be flat. I probably should have tried to score the top but I don't think it would have held.

So, 30 minutes with the lid on and 20 with the lid off (at 425 degrees) and here's the result. There's a bit of rise there in the middle and it tore at the side a bit to compensate for the missing scoring. But the outside isn't the important bit, it's the crumb I'm interested in.

Not too bad! And it got better towards the center too. Definitely lighter than anything I've made before. The texture is more spongy than airy, but it's a long step in the right direction and likely as good as I'm going to get with a home oven. The crust is thin and crispy (chewy the next day). The flavor is the usual rustic sort I usually get with that much rye and whole wheat but there's a hint of sourness there so stay in the refrigerator did make some difference--very nice. I probably bring some into work so somebody other than I can appreciate it. This is fabulous sandwich bread if you don't mind cutting out a big chunk for the job. The big holes, sliced in half make perfect little bowls for dressings to puddle in. Muffeletta would be ideal but also a giant pain in the rear. I'll have to think about this.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

CSA year 2, week 1

Just as CSAs most everywhere else in North America are winding down, Miami's are starting up again. This is my second year subscribing and I'm looking forward to the challenge of finding interesting and tasty ways to use the weekly vegetable onslaught.

According to the e-mail Bee Heaven farm sent out a few days ago, they and the five other South Florida farms participating (six contributed to this first week's share. There may be more; I haven't checked.), are distributing 450 shares. If the other drop-off spots have roughly equal full- and half-shares like mine did, that's more like 675 subscribers.

Most likely that includes a great many first-timers as, judging from all of the complaining I've seen on-line, every year includes a lot of last-timers too. There are a lot of vegetables to use each week and it is difficult to find an appealing way to use zucchini the fifth week in a row, but, maybe I'm weird, but I find that part of the appeal. I'm forced out of my culinary ruts and into exploring new techniques and cuisines. But then cooking's my primary hobby; I could see someone who just wants some decent vegetables with dinner feeling differently.

I hope my blog is of some use to those folks. I blogged my way through last year's subscription and plan to do so again. I've built up a catalog of recipes to try with these fruits and vegetables you've never seen before and plenty of examples of failure to warn you what to avoid. I'd quite like to get more feedback on what you're doing with your shares this year--maybe even some guest posts if you've got something particularly interesting to share and don't feel like starting up your own blog to do it. I'd be particularly interested in hearing from people who grill or bake desserts. I don't do either and I think I'm probably missing out on. This CSA seemed short on the community part last year and it would be nice if we could do some more this time around.

Well, that's enough preamble. Let's see what I got in my half-share and my first thoughts on what I might do with them.

Starting from the lower left in my tableau of greenery, there's mizuna. I had some trouble with mizuna last year and I can definitely tell you that stir frying in not the way to go as they wilt right away and you end up with a bowl full of stems. I think mizuna is in the borderland between greens and herbs where parsley and scallions live so I'm going to try using it the same way as a substantial aromatic in salad or stuffed in a fish or a last minute addition to a stew or the like.

Behind that is a head of lettuce of some sort--honestly, I can't tell the difference. This year I'm making an effort to wash and prepare my lettuce right away. My interest in eating it so low that I need to make my barriers at mealtime as low as possible. I've also been gathering recipes for cooking slightly wilted lettuce and I want to keep exploring varieties of lettuce soup which is much better than it sounds. The best method for preparing lettuce is to fill your largest bowl with cold water, tear the lettuce into serving-sized pieces and drop them in. Stir and toss for a little while and then wait was the turbulence calms and the sand settles to the bottom. Carefully remove the lettuce, let it drain a bit and then spin it dry. Store in plastic bags with all of the air pressed or sucked out, ideally layered in paper towels and at least with a sheet or two tossed in.

Next is the lemongrass. Rather too much of it, really, as most recipes call for only one stalk. It does store pretty well just tossed in the back of the refrigerator, though, so I don't have to cook Thai all week. Cooking Thai is no hardship, though, as it's generally not too hard and gives very tasty results.

The dill and the Kirby cucumbers are an obvious pairing and I'm not going to fight it. There are few other ways to use substantial amounts of dill, anyway. It's nice to see the Kirbys as we didn't get any cukes suitable for pickling last year (at least none clearly labeled as such) and my experiments in that direction did not end well. My preferred recipe is Emeril's garlic dills--probably the only Emeril recipe I like.

The Monroe avocado is too watery for most California cuisine applications that assume you're using more intensely-flavored Hasses. I want to find more Caribbean ways to use them this time around, but for this first one I'll probably just make guacamole.

The turnips and greens I separated right away--the greens going into the fridge, the turnips into the pantry. If I didn't, one would wilt to keep the other fresh, which one doing which depending on how I stored them. The turnip tops are lovely in a simple pasta sauce that I haven't made in a while or just sautéed as a side dish or base for presenting a chunk of some protein. The turnips themselves are best roasted. Or it's about time for me to make another batch of chicken stock; I might use them in that.

The baby (actually more like adolescent from the looks of it) bok choy is good either stir fried or steamed. I've got a good bit of leftover rice accumulated so it'll probably go into a fried rice.

Finally, the green beans. Plenty of choices there. I've been curious about those Midwestern-style casseroles that use them. I've never had one of those so maybe I'll try it; it is seasonally appropriate after all.

We get to ease into things this year with two weeks to use this first share. Things will be getting a bit more intense later on, particularly as we don't get any optional weeks off this go around. But for now I'm ready to get started. Keep tuned to see what I actually end up cooking. I'll only give individual posts for new and interesting recipes and maybe I'll do an end of week wrap-up. I'm not sure about that yet. And again, please let me know any ideas you've got; I could use the help, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Red simmered pork - first iteration

About a month ago I failed quite spectacularly at slow cooking some pork in my crockpot. While the meat had shriveled up into hard little lumps and the vegetables melted to mush, the sauce had some promise. I said at the time "I'm thinking of straining out all of the overcooked solids, diluting it down and keeping it around as a marinade." And so I did.

Marination was my original plan today, but I remembered that the sauce wasn't far off from the red simmering sauce I've been wanting to try from the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller. This more than just a simple stew; red simmering sauces can be used repeatedly. Miller writes: "Tradition tells us of such sauces, known as "Master Sauces" in China, which were kept going for two or three hundred years and, like a legacy, passed from one generation to the next." Tell me that isn't pretty cool.

The sauce started out with soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger and star anise watered down by half. I added some fresh garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes and rice wine to freshen it up. Then in went cubes of pork, around half a pound I think, and a sliced onion. I brought it to a boil and then down to a bare simmer with the lid on the pot.

After a half hour I added a chopped carrot, and after another half hour soaked and slivered cloud ear mushrooms and lilly buds. Another fifteen minutes later and I added bamboo shoots and cubes of tofu along with a dash of salt and a dash of sugar for the last fifteen minutes of simmering. I used a rather higher vegetable to meat ratio than is traditional, but that's how much leftover pork I had in the freezer and I did want a more balanced dish.

The cookbook promises that over time the sauce will develop into a rich gravy, but for now it's light and aromatic with ginger and star anise. The flavors are infused throughout, but the individual ingredients weren't stewed so long they lost their identities to the melange.

The pork is not falling apart, but it is very nicely tender. I was worried about that as you can't really tell how high a boil you've got in a covered pot. I must have successfully kept it low enough to do the trick. Possibly, it could be the cut of meat I used. I should label my freezer bags better. The vegetables were cooked well for the most part. I wouldn't have minded firmer carrots, though.

I didn't have much spare sauce to save as the sauce to stuff ratio I used was quite a bit under the recommendations in the cookbook, but I managed to put away a half cup to enrich the sauce next time I make it. I'll let you know how it develops. This is precisely the sort of thing you start a blog for; you want to tell somebody but who would possibly care? Now I just put it up here and never bore my friends and family with such matters again.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Coconut cream sherbet

This is a recipe that evolved as it went along rather than being planned from the start so I'll try to take you through the process.

Honestly, I'm surprised it took me as long as it did to come up with "ice cream" as the answer to the question "what am I going to do with the substandard coconut milk and hard to utilize coconut water in my refrigerator?". When it did, my first thought was to go with a simple sorbet: just add the water to the milk, mix in some sugar and dump it in the churn. But the coconut milk was really too mild, even punched up by the coconut water, and, after the punching up, a bit thin.

So I tossed idea of that pure raw drinking-coconut flavor and decided to cook the mixture down. I started with 2 1/4 cups of coconut milk, 1 1/2 cups coconut water and added 3/4 cup sugar. I have this idea in my head that if you boil coconut milk long enough it will caramelize and turn brown the way toasted coconut does. I know that seems improbable, but I remember doing it once even if I can't find the recipe or any mention of such a thing on-line and I remember plenty of recipes I've made where it didn't happen. Anyway, after 20 minutes of it not happening this time too, I figured that was enough and gave up. By that time I had cooked the mixture down to 3 cups even and it was a little thickened up. I added a couple Tablespoons of rum, a squeeze of lime and the zest from that lime wedge and gave it a taste. It was a nice cooked coconut flavor intense enough that I figured I could add a bit of dairy to help the texture without compromising the flavor unduly. So in went a half cup of half-and-half. Now it was tasting rather like coconut cream pie which got me thinking about mix-ins.

Bits of pie crust would, of course, be ideal, but I've been avoiding making pie crust for years and I'm not going to stop now. And supermarket pre-made crusts aren't likely to suit. On the other hand streusel topping's not a bad idea and I keep a little baggie of it pre-made in my pantry for desert emergencies. (Slice up a piece of fruit into an ovenproof bowl, add a bit of jam or juice, toss with a teaspoon of corn starch, cut the streusel mix with butter, sprinkle on top and bake at 350 until golden brown on top and bubbly underneath.) It's been there a while so I don't recall exactly what I put in it. Just flour, sugar, rolled oats and cinammon I think. No idea of ratios.

While the sherbet mix was in the churn, I baked maybe a half cup of streusel (cut with butter, of course) in my toaster oven. I know it looks burnt, but it's not. That burning smell is because I don't clean my crumb tray often enough. OK, maybe it's a little burnt but it's still in the I-can-pretend-I-did-that-on-purpose stage where the burnt flavor is interesting not nasty. I put it in the freezer to cool off while the churning finished and then stirred it in.

And here's the pretty-cool-looking final result:
Disappointingly, the bold coconut flavor of the warm mix and even right out of the churn has faded in the final ripened sherbet. It hasn't faded away entirely, but it's become subtle which moves the streusel a bit more to the forefront that I really wanted. It's not at all bad mind you, but doesn't wow the way I was hoping. The streusel is toasty, spicy and buttery as it should be, but without strong fruit to play against it comes on a bit strong. The texture is a bit crumbly, as sherbets tend to be, but it melts smoothly on the tongue and the streusel bits are still crisp and chewy the way they should be. Given how well it held up, I'm surprised streusel isn't a common ice cream mix in. It's certainly going to be complementing plenty of my fruit-based ice creams in the future.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cracking the coconut

Last week I got myself a coconut and today I decided to get that thing open. I had to wait until I had a day off because I think this is something best done outside and I don't get home from work until after it's started getting dark these days.

I did a bit of research on coconut opening techniques and found that an expert coconuteer can hold it one hand, a machete in the other and have it open in moments. That was out as I wanted my fingers nowhere near the blade during this process. Another method I've seen is embedding a tall metal or bamboo spike in the ground and repeatedly impaling the coconut and ripping off chunks of husk. If there was a wrought iron fence with pointy bits on top nearby I might give that a try. But since I don't, plan C is to just lay the coconut on an open piece of ground and whack at it with the biggest knife I've got. That knife would be my Chinese cleaver. Not quite a machete, but not bad.

This process has several stages because a coconut has several layers. The labels on the cross-sectional diagram I found are rather botanical but you can see, from outside to in: the outer shell, the fibrous husk, the inner woody hull of the nut (actually a drupe), the meat and the water.

The first step is to cut through the hard shell and then pull the blade sideways to tear out chunks of husk. The shell wasn't as tough as I expected, possibly because this particular coconut is pretty ripe (I'm guessing at that because it's yellow with black spots instead of green like some of the others I saw.), and the husk comes loose with just a bit of effort. But man is there a lot of husk to deal with. I keep on chopping and tearing and chopping and tearing and there's no sign of the brown I expect to see under all of that.

Eventually, maybe 10 minutes later, one cleaver blow goes "chonk" instead of "chumpf" and it seems I've finally hit the hull. But I still don't see anything brown or any sign of separation between the layers that might make things go more easily.

I decide to clear away some more husk to see what there is to see, but I start getting splashed a little and I see I've broken the hull open so it's time to drain out the coconut water. I'm a little disappointed as I had hoped to have a clean solid Gilligan's-Island-looking coconut to work with. For one thing, you get to pound nails into the eyes, pull them out and then pour out the coconut water like a juicebox. Once you've done that, there's a neat trick where you tap the coconut around its circumference with the back of your knife until it cracks open into two pieces. But I'm not going to get to do either. Instead I pour out the coconut water into a bowl, filter out the bit of dirt and husk that got in, and put it away. I read that there's supposed to be less water in a ripe coconut, but I got a fair bit: well over a cup. OK, I've done some more research and while there's a lot of contradictory information out there, I think I've got a half-ripe "water coconut" or "drinking coconut". That explains why I've got so much water. Fully ripe coconuts are relatively dried out, shrunken and hard. I probably wouldn't have been able to get into it using my makeshift methodology so I chose correctly out of the pile at least.

From what I've been reading, there's not much to be done with coconut water except to just drink it (generally with rum). And it is pleasant enough straight, although not nearly as sweet as I was led to expect. I spooned a few teaspoons over the scallops I'm marinating for ceviche; that ought to work.

Since I've got an edge to work with, the husk is easier to peel off, so I clean out some space, break off a chunk, and do it again until I can reach in to scrape out the meat. I've read that this is a tough job that requires special tools and results in flakes, but I'm scraping it out with a teaspoon like an avocado. The texture is more rubbery though--like overcooked lobster. This morning, when I was doing the scraping, I didn't know what to make of this so I figured it was best to play it safe, avoid the recipes calling for flakes of fresh coconut, and just make some coconut milk.

Instructions for coconut milk say to put the coconut meat into a blender with some wildly varying amount of boiling water, blend, let cool, and then squeeze the liquid out through cheesecloth. They also say not to bother as canned coconut milk comes from Thai coconuts which are far superior for the purpose. But I've come this far so I guess I may as well give it a try and see what I get.

I've got over six ounces of coconut flesh as opposed to the two and a half the recipes describe and, from the texture, it's clear it contains a good bit of water it's not supposed to so I blend it with just a couple cups of boiling water. After I cool it, I try to squeeze the liquid through a couple layers of paper towels, since I haven't been able to find cheesecloth anywhere, but the perforations stymie me. Upon closer inspection it doesn't really seem to need filtering as the meat blended in quite nicely. It's also not especially rich, sweet or flavorful as coconut milk goes. I'm not sure I should bother using it all considering I've got cans of far superior product in my pantry. Maybe if I add some sugar and cook it down a bit it may become more appealing. I may not have ended up with a useful ingredient, but I have learned a good bit about coconuts and had an interesting experience so it's not been an entirely wasted effort.