Friday, July 29, 2011

Team Pork Rides Again

Having made delicious celeriac skordalia to accompany the ass-kicking steak, I naturally wanted to eat more of it. Team Pork worked so well the last time I thought I'd give them another shot. Called them up to the big show. Sent a bus ticket. Made a phone call. Talked their folks into letting them skip college.

I cut nice big slabs of bacon and browned them in a skillet. Poached the sausage to firm it up prior to slicing and browning so the pieces would hold their shape. Worked fantastically, I'm a goddamn genius. I diced a small apple and half an onion and cooked them along with the team. I also cooked a couple of tomatoes in the skillet to serve as a garnish, and they browned nicely in the rendered fat.

I started the plates with a base of celeriac puree, added Team Pork, the tomatoes and some fat leaves of basil and mint from the alley. The alley has been kicking ass lately. Italian basil is producing leaves as big as a shoe and both Thai basil and mint plants are going buck wild. The pepper plants are healthy and heavy with budding peppers, but we won't have any to harvest for a few weeks yet.

The plate was coming together but looked a little under-dressed, so I made an aoli to spiff it up a little. I pureed a clove of garlic with the microplane and emulsified it with an egg yolk, some sesame oil, freshly grated horseradish, rice vinegar, Siracha, salt and pepper. It came out a nice subtle orange color, and when I drizzled it on the plate with some olive oil, the colors made the whole plate look better. The garlic in the celeriac skordalia was still pretty strong, but the peppery spice in the aoili made a nice contrast.

The Electrons made the playoffs again, and unless the league starts testing for alcohol before games we're probably looking at the makings of a dynasty. This summer is developing a nice head of steam for both the Electrons and Team Pork.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fuck it, I'm Fixing a Steak

On my last trip to Paulina Market I spotted some beautifully marbled strip steaks and instantly nabbed them. There were six of the little beauties and I got four just in time, as one of the butchers then emerged from the back and set the other two aside, I'll assume for himself but maybe a favorite client. These steaks were fantastic looking. Three inches thick, ruby red meat capped with sturdy ivory (not yellow) fat, and veins of it running through the meat like a great Nile delta of flavor. This is what I talk about when I talk about steak. I had the butcher wrap two of the steaks separately so I could freeze them, intending to deal with the other two as soon as I got home.

Most of the red meat I've eaten recently has been grilled by Tim Mydhiett in his back yard. He masters a beautiful ceramic egg barbecue oven and tends to rub things on his meat* before sticking it in there*. Lately he has been using a rub of finely-ground espresso, salt, pepper and sumac, and it has been exceptional every time I've had it. I generally dry age beef a few weeks in the fridge before cooking it, but the rub is a pretty good approach for meat being cooked without aging. I wondered if I could incorporate some of the flavors of the rub into the aging process to make the meat even more flavorful, so I set up a little experiment. I intended to cook two steaks, one rubbed and grilled immediately and one rubbed and aged prior to cooking. I made the rub of espresso, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, mustard powder, turmeric, chile de arbol and cardamom seeds ground together in a mortar and pestle, and coated the steaks with it. I didn't have any sumac so I used the other spices for a whiff of the exotic. Yma Sumac was a Nice Jewish girl from the Bronx named Amy Camus anyway.**

As fortune would have it, the Myddiette-Hunter household was planning a dinner of grilled meats and ice cream, so I had an opportunity to try my rub a-la-minute. I say they were planning, but really I called and suggested they make such plans. Sue me.

The grilled steak was excellent, and proved the merit of grabbing good meat the moment you spot it.* Cinnamon by itself doesn't play particularly well on beef, bringing to mind the watery horror that is Cincinnati chili, but when made into a kind of masala with hot pepper and other strong flavors it does wonders. Tim has been working on his ice cream chops and fuck me he makes some delicious shit. He made a pearl green mint-basil-pepper ice cream and a ruby red sorbet of raspberry, cherry and lime juice with some way back mint that both blew my mind. Complex and satisfying, they made me lust after one of those countertop freezers and Tim's ninja skills.

So the first part of the experiment was a rousing success. Meat cooked over fire is delicious, even if you put coffee on it. After sleeping off the effects of the meal I settled into a normal life while the other steak rested and matured in the fridge. When aging beef in this manner there are a couple of things to be aware of. You need to keep the meat elevated so air can get all around it or you risk anaerobic activity and potentially lethal poisoning of yourself and guests. I do this by arranging a couple of skewers or chopsticks on a plate in a grid pattern to make a little rick, and resting the steak on top of it. You need to rotate the steaks a couple of times a month so the juices redistribute and you don't end up with rawhide leather on one end and mush on the other. You need a kitchen towel or something under the meat to absorb the condensation and sweat runoff, and you need to change it frequently or your fridge will smell like a corpse. It will smell like a corpse anyway, I just put that in there so when your fridge smells like a corpse you won't freak out, you'll just change the towel and let the steak do its thing. One of the things it does is smell like a corpse.

Time passed, I learned some things about myself and other people and had a couple laughs. I got a haircut, then a trim of the same haircut and finally a trim of the trimmed haircut. I noticed my eyebrows are still pretty bushy, but have a lot more grey in them than I remembered. I wondered if men go bald in their eyebrows like they do on their heads. There's basically no baldness in my family line. My father, his father and my maternal grandfather all went to their graves with full heads of black hair. I never thought to check their eyebrows. For the better part of a month, I basically forgot I had a beautiful steak in the fridge waiting for me to cook it.

Then out of the blue one evening I was struck with the desire to eat a big fucking steak, and remembered that I had just such a thing waiting in my fridge, smelling like a corpse covered in coffee, and resolved to cook the son of a bitch and eat it. It was big enough that I could feed Heather with some of it and still stuff myself with the remains.

I love eating mashed potatoes with steak, but earlier in the week I had bought a giant celeriac bulb and thought it would make a nice accompanying dish, since mashed potatoes weren't JP. I sweated half a sweet onion and some garlic in olive oil, then added the celeriac and a small apple, both peeled and diced into half-inch cubes, and enough salted water to simmer them. While they were cooking I tended to the steak.

If cooked indoors, I prefer the finish of broiled steaks to any other method of cooking, but I've found that a thick, cold steak cooked under the broiler generally stays cold in the center, and that can make for an unpleasant sensation in the mouth. I have taken to starting the steak in a skillet, then finishing it under the broiler, and the meat comes out nicely rare. I cooked this beauty just like that, with a couple of minutes on top of the stove in olive oil, then another three or four under the screaming hot broiler on each face. I slid a couple of halved tomatoes into the skillet for both episodes of the cooking process to serve alongside the steak.

When the steak was done, I removed it from the skillet and let it rest on the cutting board. This step is critical for aged beef because the peripheral meat can easily dry out if served hot from the fire. I used the resting period to finish the celeriac. I buzzed the contents of the pot (celeriac, apples and onions) with the stick blender until smooth and tasted it. It was good, but I was a little concerned that the strong flavors of the steak would overwhelm it and it would end up being just a kind of neutral matter on the plate. I decided to make the puree into a kind of skordalia by adding some strong olive oil and a couple cloves of fresh garlic. That turned out to be a really good idea. I plated the puree and was about to nestle the tomatoes in it when I remembered that the alley basil had recently bulked up, so I ran out into the alley and grabbed some fat leaves to set the tomatoes on. Little leaf boats. Adorable. I cut the steak into pieces, laid them into the celeriac and drizzled olive oil over them. A little cracked pepper and sea salt and the plate was done.

This meal was exactly what I needed to break the rice-and-greens monotony of the JP diet. A big fucking steak, colored purple and red by the aging process, seared and crackly on the outside, stinking like bleu cheese in a wet sock, on a pillow of savory puree that stung my eyes with its garlic breath. The fat had dried into a kind of cheese, and when I bit through the crust of seared rub and beef essence it bathed my tongue in an unctuous, marrow-like butter. Even the tomatoes were terrific, hot, astringent and wet, they acted like both a salad and steak sauce. I horked the whole plate into my gut like I was trying to impress somebody and lay down on the couch feeling like a fucking emperor. I was asleep in minutes.

Did the rub make any difference in the aged steak? Hell I don't know. A thick, quality steak like this with a couple of weeks dry age on it is so incredibly good you could probably empty out Dave's shop vac on it and it would still rule.

*You heard me.

**No she wasn't.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Vegetable Pilaf with Prosciutto Ribbons and Egg Yolk

The difference between what I would call a pilaf or a risotto is almost the difference between a salad and a soup. Risotto is served pretty wet, with the starch and liquid elements creating a kind of sauce that binds the rice, and risotto can hold its own as an entree. Pilaf has distinct grains and usually accompanies something else. Heather was hungry, but I didn't want to tie myself up in the kitchen for half an hour making a risotto, so I decided to split the difference and make a pilaf with some extra crap on it that would be substantial enough to serve as a meal.

I started by making a sofrito of onions, garlic and carrot and sweating it in some olive oil. Then I added the rice, vegetable stock (did I mention I made stock? It's awesome) and a mashed chipotle pepper and brought it to a boil. Once the stock was boiling, I dunked a plum tomato in it for a few seconds, then retrieved, peeled and chopped it. If you add fresh tomato at the beginning of cooking something like this it mutes the bright flavor and the skin tends to slough off, turning nice tomato pieces into a rubbery rude confetti with bits of mush. I wanted the tomato to be a fresh element, so I reserved it to add at the end of cooking.

Dropping the tomato into the stock immediately lowered the temperature to a simmer, so when I took it out I lowered the fire to compensate and keep the rice at a steady light simmer. I let the rice go for about 12 minutes, then shut it off and let it rest with the lid on until finished, which only takes a couple of minutes. I stirred the diced tomato and reserved juice into the rice and plated it, plopping an egg yolk in the middle of the rice. The hot rice denatures the yolk slightly, changing it from a runny liquid to a capsule of creamy, rich sauce, which I imagined Heather stirring into the rice after making a flattering "ooh" sound. She probably didn't make the sound, but imagining it is what keeps me going some times.

We had some very nice imported prosciutto from Paulina Market, so I cut a slice of it into ribbons and draped them over the pilaf, then sprinkled some chopped alley parsley and alley mint over the whole plate. A quick drizzle of olive oil, some fresh cracked pepper and crunchy sea salt and the plate was done. The rice itself had much of the flavor of the stock and sofrito, the yolk made itself into a rich sauce, the prosciutto was prosciutto and therefore awesome, and the herbs, tomato, olive oil and pepper added a bright vegetal top note.

I made two plates, one for Heather and one for me, and when I stirred the egg yolk into the rice I made a little "ooh" sound, in imitation of the sound I imagined Heather would make when she did the same. This bit of business allowed me the satisfaction of inducing an "ooh," even if it was a self-satisfied one and not the genuine article. I'm too old to care about such distinctions and sometimes I just "ooh" at my own food. Fuck it, nobody's listening.

Sausage Dumplings in Gravy

I had a blowout on my hands. A band was scheduled to do a one-day session, during which they intended to record and overdub three songs, an ambitious amount of work to do in a day even under normal circumstances. Over the course of a couple hours at the start of the day, two tape machines and the air conditioning unit for studio A all took a dump. Given that we were short-staffed, moving a third tape machine in from the second floor would take a long-ass time and the studio was getting uncomfortably warm, so the band decided to pull the plug. I felt awful about the studio letting the band down, so I offered them an additional day on the house so they would have enough time to get done what they wanted without feeling rushed. The whole thing put me in a rotten mood, and by the time everyone split it was early evening, so I decided to invent something for dinner to take my mind off it. I had been thinking about boiled dumplings, and wondered if I could enrobe something in a dumpling dough to make a more complex, less stodgy dish.

Don't get me wrong, I love plain dumplings in soup or stew, but I wanted something less solid, and with surprises inside. We still had a couple of fresh bratwurst from Paulina Market, and sausage is a pretty good surprise*. Instead of mixing uncased sausage into a forcemeat filling, I decided to cut the sausage into little nuggets and surround them with minced vegetables inside the dumplings. To firm them up prior to cutting into portions, I put them in a pot of cold water and turned on the fire. While they were coming up to temperature, I made the vegetable portion of the filling.

I had made lunch for Heather to take to work the day before, some little rice paper parcels full of mixed greens, which I decorated by including some colorful herbs, vegetables and apple. I only needed a half-dozen slices of apple for her lunch, so I sliced and dressed the rest of the apple for future use. I made a vinaigrette of rice vinegar, mustard, sesame oil and some left-over steak rub containing ground espresso coffee, yellow curry powder, salt, pepper and ground chile de arbol, and coated the apple slices with it. After marinating overnight, they were slightly pickled and chutney-like. I diced the apple slices fine, and did the same with some slices of carrot, ginger, red pepper and plum tomato, then mixed them all together with the residual apple dressing and a couple of mashed garlic cloves.

The sausages had come up to a simmer, which was enough to make them firm, so I took them out of the water and let them rest and stabilize until time to make the dumplings and turned my attention to the dough.

Since rice flour has virtually no gluten (the rice flour marked "glutenous" is actually a nearly pure starch useful primarily as a gelling agent), I needed to bind the dough with something to keep it together. Normally I'd use eggs, but the fat in the yolk tends to weaken the dough. The interior of these dumplings was going to be lumpy and wanted a pretty sturdy casing, so I used a couple of egg whites instead, mixing them into a mixture of rice flour and brown rice flour. This also had the effect of keeping the dough a pure white. When the dough had come together I let it rest for a moment while I cut the sausages into inch-long segments.

For each dumpling, I patted the dough into a circle, then filled the middle with a spoonful of the vegetables and a sausage nugget, then pleated the dough closed and rolled everything together into a smooth ball between my hands. The dough was barely holding together, and if I tried anything more decorative it was likely to tear or puncture. I placed the dumplings in simmering salted water and let them bob around until done. The hot water cooked the egg whites and stabilized the shape so the dumplings were sturdy enough to manipulate once they came up to temperature.

While the dumplings were poaching I made the gravy. I started by putting the remaining vegetable compote in a skillet with some olive oil, and when everything had caramelized slightly I added some vegetable stock and some leftover saffron rice. Once everything was cooked soft, I ran a stick blender through it. The rice thickened the gravy without the pasty effect a refined starch can leave in your mouth. After seating the dumpling in the gravy I dotted the bowl with some Siracha for spice and color, snipped some nori shreds over the bowl with scissors and scattered some black volcanic sea salt. I was happy with the result.

The next night I made another gravy for the remaining dumplings using apple, tomato and onion, but the leftover rice was gone, so I used a roasted red pepper to provide body instead, and the gravy came out a nice deep red color. I made a quick mayonnaise with olive oil, mustard and fresh horseradish, and dotted the sauce with that in a kind of photo-negative mimic of the Siracha.

I got so wrapped up in making the dumplings I totally forgot I was in a rotten mood. I hear that's why alcoholics drink booze. I hope I don't have a problem.

*Really? That's where we're going with this?

Monday, July 18, 2011


Since she started up with the JP, I have been trying not just to make dinner for Heather, but some kind of portable lunch when possible so she doesn't have to go off script if she gets hungry at work. I know what she likes, but sometimes it's hard to make something portable. Tupperware tubs of soup can be hard to reheat or serve from, and a lot of what I make is only really presentable when served hot. The one solution has been spring rolls, but mercy, how many damn spring rolls can a girl eat without feeling put upon. It was time to try something new to keep the spark alive.* Hyachacha.

I like the effect of bitter greens being tempered by a sour dressing or tart fruit, so I decided to make some little rice paper parcels with greens and a savory dressing, but I shuddered at the thought of Heather confronting a drab hockey puck of cooked greens staring up at her from a plastic tub. Hulk Smash mint out in the alley had come into flower, and I thought I could use the buds and leaves to add some visual interest, with a slice of apple framing them inside a contrasting background.

The Greens were pretty standard. I wilted kale and leeks with some sliced garlic in some bacon fat and a splash of vegetable stock, and once they were cooked I mixed in some fresh basil, mint and parsley leaves from the alley. While the greens were cooling down I made the dressing. The dressing was also pretty standard, some sesame oil, Siracha, chopped garlic and hot mustard whisked together into a quick vinaigrette. The hot elements contrasted nicely with the cool herbs and the acid complimented the bitterness of the greens, making the effect savory and complex rather than rude.

Also drank a shot of the pot liquor. Fuck me delicious. Somebody's gonna make a fortune off pot liquor.

For each parcel I soaked a square rice paper sheet in hot water and laid it out on a damp kitchen towel like a baseball diamond, then arranged a mint bud or other leaf and a slice of golden apple as decorations, occasionally accenting them with some shaved carrot strips or sliced tomato, then mounded the greens on the apple slice and doused them with the dressing. When bound up in the rice paper the visual effect was gauzy and muted, which had the rather nice effect of making the parcels seem less clinical, less like botanical specimens.

Look, I know this is a kind of trick. It's basically a spring roll in a different shape, and the decorations don't really change the eating experience, but cut me a little slack here. I'm trying to make it so Heather doesn't get bored or have to hide in her office eating some mud-colored putty while everybody else is whooping it up with pizzas and caramel macchiati.** 

That's what they do there. They whoop it up.

*Attributed to unspecified woman, possibly an actress.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Huevos con Papas sin Papas

One of Heather's favorite breakfasts has long been huevos con papas. Growing up, she had close family friends who made them for her, and I'm certain it appeals to her because it's both delicious and nostalgic. She can usually put away four or five of these breakfast tacos, stuffed with fried potatoes and eggs, usually with some onion, sometimes chorizo, and always with cilantro, jalapeño and lime juice for flavor. While she's on the JP, I strive to make her meals as appealing as her favorites from the regular world, and I decided to try to make a breakfast that was evocative of huevos con papas, but without the forbidden lime juice and potatoes. I have my doubts about tortillas as well. They seem far too bread-like to be permissible, but from the crude rules we operate by (taken from memory of a single conversation over 15 years ago), they've always been fair game. To be on the safe side, and because we didn't have any tortillas in the house, I decided to use spring roll wrappers instead.

I started by making a sofrito of onion, garlic, fennel and diced linguisa, which were all cooked together in olive oil until the linguisa had rendered a little fat and color and the vegetables were soft and giving, with a hint of caramelization. While that was underway I prepared the eggs. I beat three eggs and some sesame oil, lightened with a little vegetable stock, until they were absolutely smooth, then I added chopped parsley and fennel fronds, salt, pepper and some Mexican oregano, crushed. When the vegetables were ready, I folded the eggs into the skillet, moving them around until just shy of being set. Eggs keep cooking for a couple of minutes after they come off the heat, so I always take them off while shiny and slightly wet.

Instead of potatoes, I used slices of avocado to support the eggs inside the spring roll, wrapping them together with some cilantro, scallions, crunchy sea salt and juilienne of ginger and jalapeño. When cooked conventionally, the potatoes would be soft and rich, having absorbed considerable olive oil or butter, and the buttery, smooth avocado was a pretty good potato proxy. The visual effect was a little drab, but when served with some salsa the whole dish looked okay. The salsa came out of a jar, and I'm sure it had some non-JP elements, but fuck it, we're not ninjas.

The linguisa was a nice alternative to chorizo, which can be a little greasy and loose, and the overall effect was solidly tasty. It wasn't really that much like huevos con papas, but it was pretty good. Pretty good. That's what we're shooting for folks, pretty good.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tomato Soup with Fennel-Scallion Soup Nuts

We were about 30 minutes away from going to the neighborhood carnival with the Mydyett-Hunter family when Heather confessed hunger. I needed to make something and get it in her before we left or she'd be stuck with nothing but the horrors of the midway fry stands. I asked her if a soup would be good and she made a sad face, because her current eating regimen doesn't allow bread, and she usually has bread or toast with soup. I proposed making some soup nuts and she acquiesced, though I don't think she had much confidence in the experiment.

Soup nuts are little fried dumplings you can float on soup that serve the place of crackers or bread. I know about them from the Jewish food tradition, but there ought to be equivalents in most cultures that make soup and fry things. I started the soup nut dough by chopping a scallion and the fronds of a fennel bulb. I should have diced them really fine, but in my haste I just ran the knife through them and tossed them in a bowl. I added an egg, some salt and sesame oil and beat the wet ingredients together with a fork.

For the dry ingredients, I mixed some white rice flour and brown rice flour with a little bit of baking powder, then mixed in the wet ingredients until thoroughly incorporated. I put about an inch of canola oil in the bottom of a small pot on the stove to heat, then turned my attention to the soup. I don't really like canola oil for tasks other than frying because it doesn't taste like anything, but it can take higher temperatures than most oils, so it's fine for frying.

For the soup I diced half a sweet onion and half a fennel bulb (jesus what's with me and fennel lately) and sweated them in olive oil along with a couple smashed cloves of garlic and a couple tablespoons of diced carrot, seasoning everything with salt and pepper. When everything was soft and just starting to caramelize, I added a can of San Marzano tomatoes, crushing them as I did. Once that all came up to a boil, I turned it down to a simmer and made the soup nuts.

The baking powder had lightened the dough nicely, so I was able to use a teaspoon to make neat little morsels of it, and they fried up quickly into little hairy balls.* I fried them to a lighter color than usual to avoid burning the bits of fennel and scallion that protruded all over, but they were small enough to be fully cooked by then. I drained them on paper towels, and dusted them with sea salt while still hot. I tried one on its own and it was pretty tasty. I can imagine eating a whole bowl of them while watching a ballgame.

The soup was ready, so I creamed it with the stick blender, whose praises I have sung before, and served it with the soup nuts on the side. The whole thing came together so quickly Heather not only got lunch, but had time to change her mind about her outfit before we had to leave. At the carnival midway I found the make-your-own-slush booth and made a kind of pousse-cafe out of root beer, blue raspberry, cherry, lemon and lime. It was awesome except for the crippling brainfreeze. Lila was pretty fearless on rides and fed baby goats in the petting zoo. soup (v) soup nuts (vg)

*That's a really weak that's what she said. I don't have much to tickle you with this time.**
**That's what she said

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fake Okonomiyaki

When I visited Osaka in 198something I was introduced to the local specialty okonomiyaki, a delicious dinner pancake. Restaurants serving okonomiyaki have tables with little griddles in the middle, and they're made with lots of fanfare that would be annoying if it weren't done by Japanese people. They have such a formal, serious bearing that they can do basically anything and you just assume it's an ancient ritual and is therefore cool. It's not such a stretch when you remember they actually have quasi-religious ceremonies for serving tea and sake. The kitchen dude comes out and oils the griddle, then mixes some chopped cabbage and other vegetables with a rice flour batter and pours it on the griddle, forming it with wooden tools that probably have awesome names. When the pancake has set up, you paint it with some soy sauce, then some bonito flakes are scattered on it and it's flipped over. More painting, more scattering, and then the whole thing is cut up and served. If the guy doesn't do it to your satisfaction he cuts off a finger and presents it to you in atonement*.

It's showy and fun, a kind of kabuki make-a-pizza, and I loved it. The pancake itself is substantial, the vegetables give it a complex texture, and the glazing of soy sauce and bonito is both savory and sweet. I thought Heather might like it, and eating JP style gave me an excuse to make a version of okonomiyaki for her. Granted, the dish I made for her is nothing like a real okonomiyaki, but that's why I made it.

I started by slicing a fennel bulb and half a sweet onion really thin and caramelizing them in olive oil. Fennel cooked this way gets marvelously sweet and has an almost brittle texture. Onions get similarly changed by caramelization, but the transformation doesn't seem as magical. Caramelized onions still taste like onions, but fennel tastes like candy.

While the fennel was cooking, I made the batter. I started with a couple of eggs, some olive oil and a ladle of vegetable stock, then whisked-in rice flour until the consistency was smooth and slightly heavier than a crepe batter. I mixed the flour in first so the starch granules would have time to hydrate before I had to pour the pancake. I grated a carrot and chopped the fennel fronds finely and added them to the batter along with some finely sliced scallion and celery, sea salt and black pepper.

By the time all the vegetables were incorporated, the fennel and onions were nicely caramelized, so I poured the batter over them. I couldn't cook the pancake entirely on top of the stove without flipping it, but I wanted a nice surface for presentation, so I decided to finish it under the broiler. The residual heat in the pan was sufficient to set the pancake, so it didn't need too much time under the broiler. I didn't want a browned top, just a firm surface to spread the dressing on.

I needed a dressing to substitute for the soy sauce glaze, so I used the microplane to make a puree of a garlic clove, then made it into an emulsion with sesame oil and rice vinegar, and added some grated ginger, chopped roasted red pepper and more of the fennel fronds. Microplanes are fantastic for this kind of chore. It would take a five minutes and a bunch of mushing with a mortar and pestle to make a smooth garlic puree conventionally, but just rubbing a clove through a fine microplane gets it done in seconds. I covered the pancake with the dressing and scattered some sea salt, garnishing with a chiffonnade of alley mint.

The dressing contrasted with the candy-like bottom** of the pancake, making each forkful nicely complex and mimicking the effect of the soy and bonito in the original item. Heather was pleased, and I got to keep all my fingers. I told her about the custom I observed during my stay in Japan, of the over-served salaryman pissing in a doorway, performing the traditional drunken-outside-pee ceremony. She said it sounded beautiful and moving. (v)

*Not really.
**You heard me. Candy-like bottom.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Colorful Snack Items

Vegetables in Saffron Maki and Truffled Pâté in Hibiscus Maki

Avocado, Ginger and Wasabi in Calico Maki

I've gone bananas for making these maki rolls. They're pretty easy and you can put anything you want in them. For the poker game on Tuesday I made three varieties using two kinds of rice, one I cooked conventionally in vegetable stock and saffron came out a nice bright yellow, the other was soaked in jamaica (hibiscus flower infusion) overnight and also cooked in it, with a little salt. I think the salt acted as a mordant for the color, allowing the rice to stay a vivid magenta-purple when cooked.

I knew I would be doing something with hibiscus rice this week, since it had been on my mind, and while shopping at Paulina Market I saw some nice looking pâté in their refrigerator case. The ingredient list was admirably brief: chicken liver, pork liver, truffle oil, parsley and salt, so I got some to try. The tart hibiscus rice suggested a rich, flavorful interior, and after tasting a bit on some bread, it seemed like this pâté should fit the bill.

Pâté is often served with pickled vegetables to cut its richness, usually pickled onions, cornichons or gherkins, so I sliced some red onion real thin and pickled it in rice vinegar while the rice was soaking. I also like the way strong herbs work in conjunction with rich, fatty elements so I buffered the pâté with some alley mint. In the end I made some with the pickled onion and some with sliced dill pickles, and both came out fine. The pickled onions were almost the same color as the hibiscus rice so weren't as striking visually, but that's a quibble. I could easily devise a method to highlight the difference by separating them inside the roll by changing the sequence of layering with the mint if I made them again.

The vegetable rolls were made with the remaining pickled onion, some shredded carrot, roasted red pepper and some kale, cooked with onions, garlic, alley basil and mint. I dressed the carrots with sesame oil and rice vinegar so they acted as a kind of slaw, and the acidic bite did wonders to liven up the dark, muted flavor of the cooked greens. The color combination inside the roll made a nice mock flame, which mimics the logo of either the Campfire Girls, Standard Oil or the BK Broiler.

Since I had two types of rice made, I tried making a variegated roll using both. I dropped little bits of rice all over the nori sheet from each batch, then spread them with my fingers into a kind of calico, then stuffed them with slices of avocado, dressed with some diced ginger and pickled onion. I remembered while constructing the first roll that I had bought a piece of wasabi root at Mitsuwa the other day for some rice balls and still had some left. I grated it with a microplane into a smooth paste and spread a little dollop along the avocado.

Holy shit, real wasabi is awesome. Having been previously only exposed to the pea-green nuisance conventionally served as wasabi, I was absolutely startled by the difference when using the genuine article. Genuine wasabi is a lovely pastel green and has a little kick to it, but it isn't the assault on your palate and sinuses I've come to expect from the mealy paste served with most sushi. It has a smooth, gradual build of flavor with a raw, vegetal quality I described as "jungle-y" when I first tried it. The piece I bought was about the size of a 35mm film cannister (weed box) and cost me $13, so it isn't something to be used frivolously, but it is magical tucked into its traditional place next to rice and seaweed.

Yellow and calico rolls (v).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Hibiscus Rainbo for Pride

Hibiscus Spring Rolls with Savory Rice, Ham, Pepper and Mint

Hibiscus Rice Vegetable Maki

The taqerias of Chicago are ubiquitous and harbor a multitude of fantastic drinks. The cane-sugar Mexican Coke, spicy rich horchata, and many splendid flavors of Jarritos and Jumex are delicious little whiffs of the exotic within easy reach, and I indulge in them often. I have long been intrigued by jamaica, the magenta hibiscus flower infusion, but admit to not particularly enjoying it as a drink. It has a spectacular tartness and a mineral undertaste that are only calmed when served overly sweet, which doesn't appeal to me as my sweet tooth has evaporated as I mature. I have long thought that jamaica's unique attributes -- tartness, lean complexity and brilliant color -- could be useful in cooking for more than just drinking, and recently I've been experimenting with it. The dried hibiscus petals are available in most Mexican markets, and they are potent. A small handful will make a couple of quarts of infusion with a brilliant ruby color and a strong, complex flavor.

My first hibiscus experiment was to use unsweetened jamaica instead of water to hydrate the rice paper wrappers for some spring rolls. The wrappers can be a little pasty, and I thought the tartness of hibiscus could ameliorate that. The wrappers didn't take on the vivid hue of the jamaica, but were both appreciably magenta and appreciably sour. I cooked the rice in stock with saffron, and paired with some emerald green mint leaves from the alley, some pink smoked ham, and marinated roasted red pepper, the visual effect was bright and jolly. The hibiscus flavor, though muted by the rice paper, was discernible and interesting and made an additional dipping sauce unnecessary. My only reservation was that I didn't have any bright blue color to complete the rainbow in the rolls, since I made them during Pride weekend.

As an aside, I've always been intrigued by the unique Chicago idomatic spelling "rainbo." This spelling was used for Rainbo Donuts (now closed), Rainbo Roller Rink (also), the Rainbo Club (closes in about an hour as I type, but will be open again once the hipsters wake), Rainbo Gardens jazz club, the Rainbo housing development in Uptown and probably a hundred more places. It's baffling and charming.

My next Pride Week experiment was soaking rice in jamaica to add a note of sourness to some maki rolls without having to use citrus juice or vinegar. I let the rice hydrate in the jamaica overnight, then cooked it in jamaica with a little salt. Prior to cooking, the rice looked spectacular, a mottled deep purple resembling little slivers of alabaster. After cooking, the rice evened out into a uniform magenta pink that was a bit of a letdown in comparison, but tasted great, sour and salty and rich. In both color and sensation the rice reminded me of umeboshi, the salty Japanese pickled plum used as a condiment and seasoning. I intend to continue these experiments using umeboshi in conjunction with hibiscus to see how they compliment each other.

I made the maki rolls in the manner of a pretend-ninja. I put on black pyjamas and silently spread the rice on nori sheets, stealthily wrapping them around middles composed of mint, celery, julienne of ginger and roasted red pepper marinated in sesame oil and garlic. We recently made the trek out to Mitsuwa, the Asian market in Arlington Heights, and I bought several brands of nori sheet, ranging from a couple of bucks to $12 for a package. It saddens me to say the more expensive nori sheets were easier to roll, crisper to bite into and noticeably more flavorful. I guess from now on I'll know the difference and be an asshole about it. Why do I set myself up like this.

Cut into portions, the exposed colors of the rolls suited the occasion, and I couldn't jave been jappier with the eating of these. The tartness of the jamaica rice acted as a kind of trojan jorse for the rich, oily and savory elements inside the rolls. It was satisfying to eat these little pieces and jave the flavors and mouth sensations evolve and complicate over time. Jooray for jamaica. (v)