Monday, June 25, 2012

Book review: Ideas in Food

Most of today's cookbooks can be neatly sorted into two categories. The first category is written by the evangelists of local, organic, fresh, and all natural. What's inside is a beautiful love story, awesome food porn, and recipes that are meant to look easy by omitting half of the relevant information you need to succeed. The second category is written by geeks. They like to talk about enzymes, reactions, and Ph levels. I can bet that a vacuum sealer will be involved and so will hydrocolloids. "Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work" by Aki Kamozawa and Alexander Talbot is in the second category.

Each chapter starts with a good size essay. For example, the chapter on Roasting is chock full of proteins, reactions, temperatures, and other scientific facts. Unfortunately, it's not clear how to apply any of this when you are actually faced with a piece of meat in the kitchen. How useful is it to know that the proteins in the muscle fiber denature when heated above 104F? Isn't it more useful to know that they don't start releasing juice until 120F, but quickly toughen up above 130F? Sure, I might be simplifying things here, but at least you know that if you want a good steak, you need to catch 120-130F window. The talk about Maillard reaction is good. Browning does equal yum. But how useful is 250F temperature? In theory, Maillard reaction begins at 250F, but setting your oven to that temperature and expecting your meat to brown would be somewhat naive. The fact that baking soda can be added to a food in small amounts to speed up browning is good to know. The question is how how much should you add and when. As always the devil is in the details, and that's where the book is badly lacking.

Since this is a book about cooking, it's not unreasonable that someone might actually decide to cook something from it rather than just pick up fun facts that make for a good dinner party conversation. Consider the recipe for the Roast Chicken. It suggests that you roast at 425F for 75 minutes, let chicken rests in turned off oven for 20 minutes and then out of the oven for another 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the meat temperatures at which to go from one stage to another are not given, so if your chicken is smaller than 6.75Lb recommended in the recipe (it is unlikely to be any bigger), or if your oven is a bit different, you are screwed. The same problem applies to roast monkfish.

Of course, the whole doneness thing is so passe these days. Who needs to test for it when you can sous-vide. The reality is that few home cooks have an immersion circulator or vacuum sealer. Aki and Alex recognize this limitation and suggest that you can use zip lock bags and a large pot of water. But they suggest that you cook your short ribs this way for 24 hours. Have they ever watched a pot of water for 24 hours? It's not everyone's idea of fun. What might be more useful is a recommendation for how to squeeze the air out of the zip lock bag by gradually immersing it in water, or more recipes for short sous-vide preparations that can be done in a pot to get your feet wet with the sous-vide method.

Another idea that kept surfacing in the book was taking something simple and making it more complicated. Blanching vegetables is a good example. Normally it requires boiling a vegetable in insanely salty water and shocking it in ice water. I am not sure what the authors didn't like about normal blanched vegetables, but they turned this 2 step process into 5 steps. Boil water, add salt, and cool the whole thing over ice-bath. Brine green beans in this solution. Vacuum seal the beans. Bring another batch of water to a boil and set up another ice-bath. Cook the beans in boiling water in vacuum sealed bags. Shock the beans in ice-water. Besides the complexity, there is also a safety issue. They suggest that zip lock bags are an option. At 140F, that seems like a reasonable suggestion. But at 212F? If you are going to suggest something like this, it would be nice to offer an explanation on the safety of this preparation.

A chapter that seemed missing to me was one on equipment. Most cooks need help selecting and using immersion circulators, vacuum sealers, thermometers, and even scales. Many recipes in this book give the measurements for salt by weight. I love this concept. So many types of salt are available to today's cooks. The same volume of two different salts can vary tremendously in how much salinity they hold, but the weight is an easy and reliable way to make sure the food is seasoned properly regardless of which salt you choose. Unfortunately, most scales available in kitchen stores are not accurate enough to measure a few grams. Scales with fine precision that can also handle large amounts are pricey, but a little tea scale can be purchased from amazon for $15-20 and it's accurate enough to measure salt, and even 5.38 grams of Activa Y-G some recipes in this book call for.

I found the book disappointing. Technically, it's true to its title -- Ideas in Food. If you are looking for a different way to do things in the kitchen, you'll find plenty of ideas. What is missing is a solid implementation plan. Of course, this might not be a deal breaker for most people. Lately, books about food are read in bed as love stories or popular science magazines. But if you want to master cooking techniques (both classic and contemporary), look elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fake Mayo

This bluefish pâté is made with fake mayo (that's the stuff on the spoon between two toasts). If you are not a new reader to this blog, you'll probably guess what my view is on fake food. I don't do low-fat, low-cholesterol, or low-anything. But desperate times call for desperate measures. One of my kids is allergic to eggs (and a bunch of other things too). This made me think that mayo is out of the question for him until I read Kenji Alt's post on vegan mayo. The important thing to realize is that mayo is mostly oil. The main purpose of the egg is to emulsify it with the acidic ingredient (lemon juice or vinegar). Kenji replaces the egg with silken tofu and uses an immersion blender to create an emulsion (it's a mechanical rather than chemical way to make water and oil hold together). An addition of dijon mustard and garlic don't hurt either -- those are both good emulsifiers and they add great flavor.

A few weeks later, I saw the same idea in Cook's illustrated*. They use milk instead of mayo, but other than that the recipe is very similar to Kenji's. I liked the fact that I didn't need to buy tofu. No matter how many times I've tried it, I still don't like it. Buying a whole block of it for the tiny bit I needed for mayo seemed wasteful. The milk is something I always have, and I was ready to give the fake mayo a try. There was just one little problem -- lemon allergy. My first instinct was to add vinegar instead of lemon juice. But then I thought of yogurt. It has the same emulsifying properties as milk, and it's tangy all on it's own. I threw everything in the blender, buzzed it together and tasted the results. Not bad, but overly garlicky and a bit thin. I poured the fake mayo into a jar and put it in the fridge for eventual use. When I tasted it a few days later, it was much better. The aggressive garlickiness has mellowed out and the mixture thickened to the consistency or real mayo. I guess that's not surprising since oil thickens and sometimes even solidifies in the fridge. When tasted on it's own, it tastes almost like mayo. When tasted in a mix (tuna salad, chicken salad, etc), it's indistinguishable.

Now, if only I could learn to make fake nuts...

June 25, 2012 update: I figured if Stonyfield Farm yogurt made such good mayo, thick Fage yogurt would be even better. Well, I was wrong. I tried using 2% Fage and the emulsion broke. I have a feeling it had more to do with the thickness of yogurt than with the fact that it was 2%. The texture of yogurt and oil were so different that they just wouldn't hold together. If anyone has a good explanation for this, let me know. I have also tried the original recipe using milk instead of yogurt and it worked well.

Fake Mayo

1/3 cup whole milk plain yogurt (NOT thick strained one)
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 small garlic clove, grated on a microplane zester (minced is fine too)
1/4 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1/8 tsp fine grain sea salt)
1/8 tsp sugar
3/4 cup neutral tasting oil (I used grape seed oil, but vegetable or canola work well too)

Whisk together yogurt, mustard, garlic, salt, and sugar in the tall cup that came with your immersion blender (a 2-cup glass pyrex mesuring cup is a good alternative). Add the oil. Insert the immersion blender all the way to the bottom. Blend on medium speed keeping the blender at the bottom of the cup for 20 seconds. Very, very slowly pull up the blender (while keeping it on) until all the contents are thick and emulsified. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. For best results, let sit in the fridge for 2 days before using.

*Cook's Illustrated got the idea from David Leite.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Another peculiarity of platine bleue eggs

Curiouser and curiouser! The more I work with different types of eggs, the more I feel like Alice falling through a rabbit's hole. That's my lunch in the picture -- hard boiled eggs with an herb salad. The eggs are platine bleue eggs by Azuluna brand from Whole Foods. They come from Ameraucana hens and have light blue shells. That's the ones I can never manage to poach because the white is always too runny no matter how fresh they are. I used to think I kept getting unlucky, but Dan, a student of mine who raises different types of chickens confirmed my suspicion -- platine bleue eggs just don't poach. What do they do well? Everything else -- scramble, boil (I don't know why it's called boil, it's really a very gentle poach), sunny-side up, omelettes. The fact that these eggs are fabulous boiled with their huge golden yolks wasn't a surprise. What was a surprise was that they peeled like a dream even though they were fresh (just bought them that day). The common wisdom is "thou shall never boil a fresh egg" because they are difficult to peel. Well, I've never seen eggs slip out of the shell as easily as these did.

If you haven't tried these blue beauties yet, they are worth every penny for "hard boiled" applications.

How to "boil" an egg

For 1-5 large eggs

Bring 2.5 inches of water to a boil in a 2 quart pot. The exact amount of water is not important, but you want the eggs to be relatively cozy in the pot, but completely covered with water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down so that it barely simmers. Carefully lower the eggs one at a time into the pot using a spoon. Turn up the heat until you get a gentle simmer back (by simmer I mean slight motion in the water and an occasional tiny bubble, not continuous bubbling). The eggs should never rattle. If you hear them banging on the pot, turn down the heat. On electric stove, you might need to move the pot off the heat temporarily to drop the temperature quickly enough. Cook for 10 minutes (if cooking large eggs). Pour out the hot water and fill the pot with cold water to stop the cooking. Let sit until cool, about 10 minutes. Gently bang each egg all over on a hard surface to crack the shell and return back to the water while banging the other eggs. Peel in the water.