Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Broiled Haddock with Breadcrumbs

I remember standing in the cafeteria line at Wildfire (one of the start ups I worked for in my software days).  My colleague Paul and I were looking at a large pan of dehydrated fish topped with bread crumbs.  To help me look at the bright side of this dreary lunch option, Paul decided to tell me a joke.
A businessman arriving in Boston for a convention found that his first evening was free, and he decided to go find a good seafood restaurant that served scrod, a Massachusetts specialty. Getting into a taxi, he asked the cab driver, "Do you know where I can get scrod around here?" "People ask me that all the time," said the cab driver. "but it's the first time I hear this question in pluperfect indicative."*
What can I say, the cafeteria scrod has scarred me for life.  In case you are wondering what scrod is, it's a New England name for any lean white fish like cod, haddock, or hake.  Even though I've lived in New England for the past 12 years, I've never cooked it until a few days ago.  Not sure what inspired me.  Could be a recipe exchange at the new Mom's group that I joined.  Could be my students mentioning it in the fish class.  Could be delirium from lack of sleep.  But I saw a beautiful looking haddock at Costco and decided to give it a shot.  This haddock was farmed in Iceland, and to my taste it has a better texture than the wild New England haddock -- more supple and a little closer to halibut rather than cod.

I always looked down on the New England practice to slather all fish with mayo.  They even do it to bluefish which has more than enough of its own fat.  I felt a little uneasy spreading mayo on haddock, but I wanted to do the right thing and make this dish the traditional way.  To my delight, mayo turned out to be a great addition.  It gave haddock a little bit of fat that it lacks and added some pleasant acidity too.  For the bread crumbs, I used Japanese panko.  They are fluffier and crunchier than the regular bread crumbs and make a really lovely topping.  For accompaniments, I made some baby potatoes and leeks in a cream sauce.  What can I say?  It was really yummy.  The fish was moist and juicy.  The topping was crunchy and the sauce that formed naturally out of wine, cream, leek, and fish juices was so good we licked out plates.

Was it just a fun cultural experiment or good enough to do again?  Definitely do again!  I already made this the second time substituting potato leek mixture with thinly sliced tomatoes.

I finally feel like a true Bostonian.

Broiled Haddock with Breadcrumbs, Leeks, and Potatoes

Serves 2-3

Fish substitutions:
cod, hake, pollock, sole, flounder, halibut, barramundi, or any other mild flaky fish

For the leeks:
1 large leek, white and pale green parts only
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup heavy cream

For the potatoes:
1 Lb boiling potatoes (such as yukon gold or red bliss)
1 cup water
1/2 cup dry white wine
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 3/4 table salt)

For the fish:
1 Lb haddock fillets without skin
3 Tbsp mayo
1 Tbsp butter, melted
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the leeks
  1. Cut the leek in half lengthwise.  Then slice it cross-wise 1/3 inch thick.  Wash in a bowl of water as described here.
  2. Set a 10 inch oven-proof skillet over medium heat.  Add butter.  When butter melts, add the leeks and a generous pinch of salt.  Stir, cover, and cook until leeks are soft, about 5 minutes.  Remove to a bowl and set aside.  Don't wash the skillet yet.
Cook the potatoes
  1. Slice potatoes 1/3 inch thick (if working with big potatoes, cut them in half first).
  2. Put the water, wine, and salt into the skillet where you cooked the leeks.  Stir to combine. Add potatoes and bring to a simmer.  Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.  If all the water evaporates before potatoes are tender, add a little more.  In the end, you should have a very thin layer of liquid still left on the bottom (2-3 Tbsp).  
  3. Sprinkle potatoes with a little black pepper.  Add the leeks on top and drizzle with cream.  Taste for salt and add as needed.  The dish can be prepared up to this point a day in advance and chilled.  Bring to a simmer on the stove top before proceeding.
Cook the fish
  1. Preheat the oven to 300F (this is not a typo, it's low on purpose).
  2. In a small bowl, mix breadcrumbs with melted butter and set aside.
  3. Cut fish fillets as necessary so that they fill the whole skillet in an even layer.  You might want to overlap the thin parts and fold over the tails to create a more even layer and avoid overcooking the thinner parts of the fish.
  4. Dry fillets thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides.  Arrange them on top of the leeks, top evenly with mayo, and sprinkle with bread crumbs.  If some leeks are exposed, cover them with small pieces of foil to prevent them from burning under the broiler.
  5. Place under the broiler until the crumbs brown, about 2 minutes.  How close to the broiler element to set the skillet depends on the intensity of your broiler (it could be anywhere from 2 to 6 inches away).  
  6. Turn the oven back down to 300F, and bake the dish in the middle of the oven until the fish almost flakes, but is still a little translucent at the center, about 5 minutes.  It will continue to cook after it's off the heat, so make sure to leave room for this carry-over cooking.  Haddock is usually 1/2-3/4 inch thick.  If substituting a different fish, the total cooking time (broiling plus baking) should be 10-12 minutes per inch of thickness.  Test for doneness early and often.
  7. Let rest 5 minutes and serve.
* actually, "scrod" is just an incorrect past participle of screw, but isn't the joke better with "pluperfect indicative?"

Monday, December 6, 2010

How to cook a rack of lamb and all the other meat

When Cook's Illustrated published Kenji Alt's recipe for cooking thick cut steaks in 2007, it revolutionized how people cook steak. Ouch, I sound like a dot-com marketing person. "Revolutionize" is a strong word, but I do mean every bit of it. His method ensures the steak is medium-rare (or whatever doneness you like) throughout, instead of rare in the center and well done on the outside. To achieve this, he par-cooks the steaks in the oven at 275F, and finishes with a quick sear. Yes, it's that simple. How is this better than searing first and then finishing in the low oven? Two reasons:

1) The outside of the steak is already at 275F before it hits the hot skillet. This allows you to put a nice sear on it in about a minute per side vs. 2-3 minutes that a raw steak would take. The less time the steak spends in a hot skillet, the less gray (tough and dry) meat you are going to have inside it.

2) By roasting the steak at a very low oven first, you get an evenly cooked inside without sacrificing the outside crust. If the steak is seared first and immediately placed in the oven, its outside is way too hot to give you even doneness inside. Placing it in the oven in the skillet where it was seared adds insult to injury since the skillet is hot. If you let the steak rest after a sear and then finish it in the oven, it releases a lot of juice ruining the beautiful crust you put on it during the sear step.

I wrote about this technique before. I've used it hundreds of times in the past 3 years and still think it's the best way to cook a steak (even after discovering sous-vide). The reason I am writing about it again is that it has a way bigger scope than just steak. The past 3 years have convinced me that it is the best technique to cook any meat thicker than 1 inch medium-rare. Any meat? Yes. A huge rib-roast? A rack of lamb? A leg of lamb? A pork chop? A burger? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! If it's a thick tender cut from a land roaming mammal (or ground up tough cut) and you want to eat it medium-rare, this is a fantastic way to cook it. Thickness is important. If you are working with a thin cut of meat, like a skirt steak or individual lamb chops, this method does not apply. You don't need the oven for thin cuts. Get your pan, grill, or broiler as hot as possible, sear till brown and you are done. But if your meat is 1 inch or thicker, Kenji's method rocks.

Here are some tips on how to adopt it to the meat of your choice:

The thicker the meat, the closer you need to bring it to doneness in the oven.
Obviously, thicker pieces of meat will spend more time in the oven than thinner ones. What's not completely obvious is that you want to remove them from the oven when the center reaches a higher temperature than thinner ones. Say you are cooking a 1.5 inch thick steak. To serve it at 120-130F (medium-rare), you need to bring it up to 95F in the oven and then sear. Why 95F? Because internal temperature of the steak keeps going up during the searing and resting steps. But if you are cooking a 3 inch thick tenderloin roast, you might want to remove it from the oven at 110F since it has move volume per surface area and won't go up as much during the sear and rest. For a 5 inch thick rib-roast, you might aim for 120F before searing since it's so bulky. To tell you the truth, I never cook a huge rib-roast. I like to cut it into 2 rib sections. This way, they cook faster, fit into the skillet for a sear, and have more surfaces to brown. Once sliced, they taste just like a rib roast, only better.

Use the broiler to brown hard to reach areas
Take a rack of lamb, for example. It's impossible to brown the part under the bones using a skillet. To achieve even doneness inside and a good sear on the outside, I first brown whatever surfaces I can in the skillet and then pop it under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to brown the bone side. I prefer to put the meat back on a rack that I used for the oven roasting step before putting it under the broiler. This avoids having it sit in a hot skillet longer than necessary.

When to salt
Some proteins, like a fatty rib-eye, are very forgiving.  They'll taste juicy even if you salt them immediately before cooking.  But say you are cooking a pork chop.  Regular supermarket pork chops barely have any marbling, so they need some help in the juiciness department.  If you salt them 24-48 hours before cooking, not only will they be seasoned throughout, the salt will help them retain their juices.  Another benefit to salting in advance is that you can dry the meat very thoroughly after it had a chance to absorb all the salt.  This way it comes out of the oven a little drier on the outside and takes on the sear even better.  If at all possible, I like to salt all meats in advance.  The only exception to that are burgers.  Ground meat becomes more firm (sausage like vs. crumbly) when salted in advance, so I season burgers with salt after they finish pre-roasting in the oven.  

Hope I didn't make it more confusing than it needs to be.  If you just want to make a rack of lamb in the picture and find the above details too technical, here is a detailed recipe.

Special Equipment
  • A meat thermometer
  • A flat roasting rack (also sold as a cooling rack)
Rack of Lamb with Cilantro Garlic Butter

Serves 2

1 rack of lamb (about 1.5 lb)
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 garlic clove, mashed into paste or grated on microplane
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp minced cilantro or mint (fresh)

  1. Remove the fat cap and trim all visible silver skin from the lamb.  Cut the rack in half.
  2. Preheat the oven to 250F and adjust oven rack to the middle position. Wrap the roasting pan with foil (to make clean up easy). Place a flat rack in the roasting pan.  
  3. When you are ready to cook the lamb, dry it well with paper towels and season very generously with salt and pepper on all sides (or salt 24 hours in advance and then dry before cooking). Immediately, set the roasts on the rack and place in the oven until instant read thermometer inserted into the center registers 95 for rare, 100 for medium-rare, 110 for medium, and 115 for medium-well. How long it takes to get to this temperature depends on the thickness of the lamb. A thermometer is key!  Start checking after the first 20 minutes.  It will take 20 – 35 minutes. 
  4. Turn on the broiler.
  5. Set a 10 inch heavy skillet over high heat until very hot. Add the oil and wait until it's a little smoky. Add the lamb presentation side down and brown for 1 minute.  Turn and brown the other side, then briefly brown the ends (20 seconds or so).  Return the lamb to the pan with the rack bone side up (the part that’s impossible to brown in the skillet). Place under the broiler for 90 seconds.  Remove to a warm plate.  Rub all over with garlic.  Then rub with butter and sprinkle with cilantro or mint.  Let rest 7 minutes.  Slice, sprinkle the cut sides with a little salt, and serve.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thanksgiving Debrief

So, how was turkey breast sous-vide and the stuffed skin?  Just ok and absolutely delicious, in that order.

What I did for turkey
Removed the skin, cut the breast into manageable pieces about 2 inches thick, salted for 2 days, dried with paper towel, seasoned with pepper and sealed in vacuum bags with garlic herb butter.  Cooked in a 141F water bath for 3 hours, then removed, dried, and seared.

How was it?
Moderately juicy, but way more dense than I expected.  Different than roasted turkey breast, but not significantly better.

Here is my best guess as to why I didn't get the stunning sous-vide turkey everyone talks about.  I bought my turkey at Savenor's and paid the price that is embarrassing to say out loud (Jason and I were joking that at that price, we could be serving prime rib-eye from Costco).  This bird had a long resume with buzz words that included locally raised in Lancaster, MA, free-range, organic, and every other accolade you can imagine.  It's been a long time since I handled turkey, but when I was cutting up the raw breast, I thought it was extremely firm.  That probably explains the density of the finished product since it's impossible to overcook something using the sous-vide method.

As far as the lack of juiciness goes, I guess that's what I get for not brining.  I prefer to salt my proteins in advance, but not brine them.  Salting them helps them retain the moisture naturally present in them.  Brining makes them absorb extra moisture resulting in more juiciness, but the brined proteins always taste a little spongy to me.  I can usually get away without brining simply by pre-salting for a day or two and being very careful not to overcook.  But when it comes to turkey, I should have pulled out the big guns, especially that I was dealing with an "all-natural" turkey.  Most supermarket ones, like Butterball are already pre-brined from what I understand.

Now the good part...

What I did for skin
Removed skin from a whole turkey breast in one piece.  It was a big rectangle and I sewed the long parts together and one of the short sides to make a long stocking.  I used regular cotton thread and sewing needle.  The trick is to not make it too tight since the stuffing expands and can rip the thread.

I made stuffing following the basic instructions from Cook's Illustrated (you might need a membership to see this link).  I added chopped chestnuts and port soaked dried cherries.  But what really made it was using good bread (I used Iggy's French pullman) and using homemade chicken stock.  Cherries were fabulous in this stuffing.  Somehow chestnuts got a little lost.  Not that they weren't yummy, but I wanted to taste them a little more considering the fact that I spent $11 on them (I used the ones from a jar).  Next time, I'd try pecans.

I stuffed the skin stocking with the stuffing being careful not to pack it tight and sewed the short end.  Sprinkled with salt and pepper, coated with duck fat, and roasted in the oven at 400F for about 45 minutes flipping half way through.  We let it rest 15 minutes before slicing.

How was it?
Crispy, flavorful, and absolutely delicious!  It's such a bummer that I can't think of any good way to repeat the stuffed skin since I can't imagine myself cooking turkey this way again.  I just don't have it in me to find the tastiest turkey to buy and the best way to cook it.  Even the tastiest turkey isn't as good as the tastiest chicken.  I wonder what happens to the skin from the skinless chicken breasts so ubiquitous in stores nowadays.  Maybe there is a pile of poultry skin sitting somewhere waiting to be stuffed and roasted.

The basic idea of sous-vide for Thanksgiving was great.  I had my oven free to bake 3 tarts and could delegate the water maintenance responsibility to the 3 engineers in our family (we were using a beer cooler since I don't have an immersion circulator).

If any one has any suggestions on how to make a stunning sous-vide turkey, do leave me a comment.

[here is what vacuumed sealed cooked turkey looked like before searing]