Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Mmmmm... Pork Belly...

After falling in love at first read when I opened David Chang's Momofuku cookbook at the end of January, I was finally feeling healthy enough this weekend to dive in and try a recipe. I decided to ease into things with the simple Pork Belly Ssäm with Mustard Seed Sauce recipe. I should mention that in the weeks I spent eagerly waiting to play with what I suspect will quickly become one of my very favorite cookbooks, I stumbled across an awesome blog of somebody cooking her way through it. You can see her post about this recipe here, but I encourage you to check out the whole blog when you get a chance. Maybe someday my photos can look as pretty as hers... Sigh. Anyway, I ran into a problem that she noted over there, which is that the pork belly I picked up at H-Mart was cut into strips that were too narrow.
I'll remedy this next time by getting my pork belly at Blood Farm, but it was certainly not going to stand in my way... I skinned the pork belly, then let it cure in salt and sugar for a little over 6 hours,
before nestling it down into a dish that holds it snugly (as Chang recommends) with my beloved Silpat in place to minimize cleanup...
The pork goes into a 450˚F oven for 30 minutes, then is basted with the rendered fat,
before returning to the oven for another 30 minutes until golden and beautiful..
I'll confess to a strategic component in choosing the above angle for the picture, since I actually had a couple spots that were starting to burn at this point.
This problem was also mentioned in a post over at MomofukuFor2, and I see that she's actually stopped using Chang's roasting method. I may have to tweak it myself next time I do Momofuku pork belly (which, spoiler alert!, will be next week...). I removed the most burnt outer bits before the next step, which is to drop the oven to 250˚F and cook for another 30 minutes. The fat and juices are reserved, and your pork belly is ready to go...
I must say that I'm quite pleased to have 10 tablespoons of pork fat at my disposal, and not entirely shocked that so much rendered off... Woot! Despite the minor issue with overly-caramelized bits, the pork belly ended up absolutely gorgeous. From this point you need to chill the meat if you want perfect, lovely slices, so I wrapped it up and threw it in the fridge overnight.
We'll come back to that when we get ready to finish the dish. In the meantime, there were a few more components to make. First up: Pickled Mustard Seeds (aka The Reason My Apartment Smells Like Vinegar...). The mustard seeds are combined with sugar, salt, rice vinegar, and water...
then simmered super-gently until most of that liquid is gone and they look all pretty.
Seriously. Don't these look sort of awesome?
The other component I needed to make for the sauce were some quick-pickled cucumbers.
The slices are tossed with salt and sugar, then rinsed and patted dry after about 10 minutes, ready for use.
The mustard seeds and chopped cucumbers are combined with mayo (preferably Kewpie), Chinese hot mustard, Dijon mustard, and thinly sliced scallions.
You can tell that cooking from the Momofuku cookbook had put me in a super-good mood, because when I opened the bottle of Kewpie mayonnaise (my first time buying this product) I thought the star-shaped nozzle was so adorable as to warrant inclusion of its picture...
Anyway... Mix that all together and you have yourself a mustard seed sauce, ready for application to yummy grilled pork belly (see below). While my mustard seeds were pickling, I was thinking about how ridiculously rich pork belly is and decided that my meal would probably be more balanced if it involved a lighter protein as well. I decided to go with shrimp and a marinade that I love to use on chicken. There's a quarantine issue with lime leaves right now but, luckily, I keep a stash in the freezer for emergencies... (Being slightly OCD pays off from time to time...)
The above ingredients are thrown in a blender until smooth, then combined with the shrimp to marinate for a few hours, after which the shrimp are threaded onto skewers for easy grilling.
At this point it was about noon, and I was in the odd position of being completely done with all but the most minimal of prep for my sure-to-be-amazing dinner, with seemingly endless time to spare. When dinner time rolled around, the only real work left to do was to fire up the grill. The shrimp go on first, and are cooked over high heat until just barely done,
then served with fresh cilantro and mint, finely julienned cucumber, red chili, and a hot/sour/salty/sweet dipping sauce made with chilies, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and garlic.
The ingredients can be wrapped in a lettuce leaf for dipping, or just combined haphazardly on a fork or between a pair of chopsticks. This was awesome. The chicken version is still a nice (more budget-friendly) dish, but the lime leaf marinade was absolutely perfect on shrimp. I will be making this many more times in the future. Not bad for a last-minute dish thrown together from ingredients on hand... But let's get back to the main event: the pork belly. The chilled pork belly is cut into ~1/2-inch thick slices. To make up for my overly-narrow pork belly, I sliced on an angle and got some nice pieces.
These slices were thrown on the grill over high heat to char up and heat through.
... during which process the pork belly transformed into something brilliant. It still has me in its thrall somewhat, so I'm having trouble finding any words more eloquent than "Mmmmmm...."
The pork is served with that awesome mustard seed sauce I made earlier, as well as a bit of short-grain rice and some lettuce leaves for wrapping.
This was fantastic. The pork belly was SO. EFFING. GOOD. The tang of the mustard sauce and freshness of the crisp, cold lettuce were perfect with the rich, decadent pork belly. I loved that this cooking method rendered so much of the fat, too. Let's not kid ourselves: this is a thoroughly unhealthy dish... but that 1/2-inch of pure fat that we've been seeing on top of our pork belly at Sommelier Smackdowns was almost fully rendered during roasting, leaving a much more practical meat-to-fat ratio in what is consumed, with the bonus of lots of yummy pork fat for use in future cooking. I just finished dinner about 10 minutes ago and, despite the fact that I couldn't finish and am so full that I feel like I'll never need to eat again, I sort of wish I was eating that pork belly again right now... I'm planning on checking out two more Momofuku recipes next weekend... Can't wait.

Everyday Yumminess: Salmon with Udon

My Cookbook Adventure this week was one of those easy-yet-time-consuming meals, so I decided to use the down time to make something that I was suddenly craving: Soy-and-Ginger Glazed Salmon with Udon Noodles. It's a modification of a recipe from Food & Wine, and is so simple and delicious that every time I make it I find myself wondering why I don't make it more often. The marinade is a simple combination of soy sauce, sake, ginger, lime, and sugar.
I simplified it this time by using simple syrup (which I keep on hand for cocktails and whatnot) rather than heating the marinade to dissolve the sugar and then having to wait for the marinade to cool before adding the salmon. The salmon is cut into portions, then added to the marinade for a few hours.
When it's about time for dinner, the rest of the ingredients come into play...
The udon noodles are heated in boiling water, the spinach steamed until wilted,
and the salmon grilled or pan-seared until perfectly cooked.
At this point I usually bring the marinade to a simmer, then strain out the ginger and use the former marinade as a sauce for the noodles. A pile of noodles goes at the bottom of the bowl, is tossed with sauce, and is then topped with a pile of spinach and the salmon,
and the dish is finished with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.
I'm a huge fan of pretty much every ingredient in this dish. I always forget how much I love udon noodles until I have them again, and they're perfect with the sharp citrus and ginger in the marinade and the rich salmon. Mmmm...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sommelier Smackdown!

I've been dealing with an obnoxious sinus infection for more than a week now. I've tried rest, vitamin C, and antibiotics to no avail, so I decided last night (since I don't have any congestion to mess with my palate) to go ahead and see if maybe copious amounts of good food and wine would do the trick. Shockingly, this did not cure me... but (less shockingly) it was a lot of fun. The February Smackdown was a little below the quality of previous Smackdowns, with several of the wine pairings falling flat on their faces and some dishes that were less amazing than one would hope. A good time was had by all thanks to Chef Ian's entertaining banter, so when Joe and I arrived at Smackdown and saw that there was a new chef this time, we weren't sure how that would go. The answer? Really, really well. The chef this time was Paul Turano of Tryst in Alrington, with his assistant Annie.
The sommeliers were returning champion Michael Meagher (below, right) from Vineyard Road and challenger Brahm Callahan (below, left) from Post 390.
While it was fun (and sometimes educational) to watch Ian create dishes that were challenging to pair wines with at previous Smackdowns, that also resulted in the occasional dish where neither pairing worked particularly well. As Michael pointed out, the chef this time had just planned a menu of awesome food without any special effort to trip up the sommeliers, and this resulted in the most consistently high-quality pairings yet, with both wines pairing nicely on every course.
First up was a Coriander-Crusted Scallop with Ahi Amarillo and Cilantro.
There was a bit of spice in the sauce and a nice herbal note from the cilantro, which were nice with the scallop and made for interesting wine-pairing opportunities. Michael went with an Old Vine Verdejo, while Brahm went with a nice German Riesling that we recognized from last time.
Both pairings were actually really nice. The Verdejo is something I would be much more likely to sit down to drink on its own, but I loved the way the body of the Riesling complimented the texture of the scallop. I tossed my vote to Brahm by a narrow margin, while Joe voted for Michael. It apparently wasn't that close for everyone, as Brahm took this round 23 - 10. The next course was a Warm Potato and Leek Soup with Truffled Crème Fraîche. This was a really nice soup. Rich, hearty, and satisfying. The fried waffle-cut potato on top was a nice accent as well.
Chef Paul actually dished up seconds for anyone who wanted them, and passed the bin of waffle-cut chips for everyone to enjoy an extra....
The pairings for this course were both bubbly. Michael gave us a really nice sparkling (which I would totally buy in the future) and Brahm gave us a really interesting beer.
Joe and I both felt that, while we liked the sparkling wine on its own, it fell a bit flat as a pairing. The beer, on the other hand, had interesting orange and coriander accents, which played off the subtle flavors in the soup beautifully and added interest to the dish. I never would have thought of that pairing, so it was cool to see how well it worked. I think Brahm underestimated how much some of these people dislike beer, though, and he was beat handily by Michael 12 - 21. The next course was Slow Roasted Lamb with a Lamb and Spiced Fruit Tart and Apple Salad.
I loved this dish. The lamb was perfectly cooked, and the salad of Granny Smith apples, arugula, and Dijon vinaigrette was fantastic with it. The tart contained beer-braised lamb shank, spiced dried fruit, and a rich sauce. Everything worked perfectly together. The wines on this course were Michael's 2005 Bourdeaux (mostly Cab Sauv with a hearty dose of Cab Franc) and Brahm's 2005 Italian Red (primarily Corvina with Rondinella).
Michael's wine was awesome, and I loved it with every component of the dish. It got votes from both me and Joe. The Italian red was a little lighter than I would have preferred with the dish, but was still a nice wine. Again Joe and I found ourselves disagreeing with the masses, and Brahm took this course 24 - 9. One of the great things about having a different chef is that we got an actual dessert (which Ian refuses to make for us). The dessert was an Oatmeal-Crusted Chocolate Brownie with Hot Fudge, Coffee Ice Cream, and Whipped Cream.
The brownie was apparently Annie's mom's recipe and had a nice hit of sea salt in it, which is something I love with chocolate. The coffee ice cream was fantastic as well. So good. The pairings for this were Michael's Mas Amiel made with Grenache grapes (yay!) and Brahm's 10 year Tawny Port.
I'm not a big tawny port fan, but this was a really nice one. It paired perfectly adequately with the dessert, even if the pairing wasn't particularly inspired. (I think at least 9 out of 10 people on the street would have thrown a port at a chocolate dessert...) Michael's wine, on the other hand, was sort of a revelation. On it's own we figured it would lose to the port, but it was absolutely perfect with the dish. It's fun to find out about a new wine like this and to see it work so well with a dish. I make a mean coffee ice cream and a pretty solid brownie, and this will be the wine I reach for next time I serve those items together. The masses agreed with me and Joe for once, and Michael took this course 21 - 12... which meant the four courses were split between the two sommeliers, but that Brahm was the winner by a final score of 71 - 61. This was a really great night, with awesome food and big pours of awesome wine. Brahm will be back next time as the defending champion, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Bourdain's Coq au Vin

I hadn't really planned on cooking anything from my cookbooks this weekend, which put me in a bit of a pickle, not having purchased my protein of choice in advance. About 95% of the recipes in the queue involve beef or pork, and I don't want to make those dishes with anything other than Blood Farm meat. Since I wasn't going to make it to Blood Farm this weekend, and since they don't sell whole chickens at Blood Farm anyway, I decided I would go with the one dish in my queue that uses a whole chicken: Coq au Vin. I imagine there are at least 15 versions of this dish in the books on my shelf, but I decided to start with Anthony Bourdain's recipe from the Les Halles Cookbook.
Why did I choose this version? I can't honestly say. I bought this book when it first came out, and I enjoyed reading through it (the author's voice is uniquely present even in the recipe instructions) but had never actually tried to cook out of it before. This seemed like as good a time as any, I guess. I'd never made a traditional Coq au Vin before, only Eric Ripert's Coq au Vin with Coconut Milk (which rocks), so this was a chance to see what the classic is all about. The first step is to get the bird and some herbs and veggies soaking in red wine overnight.
You're supposed to put everything in a "deep bowl" for this step with a liter of wine...
but that's obviously not enough to cover the ingredients, so I decided to chuck everything into a freezer bag instead.
The odd thing about this recipe is that Bourdain wants you to leave the chicken whole until after it is cooked, which would mean that it doesn't ever get fully submerged in the liquid while it cooks. This isn't even an oven braise, it's a stovetop simmer... so un-submerged chicken means uncooked chicken. It's not like he just forgets to tell you to cut up the chicken, either, because he does tell you to cut it into four pieces once it's done cooking. Weird. Maybe he's just used to doing this in huge batches and never tested it with the scaled-down recipe? I have no idea. I checked with several other Coq au Vin recipes (including Julia's), and everyone else cuts up the chicken before cooking. I decided to compromise and just cut the chicken into three pieces (two leg+thigh pieces and a double-breast) instead of the standard 8, and saved the back and wings to throw in during the cooking process. After marinating overnight, the chicken, marinade, and veggies are separated.
Mmm... Purple meat. (Heh. Does anyone find that appetizing? It's not gross, per se. Just... odd.) The chicken is seared off in a mixture of (Amish) butter and olive oil,
then set aside while the veggies are sautéed until soft.
When the veggies are soft, the chicken, wine marinade, and bouquet garni (which I didn't bother to tie because I was dealing with massive basement flood at the time) are added back to the pot.
While the mixture simmers until the chicken is tender, the garnishes can be prepared. The traditional garnish are pearl onions,
and big ol' batons of bacon.
The bacon/lardons (which were supposed to come from slab bacon but were instead made in a slightly ghetto style by finding big hunks within a package of bacon ends since I couldn't find slab bacon nearby) are cooked off,
and a tablespoon of the rendered fat is used to cook the mushrooms until nicely browned.
The onions are a bit fussier. They start off in a pot with a pinch of suger, a pinch of salt, butter, and just enough water to cover.
This is topped with parchment,
and the mixture is allowed to simmer until the liquid is mostly gone.
You continue to cook this mixture until the onions are nice and caramelized...
The onions are removed from the pan and a cup of wine is added, then reduced to a syrup. With that, the garnishes are ready to go.
Meanwhile, the chicken has finished cooking.
It is removed from the wine mixture (with the double-breast then halved), and is still quite purple...The sauce is strained at this point. The recipe says to strain it straight into the reduced wine, but there was a lot of fat on top (almost 1/2 cup, as you can see below), so I decided to de-fat first.
Buttered egg noodles seem to be the traditional accompaniment to Coq au Vin...
I lacked the energy to find a recipe for this, but I assumed it was something along the lines of boiled egg noodles sautéed in (Amish) butter and tossed with some chives. (These were, surprisingly, pretty darned tasty on their own...)
Plating time was almost here. The garnishes are added into the wine mixture,and that sauce is poured over your purple chicken.
The chicken in the recipe is cut into four pieces (as I did above), which seems sort of awkward if you're actually serving a dinner party of the four people this allegedly serves, unless you planned in advance to have two people who like dark meat and two who like white meat... I also find it difficult to eat meat off of the bone in a care-free yet dignified manner. For these reasons, I pulled the chicken out of the above bowl, removed the bones, sliced the meat so that each portion contained both white and dark meat, then placed atop a bed of buttered egg noodles and (re-)dressed with the sauce for a nice individual portion...
So... Yeah. This was fine. Not mind-blowing, and not something I'm now obsessed with or anything... but good. It's hard to judge the written recipe too much based on my end result, since I went off-recipe several times. Some of those (like cutting up the chicken) were because the recipe was stupid. Others (like the fact that I refrigerated the cooked chicken and garnishes overnight then rewarmed the next night to finish the recipe... which is normally a good idea with braises, anyway) were due to my rapidly flooding basement. Honestly, I think these classic, rustic dishes aren't really my cup of tea in general, since I'm a person who prefers strong, aggressive flavors. So, while this was probably a good version of Coq au Vin, I'm not sure any version of Coq au Vin would be something I found transcendent. That being said, it was hearty and satisfying, and I did enjoy my dinner. The recipe, on the other hand, didn't exactly make me eager to return to this book for more. I feel like Bourdain probably needed to invest more energy in testing the recipes and less energy in trying to sound witty/snarky. I enjoyed the snark while just reading through this book the first time, but when you see that it's next to mystifying/stupid instructions while you're cooking, it tends to seem more annoying than anything. Whatever. Not a total failure, but nothing I'm likely to make again any time soon.