Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raw Uchi

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the media event leading up to the formal opening of Uchi in Houston. It was a cocktail party, basically, although I feel that perhaps the composed nature of Tyson Cole's food better set in a more serene and contemplative environment. I was fascinated, however, by the selection of ingredients and execution at the sushi bar.

Uchi runs a tight ship, exceptionally clean. I've noticed a low representation of typical Gulf seafood such as shrimp, crawfish or oysters.  
Wagyu beef.
Myoga, a relative of ginger grown for the edible bulbs. 

Demurely hidden black truffles in rice. 
Hamachi, precleaned and ready for slicing.
Atop the refrigerated display cases are the square bamboo sake cups filled with various dry ingredients. I commend the choice of flaked sea salt (I suspect Maldon) which the chef uses to great effect in various dishes. I didn't manage to take a picture of the chunks of bottarga lying out in the cups, ready to be shaved as a final flourish. 

Did I actually get to taste anything? Well, yes, I did. And no doubt much of the Houston blogosphere will be abuzz with stories of the experience - I'll defer to that telling to the others for now. But I did find sections of the Uchi menu intriguing, and I look forward to trying it in the future.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Food Preservation

Candied lemon slice.
Modern media has a remarkable love-hate relationship with preservatives. It's a paradox: on the one hand, we can only consume so much food at any one time, on the other, alarmists condemn food that has been preserved for later consumption. It's a decidedly first world issue: in cultures where starvation is a very real threat, and food availability is a concern, the skills and technology of refrigeration-free food preservation are valued.

You've heard those alarmist claims about how a Hostess Twinkie (or was it a McDonald's french fry?) is so synthetic that it doesn't rot. Basically, preservation involves retarding the growth of micro-organisms for as long as we can, applied right, a sandwich can last two years on the battlefield.

One technique is modifying the physical conditions: remove oxygen, keep the temperature too high or too low for microbes to grow. The problem with these is that it's energy intensive and fragile to keep around. Dehydration is another method, which is more stable, but it changes the chemical properties of the food item (just compare dried cilantro to fresh).

And then there's chemical preservation - but this is where lots of the bogeymen live. The very term preservatives carry some sort of stigma, but most of the claims are overblown. Demonizing nitrates in meat curing continues apace, despite few confirmed scientific evidence to any health effects. And how about those big three chemical preservatives that no one seems to object to: salt, sugar and alcohol.

Those things are so accepted that they aren't listed as preservatives, when in fact, they are in every sense chemical preservatives. High concentrations of salt or sugar dehydrate microbes, preventing their growth - that is how honey can keep at room temperature indefinitely, or how fish sauce is stable.

Or is it that artificial preservatives are the problem? Pure crystalline sucrose (table sugar) doesn't exist outside of human intervention - fitting the definition of artificial. If you call the compounds in a cup of tea by their formal chemical names, you'll come up with a bunch of fearsome sounding words - but it doesn't change their truly innocuous nature.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Big fruit

Fresh whole jackfruit at Viet Hoa, Houston, TX. How this managed to get imported is a marvel of modern transportation technology. But I wonder who buys a whole fruit at a time? 
To balance out the recent discussion of micro citrus, how about we talk about something big. I mean really big. The nangka or jackfruit is the largest tree borne fruit in the world. These things are massive, weighing in as much as 80 lbs, and despite being a tropical fruit, is now readily available in fresh form here in the Houston area. That means that the versatility of the fruit, being cooked as a vegetable in the unripe form, can be showcased in local dishes. The seeds can also be roasted, and served up like nuts.

But, in a pinch, the ripe flesh around the seeds are peeled off, and can be easily purchased canned in syrup. A can of jackfruit, and a can of coconut milk made for some very flavorful ice cream recently.

The tricky thing about jackfruit is that it is very stringy. To prepare it properly, one should cut across the strings to make them manageable.

Jackfruit Coconut Ice Cream

1 can jackfruit in syrup
1 can Thai coconut milk
1 cup milk
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar (preferably brown)

Cut across the strings of the jackfruit into thin slices, and process into a fine puree in a food processor.

Heat up coconut milk and milk in a pot.

Mix the sugar and the egg yolks until smooth - should really dissolve the sugar. Temper the eggs with the hot milk mixture, and return to the pot, cooking into a custard much like a sauce Anglaise. Stir in the jackfruit puree, mix until smooth, and sit the pot in some ice water until chilled.

Process in an ice cream machine. Serve in small scoops with gingerbread.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Creating a memory

There's nothing quite like watching a chef spread his creative wings and soar.

Steve Marques (formerly of Burger Guys and Yelapa, now executive chef for Tasting Room Uptown) treated some friends and myself to a special dinner. It explored some ideas we had discussed earlier, and a few cultural challenges. And I learned that Steve salivates over the idea of a culinary challenge. With gusto.

Our meal progressed much like a cooking show judging session, with Steve explaining what each course was to be, and began with a sashimi of tilefish, dressed with salt, serrano chile, and heated olive oil. A simple start. Auspicious.

Gumbo. In this case, oyster and mushroom gumbo, incorporating three kinds of mushrooms (including the meaty maitake), and served with an expertly prepared potato salad. Yes, potato salad, not rice. Turns out, this is actually more traditional, and works beautifully. The creamy tang of mayo, the sweet snap of pickles, and the dusky heat of the gumbo combine in a very satisfying manner. I have to add that the textural range of this dish was very much on point, from the lovingly caramelized roux, to the contrast of the mushrooms, to the barely cooked oysters and then the al dente potatoes - this was a knockout. 
"Kare-Kare" Or, rather, an interpretation of it. Kare-kare is a Filipino dish of stewing meat (nowadays mostly oxtail, but any number of parts can be used what benefit from a long braise) cooked in annatto, ground peanuts, and toasted ground glutinous rice, and served with steamed vegetables and bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp paste). Steve's version braises high quality beef short ribs for 22 hours, in a jus containing the annatto, peanuts and glutinous rice, served alongside a packet of short grain rice steamed in a lotus leaf. That package (an homage to the Chinese zongzi) contained bits of tripe and vegetables and more toasted peanuts.
The Cheese Course. Two quenelles of house made ricotta, spiked generously with lemon peel, and covered with two different kinds of honey, accompanied with glasses of port wine. The one in the foreground is rosemary honey, the other is chestnut honey, each displaying remarkable differences in flavors, but both complementing the creamy ricotta admirably. I loved the herbal notes in the rosemary honey, but there are others who preferred the more robust chestnut honey by a little bit more. Just a little. 

The Best Chocolate Ice Cream in the World. Steve credits learning to make this ice cream to Fergus Henderson and reveals that one secret is the use of duck egg yolks. But there's so much going on with this ice cream - a dark chocolate profile that lingers on the tongue, accompanied by the tang of dried cherries, and crunch of pistachios. And the herbal complement of the fresh thyme. Strangely, I think a touch of fleur de sel would just finished it nicely, but that's splitting hairs. 
All told, an incredible edible milieu. Returning briefly to the "kare-kare" course - Steve asked me if he successfully captured the memory of kare-kare, having never had it himself. The tender short rib carried flavors and textures that were reminiscent of kare-kare - but it didn't capture the memory. That's not a complaint, though - it's inherently a significant challenge to recreating and reinterpreting a cultural memory from the just having it described. One can be inspired and create something delicious - as this was - but it isn't the same thing. And for many, once you attempt to evoke that memory, matching that archetype becomes the goal. Experiencing the different dishes and cultures are part of the maturation of a chef, and as close as Steve got to the real thing speaks volumes about his repertoire.

Though not quite kare-kare, this dish, in and of itself, is good. Instead of capturing a memory, it is creating a new one - one that a group has chosen to remember and describe for others.

Disclaimer: Dinner was provided gratis. Many thanks to the chef and to The Tasting Room Uptown for a wonderful dinner and experience.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Spot the difference

In a previous post, BBQDude asked how to tell the difference between a kumquat and a calamondin. For one thing, the two fruits are texturally quite different, you can tell just by feeling them. Let's take a look at them up close.

Looking at a calamondin and a kumquat.
Kumquats have these very large cells on their rinds, which contain the aromatic oils characteristic of citrus fruit. 
The cutaways are even more revealing: the calamondin is full of soft juicy pulp. Note the relative size of the seeds - although these fruits are quite small, the seed size nearly match those of the much larger lemon or orange.

In contrast, a kumquat has almost no pulp to speak of. In fact, what is prized for the kumquat is the rind, which is, peculiarly enough, quite sweet. And gets sweeter with extended chewing. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Playing the ice

Making the Alinea prescribed mango soy wafer on a home-made anti griddle. A little molecular gastronomy modernist cooking with BBQDude.

In the last post, I tried to explain how salted ice can serve as way to freeze ice cream, because it'll draw the heat (energy) out of the canister as the salt dissolves. Dissolving stuff in water - salt, sugar, proteins, alcohol - all serve to lower the freezing point of water, and the higher the concentration, the lower the temperature will have to be to freeze. That's because as water freezes and forms crystals, the water molecules line up in an orderly fashion. Dissolved molecules interfere with ice molecules interacting with itself, and thus, prevents the whole from solidifying.

But, eventually, it freezes, right? Sea water, for example, freezes to form sea ice (not to be confused with ice bergs that are actually chunks of ice from land). Well, not really. When the temperature is dropped slowly, some water molecules will find each other and form a chunk of ice - but that means that the number of water molecules in the liquid phase went down. Meaning that the concentration of salt there just went up - so the temperature has to be even lower to freeze that. Microscopically, sea ice is made up of fresh water ice with small droplets of saturated brine encased therein. Given enough time, the brine should drain out, leaving behind unsalinated water.

This phenomenon of water only crystalizing with itself in solution is exploited as a way of dehydrating and concentrating certain solutions. For example, ice wine. To make ice wine, grapes are harvested and pressed when frozen. This results in a more concentrated juice, as the ice crystals left behind are entirely water - and the more concentrated juice results in the distinctively more intense flavor of the wine. A second form of ice wine (and to some degree, ice beer) comes from partially freezing the wine after fermentation, and sieving out the ice crystals - again, concentrating the liquid.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Frozen Science

Although most folks nowadays buy ice cream, nothing really quite compares to home made ice cream, where you have control over the composition and flavors. Not to mention the freshly frozen confection has the best mouthfeel, as the longer it keeps, the crystals tend to grow (unless you have a commercial scale freezer).

Before there were machines, making ice cream was a messy affair - the cream had to be frozen while being agitated in a mixture of salt and water. This works due to the colligative properties of water - basically, even though pure water will freeze at 0°C, when something is dissolved in it, that freezing point will drop, such that even lightly salty water will remain liquid at 0°C. And the more concentrated the solution, the lower the freezing point will be.
Trivia fact: Water freezes at 32°F because Fahrenheit calibrated using a salt/water mixture. And he got it wrong a couple of ways.
So, when salt is added to ice, it begins to melt - but the energy to liquify the water has to come from somewhere. If you stick a thermometer in there, it will read colder than 0°C because heat will be drawn out of the thermometer into the liquifying ice. And if there's a canister of liquid cream in there, it'll start freezing, so start churning.

Now, hypothetically, if there's some way to hold this in a perfectly insulated vacuum, adding salt to ice will not allow it to melt as no additional energy can come into the system.

Incidentally, milk and cream is also basically a water-based solution, and thus, ice cream is actually held at a temperature lower than the freezing point of pure water - so why doesn't it cause frostbite? That's a story for another time - but it has something to do with the air that is incorporated when the confection is churned while being frozen.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Small fruit

Sadly, this year I didn't get to cook with BBQDude in his new Eastern household, but looks like the Dude spread was delicious and the tradition stands. I'll have to make it up to the Boston area soon to make up for the lack.

A necessary byproduct of cooking is, well, food - and the necessary posse of people to consume it. I didn't cook as much this year as I didn't have the crew to eat it all. But I had a chance to play with a bounty of micro citrus.

The calamondin (Citrofortunella microcarpa) is a citrus plant that grows pretty well in Texas, and is often grown as decorative plants. The bright orange fruit contrasts nicely with the dark green foliage, and look like really small oranges.

Don't confuse them with kumquats, though, as these are really tart. Kumquats will have to be a fruit discussed in a different posting.

In Southeast Asian cooking, calamondin plays a major role, being squeezed over fried foods to brighten up flavors, or used in drinks. It's a floral acidity unlike lemons or limes, and is gaining popularity with chefs. I found that the rind, however, doesn't get much appreciation. The ripe calamondin peel has a nice subtle sweetness to it, and is relatively thin. So, I made calamondin marmalade. It's actually really easy to make, except for the part of deseeding the fruit. Despite the size, each calamondin has a good number of fairly large seeds in them, and removing them can be a long chore.

After deseeding, I cut up the fruit roughly, tossed it with about a third as much by weight in sugar, and threw the whole mess into the oven for the next hour or two (I was doing other baking). No additional water added.

And this emerged.

Calamondin marmalade
Delicious over fresh waffles, pound cake, ice cream, etc. There's plenty of pectin in citrus, so this should work with just about any citrus fruit. I just stored it in the freezer, forgoing the trouble of canning it - although that will work as well.