Necessity is the Mother of Invention

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Sometimes not having the equipment you think you need can lead to unexpected discoveries. Since we moved to Boston we now live on the 5th floor of an apartment building without a balcony of any sort. As a result, my beautiful smoker has been stashed away in a box somewhere. It makes me sad. However it’s lead to some interesting learning. I’ve been dying to make some bacon, I figured I’d just add some smokey ingredients to the cure and roast it in the oven, hoping to capture some of that bacon magic. But when I had the cure ingredients all together with the pork belly a brilliant idea came to mind… Why not smoke the cure?!? Aha! So that’s just what I did! I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Ingenuity is often the track to inspiration. How have you been inspired lately?

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Vanilla Brined Pork Belly – roasted banana, california chile, grains of paradise

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Ever since I read Harold McGee’s article on making BBQ ribs at home I’ve been intrigued by the idea of using what we usually think of as sweet ingredients on the savory side of cooking.  In his spice rub Harold uses pimentón, cloves, cinnamon and vanilla to recreate the aromas of hardwood smoke.  The question became: If these flavor combinations occur naturally in our cooking can we recombine them to create something new and interesting?

Vanillin is the key flavor compound found in vanilla beans and is also one of the key aromats in hardwood smoke, so I began there.  Pork was a natural next step.  I brined a pork belly in a 20:1 brine that I had infused with a couple of vanilla beans. After brining for 3 days and resting for one more the belly was cooked in an immersion circulator at 60ºC for 72 hours.  After chilling the belly was portioned and crisped in a hot pan of grape seed oil.  Here it’s paired with a roasted banana puree taking the sweet meets savory concept even further. The grains of paradise and california chile sauce serve to stand up to the pork belly and sweetness of the banana.  A small portion is appropriate because the dish is so rich, but the depth of flavor truly packs a punch.  After all, dynamite comes in small packages.

Killer Cornbread: Accidentally Gluten-free.

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I came up with this recipe awhile back and ever since it has become my staple cornbread recipe.  I figured if we are making corn bread we might as well add as much corn flavor as possible.  So I adapted a pound cake recipe, because I like my cornbread sweet, and instead of using flour I used equal parts masa haring (for tortillas) and cornmeal.  The result is a moist and tender cornbread that screams corn and also happens to be gluten free.  This most recent incarnation was made with a couple of drops of lemon essential oil and some fresh cracked black pepper over the top.  It would also be delicious with some fresh corn folded in at the end and some crispy bits of bacon.

Killer Cornbread

8 oz sugar
5 g salt
8 oz butter
8 oz eggs
4 oz masa harina for tortillas
4 oz  cornmeal

Preheat an oven to 350°.  Butter a 9″ loaf pan.  Cream the sugar, salt and butter in a mixer on medium high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time waiting until each egg is fully incorporated before moving on to the next.  Slowly add the masa harina and cornmeal until fully incorporated.  Fold in any additions.  Pour into the prepared loaf pan and bake until cooked through and a deep golden brown, 50 minutes to 1 hour.

 

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Smoked Cheddar Gougères

I love gougères.  More specifically, I love pâte à choux.  The dough is ridiculously flexible.  If you learn how to make it you can then make gnocchi, cream puffs, eclairs, doughnuts, dumplings and even gougères.  They are a great vehicle for flavor, you can  easily add fresh herbs, cheese or nuts to the mix.  You could even use a flavorful liquid instead of water.  At The Culinary Instute of America, one of my classmates and I once made gougère stuffed with whipped goat cheese glazed with orange curd and crusted with panko, pistachios and fennel pollen. Dang that was good.  Maybe that will be another post.  This is a playful take on a gougères.  A gougère almost always has some sort of cheese in it, usually gruyere or ementaler.  I was contemplating a smoked gouda or cheddar.  I went for an american cheddar and instead of using a smoked cheese, I decided I would smoke the gougères not only adding flavor, but a dramatic flare.

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Smoked Cheddar Gougères

8 oz water
2 t kosher salt
4 oz butter
4 oz bread flour
8 oz egg yolks
4 oz cheddar
applewood chips 

Preheat an oven to 425 degrees.
Bring water, salt and butter to a simmer, add the flour in one addition.  Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough pulls away from the sides.  Put the dough in a mixer on medium low speed.  Mix until you don’t see any more steam rising from the dough.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, mixing until each individual yolk is fully incorporated. Scoop tablespoon sized mounds of dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for ten minutes.  Turn the oven down to 350 and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes longer.  Remove the gougères and poke a small whole in the side to allow the steam to escape.  

To serve the gougères place them under a covered container, I used a cheese dome but you could also use an overturned wine glass for individual portions.  Smoke the gougères using a smoking gun and the applewood chips. Allow the smoke to season the gougères for a minute or so before presenting to your guest and removing the top.  

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A Balance of Opposites

Creating an enjoyable dish is often about finding balance in opposition.  With that in mind I paired the charred beef cheeks that were very rich and smoky with the natural sweetness of fresh spring peas that were blanched and glazed with butter.  Lightly seared ramps and baby shiitake mushrooms gave texture to the dish, both of which were briefly smoked with a smoking gun to lend some continuity.  The ramp tops and pea shells were blanched, diced and tossed together with olive oil, kumquat zest and juice to create a relish that would help to bring some brightness to the plate.

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In Search of Char

I love a good crusty char on my meat.  Most people don’t realize that the majority of the flavor on a steak comes from the exterior.  Sure having a high quality cut of meat goes a long way but I good steak will only be as good as it’s sear.

Most customers never believe me.  But as a butcher I always tell people that the best steak in the case is the brown one.  It’s true, if you allow a steak to sit open in a refrigerator the excess moisture evaporates from the surface.  The water that has now evaporated would have boiled first before letting the steak brown and crisp.  If the outside of the steak has been given a chance to dry, it will sear instantaneously giving you a beautiful crust.

There are many ways to increase the charring potential of a piece of meat.  These beef cheeks were first rubbed with a combination of porcini powder and salt to absorb excess moisture from the meat.  They were then smoked at 150º for four hours to gently warm the meat and further evaporate moisture from the surface. The next step was searing for 40 seconds on a lightly smoking cast iron pan with grape seed oil.  Their next stop will be in a bag with a few sprigs thyme and a clove of garlic dropped into an immersion circulator parked at 62º Celsius for 72 hours, until the beef cheeks are smoky, tender and juicy.

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Hot Dogs with Fennelkraut, Roasted Orange Ketchup and Black Olive Relish.

Hot Dogs with Fennelkraut, Roasted Orange Ketchup and Black Olive Relish.

“How many times have you seen someone plate a hot dog with tweezers?” I asked my wife I as I plated up these bad boys.  Seriously though, last weeks fennelkraut was just screaming to be put on a hot dog. And although the pairing of fennel orange may be overdone, it’s one of my favorites so I used it anyway.  It’s like tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, you just can’t go wrong.

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The concept of making Ketchup with something other then tomatoes is nothing new, quite the opposite in fact.  Ketchups or “table sauces” were originally purees of any variety of seasoned fruits or vegetables.  It wasn’t until the popularity of tomato that Ketchup became synonymous with the bright red fruit.  This one is made with oven roasted oranges, and no tomatoes to speak of.

Roasted Orange Ketchup:
1250 g peeled and halved oranges
180 g peeled shallots
40 g olive oil

120 g strained orange juice
10 g tarragon vinegar
40 g sugar
3 g ascorbic acid
1 g citric acid
2 g xanthan gum

Combine the oranges, shallots and olive oil.  Roast in the middle rack of a 500° oven for 10 minutes. Switch the oven to broil and continue for another 8 minutes, until brown.  Add the roasted oranges and shallots to a blender and blend on high until smooth.  Strain the mixture the a fine mesh chinois and return to the blender.  Add the orange juice, vinegar, sugar, ascorbic and citric acids.  Blend on high, once a vortex occurs slowly sprinkle in the xanthan gum.  Chill before serving.

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Fennelkraut

Wild fermentation is such a flexible technique. It’s a wonder why it’s not used more often.  It’s most commonly associated with things like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi or sourdough bread. But in reality there is no limit to what you can do with this technique.  I’m a big fan of preserving meyer lemons this way, or even making pickled mushrooms.

The middle of last week I decided to make something new, a new take on an old classic.  Fennelkraut.

Fennelkraut (pre-fermentation)

I made a solution of 2 liters of water and 100 grams of salt and whisked the two together.  I then shredded five fennel bulbs on a mandolin and added them to the brine.  I used a ziplock bag filled with water to keep the fennel submerged.  The fennelkraut was alowed to set at room temperature for a week and a half where it developed the wonderful yeasty aroma and complex flavor signature of wild fermentation.  The fennel retained it’s beautiful shape and is now tender, crunchy, sweet and salty, with a subtle licorice note.  Just wait till you see what I do with it…

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How to calibrate an immersion circulator

The beauty of an immersion circulator is it’s ability to hold the temperature of a water bath at a precise and stable temperature all the while circulating the water. The implications of being able to cook at such specific temperatures are vast and far reaching. Some of the best examples are eggs. But none of this matters if your circulator isn’t accurate.

I’ve suspected my circulator needs to be calibrated after a couple of run-ins with overcooked eggs. I tried making a crème anglaise which came out of the circulator broken. I also haven’t had much luck making sous vide scrambled eggs. Both recipes (from trusted sources) seemed to be cooked at too high of a temperature. So I set out to learn how to calibrate my immersion circulator.

So my circulator wasn't actually off by 1.1 degrees F, only about .4 C. But you get the picture.

I use the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional. These specific instructions are for that model, but the overall concept of how to calibrate a circulator will be the same no matter what make and model you are using. To make a long story short, you essentially make an ice water bath with a ton of ice. Let it sit for a few minutes and then put the circulator in the ice water. Turn the machine all the way down so it’s not heating. And then use the calibration function to calibrate the machine to either 32F or 0C. But here’s the long story…

To calibrate an immersion circulator:

  • Combine two parts ice to two parts water by volume to create a large ice bath. About 3 to 4 quarts. Allow to sit for five minutes.
  • Place the circulator in a tall and narrow container that will have just enough room for the circulator and the ice water.
  • Pour the ice bath into the container with the circulator.
  • Calibrate the machine to 32F or 0C.

To calibrate the PolyScience Sous Vide Professional:

  • Unplug the power cord from the wall.
  • Press and hold the menu button while plugging the machine back into the wall.
  • Press the menu button repeatedly until the screen says “offset calibration”.
  • Use the up and down buttons to change the offset.
  • Press the menu button again to exit the calibration mode.

notes:

  • Never try and use a home thermometer to calibrate an immersion circulator.  Most circulators have more accurate thermometers then home thermometers.
  • I found it easiest to calibrate the PolyScience on celsius as apposed to fahrenheit.  I could only get the offset calibration to show up in celsius.
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Five Spice Soda

For many years now I’ve longed to brew my own root beer from scratch. I’ve always immediately dismissed the idea of using an extract, longing for the true rich flavors that I hoped using actual roots might provide. It was almost a year ago now that I actually found a recipe based on the actual roots that would launch me down learning to brew my own sodas. Today you can actually purchase root beer that I make from my own recipe at Five Dot Ranch Beef in Napa, California.

But this post isn’t about root beer. It’s the importance of the lesson that I learned from brewing my own soda. At a basic level a soda is an infusion of aromatics and flavorings into a drinkable liquid that is then sweetened and carbonated. Using this basic idea, a soda can be anything you want. It is a vehicle for flavors, a blank canvas waiting to be painted upon.  The liquid could be a juice, or a stock, or any other flavorful liquid.  It could be infused with herbs or spices, either fresh or dried or any other flavoring of your choice.  You could use mushrooms, lavender, habaneros or thai basil.  The sweetener could be honey, agave, brown sugar, molasses or maple syrup.  The point is  that is flexible, and open for interpretation.

What else makes a beverage a soda? Carbonation! Carbonation occurs through the magic of yeast!  There are other methods of carbonation, but I love the flavor and ease of using yeast.  The yeast consumes the sugars and creates carbon dioxide create bubbles as well as a distinct yeasty aroma. I love yeast.

When I posted about duck bacon, I said I awoke in the middle of the night excited by two particular ideas.  This is one of them.  The perfect paint for a blank canvas, Five Spice Soda. It has citrusy notes and a special zing from the szechwan peppercorns. It’s perfectly light, crisp and bubbly.  It would be a wonderful beverage for a warm spring day, just tempting you to drink the whole bottle.

FIve Spice Soda:

  • 1 Gallon Water
  • 3 Tablespoons Szechwan Pepper Corns
  • 2 Tablespoons Fennel Seeds
  • 12 Pieces Star Anise
  • 1/4 Ounce Saigon Cinnamon
  • 2 Vanilla Beans, (split and seeded)
  • 4 Sprigs Mint
  • 1 lb Light Brown Sugar
  • 1/8 Teaspoon Ale Yeast

Place half the water in a large pot, covered with a lid on the stove over high heat. Chill the remainder of the water in the fridge or freezer. Bring the water to a boil, add the Szechwan Pepper Corns, Fennel Seeds, Star Anise, Saigon Cinnamon and the Vanilla Beans. Replace the lid back on the pot, remove from the heat and allow to steep for 2 hours. An hour into the steeping, add the mint

Sanitize 6 22 oz bottles in a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach for every gallon of hot water. Soak the bottles in the bleach solution for 2 minutes before allowing to air dry. Also sanitize a whisk, ladle, funnel and fine mesh strainer.

After the 2 hours of steeping time is over, add the brown sugar to the bottom of large stock pot or container big enough to hold the finished gallon of soda and still allow you enough room to stir. Strain the warm spice infusion through a sanitized fine mesh strainer into the container with the sugar. Whisk to dissolve the sugar. Add the chilled water and whisk to combine. Allow the soda to cool down to 75 degrees or below. Whisk in the ale yeast. Allow to proof for 15 minutes.

Ladle the soda into the bottles, leaving two inches of space at the top. Cap the bottles and allow to sit at room temperature for two days to carbonate. Check the carbonation by opening a bottle and tasting. Recap and allow to sit at room temperature for twelve more hours if more carbonation is desired. When the desired level of carbonation is reached, chill the sodas in the fridge until ready to enjoy.

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