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Friday, January 28, 2011

Patriotic food

“I didn't want a bowl of chili.”

I was in a Mexican restaurant with a friend who had asked for a recommendation, and I had indicated an item on the menu as being a notably special Mexican dish. Little did I realize that the English version of the menu spelled it out as "Nogada Chili".

I was, of course, recommending the dish chiles en nogada, an appropriately festive dish. A more appropriate translation would be stuffed chile peppers in walnut sauce. The classic interpretation involves stuffing a roasted poblano pepper with a sweet and spicy pork mixture, then serving the whole thing covered in a walnut sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate arils.

As the elements of pizza margherita pay homage to the colors of the Italian flag, the components of chiles en nogada call forth the chromatic unity of the Mexican flag: the green of the poblano, the white of the walnut sauce, and the red of the pomegranate. The dish is genius in it's unity of disparate flavors, and by no means easy to put together: the walnut sauce alone requires one to blanch the walnuts and rub out the thin brown skin so that the resulting sauce is pure white. And so creamy as to feel like melted ice cream on the tongue, complemented by the subtle heat of the pepper, and punctuated by the tart crunch of pomegranate.

I should imagine that the relatively simple color schemes of the Canadian, Polish and Japanese flags would inspire dishes of tasteful and colorful unity, but I am unaware of any others.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Crush and heat

On a recent trip to Mexico, I encountered an interesting item on the menu: molcajete. I found this curious, as a molcajete is the traditional mortar and pestle instrument for crushing in the Mexican kitchen, and not necessarily the name of the dish. Certainly, guacamole is traditionally prepared in a molcajete, so perhaps, like casserole, molcajete refers to both the dish and the serving dish at once.

What arrived explained it all: the molcajete bowl in this case, made from volcanic rock, is heated, and food put into it continue to cook when it arrives at the table. The heat retention of rock is quite impressive, remaining screamingly hot for about an hour.

I envision here a new Korean-Mexican hybrid, beyond the Kogi Korean beef tacos. Bibimbap meets molcajete, replacing the traditional dolsot. And perhaps amplifying the flavors with Mexican salsas in place of the gojuchang.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

There's more to the sweet

I imagine dining out is particularly difficult for a diabetic with a sweet tooth. After all, so few restaurants offer conscientious options for sugarless dessert even as they make the grand accommodations for vegetarians (a situation that is often just a lifestyle choice for the diner). Even some simple grilled fruit would make a memorable end to a meal for someone so frequently ignored in most dining gatherings.

Then again, sugar carries some important qualities far beyond it's use as a sweetening agent. Try as you might, common sugar substitutes cannot be used to make jams or syrups, and meringues will come out less than ideal. These are recipes that rely heavily on the innate chemical properties of sucrose, or common table sugar. The high concentration of sugar in jams, for example, not only serve to flavor, but also act as a preservative. Any bacteria that attempt to grow dehydrate quickly. Nature uses this same high concentration of sugar trick: honey keeps without refrigeration for precisely this reason.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reformatting a cake

This past holiday season, I've had two admonitions about my cooking: that I should write out a recipe for huilatcoche cheesecake, and that I should write a book about baking. The latter comment came from Twitter, in response to tasting this goat cheese, date, and molasses quick bread that I concocted to use up leftovers.

Lots of people terrified of baking, largely from the idea that, unlike stovetop cooking, you can't really adjust an item while it is already baking, so you need to follow recipes precisely, leaving little room for improvisation.


Given a few basic principles, whipping together a cake is actually quite open to interpretation. I rarely even measure things out anymore, as I imagine other people's grandmothers did (my own grandmothers never used an oven). A cheesecake, for example, is basically a crusted baked custard fortified with cream cheese. So, the fundamental aspects are building a basic crumb crust, mixing eggs, dairy and cheese together, pouring it over the crust, and baking in a water bath until set, and then letting it rest before service.

For the huitlacoche cheesecake, since it is a savory application, I built the crumb crust from saltines and a bit of cheese instead of graham crackers. And then we cooked the savory ingredients in the cream before incorporation into the eggs and cheese. Easy. The hardest part is convincing people that the slate gray liquid is not dirty dishwater so they don't discard it.

Savory Huitlacoche cheesecake


Huitlacoche (I used canned stuff)
Cream cheese
Heavy cream
Saltines or soda crackers or any variety of savory crackers
Grated Parmesan cheese
Bay leaf
Scallions for garnish

1. Make the crust by crushing the saltines, stirring in some parmesan, and mixing with enough melted butter until it looks like wet sand. Press the crust into the bottom of ramekins. A good thick crust is desirable; leftover crust can be used to top casseroles. Bake in a 180C (350F) oven until set, about 15 minutes. Take out, and allow to cool.

2. For the cream cheese filling, allow the cream cheese and eggs to come to room temperature.

3. Chop the onion, and sweat it in a little butter until soft. Add the huitlacoche, cook a little longer on medium heat, and pour in the heavy cream. Put in the bay leaf, bring to a boil, simmer, allowing the huitlacoche and onions to break down. Season with ground cumin and salt, and strain. Allow to cool.

4. Beat the softened cream cheese with two eggs until smooth. Stir in the cooled huitlacoche cream mixture until smooth, and pour into the ramekins.

5. Cook in a bain marie at 150C until set. Cool, and refrigerate for a few hours to allow the flavors to meld.

6. To serve, warm the cheesecakes in a 80C oven, run a thin knife around the border of ramekins, and invert onto the serving plate. Garnish with chopped scallions, or cilantro.

Appendix: huitlacoche is the product of the fungus Ustilago maydis infecting corn. In Mexico, it is a delicacy, on the order of being called the corn truffle. In the US, it's a major pest and work is being done to eradicate it. Ah, the wonders of interpretation.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Double shot

It's Monday. Some people rely on coffee to get them started with the week. Some others attribute energy giving qualities to the herb ginseng. So, putting them together is a natural fit, although I don't think I've seen this before. Found in a dusty corner of a Filipino convenience store.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

All Shook Up

Today is Elvis Day, the old rocker would have been 76.

Elvis Presley was legendary for having peculiar tastes, and this is my tribute to the King.

Peanut butter and bacon waffle, bananas, dark chocolate and fleur de sel.

Enjoy the day, folks. Rock on.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Akamashite omedetou

I know we are nearly a week into the new year, but I must mention a short anecdote. The most significant holiday for the Japanese is New Year's, with all sort of games, rituals and celebrations to mark the occasion. I suspect they get to do it twice, once for the solar new year, and another for the lunar. The traditional food is mochi, pounded glutinous rice cakes, often sweetened and stuffed with adzuki bean paste. In fact, the act of pounding rice forms a community exercise, with people taking turns making the smooth rice flour needed for the dish. Nowadays, with modern machines, and storage, mochi is pretty much available year around, although some forms, such as the two stacked patties called kagami-mochi (yes, the picture above is actually mochi), are quite seasonal.

And over the weekend, every major outlet of Japanese food in San Diego was completely sold out of fresh mochi.

Addendum: Kagami mochi are a traditional offering to the gods, of course, but are allowed to sit out until the mochi itself dries out somewhat. Then, on January 11, kagami biraki is performed - the kagami mochi is broken, either with a knife or a hammer (yes, a hammer), and the chunks are cooked in soup.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Stretchy ice cream

Sahlep is a starch extracted from the root of an orchid, and is the basis of an infamous stretchy Turkish ice cream called dondurma. Various videos demonstrating the peculiar properties of dondurma are available online, but sahlep itself is rather difficult to find outside of Turkey. When I stumbled on a box of the stuff (albeit adulterated with corn starch) in Houston, I had to try my hand at making dondurma. At a New Year's eve dinner party: what better time to risk abject failure.

I first decided that the flavor will be saffron, in keeping with special occasion Middle Eastern food, to be complemented with crushed pistachios. I steeped the saffron fronds in a bit of warm cream to bloom it. In the mean time, in a mixture of cold cream, milk, and sugar, I stirred in the sahlep, and put it on heat. I kept stirring, anticipating the mixture to thicken up akin to polenta. What resulted was alarmingly lumpy and akin to ectoplasm. I stirred in the saffron as best I can, and hoping for the best, put it in the refrigerator to cool overnight.

The next day, after some research, I learned that sahlep needed to develop like gluten, so, I decided to first give it a strong whipping in the mixer. Fortunately, that was when the mixture evened out, becoming something between marshmallow and taffy. Loading it into the ice cream maker was a challenge, but once it was churning, it seemed to freeze pretty well.

The soft serve version was still stretchy and gloopy, but we managed to wrestle them into serving glasses before freezing hard. I think traditional dondurma is whipped even further while being frozen, so our product was not quite so stretchy. But the texture was distinct, almost chewy, and I recognize that if I were to let this stuff melt, it wouldn't liquify.

I look forward to experimenting with it some more. I understand that the use of mastic improves the stretchiness, but I am not sure what to complement the piney flavor of mastic.

Monday, January 3, 2011

“I had to Google your menu”

I'll confess, some of the items we had served up for the New Year's Eve dinner at the House of BBQDude (pictured here) aren't obvious from the summary descriptions. In fact, the quote above came from one of the guests we had invited to dinner. So, I'd like to expound on some of the items we had served. Over at IndirectHeat, there will be detailed posts on a few more items. Between the two blogs, you should be able to piece together the flavors of the evening.


The bacon and cheese dish deserves further explanation. First of all, we had baked fresh no knead bread for the dish. Slabs of those were cut out, and then we put on it broiled slices of bacon. But we had two different kinds of bacon around: a home cured pork belly bacon prepared by BBQDude (they go through a lot of bacon in the Dude household), and some buckboard bacon I brought back from New Orleans from Cochon Butcher. Buckboard bacon is prepared from the shoulder instead of the belly, and this bacon was intensely smokey. We thus prepared two versions per guest, so we can compare them. The bacon was then topped with Raclette cheese, and broiled, further intensifying the smokiness. So, to counteract the fattiness, we added pieces of fresh shiso leaves, a Japanese herb sort of a cross between basil and mint. Crunchy, porky, smoky, the pair was delicious. Reviews were mixed, with some preferring one over the other, but most agreed that it's just a matter of preference.

Sambal oelek is an Indonesian chile spice paste. And goes well with the mint on roasted Brussels sprouts.

The Sichuan seasoning salt consisted of toasted Sichuan peppercorns, black peppercorns, ground in a mortar with kosher salt, and then seasoned with micro planed lime peel. Chicken livers were breaded in panko bread crumbs, and deep fried, before being seasoned with the salt while hot. The sweet tart flavor of the rhubarb mustard sauce was a good complement, and left a nice tingly sensation from the Sichuan peppercorns. Even avowed liver haters liked this dish. But deep frying is always a great way to cheat.

I'll have separate posts coming up about the savory huilacoche cheesecake, and the salhep ice cream. Stand by.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

11 pictures

A follow up to yesterday's posting: please go check out the photographs of the New Year's eve feast we cooked over at the House of BBQDude.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


As I did last year, I collaborated with BBQDude to cook up a fun and novel dinner for New Year's Eve. Pictures are forthcoming, but here's what we served at the western House of Dude, home of IndirectHeat and family. We planned on 11 courses to celebrate the coming of 2011.

1. Duck fat confited russet potatoes and miso glazed calabasita squash.

2. Hamachi sashimi dressed with yuzu, calamansi and wasabi sauce and splashed with hot oil.

3. Tamarind and hoisin glazed smoked pork ribs with slow roasted Fuji apples

4. Bagna cauda with celery and jicama

5. Bacons and Raclette. Two versions of an open faced sandwich, one using home cured and smoked bacon, and the other was buckboard bacon from Cochon Butcher in New Orleans.

6. Roasted Brussels sprouts dressed with mint and sambal oelek.

7. Savory huilacoche cheesecake

8. Panko crusted fried chicken livers with Sichuan seasoning salt, and rhubarb mustard sauce.

9. Smoke, tobacco, blackberry : from Grant Achatz and his Alinea cookbook.

10. Yuzu and Meyer lemon cream filled shortbread tarts

11. Saffron dondurma

We had a lot of fun, and I think I learned a new trick or two. I wish everyone a healthy and delicious new year, and many more.

Panko crusted fried chicken liver with sichuan seasoning salt