Sunday, September 25, 2011

Weird Little Mushrooms in Soup

After living a mile from it for a decade, I finally made a shopping trip to Jong Boo Korean Market, which I drive by often but had never set foot in. The occasion was a successful day of marketing that included the new fancy supermarket that just opened across from the Jewel, Paulina for meat and a fly-by of Andy's for some weird little cucumbers and such. Jong Boo was pretty cool, and I got some stuff I was curious to try cooking with, including red miso, a big hunk of fresh pork belly, Korean shiso leaves (colloquially called "sesame leaves" in Korean), Koeran leek chives, fresh Chinese noodles and a carton of weird little white mushrooms cultivated in a mass. As soon as we got home I decided now was as good a time as any to try making a soup with some of this stuff.

I started the soup by sweating some onions and garlic in some sesame oil reinforced with olive oil. When they were soft and smelled good, I added some finely diced ginger, carrots and peppers. The alley patch has been incredibly productive this year, prodigiously producing Hungarian wax peppers, jalapenos, tiny Thai chiles, little golfball-sized cherry red peppers and some red things that look like serrano peppers but aren't as hot. For this soup, I made a brunoise of a fat jalapeno, one of the red mock serranos and a couple of the little Thai firecrackers. Those things are pretty hot, but aren't disruptive unless you bite directly into a whole chile.

I salted all the vegetables, and once they made their introductions, I covered them with water and stirred-in a healthy blob of the red miso. When the miso had dispersed and formed a broth, I added a splash of fish sauce and let the whole thing come up to a boil. Meanwhile I boiled water for the noodles. Typical Asian soups have noodles boiled separately and added to the bowl, and that seemed like a good protocol to follow. Boiling the noodles separately keeps the starch in the noodles from leaching into the soup and clouding and thickening it. The noodles are less flavorful than egg noodles, so it's critical to salt the water they boil in or they'll be a flavorless paste. 

While the noodles were boiling, I prepared some herbs. I tried one of the leek chives, and it was underwhelming. Not a lot of flavor and a strong chlorophyll taste. I plunged one into the soup stock and let it blanch a little, then tasted it again and was surprised that the raw greenness had left, leaving a nice mild onion/chive/leek flavor. I chopped a small handfull and dropped them in the soup. I tried the shiso/sesame leaf raw and it was pretty rude, with a medicinal/poisonous licorice flavor that reminded me of sassafras and wintergreen. I was intrigued by the flavor and didn't dislike it, but I suspected Heather would be put off by it. I tried blanching a leaf and the medicinal quality was reduced considerably, leaving just the suggestion of anise and wintergreen. I rolled a couple of the leaves into a bundle, cut them into ribbons of chiffonade and added them to the soup. The final flavor of the soup was hearty and complex, with considerable spiciness and a rich mouth feel. Given the complex flavor of the shiso, I thought fresh mint and tarragon would compliment it, so I ran out to the alley and grabbed some, then chopped them fine to use as a garnish.

When the noodles were done, I made a little mound of them in the soup bowls, then ladled the soup over the top. The stock had turned a lovely amber color, but was a little plain, so I floated a couple slices of spicy capicola on it. The heat from the soup instantly made the fat transparent and the meat turned a bright rosy pink. I pulled a few of the weird little mushrooms off the cluster and plunked them in the soup, then scattered some of the chopped herbs over the soup, and the final look of the soup was nice.

The pork belly will be in play shortly.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How Popcorn Came to Matter

Heather loves popcorn. We go through phases where she needs popcorn every evening, so I make a lot of popcorn. When I was a kid, my mom made popcorn with olive oil and butter as the frying medium. Timing was critical, because if the fire was too hot or the popcorn didn't come off the fire precisely when it was done popping, the butter solids burned and it came out horrible, but when it everything worked, it was delicious. I have tried making popcorn this way, but in the interest of a higher success ratio I have modified the mom technique.

I use canola oil for the cooking medium. It has no flavor, but can handle high temperatures easily, and a high temperature means fewer un-popped "old maid" kernels are left. For on top* I mostly use melted butter, and once in a while we get this ridiculous Irish butter that costs like ten bucks a pound just for the popcorn. While Heather was rocking the JP, and occasionally to accommodate movie night with vegan friends, I make a topping that is as delicious as butter but isn't butter.

I'm going to call it a dressing. I hate that word "topping." It's a food industry word for something fake and gross to use instead of something normal like butter. Worse, it's an all-purpose word, used equivalently for synthetic versions of mayonnaise, whipped cream, bacon crumbles or ice cream sprinkles. Fuck "topping" and "spread" and "chocolaty" and "creamer" and the rest of the industrial food replacement dictionary.

The non-butter dressing I've settled on is a clove of garlic emulsified with some liquid smoke, siracha, sesame oil and olive oil. There's more olive oil than anything else, but the other elements make the dressing complex enough to do battle with the Irish butter. I have tried adding various other savory sauces, Worcestershire (and its Sheffield counterpart  Henderson's Relish), Tabasco and balsamic vinegar, but none of them improved matters and some of them occasionally made kernels damp in spots. 

Regardless of the dressing, popcorn isn't really fit for eating without salt, and given the geometry and physics of popcorn and oil, popcorn salt needs to be ground very fine to do any business with popcorn. A civilized popcorn experience requires fine popcorn salt, and trying to make do with granulated table salt is what pruno is to wine. Like that prisoner's tipple, brewed in toilet tanks from packets of mystery fruit jelly (topping? sure) and moldy bread, it sucks, it's degrading and it's for people who have been shit on by life. At the million-plex theater where Heather and I go see movies sometimes, they don't butter the popcorn at the concession, they hand it to you and make you walk over to the oil pumps to butter it yourself. With topping, we can call it topping. Adding fuck you you're a sucker and we hate you to insult, there is no popcorn salt, only little paper packets of granulated salt like you'd get in a pre-pack of plastic cutlery. In prison. The next step down the ladder is a cavity search.**

To salt our popcorn, I tart-up regular sea salt with some dried Mexican oregano, black pepper and paprika, and grind it super fine in a mortar. It comes out like talcum powder and it disperses well into the popcorn's texture. If I'm in a rush I'll grind some Vegeta with the salt instead of individual herbs and spices. If we're using the olive oil dressing instead of butter, I'm more likely to just use plain salt and pepper for seasoning. Having just returned from Hawaii (thank you Hawaii) and still being in the throes of a Li Hing Mui obsession, I'll be trying that out on some popcorn real soon, and I suspect it will be wonderful.
Li Hing Mui
Stop Press! Just made some li hing popcorn and it was delicious. Made popcorn and dressed it with butter, reserving some for the li hing experiment and seasoning the rest for Heather with ground salt, pepper and oregano. For the experimental bowl I ground li hing powder with salt and dusted the popcorn with it. It turned my fingers a rather gaudy scarlet, but man that stuff is great. Sour, salty and pungent with fruit and licorice.

Li Hing, I will see you soon. I have plans for you. (v) or (vg)

* Bishop.
** Then blanket party.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Burdock What the Hell is Burdock

Like most people, the only time I ever come across burdock root is watching episodes of the original Japanese Iron Chef. They seem to throw burdock in everything they boil, and having eaten my share of Japanese food, I'm pretty sure I've eaten it, but I couldn't tell you what it tastes like and couldn't identify its flavor blindfolded. While at Mitsuwa buying a bunch of Asian stuff, I came across a pile of burdock roots, each about a yard long, in the produce section. Burdock certainly doesn't look like food, it looks like a dirty stick. Now's as good a time as any to find out what burdock is all about, I assured myself, and six bucks later I owned a solid yard of dirty stick.*

I did some googling but got bored with it and decided to just boil some and see what was up. Turns out it tastes pretty dull and isn't much fun in the mouth**. Kinda like dirt crossed with a turnip plus rope. The smell of it while boiling was pretty interesting though, like a wet dog and a rotting tree stump. If you've ever taken a dog for a walk in the woods after it rains you'll know what I'm talking about. I decided on the spot to make some vegetable stock with the burdock and use that to make a risotto as a vehicle for the funk.***

I don't know if you're supposed to peel burdock, but the outside is the part that doesn't look like food, so I peeled it and cut it into one-inch lengths. The burdock being pretty long, there were a lot of one-inch lengths to deal with.**** I started the stock by slightly caramelizing an onion, some celery and an apple, chopped coarsely, and a mess of little carrots from a bag. When they were browned a little, I seasoned the vegetables with a handful of salt and added four or five smashed garlic cloves, a couple bay leaves and the burdock, then covered everything with water and let it come to a boil. Once boiling, I turned it down to a simmer. I skimmed the stock a couple of times out of habit over the course of about an hour, but the stock was pretty clean.

Using cold liquid to make risotto takes a long ass time so I like to have the stock on a light fire right next to the rice pan so adding stock doesn't bring down the temperature of the risotto. While decanting the stock into the warming pot I noticed that the burdock pieces had retained their structure through more than an hour of cooking, while all the other vegetables were reduced to putty. Curious, I threw one in my mouth and it wasn't half bad. Still underwhelming but the texture had improved, and I could see pores in the center of the root had opened up, which might allow for a dressing to penetrate and make it tastier. I reserved a dozen or so of the burdock chunks to dress for later and pitched everything else.

I tried a shot of the stock and it was pretty good. Had the sort of dirty undercarriage musk I associate with mushroom stock, but without the lingering sensation of rot and slime. If I needed mushroom stock for something I wouldn't hesitate to use burdock broth instead.

Anyhow, made the risotto, starting with a sofrito of diced apple (or was it pear? I can't remember for sure, but I want to say it was pear) onion and celery, and while that was underway I built the dressing for the burdock hunks by making a puree of a garlic clove with a microplane and emulsifying it with an egg yolk, mustard, some sesame oil, siracha, rice vinegar, salt and a little honey. I covered the burdock with it and let it soak in. The risotto was coming together nicely but as the dirty color of the burdock broth intensified in it, the color was starting to look  drab and a little shitty, so I made a plan to enliven the plate with a roasted red pepper puree. It's a pretty good quick sauce for anything starchy, just throw a roasted red pepper in the blender with a little olive oil, salt and vinegar and you've got a nice bright red sauce that tastes delicious. I built the plates with the risotto surrounded by the pepper sauce, then loaded the burdock chunks on top, scattered some alley herbs and shaved some parmigiano over everything.

The risotto was excellent, with the murky taste of the burdock***** broth brightened by the tangy dressing and red pepper sauce, and while the burdock wasn't an exciting vegetable to eat, it was a decent vehicle for a nice dressing and was the catalyst for this whole thing. Sort of like an asshole buddy who introduces you to the love of your life, he gets a pass lifetime for that. (vg) (v without egg yolk or parmigiano)

* Do I have to spell it out for you?
**Overheard at the PRF BBQ
***"Vehicle" by the Ides of March is pretty funky
****Overheard at Quenchers pre-PRF BBQ
*****While I was typing that last bit, I mis-typed burdock as "buttdock," which was too good to just erase

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Homemade Cheese to Garnish Sausage and Peppers

Making cheese is way more daunting than bread. Bad bread, whatever, it's still bread. Bad cheese could end up a weird moldy science experiment that stinks like rotting garbage and cures syphilis. Nevertheless, despite not really knowing how, I thought I'd give it a shot. When I was a kid, my mom made a kind of farmers' cheese by curdling milk with lemon juice and straining the curd, and I thought I could handle that. I had about a half-gallon of whole milk in the fridge, which seemed like it ought to be enough to test the principle. Milk needs to be hot for the protein to react with the acid in the lemon juice, so I put the milk in a pot on a low heat with a little salt. I saw a cheesemaker on YouTube put salt in his milk, so what the hell me too. As a kind of hedge against the cheese coming out awful, while it was coming up to temperature, I steeped a handful of mint and Thai basil leaves from the alley in it. I didn't get that off YouTube, I came up with that on my own. If the cheese had an awful consistency it would at least taste like something.

When the milk was just barely up to a simmer, I strained out the mint and returned the milk to the pot, then added the juice of a lemon and let the milk come back to a light simmer. I was concerned that lemon juice might not work as well as rennet, but it jelled fairly quickly, so I took it off the heat and let it rest. When it had cooled to room temperature, I stirred it to break the curd, then poured the curd and whey into a colander lined with cheese cloth. I was startled by how much whey there was, and how little cheese, and started to feel like an idiot. I wondered if there was enough whey to make it worth trying to make a ricotta, but decided against it, preferring to win one battle rather than lose two.

The cheese was profoundly wet, so I balled up the cheesecloth like a purse, tied it off and let it drain, sitting in a strainer resting in a bowl in the fridge. It was still about a cup's worth, so the maybe the effort wasn't wasted. I let the cheese set for almost a week before I tried to use it. Fort the occasion I made a little plate of salami and apple slices, and tried to incorporate my new cheese. It had the crumbly consistency of ricotta salata or feta, but was much milder in taste. The mint and basil imparted a cool herbal essence (1970 called, she wants her shampoo back), but overall the cheese was unremarkable. I wrapped it back up in its cheesecloth and stuck it in the fridge.

Much time passed. Heather and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our anniversary (really we just like to go to Hawaii once in a while), and while there we ate like royalty. On our first night back, I needed to make dinner, but we had very little in the kitchen, having depleted resources prior to leaving town. I made a quick run to Jewel and grabbed a couple of apples, some smoked bacon and a sweet Italian sausage. I was pretty sure I could grab enough stuff from the alley to make a decent ragu to serve over some rice, and that would be our dinner. In a quick ransacking of the alley, I grabbed two bright red jalapeño peppers, four little Hungarian Peppers and a big pile of both mint and basil leaves.

In the kitchen I started the rice cooking, then cut some bacon into chunks and put it in the pan along with a little olive oil to get things going. When the chunks were nicely rendered, I took the skin off one of the Italian sausages and pulled it into bits, which I added to the bacon. Giving the sausage a moment to compose itself, I diced half an onion, a small apple and a couple cloves of garlic, and added them along with some salt. When they were sweated down nicely I added the peppers, all cut into small pieces. When everything was brown and sticky*, I added a couple glugs of vinegar and let everything simmer to deglaze the pan and bind the components into a ragu.

By then the rice was ready, so I chopped the basil and mint into a heap and stirred it into the rice. The visual effect of the brilliant white rice and deep green herbs was nice, and when I spooned the ragu on top it made for a pretty plate. I tried a little of the ragu on its own and it was a little lean tasting. I don't mean it lacked fat, but the acidity of the vinegar and the natural tartness of the apples made it feel harsh, almost metallic in my mouth, and it cried out for something to enrichen it. It certainly didn't need any fat, so a drizzle of oil wouldn't help. I tossed a couple of pine nuts on as garnish, but that wasn't enough.

The obvious solution would be to grate some parmigiano on it, but we didn't have any. While poking around in the fridge, I came across my old buddy the homemade cheese, now hardened to almost exactly the same consistency as parmigiano. In one of my better what-the-fuck moments, I tried grating some onto the ragu. It still had a mild minty flavor, but through the drying process the milk solids now had an intensely rich mouth sensation, almost like a condensed milk caramel. It was neither as biting nor as salty as parmigiano, but it had a similar umame effect and was the perfect counterpart to the ragu.

So there's another personal milestone. Made some unremarkable cheese, then forgot about it long enough for it to become useful.

*Jesus I hope that's not what she said.