Monday, March 24, 2008

Blogger, Blogger Goodbye slowly goes the night.....

It's time to pull the plug on this blog.

Fear not, gentle reader. The writing will continue, in a new form. As promised, The Urban Eater and I have launched a new site, combining our talents at The new site will feature our articles from the Tribune, as well as random droppings too bawdy for major press release. See ya there.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Growing a pair

This part has nothing to do with the title. I’ve been neglecting this blog of late, and for that, I apologize. To add on to the busiest month that I’ve had since opening my company, I’ve taken on a new roll – I am a columnist. The Urban Eater and I have been asked to contribute to the Flavor section of the Tampa Tribune. With that being said, I’ll be moving to new digs soon, with the combined efforts of The Urban Eater and myself. Details will follow.

Now for that title; I’m a weenie. Done. I said it. I am completely uncomfortable in the world of Asian food. Sure, I’ll throw a few Asian ingredients into the mix of my normal cooking; but real Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, or any other dishes from that part of the world all elude me.

I owe a debt to a dinner with internet (food) porn princess, Jaden Hair. I cooked, but she bestowed upon me gifts of live lemongrass and Kafir lime leaves. Lovely gifts, they forced me to sack up and do something with them. It would be rude not to.

I made a resolution to attempt my favorite Vietnamese dish – which I’m embarrassed that I cannot give the real name of – which is thinly sliced grilled pork with ginger, lemongrass and chiles over rice vermicelli. This may seem like child’s play to some of you, but prior to now, it would have left me fetally rocking and quivering in the corner. “It’s hard, it’s scary, it doesn’t follow classical technique, and I’m going to make bad food. Don’t make me do it ::sob sob::”.

I’m going slowly into this, with no small amount of trepidation. Grab some country style pork ribs, put them in the freezer for about 30 minutes. This will make it easier to slice. Slice the pork very thinly. Dice 1 or 2 stalks of lemongrass, grate a nub of ginger about the size of the first joint of your thumb, and mince 4-5 cloves of garlic and put these in a bowl. Put these into a bowl and add about 2 tablespoons of ponzu. Research said that I should use soy, but as I was reaching for it, I found the ponzu and gave it a quick taste. The sweet/saltiness of the ponzu suited me, so I substituted for the soy. Toss the pork into this mixture, mix it well and put it in the fridge for an hour.

Light a grill and let the coals do their thing. Boil some rice noodles, chop some lettuce, grab some bean sprouts, and pick some cilantro leaves from the stem. Set these off to the side until needed. Then mix equal parts fish sauce, rice vinegar, and water and add a bit of garlic and chile sauce to this and put it aside, as well.

Put your pork slices on some wooden skewers and head for the grill. About two minutes per side over the hottest part of the coals should yield crisp, perfectly cooked nuggets of porcine beauty.

To finish this all, put the rice noodles in a bowl, top it with the lettuce, bean sprouts, and cilantro leaves. Take the pork off of the skewers and put these on top of the lettuce. Finally, dump the fish sauce mixture over the top of all of this.

As it stands, I was fairly impressed with my first journey into real Vietnamese food. Perhaps a little tart from too much vinegar, but all in all, it satisfied.

It didn’t hurt, and I’ve finally grown a pair of Asian ones.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Breaking the dam

I’ve been going through a culinary dry spell of late. My muse has just not been singing for the last two weeks. I’ve been rather content to rest on my laurels, professionally, (which, when I catch myself doing such a thing, infuriates me to no end) until I was faced with a challenge. One of my clients wanted mussels.

“Yeah, so? Cook them some mussels and get over yourself.”

I’m a lover of all things shellfish and make a mean cozze in bianco or a red curry broth for the mussels, but I needed to do something different, something that I’ve never done before-something to end the culinary constipation. I started thinking about flavors – the musky, gaminess of the mussels. What would go well with that? Well, ginger, garlic, maybe some lemongrass; but something was missing - the earthy funk of dried mushrooms.

OK, so I’ve got a broth, but it’s a little boring. What would liven the flavor up? Some heat, some tart, some sweet might be nice. But what if I put that into the broth? Would those flavors get muted and lost? I started thinking about oysters. Not the oysters that you get on the beach for $6.50 a dozen, with a side of cocktail sauce and some Saltines; the oysters that you pay $15 a dozen for in the fancy restaurants. What about the ubiquitous mignonette (for lack of a better description, an oil-less vinaigrette) that comes with them? What if I had the earthy broth, with a hot, sweet, tart dip for the mussels? All right, now I’m on to something.

Making the broth is pretty simple, there’s no need for a real recipe. I took 1 bottle of clam juice, a piece of ginger root about as big as my thumb and sliced it, 2 cloves of garlic- sliced, and 2 stalks of lemongrass – which I beat the crap out of with the back side of my knife and cut into 3 inch pieces. I put these together in a skillet, along with a fist full of dried mushrooms (I used matsutake mushrooms that I found at Oceanic Market). I brought this up to a simmer and then lowered the heat and let this steep for 20 minutes; just like making tea.

While the broth was steeping, I made the mignonette. For that I used:

Zest and juice of one tangerine
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 red jalapeno chili - stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 tablespoon minced shallot
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Mix these together in a bowl – you’re done.

After 20 minutes, I strained the broth. I didn’t have to, and you don’t either. I didn’t want the chunks of lemongrass and ginger in the finished broth, so I strained it. Put the broth back in the pan and bring it to a boil. Add 1 pound of mussels and slap a lid on it. Wait about 3 minutes and lift the lid. If the mussels are open, it’s done. If not, put the lid back on, wait one minute, and check again. When the mussels are done, eat them right out of the shell, with the broth, and dip them in the mignonette.

Now for the gotcha; I didn’t teach you how to make mussels. I taught you how to create a recipe. Start with a main item – mussels. Next, a technique – steaming. Finally, think about the flavors that the main item has, and flavors that will play them up and accent them in a way that you find pleasing. In my case, it took two different mediums to convey the flavor that I wanted. Most often, you can do this in one, but don’t limit yourself.

**Oh yeah, I finally posted something that can be cooked in 30 minutes.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A big steaming bowl of hate.....

I hate restaurant breakfasts. There, I said it. With few exceptions, including Kerby Lane in Austin and Mother’s in New Orleans, breakfast food in restaurants just plain sucks. It doesn’t have to, but it does. Mind you that my first leap from dishwasher to line cook happened when the entire line walked out one Friday night and I was the last person left working – flipping pancakes in a Perkins.

What brought on this tirade? Well, my wife and I spent this weekend in Daytona Beach, a stinky armpit of a seaside hellhole. (They’re my metaphors; I’ll mix them as I choose.) My hopes were far from high in regards to finding anything even halfway decent to eat in that run down tourist trap. But then, there’s this diner, an authentic 50’s came-on-a-rail-car aluminum diner. I perked up and turned away from the door of IHOP and thought, “surely a real diner has real food, it’ll probably be pretty good”. This particular diner has local ties that I won’t reveal and I’d never tried the food at the local version, so I was without proper forewarning as to the quality.

I judge breakfast by the quality of their biscuits and gravy. Yeah, a big steaming plate of clogged arteries. Locally, I’ve found exactly one place that serves a decent plate of them – Martha’s. This is such a simple freakin’ dish, it’s almost impossible to screw it up, but most do. Biscuits and gravy usually suck and I usually leave the joint in a bad mood. This place went beyond that, I didn’t finish a single thing that I ordered because it was just bad. This included the coffee.

Country gravy has the potential to be creamy, pork filled nectar. It’s usually a starchy, barely flowing blob with no flavor, save uncooked flour. With something so simple, why do people feel the need to cut even more corners? Christ, it takes 30 minutes to make, start to finish and it will be good. Guess that’s just not fast enough. Wanna make some?

Grab a tube of sausage, any sausage, like Jimmy Dean. Brown the sausage really well in a medium sized saucepan. Render the fat out of the sausage, the fat is flavor, you need it. Grab a whisk and add about ¼ cup of flour. Stir the flour into the fat and sausage until it’s smooth and about the consistency of wet sand. Let this cook for about 2-3 minutes, stirring pretty frequently to avoid burning. This is called a roux – which is French for fat and flour napalm.

Now add about 1 quart of whole milk. Stir this whole mess to make it smooth. Bring the milk up to a simmer and you’ll see the whole thing start to change. It’s going to start getting thick. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk, but this should be pretty thick. Let this cook for about 20 minutes, until the gravy loses its floury taste. Add some salt to taste, and an assload of black pepper- preferably fresh ground. Pour it over some biscuits, potatoes, eggs, a burrito, fill a coffee cup with it and drink it, whatever. That’s all there is to it. If you can make this non-suck gravy at home, why can’t some knucklehead in a diner do the same?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'm big on the pig

“Dear benevolent, caring, handsome Mr. Meat,

I love a good rack of BBQ Ribs however, I am a miserable failure and throw myself at your mercy. I always seem to either A) burn them or B) not cook them through and then have to finish them in the oven. I like to use a Brown Sugar Rub and a Molasses sauce for basting.

Most Respectfully,
The Urban Eater”

huh, she said rack...(OK enough of the infantile crap)

Ribs… too much pork for just one fork. I love me some.

Brown sugar and molasses – both forms of sugar. Sugar can be sweet, caramel nectar, but most often in grilling, it transforms into wasted carbon – a wholly indigestible and rather unpleasant tasting element.

aww shite, another freakin’ science lesson

Sugar burns at the rather low temperature of right around 350 degrees. So the answer to the burning problem is to keep both the ambient (air inside the grill) and direct (from the fire or the grates) temperature below 350 degrees; preferably about 100 degrees below. This means banking a slow fire in your grill. You don’t want happy, glowing orange coals 3 inches from the meat. If the temperature never comes close to 350, it really can’t burn, can it? You can cook the ribs so long that there’s no moisture left and you have pork jerky, but it’s physically impossible to turn the sugars to carbon.

Now for the undercooking issue; to achieve that tender, fall off the bone quality that good ribs have, you need to bring the internal temperature of the rib meat to 180-190 degrees (well done pork is about 170 degrees). If you keep the temperature of the grill at about 250 degrees to avoid the burning of the sugar, this means that it takes no short amount of time to bring the internal temperature of the meat to 180-190. Simply put, it just ain’t gonna happen in 45 minutes. More like 2-3 hours. Patience, something that I’m rather low on, is your best friend in cooking ribs. Oh yeah, so is planning.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Insert some pun using the word "eggs" here

From a devoted reader:

“Dear benevolent, caring, handsome Mr. (Bad) Meat,

I've never been able to master the omelet, nor even make one successfully. I am ashamed. I am a miserable failure and throw myself at your mercy. Please help me.

Most Respectfully,

Yes, it’s entirely puerile that I giggle at being called Mr. Meat, but it’s the simple things that keep me from looking my age.

Omelets are deceptively difficult to make. It seems easy; eggs, fillings, fold it, done. But physics, chemistry, and human error all come into play. It seems that I just cannot give a simple answer to much of anything, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at making a simple, cheese omelet, ‘kay?

You need a pan, preferably a non-stick pan. You need a heat source, preferably a stove. You need some eggs, preferably from a chicken. And you need some cheese, preferably dairy. I don’t make a classic omelet, but I make a pretty good one, I must say. OK, here we go.

Break 3 eggs into a mixing bowl. Add a bit of milk, cream, or even water. Just a splash; it doesn’t take much. Here comes the chemistry lesson. Have you ever tried to scramble an egg but whatever you do, you still have stringy whites running through it? The whites are mostly a protein called albumin, which is rather ropy. The milk, cream, or water helps break up the albumin and make a more pleasant texture. Season the eggs with some salt and pepper.

Put your non-stick pan on medium heat and add about 1 tablespoon of canola oil. This may seem like a lot of oil and contrary to classical technique, but I find that this much oil lets the eggs ride on top of the oil while they set. Now, while your oil is heating, grab a whisk and beat the ever-loving crap out of your eggs. The more air that you incorporate into the eggs, the lighter the omelet.

Is the pan hot enough? Take a DROP of water on your finger and throw it into the oil. If the oil reacts quite loudly, but is not yet smoking, your oil is hot enough. Grab a rubber spatula and have it at the ready. Pour the beaten and beleaguered eggs into the oil. The eggs will immediately start setting and getting fluffy around the edges. Take your rubber spatula and start pushing the edges in, allowing the unset eggs on top to become the new edge (trying to keep the omelet circular). Once there is just a thin film of unset egg on top of the set part of the eggs, it’s time to flip the omelet. This entire process should take no longer than 2 minutes.

Don’t worry if you can’t pull off the no-spatula flip. It is perfectly acceptable to invert your pan onto a plate and then slide the omelet back in. Let the omelet set for about 30 seconds. Now, pile your cheese in the middle of the omelet. Don’t try to add a half a pound; good flavor is all about balance. Let’s not fail to mention that too much cheese will add to the chances of the eggs being runny.

Fold the omelet in half, making the classic crescent shape, and slide it out of the pan and onto a plate. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

See? It works

I've received my first "help me" post:

"Dear benevolent, caring, handsome Mr. (Bad) Meat,

I love a good cream-based sauce (not necessarily alfredo, but that's an example) however, I am a miserable failure and throw myself at your mercy. The damn thing always breaks. I do not want to resort to flour or other thickener. Please help me.

Most Respectfully,
joe positive"

Well Joe, I think that I can help you. There are a few things to consider.

First, what is cream? Cream is a combination of water, fat, and milk solids suspended in solution. This suspension is called "emulsification" How a cream sauce thickens is by boiling it. What's that steam rising from the pan? It's water, and the way that the sauce thickens is by reducing the water content in the cream, leaving fat and milk solids and thinkening the sauce. The "emulsification" is held in state by a proper balance of water to fat and milk solids.

"Thanks for the science lesson, you pompous bastard". (not from Joe, but from me)

How does this translate to how why your sauce breaks? You're cooking too much water out of the sauce. In making an Alfredo sauce, where you add cheese, reduce the sauce to almost the consistency that you want, and THEN add the cheese, stirring like your life depends on it. By adding the cheese too early, you're increasing the fat content of the emulsion, which means the sauce will break before enough water cooks out to make it thick. If not adding cheese, reduce the heat from a rapid boil to a simmer as the sauce starts to get close to the proper thickness. You'll have a better point of view and more control over the boil.

If all else fails, and your sauce still breaks, you can save it by pouring it into a blender, add a couple of drops of water (to get the balance of fat and water back) and set the blender on puree for about 10 seconds. Instant re-emulsification.

Hope this helps.