Monday, June 20, 2011

A little food experimentation

The weekend has seen heavy downpours interspersed with blue skies and spectacular cloud cover. The rains have meant that I've been in the cafe, the gym, or at home reading and cooking.

Saturday afternoon I had a few friends around for an experimental food day. Two of us were cooking while the others assisted as tasters and judges. We'd been planning this for a while, and I'm sure that it will be the first of many.

I'd started things off early in the morning by salting three large Chinese cabbages, ready for preparing kimchi later in the day:
When people started arriving at around 5 we got the cabbages washed off, which in itself is hard work, cooked up the chilli and garlic paste and got our hands (in fact my kimchi gloves) dirty, massaging in the paste between the leaves. This was tasted a little later with the chicken, but really it takes some time to ferment and mature.

Next up was a tomato sauce-off. We'd discussed our recipes previously and realised that we had vastly different methods for making the perfect pasta sauce.

Mine isn't a classic recipe as such, though the basics are there. I start with an unhealthy quantity of olive oil in a pan, heating slowly and with around three large garlic cloves, roughly chopped infusing their flavour. I cook this up for around five minutes, just letting the garlic start to become translucent but never darken. The caramelised garlic flavours are great for some things (roasts especially) but I think that they add a bitter note to a tomato sauce which isn't good. I usually add a little fresh chilli at this point and then throw in perhaps four medium, quartered tomatoes, slowly bringing up the heat until they start to release their juices before putting a lid on and cooking for around half an hour on medium. Towards the end I add a little brown sugar, salt, and freshly ground mixed pepper corns. Once the tomatoes have really cooked down I blend up the whole mixture which becomes creamy and thick with the help of the garlic and the natural thickening agents in tomatoes. The pectins in tomatoes, together with the sugars (which draw the water away from the pectin) and acids, plus the olive oil bring a creaminess to the sauce which goes very well with pasta without the need to add any dairy. The final touch is a good load of roughly crushed pink pepper corns.

My opponents recipe was more classic with (as the technical term would have it) more in the way of visual solids and comes from cooking down a can of tomatoes after heating the garlic quite vigorously with some pine kernels (I'll be adding pine kernels to my recipe next time, they're an excellent touch). Although I've met plenty of Italians who use tinned tomatoes for their sauces, I can't help but taste the tin in these recipes - that being said, my opponents sauce was extremely good. (Sorry for the terrible photography!)
Sadly (or not) there was no victor as we had four judges split equally in the blind tasting. The two sauces couldn't have been much more different and this made the choice all the more difficult. Winners or not, it's great to see someone else's take on a simple recipe.

Next I cooked up thinly sliced aubergine which had been coated in a spice mixture of coriander, cumin, pepper, garlic and a little birds eye chilli, plus a pinch of salt with olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar then roasted in the oven on around 150 degrees C for more or less half an hour. I served this with a little sour cream as a dip.

The next recipe (after an intermission of a carrot, apple, ginger and lemon grass juice) was an experiment in pressure marinating. I'd come across this idea about a year ago on a molecular gastronomy blog and had been wanting to try ever since. The original blog in which I read about pressure infusion was here and this had been inspired from this Youtube video.

The idea is that by putting meat plus marinade under pressure, you force the marinade into all the air pockets in the meat, thus making a deep marinade in a very short time (seconds rather than hours).

Edit: In fact this doesn't appear to be the correct theory - though given the lack of success, it's hard to know exactly what is happening.

The marinade was a honey, soy sauce, guilin chilli paste mixture and the meat with chicken breast, thinly sliced (so that they would fit in the soda stream bottle). I gave it a blast for a few seconds to build up the pressure before letting it sit under pressure for around a minute.
In the mean time we had a control experiment, which was the same marinade having been mixed with the chicken and separated into a non-pressure batch. Apart from the pressure, the two dishes were the same (though I now realise that one of them had gone in the fridge for a few minutes while the other was under pressure - this difference in temperature before cooking may also have been crucial).

We got two pans up to heat (sadly very different pans), added a little sunflower oil and gave the two batches a quick stir fry before adding a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime into each one.

The verdict was interesting, though perhaps a damning inditement of our scientific method. In terms of flavour the two dishes were said to be virtually identical. Unfortunately the two dishes used had been of different materials and this probably masked any effect that could have been seen in the different marinating methods (though it was clear that the pressure marinade hadn't made much difference).

The chicken cooked in a non-stick pan had given off a huge amount more juice, and thus left the chicken a little dryer, while the stainless steel pan seemed to have relatively little juice after the four or five minutes of cooking. As I mentioned above, the different pre-cooking temperature of the meat may also have had a big effect.

The conclusions were threefold:

1) On finely sliced meats, the pressure method seems to have little affect as the marinade penetrates the meat very well at the cooking stage and thus no major difference is seen. The first conclusion is thus that one should try this with thicker cuts of meat to see any difference.

2) The material used to cook the meat seems to be a far more important factor than I had realised and we should do some more controlled experiments cooking the same meat in different materials to find the optimum pan. Included in this conclusion is that given the different materials, different temperatures are reached and this again calls for more experiments.

3) The final conclusion on the recipe itself: The marinate wasn't bad and the sweet, sour, spicy mix of honey, lime and chilli with the salt to set it off was good, but not mouth watering - an umami addition (perhaps even a pinch of msg) may bring it out even more. (See here for research on this).

Note that msg gets a bad rap, though usual for the wrong reason. Frequently msg, which is simply a purified form of the flavours found in seaweed, meat and fish sauce for instance, is used to hide bad ingredients. As a cure-all for cheap products it'll give you more problems than solutions, but as a way of bringing together other flavours when you don't want the pungency of fish sauce or the iodine notes of seaweed, I don't have a problem with it. I do try and add something more natural if the alternative is as good, but sometimes it's the right choice to make.

Next up came some extremely good quality beef fillet cooked with three different sauces. The first was a classic tarragon Bearnaise, the second was a classic fresh green pepper sauce and the third was a dark chocolate, orange and chilli sauce. The first two sauces went fine, but the third, during cooking was almost a disaster as the chocolate split from overheating. I remembered that in McGee, the cooking/science bible, there was a section on emulsifiers (which bring together chemicals which will otherwise not mix - eg. fat and water), and realised that adding an egg-yolk to the cooled mixture should, in theory do the trick. In fact it worked like magic and before our very eyes the mixture came together again and thickened, on heating over a bain-marie into a velvety sauce again.

The fillet, cooked quickly in a copper pan with a little butter and then left to rest for a few minutes was spectacularly good, and the three sauces were frankly very impressive (Note that I can't take credit for these sauces, though I can for the saving of the chocolate and chilli).
Finally, there was a mango sabayon and the calorie content went yet higher with white wine and a little brown sugar cooked over a bain-marie before eggs yolks were added and whisked until foamy. I've always used the Italian recipe (zabaglione) which starts off with a fortified sweet wine, but this worked great on its own.

The garnish was basil, which goes very well with mango, and I added a little spun sugar to top it off.
Anyway, In the end we had two very happy chefs, and what appeared to be four other very happy customers and this is certainly going to be repeated in the near future.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Spare ribs, mock Korean style

On a bit of a recipe roll from yesterday, I thought I'd post up last night's meal with photos.

In Galicia churrasco (spare ribs) is one of the meaty alternatives to the fine seafood on offer, but I never much liked the way it was cooked - relatively quickly on a hot grill, which leaves it tough and a challenge to rip off the bone. I'm all for interesting textures in food (pure cartilage and extremely fatty cuts where two of the new textures that I grew accustomed to in China), but in the case of ribs I'm definitely in the long, slow cooking camp. I came up with the following recipe for spare ribs a year or so ago and have been trying to perfect the timing and heating ever since. Last night was a pretty good success.

The marinade is made of several parts, the first being the base sauce used to make kimchi and can be found here. I would recommend going the whole hog and making the kimchi while you're at it. I normally do enough of the sauce to fill a couple of big tupperware containers and then add it in generous quantities to most recipes for the following months. It seems to keep, in the fridge for at least three or four months without a problem - it may last longer but by that time it's already been used up in my place!

Take two or three generously heaped tablespoons full of the kimchi paste and to it add honey, soy sauce, gochujang, and I normally throw in another few chunks of garlic which caramelize on the ribs. I'll leave the ratios up to you, depending on how sweet or spicy you like it.

Take the ribs and rub in the sauce with your hands - they need to get a good massage to get the sauace everywhere. Then marinate them for a few hours in the paste (I'm still not sure how much the marinating does, given the time that they have in the oven anyway).
Heat the oven to around 80 degrees, wrap the ribs in silver foil securely so that the moisture can't escape and put them in the oven. I normally give them about 4 hours or so at 80 degrees and then for the last half hour I take them out of the silver foil turn the heat up to around 170 and get them caramelizing on the outside. Slow cooking them leaves them moist and tender, so you have to be careful not to dry them out in the last stage. By this time they should be falling off the bone. In fact, it may be better to do them for longer, at closer to 65 degrees, but this would probably bump the time up to more like six or seven hours which I can't usually spare.

This time I did them with garlic roast potatoes - I would normally add some rosemary and thyme to the potatoes but didn't have any fresh. The potatoes are boiled for around ten minutes, then bashed around violently in a pan to get the outside floury. Then coat them in a pan with a little butter and olive oil with salt, onions and garlic. The ideal is then to cook them on a high heat for about an hour and a half, but with the ribs cooking slowly I had to adapt a little and gave them a good 15 minutes extra at the end on around 200. The aubergine was stirfried, after salting, in a mixture of garlic, ginger, one red Birdseye chilli, a dash of soy sauce and fish sauce, an inch of lemongrass and a squeeze of lemon, all having been crushed in a pestle and mortar.

Slightly unfocused, but here was the final result.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thai green curry recipe

I promised in the last blog post that I'd write up a recipe for Thai curry that a friend had just passed to me. It blows away any other Thai curry recipe I've ever tried, and the key is to make your own green curry paste. This recipe came from a friend in Australia that I met a few years ago in Korea, and while we didn't have much of a chance to talk there, we've since been swapping recipes and tales of gastronomic spectaculars online.

I'll copy here the bulk of the recipe she gave me, with a few edits of my own. The first part of the recipe is for the green curry paste, which makes a good deal and can be used for many curries if you store it in the freezer. The ingredients for the curry paste are:

25 large fresh green hot chillies, chopped up
3 shallots
12 cloves garlic
1 finely sliced fresh galangal (an entire root is fine - medium)
4 blades of sliced fresh lemon grass
1 finely grated kaffir lime rind (squeeze a dash of the lime juice into final paste)
5 kaffir lime leaves shredded
Small bunch of finely chopped coriander root and stems
1 tbsp of mixed peppercorns
1 tbsp roasted coriander seeds
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds
2 heaped tsp sea salt
2 heaped tsp shrimp paste

First, dry fry the peppercorns, the coriander seeds and the cumin seeds in a frying pan. Don't let them burn, but heat them just about to the point of popping and giving off their powerful smell. The difference between grinding them raw, and grinding them dry fried is huge. Also, make sure that they are good and fresh. Having some two year old seeds at the back of the cupboard won't do it for this recipe as the power of the chilli needs to have competition from the fragrance of the other spices.

Grind the seeds in a good pestle and mortar until they are super fine.

Place all remaining ingredients and salt (chillies, lime rind, lime leaves, lemongrass, garlic, galangal, coriander roots and shallots) into a blender and chop up. Make sure it's really well blended because the fibres of the lemongrass need to be well shredded before you start grinding in the pestle and mortar.

Transfer all blended ingredients back into the pestle and mortar and pound until it becomes a fine green paste. No water is ever needed for recipe as natural oils and moisture from vegetable and roots is sufficient.

Add the spice mixture from the first step and shrimp paste, continue pounding until smooth and fine. This should make about 3 jam jars of paste which can be frozen for around a year.

Now for the curry itself. The ingredients are:

400 grams beef or a large chicken breast (cut into thick slices)
1 tbsp cooking oil (sesame oil works well too)
3-4 tbsp green curry paste
1 large can of coconut cream (works better for thick, lush curry)
3 kaffir lime leaves, torn
10 small fresh Thai eggplants, quartered
1 fresh red chili sliced hair-like fine
1 small red bell pepper in fine slices
Huge handful of fresh sweet Thai basil leaves
4-5 large tbsp fish sauce
Wedge of palm sugar to taste (I used 60gms smashed wedge from larger piece)

Saute the green curry paste in oil over medium heat in a wok or saute pan until fragrant. It's pretty easy for this to burn but be careful because this will add a nasty acrid flavour to the curry even if it catches just a little. It needs to heat to release the oils and aromatics, but never too hot. Then add the coconut milk a bit at a time and heat, stirring continuously. You'll slowly see the oils from the curry paste rising to the top of the gently simmering coconut milk. Continue this until there's a good thin film of green oils on the coconut milk surface. Then squeeze in the remaining lime juice. The cut of the acid with the spices and the creaminess of the coconut really makes this recipe. In fact, the magic of this recipe is the perfect combination of sweet, salty, spicy and umami (from the shrimp paste and the fish sauce).

Now add the sliced meat and kaffir lime leaves, continue cooking until meat is cooked through. The lower the heat and slower the cooking, the more tender will be the meat in the end. Meat proteins denature above about 65 degrees (depending on the meat) and the meat becomes tough, so there is a competition between getting the centre cooked, and not overcooking the outside.

For a thick, concentrated curry, keep simmering slowly and reduce coconut cream.

Add the palm sugar and fish sauce. If not salty enough as desired, use tiny bits of shrimp paste and not fish sauce.

When the mixture returns to a boil add the eggplants and red capsicum. Cook until the eggplants are done, sprinkle sweet basil leaves and red chilies. In fact I threw in a big old bunch of sweet basil leaves and cooked for a couple of minutes, but the slightly aniseedy flavour of the basil leaves may not be to everyone's taste.

I would have given a full photo breakdown of this recipe, but I was rather too taken with the smells and flavours to get any good photos in.

With many thanks to Angela for this spectacular recipe!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Paris, Brussels, and around

I feel a sudden urge to get back to the blog, which has been in hiding for longer than I care to calculate. Not having internet at home is the primary cause of the silence, plus the fact that the relatively sedentary lifestyle of Munich doesn't much inspire blogging at the moment. The odd street fair here and there, a particularly nice walk in the English garden, a trip to one of the surrounding lakes have punctuated the last few weeks, plus a very pleasant trip to Salzburg a few days ago made for a good, relaxing day, but none of these deserve an expansive post. I have a friend who has been staying here for the last couple of weeks, and because said friend enjoys good food (no euphemism intended) but not necessarily the actual process of cooking, I've been in full culinary mode in the evenings and have a couple of great new recipes to put up here soon. A Thai green curry recipe in particular takes some serious preparation but is infinitely better than anything I've produced before - I'll have to ask permission from the source of the recipe before divulging here, but this was stage two, after some dry-frying:
The last true travel adventures took me to Paris and Brussels a couple of weeks back. In Paris I gave a talk at the Institut Henri Poincare on my last paper and chatted to a few old friends about possible new projects, while eating as much steak tartare as I thought was advisable (ok, maybe a little more than was advisable) and sampling a good number of new Paris hangouts. Chez Denise, near pont neuf was a new restaurant for me, but one that I can highly recommend - the lambs kidneys were superb.

I got a few pictures with a new perspective on an old favourite here, but wasn't quite in the mood for intrusive street photography which Paris is generally so great for.
Eiffel tower 2
Eiffel Tower 3
Eiffel tower 5

From Paris I went to Brussels, which in itself was a rather strange experience. Having lived in Brussels in 1989, I hadn't been back in over two decades, and my memories from the age of 9 were pretty faded. I remembered very little of the city, apart from the Grand Place, which was certainly less Grand than I'd seen from my slightly lower perspective, but the food I did remember, and the steak au poivre brought back floods of memories and pangs of nostalgia from an age where my visions are now mixtures of confusion, change and some not inconsiderable growing pains.

The conference itself was one of the best I've been to for a while, and the highlights from Shiraz Minwalla, Yuji Tachikawa and Jonathan Heckman made the trip well worthwhile.

From Brussels I took the train back to Munich where I've been for the last two weeks, and will be for the next two, until I head back to Southampton to complete a paper with collaborators there. Hopefully in the mean time I should have a new paper out with the team from Munich which has been in the pipeline for the last couple of months and has caused all manner of numerical headaches in the process. This'll be a good one to let loose.

Anyway, for now I'm waiting for a friend and collaborator who is visiting to go for a beer where we need to catch up on a number of physics threads before he disappears off again back to Princeton.