Thursday, September 25, 2008

How to clean a strainer (sieve)

After reading the previous post about the Creamy Corn Soup, Jessica asked the following question:
Now if you have some tips on cleaning the sieve afterward...

I usually rise it upside down under running water to dislodge most of the pulp. I can also get some more of it out by swishing it up and down in a full sink, but even that tends to recapture some of the floating pulp like a butterfly net, and it wastes a lot of water.

Can you recommend a better method?
Well, I just made another batch of this soup to test the recipe. Besides fine-tuning it, I also came up with the following method of cleaning the sieve that works surprisingly well.

As soon as you finish using the sieve, rinse it upside down under the kitchen faucet to remove most of the stuff stuck in it. Then take it to the bathroom and rinse it upside down under the bath tub faucet. It's much stronger than your kitchen one and will dislodge whatever is stuck faster. The reason you rinse under the kitchen faucet first is because you probably don't want big chunks of corn in your bath tub.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Creamy Corn Soup

"Want to go to Bristol?" I asked Jason as I was finishing the clean up after the fish class.

"What's in Bristol?" asked Jason. "And where is Bristol anyway?"

"One of my students just raved about a restaurant called Persimmon." I told him. "It's in Bristol. And Bristol is in Rhode Island. And that's only one and a half hours away. We can make this our little get-away while Sammy is visiting Grandparents."

Jason was skeptical. "Since when are you taking restaurant suggestions from students?" he asked. He had a point. I am very particular when it comes to food and too cynical to jump on every cool new restaurant band wagon. Especially now that we eat out very rarely, we like to stick to the tried and true places. Just because one of our friends, students, or co-workers raves about a restaurant doesn't mean it's worth a try.

"But Jessica is different," I told Jason. "She cooks skate wing. She orders soup for dessert!" Yes, Jessica was really unlike most of my students. Most describe their fish cooking experience as "I bake salmon sometimes," so the fact that Jessica not only ventured beyond salmon on her own, but tried an unusual creature like a skate wing was very impressive. When the Fish class was over, Jessica stuck around to ask if I teach a soup class. I don't, but told her that I'd be happy to answer her questions. That's how I learned about Persimmon. It was Jessica's favorite restaurant, and while everything there was good, she described the soups as being simply life-changing. These soups were so good that she ended up ordering a second portion of the soup instead of dessert on two separate occasions. She tried reproducing them at home, but they didn't come out nearly as good as at Persimmon. Jessica was very specific about the problems. The soup just wasn't smooth and silky no matter how long she tried to puree it. I knew at that moment that Jessica was a woman after my own heart.

That silky texture you often get in restaurant soups can be accomplished at home in the matter of minutes just by straining the soup through a sieve. Straining is viewed by home cooked (including me by the way) as a bit of a fuss. But whenever I do it, I am always surprised how quick and easy it is and I wonder why I don't do it more often. The key to straining is to mush the soup around in a circular motion with the back of the ladle. This pushes it through the sieve in a couple of minutes. Or sure, you then have to wash the strainer, the ladle, and the extra bowl or pot into which you strained the soup. But realistically, the whole process only takes an extra 5-10 minutes with dishes and all. That's not such a high price to pay for a perfectly silky soup. The equipment is the other bottleneck. How many people have a chinois (a.k.a. China cap) used in professional kitchens to strain soups? I don't have one either, but I have a wonderful 8 inch OXO strainer that works like a champ. It's cheaper and much more compact than a chinois, and since it gets the job done, I never got around to buying one of those cool conical constructions the professionals use.

So, did we get to Persimmon? We certainly did. We went to Bristol in the end of July and had a meal that was as good as I imagined it to be. Jessica was right on the money about the soups. The soup that day was creamy corn with chanterelles. Jason ordered it for an appetizer and after stealing a few spoonfuls from him, I knew what I was having for dessert.

Creamy Corn Soup (hot or cold)

Here is my attempt to reproduce this lovely soup at home. I know that most of the corn this season is already gone, but I wanted to write down this recipe for the next summer.

Straining is very important for this soup since the skin of the kernels doesn't puree well, so only attempt it if you have a strainer.

Serves 6

For the stock:
6 ears of corn
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 celery stick, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 bay leaf
1 tsp whole black pepper corns
5-6 stems of fresh parsley, leaves removed
3-4 thyme sprigs
2/3 cup dry white wine
8 cups water

To finish the soup:
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup finely diced shallots (about 5 shallots 1.5 inches in diameter)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
  1. Cut the kernels off the cobs and scrape the cobs with the dull side of the knife to remove as much of the pulp as possible. Reserve the kernels and the pulp for later use.
  2. Place the cobs in a 4-6 quart stock pot, add the rest of the stock ingredients, cover, and bring to a boil. Uncover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Strain the stock through a colander or a sieve into a large bowl or pot.
  3. Wipe out the stock pot and return to medium-low heat. Add butter, shallots, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until shallots are tender and golden, 10-15 minutes.
  4. Add the corn kernels with their pulp and the stock holding back the sediment at the bottom of the stock bowl. Season to taste with salt (I use about 2 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher, which equals 1 Tbsp table salt). Bring to a simmer over high heat. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer until kernels are tender, but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Take off heat and cool slightly.
  5. Strain out and reserve 1 cup of liquid. Puree the rest of the soup in a blender for about 3 minutes until smooth. Stir in the heavy cream. Strain the soup through a strainer into a large pot or bowl. Stir the soup in the strainer in circles with the back of the ladle to help it go down. If the soup came out too thick to your liking, add the reserved liquid. Taste and add more salt if needed. Can be served hot or cold.
Tips on washing the strainer: As soon as you finish using the strainer, rinse it upside down under the kitchen faucet to remove most of the stuff stuck in it. Then take it to the bathroom and rinse it upside down under the bath tub faucet. It's much stronger than your kitchen one and will dislodge whatever is stuck faster. The reason you rinse under the kitchen faucet first is because you probably don't want big chunks of corn in your bath tub.

P.S. I apologize for the bad picture. I made this soup when we were packing for vacation on the Cape and didn't have time to make it photogenic. My corn was white and the soup came out kind of pale. In an attempt to make it look better, I drizzled it with olive oil. Kids, don't try this at home. Just eat this soup straight. It might not look like much, but it tastes like liquid gold (particularly when consumed on the porch overlooking Wellfleet harbor).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lights... Camera... Bluefish!

"There is only one problem," I told Tom. "I don't do boats."

Tom Richardson is the editor of the Northeast Boating Magazine. He contacted me this summer to ask if I'd be willing to help him do a story about catching the fish and grilling it on the boat. At first, I thought he just needed some recipes, but after a little phone conversation, it turned out that he wanted me to come out to the shore, meet a local fishing family, and grill their catch on the boat.

As much as I thought that grilling bluefish straight out of the water would be awesome, I was almost relieved that I had an excuse not to go. Media and I are like vinegar and oil in a dressing -- we don't mix! After the fiasco with Real Simple, I promised myself to never get involved with the media. Couple of years ago, they asked me to help them with a TV show on Boston ethnic markets. The producer was very interested when I suggested Armenian. The only ethnic markets they could think of were Asian, and Food TV was already flooded with that. I took a day off work to show them around Armenian markets in Watertown. After that, I didn't hear back from them for weeks. As I eventually found out, they found someone with more of a TV "personality" to do the market tour, and I got no credit for all the ground work.

I was sure that the same would happen with this boating magazine. The good thing was that I didn't have to make up a fake excuse (I am a terrible liar). I had a real one. Really, I don't do boats. I get terribly motion sick, and who wants to have a puking chef. Dramamine improves things if my only job on the boat is to sleep. It makes me so drowsy, I am completely useless for anything else. I was about to wish Tom all the best with his story, when he said. "Well, you don't actually have to go fishing with us if you don't want to. We can dock the boat for the cooking part." That left me with no excuses, and I said yes.

Tom had the not so enviable task of coordinating 5 schedules: his, mine, the photographer's, the fishing family's, and the bluefish's. That's not to mention the necessity for a nice sunny day. Finally, it all seemed to come together, and we chose the Friday before Labor Day. The location was Scituate, MA. Now, all we needed was the fish.

Since it was Jason's birthday weekend, he decided to take a day off work and join me for the boating adventure. Friday morning, we packed the food for the side dishes and headed to Scituate Harbor. When we gave Tom a call from the road, he told us the good news -- 3 lovely blues were on board awaiting our arrival.

An hour later, we were on the dock, meeting crew and fish.

Here is the family that was hosting us: Rich, Karen, and their sons, Mason (12) and Will (9).

Will jumped right in to help me with the panzanella.

Mason left me speechless when he volunteered to scale the fish. To my surprise and delight he did a fabulous job, and I wished the people from Whole Foods would come and watch how it's done.

Tom helped Mason with filleting the first fish, and by the second one, Mason was a pro.

We cooked some corn to get a feel for the grill and then moved to the bluefish. Nothing fancy -- just sprinkled with salt, pepper and coriander. Once it was off the grill, we topped it with cilantro-lime butter.

"Wow, it actually tastes good!" said Will. "Of course, it does -- it's bluefish," I said. When I saw the same amazement on the faces of Tom, Rich, and Karen, I was confused. "Don't you guys eat it all the time?" "Oh, no!" they replied. "We just catch it, and throw it back, or give it away. We don't eat it. At least, we didn't until now."

Will was so excited, he helped me grill the second fish. Other fishermen stopped by to see what we were up to. They looked at us like we were nuts when we offered them bluefish. "No, thanks. We don't touch this stuff." No wonder bluefish is so cheap -- even the people who catch it don't want to eat it.

The third fish was given to us by the Johnson family to take home. Good thing I brought a cooler and ice. In my opinion, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy got it wrong---it's not a towel you should always have with you, it's a cooler!

When all the fish was grilled and eaten, we made a little dessert out of grilled peaches and maple yogurt whipped cream. The local blueberries that Karen picked the day before with the boys made a perfect finishing touch.

Jason and I had such a great time (well, besides the insane Labor Day traffic) that the idea of this story appearing in a magazine seems like an afterthought now. But if it ever does, it would be pretty cool.

Grilled Bluefish with Cilantro Lime Butter

Serves 4

For the butter:
1/2 stick unsalted butter at room temperature (but not melted!)
1 tsp lime zest
1 tsp lime juice
1/2 garlic clove, mashed
1 Tbsp minced fresh cilantro
Pinch of chili flakes
Pinch of Salt and pepper

For the fish:
Disposable aluminum pan
4 pieces of scaled bluefish fillet, skin on (6-8 oz each)
1 tsp ground coriander
Salt and pepper
2 tsp canola oil, plus more for oiling the grill

In advance:
Mash all ingredients for the butter together. Bring with you in a cooler with ice packs.

On the boat:
  1. Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be grilling the fish. Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan until you are ready to place the fish on the grill.
  2. Dry the fish very thoroughly with paper towels. Score the skin on a diagonal at 1/2 inch intervals (without cutting through the flesh) to prevent the fish from curling up. This is just a precaution since bluefish rarely curls up.
  3. When the grill is ready, sprinkle the fish with coriander, salt and pepper on both sides. Rub all over with 2 tsp canola oil.
  4. Remove the upside down pan from the grill. Dunk a wad of paper towel in canola oil. Hold it with tongs and wipe the grill with oil where the pan used to be.
  5. Place the fish on the grill skin-side up diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
  6. Slip the tins of a fork between the grill grates and gently push up on the fish. Do it in a couple of places until the grill lets go of the fish. Flip the fish and grill on the skin-side until cooked through, 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness. To check for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part of fillet with a fork and peek inside. The fish is done when a trace of translucency still remains in the center. It will continue to cook once it's off the grill.
  7. To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift it off the grill with a spatula. Top with cilantro lime butter.

Panzanella -- Tomato Bread Salad

Serves 4

2 large slices of rustic bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 Tbsp butter, melted
1 whole garlic clove, peeled
2-3 large, ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
3 oz feta or fresh mozzarella, chopped (optional)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

In advance:
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Brush the bread with butter on both sides and toast in the middle of the oven on a foil-lined baking sheet until golden on the bottom, 4-7 minutes. Flip and toast the other side until golden, 3-5 minutes. Dunk the garlic clove in salt and rub all over toast (both sides). Cool the toast completely and cut into large cubes. Pack in a zip lock bag.
  3. Cut tomatoes into wedges and place in a large bowl with onions. Cover with plastic and bring with you. Do not place in the cooler with ice packs as tomatoes do better at room temperature.
On the boat:
Add the toasted bread, cheese, basil, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to the bowl with tomatoes. Mix well. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt as needed.

Jason's Grilled Corn

Any number of ears of corn, peeled
2 tsp butter per ear of corn
Salt (if using unsalted butter)

In advance:

Rub corn all over with butter using about 1 tsp of butter per ear of corn. Place in a zip lock bag and bring with you in a cooler with ice-packs. Don't forget to pack extra butter (about 1 tsp per ear).

On the boat:
  1. Preheat grill to high.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove corn from the grill and let cool a little, about 2 minutes.
  4. Rub each ear with another tsp of butter and sprinkle with salt.

Grilled Peaches with Maple Yogurt Whipped Cream

Serves 4

For Maple Yogurt Whipped Cream:
1 cup thick Greek yogurt (such as Total brand) or Sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

For peaches:
1 tsp lime juice
1 tsp lime zest
2 tsp honey
2 tsp olive oil
4 ripe peaches, cut in half, pits removed

In advance:
  1. Place all ingredients for maple yogurt whipped cream in a bowl of a mixer and whip with a whisk attachment on medium speed until thick and fluffy. Pack in a bowl and bring with you in a cooler with ice packs.
  2. In a small container that can be covered, mix lime juice, zest, honey, and oil.
On the boat:
  1. Preheat the grill to medium-high.
  2. Rub peaches all over with the honey lime mixture.
  3. Place on the grill cut-side down. Grill until peaches are marked with grill marks, 1-3 minutes. Rotate 45 degrees and grill to form diagonal drill marks, 1-2 minutes.
  4. Flip and grill for 1 minute.
  5. Remove from the grill and top with maple yogurt cream topping.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Chocolate soufflé

Writing about a chocolate soufflé reminds me of a college ballroom dance competition. Imagine all the geeky girls (engineering and computer science majors), shedding their glasses and baggy sweatshirts to dress like hookers for a day. For the practice sessions, we wore our usual baggy attire plus heels. But for the competition, you had to look the part, and rumba in denim overalls just didn't cut it. I have to admit that it was great fun for about 15 hours a year. Since it was for the sake of the "sport" (yes, back then, there was talk about making ballroom dancing an Olympic sport), we felt totally justified getting out of our own skin and feeling sexy, glamorous, dare I say it... easy.

Chocolate soufflé is like those tight, low-cut dresses -- it's the cheapest trick in the food porn book. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll agree that it's out of character for me. Who can't get people to drool over this short black skirt in a ramekin? But just like with the ballroom dance competition, I have a good excuse. I am testing recipes for my Eggspertise class. After multiple requests from my students, I finally decided to offer an egg class. And what egg class would be complete without a soufflé?

I got attracted to the chocolate soufflé because of its practicality. You can make it the day before and keep it in the fridge until ready to bake. That's not the case with most soufflés. Oh sure, most soufflés will hold for an hour or two before baking. You can also make the base in advance, reducing the last minute work to beating and folding in the egg whites. Still, no matter how you twist or turn it, soufflés are a hassle right when you should be working on your entrées or entertaining your guests. I prefer desserts that don't need baby-sitting at or right before the dinner party and chocolate soufflé fit the bill.

I used the recipe from the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking with a very minor modification. I used 7 oz of chocolate instead of 8 because my favorite chocolate (Valrhona with 70% cocoa content is sold in 3.5 oz bars, and I didn't feel like buying an extra bar for 1 oz). No harm done -- the soufflé was extremely chocolaty.

Individual Chocolate Soufflés

Serves 8 (can easily be halved to serve 4)

Step 1: Mis en place (that's the cooking term for "getting organized")
  1. Wash a large mixer bowl (see the savory soufflé post for washing instructions).
  2. Go through all the steps to figure out what ingredients you'll need and measure them.
  3. This is a good time to get the eggs out of the fridge and to separate them (see the savory soufflé post for egg separating instruction). Collect all the yolks in one small bowl and all the whites in the large mixer bowl. Keep them at room temperature.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375F.
Step 2: Preparing the baking dish
  • eight 7-8 oz ramekins with straight sides
  • Butter
  • granulated sugar
Generously butter the ramekins and sprinkle with sugar over the sink. Turn ramekins to make sure the sugar covers the inside evenly. Then turn them upside down and tap them on the side of the sink to shake out excess. Do not smudge, or the soufflés won't rise evenly.

Step 3: Making the base
  • 7 oz chocolate with 65-75% cocoa content
  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp rum, coffee, or water (I used coffee)
  • 6 large egg yolks
  1. Place the chocolate, butter, and rum (coffee or water) in a large heat proof bowl. Set the bowl in a skillet of hot, but not simmering water, and whisk the chocolate until the mixture is smooth.
  2. Remove the bowl from the skillet and let cool for 10 minutes.
  3. Whisk in the egg yolks.
Step 4: Whipping egg whites and folding them in
  • 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • Heaping 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  1. Beat the whites in an electric mixer with the whisk attachment on low speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, increase the speed to high. Beat until the peaks are stiff, but not dry. Do not over beat or the whites will become clumpy.
  2. Use a rubber spatula to fold one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate base. Then fold in the rest of the whites. Folding is not stirring! Here is a video on how to fold in the whites correctly. The reason you don't add the whites all at once is to lighten the base first and make the consistencies of the base and the whites more compatible.
Step 5: Baking the soufflé

Divide the chocolate mixture evenly between ramekins. Tap them gently on the table and smooth the top with the flat of a knife.

Ahead-of-time note: If you are not ready to put the soufflés in the oven immediately, they can wait in a warm, draft-free place, covered with an inverted large bowl or pot for up to 1 hour. Alternatively, you can cover ramekins with plastic wrap and put them in the fridge for up to 24 hours. Note that if the soufflés are refrigerated before baking, the baking time will be longer.

Place the ramekins on a baking dish. Place the baking dish with ramekins in the middle of the oven. Don't open the oven door for at least 15 minutes. Bake until the soufflés puff up and form a top crust , 17-20 minutes (20-25 minutes if refrigerated). Err on the side of undercooking as these soufflés are best with a creamy center. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Liquid center variation:
To satisfy truly obsessive chocoholics, push a dark chocolate truffle into the center of each soufflé right after pouring the mixture into the ramekins. I made truffles for my soufflés with my friend's Cory Clark's Shootflying Hill Dark Chocolate Sauce by refrigerating the sauce and rolling it into balls. Would make an outrageous Valentine's Day dessert! Too bad I am writing about it in August. But hey, it's never to early to polish up on your soufflé technique.

If you want to learn more about soufflés, I highly recommend Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking.