Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Couple of Vegan Pizzas

We were up in Maine visiting with my mother-in-law for Memorial Day weekend and decided to do a little pizza party on Saturday, which was pretty perfect for a rather cold and wet couple of days. We've done this sort of thing several times (though afterwards we always comment about how we should be doing it more), and the basic idea is to make Peter Reinhart's cold ferment pizza dough in advance... at least the night before but it can be several days prior... and then on the day of prep your pizza toppings during the 2 hours where the dough is warming up and proofing.

The Reinhart dough recipe results in enough for 6 (somewhat small) pizzas, but we generally only try to think up 3 ideas and do them twice to keep the ingredient prep from being too insane. Since the MIL is vegan our pizzas thus had to be too, and beyond a fairly typical mushroom pizza I thought we came up with two vegan pizzas that were worth saving:

White Bean and Roasted Tomato Pizza

This white bean and roasted tomato pizza is inspired by one of my favorite pizzas at a local place. I don't know that I got it 100% right, but we came reasonably close. The key to me is for the beans not to just be a puree, but to still have some whole beans in there, which we didn't fully achieve. Next time I will reserve one can of drained white beans essentially as a garnish. Otherwise it's a can of beans in a saucepan with some veggie broth (1/3 of a cup?), fresh herbs (like rosemary, sage, etc), and roasted garlic... smash them up a bit with a wooden spoon or immersion blender... and simmer for about 10 minutes until it gets thick.

The perfect tomatoes for this kind of pizza would be the slow roasted kind but we didn't have any on hand so I needed to improvise. I seeded a few roma tomatoes and cut them into wedges, drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled them with fresh herbs (sage and rosemary once again), and put them in a 450 degree F oven until they started to caramelize (20-25 minutes).

The final... and critically important... aspect of this pizza is some crushed red pepper. I mean, I guess it's fine without if you don't do spice, but personally I think that element of heat really elevates this pizza to another level.

Fiddlehead and Carmelized Onion Pizza

Our final choice was a fiddlehead and carmelized onion pizza for a bit more of a springtime feel, despite the gloomy weather. I had actually never had fiddleheads before... seen them plenty around this time of year, but never really knew what to do with them. Apparently there have been some issues with foodborne illness linked to un/undercooked fiddleheads, so we blanched them for 5 minutes but otherwise just seasoned them with salt to prep them as a topping. They're not super exciting on their own... Anna described the flavor as "green"... but they work quite well in this pizza.

We caramelized onions and roasted some garlic to go on with the fiddleheads, and while I'm not usually a fan of "cheese" products Daiya is pretty decent, actually melts, and the vegans I know seem to enjoy it. Personally I would skip it since I remember what real cheese tastes like, but it's probably no worse than supermarket shredded mozzarella.

All in all a pretty successful pizza making experience. Our only misstep was that I didn't put enough corn meal on the pizza peel for our first effort and ended up needing to roll it into a calzone to get it off. So I guess I will leave you with that final tip: don't skimp on the corn meal/semolina! It's better to wast corn meal than a pizza.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Food Lab: Sous Vide Chicken Breast

Sous Vide Chicken Breast with Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette
I think there is probably no dish I find less exciting to cook than a chicken breast. Now, don't get me wrong, I really enjoy chicken itself... roast chicken, fried chicken, spatchcocked chicken, chicken in a pot, etc... but the only time I ever grab chicken breasts is when I'm going to pan roast them and then make a sauce while the meat is resting, which I don't think I've ever even bothered to blog about. For better or worse I'm a cook who gravitates towards more "aspirational" than "functional" cooking and that means that chicken breasts... which I imagine are at (or near) the top cuts of meat cooked in the United States... get the short shrift up in here.

Well (for at least this post) that's all about to change! Enter the sous vide chicken breast... which is about as functional as functional cooking can be. I mean there is really no art/craft to cooking this baby... stick it in your sous vide setup for an hour and thirty five minutes at 140°F, brown the skin for 2 minutes, and dinner is served. 140°F! you may say... that's raw chicken you'll die of salmonella! No you won't. For a more detailed explanation, see this Food Lab post, but the simple answer is that the amount of nasty bacteria killed is a matter of both temperature and time... so if you want your meat to be safe to eat at a lower temperature you just need to hold it there for longer... which is where sous vide comes in.

The recipe I used can be found here, but pretty much all of it was making the (very good) sauce for the chicken. Since the chicken doesn't exude much of any juices at 140°F (better they stay in the meat, right?) there are no pan sauces here. A salsa, chimichurri, vinaigrette, or beurre meunière is called for to make things interesting... but nothing could be simpler than making the chicken itself. I got skin-on bone-in (or "split") chicken breasts but if your butcher does skin-on boneless breasts then that is the ideal I think... not that the bone is problematic or deboning the breasts, as I did, is particularly arduous. You definitely want skin though, unless you are just going to slice up the meat and put it in a salad. It's gives you something you can crisp up to both look and taste great.

Preheat your water bath to 140°F. Then just liberally season your chicken breast with salt and pepper before placing it in a plastic bag. Evacuate the air however you are going to do that (I like these hand pump bags)... but either the fancy ways or submerging it in water as you seal it work fine. After an hour and thirty five minutes (up to ten hours - so you can put it in before you go to work) your chicken breast will look like this:

Out Of The Bag

Not terribly tasty looking, eh? That's why we brown the skin. Set a skillet to medium high with a tablespoon of vegetable oil until the oil is all shimmery, add the breast(s) skin side down and cook until the skin is golden... about 2 minutes, and voilà:

Incredibly Moist

The most juicy and perfectly cooked chicken breast you've ever made. I'll tell you that I was a little concerned that the texture would be off putting or weird in some way, but that is simply not the case. It just tastes like really juicy chicken.

Definitely recommended for anyone with a sous vide setup. Note that it's also a short enough cooking time that you could do this with beer cooler sous vide, so if you are really just looking for a recipe to determine whether the sous vide investment is worth it, then this is a good recipe to try.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cornish Game Hen with Prosciutto, Rosemary, and White Beans

Cornish Game Hen with Prosciutto and Rosemary with White Beans

I don't really recall how exactly, but I only recently learned that Cornish Game Hen is neither a game bird nor necessarily a hen. They're really just tiny little chickens with a specific parentage.... who knew? Well, presumably lots of people... but not me, which is what matters around here. What's great about them is how small they are (less than 2 lbs by definition) but unfortunately they can be much more expensive than a regular chicken. So even though they're just tiny chickens you can easily pay like they're something much more exotic... I guess marketing works, eh?

I got this recipe off of Serious Eats, and you can go ahead and read it there since I didn't make any changes to it other than cutting it half to serve one... since even though I'm married I'm functionally a lonely bachelor when it comes to eating meat. This is one reason why I love a small chicken... sometimes I don't want to eat leftovers all week, but I can't usually find anything smaller than 3.5 lbs, so that's why I'm kind of intriuged by the whole Cornish Game Hen thing. In addition to avoiding excessive leftovers, everybody says that smaller chickens are more flavorful, though I don't know if that applies to younger chickens necessarily (which Cornish Game Hens are).

Cornish Game Hen Before Oven

The recipe itself is really simple and done in 30 minutes or less (no really!). You just got to cut the backbone out of the bird with kitchen shears and mince some garlic and rosemary and you are ready to go... which you can easily do as the oven preheats. It came out great with no real issues... but the one criticism I have is that I feel like the beans could have been jazzed up a bit... you just dump canned white beans into the roasting pan once you take the bird out to cool, but I didn't really have a whole lot of "accumulated juices" left to flavor them. They were fine and I like that they browned a bit as they heated up, but it just feels like they could have been something more... but then I've got no ideas, so who am I to judge?

This is a recipe that scales really well per person (1 Cornish Game Hen and can of beans for each guest) but at some point you'll run out of oven space. Seems like a good date night recipe since the presentation is pretty cute... or even a romantic dinner for one as I did (no I did not light candles!). Worth doing, at least to see what these Cornish Game Hens are all about.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Thoughts on Sous Vide Carnitas

This is more an addendum to the duck confit carnitas post from last week than a full on recipe. The assertion I made at the end of that recipe was that I felt like you could use the same technique for traditional porky carnitas, saving yourself the trouble of tracking down a couple of quarts of lard in the same way that minimal duck fat is required for sous vide duck confit... thanks to the whole "food vacuum sealed in a bag" aspect of sous vide cookery. Indeed, I think you could get away with no fat at all since the reason for using fat is to protect the meat from over cooking... a necessity that is directly obviated by sous vide. However you are going need fat at some point, and since not much fat is going to render sous vide, you have to add it. I feel like putting it in the bag and separating it out of the cooking liquid after the meat is done is easy enough, but you could also just use it at the final frying step.

So I basically just dove into making my own sous vide carnitas without much of a recipe to guide me. The results were pretty good, but not perfect. One mistake I made, which you can see clearly above, was shredding the pork too finely before frying it... which subsequently dried it out a bit. Don't do that. Leave it as distinct chunks for frying. Another possible mistake was my choice of temperature. I did 176° F because Kenji suggested it would be done on the order of 12 hours, which it was and that meant I could have tacos on Cinco de Mayo. Which was nice. But Modernist Cuisine suggests 149°F for 36 hours, which could lead to juicier meat as well.

Into the Bag

So with those caveats as to my approach, I still think... at least as a broad outline... this is a good way to go. I basically just followed Kenji's recipe for "No Waste Carnitas" but used 3-4 tablespoons of lard instead of 1/4 cup of vegetable oil and sealed it all in vacuum bag. Put the bag in a preheated sous vide setup set to 176° F and pulled it out the next morning... about 14 hours later.

Pork and Fat

You end up with perfectly cooked chunks of pork, some great cooking liquid to use in a salsa or glaze, and all of your fat back for frying. I don't know if you can tell here, but the meat definitely wasn't as dry as it appears up top... it was in fact perfectly cooked from what I could tell, so I'm not entirely sure going the 36 hour route is really necessary... but assuming enough of the connective tissue breaks down over that time frame at 149°F then it's theoretically going to give you the more moist end product.

Carnitas Tacos

Despite my error in shredding the pork a wee bit too much, the tacos I made from it were still pretty great... and really quite easy. I think with a few refinements... and some testing of longer cooking times/lower temperature... this could be dish I make pretty frequently.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sous Vide Duck Confit Carnitas

Sous Vide Duck Confit Carnitas 2
Being that cassoulet is probably my favorite food, I've made a fair bit of duck confit over the years. I've got big tubs of duck fat in the fridge (which gross Anna out) and a local purveyor that stocks several types of duck legs and sells them fresh. If you aren't lucky enough to live near a fancy butcher who can supply you with fresh duck legs you can always go with the more widely available fresh/frozen whole duck... take a pair and break them down - reserving the breasts for another (delicious!) use... or you can get the legs online. The more difficult aspect is likely getting duck fat... if you got a whole duck then you can render fat from it, or you can... once again... purchase it online. Isn't the internet great? You can also always use olive oil or some other fat if you like, but one of the advantages of the approach I'm outlining here is that you don't need very much and duck fat is fun to have just for frying potatoes or what have you.

My most recent epiphany in regards to duck confit preparation was turning to a "low and slow" technique where you cook the legs for 5-6 hours at 200 degrees F, but I came across recipes calling for even lower and slower. At the time 10-12 hours seemed like a long time to have a pot of fat bubbling in the oven, but now that I have a DIY sous vide setup it sounds like a snap. Indeed, I've already mentioned a key advantage... vacuum sealing the legs in pouches means only needing about two tablespoons of fat for each pair of legs. When you do it the traditional way you need something more on the order of multiple quarts of fat to keep the legs fully submerged.

While you could certainly make sous vide duck confit with a curing step (salted plus any additional seasonings for 24 hours), I didn't feel it was really necessary since these duck legs were destined to become carnitas (i.e. fried in more duck fat). This recipe is from the Sous Vide Supreme website with a few minor modifications:

Sous Vide Duck Confit Carnitas Tacos


  • 4 duck legs
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 4 tablespoons duck fat, plus 2 tablespoons reserved (melted)
  • 1 small onion, quartered
  • 6 medium tomatillos (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and split in half
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, split in half lengthwise, stem removed
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • corn tortillas
  • chopped onion (optional)
  • cilantro (optional)
  • crumbled or shredded cheese, like queso fresco or monterey jack (optional)


  1. Preheat water bath to 167 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Season duck legs with salt, pepper, and chili powder and place in 1 quart bags (2 legs per bag). Pour 2 tablespoons of duck fat into each bag. Evacuate as much are as possible from bag either by submerging in water, using a hand pump, or a vacuum pump before sealing and submerging bags in water bath for the next 8-10 hours.
  3. While that is going on prepare the salsa verde. Place the onion quarters, tomatillos, jalapeños, and garlic in a saucepan and add water to come up to about 1" below top of vegetables. Bring to a boil and them simmer until the vegetables are soft... about 10 minutes. Blend (hand held or standing) until salsa is smooth. Season with salt and then cool and refrigerate until needed.
  4. Remove bags from water bath and allow duck legs to cool enough to handle. Remove skin from duck legs and reserve. Shred duck confit into small pieces.
  5. Add reserved duck fat to small skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add shredded duck confit to skillet and fry until about half of it is crisp and browned, about 10 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, wrap duck skin in paper towels and put on a plate in microwave. Microwave on high until skin is crisp, 4-5 minutes. When cool cut cracklings into strips.
  7. Next up: heat tortillas. Heat a non-stick small skillet over medium high heat until hot. Dip a tortilla in water and then place in pan for 30 seconds. Flip and heat for another 15 seconds. Wrap in a clean dish towel and repeat with remaining tortillas.
  8. To serve, place tortilla on plate (single or stack of two based on preference) and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of carnitas. Top with salsa verde and cracklings (and onion, cilantro, and cheese if desired).

Note that this technique should work with pork carnitas just as easily (and I may in fact try it this weekend). Just swap out duck fat for lard and cubed boneless pork shoulder for duck and you should be in great shape. From this article on Kenji I'd probably go with 176 degrees F instead of 167.