Monday, November 30, 2009

This is not a joke

via Ezra Klein
Yes, that does appear to be a gas burner/turntable combo in Coolio's kitchen... so if you've ever thought: "Whatever happened to Coolio? Gangsta's Paradise was tiiiight." (And who hasn't thought that!?) Well, apparently he's been... uhm... cooking. Witness:

I can't really decide whether that is really awesome or really stupid... probably both? Anyway, I feel like I definitely need to get "Cookin' with Coolio: 5 Star Meals at a 1 Star Price" out of the library, and start upon the path to "master kitchen pimp."

Cassoulet Results

Some fairly educational cassoulet making for me this Thanksgiving... and probably the longest cooking experience of my life... topping out last year's turkey and Gigot de Sept Heures at somewhere in the 10-11 hour range. While the Saveur recipe I used only calls for 7 hours of oven time, and 2 hours of prep, I also made my own duck confit, which added in some time (though I did the prep while the duck was in the oven) and, of course, things often take longer than you think they will... specifically, in this case, bringing the cassoulet up to a simmer in the oven took more like 1.5 hours both times, and I had some trouble finding the exact right oven temperature to keep it on a very low simmer. But other than being up until 3:30 am on Wednesday night/Thanksgiving morning, it was pretty painless and straightforward... and the beans were absolute nirvana.

As I suspected, there was nearly no meat on my ham hocks. I knew this was likely, since I've cooked with ham hocks from Savenor's before, but probably suffered a bit from some recipe fundamentalism (but the recipe says...) and was unable to adapt when the butcher showed me the hocks were like half a pound, instead of the whole pound suggested by Saveur. I don't know if that's just the peculiarities of my butcher, a difference between France and the US, or something that's changed over the last 10 or so years since the recipe was first published... but regardless, I see the wisdom of buying a couple of ham hocks for flavoring the beans (getting out any meat you can), but generally counting on something like pork shoulder for the bulk of the pork in the stew. As it was, I spent two hours boiling some ham hocks that produced maybe two and a half tablespoons of meat... pretty much a waste, and I would have been much better served coking them in the beans for flavor. I also was not super impressed with the pork rind (i.e. pork skin)... I had never cooked with it before, so that was interesting, and the little bits looked tasty while rendering, but after simmering in the cassoulet for seven hours they were just soft and chewy with little flavor of their own. It's obviously impossible to know how much flavor it imparted, but I think I lean towards cubed pancetta as my favored source of pork fat.

I really liked browning the sausages and cooking them in the garlic paste... that paste seemed to give some nice garlic kick to the cassoulet without being overpowering. I also liked the traditional "layering" of the ingredients in this recipe. The duck confit was also my best effort in that area to date... though credit for that goes to Cook's Illustrated, since the fall issue was where I poached the recipe. The crust formation and breaking (pictured above) was pretty interesting (though a little mysterious - what is that crust exactly?) but I really like the bread crumb raft in other recipes, and am loath to give it up.

I'm not entirely sure how I'll apply these lessons to the next batch of cassoulet I make (other than being pro- pancetta and bread crumbs), but it was definitely informative to make this more... elemental... version, to see exactly how everything works together in their most basic combination. Not sure I'd recommend the recipe for somebody who just wants to try this "cassoulet thing" out, while still hewing to traditional approaches... you'd probably be better served in that regard with the other Saveur recipe I blogged last year... or perhaps the Cook's Illustrated one I linked above (haven't tried it, but it looks solid).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Cassoulet

This is the cassoulet recipe that I've settled on for turkey duck and pork day. Étienne Rousselot was the source for the recipe, and that's him above speaking in French and pointing knowingly at various pork products and stirring beans. No, I don't know what he's saying either, but he's saying it in French so it sounds delicious. He has been translated elsewhere, however, and says:
"It's all in the little things, the simple things," he answered. "For example, I leave the cassole in the oven for seven hours, at a low temperature. Also, I let a nice crust form on the top, and then break it and let it re-form at least four times."

As Rousselot took another sip of wine, I asked the elderly chef when he planned to retire. "Never," he said. "My dream is to die with an oven full of cassoulet."

The only thing I wasn't able to obtain for the recipe was a ham bone... and I needed like 5 or 6 ham hocks to get to four pounds, so hopefully they'll have enough meat. No bread crumbs in this recipe, which strikes me as unusual, but then what do I know? It seems a more bare bones recipe than I've used in the past, but that's part of what I find intriguing about it.

We're driving up to Maine tonight, so I'll salt the duck legs for the confit before I go to bed. Looks like most of the work is the day before serving, so that's good... I also have to make the pumpkin pie, but probably I can blind bake the crust while the beans and ham hocks are going on the stove. Anyway... doesn't seem too bad. We've decided to go with the caramelized corn with fresh mint and the wild rice, almond, and mushroom pilaf from the New York Times. We couldn't find Chanterelles (not a surprise really - they never seem to be around when we want them) and Anna is of the opinion that margarine doesn't brown, so we couldn't make the cauliflower vegan... or at least, it wouldn't be worth doing so. Green beans will be involved, but I think just steamed or cooked in some other simple way.

That's basically it... this will probably be my last post before Monday. Have a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Miscellany

As the only meat eater at Thanksgiving this year, I'm not making a turkey (cassoulet instead, yay!) this year... but I still have my eye out for anything turkey related.

The New York Times has a nice recipe slideshow with some great ideas for side dishes and dessert... I picked out the Two-Way Chanterelle and Pear Bread Stuffing (all their stuffings look great actually... why do we only make stuffing once a year? Stuffing is awesome and needs to be made more often), caramelized corn with fresh mint, and roasted cauliflower with lemon brown butter and sage salt. Anna and her mom are usually in charge of all the veggies, but since I'm pretty comfortable making cassoulet and don't need the fine grained planning I did last year for the turkey, I figured I could help out a little.

If you're cooking a turkey, you probably already know what you're doing to it, but I really liked this dry-brined turkey recipe based on the Zuni Roast Chicken over at The Kitchen Sink Recipes... but you'd already need your turkey ready to be salted if you're going to go that route... not exactly a last minute preparation. Though according to Ruhlman, if you have your shiznit together you're starting to make your gravy tonight anyway. That post is helpful in many ways, but the suggestions of using cheap handkerchiefs instead of cheese cloth and using the oven to make stock overnight are particularly good.

Vegan Soul Food Fail

Anna and I made three recipes from Vegan Soul Kitchen this weekend, and sadly, none of them really turned out that well. We did black-eyed pea fritters with a spicy relish, johnny cakes, and some cabbage. I have to admit that I don't have much experience with black eyed peas, so they may just be a flavor I don't care for... but the fritters were honestly kind of nasty. You don't cook the beans at all... just soak them... which seems strange, and is probably the reason the bean flavor was so strong (and nasty). Anna claims to really like black-eyed peas normally, but she wasn't any more fond of the fritters than I was... so I guess I don't know what was going on there, but we weren't fans. The recipe was fine though... everything went together well, but fundamentally it just wasn't a dish I enjoyed. It happens. The "johnny blaze cakes" were ok, but once again, I had never had johnny cakes before so I didn't really have reference point to judge them... basically it tastes a lot like cornbread, but in pancake form. They didn't really strike me as something I'd be anxious to make again... but that is probably a personal taste thing... the recipe seemed fine enough, though based on his directions I guess our batter was thicker than he intended, though it's not really clear why that happened... maybe using soy milk instead of rice milk? Otherwise... the cabbage was fine, but not especially exciting... though it probably ended as the best part of the meal.

So just bad luck with dish selection or do we not have palates suited to soul food? Obviously, we're not off to a great start, but we plan on at least making Terry's Ital veggie stew before giving up... and if that turns out well, we may do more of his Jamaican dishes.


Quite an embarrassing showing by the AFC North yesterday... but at least my Ravens lost to a good team. I mean, c'mon... the Raiders!?

Friday, November 20, 2009

World of Wingnut

Are you a Glenn Beck fan that feels like Liberal Videogaming Elites are keeping you down? Well David Corn has the game FOR YOU:
It's January 2011. The GOP is about to assume control of both houses of Congress—having been voted in by a public deeply suspicious of Democrats after President Barack Obama conducted clandestine talks with President Felipe Calderon of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada. But two days before the new conservative majority is to be sworn in, Obama announces that this Congress will not be seated, that the United States (a creation of "racists and warmongers") will be replaced by a North American Union, that the US Constitution will be dissolved, and that private ownership of firearms will be outlawed (as part of a United Nations treaty banning firearms globally). In response, millions rise up, and the Revolution begins.

A Glenn Beck movie project? Perhaps. But it's also the premise for a new online computer game hosted by a website called United States of Earth.

Based on my experience with the politics of your average wargamer, I wouldn't be surprised if this does reasonably well... it's a community that's probably 3:1 libertarians in my estimation... but even for the rare liberal wargamer... politics generally aren't on the radar, as they'll gleefully try to dominate the world with Nazi Germany of Stalinist Russia in many a game... hell, I'd bet most would play a kitten killing simulator if it had a hex grid and a solid morale mechanic. So it's probably not a bad call for people appealing to a niche audience with odd demographics, to see if they can drum up any business going the Wingnut Fantasy route.

Honestly, it seems like a safer place to play out those fantasies than by going to a town hall meeting with an AR-15.


Trying to finish up edits to some proofs for that article it seems I've been working on for just about ever... so no blogging this AM.

I didn't take a picture, but not much change in the kimchi this morning.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Your morning moment of kimchi

Because of the lighting it's a little hard to tell, but if you compare yesterday to today, you can see that the liquid has at least doubled, and probably tripled, in 24 hours. Fun! Much like sauerkraut, the vegetables used in kimchi have enough inherent moisture to generate their own pickling liquid with just dry salt.

Does it look under seasoned? I hope it's not under seasoned. Well, we'll see, I guess. Only 156 hours to go!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Worst Rogue Build EVER

A Lawyers, Guns, and Money commenter wins the internet, for providing the best review of Sarah Palin's new book I've seen:
First let me say, great blog! Second, let me say I wish I had read it first before buying this book.

I stood in line to get my copy of this book from the local bookstore fearing it might be sold out early. Hot chick on the cover, so far so good. Then I opened it and started reading.

To my chagrin it didn't start out well. I thought well at some point this has to get better. But guess what it doesn't! There's nothing at all about dex rolls, dps builds, searching for traps, sneak attacks, assassins, +4 daggers or anything!

All it is some woman whining about how everyone in her party wouldn't let her make any decisions, about how something called a Couric made her look like a complete idiot (I couldn't find it in the monster manual but, I'm guessing it must be like a Sphinx), and how her group leader McCain wouldn't let her be rogue enough.

Well, I don't even know where to start addressing this stuff. She doesn't even have any daggers! I mean, that's hardly the group leader's fault! She should have loaded out before the quest started!

Plus, on every single page she bemoans her 8 INT build and blames her horrible playing on everyone else! It's her fault for putting all her stat points into Charisma!

To sum up, this book is terrible. It's anti-rogue if anything. If you want a book on how not to be a rogue this has got to be the bible.

I'm going back to the store now to see if I can get my hard earned cash back for this awful drek.

Total Ta-Nehisi bait, but I think he's too busy playing Dragon Age to notice.

Kimchi Day 1 - We have Kimchi!

Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure it's technically kimchi before it has fully undergone the pickling process... we might just have "salted cabbage with red pepper and other seasonings sitting in a jar for the next few days"... but that's not a very snappy post title, so I'll just consider it kimchi, and leave the pickling semantics to others.

As planned, I worked off of the Saveur recipe, but also kept an eye on David Lebovitz's adaptation since I was trying for a smaller quantity than the 6 quarts delivered by Saveur, but didn't want to screw up any ratios with the brine and what-have-you.

Unfortunately, I guess I purchased some sort of freak of nature Napa cabbage, since I ended needing both of the 2 quart jars I purchased (I was going to use the second jar for some other, yet to be determined, pickling project) ... but they seem to have packed themselves down a bit overnight, so it seems with a more forceful hand I might have only had a few cups extra. Certainly it doesn't seem under seasoned, but what do I know about making kimchi really? The proof will be in the tasting, I suppose... since I do have a fair bit more experience eating than making. Though we've got 4 days on the counter and 4 days in the fridge ("flavor melding") before I'll have any idea how it went... since I don't even know what to expect of the pickling process in general. Ah, the suspense! Kind of like a science project! If only science was normally as delicious as spicy Korean pickles. Though I think I remember them being pretty adamant about not eating your experiments, hmmm....

So with the caveats that I had never made kimchi before this attempt, haven't even tasted this batch yet, and was basically winging it on measurements to compensate for my well endowed cabbage, here are the rough proportions that I used:
  • 1 gallon of water
  • 1/2 + 1/4 cup sea salt
  • 1 SUPER large Napa cabbage, halved and each half cut into thirds
  • 3/4 lb Daikon radish, peeled and julienned
  • 1/2 cup Korean red pepper powder
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 15 Korean Chives, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 medium head of garlic, cloves garlic pressed
  • 4 scallions, white and light green parts sliced thiny
  • 4 sprigs of Korean watercress, trimmed and roughly chopped
  • 1 2" piece of ginger, finely diced and then smashed with a mortar and pestle
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned
  • 1/2 Asian pear, peeled, cored, and julienned
I tried to look at all that julienning as a good opportunity to work on my knife skills! The Daikon radish was the easiest in that regard because of its extraordinarily regular shape... carrots are tough for me, as you can see in the picture, but it's only one of the bastards. Finely mincing garlic is the absolute worst... my dexterity is just not up to dealing with such tiny, tiny matchsticks... I need to switch to a paring knife for that I think, but I am strangely reluctant - seems like giving up, I guess. So instead I completely cheated and used the garlic press, presumably because of some sort of garlic slippery slope. All in all, it was pretty fun since there wasn't any time pressure... honestly, even the person with the worst knife skills in the world can julienne a carrot over the course of 4 hours (as Julia Child said: If I can do it, so can you).

The fundamental choice in preparation between Saveur and Lebovitz was: a brief spell in the brine for the cabbage before dry salting them for 4 hours or sitting in the brine itself for 2 hours? I don't know if there are scientific merits for either approach, but I wasn't in a hurry (Dragon Age rocks), so I followed the Saveur instructions but only used a gallon of water + 1/2 cup salt in a very large bowl. Put the cabbage in that for a few minutes, then drained them and put them on a cookie sheet to work that 1/4 cup of sea salt onto all the leaves... then it was back into the (cleaned) giant bowl for four hours. I turned them whenever I thought of it, which was at least every 30 minutes... but sometimes it was probably more like 10 or 15 minutes because I can be OCD like that.

While that was going on, I julienned and chopped everything for the seasoning paste and then stirred it all together (see above)... though I now notice that Saveur says to "stir vigorously", which is somewhat ambiguous... was I supposed to be mashing everything together? Well, I didn't... so, uhm, hopefully that's fine.

Now, my 2 quart jars are way too small to take a whole Napa cabbage quarter on end, so I couldn't really follow the Saveur instructions at this point. After some false starts, I finally figured to drain the cabbages pieces from the big bowl, rinse, and then squeeze out excess water before putting them on a cookie sheet. Then washed and dried my big bowl (we only have one of a size for all that cabbage), before moving to cut my cabbage into more manageable pieces... I just cut off the root end and then cut each length in half. After that, I put the cabbage and seasoning paste into the big bowl and mixed it all together with my hands. WARNING: The paste will stain hands and counters, so you might want to wear gloves and have some Comet/Bon Ami handy to scrub down any spills. Finally, after it was all mixed up, I put layers of cabbage into the jars, pressing down, and adding a little extra salt as I went.

And there you have it... Chimpanzee Tea Party's first attempt at kimchi. I'm pretty excited about this little project, so you might prepare yourself for daily pictures as I breathlessly analyze the pickling process. Whatever... you'll live... at least I'm not going all Sully on Sarah Palin.

UPDATE: I did finally get around to tasting it and... it was good! You can read more here. Short summary: flavors hadn't completely melded yet, and in retrospect I would have grated the ginger, but otherwise plenty spicy and I really enjoy the subtle sweet notes brought by the pear and carrot.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How to "Cryosear" a Duck Breast

Via the New York Times, we get a PDF of how YOU can be a molecular gastronomist... with your very own wire dog brush, block of dry ice, and water vapor oven you can allegedly create the most perfectly cooked duck breast known to man. Yay? You'd think since I'm an engineer, fairly tech savvy, and a big fan of Harold McGhee/Alton Brown's more scientific approach to cooking, that I'd be all over the molecular gastronomy of Nathan Myhrvold... but I just don't feel it. I mean, yeah, this kind of thing is interesting:
For example, confit, the French technique of cooking slowly in fat, is supposed to impart a unique taste and texture as the fat penetrates the meat.

But Dr. Myhrvold said: “There’s no way it could penetrate. The molecules are too big.”

He said double-blind taste tests proved that the same tasty results could be achieved by steaming and then rubbing some of the fat on the outside.

While I still intend to cook my confit in fat, it's nice to dispense with the pseudo-mystical hearsay that gets bandied about as justification for various cooking methods... so that kind of challenge to "kitchen wisdom" is quite welcome... but making "stewed prunes that look like coal"? Or "breaking apart a fat and a liquid into tiny droplets and mixing them together into something that had the fluidity of heavy cream"? I mean, most of it seems like such a silly gimmick... is it really so hard to cook a duck breast? I mean, yes, it's challenging, but do we really need all these industrial cooking methods to get it right? I tend to think of molecular gastronomy as tech geeks armed with their pretty little hammer picturing everything as nails.

Granted, most of the field is squarely aimed at restaurant cooks, not the home cook, where maybe it makes sense for a chef to invest in some piece of equipment and a gimmicky technique, to simply set themselves apart from their competitors. In some sense you could say that molecular gastronomy is no more a gimmick than "locally grown organic" as a way to draw diners in... though on the substance, I would argue strenuously for the merits of the latter over the former.

But then, I seem only to ever embrace new ideas well after they've been brought into the mainstream and thus discarded by the hip and edgy... so oddly conservative for an alleged progressive, I am... so maybe in 5 years when molecular gastronomy is passé and forgotten, I'll think it's the best thing EVAH... but until that day, get off my lawn with your crazy cooking techniques... I'll cook my confit however I want!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tonight Tomorrow Night We Make Kimchi

Stopped by Super 88 Hong Kong Supermarkets last night and picked up the necessary ingredients. The difficulty is that I'm working from the Saveur recipe that's is for making 6 quarts... 6 quarts!? That's a gallon and a half of kimchi! I like kimchi, but not that much... especially when I'm making it for the first time. There are, of course, recipes for 2 quarts of kimchi... a more standard and manageable amount (though still a lot!)... but the Saveur recipe has the most interesting combination of ingredients, with things like asian pear and korean watercress. So I guess I'm going to roughly third the Saveur recipe, while keeping an eye on the proportions from the 2 quart recipes to make sure I'm not totally out of whack... and just wing it I guess.

A pretty unprecedented step for me, so I'm crossing all my fingers.

UPDATE: Realized I didn't grab any vegetarian fish paste, so Anna is going to see if Whole Foods has any today and otherwise it's full speed ahead with the brining tonight.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Today in Palimentary Procedure

Ezra Klein has an interview with a guy writing a book about the filibuster... pretty interesting if you're one of those people (and I certainly am!) wondering why the Dems don't make health care reform opponents actually read from the phone book or whatever, instead of folding like a lawn chair when somebody just threatens to filibuster. I mean, why are we letting them get off so easy? Well, it turns out that... as you might suspect... there are several reasons... but the biggest one seems to be that you need 50 Democrats on the floor to maintain quorum, but only one Republican needs to be there to filibuster. So you're basically ceding the cable news networks to the other side, and you can't do all the things... like fundraising... that Senators would rather do, instead of actually... you know... legislating. But I have to say, the old way sounds a lot more fun than the new way:
This vision of the filibuster is relatively different from the one the media has. You present it as a procedural war where you're waiting for the other side to make mistake so you can ram through your vote. The more general conception, I think, is that it's more like a long PR war where you wait for public opinion to break in one direction or another.

Traditionally, it's like a football game. You've got a running back who has to find a gap in an opponent's defense and he waits to find one guy who's tripped and he zips through to find a touchdown. In the book, there's one story from 1988 when the majority won because the guy who was filibustering was blind, and he thought that the guy who was going to take the floor for him wasn't. He sat down and the Republicans jumped up and took their vote. In 1950, a senator from Nevada gets laryngitis. These days, the majority would say, oh, we'd never take advantage of someone's laryngitis. But back then, they passed the bill, because the guy couldn't speak for it.

I would gladly trade Harry Reid and Co for Senators that ram a bill through because of someone's laryngitis. In a heartbeat. I don't think I'm alone here.

graph from flickr user myglesias used under a Creative Commons license

My Next Phone?

I don't really give a damn about iPhone vs. Whatever... the iPhone seems like a nice enough phone, and while I have objections to Apple's business practices, principles only take you so far when "Ohhhhh! SHINY!"... but I've already sold my soul to Verizon, and still have some unknown period until they let me have it back. I don't follow phone news very much, so this xkcd comic is the first I'd heard of an Android phone for Verizon... I sort of assumed Verizon was too stupid to realize it needed to partner with Google if it didn't want to end up the AOL of phone companies. Everybody can surprise you, I guess.

Doesn't look like it's Phone Jesus or anything, but at least it's credible... and I need a new phone. Well OK... I admit need is a little strong, but it'll be 2 years in February for my Voyager... wait... 2 year contract... that probably means I could get out of Verizon if I wanted in a few months. Hmmmm.

This will surprise nobody, but I'm leaning towards instant gratification.

UPDATE: Ooooohhh... the Google GPS app is free on the Droid... I pay $10 a month for VZ Navigator, and I don't even own a car... just because it's so damn handy when we travel. I might have a walk over to Cambridgeside in my future.

UPDATE^2: Got the phone... more on that later... but be aware that the prices seen on the web (i.e. $200 if non Verizon, $150 if you've got a credit) include a $100 mail in rebate which I think comes in the form of those lame "debit gift cards"... so that kind of sucks.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Barbara Kafka's Roasted Chicken and Crispy Potatoes

Last weekend, while visiting Anna's family, her mother was trying to pare down her cookbook collection to a more manageable size... and much to my delight, the classic 1995 Roasting - A Simple Art by Barbara Kafka came up for grabs. You might ask why, if it's such a classic, was it deemed superfluous? Well, for one thing Anna's mother is vegan, so a much smaller (though still very good) subset of the book's recipes are applicable to her... but another reason is that the cookbook was such a game changer that in the intervening years high temperature roasting has become ubiquitous, and many subsequent cookbooks have advanced that idea far enough that Kafka's simpler approaches may not seem quite as exciting as they once did. Indeed, the high roast chicken and potatoes recipe I blogged over a year and a half ago was directly inspired by Kafka's techniques. Cook's Illustrated took the high temperature roasting concept of Kafka further by brining and butterflying the chicken (to promote more even browning and cooking) while utilizing a broiling pan with the potatoes underneath (to obviate the need for flipping the potatoes constantly). Now, one might ask why I'd then bother making Kafka's recipe if I've already made (many times) and liked the Cook's Illustrated version... I guess I just wanted to see how well the original worked, since often it seems (especially with Cook's Illustrated) that changes to classic recipes are made just for the sake of change and to no real effect.

One warning: This recipe calls for a 500 degree oven, which if your oven is not really clean and your kitchen is not well ventilated, is likely to set off smoke detectors. This is one of the legitimate reasons people have sought to improve upon it, but I didn't have too much trouble... though my oven had been recently cleaned and I long ago learned to disconnect my apartment's smoke detectors when cooking.

  • 5-6 pound chicken (I used a 4lb broiler-fryer, as I prefer smaller chickens, and just shortened the cooking time a bit)
  • 1.5 lbs of potatoes ( I used red new potatoes, unpeeled and quartered)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh minced rosemary
  • 1/2 cup of white wine
  • 1 cup of stock
  1. Set rack to second lowest position, and preheat oven to 500 degress.
  2. Clear out the giblets and neck (skin removed) and reserve for stock. According to Kafka, the liver isn't supposed to go into the stock for some reason... maybe just because some people really love chicken livers (I do not number among them)... I threw it away, but kind of wish I had thrown it in the stock pot.
  3. Season the bird generously with salt and pepper, with a little bit going into the cavity. Put the chicken in a large roasting pan (no potatoes or onion yet) and put the pan, with the chicken going in legs first, into the oven for 10 minutes.
  4. Pull the pan out and use a wooden spoon to unstick the chicken... roll the potatoes around in whatever juices have been released, and then arrange the potatoes and onion around the chicken so that none are touching each other.
  5. Roast for another 35-45 minutes, flipping the potatoes every 15 minutes. When you do this, I also recommend tilting the pan around a bit to distribute the chicken fat around to all the potatoes. When it looks like you've got another 15 minutes left, sprinkle the potatoes with the rosemary.
  6. When the the thickest part of the breast is 160 to 165, and thigh is about 170... with juices running clear... you're done. Move the chicken to a serving platter with the potatoes and deglaze the pan with the wine and stock... scraping up all the brown bits with a wooden spoon... and simmering it for a couple minutes to reduce by half. Note that because the potatoes absorb pretty much all the fat from the chicken, there's nothing really to pour off (as you normally would) before you deglaze.

Even with a four pound chicken, it took... 10 (add potatoes and onion) + 15 (potato flip) + 15 (potato flip - chicken not done) + 10 (done!) = 50 minutes for my bird to be done. I was expecting more like 40, so jumped the gun with the rosemary - meaning it got a little burnt, but not disastrously so. The potatoes were perfect: crisp yet soft inside. What was most surprising was that, despite the lack of brining, the chicken was amazingly moist. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, being that I've often heard that brining mainly gives you an additional "margin of error", where you can overcook it and still get moist meat... so maybe that means I've cooked enough chickens to know when they're done? That would be nice. I also used a Bell Evans "air chilled" bird, but AFAIK there's nothing about that process that leads to a juicier final product... just a tastier one. One other thing... Kafka suggested either slicing up the onion and serving it or using it to make the stock... I served it, and was unimpressed, so I would suggest using it in the stock.

After eating and cleaning up, I took all the bones, including reserved giblets and neck, and threw them in the stock pot with enough water to cover them by a couple of inches (about 3.5 quarts for my stock pot). Brought it to a boil and then simmered, covered, for a few hours before I went to bed. After turning the stove off, I just left the pot there, so I can give it another few hours tonight. Michael Ruhlman actually suggested doing something similar in Ratio, but unfortunately I had to return that to the library... so I couldn't see what wrinkles he added (presumably aromatics in the stock). But a pretty good haul, nonetheless... a few meals and about a quart of stock should result from this. Are there better ways to roast a chicken? Probably... but I found this modern classic to be simple and straightforward, while producing an excellent roast chicken and perfect potatoes... and what more can you ask for than that?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Mullet Lifestyle : "If someone asks if you want extra mayonnaise, you have to say 'yes'. 'Cause that's part of it."

The Memorial Service at Fort Hood

Fairly short and worth watching on Veteran's Day. One of his best rhetorical efforts in recent memory, and given his track record that's saying a lot.

Dry Brined Turkey

It's apparently all Thanksgiving all the time over at the NYT, with today's Dining Section filled with wine choices, side dishes, and... of course... a turkey recipe. What's interesting about this year's recipe is that it utilizes "dry brining" to give you your extra margin of error when cooking the turkey. What's been the hot thing for many years has been regular brining... that is, submerging the bird in salt water for hours to days... but there's been some push back regarding the side effects of brining. Harold McGee, probably the most famous food science guy in the world, lays it out this way:
So what’s not to like about a brined turkey?

To begin with, the unrelenting saltiness, which it shares with its commercial cousins, the so-called “moisture-enhanced meats.” These ready-to-cook supermarket roasts can be up to 10 percent brine, with eight times the sodium content of the original meat. And saltiness doesn’t necessarily enhance turkey flavor. When I made two turkeys and compared brined and unbrined breasts side by side, the unbrined meat tasted meatier, more intensely turkey-like. That’s not surprising, because the added juiciness of brined meat comes from tap water, not the meat itself.

Worst of all, you can’t use a brined turkey to prepare one of the highlights of the Thanksgiving meal: gravy. Roast a plain turkey and you end up with a panful of browned turkey juices, which you can defat and deglaze and aromatize into a delicious pan sauce. But juice up the turkey with tap water and salt, and its drippings become too salty to use.

A few years ago, Russ Parsons compared dry brined/salted birds to your normally brined ones and found that while dry brining seasoned the meat and kept it moist you didn't get the spongy texture you risk with normal brining. This, of course, is not a new cooking innovation, but something people did for years, but for whatever reason had fallen out of favor somewhat... though the Zuni Cafe made a name for themselves with their dry brined chicken, so it's not like it's a lost art or anything.

Interestingly, Cook's Illustrated... one of the biggest proponents of brining over the years... has a dry-brined turkey recipe($$$) in their latest issue, but they take it to 11 by having you "bard" the breast with salt pork... another classic technique that had fallen to the wayside a bit.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be making a turkey this year, but I would lean towards the Cook's Illustrated one since I'm sort of fascinated by barding at the moment... but it's obviously a fair bit more complicated than the New York Times article. It's sort of interesting to see how trends come and go as food writers try to think up something novel for Thanksgiving each year. If you're curious, I blogged my efforts at a butterflied high roast turkey (normally brined) last year.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thanksgiving Wine

The New York Times recommends a mix of red and white wines for Thanksgiving:
The wines need to be versatile, to complement a wide assortment of dishes, including the idiosyncratic variations that every family knows and loves. They must be modest but confident wines that assert their flavors in harmony with the food rather than trying to dominate the proceedings. And they must be modestly priced.

I'm not a wine guy, so I have no comments on their selections, but it seems like a nice article to have handy as people start gearing up for the holidays. Though, personally, I'll be looking at the Thanksgiving beer recommendations at Beer Advocate.

Pan Fried Pumpkin Butternut Squash Gnocchi?

Steamy Kitchen has a pretty interesting Pumpkin Gnocchi recipe up right now... interesting mostly because the gnocchi are pan fried and she uses ricotta and Parmesan in the gnocchi themselves... which I think is fairly unusual, but then I don't get out much. The thing is, we've got (I think ) five butternut squashes from the garden in Maine sitting on the counter waiting to be used... though some are destined for lasagna and whatever other nefarious ends Anna can dream up... that still leaves us with plenty of squash for gnocchi, which appeals more to me than canned pumpkin. The problem being that I don't really know how many cups of puree a butternut squash will produce, so I don't know how much ricotta/Parmesan or egg yolks or whatever to get to keep the ratios the same. However this butternut squash gnocchi recipe calls for cooking the squash the night before... which, while kind of a pain, would give me a better idea of what I'll need. I think I'm going to roast a chicken tonight, based on a recipe from Barbra Kafka's Roasting cookbook (recently passed on to me as Anna's mother tried to clean out some cookbooks she wasn't using)... but I hope to try this out before the end of the week.

photo by flickr user pcarpen used under a Creative Commons license

Monday, November 9, 2009

Horizons' Seitan

Horizons in Philly is probably the best vegan restaurant on the east coast. Granted, there's not a whole lot of competition... but still, if you're a vegan and live within a day's drive, you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage... and even if you're not a vegan, and live nearby, you should check out what talented chefs can do with soybeans and wheat gluten. I guess they were the first vegan chefs at the James Beard House a couple of weeks ago, so they must be doing something right. Anna has always raved about the place... and being that her sister and mother are both vegans and live in Philly/Southern New Jersey, it's been her family's goto spot for fine dining for quite some time... but Saturday was my first trip there. We had a range of appetizers that we all shared, but the entrée choices were much more monotonous, as the experienced diners gravitated towards the grilled seitan.

Horizons' seitan is unlike any seitan you've ever had. Seriously. I've never been a huge fan of seitan... though I like it more than tempeh (whose flavor I find kind of odd)... but Horizons' seitan was exceptional. Store bought seitan (pictured above) seems to tend towards a rubbery texture, but Horizons' effort was quite soft but with a nice chew... I won't say it's "meat-like", but it really is quite nice and satisfying. While I've never really understood vegans' and vegetarians' obsession with fake meat products, I think nearly any naysayer would be favorably impressed with what Horizons' serves.

The problem is that their seitan recipe is a secret... this despite the fact that Horizons has released TWO cookbooks. Apparently they get a custom cut of Ray's Seitan, a brand that is only available in Philly (not shipped anywhere AFAICT). Anna says that she has never been able to duplicate the texture at home... though she suspects that the chewy texture comes from over kneading, but has yet to test this hypothesis. An interesting blog post, where the author went to a cooking demo by the chef Rich Landau, suggests that Landau likes the seitan recipes from Veganomicon (best cookbook name EVAH) and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (Bittman's)... so that might be where to start. I know we at least have Veganomicon, but I don't think we have Bittman's veggie book.

While I understand why Horizons and Ray's would want to keep a firm hold on their exceptional product, it seems a shame that vegans who don't live in Philly probably don't know how awesome seitan can really be. If Anna ever figures it out, I'll be sure to post it here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Garden Stating

I'm off to visit with Anna's family over a three day weekend... posting should resume on Monday.

I don't particularly like this movie (it's aight) or this song (meh to The Shins), but it's topical so here you go:

Less meat or better meat?

This past Saturday, Nicolette Hahn Niman (of Niman Ranch fame) had an op-ed published in the New York Times pushing back against the idea that reducing meat consumption is key in fighting climate change... instead, she makes the case that it's factory farmed meat that's the real problem, and if we all ate pasture fed beef in our hamburgers everything would be super awesome. Obviously she has a dog in this fight... being in the pasture fed meat business... but she made some interesting points. Helen York at The Atlantic, however, was not so impressed, feeling that getting Americans to eat less meat was far more important than getting them to eat pasture fed meat... and that the case for pasture fed is not so strong as Niman made it seem. Besides emphasizing that methane from the animals digestion is a bigger problem than CO2 from machinery et al, York's main points appear to be that pasture fed meat is too expensive to be for most Americans and that any greenhouse gas advantages of pasture farming would be eliminated if they were done on a large enough scale to replace factory farming. To me, the first point is a feature not a bug... more expensive meat means eating less of it... and I tend to agree that many small farm advocates are a tad unrealistic when they imagine our food needs met by a thousand picturesque Niman Ranches dotting the countryside. There is just no way that we can feed everyone without embracing economies of scale to some extent. Regardless, the Nimans responded... though they didn't really address what I consider to be York's main criticisms. They do push back against the methane bit... saying that better feeding reduces those emissions, and that we've had giant herds of ruminating animals for basically ever... which is sort of fair, I guess. They also say it's federal policy, not scale that causes the high costs... but don't really cite any evidence. They do bring up an interesting tidbit:
A related point I emphasize in my op-ed but York ignores in her response is that a food's environmental impact should be considered holistically. It's important to consider grazing's significant environmental benefits. For one thing, pastures have been shown to sequester substantial amounts of carbon, much more than cropland. A mountain of studies have shown that pasture is by far the most ecologically sound method of producing food. Compared to cropland, pastures have much less soil erosion and cause much less water pollution. As the op-ed mentioned, they can also be excellent ways to maintain natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Moreover, the rumen's role in food production is nothing short of miraculous. As Cornell University professor David Pimentel wrote in Food, Energy and Society, ruminants can effectively make use of marginal land that is otherwise unsuitable for food production;they are intermediaries between naturally occurring, inedible cellulosic vegetation and human beings. In other words, by grazing on forage that humans cannot digest--thanks to their rumens, the very cause of those enteric emissions--grazing animals make efficient use of natural resources.

I'm a little curious about the "mountain of studies have shown that pasture is by far the most ecologically sound method of producing food"... but it sounds plausible. After all, the entire organic food thing arose out of a desire to stem the massive ecological damage of industrial farming methods. But if we're talking about all the livestock in the US, is there enough "marginal land that is otherwise unsuitable for food production" to pasture them all on?

They then go on to state that they want Americans to eat less meat too, but then complain that if you get all the foodies to eat less meat, then who is going to pay over $30 a pound for our steaks? Well O.K., not really... but that's kind of what it sounded like. While I think making meat more expensive is a good idea, it really is hard to believe Niman Ranch is a very good model for how food production should be structured. I would like to see some more hard analysis about what it would mean to say "all animals have to be pastured" or whatever. Is that even feasible? Would it make meat so expensive to put it out of the reach of most Americans? What would it do to greenhouse gas emissions?

I suspect, however, that the answer to this post's title is (predictably): both.

photo by flickr user publicenergy used under a Creative Commons license

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Iron Chef Obama?

This sounds kind of fun:
On the episode, which will open the show’s new season Jan. 3 on the Food Network, two pairs of chefs will compete: Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Bobby Flay go up against the combined forces of Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse.

In a collision of politics, cooking and popular culture, Michelle Obama will reveal the secret ingredient that the chefs must use in their televised cook-off: anything that grows in the White House garden (no further spoilers here, though).

See? I'm not the only person who thinks politics and food go great together.

Maine Sucks

53 to 47 percent against gay marriage.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dog: It's what for dinner!?

Via Ezra Klein

Jonathan Safran Foer notes in the Wall Street Journal that, if our food choices were rational, we'd all eat dog meat. Many other cultures across the world do it. Dogs are no smarter than a pig... so it's not like they're special on a cognitive level. Besides, we're already euthanizing 3-4 million dogs annually and turning their remains into "the food for our food"... so why not eliminate the middle man? Indeed, doing so, and moving straight to eating dogs would be better for the environment and our planet:
Few people sufficiently appreciate the colossal task of feeding a world of billions of omnivores who demand meat with their potatoes. The inefficient use of dogs—conveniently already in areas of high human population (take note, local-food advocates)—should make any good ecologist blush. One could argue that various "humane" groups are the worst hypocrites, spending enormous amounts of money and energy in a futile attempt to reduce the number of unwanted dogs while at the very same time propagating the irresponsible no-dog-for-dinner taboo. If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame. For the ecologically-minded it's time to admit that dog is realistic food for realistic environmentalists.

Clever as it is, presented in the Swift-ian style... the idea that our food choices "are not rational," should not surprise anyone who won't, for example, touch brussels sprouts... or isn't interested in eating puffin meat... or is, ahem, offended by the mere existence of rye bread. Indeed, I imagine you could concoct a similar article from the other direction... mocking the impossibility of living a life free of animal cruelty while citing the vegetarian with the leather pumps and cosmetics tested on animals. The rational choice of "cruelty free" or "locally grown" can only take most of us so far. While I'd like to think I'm dedicated to the idea of "locally grown", I only made it to the farmer's market a handful of times this summer... and, uhm, it's... like... almost winter and I live in Massachusetts... do you expect me to just eat root vegetables for the next 6 months? So yeah... there are obviously (very low) limits to what effort I will put forth and I what inconvenience I will endure, for a food related ideal. I don't imagine that is unusual... but I won't eat a dog, and that instinctual revulsion takes absolutely no effort on my part.

So how do we change our food culture to inspire such revulsion in factory farmed meat? Field trips to slaughterhouses? Mandatory butchering classes in middle school? Or do we just take the decision out of the consumer's hand and regulate the cruelty (as best we can) out of our meat?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lost Cities Impressions

Anna is a fairly big fan of card and board games... pretty much always being up for a game of anything ranging from Candyland to Boggle to Monopoly. While I do enjoy the occasional game of cutthroat Monopoly, I have generally eschewed boardgames since I was a teenager... preferring to get my strategic and competitive game playing fixes on the computer. The problem there is that the competition is usually against the A.I., which besides tending not to be much of a challenge... isn't very social, and doesn't satisfy the most critical criterion in the request: "Let's do something together!" With multi-player video games most often needing two copies of the software, and two computers or consoles to run it on... it really seemed the most cost effective strategy for another entertainment option beyond cooking, watching Netflix, or going out was for me to investigate board gaming, and find something that appealed to me more than Boggle. The problem from the board gaming end, however, is that the vast majority are meant for something like four players... not two... and while we could get some friends over for a board gaming night occasionally... or perhaps head down Mass Ave to Pandemonium Books for their board gaming night... two player games are really what we're going to get the most use out of.

We started with highly regarded Carcassonne and War of the Ring, but had mixed success. While I like Carcassonne, I've never quite gotten into it... usually preferring to do something else rather than play... luckily Xbox Live Arcade has a version Anna can play solo. I can't really explain what's failed to grab me about Carcassonne... maybe it's just that I prefer massive strategy titles with lots of complicated rules and moving parts... thus I am a much bigger fan of War of the Ring. While we both really enjoy WoTR, it takes quite a lot of time for us to setup and play(see here) and thus requires more planning and dedication than you really want on a week night. So I am starting to acknowledge that I need to get more into games that can get whipped out and played quickly, without needing hours of setup and hours of play to resolve... while I think I need to give Carcassonne another (more serious) go, I also wanted to try some other games.

So with that... rather long... introduction, you know where I'm coming from with my impressions of Lost Cities: I am new to board gaming, lean towards complicated games, but want to get into some "simple but deep" ones. We played on two different nights... just a game or two each time (each game consisting of three rounds)... which is sufficient to give some impressions of how it plays and some of the strategy involved. Lost Cities is a 60 card game (5 suits or "expeditions" instead of the 4 in a regular deck) that's pretty straight forward to play, with the most complicated (and important) part being the scoring. For each suit/expedition there are numbered cards from 2 to 10 and then three face/investment cards. Each player puts down cards on their own side of the table and doesn't directly impact the expeditions of the other (you do indirectly impact them of course). The investment cards for any expedition can only be played before you put down any numbered cards... and any number card you put down has do be higher than the ones you've played so far. So ideally, you'd put down the three investment cards and then in sequence the cards 2 through 10. Each player starts the game with 8 cards, and then on your turn you can either put a card down on an expedition or discard a card to the middle onto the appropriate expedition discard pile... then you take a card.. either from the deck... or from one of the aforementioned expedition discard piles. The round ends when the last card is drawn from the deck... meaning that you will end a round with cards in your hand, and getting cards onto the table before the game ends is a huge part of the strategy... the end comes much more quickly than you think it will. Besides just getting your cards down on the table, the biggest part of the strategy involves the nature of the scoring. When you start an expedition, you start in the hole 20 points... that is, if you can't put down more than 20 points of numbered cards on an expedition by the end of the round, you lose points for starting it. The investment cards increase the multiplier applied after you determine how many points an expedition won or lost... which can lead to huge losses if you put down investment cards and few numbered cards. So, naturally, a fairly large part of the strategy appears to be based on holding cards to screw your opponent... or holding back on playing any cards from an expedition until you already have a lot of points from that suit in your hand. There is a lot of tension between wanting to put down a long string of cards that will score you a big round, and trying to keep from taking big risks for huge losses.

While the first couple of games we played were mainly just learning the ins and outs of that scoring dynamic... it's super easy to pick up the rules, and you can just dive right in. I have to say that I've enjoyed it quite a bit so far, with one of the nicest parts being that you can play it in small doses... and thus I'm not really worried about of getting sick of it quickly... playing three rounds for a game is pretty fast, but still feels like a decent amount of activity to me.

So I'm pleased. I'll try to update if I sour on it, or suddenly find some aspect of the strategy that makes playing it tedious.