Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Evidence of the cold

Sadly, the recent cold snaps in the Houston area has not been kind to the papaya tree in the back. Shame, it was producing quite generously, too.

Friday, January 29, 2010

There ought to be a word

Warning, this post may be NSFW. Not really sure.

Humans exhibit a property called pareidolia, where we have a natural tendency to identify faces, even in regions where there aren't faces. Pareidolia explains such things as finding the Virgin Mary in a potato chip, or the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich.

But there ought to be some term where people find phallic imagery in objects. Notably in food. Say, a baguette. Or a some slices of ham. Maybe even a potato.

God forbid that it actually be, you know, ballsy.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Food in repose

A simple warmed salad of stir fried kale, peeled cherry tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar. Hope your lunch today is as hearty and flavorful.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Alinea Wafer

Apologies for the long silence, dear readers, as I have been away with limited internet connectivity. But I'm back now, and I'm catching up with life in general. An article of interest I found is the winner to Salon's Kitchen Challenge involves telling one's life in puddings. Pretty neat. But what constitutes pudding?

The definition seems a bit fluid. In British parlance, pudding is basically another word for dessert, so any sweet item served to finish a meal is pudding. On the other hand, the concept of the dish called pudding seems to fall into two camps. One, such as bread pudding involves saturating and embedding a carbohydrate source into a custard base, and cooking it. Such puddings range from cake-like consistency, to spoonable and liquid. A second concept revolves around the latter consistency, simply thickening a liquid until it mounds and can be spooned. Some modern interpretations of that eschew the use of milk altogether, and can be built from almost any liquid and an appropriate gelling agent. Most basic boxed puddings, for example, is simply cornstarch thickening milk plus flavorings; an Anglo view of the Mexican atole.

Such as, for example, from the culinary maverick Grant Achatz of Alinea. In the recent trip to the Great Western Casa McBardo, we tried to replicate perhaps one of the simplest dishes in the Alinea cookbook: a wafer of mango, soy, sesame oil, and fish flakes. Which looked simple enough until it required an antigriddle.

What's an antigriddle? It's a flat surface cooled to well below the freezing point of water, so that ingredients can be frozen quickly, rather than heated quickly as it is the case of a regular griddle. We improvised, making one from a pair of sturdy baking sheets, an amount of crushed dry ice, and a cooling rack to raise it from the counter surface to avoid damaging it.
To make it, we took mangos, and pureed it, and adjusted with simple syrup so that it is the right consistency to freeze quickly. I forget the Brix number, but we didn't know it exactly - we just dropped bits on the improvised antigriddle. Then came the pudding - a pudding of soy sauce. It's soy sauce that was gelled using agar, and then run through a blender to produce a pudding consistency - an increasingly common technique to produce puddings from anything from rosewater to wine. The recipe called for but a drop per wafer, but the amounts prescribed seems to be large. We found out why - you can't run a small amount through the blender...never mind piping it through the squirt bottle.

Assembly involves making a donut shaped puddle of mango on the antigriddle, then a drop of sesame oil in the hole, and finally a plop of soy pudding. Then a dusting of fish flakes in the form of katsuo boshi - dried bonito - prior to service. The toothpick is there as a handle to pick up up the wafer without melting it in your hand (Alinea has these specially designed toothpicks for this). You know, despite the odd combination of ingredients, it works. The layered freezing results in layered flavor progression, from sweet to salty to umami.

One funny anecdote, BBQ Dude of Indirect Heat grabbed the very first wafer off the assembly line, and popped it directly in the mouth - and froze off a patch of his tongue as the incredibly cold wafer stuck to it. Visions of licking a frozen flag pole. So, if you're attempting this at home, be forewarned.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Caprese crossing

On my most recent trip the the Great Western Casa McBardo, we cooked a lot out of BBQ Dude's newest cookbook acquisition: David Chang's Momofuku (the title of which also became the cooking battlecry of the weekend). One of the items we did is something that seems almost too easy in simplicity - but it's all about technique. An East meets West interpretation of the classic Insalata Caprese - only in this case, the role of mozzarella is played by silken tofu, and basil by a generous chiffonade of shiso leaves. Tomatoes here are cherry tomatoes that are individually peeled (a pain in the arse, but it definitely makes a difference in the final dish). And the kicker here is the dressing is built from a base of taré, rice vinegar, canola oil, and a dash of sesame oil. Finished with a generous sprinkle of pink flaky finishing salt, and it's a riot of textures, flavors and layers.

David Chang suggests four different versions in Momofuku, and envision so many more. I like that cookbook; Chang has a cooking style more in line with mine - rarely strict, and open to easy improvisation. I certainly want to give the proper bo ssam another try.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fictitious foods

I wanted to write something about some different foods speculated or fantasized about in literature, and have been coming up pretty spare. Sure, the archetype would come from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (where do you you think the kids are now?), including Willy Wonka becoming a full bore candy brand. More recently, people speculate on the nature of butter beer and pumpkin juice from the Harry Potter mythos, but for the most part, stories with a good speculation about food are infrequent at best.

When written, though, we can go from the macabre promise of Soylent Green, to the indifferent practicality of knowing that triffids can be mashed and eaten in a pinch. We dream of a more responsible synthehol in Star Trek, contrasted with the Klingon machismo of bloodwine and gaak.

Or people can simply wax poetic about the mythical properties of chocolate in Chocolat and Como Agua para Chocolate.

So, tell me about your favorite fictitious foods.

side note, happy founding of McBardo day!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jungle bungle

No secret that I am a fan of the pastries and cakes done at Patisserie Jungle Cafe in Houston's Bellaire Chinatown district, despite some who chide the cakes for being somewhat muted in flavor. Geared for Asian palates, cakes here tend to be subtler in flavor, less bombastically sweet, and leverage a range of textures in most preparations. Not to mention the jewel-like decoration and inventive packaging - our most recent visit unearthed colorful macarons packed in individual plastic bubbles like gems.

Much as I would like to continue to heap platitudes upon Jungle Cafe, though, the place has a policy that irks me (and I am sure others) to no end: they don't serve tap water. I was flatly told that the only option was to buy bottled water. I asked if I could have a tea, only without the tea - the answer was no. Even though I was in the process of purchasing two cakes and coffees already.

This gouging behavior has absolutely no basis in logic. I can understand being directed to a water fountain, or being told that due to rising costs, they'd have to charge a nominal fee for the water cup, but draconian enforcement of bottled water, either for profit, or in blatant disregard of environmental consequences, is stupid. I hope this was simply the misguided interpretation of an underling, but if not, I shall know better now to either make my purchases to go, or walk in the store carrying my own water.

Certainly, forcing the purchase of bottled water is one of those policies that can completely sour the experience of dining at a restaurant, along the lines of unnecessary forced valet, and sneaky gratuity upcharging. What other experiences have you had that annoy you as a restaurant patron?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Discovery in adversity

Looking at the bright side of things, when something constrains you, resourcefulness often creates something new and interesting. Being temporarily disabled by a kitchen accident, I had to figure out a way to cook using only one hand. Well, the other one isn't tied behind my back, but one handed cooking is incredibly challenging (and I haven't solved the problem of one handed dish washing).

But looking in my pantry, I had to resort to something that didn't involve too much knife work. I could make congee, as it was appropriate for the weather. I have old precooked rice, and frozen stock, but one handed stirring could be a problem.

Solved by using the oven. As a matter a fact, this may become my favored method of making congee. You simply dump the rice and the stock into an oven safe pot, throw in flavorings (ginger, dried herbs), and put the whole thing in a 350F oven, covered, for an hour or so. Stir it up, and it comes up creamy. I stirred in frozen edamame, frozen corn, and pieces of sweet potato, some salt, and some cayenne, cracked an egg over the lot, and stuck in back in the oven for another half an hour.

Made for a pretty good meal. 

Monday, January 4, 2010

Hitting the fusion

One of the better dishes we prepared here at the Great Western Casa McBardo (these dinners are apparently crying out for a formal name for ease of reference) were these bulgogi burgers, an execution that was a collaboration with BBQ Dude at Indirect Heat. In Korean cuisine, bulgogi is beef that is seasoned before being cooked on a grill table side, aka Korean barbecue.

The resulting meat is smoky, sweet, savory and a bit spicy. I think, in fact, a better match for burger adaptation that before. Our presentation fell a bit short of our full vision, as I couldn't find Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang). But if I were to do it again, this is how it would come out:

Bulgogi burgers

To 2 lbs of ground hamburger meat, add:

1/4 cup dark soy
1/4 cup mirin
2 Tbp sesame seed oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
2 finely chopped scallions
4 Tbp finely grated fresh ginger (I recommend a microplane)
2 finely minced garlic cloves
A few grinds of black pepper

Mix well carefully, and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour, longer is better. When ready, form into small patties, cook until medium rare, serve wtih steamed buns and some kojuchang. Kimchi is appropriate, but as most kimchi is prepared using shrimp, have a care for allergic reactions. A side of quick picked fruit or vegetables would be a good alternative.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New year's feasting

Dinner at the Great Western Casa McBardo last night was massive and fun, but I think we had a few lessons to take away from it. Portion sizing needed to be better controlled, and dishware and surface area availability - something that you'd think I'd have learned from the Tenacity Dinners :). And I think I finally get the idea of "being in the weeds" :).

Dinner, however, was a strong homage to David Chang's Momofuku cookbook. But we didn't stop there - we created a home made antigriddle to do something from Grant Achatz's Alinea cookbook. And a fallback position with a recipe from Pichet Ong's Asian Inspired Desserts.

Here was our basic attack plan.
  • charcuterie plate (store bought)
  • tomato and tofu caprese
  • seared tenderloin on arugula
  • kabocha in miso glaze
  • halibut steamed in kelp
  • kale chips
  • grilled cheese sandwich
  • mango and soy pudding
  • ramen
  • bulgogi burgers in steamed buns
  • mushrooms 3 x
  • simplified bo ssam with dragonfruit
  • yuzu souffle
Somethings were deceptively simple - the ramen broth took over 7 hours to make. And the yuzu souffle was gorgeous, and stable.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cooking for the new year

I am at the Great Western Casa McBardo to help to together a proper ring in the new year. Granted we are still finalizing our menu as cooking begins in earnest today, but nothing bids good fortune like a pot of stock that calls for a pound of bacon.