Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cook's Illustrated French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup

This soup was an epic three part post four years ago (almost to the day!) in this blog's infancy. Can't say I'm super pleased with the food photography from those ancient times, but I am impressed I managed to summon that many words to blog about French onion soup. I admit I will be considerably more brief in this revisit of what I still consider to be a great recipe. Anna made it this time, subbing in veggie broth for the chicken and beef broth and she... like I did... made it in two parts to keep it manageable. The "trick" with this recipe is caramelizing the onions in the oven, which is much more time consuming than doing it on the stove top but carries considerably less risk of burning them up. The soup tasted great, and so even after four more years of cooking experience I still give it the thumbs up. The recipe can be found here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sous Vide Hanger Steak

Sous Vide Hanger Steak

When you have a sous vide setup, "steak" is one of the most obvious answers to the "So what should I cook in this thing?" question. Now, I'm not a huge steak guy normally, but that's actually precisely why sous vide is the perfect method for me to use to cook a steak. I just don't have that much experience cooking steaks, and thus even armed with a fancy thermometer I can overcook them quite easily. With sous vide it's basically impossible, even on cuts that are considered hard to cook.

Raw Hanger Steak

What you see above is a hanger steak, which comes from under the diaphragm of the cow. It's a relatively inexpensive steak (about $7 a pound) that still is full of flavor, but only displays its greatness when cooked to a doneness ranging from medium to medium-rare. Undercook it and it's mush, overcook it and it's rubber. It takes a skilled cook to keep the meat in that narrow temperature range by traditional methods... which brings us back around to sous vide. Even an idiot like me can't screw that up.

In Bags with Aromatics

Following this guide from Serious Eats makes the whole process super easy. Preheat your water bath to 130'F (for medium-rare). Aggressively salt and pepper your steaks and then seal them in a bag with aromatics like shallot, garlic, and thyme. Then drop them in the water bath anywhere from 45 minutes to 12 hours... meaning you can do this before you head to work in the morning with no problem. When you are ready to eat, just pull 'em out the bag and pat them down. Then you just sear them in oil for about a minute a side.

Couldn't be easier to cook the perfect steak... "restaurant cut" or no.

Friday, January 18, 2013

36 Hour Sous Vide Pork Belly with Udon

36 Hour Pork Belly with Udon
So this was the first dish made with my new DIY sous vide setup. No quick 30 minute salmon or 45 minute hanger steak for me! Straight to the 36 hour pork belly... though I think not going for the 72 hour (!) version shows some restraint. The recipe I used was from Zen Can Cook, and since I made no adaptations except substitutions based on what I could find at the store, I won't reprint his recipe here (plus you really should click through and see his gorgeous photos). The final dish is udon with some greens and mushrooms which are just blanched in the dashi, all topped with the pork belly (which has been seared and heated through in the oven) and a sous vide egg.

Pork Belly Bagged

There are essentially three parts to this dish, the pork belly, the dashi, and assembly of the final dish. The pork belly part is obviously the most time intensive, though "hands on time" is pretty minimal. Zen Can Cook adapted his version from Heston Blumenthal (Nathan Myrvhold is the 72 hour proponent), and does so with an overnight cure in salt and spices followed by 36 hours in sake, mirin, and soy sauce. I went with half michiu and half soy sauce with a dash of rice wine vinegar because... well... that is what I had in the pantry. I probably should have added some sugar to match mirin's sweetness, but I thought the flavor as is was quite good so I went with it.

I had two pieces of one pound pork belly so I put each one in a bag with half the liquid and forced out the air by submerging the Ziplocs in water. After preheating the water bath to 144'F (took about an hour with my setup), into the bath the bags went... keeping the sealed ends to the top so that risk of leakage was minimized.

Pork Belly out of the Bath

A day and a half later we have our fully cooked pork belly, which I dunked (still bagged of course!) into a bowl of ice water to cool quickly. Why not just put them into the udon immediately? Well, notice how it's all bumpy and buckle-y? No self respecting chef is going to serve those ugly things (plus it's going to inhibit even browning during the sear), so into the fridge overnight those bags go under a nice heavy weight. This was point where I was most worried about not using traditionally vacuum sealed bags, but once cooled all the fat makes the liquid pretty gelatinous and coupling that with doubling over the sealed end worked fine.

Somewhere during this 60 hour period (12 hour cure + 36 hour sous vide + 12 rest under a weight) you should make your dashi and assemble your other ingredients. If you don't regularly make Asian dishes then this will probably require a trip to the Asian market for things like kombu and bonito.

The sous vide eggs should also get done towards the end of this time period. They're 45 minutes (or up to 4 hours) at 142'F for a runny yolk up to 147'F for more custardy action. If you've never had a sous vide egg, they're different from a normal poached egg because the whites set at a much higher temperature than the yolk cooks. That means you can have a custardy yolk inside of wobbly whites, which can be a little off putting if you don't know what to expect. Personally I found this video helpful in knowing how to handle them.

36 Hour Sous Vide Pork Belly

The next day (or whenever), it's time to assemble your udon and finish off the pork belly. Set your oven to 325'F, slice of a piece the size you need (reserving the pork belly "consomme" to flavor the dashi), and sear it skin side down over high heat in an oven safe skillet until nice and golden brown. Then it's into the oven it goes until it is heated through. How long that takes depends on how big the piece is, but it will most likely be done by the time your udon is ready.

I thought the recipe turned out great, and worked well as a showcase of sous vide cooking. I certainly recommend it to anybody with a sous vide setup.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

DIY Sous Vide and the Dorkfood DSV Controller

Slow Cooker and DSV Sous Vide Controller
So for Christmas I received the Dorkfood DSV Sous Vide Controller (thanks Mom!), which at $100 is the cheapest path to home sous vide short of wiring your own PID controller and solid state relay together (something I think many home cooks would shy away from). You still need to buy/own a crockpot or rice cooker to act as the heating element (I got this slow cooker on sale), but that's still well short of the $349/479 that a Sous Vide Demi or Supreme is going to cost you. There are two other devices similar to the Dorkfood controller that I'm aware of that go for about $150: this one from Auber Instruments and this one from Fresh Meals Solutions. While I have not used either of those units, my boss does have the Auber Instruments sous vide controller so I can make some comparisons from talking to him about it.

In terms of general operation the controller worked great and maintained the temperature of the water bath within a few tenths of a degree of the set temperature (based on checking every few hours with my Thermapen). Since the heating element is independent of the controller (i.e. it depends on what rice/slow cooker you buy) this isn't meant as a knock, but you should be aware that it takes a fair bit of time to preheat the water bath. For my setup it was over an hour to get from hot tap water to a temperature in the 140's F. Since sous vide is generally a longer term cooking project this isn't much of an issue unless you really want eggs, burgers, or fish or whatever for dinner that night... in which case you clearly need to take the preheating time into account.

The major flaw of this device... and there is indeed a flaw... is not in how effectively it maintains temperature, but in the fact that the $50 you save on it apparently led to a electromechanical relay being used instead of a solid state relay. This means that whenever the PID controller in the device turns your heating element on or off to maintain temperature... something that can happen once a minute or so... there is an audible click as the electromechanical relay switches. In our tiny Cambridge apartment we can hear it from the living room. For me, it's not enough of an annoyance to feel I need to return it to purchase a controller with a solid state relay (I know from my boss that the Auber Instruments one is silent) but it is something I feel any potential buyer needs to be aware of.

Pork Belly In Bath

One final issue I wanted to touch on in this post is whether or not you need a vacuum sealer to do sous vide. Despite the fact that "sous vide" translates to "under vacuum"... you do not, in fact, need a vacuum sealer to do sous vide. Learned this trick from Kenji when I tried his beer cooler sous vide, but the vacuum part isn't really doing any of the work here as far as cooking or flavor. Ultimately what you really need is 1) your meat and any liquid sealed off from the water bath (so as not to leak), 2) the liquid/meat to stay submerged, and 3) only the bag between the liquid and the water bath. You can accomplish this, however, by simply slowly submerging a standard Ziploc style bag in water as you seal up the top. This forces 99% of the air out and is perfectly functional for sous vide.

Now, there are other reasons for buying a vacuum sealer, and obviously this way you are going to have a substantially greater chance of a leak at the seal... but if the added expense of a vacuum sealer was holding you back then you should be aware that it's not something you truly need. Alternatively you could buy these hand pump + special bags to save money as well.

Now what a good vacuum sealer will do is help prevent spoilage, so if you are going to do a lot of sous vide at once and let it hang out in your fridge for days and days before finishing it off... then a real vacuum sealer is something you are probably gonna want, for piece of mind if nothing else.

Thus ends my mixed review of the Dorkfood DSV Controller, a cheap and finely functioning but somewhat annoying DIY sous vide controller. As you can guess from the pictures I've already cooked something delicious in it, and that post should go up by the end of the week.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Tyranny of Tasting Menus

NomaCorby Kummer has an article up in Vanity Fair that is garnering a lot of attention in foodie circles, about how in high end restaurants the customer is no longer king:
Mercy is a rare commodity at restaurants like this, where the diner is essentially strapped into a chair and expected to be enraptured for a minimum of three and often four and five hours, and to consume dozens of dishes. Choice, changes, selective omissions—control, really, over any part of an inevitably very expensive experience—are not an option. Course after course after course comes to the table at a pace that is “measured, relentless,” as the former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton wrote (admiringly!) of Blanca, the latest tasting-menu-only cult restaurant in New York.
The first thing to note here is that he's talking about a very very tiny fraction of restaurants... the ones that are in contention for "Best Restaurant in the World." In fact, I'm not aware of any restaurant in Boston where you are given no options besides being at the mercy of the chef for hours on end. Certainly many offer multi-course tasting menus, some of which are "chef's whim" where you are given no choices other than perhaps a dietary restriction... but you are not required to choose these types tasting menus to dine at a high end restaurant in Boston. I understand this is different in New York and Chicago, and perhaps other cities... but I think it's important to note that this is not a trend sweeping the nation. Tasting menus are certainly very popular these days, and I think there certainly some pressure... societal and from the restaurants themselves... to order them instead of a la carte... but does it rise to the level of tyranny? Hard to see how it does since it's completely voluntary. If I ask Tony Maws to feed me a vegetarian meal of his design (as we have done) it seems odd to then lament the lack of control.

So then it comes down to the complaint that if I want to eat at one of the ten best restaurants in the world then I am not going to have many(some, but not all, will do vegetarian) choices. You also have to be ready to commit your entire evening and be ready to pay $500 a person. That's an extremely large sum of money for a meal... something I could never even consider except a very special occasion... but then isn't that exactly why it should last for hours and consist of a bewildering array of courses? If I've been saving for years to fly to Copenhagen for a dinner at Noma... shouldn't it be an event? Not a zippy hour long meal so we can make a 7:15 movie? I mean, if I ever eat at Noma it's not like I'll be coming back... and I'm going to be expecting to have the best meal of my life... which sounds exactly like what they are trying to provide... and bizarrely, exactly what Kummer is complaining about.

It's certainly reasonable to say that spending several thousand dollars for a single meal is absurd, but he doesn't explicitly make that argument... and it comes across more as the lamentations of a jaded food writer to me. Someone who has the opportunity to eat at all these amazing places and who doesn't really appreciate it. At this point the best thing that can be said about the article is that it has at least engendered interesting discussions elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ginger Scallion Sauce

Ginger Scallion Sauce
I've had the Momofuku cookbook for a few months now, but haven't had the time to do anything more than page through and long for its porkiness... hopefully that will change over the coming weeks as I try to do some recipes from each of my new cookbooks.

Now this isn't exactly a Momofuku recipe... though you will find a ginger scallion sauce recipe within it's pages... this is Francis Lam's version of said recipe, though of course the sauce is a traditional Chinese one and was invented by neither. The Momofuku version has soy sauce and vinegar added in but Lam's is just ginger, scallions, and oil. The other key difference is that instead of just letting the cold ingredients hang out together for a bit, Lam has you get the oil smoking hot before pouring it over the scallions and ginger... which I suppose is slightly more dangerous, but loads more fun. I also appreciated the usage of a food processor for the ginger and scallion mincing, which makes this a quick recipe indeed.

Noodles with Ginger Scallion Oil and Seared Tofu

Ginger scallion sauce can be used on just about anything, but I think it shines best on noodles. I think of it as another form of ramen hacks (you could even use it as a ramen hack)... take some drained cooked noodles (rice, soba, udon, ramen, whatever) and mix in a couple of spoonfuls of your ginger scallion sauce. Then top with seared tofu and/or the steamed or pickled veggies of you choice. Season with some soy sauce and hot pepper and dinner is served.

What you see above is cooked instant yakisoba noodles (no seasoning packets used) and some tofu I pressed and subsequently marinated in soy sauce before searing. Simple but delicious.

This stuff really is a revelation and I suggest you make it as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Baked Soda Hard Pretzels

Homemade Hard Pretzels
To make true homemade hard pretzels you need lye, but you'll also need gloves and goggles because it is quite the powerful base. Making them without lye is a disappointing experience... closer to bread sticks than pretzels. Thankfully Harold McGee offered up an alternative in The New York Times: baked baking soda. The heat of a 300 degree oven apparently causes it to turn from sodium bicarbonate to sodium carbonate, which is a stronger alkali than the original baking soda.

Baked Baking Soda Wash

Take a box of baking soda and spread it out on a foil lined cookie sheet. Bake in a 300 degree oven and voila... baked soda. Take 1 and a 1/3 cups of it (200 grams) and dissolve it in a quart of water and that's your pretzel wash. The baking soda will lose some water weight when you bake it so unfortunately you can't weigh it out in advance... so you'll have some left over if you use a whole box. Alkaline noodles maybe? If you've got the Momofuku cookbook then ramen noodles are an option.

Regardless of your plans for the leftover baked soda, the way this works is you let the formed pretzels sit in the baked soda wash for 4 minutes... flipping them after 2 to make sure the entire pretzel gets the wash. Then you wash them off in a bowl of plain water. Put them on baking sheet lined with parchment and salt them while they are still wet. Obviously you can only do a handful at a time in the wash, but that works well with the fact that the dough needs to rest as you roll out each pretzel.

Ready for Oven

The recipe I used from the LA Times calls for rye flour, but I didn't have any and it came out fine. Presumably the rye will give you a slightly more interesting flavor, but they're quite tasty with just bread flour. We gave these out for Christmas and they were a pretty big hit. They don't come out with the same snap as your lye made pretzels but they are still really good.

Good to make with an assistant since it's a pretty long process, but it's also pretty fun.