Sunday, September 28, 2014

I guess before signing up for Top Chef you need to be Bottom Chef

So after joining my CSA, I found out that they have a yearly cookoff competition.  Last year I had a vacation scheduled for the same weekend so I couldn't compete, but this year I was there with bells on.  I partnered up with Joe and we brainstormed some ideas.
The challenge is to use the veggies from the CSA obviously.  No proteins (although egg was available.)  I came up with the idea of hollowing out a tomato and using it as a cup.  Then Joe mentioned he had tried this recipe where you roast an eggplant whole directly over the burner.  I thought it would make a great combination. 
Then I decided I could use the potent, acidic seed goo from the tomato and make a vinaigrette.  This turned out to be an even better idea than I realized- the goo is made of pectin, which is like the plant version of gelatin- it’s what makes jelly turn into jelly.  So when you whisk it into a vinaigrette, the pectin adds body and emulsifies the dressing (keeps it from separating.) 
We brainstormed quite a bit to include as many ingredients as we could.  Joe is still at the stage where he wants to add a million different things, but he listened to reason with regards to keeping it simple and highlighting specific flavors as opposed to dumping too many things together.  So we did some test runs of the more unconventional methods of roasting the veggies directly over the burner, and we scheduled, and I made a time management chart to make sure we’d have time for everything.
I was a bit nervous but mostly excited.  There were 4 teams total, and 3 judges who had pretty legit cooking resumes.  We got everything set up and then took off at the starting gun. 
First we roasted the baby eggplants.  This took longer than we thought which made us kind of nervous.  Joe wrapped them in 3 layers of foil, we ended up removing some of the foil to hasten the process and it helped. 
While he was battling the eggplants I was hollowing out the tomatoes and squeezing the goo into the bowl.  I used the 3 regular tomatoes that we used as the cups, and I also used the seeds from a big yellow heirloom tomato which had an amazing flavor.  (That really saved it because I don’t think the regular tomatoes were sweet enough.)  I wrapped the tomatoes in foil and placed them on the fire as well.  This cooked them just enough to peel.  Unfortunately I had some difficulty- one of them was too thin to peel, and one of them ripped as I was trying to peel the skin off.  To make them all match, we cut all 3 the way the 1st one ripped, which made it look like we did it on purpose to have the filling spilling out on to the plate.  It was a pretty clever idea on Joe’s part. 
I whisked the vinaigrette together with sherry vinegar, some Dijon mustard, some anchovy paste, some grated bell pepper, and salt and pepper.  It came out perfectly delicious.  Sweet, savory, sour, and well-rounded.
Finally Joe got the eggplant chopped up.  It was soft and roasted through, and it had a great smoky flavor from the charred spots.  We also charred up some scallions and tossed those in, and we added ribbons of arugula.
Then we tried to char up some corn as well, and sprinkled a bit on top.  It was a tad rushed, which was my fault.  There wasn’t enough char, and I didn’t break the kernels up enough so they were kind of clumped together.  It wasn’t a major element of the dish but it could have been better.
We fit fairly well into the 30 minute constraint with some time to spare.  The other entries were:  A “green egg” dish which was I think fried eggs with a ton of herbs, and a sauce.  A “taco” dish, but instead of tortilla they cut perfect circles out of big collard leaves; the filling was potato cooked in a cast iron pan, and they had a bunch of fixin’s- a peach salsa and some cabbage.  And a spicy vegetarian curry.
I didn’t get to taste the egg dish.  The taco dish ended up winning.  I tasted it, and while they put in a ton of work and used an absurd number of veggies, which was worth bonus points, I thought it was too cluttered to really taste anything, and I didn’t think the potato was that tasty in and of itself.  The curry dish was delicious, a bit spicy, but really good.  I thought it should have won.  They had a little side salad, which the judges said was “one note.”  I guess it was dressed simply.  I thought it was a fine side note to the busy curry.  The judges said that ours needed more dressing.  After making a giant bowl of amazing dressing, I didn’t want to drown it and I just put a couple of teaspoons drizzled over the top and a little on the plate.  I think another problem was that we chose to showcase the tomato and they were not very sweet.  I think that’s why it hurt for dressing so badly.
At the end of the day though I had an amazing time.  It was a great group of people, and I felt proud of our attempt.  I need to find more of these.  There’s got to be cooking competitions somehow in this city.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Porcini Honeymoon

The lobster mushroom was so surprisingly dense I got 2 more meals out of the remaining one.
The first one, I tried to make a pan pasta sauce using Chef Frank's "hot raw tomato flesh" philosophy.  I got a pile of plum tomatoes from the organic market around the block, then sauteed diced mushroom and shallot.  When they were cooked I dumped in the diced plum tomato, and a whole hot chile pepper.  
I ended up overcooking everything.  I cooked the mushroom too much before adding the tomato, then I cooked the tomato too long and slow so it was just a sauce, not so much raw.  Also the plum tomatoes were mostly mealy and unripe.  And finally the chile pepper was way too hot, so it ended up being like dare-me hot instead of enjoyably hot.  Almost a waste of the mushroom.  But the small batch $9/lb pasta was really good.
Finally, I cut the lobster into big slices- .25" thick and 1" across.  I seared off a pork chop, threw it in the oven, and then sauteed the mushroom in oil with shallot, then threw in a diced peach.  Finally I deglazed with chicken stock and reduced it till it thickened up.  I dumped it on top of the pork chop and it was stupendous.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I Dream of Porcini

I made culinary magic last night.
I found fresh lobster mushrooms at the gourmet market.  I have never seen them before, I always get them dried and I love them more than anything.  So I had to try the fresh ones.  They're $40/lb.  I got 2 big ones for $25.  

I got some dried porcini and simmered them in water with salt and sugar to make a stock.  Then I used that as the stock for my risotto.  (I forgot to use wine.)  I stirred in the big 1cm cubes of fresh when I started adding the stock.  Then when I plated it I put a square of this fresh goat cheese I had, so it stayed together but it got melty so you could like add a little to each bite.  
So for future reference I need to use white wine (or maybe bourbon.)  Also I needed 1 more hit of liquid, the rice was still a tiny bit al dente, just a TINY bit.  When I tried it earlier it tasted dry, I thought maybe I scorched it or something.  But I think I just needed more liquid.  My risotto tech is rusty so I wasn't familiar.

It definitely reminded me of how amazing risotto can be.  (I last did one with homemade lobster stock.)  I will be getting back into it.  

I also have another big mushroom to make use of.  I might just sautee them in butter and just eat them straight.

I didn't want to change the title because it's hilarious but it wasn't porcini, they had the wrong name plaque up.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where have I been?

In a total culinary rut it would seem.  I was thinking, "how could I lose all my amazing creations in the past year?"  Then I looked at the dates and remembered why.  Let's just say I wasted a year of effort on something that was distracting my soul from its true calling.  I honestly don't remember one wild creation in that time period.  Maybe one or two that I loaded onto Imgur.  

Anyway.  Forget all that.  I'm in the city now and I'm back in the game.  

Here's a few quick jots just to record what I've done so far.

-roasted chicken with a stuffing made from sweet italian sausage, collards, and chopped cashews.  
-tomato and peach "chilled soup."  I need to come back to this and a. ripen the peaches and b. use the bread method to make it a true gazpacho.
-collards braised with chopped pancetta and garlic, but no acid, drained and then tossed with oil and vinegar.
-reducing the peach gazpacho into a sofrito and sauteeing collards.  Tossed with a handful of crushed up store bought croutons.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Restaurant Critic Weekend

This past weekend was my birthday weekend, and I was joined by a very lovely foodie houseguest.
Friday we went to a local restaurant called Four. Actually... The full name is "FOUR Food Studio and Cocktail Salon." Ugh. Just got a douche chill from typing that. Anyway, when the restaurant first opened it was a rare fine dining oasis on Long Island. For whatever reason, probably the distribution of sprawling and limitless suburbia, it's very hard to keep fancy places open on LI. I think it's because anyone willing to travel just goes to the city. Everyone else just isn't willing to travel 30 mins to a different town on Long Island for a good meal.
The concept is actually four seasons. Four different areas of the restaurant are decorated with little seasonal hints- for instance the winter area is white with a faux ski lodge fireplace, the winter area is wood themed, etc. More importantly, they vowed to change the menu every season.
It's actually been kind of a while since I went there (I guess I should turn the mirror on myself for why restaurants don't get any business.) I was really disappointed with the current menu. "Dumbed down" was the first thing that came to my mind. The original menus were conceptual, well composed dishes, true to their seasonal promise. The current menu had 3 steak offerings, and a healthy helping of Italian takeout offerings: bruschetta, caprese salad, pizza. On top of that, they were most likely appealing more to the drinking crowd than the dining crowd, where in place of chill out lounge music you now dine to the serenade of "girlie got some boobies like wow oh wow."
For our appetizer we had oysters. No work required on their part, except purchasing. They were fresh and large, with decent cocktail sauce. (C'mon guys, at least fix up a little mignonette?) then we shared our entrees: squash ravioli, and Peking duck. The ravioli were tasty, with a decent sauce- white but not cream. I think maybe a velouté with a vinegar accent. There was also a smear of balsamic reduction on the plate. The duck was well cooked if unimaginative. Sliced boneless breast, perfectly on the medium side of mid rare, crispy skin. A few little piles of fixins- chives, cilantro, and a little dipping cup of bottled hoisin sauce, but instead of mu shu pancakes... They put out a pile of flour tortillas. Oof.
Honestly a little disappointed in the spiritual sense, thinking about how one of my favorite places to eat on LI had its balls cut off by a market full of middle aged new rich guidos. But in the immediate sense I enjoyed the meal and drank a bottle of wine. (a slightly syrupy 2003 Rioja, chosen more for my Spain fetish than my wine knowledge.)
The focus of the weekend, however, was the reservations at Colicchio & Sons. I made reservations there the same way I'm sure everyone else does: by trying to get rezzes at Craft and finding a 1 month lead time. But I was not disappointed to have them. I looked at the menus online and they're quite similar anyway.
We had been planning to do the tasting menu but when we arrived, the tasting menu looked kind of sad in comparison to the full menu. The waitress let us pick 8 appetizers and arrange them like a tasting menu. We each ate half and then swapped plates.
Unfortunately it's months after the fact so I'm writing this in hindsight, and the menu has changed already.  But I do remember a little bit.
There was a slice of foie gras torchon with a cranberry sauce.  Of course.
There was some grilled octopus, which was my first time eating octopus.  I always assumed it would taste kind of rubbery like squid, but it's not like that at all.  It's meaty and delicious.  Reminded me of monkfish oddly enough.  And the bits of skin that were charred on the grill were delicious.  It was dressed with a chorizo vinaigrette.
There was a pasta, I believe it was squid ink if I remember correctly.  It had rabbit sausage, olives and tomatoes.  In the end it tasted a lot like a standard pasta dish, like a puttanesca because of the olives.  But it was delicious.
There was some of the Craft-famous duck pastrami, which was fantastic.
There was sweetbreads with honey onions and bacon vinaigrette.  The bacon didn't come through but the onions were delicious.  Sweetbreads are interesting but they have this organy taste that turns me off sometimes.  I think if it's too thick of a piece.
And I'm blanking out after that.  For dessert I remember there being a sampler of 6 flavors of ice cream which was delicious and fun.  I love anything in variety.
So that was my weekend of culinary excellence.  The following morning I made hash browns and pancakes and so it was complete.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sous Vide Adventures

     It's been too long since I posted.  I've been super busy.  But there are huge cooking accomplishments that need to be expounded.
     So my exposure to sous vide was pretty much entirely through Top Chef.  I heard what it was but I never gave it much attention.  Then someone made a sous vided steak for my roommate.  He came home from a friend's house raving about it, how his friend had made a home made sous vider and we had to make one.  He had a link to a blog that explained in simple terms what to buy and how to connect it all.
     Now I tell people that I'm a computer engineer, but I usually don't bother going into detail about it.  I work for a building automation company, and a large part of my day involves digital temperature control.  When you send me to a blog about PID loops and platinum RTDs, not only will I understand it, I'll know how to do it better.  So even if my chronic nerdiness was not enough for me to want to improve this quick homemade sous vider, my profession cinched that.
     We started by buying the parts as listed.  We got the PID controller (a device for precisely controlling temperatures using a differential equation), and the beverage heater (a small electric heating element designed to make a single cup of tea).  They suggested we use a thermocouple type sensor, but we opted for the more accurate platinum RTD sensor.  (Resistive temperature device.  Rather than generating tiny amounts of current based on the temperature, it changes resistance.)  The home kit also involved using a fish tank air pump to generate circulation.  This also immediately bothered me.  Injecting air creates circulation by side effect.  If we want to move water, we should move water.  So instead of an air pump we bought a water pump, one designed to go into an outdoor pond or fountain or something.
     The breadboard stage involved exposed 120V wires and electrical taping chopsticks to things.  It was not glorious but the steaks it created were indeed.  100% consistently medium rare, tender as the day it was born,  and impossible to screw up timing-wise.  (in hindsight that was kind of a gruesome simile.)  I turned it loose on a couple of dry aged steaks from Fairway and it was a definitively delicious steak.  Not something you can find just anywhere.  Like Luger's class steak.
     So we set to work on a permanent installation.  We used one of those 5 gallon beverage coolers; the one with the spigot on the bottom.  We removed the spigot and ran the cord for the pump through that hole.  Then we drilled through the side and mounted the temp sensor 2/3rds of the way up.  Finally, I upgraded from the 300W single-cup heater to a 1000W badass which was designed to boil spackle buckets full of water.
     Then for the controller, I found a plastic enclosure to use and a bunch of panel mount connectors.  For the power input, I got the 3 pin connector typical of PC power supplies.  For the switched output, I got a standard wall outlet type plug.  And for the sensor, I got XLR connectors, like professional musical equipment.  I cut the end off the sensor and soldered the XLR male end onto it.  Internally, I upgraded from using the built-in relay in the PID controller to the SSR (solid state relay) recommended by the manufacturer.  The SSR has the advantage of being much harder to wear out, so using a faster cycle time presents no difficulty with control.  It also has the dubious advantage of being silent; it turned out that the sound of the click made it much easier to tune.  Since the PID controller doesn't officially tell you what it's trying to put out, you are left to try and interpret from a flickering LED how long the pulse is at the given moment.
     Lucky for me I spend a portion of my career tuning PID loops.  It's more of an art than a science so even if you can grasp the concepts as a layperson having experience is super handy.  Our cooker overshoots just once on startup by about 2 degrees.  It's a tradeoff for speed or safety.  We are looking to tune it further so that there is no risk in a fire-and-forget situation.  For example I cooked a pork loin roast in it last week by throwing the pork into it, plugging it into the wall, and leaving the house to go to work.  8 hours later I had a divinely cooked pork loin.  In this case the overshoot was not noticeable.  I assume if it's being held 2.5 degrees over for maybe 30 minutes, over the course of 8 hours that becomes a negligible amount of time.
     Well at this point I'm rambling but suffice it to say I made a sous vide cooker and it kicks ass.  I also made a modular temperature controller which I am going to use to electrify my smoker this summer, and my roommate is considering making a breadbox that will use it also.  Finally we are going to spraypaint the bucket black and call it Sous Vader.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Balls Update

So I cooked the rest of the pork balls tonight. I cooked them the same way, but instead of reheating the cheese sauce, I put them in the sauce from some osso bucco I made last week.
I saw the beef shanks at the store and I couldn't resist... but it was after work and I was tired, so instead of cutting up mirepoix I used.... V8. I'm not proud. OK actually I am proud, that is some resourceful shit. It came out pretty damn good too. I skimmed it and reduced it with some molasses and served it over ziti, and it was delicious.
So tonight I reheated it with the leftover ziti and the leftover braising sauce and the meatballs were delectible. But they still have that weird dry taste. I don't know what it's from. Maybe the pork fat doesn't melt correctly when it's poached, maybe I should try roasting them. Or maybe I used too much bread... although the bread was well-hydrated so I'm not sure why. Maybe there wasn't enough outright moisture, while there was a little from the bread, with the added breadcrumbs and egg maybe it wasn't enough. Anyway I'll figure it out next time.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Ball Worship

So there's this place on the Lower East Side called The Meatball Shop... It is a meatball-centric restaurant that very intelligently stays open late for the drinking hipster crowd. I'm sure they clean up because it's always packed, and the meatballs are amazing. My personal meatball delivery system is the meatball "sliders," where they give you each meatball on its own little bun. My favorite part might actually be the menu, which is laminated, and the meatballs and sauces are presented in a matrix and you order by marking the box where your ball and sauce intersect.

They offer a standard beef ball, a spicy pork ball, a chicken ball, and a veggie ball (which I have never tried but if it's like a falafel it might be worth checking out). Then they have a marinara sauce, a spicy bolognese sauce, mushroom gravy, and a cheesy alfredo type sauce.

Of course they also carry an array of veggie sides, pasta, and a special of every type- ball, sauce, veggie, etc. Up to and including dessert, which is another matrix of cookie and ice cream type, and they make you a custom chipwich.

So after visiting twice in about a week (it was Thanksgiving time, so the special ball was turkey and the special sauce was cranberry sauce) I stumbled on the combination of getting the spicy pork ball with the cheese sauce and it was heaven on earth. So I decided I had no choice but to try to replicate it at home.

I bought a pork shoulder and cubed it up. Then I took about a 3rd of a loaf of italian bread and soaked it in milk. I processed the 2 together in the food processor, (since I don't have a KitchenAid with the grinder on it, although I might have to soon if I keep this up.) In small batches so as not to overload the FP. It worked very well and came out with kind of a pasty consistency, a little dense but perfectly good and almost uniform.

Then I cut up 2 hot peppers in a fine dice. Brunoise I think it's called. They were long red chile peppers, I don't remember the name. They were spicy, and sweet, as spicy or a little more spicy than a cherry pepper, but long so they were easier to chop.

I mixed the hot peppers in with the pork and bread, an egg, and since it felt really dense I added some canned breadcrumb. (I forgot to salt.) Then I balled them and poached them in boxed beef stock.

They came out tasty, the consistency was amazing but they were definitely a little flat for lack of salt, and somehow not spicy at all.

Then the sauce. I melted a stick of butter and sweated shallot and garlic, then added flour and made a roux. When it started to darken I added enough milk to thin it. The problem is, when you start with a whole stick of butter, your course is basically set, because you have to add enough flour to make a proper roux, and enough milk to get it to a proper consistency, and it ended up making a quart and a half of sauce. I got the consistency perfect, but it was a lot of freakin sauce.

Anyway I then melted in shredded gruyiere and fontina, but I didn't have time to go to Fairway and get real cheese, so I used rubbery grocery store pre-wrapped cheese, which is not very tasty. In the end it was a mild but cheesy sauce, but when I was eating it something had a dry, starchy finish. I can't tell if it's the balls or the sauce. If it's the balls I have no idea how to fix that. If it's the sauce it just means I didn't cook the roux enough.

Overall though it was pretty tasty. I hope to try it again someday and get it perfect.