Category Archives: food

Why You Should be Barbecuing More Duck

The other weekend, my parents and in-laws visited for a cookout. My wife’s parents immigrated from Taiwan and love food of every kind. I’m too self-conscious to cook Chinese for them, yet I like twists on typical American specialties. I had the idea to barbecue duck, because why not? It seemed like a natural thing to do. They love duck and so do we. It also seemed like something for which it would be easy to find a recipe. After all, we live in the “sort-of” South, surrounded by prolific hunters.

Surprise. I could hardly find any recipes for barbecued duck at all and almost all that I could find were slow-cooker recipes. Clearly this is not as popular as I’d thought it would be. That’s a shame. Here’s why duck barbecue belongs in every backyard barbecuer’s repertoire:

1. Duck is ideally-suited for barbecue. Barbecuing tends to dry out most meat. Duck’s subcutaneous fat enshrouds and bastes its meat as it renders. For ribs, pork shoulder, or chicken, I prefer to foil-wrap the meat part-way through and/or place a water tray in the smoker to help prevent those meats from drying out. None of that was necessary here. My two ducks were turned half-way through and done in about six hours at a relatively hot 250 to 275 degrees F. They were the juiciest things I’ve ever barbecued. Also, duck meat is very forgiving. It’s hard to overcook or undercook. I found the meat pull-apart tender at about 170 degrees F. A little more cooking might have rendered off a little more of the subcutaneous fat, but I don’t mind it.

2. Duck tastes awesome smoked. Not only does the dry heat of a barbecue grill crisp the skin, duck’s dark meat stands up remarkably well to smoke. I brined the duck for about 24 hours in the following solution:

1 gallon water

1/2 cup salt

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon juniper berries

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

I like to use this concentration with poultry as it seems to help it retain moisture more than a saltier brine. After brining, I allowed the ducks to rest on a rack, uncovered in the refrigerator overnight to dry out the skin.

Come early morning, I put the ducks near the fresh fire and added soaked cherrywood chips to the coals every 45 minutes for the first three hours. The cherrywood made the meat sing, but duck could probably stand up to stronger smokes like pecan or hickory better than other poultry.

3. Duck is surprisingly versatile. My in-laws pointed out that smoked duck is a classic Chinese dish, which I hadn’t even considered. They ate it straight-up and thought the duck would have been great served shredded or sliced on a Chinese pancake. I gave it the North Carolina BBQ treatment and served it on buns with cole slaw, and a simple pepper vinegar, which cut the fat one would expect of BBQ nicely. Speaking of fat, I trimmed the excess skin before cooking and rendered, because duck fat is culinary liquid gold and healthier than butter or lard. My in-laws pilfered the smoked carcasses for soup, but they would have made a great base for Cajun beans and rice.

duck barbecue

Yum.

In summary, why aren’t more people doing this? I’m of the opinion duck is the best meat most Americans never eat. Please help spread the word. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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For the Love of Doughnuts

doughnut!

In the spirit of my pledge to avoid a New Year’s resolution and rather practice more serenity in the New Year, I decided not to lose weight, but make doughnuts. It was quite literally the first thing I did in 2014. On January 1st, I took dough out of the fridge and deep fried for like the fourth time since 1/1/13.

Most of that frying, as it turns out, had to do with doughnuts. Good old fashioned yeast doughnuts.

Why? Because I love them. They’re a “sometimes” food for sure and I rarely partake, but I can think of few other foods that evoke such regressive passion in me. And it’s not because I used to have them all the time either. My mother was a great Southern cook, but  she didn’t cook a lot of unhealthy food. Yes, butter was a default seasoning, but I remember her biscuits as rather lean. If there was a way to pan-fry something one might normally deep-fry, she did it. In fact, the only things I ever remember her deep-frying on any kind of consistent basis were tempura vegetables. ‘Cause apparently I was a finicky eater in the days before we up and moved to Korea and that was a guaranteed way I’d eat my veggies.

No. We didn’t eat doughnuts at home. We didn’t eat them out much either. They were an indulgence. An oasis of junk-foody goodness in a desert of healthy-but-unexciting stuff. The first time I ever had a Krispy Kreme, I was in middle school and it was a revelation–fresh-glazed, hot out of the oil. Like nothing I’d ever eaten before.

So, yes, we’ve challenged ourselves to eat healthier food this year. We try for a Meatless Monday (usually Sunday). I’ve managed to hook our daughter on certain bean dishes and Indian dal. That stuff is important. But in terms of pleasure-sensor-pricking, doughnuts were my Holy Grail.

Last year, my wife gave me the Bouchon Bakery cookbook for Christmas. I mentioned this in a previous post–which means I’ve been blogging for over a year now (wow). It’s an amazing foodie book. I loved the illustrations. I loved the step-by-step instructions for complex baking operations. I also loved the insights into running a commercial bakery empire. I’m a big fan of Thomas Keller. His is not my all-time favorite roast chicken recipe (that would be Judy Rodgers’), but the way he describes eating chicken butts borders on pornography. Bouchon is not primarily his cookbook, but I loved his thoughts on cooking. And there were recipes too. One of the first I made from the Bouchon Bakery cookbook in 2013: doughnuts.

I wanted to love them. I really did. Unfortunately, I found them a tad dry and bready. They were good enough hot from the oil, but hardly the overindulgence I’d craved. They tasted like doughnuts designed with responsible grownups in mind and you know that isn’t right.

So, if you ever happen to read this, Thomas Keller, know that I love you. Your bakery’s doughnut recipe just isn’t for me.

I started with the Bouchon recipe and about doubled the butter. Then I up-tweaked the amount of milk to create a more moist dough. Then I fiddled with a few other ingredients. And the mixing directions (which I found odd and time consuming). And the frying temperature. My final recipe, after testing several tweaks, is pretty-much completely different from Bouchon’s recipe. Fresh from the oil, they’re almost as melt-in-your mouth gooey as a Krispy Kreme. A tad more butter or vegetable shortening could push them over the edge, but I like them just like this. They taste more substantial–like something that’s okay for a human being to eat. I suppose doughnuts, like life, are a balancing act.

A few notes: I usually weigh my ingredients with a kitchen scale and have listed weight in grams because I find metric more precise and useful when crafting recipes. It’s easier to figure out the proportions of ingredients to each other. I’ve also found after years of baking, I get far more consistent results measuring by weight than volume. When working with yeast-dough, a few splashes of water or flicks of flour can make a significant difference in the final product.

So please try. Enjoy. Indulge. Just not too often.

Now in all seriousness, I do kinda need to lose weight this year.

Doughnuts

Ingredients:

250 grams all-purpose flour

125 grams milk, warm room temperature

57 grams butter, room temperature (about half of a 4 oz. stick)

50 grams egg, room temperature (about 1 large)

35 grams sugar

5 grams yeast

5 grams salt

2.5 grams vanilla extract (about ¾ teaspoon)

Directions:

In an electric mixer with the dough hook attachment, stir together the flour and the yeast. Once the yeast is combined, add the salt and sugar. Mix in the milk, egg, and vanilla extract and knead on medium-high for about five minutes, or until the dough is sticky and cohesive. scraping the bowl as needed. Then add the room-temperature butter in several pieces. Mix for several more minutes until the butter is evenly absorbed.

Turn the dough onto a lightly-floured countertop. Stretch it into a rectangle and then fold it back on itself like a letter. Repeat in the other direction. Place the dough into a covered, lightly-oiled bowl or glass measuring cup and let rise for about an hour. The dough may have risen by about 50%. Turn it out onto the lightly-floured countertop again and repeat the folding. Return it to the covered bowl or measuring cup and refrigerate overnight.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and gently stretch, roll, or pat the dough into a disk about 7 to 8 inches in diameter and about a quarter-inch thick. Place this disk on a baking sheet covered with lightly-oiled parchment paper. Return this to the refrigerator or freezer until chilled firm, giving the dough time to rest. Using two cutters, one about three inches in diameter and another about one inch in diameter, cut out the doughnuts. The excess can be bunched together and re-rolled. The doughnuts or doughnut holes cut from this dough will not be as attractive, but they’ll taste just as good. Let the dough rise for about an hour or until puffy.

cutters

My doughnut cutters: a standard-sized tumbler and a relic from my friskier days.

doughnut dough

Shaped doughnuts, ready to rise.

Heat about an inch of oil in a pot or Dutch oven to about 325 for pale, soft doughnuts or 350 for more brown and crisp doughnuts. Fry for about thirty seconds, flip, fry for another 45 seconds, flip again, and then fry until they have achieved the desired color. If making doughnuts without holes that will be filled, cook for several more minutes, up to five.

Toss the doughnuts in white sugar, cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar, or coat with a glaze. Doughnuts and doughnut holes are best served hot from the oil with the exception of filled doughnuts, which should be allowed to cool before filling and topping with powdered sugar or a glaze.

cranberry doughnuts

New Year’s doughnuts stuffed with leftover cranberry sauce. Because what else are you going to do with it?

Note:

Recipe Percentages:

100% all-purpose flour

23% butter

20% egg

50% milk

14% sugar

2% instant yeast

2% salt

1% vanilla extract

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Discipline and Bacon Don’t Mix

One of my goals in establishing this blog was to share some of my favorite recipes. I never knew it would be so goddamn hard.

To be clear, the blogging itself isn’t so difficult. The tough part, I find, is capturing what I do in nice, neat stages. Case in point from a few months ago:

empty plate

I THINK this was kung pao chicken. Whatever it was, it was pretty darn good.

Case in point 2–my wife and I ended up in a AAA 5-diamond restaurant a few months ago. As I’ve said before, I’m not big on the “food porn” sub-genre of blogging, but thought since it’s rare for us to eat out in the first place, I may as well document it.

So this is how I started…

poached octopus

Foreground: EVOO-poached octopus.

… And after a couple of courses of nearly forgetting to take a picture, this ended up happening.

??

I… just don’t know.

In a nutshell that’s why I’m so bad at blogging my culinary adventures. I’m just too damn eager to eat them.

Luckily, I had a little more patience  with a grand foray over the last couple of weeks into dry aged, cold-smoked bacon.

Homemade bacon

The real deal

I started with two and a half pounds of local, pastured pork belly from Whole Foods and the basic pancetta recipe and method laid out in Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie.

The cure consisted of about 1/4 cup salt, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and half a teaspoon of pink salt. Add to that a teaspoon of nutmeg, tablespoon of crushed bay leaf, and 2 tablespoons coarsely-crushed black pepper. I rubbed the pork belly all over and put it in a gallon bag for shy of a week, turning occasionally. Afterwards, I rinsed it, patted it dry, wrapped it in cheese cloth, and hung it in a part-open cooler for about a week and a half. You know. So the cats don’t get to it.

I probably should have photographed this. Meh.

I’d never cold-smoked before, so this was something of an experiment. I have a Chargriller with an offset smoke box and dumped just a couple of barely-lit hardwood coals into the box. I added the bacon to the main compartment on top of a nice, clean wire rack. Nearby, I placed a tray of ice cubes to keep the heat in the chamber down. I added a handful of hickory chips to the barely-smoldering coals about every fifteen minutes, or until it had stopped smoking. The vents spent most of the smoking time closed or barely-cracked–I didn’t want it to get hot enough to cook. It was a relatively cool summer day and I managed to keep the smoking chamber at about 100 degrees F.

Smoker

Smoker

Here’s the result at about the half-way point.

Bacon

Smokin’

It could have smoked a little longer, but I wanted a delicate smoke flavor and decreed it done after about two and a half hours of moderate to heavy smoke. The end result: one of the best BLTs I’ve ever had.

BLT

Homemade bacon, Tartine Bread brioche, homemade aioli, and tomato from an acquaintance’s garden.

I consider that there’s a picture at all to be a sign of a modest improvement.

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Biscuits Never Judge

So a lot’s been going on. There are so many things I could say about so much. Instead I’d like to talk for a moment about biscuits.

Our family went to Disney World in Florida. It was a lot of fun and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on our daughter’s face when she saw Cinderella’s Castle for the first time. Of course then she realized it’s basically just a restaurant. Thankfully there was enough else to see and do it was no big deal. Since returning home, we’ve been busy beyond busy. On top of that, I’m unlikely to get around to seeing Superman or Pacific Rim. They haven’t gotten great reviews, but dammit, I don’t care. I’d just be in it for the geek-out factor.

Back to the biscuits. They’re always going to be there for you come hell or high water. I grew up on biscuits made in the Southern U.S. tradition–wonderful dollops of dirtbag that they are. they’re a special treat. Especially for someone who loves to cook.

Preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

Start with 2 cups of flour. You need a soft winter wheat “short patent” bleached flour for best results. White Lilly is the sentimental favorite for me and many others, but it’s getting harder to find. But do go out of your way to find a specialized flour for biscuits. I’ve made biscuits many times with national-brand all-purpose flour and trust me–they won’t yield exceptional results. Biscuits are almost entirely wheat flour, so if you’re not using the right one for the job, why bother? That’s what Pillsbury Grands are for. Incidentally, I find short patent flour makes the best roux. It creates much smoother sauces–almost the consistency of corn starch.

Mix in a teaspoon of salt–I use fine sea salt. Then mix in one tablespoon of baking powder. Sift them together–short patent flour tends to clump more in my experience. I also like to add a tablespoon of sugar. Some don’t. I find it balances the slight chalky taste of bleached flour. Next, cut in a third cup of butter. You could use less, but why not indulge? These really should be a “sometimes food.” Some people prefer shortening or lard, which produce a lighter consistency. Buttered biscuits are denser, but have a superior flavor, in my opinion. Lard is supremely light, but can pass on a gamey flavor and won’t get you much vegetarian cred. I cut the butter into half-inch chunks and then knead them into the flour mixture with my fingers. Once they become pea-sized clumps, I take a pastry cutter and blend them in until the clumps are the size of coarse crumbs. This way, some of the butter is blended in well with the flour, tenderizing the crumb while leaving a few bigger spots. Form a well in the center and stir in about 3/4 cup cold milk (I use plain milk instead of buttermilk). Knead slightly until all of the flour mixture is moistened. Do not overwork the dough. You want them to hold together enough to cut, but the more you knead, the tougher the finished biscuit will become.

Lightly flour a counter and pat the dough down into a round or oval a half inch thick. Cut out the biscuits and arrange them in a circle inside a cold 9 or 10-inch cast-iron skillet so that they barely touch each other. This contact will help them rise straight up instead of outwards.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the dough is dry and just beginning to turn pale golden brown in spots. Brush the tops with about a tablespoon of melted butter, if desired (DO IT).

Don’t eat them all in one place. Seriously. That’s a lot of fat.

What is there to say. I mean... it's a biscuit. Two of them in fact.

What is there to say. I mean… it’s a biscuit. Two of them in fact.

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Vegetarian Ambivalence

It’s been a while since I’ve had so many mixed feelings. Our soon-to-be six-year-old daughter recently declared she’s a vegetarian. We’ve been told many times by many different people we’re screwed when she hits her teenage years.

So here’s my dilemma: I have the utmost respect for vegetarians. A vegetarian diet is one of the most healthy and ethical diets out there. Too bad, as I said in my first post, I really, really likes me some bacon!

I’m a big believer in the virtue of free-range and ethically-raised livestock and I’ve tried to extoll this to my daughter. At this point it would be fair to note that, though I’m a licensed mental health provider, I don’t generally work with kids and tend to miss nuances of developmental appropriateness. Because the more I’ve talked to my daughter about how important it is we treat our food animals well, the more it hammers home that… well… she’s eating once-living beings.

I’m trying to eat more vegetables and this has urged us in that direction. My goal is more “Meatless Mondays” and more dishes in which meat is a subordinate part of the meal.

I’m far from swearing off pork fat, but if there’s a positive to this, it may be I’ll finally get my daughter to finish her vegetables and at least try her beans. “Otherwise, you don’t get to be a vegetarian.”

So here’s an attempt at compromise. For an early Father’s Day meal, I made grilled grass-fed steak with a spinach puree inspired in equal parts by Indian saag curries and chimichurri. I find herbacious, olive oil based sauces tend to compliment grass-fed beef more than buttery ones such as bearnaise or bordelaise. Those are great sauces, but they tend to stifle the delicate flavor of its natural fat. Enjoy!

 

Spinach Puree

 

Ingredients:

12 oz. spinach leaves

1 small tomato

2 cloves garlic

1 scallion

2 tablespoons good quality extra-vigin olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice (or to taste)

Cayenne pepper, to taste

Salt, to taste

 

Directions:

Bring one gallon of water to a boil. Cut an X into the bottom of the tomato skin and trim off the stem area. Blanch the spinach and tomato for about a minute, until the spinach is wilted and the tomato skin is loosened. Drain and shock both in an ice water bath.

Peel and seed the tomato. Squeeze the spinach into a clump until dry. Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until they form a paste. Thin out with more olive oil if a looser consistency is desired. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne, and lemon juice. Serve as a condiment with grilled meat.

Pictured with grilled asaparagus and homemade brioche. I snapped the picture too fast. Too busy eating to bother with multiple takes.

Pictured with grilled asaparagus and homemade brioche. I took the shot too fast. Too busy eating to be bothered by decent photography.

 

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Flour, Water, Salt, and Speculative Fiction

As photogenic as I could possibly make it.

As photogenic as I could possibly make it.

I mentioned last post that I took a shot at making demi-baguettes again recently. Baguettes and I haven’t always been BFFs. They never quite turn out like I would hope. Even within the same batch, they turn out differently. This last time, I followed the Bread Baker’s Guild of America 2008 Coupe du Monde formula to the letter–scaled down such that flour in the main formula was 250 grams (disclosure though–I could not find and therefore did not use malted barley powder). The results were good and after having made demi-baguettes periodically for over a decade, I’m still learning nuances to shape and crumb and texture. The more hydrated the dough, the more open and attractive the crumb, but the harder it is to shape and score (65-70% hydration seems to be the sweet spot). I usually add too much water in the initial mixing and too much flour for the shaping. I learned from this last attempt that if the dough is not a little tacky without being too sticky, it is almost impossible to make the finished bread look as it should. This dough used a tiny amount of levain and a lot of poolish to give it that extra kick.

All that to say flour, water, salt, and maybe a little yeast can yield an incredible range of flavors. That’s what I love about baking.

What I love about writing is that arrangements of letters can yield even greater diversity.

I’m a little late to the party, but the Nebula Award Nominees for 2012 are out there. Furthermore, many of them are available to read for free online, including all of the short stories. I can’t help but feel like this is an exciting time to be a reader of speculative fiction.

Robot” by Helena Bell gets props in my book for successful use of the second person.

Ken Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” defies conventional plot structure and manages to be meta in the process.

I appreciated Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion” and couldn’t help but think of my own bicultural family through this sci-fi lens. Oh yeah, and more second person!

I found “Fragmentation” by Tom Crosshill beautifully poignant, especially for a story evocative of mobile operating systems.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” is the only fantasy story in the mix–to me, not very relatable (disclosure–I think “love at first sight” is silly) but so beautifully wrought.

Leah Cypress’ “Nanny’s Day” is a whole different animal–almost plausible–and it resonated with me like none other. I can’t help but feel like it takes the easy way out in the end, but then it goes to a very real, vey uncomfortable place for many readers–myself included.

Cat Rambo’s “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain” is a fascinating speculative story and gets props in my book for being one of only stories not published in ClarkesWorld or Lightspeed.

I didn’t really read short fiction until not long ago. I always imagined stodgy, contemplative works in the tradition of Chekhov. These nominees make a fascinating study of how tense, tone, plot structure (or lack thereof) interplay–like a simple lean bread, complexity from a simple foundation. My favorites were “Nanny’s Day” and “Give Her Honey.” Curiously, the former is the most realistic of the bunch and the latter: the most out-there. I appreciated their places on different dimensions of pleasurable writing.

So, reader, if you have not read this year’s nominees, you are doing yourself a disservice. Any other thoughts on the the nominees for this year? Favorites?

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Beef. Stew.

There’s something therapeutic about a good braise–something soul-soothing about chunks of meat that soak up the flavor of everything nearby and stew until they’ve just about turned to mush. It’s alchemy. You can manipulate the ingredients and manipulate your sear and the temperature, but time and the laws of nature are far more the chef than you.

I made beef stew over the weekend and I needed something simple and soul-soothing–something to help me slip into an A-grade food food coma. Becuase sometimes you just need to let go a little.

This is a fairly “stock” braise recipe, but with a few unique flairs. I love the combination of star anise and/or cinnamon with beef and tomato. The sweet licorice spice and tangy tomato balance the beef so well. Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of my favorite dishes. For the red wine, I used Prince Michel Cabernet Franc. It’s light-bodied, fruit-forward, and has a ridiculously long vanilla finish that plays off the anise nicely. It’s local too. I served it with homemade demi-baguettes and used this formula, scaled down. We’ll probably serve the leftovers with Chinese wheat noodle.

What quintessential comfort foods get your food coma on?

Aroma Therapy Beef Stew

Ingredients:

3.5 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes

12 oz. (or 1 1/2 cups OR 2 glasses) light-bodied red wine.

1 cup broth or stock

1 cup tomato sauce (I used homemade)*

2 onions cut into 3/4-inch chunks

2 carrots cut into 3/4-inch chunks

3 celery stalks cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 star anise

1 bay leaf

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Season the beef all over with salt and pepper (I use about a half-teaspoon per pound) and let rest for about half an hour to an hour.

Heat a Dutch oven to medium-high. Add olive oil to coat the bottom and sear the beef in several batches. Remove from the Dutch oven and reserve.

Add more oil if necessary and sear the vegetables with a pinch of salt for five to ten minutes or until browned. Deglaze the pan with the wine and reduce until the alcoholic smell has cooked off. Add the broth, tomato sauce, reserved beef, herbs, and spices. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and then cover.

Simmer for 2 1/2 to three hours or until desired tenderness is achieved, stirring occasionally. Simmer uncovered for ten to twenty minutes at the end of the cooking time to thicken, if desired.

Serve with rice or bread.

In other news: my first presentable demi-baguette.

In other news: my first presentable demi-baguette.

*Homemade Tomato Sauce:

Ingredients:

2 28-oz. cans whole tomatoes in puree

About 6 tablespoons olive oil

6-8 cloves garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Add just enough of the oil to a skillet to coat the bottom and heat to medium/medium high. Add the crushed whole garlic cloves and toast, stirring occasionally until they are a light nutty brown, but not burnt (burnt garlic should be discarded immediately).

Crush the whole tomatoes and add to the skillet with the tomato puree. Bring to a boil and add the remainder of the olive oil. Cook until reduced. The sauce will have reduced, sweetened, and have a glossy appearance. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

beefstew

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Slow Food is Killing Me Softly

I need some help.

Here’s the thing. Between work (day job plus periodic mental health on-call crisis), time with family, reading, and writing, I don’t really have a heck of a lot of time to cook. Maybe a generous hour a day if I want us to eat at a comfortable time. As I’ve said before, even then, we do a lot more fast food than I would like. And yet, as long as I’ve been cooking, I’ve been fascinated with Slow Food, even before I knew there was a name for it and a movement behind it. I remember in college making pasta from scratch and homemade sun-dried tomato pesto without a blender or mortar and pestle–I just sort of chopped the hell out of it for, like, half an hour with a WalMart chef’s knife. I once made homemade tonkotsu ramen with from-scratch egg noodles and pig’s feet broth. The pig’s feet burned to the bottom of my pressure cooker because that much steam escaped without blowing the safety valve. If something can be bought, I like experimenting to see if I can make it from scratch.

Never, ever burn pig’s feet to the bottom of a pressure cooker if you can help it, by the way. That’s my advice for the day. Honestly, I need advice myself. Because every now and again, as a consequence of my fascination with preparing the mundane, I make something like this:

Yes, it really is green--made with a particularly dark extra virgin olive oil.

Yes, it really is green–made with a particularly dark extra virgin olive oil.

 

A whole 8-oz. cup of aioli. I used Brian Polcyn’s recipe from his book, Charcuterie. We’re not big sports fans at our house, so the Superbowl tends to be an excuse for me to cook something a little extra ambitious in the spirit of the game. In this case, I whipped up a whole batch of aioli so I could add a shmear or two to our cheeseburgers.

Only one problem–now we’ve got pretty much a whole cup left of aioli left and the clock’s ticking to use it all up before all that nice extra virgin olive oil goes to waste. Any suggestions?

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Curry Rice: Not Very Pornographic, but Japanese

I’m following up from my previous post in which I intended to post my tried-and-true recipe for Japanese curry but timed out for ranting.

Japan, as anyone with connections knows, has a long and illustrious gastronomic tradition reaching into its antiquity. A friend of mine moved there some years back and works as a game designer. He observed even non-foodies (I don’t love that word) he knows in Japan seem to engage in highly nuanced discussions about food. In 2010, Michelin released its Red Guide of Japan. Michelin awarded more stars there than anywhere else in the world: even major seats of western gastronomy. Consider too that not only is Japan a small country, its geography is such that its population is cluster in just a handful of major population centers. And you know what?

Japanese people complained.

They said Michelin missed out on the real gems. They said they awarded multiple stars to restaurants that weren’t really that big of a deal. They said a lot of things.* This is a culture that doesn’t screw around with its food, and Japanese curry rice remains one of its most popular dishes**

So what makes Japanese curry rice so special?

Hard to say. Honest to goodness.

A little background. Japanese curry rice is a pretty old dish in Japan, with roots in the Meiji era, shortly after opening trade with the west. Let’s examine the ingredients of a leading brand of curry sauce mix marketed in the U.S.:

Wheat flour, edible oil, salt, sugar, curry powder, spices, food color, monosodioum glutamate, malic acid, sodium guanylate, disodium inosinate.

Essentially just flour, oil, and seasoning. With the exception of malic acid and the flavor enhancers, nothing, in fact, one wouldn’t find in a typical Western kitchen. The above paste is dissolved into water simmered with meat and vegetables. As you can see. Curry rice is essentially a Western stew thickened with a roux. Not something you’ll find in a Betty Crocker Cookbook, is it? And certainly not anything like the curry we would eat in the West. We just don’t cook stuff like this anymore. But British sailors did a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a simple, homespun stew seasoned with ready-made curry powder–maybe or maybe not to mask pungency of subprime meat.

That’s right. Japanese curry is a page out of culinary anthropology. Like an alligator,a coelacanth, a Lincoln Town Car: a dish that’s remain unchanged as the world has moved on. It is, in a country with more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world, a dish invented by dirtbag seafarers to stave off scurvy.

I love it. Love it, love it, love it.

So on to the recipe. As I’ve written, you can find bricks of “curry roux” in most American grocery stores these days, but again, there’s not a lot in the commercial curry roux you don’t already have in your kitchen. In place of the malic acid and sugar in the store-bought stuff, we’re using grated apple. My first curry recipe came from a Japanese-language cookbook whose name I have trouble recalling–Something like “Mama’s 1000 Recipe Cookbook.” I use chicken, as did that recipe; thighs in particular. They’re not only one of the cheapest meats around, but also just about impossible to screw up. Variations will follow after the recipe.

Basic Japanese Curry Rice

Ingredients:

(serves 2-3)

½ to 3/4 lb. chicken, cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced into half-inch rounds

1 medium potato, coarsely diced

1 medium onion, coarsely diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium apple (such as a fuji), grated or shredded

1 oz. (2 tablespoons) butter

1 oz. (about 3 ½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour (short-patent works best as a thickener)

¼ tsp. salt plus more to taste

1 tablespoon curry powder (more to taste)

2 cups broth, stock, or water (if using water, more salt may be needed)

Cooking oil

Pepper to taste

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

My mise-en-place, clockwise from top right: diced vegetables, cubed chicken, minced garlic, grated apple, home-made potholders, my pay stub, and a gingerbread house our cats f*cked up.

Directions:

Heat a lightly-oiled pan to medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking.  Season the meat cubes with salt and pepper and sauté until browned but not necessarily cooked through.  Remove from heat and reserve.  Reduce heat to medium.

Melt the butter in the pan.  Add the flour and curry powder and stir until it forms a paste.  Cook this mixture, stirring frequently until it begins to brown.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant.  Add remaining vegetables, browned meat, and grated or shredded apple.  Add the broth, stock or water, salt, and pepper and stir until the butter and flour are incorporated.  Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.  Once it has come to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are tender. The sauce should be about the consistency of a gravy. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve with white rice.  May be garnished with beni shoga or other Japanese pickle.

Notes:

More heat can be achieved by adding cayenne pepper or increasing the amount of curry powder.

Japanese curry is a very versatile dish. Beef. pork, or seafood may be used instead of the chicken. Beef is more stereotypical of an authentic curry in fact. For cubed beef chuck, do not add the carrots, onion, and potato immediately to the pan. Instead, braise it covered with the roux and  broth for about an hour. Add the remainder of the vegetables for the last half-hour of cooking.

Other vegetables may be used–the recipe upon which this one was based called for minced carrots, celery, and onion. I’m also a fan or parsnips and sweet potato in curry.

Leftover curry makes a great sauce for breaded, fried cutlet (katsu curry; カツカレー)

  • Optional ingredients can be added for a more complex taste:
  • About ¼ cup wine or coffee (the wine should be allowed to boil down before adding the broth)
  • Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
  • Five-spice powder
  • ¼-inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • demi-glace
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste

JapaneseCurry

* I’m over-simplifying. A lot of people criticized Michelin. Here is a longer discussion from the Wall Street Journal.

** For a relatively brief, but more detailed account of the history and popularity of Japanese Curry rice, see this page on the Kikkoman Corporation website.

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My Inability to Create Foodporn

There are some gorgeous blogs on WordPress featuring gorgeous food photography. This is not one of them.

I created this blog in order to connect with others and exercise my writing chops. Also, I’ve spent years crafting original recipes and thought I may as well share them lest they spend a limited existence in a falling-apart notebook.

I had a number of Japanese friends in college and studied the language for a few years. Being a recovering Japanophile, I fell in love with Japan’s take on that pan-national delight, curry. The thing is, I’ve never been a great photographer. I began this adventure about a month ago armed with a Macbook, Photoshop Elements 11, and my iPhone camera. It couldn’t be too hard to hard to create sumptuous foodporn, right? Right?

gah.

My wife glanced over the picture I’d captured to accompany my recipe for Japanese curry rice:

JapaneseCurry

 

 

“Hm…” she said. “Very beige.”

Our house isn’t terribly bright. And I suppose it is rather beige. My camera tends to be rather grainy in the dark. Of course, there’s always the flash, right?

Well.  No.

Exhibit A:

Our cat, Rose: a beautiful black short-hair with oriental features…

rose1

 

in the presence of flash photography becomes Zuul, minion of Gozer.

"Eat your soul?"

“Eat your soul?”

 

So many other sited here make it look so damn easy. I suppose I could get a nicer, dedicated digital camera. There are just a few problems:

  1. I’m cheap.
  2. I’m horrible at remembering to use nice cameras I’ve had.
  3. I’m cheap.

 

I’m not getting a five-hundred-dollar camera just yet. That’s why God made Photoshop. So, reader, I present to you, Phenix Nash’s Pornographic Japanese Curry.

foodpr0n_edited-1

(Recipe to follow next post.)

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