Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The battle of the steaks (and the sexes)

"Isn't steak supposed to be a man's job?" said Jason after chewing through a piece of practically raw meat. "How about *I* make us steak tomorrow?" he suggested with a devious smile. It's not often he gets sexists on me or makes fun of my cooking disasters. If the situation would not be completely absurd, I would consider being offended, but we both just couldn't stop laughing as I put the unfortunate rib-eye into the oven for the third time.

To understand my steak saga, you have to understand an awful lot about me and about meat. I love a really great steak about 4 times a year. Any more than that and I get bored with beef, start gaining weight, and just don’t feel too good. But, cooking steak 4 times a year is hard on all accounts. Can you imagine the expectations? When I actually decide to cook steak, I want nothing but perfection. Well the perfection is hard to achieve when you cook steak once in 3 months. I find that there is a certain mystique around the concept of steak. I might make braises like boeuf bourguignon or osso bucco only once a year and they are perfect every time. But when it comes to cooking meats to medium-rare, I am in trouble.

Just buying the right steak is a challenge. You have to know the difference between choice and prime, grass-fed and grain-fed, wet-aged and dry-aged. Then you have to decide between tenderloin, rib-eye, T-bone, NY strip, hanger, skirt, etc. Which one is most tender? Which one is most flavorful? Which one is the best of both worlds?

Then there is the cooking temperature. Some people swear by high, some by low, some by high followed by low. There isn’t even agreement on how long to rest the meat. Opinions range from 2-10 minutes and from uncovered to tightly wrapped with foil and kitchen towels. Testing for doneness is the worst. It’s so easy for fish, separate the flakes, peek inside, and if only a trace of translucency remains, it’s done. The debates about doneness for steak are intense enough to start a religious war. Anywhere from 120F to 150F can be considered “medium-rare” depending on what you read. And how to test for this temperature is even more divisive. I used to be huge fan of instant read thermometers until the disaster last night. When I put the steak in the oven with a thermometer stuck into it sideways, I got a faulty reading due to my thermometer touching the side of the pan.

“You have it easy!” I told Jason. “You’ve seen me make every possible steak mistake. Of course, your steak will come out better.” To tell you the truth, I sure hope it comes out better because I want this steak saga over with. We’ve been eating steak twice a week for the past two weeks and I am just sick of it, particularly that it wasn’t that great. But I just can’t give up on this steak quest. The engineer in me is determined to reduce this black art of steak cooking to a simple process that can be followed by anyone and doesn’t require eating steak on regular basis to master.

Although I shouldn’t be helping my opponent, I’ll be generous, and share a few lessons I’ve learned so far. Jason, read carefully.

1) Rib-eye is a good compromise between tenderness and flavor. I don’t understand the hype about NY strip. I find it chewy and too dense.

2) Grass-fed beef tastes the best – most juicy, flavorful, and tender. It doesn’t really make sense since it’s leaner than grain-fed beef, but so far it’s been the winner.

3) Cooking steak on high heat the whole time makes it tough and unevenly cooked. Start out as high as possible to sear the outside, then finish in the oven.

4) When you put the steak in the oven, turn in half way through total cooking time. The pan is still hot from searing and the side of the steak that’s touching the pan will cook faster.

5) The oven temperature is still a mystery to me. I have a feeling that 250F for a long time, would result in the most tender steak, but I haven’t tried it yet, so I can’t say anything about the timing.

6) Don’t listen to Alton Brown about the estimated cooking time – that’s how we ended up with raw meat for dinner last night.

1-1/2 inch steak cooks longer than 5 minutes (1 minute sear + 4 minutes oven) that Alton suggests. My best estimate based on my previous mistakes is at least 9 minutes (1 minute sear + 8 minutes oven). I hope to come up with an estimated cooking time formula some day like I have for fish. My best guess so far is 6-8 minutes in 500F oven per inch of thickness for medium-rare.

7) How do you know when it’s medium-rare? I don’t know exactly what works yet, but I know what doesn’t. Rule of thumb is complete BS. People like it so much because it’s cute. Even our instructor at CIA thought it was completely unreliable. Does meat get tougher when it cooks? Absolutely. But a medium-rare rib-eye will feel differently than a medium-rare tenderloin or hanger steak, and how does all that correspond to your thumb is a mystery to me and most professional chefs that I asked. When chefs poke meat to test it for doneness, they don't compare it to their thumb, but to how equivalent piece of meat felt last time they cooked it to that doneness. When you make 20 steaks per night you can develop that kind of intuition, but for someone who cooks steak 4 times a year, it's simply hopeless.

8) Theoretically, thermometer is a foolproof way of testing meat for doneness, unless you don’t stick it perfectly in the middle or a part of the probe touches the side of the pan, or the high tech equipment gods just aren’t with you. If using a thermometer don’t stick it into the meat and then put it in the oven. Even thermometers that are oven safe only do it well for large roasts.

9) I know it’s against all the conventional wisdom, but I don’t see anything wrong with making a small slit in the steak and peeking inside. I am guessing that if you want your steak medium-rare, you should take it off the heat when it’s rare. The very center should still be purple and raw looking. I haven’t tried this yet due to everyone’s concerns about lost juices, but the argument doesn’t make any sense to me. Do meat juices travel horizontally through the whole steak and leak out in the place where you made a cut? I don’t think there is much you can do about the loss of juices. People wish they could do something about it and they keep making up juice saving theories, like “sear the steak to seal in the juices” or “don’t make any cuts in the meat.” We have scientific evidence that the first statement is plain wrong and I wouldn’t be surprised if the second one is too. The reason you let the meat and fish rest is to even out the temperature. When you get it out of the oven, the outside is at 500F and the inside is at 120F. That’s just not a very good situation from the taste standpoint. Once you let it rest, the outside will cool and inside will warm up giving you a perfect 130F throughout.

10) After taking the steak off the heat, remove it to a warm plate, cover steak tightly with foil and two layers of towels. This will retain as much heat as possible and help with the final temperature stabilization.

Can't think of anything else at the moment...

Ok, man – show us how it’s done.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Scallop Ceviche

"What are dry scallops?" I asked Carl pointing to the sign next to large plump scallops. "Are you ready for the fish lesson of the week?" said Carl pulling a few scallops out of the fridge case and setting them in front of me. I have probably been to New Deal a hundred times, and I am yet to walk out with just fish. There is always some interesting lesson to take away as well. "When scallops are labeled 'dry,' it means that they haven't been soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate (STP) to prolong their life." Before you panic, let me clarify that STP is FDA approved and food safe so it’s not some dangerous chemical you are ingesting with your scallops. What is the problem then? The problem is, Carl explained, that soaking scallops in STP causes them to absorb water and get heavier. What does that mean to consumers? It means that you are partially paying for water. Water... the bells went off in my head -- so that's why there is a puddle of liquid in my pan sometimes when I try to sear scallops. Hmm, guess where I am getting my scallops next time I want to sear them?

The reason I was getting the scallops this weekend though was to make scallop ceviche. Ceviche is a popular Latin American appetizer of seafood cured in lime juice. The scallops will be only partially cooked, so make sure you buy them from a reputable source. You can dress this dish up by serving in it martini glasses, or just set a big colorful bowl in front of your guests and serve your scallops family style. The tart, sweet, and spicy notes make it a perfect match for a Riesling. On a hot summer day, there is nothing better than a bowl of cool scallops pillowy soft and sweet.

Serves 4-6 as the first course

3/4 Lb scallops
2/3 cup fresh lime juice (from 4-5 limes)
2/3 cup fresh orange juice (from 1-2 oranges)
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, and very finely minced
1/2 large red onion, very thinly sliced
1 mango, peeled and diced
6 medium radishes, very thinly sliced (use a mandolin if you have one)
1/4 cup minced cilantro or mint
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  1. Remove the tough muscle from the sides of the scallops. Slice scallops horizontally into 1/3 inch thick circles.
  2. In a large non-reactive (glass or stainless steal) bowl, combine scallops, lime juice, orange juice, jalapeño, onions, mango, radishes, cilantro, and salt. Mix well.
  3. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours stirring half way through. Taste and add more salt if needed. Serve within 24 hours.
Variations: Besides mango and radishes (or instead of them), you can add sectioned oranges or grapefruits, thinly sliced sweet peppers and cucumbers, and even diced watermelon.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Jason's Birthday or 1-800-BUY-FISH

The time has finally come for the full disclosure. There was another reason I was quiet these couple of weeks. Registering people for classes and working on my winter teaching schedule surely kept me busy, but there was something far more engulfing and top secret than cooking classes. What was this undercover operation that had been occupying all my thoughts during the last few weeks? It was Jason's 30th birthday party.

When I tell you about all the obstacles involved in this project, you'll agree that CIA should offer me a job (and I don't mean the Culinary Institute of America).

My mission was to get our families to fly over to Boston the morning of the party without Jason knowing. Jason’s Dad was scheduled to come visit us this weekend, but Jason wasn’t expecting anyone else. The problems were

1) How to make enough food for 12 while pretending to be cooking for 4?
2) How to get everyone to arrive at the same time?

The cooking part was not too hard. I stayed home on Friday, made whatever I could in advance, and hid it in the back of the fridge. The day of the party, I was just "making lunch for Jason’s Dad" who was supposed to arrive at noon.

I used to wonder why people change the menu for private cooking class parties 10 times per week. "Can we have the lamb? Oh no, someone doesn't eat lamb! Can we do beef instead? And we really want to try that tart we saw on your web site – can you teach us to make it? Oh and the goat cheese – can we have goat cheese on the cheese plate? Actually, make it sheep (I am not sure if everyone eats goat)."

"What are they fretting about?" I always thought. "I am sure it will be just fine." But now that it was my own party, I was the one changing the menu 10 times. Here is what I finally ended up with:

Scallops ceviche with mango and radishes
Grilled asparagus and prosciutto
Tomato Onion Tarts
Slow Roasted Salmon
with wild mushrooms, lobster cream and chive oil
Lentil salad
Cheese plate with fruit
Earl Gray Cake from Café Cakes in Belmont

The food preparation went without a hitch and Jason didn't give me a hard time about the amount of food I was making. Anything that would give it away – like 2 huge salmon fillets I kept wrapped in the fridge until the guests arrived.

Getting everyone to arrive at the same time was significantly harder than the food. My parents, brother, his fiancé, and my grandmother were flying in from Baltimore and Jason's Mom from Philadelphia. They were supposed to arriving around the same time, meet at the airport and take two cabs to an undisclosed location also known as Starbucks. There, they were to meet the other undercover agents: Jason's Dad, his wife Elizabeth, and our friends Gaia and Jerome. When everyone assumed their positions, they were going to descend on our place. The communication between the agents was going to happen over cell phones (how did people plan surprises before there were cell phones?!) The communication between the agents and the cell leader (that's me) was going to happen through a Russian speaking agent ( a.k.a. Mom) under the decoy of "buying fish".

11am – agent Mom calls. Jason picks up. Agent Mom: "I am here shopping for fish and I have a quick question for Helen." Jason gives me the phone. "I have good news and bad news," says Mom. "The good news is that we all made it. The bad news is that Louise's luggage didn't arrive. They said they'll put it on the next plane so it should be here soon. Will keep you posted."

11:30am – agent Mom calls. Jason picks up. Helen is in the shower. Jason asks if he can help Mom with her fish question. She says it's really specialized – something about a recipe I told her about when she last called. Helen tries to sound casual and make silly jokes about starting 1-800-buy-fish -- a buying fish support line. Meanwhile she is trying to rinse conditioner out of her hair and get out of the shower ASAP. She calls back agent Mom. "Luggage is here. We are taking cabs." "This sounds great. You should definitely grill it."

"So did your Mom get the fish?" "Yes, she did!" Helen says. "It's a whole striped bass. I think she should grill it – it's so good that way."

12:30pm – Surprise!

Everyone made it and Jason was completely shocked and moved when he opened the door.

Our lunch went on until 8pm. We laughed, cried, ate, drank, and told stories about Jason. According to the Russian tradition, the toasts were as plentiful as the wine. Jason's family is catching on to this talking/drinking ritual quite well. His Mom brought pictures of his birthday parties from when he was 3, 7, and 13 and we had a great laugh. And after her moving toast, we had a good cry.

What can I say? I am lucky to be married to an amazing man and to have such a great family and close friends to share these teary and joyful moments with.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Fish Market Tour and Grilled Corn

I’ve been absent from Beyond Salmon for so long, you’d think I was gone on another vacation. I wish! But nope, no more vacation for me. I’ve simply been too busy teaching and working. Last Saturday, I lead my first fish market tour in East Cambridge. Those East Cambridgians are a spoiled lot – I’ve never seen this many great fish markets per square mile.

I hope my students found it as educational as I did. No matter how many classes I teach, I seem to learn something in every single one of them. Carl from New Deal showed us how to clean soft shell crabs and introduced us to little tunas, called Bonito, and Eddie from Courthouse seafood taught us all about shrimp. Did you know that the green/gray shrimp are farm raised (usually in Thailand) and the pink ones are wild from Texas? I didn’t. Which ones taste better? According to Eddie, the wild ones. It’s on my list of taste tests.

When I got home after talking about fish for 2 hours straight, Jason and I had a tasting of two tunas: big-eye (the big guy) and Bonito (the little guy). Instead of my usual sashimi, I made a variation on Tonno Crudo with big-eye (Italian raw tuna dish). I tossed paper thin fennel slices and slivers of preserved lemon with lemon vinaigrette, and used them as a bed for thinly sliced raw tuna. A little salt, a little olive oil, good crusty bread, and you’ve got a dynamite tuna sandwich. Bonito loins got seared for 30 seconds per side and drizzled with good olive oil. They were sweeter and less meaty than the big tuna, kind of like veal is to beef. Bonito would be a perfect tuna for salad Nicoise. New Deal spoiled me into thinking that every dish deserves just the right tuna.

Another thing that’s been keeping me busy is planning the winter semester at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Can you believe it? Winter! A large place like CCAE has to do their scheduling and catalog printing way in advance, which means coming up with heart-warming stews and soups in the middle of August. I’ll be offering “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”; “From Russia with Love”; and a new class called “Deconstructing Deliciousness: What Recipes Don’t Tell You.” What on earth is “Deconstructing Deliciousness”? You’ll find out when you see the catalog.

To remind myself that it’s August after all, I thought I’ll post Jason’s recipe for grilled corn. As all of Jason’s gifts to the culinary arts, this one was created by messing up one of my recipes. His “incorrect” version always tastes better than the original, and it becomes the new standard in our house. Instead of grilling the corn and then buttering it, Jason buttered it and then grilled it. Oh, and then he buttered it some more. I know that buttering things before grilling sounds strange. Wouldn’t oiling be more traditional? Just trust me on this one – when Jason screws up, he knows what he is doing. This is the best corn on the cob I’ve ever had. It’s not the amount of butter that makes it so great (2 tsp is hardly extravagant), but strategic use of it at just the right time.

Jason’s Fabulous Grilled Corn

Any number of ears of corn, peeled
2 tsp butter per ear of corn
Salt (if using unsalted butter)
  1. Preheat grill to high.
  2. Rub corn all over with butter using about 1 tsp of butter per ear of corn.
  3. Place corn on the grill, cover, and cook until it browns on one side. Rotate corn 3-4 times to let the other sides brown. Each side will take 1.5 – 2 minutes.
  4. Remove corn from the grill and let cool a little, about 2 minutes.
  5. Rub each ear with another tsp of butter.
  6. Sprinkle with salt and dig in.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

How to travel with a chef's knife

What do you do when you find yourself in a really yummy city like Vancouver? Any reasonably food-obsessed person would carefully prioritize the restaurant choices, make reservations, ask waiters for dishes not to be missed, and try to squeeze in as many optimal meals as possible. To help narrow down the restaurant list, I wrote to Mark Busse, the creative brain behind Industrial Brand Creative design firm and food blog. We started with a restaurant discussion and ended up with an invitation to have dinner with Mark and his wife Andrea when Jason and I were in town.

“You should bring your chef’s knife,” said Jason. We rented a little studio with a kitchen just in case we decided to cook, but would we really want to? Before we leave on any trip, I expect my usual cooking craving to subside given all the interesting restaurants we could be exploring, but I always end up regretting walking away from the market empty handed. I think Jason knows me better than I know myself, and I know better than to argue with him. I put a guard on my knife and carefully placed it between my clothes in the suitcase along with a little zip lock bag of kosher salt. Just in case.

Once I saw the juicy raspberries, perfumy mushrooms, and glistening seafood at Vancouver’s public market on Granville Island, I was glad I packed that knife.
Meeting Mark’s friend Colin, during our dinner at West, only poured oil into the fire. Colin was our waiter, thanks to Mark’s recommendation, and his encyclopedic knowledge of food and advice about the markets, bakeries, and wine stores was putting all kinds of ideas into our head. Somewhere during our dinner, between the melt-in-your-mouth sable and the most succulent lamb we've ever had, we formulated a plan to turn our Wednesday get together into a cooking night. Colin's mention of the lobster stock in his freezer that he wanted to turn into a risotto sealed the deal.

Mark and Andrea were surprised, but gladly jumped on the cooking bandwagon. Couple of e-mails later, we worked out a menu for a get together chez Colin and Kristil.

Early Wednesday morning, Jason and I walked to False Creek, and took the ferry to the market on Granville Island. After walking around the fish markets and veggie stalls we finally decided on rosemary and garlic marinated marlin with roasted squash, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. Mediterranean food is your best friend when you travel -- no spices and no pantry items besides olive oil.

At 6:30, marlin and a bottle of wine in hand, we rang Colin’s apartment. As the elevator door opened, a guy with a big smile stepped out and said, “I know who you are!” It was Mark. He was just like I imagined him -- a ball of epicurean energy and hospitality.

We opened the wine and toasted to our meeting. Then we cooked, and talked, and ate, and laughed, and drank, and ate some more. I wondered how many times Mark and Colin cooked at the same stove to get this comfortable with each other. It was a whirlwind of chopping, stirring, whipping, folding, searing, sprinkling, seasoning, and tasting – like the organized chaos of a jam session. They made putting together a 4 course meal on a weeknight seem like a breeze. And what a meal it was!
We started with marlin and roasted summer veggies paired with Dr. Loosen Riesling. Jason tried to choose a wine to match the sweetness and tang of roasted cherry tomatoes and it worked like a charm. I got so caught up in talking that I overcooked the fish a bit, but the saucy veggies came to the rescue.
Next came a salad with summer squash, snap peas, and radishes. I was wondering what the secret to Colin’s dressing was. Honey. As Kristil told us over dinner, Colin takes honey very seriously and has quite a collection.
The lobster risotto topped with local dungeness crab and beurre blanc was to die for. I picked up a great tip from Colin for separating the grains and giving risotto a light and creamy texture – fold in some whipped cream right before serving. I also learned that Viognier is a fantastic match for crab.
Next was the rack of lamb that Mark so carefully trimmed and marinated in his office kitchen. Doesn’t everyone have a little test kitchen in their office? It was served with a watercress puree and olive crushed potatoes and paired with a BC pinot noir and a Spanish Campo di Borja Crianza. Now, how often do you get to try two wines with a dish? The lamb was from an island off Vancouver coast. Those Vancouverites are lucky to have lamb this tender and juicy and Mark’s marinate of vodka and cherries was simply fabulous.
For dessert, Colin intended to make a tart with rosemary custard and figs, but the dough wouldn’t cooperate. Having years of experience with baking disasters, I suggested we crumble it up and sprinkle on top of fruit. Colin added a creative twist to this idea and made parfaits with layers of fruit, custard, and buttery crumbs. Paired with Okanagan valley dessert wine, that Andrea brought from her recent trip, it was a sweet ending to a fantastic meal.
We’ve discovered Vancouver’s best kept secret – Colin’s kitchen. It was the most memorable meal of our vacation -- not only because the food was great, but because it was prepared from the heart. These guys’ passion for their beautiful Vancouver was contagious and we could taste it in every bite. We hope to do this again soon, this time in Boston.