Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rosemary Focaccia

July 1 Update: Thanks to Chef Paz I just found out that Zorra is hosting a Bread Baking with Herbs event. If you'd like to see more interesting breads, check it out :)

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Spending the last 10 years with a bread-obsessed man have ruined me for life. What can I say -- I am a bread snob. That's why I normally stay out of bread baking. Unlike most home cooks, I don't get a kick out of the process of producing my own loaf unless the results are outstanding. This whole "Look, I made bread!" thing somehow never did it for me. I don't care if the kitchen smells homey, and I don't care if the loaf looks rustic. I only care if it can rival the best version of this bread I've ever had or at least the best version of it that I can buy in Boston (and Boston is a serious bread town).

But there are times when even an apathetic baker like me decides to mettre la main a
la pâte
(put the hand in the dough) as Julia Child used to say. What usually gets me to step into this unfamiliar territory is a topping or a filling. The problem is that there are some variations of breads that I can't get in Boston, like the grape walnut focaccia we had in Vancouver, for example. It always feels like a hopeless undertaking, but sometimes, Jason succeeds in encouraging me. Since he was baking this weekend, I thought I'll join in the fun. Bread baking with Jason is not nearly as intimidating as on my own. When it comes to bread recipe interpretation, he is like my local rabbi -- strict but compassionate.

The two focaccia options were Peter Reinhart's from the Bread Baker's Apprentice and Rose Levy Beranbaum's from the Bread Bible. I've tried Reinhart's a long time ago. Like all his breads, it was only ok. Jason thinks it's because Reinhart never uses enough liquid in his recipes (making them easier to work with for a home cook), and never asks for enough rising time. Since Beranbaum's recipe sounded way more watery (as wet as a pancake batter), Jason suggested I go with that one. What does more water get you? Those lovely holes!

Before I set out on any bread baking adventure, I go over every little detail with Jason and get my plan officially approved, which seems to make a great difference in how the bread turns out. Here is what I learned from our bread baking lessons:

Things that are not flexible the first time you try a recipe:
  • Ingredients: Absolutely no substitutions here. If the recipe calls for a particular type and even brand of flour, that's what you should use. This one was easy. It called for unbleached all-purpose flour. King Arthur that we normally use was one of the approved brands. The right type of yeast is important too. Pretty much all serious bread books call for instant yeast. That's the only yeast Jason uses, but if you don't have an obsessive bread baker in the house, you might not have any. I strongly encourage you to get it should you decide to bake bread since the process of using active dry yeast is a little different and will require you to deviate from the process described by the recipe. Instant SAF yeast is available in any William and Sonoma and lately, my local Whole Foods started carrying it too.
  • Measurements: You have to measure everything to the last little gram. For flour, the scale is absolutely essential. Don’t even think about measuring with cups (see this post on measuring flour for more explanation). Make sure the liquids are measured correctly with the bottom of the meniscus at the line of a liquid measuring cup and are at the right temperature. Don’t pour in cold water if the recipe asked for 75-90F and vice versa. An instant read thermometer is a good idea. The three most important concepts in bread baking is precision, precision, and precision.
  • Equipment: Make sure you have all the equipment the recipe calls for. This one required a heavy duty mixer, a bread stone, a 17 x 12 sheet pan, and a scale of course.
Things that are flexible even on the first try:

Dough rising schedule:
Most great breads require a long rising time. The good news is that it’s ok to slow down and even stop the rising, just not to speed it up. The basic principle is that the higher the temperature, the faster the dough rises. Fast rising generally yields less flavor and crumb structure, so you don’t want to crank up the heat to 90F and cram the recommended 4 hours of rising into 3. But you can slow it down enough to break up the process into multiple days. For example, this focaccia recipe asked for 4 hours of rising at 75-80F to at least double the dough, and then another hour of proofing in the pan. After talking to Jason, I decided to break up the dough making and baking into two days. I let the dough rise for 2 hours at room temperature and then put it in the fridge overnight. Keep in mind that it takes a while for the dough to chill, so it will continue to rise but at a slower pace. Also, pay much more attention to how long the rises should be than how big the dough should get. It’s perfectly fine to let the dough get bigger than the recipe specifies. Mine about tripled instead of doubling during the first rise. It’s also important to remember that the yeast doesn’t get going again until the dough warms up. So the next day, my proof (rising in the pan) took 2 hours instead of 1. Understanding how this works makes bread baking much more doable on regular basis since you don't feel as confined to the house.

Toppings and fillings: this isn’t nearly as flexible as you’d think, but since that’s the whole reason I go into the dangerous dough making territory, I can’t help but improvise a little. The first time I made this focaccia, I added walnuts and grapes. The walnuts went in towards the end of mixing and actually changed the color and flavor of the dough. See how it got darker. The grapes went in right before baking. They didn't taste as good as I remembered from Vancouver, probably because they were too sweet.
Overall, this first try was surprisingly successful! The dough had a nice crust, and excellent holey crumb – way better than I have ever achieved with other breads. The two things that didn't work so well were a slight lack of salt and removing the focaccia from the pan – it got completely stuck on the bottom.

I was so encouraged by the way this dough behaved that I decided to try again the very next day. This time, I dropped the grapes and the walnuts and stuck to the original rosemary version. I also made a few little changes to fix the salt and stickiness issues. Jason said that I can start to gradually change thing as long as I document what I am doing. Did I mention that we were lab partners in college? Can you tell who was the organized one? :)

Here is what I changed on my second try:

I doubled the salt in the dough and dropped the sprinkle of salt on the outside. The original recipe asked for 3/4 tsp fine sea salt (=1 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher) + 1/4 tsp sea salt sprinkled on top before baking. The second time, I tried 3 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher in the dough and no salt on top. It was a perfect balance of flavor and that's how I'll keep it from now on.

The original recipe said to bake the dough in a 17 x 12 sheet pan. In spite of using a good bit of olive oil, my dough got stuck to the sheet and was very difficult to get out. On my second try, I baked it in a cast iron pan in two batches (half on the first day and half on the second). It was perfectly crisp and didn’t stick one bit. I imagine that lining a baking sheet with parchment paper would prevent it from sticking too, but I am not sure if it would come out as crisp.

Baking time:
The original recipe stated 12-13 minutes. I had to increase this time to about 15 minutes for a sheet pan and to about 20 minutes for a cast iron pan. This was probably due to the thickness of the dough in the pan, the speed at which different pans heat up, and variations in oven temperature.

How did it taste? The plain rosemary version (my second try) was heavenly – it was the best focaccia I’ve ever tasted (including the ones I had in Liguria). I’ve been in a happy daze about it ever since! It’s the kind of feeling you get from winning a lottery (not that I know what that feels like, but I am guessing). It’s when something really wonderful happens to you out of pure luck. Bread this good should have taken much more blood, sweat, and tears. But all it took was a fabulous recipe from Rose and a few insightful tips from Jason.

My Adaptation of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rosemary Focaccia Recipe

390 grams (13.6 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour (Gold Medal, King Arthur, or Pillsbury)
3/8 tsp instant yeast (I used SAF instant yeast)
2 liquid cups minus 2 Tbsp water, at room temp (70-90F)
3/4 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1 1/2 tsp table salt)
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp fresh rosemary needles

  • a kitchen scale
  • a heavy-duty stand mixer with paddle attachment;
  • a baking stone OR baking sheet (I've only tried it on a stone)
  • 10 inch cast iron pan (OR 12 x 17 sheet pan lined with parchment paper)
  1. Mixing the dough (can be done 1-2 days in advance). In the mixer bowl, with the paddle attachment on low speed (#2 if using a KitchenAid), combine the flour and yeast. With the mixer running, gradually add the water, mixing just until the dough comes together, about 3 minutes. It will be very soupy. Increase the speed to medium (#4 KitchenAid) and beat until the dough wraps itself around the paddle attachment. It will start to clear the sides of the bowl and climbing up the paddle. This will take about 20 minutes of constant beating, so be patient. It's ok if it pours back down when you stop the mixer. Add the sugar and salt and beat until they are well incorporated, about 3 minutes.
  2. First rise (can be done 1-2 days in advance). Grease a 2 quart bowl with a paper towel dunked in olive oil. Using an oiled spatula, scrape the dough into the bowl. It will look like melted mozzarella. Oil the lid or plastic wrap and cover the container. Allow the dough to rise (ideally at 75-80F) for about 4 hours or until it has at least doubled. I let it rise for 2 hours and move it to the fridge overnight.
  3. Shape and proof (second rise). If using a cast iron pan, you'll have to shape, proof, and bake in 2 batches. This works well if you'd like to save half the dough for another day. It will live quite happily in the fridge for at least 2 days after it was mixed (maybe even longer, but I haven't tried). Coat the pan with oil (1 Tbsp for cast iron pan / 2 Tbsp for sheet pan). Pour half the dough into cast iron pan or all the dough into the sheet pan. Coat your hands with oil and stretch the dough to fit the pan. If it doesn't want to stretch, let it rest for 10 minutes and try again. Try not to pop the bubbles in the dough as you are stretching it. Drizzle the dough with olive oil (1/2 Tbsp for cast iron pan / 1 Tbsp for sheet pan). Cover with plastic and let the dough rise until 1 1/2 times its original volume, about 1 hour (2 if it was chilled during the first rise).
  4. Preheat the oven. Preheat the oven to 475F 1 hour before baking (I only gave it 40 minutes and it worked fine). Have an oven shelf at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it before pre-heating.
  5. Bake. Uncover the dough and sprinkle with rosemary (half the rosemary if using a cast iron pan). Place the pan on the hot stone and bake until golden brown rotating the pan half way through baking time (18-20 minutes for cast iron pan / 14-15 minutes for the sheet pan). Remove from the oven, cool 10 minutes, and serve.

Beyond Salmon Not-so-extreme Makeover

Ok everyone -- don't panic. Beyond Salmon didn't go through any mergers or acquisitions (ha-ha, just the idea of that sounds hilarious). It just got a little face lift. After blogging for almost 2 years, I thought I should finally go beyond (no pun intended) the basic blogger templates. I hope my feeble attempt at graphic design does not prevent you from visiting. Sorry if the site was occasionally broken in the past couple of days. There is no good way to fix and preview your template without making the changes live. What I ended up doing eventually is creating a whole new test blog just to do that. But I think I am done messing with things for now. If you find any bugs or usability issues (like the font sizes and colors are hard to read), please let me know.

And here is a picture to celebrate the new orange-green color scheme. We found these incredible braided carrots when picking up our CSA produce yesterday. "It's the three of you!" said the farmer to Jason and me pointing at my belly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What a difference an ounce makes

“What are you doing?” asked my husband, Jason, one day when he saw me dunking a measuring cup into a bag of flour and smearing it on the side of the bag. “Measuring flour for brioche,” I replied. He raised his eye-brows. “You call that measuring?” Jason disappeared to the pantry and came back with a scale. He’s been obsessed with making a perfect baguette in a home kitchen and has been approaching the process with the precision of a research scientist that he is. After the first 20 tries, the results were getting close to magnificent. “Oh,” I whined, “I scooped and leveled. How much more precise do you want me to get?”

He pointed to my cup of flour and said, “Dump all this on the scale.” I rolled my eyes, but obeyed. He is, after all, the bread god and I could use all the help I could get since I am bakingly challenged. The scale read 5 1/2 ounces. “You know what a standard cup is?” Jason asked. I shook my head. “4 1/2 ounces. So you are using way too much.”

Have I been using too much flour my entire life? Is that why my cakes were never moist enough and my breads were too dense? Since the scale was already out, I decided to give it a shot just to prove to Jason that one puny little ounce would not make a difference. He simply had that magic touch when it came to baking and I didn’t. I converted my cup measurement into ounces, measured them out, and proceeded with the recipe. 10 hours later (that’s how long Julia Child’s recipe took), we cut into the best bread I’ve ever made. It was almost good enough to rival brioche from a real French Bakery. Could this be that “magic touch” I always thought bakers possessed?

The problem with cups is that “scoop and level” is a very fuzzy concept. When I tried to recreate 4 ½ ounces with cups, I had to jump through many hoops. I found that storing the flour in its original bag makes it too compact for cup measurement and you end up with too much in your cup. Moving the flour to a canister and stirring it before scooping helped, but I still wasn’t at 4 ½ ounces. What finally got me the desired weight was spooning the flour into a cup instead of scooping it. Smearing the cup against the side of the bag or container to level the flour is also a no-no – this packs the flour into the cup. You have to use a straight edge to sweep away the excess. I finally gave up on cups entirely. It’s actually faster and tremendously more reliable to dump the flour into a bowl of a scale.

The only scale I’ve ever tried is the one Jason bought for his bread experiments years ago. It’s a cheap and simple analog scale made by Soehnle. Keeping the box makes storing this little scale very convenient. Since fruit and veggies can go directly on the scale, the only thing we use the bowl for is flour. We don’t even wash it out after use. Just turn it over the sink, give it a few taps to shake out remaining flour, and back in the box it goes. These days, most bakers go digital when it comes to scales (just like with cameras, music devices, and all the other gadgets). I wonder if one day we'll have digital pots and pans. If you want a digital scale recommendation, check out Matthew Amster-Burton's article on Culinate.

March 09, 2010 update: Even a troglodyte like me finally got out of the analog scale age. Digital scales are no more expensive and are so much easier to read. Here is what I have now.

I am sure there are other tricks good bakers have up their floury sleeves, but measuring flour correctly can go a long way.

Why did I decide to write a whole post on measuring flour? You'll find out very soon. I have a very tasty post in the works and measuring flour correctly is such a big part of it (and all of my other baking posts) that I finally decided to give this topic the attention it deserves.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Halibut Wrapped in Napa Cabbage

Eating things that are stuffed or wrapped is like opening a present -- it's fun! Friday's lunch was one of those sinful pleasures you get when making a present to yourself. I had a little piece of halibut left over from the previous dinner and a ton of napa (also known as Chinese) cabbage from our CSA. My favorite thing to make with napa cabbage is a salad, but this one was a little prickly. I am not kidding -- it actually had tiny little thorns that made eating it raw somewhat uncomfortable. My knee jerk reaction when faced with bok choi or napa is to stir-fry, but I was looking for something a little more interesting and decided to try a stuffing experiment. I blanched the cabbage leaves for a minute to make them more flexible, then sprinkled halibut with salt, pepper, and minced ginger, and wrapped it up in the cabbage leaves. Then I seared my little bundles in a little canola oil and finished them with some soy sauce and sesame seed oil.

They turned out not only terribly cute, but also yummy!

Halibut Wrapped in Napa Cabbage

Fish substitutions: can work with any fin fish, but if using salmon or tuna, make sure to cook no longer than 3 minutes total because these fish taste best rare.

Serves 4

8 large napa cabbage leaves
8 pieces of halibut fillet, 3 oz each
1 Tbsp finely minced ginger
2 Tbsp canola oil
2 tsp sesame seed oil
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Salt and pepper
  1. If the cabbage has very thick middle stems, thin them out with a small sharp knife being careful not to make holes in the leaves. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the cabbage leaves and cook for 1 minute. Remove to a paper towel and dry off well on both sides.
  2. Sprinkle halibut with salt and pepper. Place a piece of halibut onto the stem part of each cabbage leaf. Sprinkle with ginger and wrap the halibut in the leaves.
  3. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add canola oil and swirl the pan to coat its bottom. Place the cabbage bundles into the skillet without crowding and cook until browned, about 2 minutes. Flip, cover the skillet, turn down the heat to medium-low, and cook another 2 minutes.
  4. Drizzle with sesame seed oil and soy sauce, flip the cabbage bundles, cover, and cook 1 minute or until done. Testing for doneness is a little tricky. I suggest you make a little slit in the cabbage and push a chop stick through the fish. If the chopstick goes through without much effort, the fish is done. If you have an instant read thermometer, you can use it to check the internal temperature of the fish. Take it off the heat at 125F. It will get to 135F after 5 minutes of resting which is the "done" temperature for fish.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Scallion Spread

Have you ever had a suppressed food memory? The kind that's been hiding in the far squiggly corner of your brain for 15 years or so. It always amazes me what makes such dusty memories come out. Sometimes, all it takes is a really good bunch of scallions.

I love scallions and cook with them quite often, but it's rare that I manage to work my way through the whole bunch before it goes bad. The problem with scallions is that you rarely need a ton of them. They are usually used as an herb/garnish, or in small quantities instead of shallots. So what do you do if you end up with a ton of them, like we just did from our farm-share? And what if they are so fresh, slender, and delicious that having any of them go to waste would just be a sin? That's when it's time to dust off some food memories. I remember my Mom making a spread with them in Moscow when I was little. From what I remembered, it contained tvorog. This fresh cheese, called "farmer's cheese" in English, is similar to ricotta, but a bit denser and much more tangy. It's easy to get at most Whole Foods Markets. My favorite brand is "Friendship." If you go to a Russian grocer, you'll find 5-10 brands of tvorog. Some of them are great and some have nothing to common with tvorog I remember from Russia. If this is your first time buying tvorog, I would still stick to the Friendship brand until you know what it's supposed to taste like.

This spread is so simple that there is really not much of a recipe to it. Just combine a lot of chopped scallions (about 1/2 - 3/4 cup) with 1/2 Lb farmer's cheese, 2-3 Tbsp sour cream (or thick full-fat yogurt), and salt/pepper to taste. Mix well. That's all there is to it. Don't worry about measurements. If you have more scallions, just throw them in. As long as the mixture is spreadable, you can't go wrong.

What amazes me about this little spread is its versatility. In Russia, if my memory serves me right, it was called a "scallion salad" and eaten right with the fork as part of zakuski spread (small dishes similar to tapas). But I actually prefer it spread on bread, or mixed with a green salad that was tossed with a little vinaigrette. The farmer's cheese mixes with the dressing and makes a really yummy coating for the greens.

The other day, I was looking for something more substantial for lunch than a salad, and decided to toss it with some lightly buttered pasta. Wow! That was good. After adding the spread to a pot of hot pasta, I set it over low heat for 30 seconds or so, just until the cheese warmed up and started to melt into a creamy, oniony sauce. It had that perfect green and tangy feel to it. Refreshing, but satisfying.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Steak, revisited

My favorite character in The Incredibles is the designer, Edna Mode. What does she have to do with steaks, you might ask? Everything! You see, I feel about steaks, the way Edna feels about capes. When Mr. Incredible asks her why she is so opposed to capes if she used to put them on all superhero outfits in the past, Edna coolly replies, "Ah, dahling, I never look back!"

When Arfi Binsted of Homemades decided to host her Cook and Eat Meat event, I knew it was time to revisit steak. Last year, I went through many steak experiments until I finally got what I thought then was a perfect steak. My method involved a quick sear on the stove top, followed by a resting period, followed by roasting in the oven on very low. The inside was medium-rare throughout, but the outside crust was gone by the time the steak rested and finished roasting due to all the released juices. Well, that was definitely not perfect, but as Edna said, "I never look back." I have finally found a fix for the soggy crust issue. I wish I could take credit for the fabulous idea of flipping the roasting and the searing steps. But the credit goes to a fellow food blogger, Jaden from Steamy Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated writer Kenji Alt who gave me this idea. I followed Cook's Illustrated directions to the letter and what a steak! Evenly medium-rare inside AND crispy outside. I guess you can have your steak and eat it too :)

The cut:
I have recently graduated from the cheapy hanger steak to my new favorite -- porterhouse. There is nothing wrong with hanger, but a porterhouse is simply incredible. I used to avoid it like the plague because I figured there is no way to cook both the tenderloin and the strip part of the porterhouse to the same doneness. But this slow roasting technique really works and these two steaks, that are not my favorite on their own, turn into something totally orgasmic when joined by a bone. The tenderloin does not only taste tender, but actually beefy, and the strip does not dry out and toughen up. When buying your porterhouse, make sure it's nice and thick (1.5-2 inches) and that it has a substantial tenderloin part. If the tenderloin is small, they might be trying to pass a T-bone steak as a porterhouse (a more desirable steak). In a porterhouse, the strip part is more tender and the tenderloin does not overcook since it's quite substantial.

The cuts and grades of beef are still a mystery to me. I have bought a grass-fed hanger in San-Francisco once and it was incredibly tender, even though grass-fed beef is supposed to be tougher. But lately, every time I buy hanger in Boston, it's on the chewy side. Even the porterhouse from the same butcher changes from time to time. Rib-eye is the biggest gamble -- one time it's tender and juicy, another time it's chewy. This is all using the same cooking method and being very methodical with testing for doneness, so I am not comparing medium-rare with medium-well steaks here. All these steaks were graded "Choice," which of course is not saying much since almost half of the beef in US is graded Choice.

I wonder if things would be different if I went to a butcher in New York or Chicago. It amazes me how I can get such consistently fabulous fish and such inconsistent meat in Boston. In the last few months I've been having the best luck with porterhouse, so that's what I am sticking with for now.

Slow-roast-then-sear method based on Cook's Illustrated May-June 2007 issue:

You'll need:
  • a roasting pan with a rack
  • a heavy skillet
  • an instant read thermometer
  • 1.5 - 2 inch thick steaks (plan on 6-8 oz of boneless steak per person or 1 porterhouse for 2 people)
  • salt and pepper
  • vegetable or olive oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 275F and adjust oven rack to middle position. Wrap the roasting pan with foil (to make clean up easy). Place a rack in the roasting pan.
  2. Trim the silver skin and extra fat off the outside of the steaks. Dry steaks well with paper towels and season very generously with salt and pepper on all sides. Set the steaks on the rack and place in the oven until instant read thermometer inserted sideways into the center of the steak registers 90 for rare, 95 for medium-rare, 100 for medium, and 110 for medium-well. If you are cooking a porterhouse, stick your thermometer into the wide part of the strip section so that the tip ends up about 1/2 to 1 inch from the bone. How long it takes to get to this temperature depends on the thickness and structure of the steak. A boneless, 8 oz, 1.5 inch thick steak takes about 20 minutes and a 2 pound porterhouse can take as long as 40 minutes. A thermometer is key!
  3. At this point your steak will look extremely unappetizing. Don't panic. Set a heavy skillet over high heat until very hot. Add the oil and wait until it's a little smoky. Add the steaks and cook until browned, 1.5-2 minutes, lifting the steaks after about a minute to redistribute the fat. Flip and brown on the other side. Don't they look better now? Then brown the steaks briefly on the sides and remove to a warm plate to rest loosely tented with foil for 7 minutes.
Grilling Variation: I have tried grilling the steaks in the end instead of searing them on the stove top and it worked really well too. Just make sure your grill is extremely hot so that you get those grill marks in less than 2 minutes per side. If you still didn't get the grill marks, get the steak off the grill anyway. Overcooking will ruin it.

Serving suggestions: You can serve these steaks as simply or as dressed up as your heart desires. If you are in a saucy mood, deglaze the pan with stock and wine to make a pan sauce. Other options are topping your steak with garlic herb butter while it's resting or drizzling it with a little lemon juice and olive oil. Just let your imagination guide you.

Copyright information: the image of Edna is taken from The Incredibles Wikipedia page and is copyright by Walt Disney.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Real veggies

I spent the last 7 months waiting for this day -- the day when we get real veggies again. And it's finally here. Yesterday was our first CSA pick up. What is CSA? It's this illegal drug that causes temporary euphoria. No, no -- I am just kidding. It's not a drug at all, but it does cause euphoria in some people and can be addictive. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. People also refer to it as a farm share. You pay a local farmer a yearly fee in winter (the time they need the money the most), and they supply you with fabulous veggies in the summer and fall. We tried it for the first time last year and absolutely loved it. I am warning you though. Going back to supermarket veggies (even from Whole Foods) is like getting off caffeine. It can be painful. Really painful. That's why I've been waiting for this day with such anticipation.

We've joined a new farm this year, Waltham Fields Community Farm. Don't get me wrong. I loved Brookfield Farm that we joined last year. Our weekly box, conveniently delivered to Cambridge, was always gorgeous and plentiful. But since the farm was located in western Massachusetts (about 2 hours from us), we didn't take advantage of the pick-your-own aspect of the share. Waltham is just a 15 minute drive from where we live and should give us plenty of opportunity to pick our own veggies. It's hard to believe that there is a farm so close to Boston. But there is, and I got to see it myself yesterday.

What did we get?
  • A ton of greens (as is typical of the start of the season in New England). All types of lettuce, spinach, arugula, endive, bok choy, and some Asian green whose name escapes me.
  • Radishes
  • Baby turnips (they look like white radishes) -- they are so good roasted!
  • Kohlrabi
  • Scallions
I also got a chance to pick my own herbs and sugar snap peas aided by a young man who defied the stereotype that kids don't like green veggies. This 8 year old was so excited about sugar snap peas, you'd think he was in a candy shop. I really wonder what our daughter will be like. Will she want to pick peas with me some day? What will be her favorite foods, colors, songs, books?

By the way, does anyone have any bright ideas for meals the first few weeks after the hospital? I heard that I should freeze some meals for when we get home with the baby. This sounds like a good idea, except that all my dishes that freeze well (stews and hot soups) don't sound particularly appetizing in July.

P.S. The pasta above was inspired by whatever was in this week's share. I sautéed some leafy greens and spinach, roasted some baby turnips, and tossed it all with pasta, chopped sugar snap peas (they were too tender and sweet to cook), scallions, a little cream, butter, and parmesan. Then I sprinkled some chives and broken up chive flowers on top. Those little purple flowers are not only pretty, but they give a dish a wonderful crunch.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Even more flavor and How to sear scallops

You might be wondering why I haven't posted since last week's spirited discussion on flavor. No, I didn't have the baby yet (4 more weeks to go), but we were celebrating my husband's graduation, entertaining family from out of town, and partying for 3 days straight :)

I am slowly getting back to Earth now and trying to remember what it was we were discussing. Oh, yeah -- flavor. First of all, let me apologize for criticizing MSG. I've never tried using it and know absolutely nothing about it. The marketing labels on food products and restaurant menus seem to indicate that it's bad for you, but I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions until I did my own research. For all I know, it could all be media hype. Jo Horner from Amuse Bouche graciously agreed to send me some info, so I'll try to get up to speed on this little taboo ingredient.

Another thing I am not up to date on is umami. Lately, it's been everyone's favorite buzz word, but I am not completely certain what this means to us cooks. From what I understood by reading the wikipedia article, it's a savory sensation provided by glutamates that we can detect with our tongue and it intensifies with the addition of sodium. MSG seems to be the ingredient that provides the most umami bang for the buck (is it because it has sodium AND glutamate all in one?). But this savoriness is also found in some vegetables, cheeses, and meats. I guess I have a lot of homework to do, so let me get to the topics about which I actually have a clue.

I got an interesting comment from Jeffrey M.:
on a quasi-related note (i.e. flavor) about a deeply flavorful recipe for seared sea scallops? something that really makes you moan in delight. i've been grilling scallops lately in fairly mild citrus-based marinades but want something a little richer and more moving on the palate.

thanks (and sorry to hijack this very interesting thread).
Dear Jeffrey,

No apology necessary. Your question couldn't be more relevant and it got me thinking about another flavor booster home cooks can take advantage of: maillard reaction. That's just fancy speak for "browning." When I cook in class, students often ask me if the fish or meat is burning. Ok, maybe sometimes they are actually burning if I am trying to do too many things at once and not paying attention. But most of the time, they are just browning. Seriously browning.

I wish we changed our stereotype of a bad cook from someone who burns everything to someone who bakes everything (particularly with a little bit of water in the pyrex dish to prevent the food from sticking :). The fear of burning is understandable, especially if you set off your fire alarms. But if you want to make those "richer and more moving on the palate" scallops, you have to crank up the heat, get rid of marinades, and give your scallops plenty of room in the pan.

You can't be afraid of heat and smoke if you want to make restaurant quality food. You have to get rid of that stirring and checking instinct we all have. Unless you are making a stir-fry, just let the ingredients be. Here are some tips on how to sear scallops (most of these tips apply to all protein):
  1. Start with "dry" scallops (follow the link to find out how to buy scallops and what "dry" means).
  2. Dry the scallops very thoroughly with paper towels. Yes, there is a lot of drying going on. Moisture is the enemy of browning.
  3. Crank up the heat under your pan to as high as possible and wait for it to get hot.
  4. Season scallops just before placing them in the pan to avoid drawing moisture out of them.
  5. You don't need much fat and you can use whatever you want (canola, olive oil, butter, or some combination). Just add enough to a pan to make a thin coat (about 1/16").
  6. Place scallops in the pan leaving some space between them. Since we don't have a stack of sauté pans sitting by our stove the way restaurant cooks do, it's tempting to squeeze every last piece into our one pan. Please don't.
  7. When placing scallops in the pan, realize that that's their final destination. You can't move them once they are in the pan, or you'll prevent the crust from forming.
  8. Don't check them every 2 seconds. In 1.5-2 minutes, you'll see the browning starting to creep up their sides. That's when you turn them and cook on the other side.
  9. In the case of scallops, don't try to cook them all the way through. They should be rare in the center, so as soon as they are browned on both sides, they are done. If searing a thick piece of fish or some other food that requires more cooking, finish it in the oven to achieve even internal temperature. That's another thing, we home cooks are a bit lazy about. We don't want to turn the oven on too often. Yet, if you watch what the line cooks do in restaurants, pretty much all thick protein is finished in the oven.
Of course, the type of pan makes a difference too. You want a heavy pan that heats evenly. Aluminum with stainless steal lining (like All-Clad) or cast iron pans are great. The only time you want a non-stick pan is when searing fin fish. You can get away with a regular pan for really dense ones like tuna and swordfish, but most fish need a non-stick or cast iron pan (the grandfather of non-stick cookware that provides unbeatable browning without sticking).

So where does that leave the rubs, marinades, and secret ingredients? To tell you the truth, I think they are over-rated. The only protein that can't live without a marinade is a skinless chicken breast (because it is so tasteless). Marinades definitely have their uses, but what I often see is their misuses. This topic is a whole other can of worms, so I'll leave it for another time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Flavor? What fucking flavor?!

I try not to rant and not to start flame wars -- at least not too often. Hey, when it comes to food, there is really no right or wrong. It's a matter of experimentation and taste. Or at least that's what I tell my students to make them feel empowered to experiment in the kitchen. But the recent article in entitled "Beyond Salt and Pepper" reminded me that I tell my students little white lies sometimes. There is right, and there is wrong. And the authors of that article couldn't be more wrong in my opinion.

They state that:
No matter how many cookbooks you read or how much Top Chef you absorb from the television, your home cooking won’t match your favorite restaurant’s. One reason: Professionals use a lot of fat and salt, which tease more flavor out of ingredients. There are other ingredients you can use, however, to boost flavor.
To argue with this statement, I have to get a little technical and actually define "flavor," which they never bother to do. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, flavor is "the blend of taste and smell sensations evoked by a substance in the mouth."

Let's start with the taste. What can we taste anyway? Very little. Human tongue can perceive only 4 sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Everything else we smell. This might come as a surprise, but you can't actually taste herbs and spices (paprika, garlic chile paste, ginger, celery seed, and tarragon) that the authors of the article suggest you use to "boost flavor." You can only smell them. Since your throat is connected to your nasal passages, you smell stuff better when it's in your mouth (thus thinking you taste it better). Smell is a big part of our gustatory experience and those are all wonderful ingredients to use. But the article seems to imply that those are ingredients home cooks can rely on since they can't use as much salt and fat as restaurants do. That's absurd! Substituting salt with tarragon is just like substituting a bar of soap with a towel. They are both part of the bathing experience, but one can help you get cleaner and the other one can help you get drier. You probably won't argue that using soap to dry yourself is not the best idea.

"What about the spiciness?" you might say. "That bity sensation you experience from chiles, raw garlic, and ginger?" Certain ingredients act as irritants (in a good way), which is a part of the gustatory experience too, but you still don't actually taste them. So using less salt, and throwing in more garlic or chiles is not likely to get you a culinary masterpiece.

What other secret weapons can home cooks add to their cooking arsenal? The authors suggest acidic ingredients, like citrus juice, wine, vinegar, and Dijon mustard, and sweet ingredients like honey and maple syrup. At least we are getting to stuff we can actually taste. There is only one little problem. The more sweetness and acidity you add, the more salt you'll need to balance it. That's the art of seasoning that separates good cooks from bad cooks. It's not about whether cinnamon goes with cardamom. It's how much salt to use to balance the sweetness and acidity in the dish.

But hey, you can kill all birds with one stone and use Worcestershire sauce, suggests the article, because it's sour (main ingredient is vinegar), sweet (from molasses and sugar), and salty (from anchovies). Nothing against Worcestershire sauce, but isn't that kind of like trying to get enough of each food group by ordering a happy meal at McDonald's? Technically, it has your protein, starch, fat, vegetables, etc, but probably not in the proportions you'd like.

My favorite part is readers' comments that suggest the use of MSG, soy sauce, and anchovies. Have they ever wondered why those taste so good? Because they are loaded with salt! When I posted my first story on salt last year, one of the readers commented that a way to get around using salt in salads, is to add flavorful ingredients like olives. So why are olives are so "flavorful"? Could it be because they are cured in salt? That goes for capers and all those other salt substitutes. If you want to use these ingredients, be my guest. They are all wonderful (except for MSG maybe). But let's not pretend that they are better for you than plain old salt or that the final dish will have less sodium and taste just as good.

I can't help but wonder why we keep looking for substitutes and why we can't use as much salt and restaurants do. What's so terrible about salt? Somehow, people in Japan and France don't worry about it, and live long and healthy lives. Though, I don't believe they try to substitute exercise with anything either.

I don't remember where I read this, but it's an interesting statistic that many Americans spend more time watching food TV than actually cooking. We can sit in front of TV watching Iron Chef and eating low-fat, low-sodium potato chips all we want. Or we can get into the kitchen, cook a decent meal with no substitutes and go for a brisk walk.

And about fat... It's a big misconception that the difference between restaurant food and home cooked food is pounds of cream and butter. Sure, classic French cooking is extremely heavy on fat, but many modern restaurants use fat, don't abuse fat. How do I know? I worked in one. The difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking is the amount of salt and doneness of meats, fish, and vegetables. Use more salt, cook things less, and your food will improve so much you might not want to eat out.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Lobster Rolls and the Battle of the Buns

When people ask me how I learned so much about fish, I tell them it was all my students' fault. They kept asking me questions and when I didn't know the answers (which was quite often in the beginning), I put my detective hat on and tried to investigate the issue and give them the information they were looking for. This blog was just a continuation of this learning process and I love it when the readers ask me questions I haven't heard before.

The most recent one came from Jaye at Butta Buns:
My question is about where to get good lobster meat. I'm getting married next month and would like to make lobster rolls. It's a small crowd, about 15-20 people, so I should be able to get away with making it myself. How many pounds should I be thinking of?
Dear Jaye,

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! Making lobster rolls for 15-20 people is a brave undertaking. I have already e-mailed you some places to call about buying lobsters, but your question has inspired me to make lobster rolls for dinner last night and I learned so much in the process that I thought I'll share it with you and other readers of this blog.

Lobsters are a new territory for me. I am mostly a fin fish person and have only cooked lobsters a few times in my life. I wasn't particularly happy with the results, so I did a little investigative work to see how I could improve.

How much lobster do you need per roll:
I cooked two 1.75 Lb lobsters, which gave me enough meat for 4 hot dog rolls.

How to cook, not overcook a lobster:

The problem with shellfish cooked in the shell is that you can't just poke it, look inside, and see if it's done (like you can with fin fish). You have to rely on timing. Since I cook lobsters extremely rarely, I used to rely on the timing I heard from the fishmongers. The formulas they gave me varied from 13 to 20 minutes per pound and since I prefer to err on the side of undercooking than overcooking, I went with 13 minutes. The claws were good, but the tails were way too tough. After reading what my seafood hero, James Peterson had to say in his Fish & Shellfish book, I realized that even 13 minutes per pound is way too long and the reason my lobsters came out tough was because of overcooking. I guess this is one time when you shouldn't listen to your fishmonger. Peterson suggested two timings.

For a lobster that's still a bit translucent in the center (the way he prefers it): 5 minutes for the first 1.25 Lbs, then 2 minutes for each additional pound. In other words, 1.75 Lb lobster would cook for 6 minutes.

For a lobster that is opaque throughout: 8 minutes for the first 1.25 Lb, then 2 minutes for each additional pound. In other words, 1.75 Lb lobster would cook for 9 minutes.

I tried the second timing (for an opaque lobster) and indeed it was perfect. Next time, I'll try the shorter timing. I've never tried a still translucent lobster, but since I love most seafood on the rare side, I have a feeling it will be good :) Though for lobster rolls, you might want to stick with completely opaque.

Another thing I learned is that a "boiled" lobster should ideally be poached to keep it tender. This means that the water should be at a rolling boil before the lobsters go in. As soon as the lobsters go in, cover the pot and return the water to a boil. Check it regularly, and when you see the first bubbles, turn the heat down so that the pot barely simmers, not boils.

You need a huge pot and a ton of water. Peterson suggests at least a gallon of water for the first lobster and a quart for each additional one. But that doesn't sound like enough to me. I ended up using about 3 gallons for 2 lobsters. Otherwise the water cools off too much when the lobsters go in and the timing formula might not work.

That's all there is to cooking a lobster.

Taking a lobster out of the shell:

The hardest part of this whole experiment was taking these suckers apart. I am a bit slow and clumsy when it comes to extracting shellfish out of the shell. That's how people know I am not a native New Englander. If you've spent your summers on New England coast while growing up, 15 lobsters might not seem as intimidating to you as they do to me. For those readers who might not have taken apart a whole lobster before, you can get instructions on-line just by googling for "how to eat a lobster."

If you have to take apart many lobsters to make rolls, here are some tips the sites might not tell you:
  • crackers are nice, but an old cleaver is a faster way to break the claws and kitchen shears are handy for getting the tail out of the shell (just cut the underside).
  • don't bother with getting the meat out of the little legs, tail flappers, etc. Go for the big stuff -- the claws and the tail and save all the little things to snack on or make a bisque.
  • this is a very messy undertaking! Get everything off your counter and be prepared to wash your clothes afterwards even if you wear an apron. The lobster juices splatter everywhere.
The ultimate lobster roll:
Now the question of the rolls. This dish is quintessential New England and since New Englanders are extremely opinionated, the questions of authenticity start more flame wars on food newsgroups than even clam chowder. Butter vs. Mayo? Should it be mixed in or served on the side? Is celery ok? And what about the bun? Every New Englander has an opinion on each one of these questions. Although I am not a native, I've lived here long enough to have an opinion. Besides, we are within a 2 minute walk from 02138 -- the most opinionated zip code in America.

I like my lobster rolls with mayo (Hellmann's and "real." No low-fat, miracle whip, or all those other travesties please). The mayo has to be mixed into the meat. I hate it how some places give you mayo on the side. There is no way to achieve even distribution once the lobster is in the bun. Celery is a must for a little crunch, but it should be cut small and you can't overdo it. And now the bun... I hate to admit it, but when it comes to lobster rolls, I like that abomination of a processed hot dog bun more than I like a good brioche. Of course, the bun has to be buttered and toasted both inside and out, but still, there is no denying that it's an awful bun. Just to prove that you don't need it for a good lobster roll, I bought 2 types of brioche at Iggy's (plain and black pepper) to taste side by side with Pepperidge Farm hot dog rolls. All rolls were brushed with melted butter and grilled. Black pepper brioche was a tad too stiff, regular brioche was excellent, and that pathetic processed hot dog bun was pure heaven. The only explanation I can find to this quandary is that the processed bun is the only one that is soft enough to not detract from the texture of the lobster.

I hope this helps and I can't wait to read about your lobster adventures. Your guests don't know how good they have it :)