Monday, March 18, 2013

Green Eggs and Ham

Green -- pea puree
Eggs -- cooked at 167F for a perfectly runny yolk and very tender white
and Ham -- crispy prosciutto

I took the liberty of adding a few buttery croutons. I am sure Dr. Seuss would approve of this poetic license.   Since we are on the topic of children's books, let me tell you about an egg story I grew up on.  It's a Russian folk tale about a chicken who laid a golden egg. My whole childhood, I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. I think glass eggs would be much more useful. This way you could see inside the eggs as they were cooking and catch the perfect moment when the white barely sets.  When I found these little glass cups at HomeGoods, my glass egg fantasy finally materialized.  They are a perfect size to hold an egg, and let you see what's happening as the egg cooks.

These little cups make a perfect appetizer for Easter or any brunch since most of the work can be done ahead.

Serves 8

For Pea Puree
1 medium leek, sliced crosswise (see how to wash a leek)
2 Tbsp butter
2 cups frozen peas
1 cup water
1 garlic clove, sliced
1/4 tsp sugar or to taste
Lemon juice to taste

For Prosciutto Crisps
8 prosciutto slices

For Croutons
2 slices white bread with crust removed, cut into cubes
1 Tbsp butter

For Final Assembly
Butter for greasing the cups
8 extra large eggs
chives for garnish
1/2 cup capacity cups or ramekins

Pea Puree Procedure
  1. Set a medium saucepan oven medium-low heat.  Add butter.  When melted, add leeks and cook slowly until tender and translucent stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. 
  2. Add peas and water and increase the heat to high. Season with salt and cook until peas are heated through, 3-5 minutes. 
  3. Take off heat.  Add garlic, sugar, and salt to taste. Puree until perfectly smooth.  If not using a high speed blender, you might want to pass through a fine mesh strainer.  Taste and adjust seasoning with lemon juice, salt, and sugar.
Prosciutto Crisps procedure
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. 
  2. Lay out prosciutto slices on a baking sheet and bake in the middle of the oven until almost crispy (they'll firm up as they cool), 10-15 minutes. Watch them carefully. They are thin and can burn easily.
Croutons Procedure
Melt butter over medium heat in a skillet that can hold the bread cubes in a single layer.  Add bread cubes and cook without disturbing until the first side browns.  Stir and cook until another side browns.  Repeat until they are crispy and golden brown to your liking.

Final Assembly and Cooking Procedure
  1. Set up a water bath for 167F using an immersion circulator. The water should come 2/3 inch from the top of the cups you plan to use. Or preheat the oven to 250F and have 8 cups of hot water ready. Before using, bring it to exactly 170F.
  2. Butter the cups half way up their sides.  Put 2 Tbsp pea puree into each cup. Crack eggs one at a time into a small bowl (I use 1/3 cup dry measuring cup) and carefully pour into the cups (1 egg per cup). If you broke a yolk, discard this egg and try again.  Cover cups with plastic wrap. They can be prepared up to this stage in advance and stored in the fridge. Set cups into the immersion circulator. If you are using the oven method, set the cups into a baking dish and pour in 170F water to come 2/3 inch from the top of the cups.  Place in the middle of the oven.
  3. Cook the eggs until the white becomes opaque when you look at it from the top and sides of the cups. This will take 15-23 minutes, depending on the shape and thickness of your cups. If you assembled ramekins in advance and kept in the fridge, you might need to cook a bit longer.  Check frequently after the first 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, top with chives, prosciutto, croutons and serve immediately. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Duck Legs Confit, Old School

Fear of fat is not one of my afflictions.  Fear of heights?  Yes.  Fear of anything fast moving (down hill skiing, roller coasters, etc)?  A terrified yes.  But fat is not one of those things I am normally afraid off, at least when we are talking about spoonfuls.  When a recipe calls for half a gallon of fat, and duck confit does, I get hibbie jibbies as much as any other home cook.  For years, I've tried to find creative solutions to this problem -- slow cooking the legs packed tightly in a dish, cooking them sous-vide, slow roasting them.  Some of it worked ok, some didn't, but none of it produced outstanding confit.

The inspiration for this latest, and my most successful attempt at confit came from Bergamot in Somerville, MA.  Their confit was so transcendent that I couldn't leave the place without torturing a few secrets out of their sous-chef, Dan Bazzinotti.

"I am not afraid of fat.  I am not afraid of fat."  I kept repeating this mantra to myself for a few days and it worked.  I went to Savenor's, picked up 6 cups of duck fat and 6 Long Island duck legs.  Surprisingly, the fat came to just $18.  I often spend more on a fish fillet for 1 dinner.  Did I tell you that duck fat is a renewable resource?  Once you are a proud owner of this liquid gold, you can re-use it indefinitely.  In my book, it's as green as it gets.  See the end of this recipe for filtering and storage instructions.

The whole process did take 3 days, but was surprisingly hands-off and not messy at all.  Unlike deep frying, there is no splattering.  If I spent a total of 10 minutes of active time on each of the 3 days, can I call it a 30 minute meal?  See, it's just 30 minutes, and if I can do it, you can do it too.

Duck Confit -- the real deal in all the glory fatty detail

6 duck legs (or more)
Salt and Pepper
Coarsely chopped sage, thyme, rosemary (2 Tbsp for 6 legs)
Sliced garlic (2 cloves for 6 legs)
1 cup of duck fat per leg for Long Island legs, a bit more for Moulard

Start this project at least 3 days before serving.

Day 1 -- Salting
Sprinkle duck legs with salt and pepper on all sides.  Sprinkle herbs and garlic mostly on the flesh side and put in the fridge for a day.  I use zip lock bags, but any non-reactive container will work.

Day 2 -- Cooking
Preaheat the oven to 250F.  Rinse duck legs and dry thoroughly with paper towels.  There should be no herbs or garlic left.  Put duck fat into a heavy pot (I use a 4 quart tall saucepan for up to 8 legs).  Melt the fat over medium-high heat until it reaches 200F.  Put the legs into fat and place the pot in the middle of the oven for 5 hours partially covered.  Cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate for 2 days or at least overnight.

Day 3 -- Packing for Storage
You can continue storing the duck in the pot with fat for weeks (probably longer since confit was a preservation technique even before they invented refrigeration).  Though you should always keep it in the fridge just in case.  However, you might want your pot back (at least I do).  Rewarm the pot with duck over medium heat just to loosen up the fat.  It should only get to lukewarm.  With clean hand, remove the legs wiping as much fat of them as possible and place in vacuum seal bags or freezer bags.  If using vacuum seal bags, place the duck in the freezer for an hour to firm up the fat and make it easier to seal.  Then seal and store in the fridge for up to a month.  If using freezer bags, get as much air out as you can and refrigerate for a week or freeze.  

Let the legs sit at room temperature for 2 hours.  This will make it easier to debone them and they'll cook more evenly.  Although the legs look cute with the bones, they taste best if you pull out the bones and flatten them out so that every bit of skin touches the skillet and gets crispy.  Set a non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Add duck legs skin side down and cover with the lid askew.  Cook for 7 minutes adjusting the heat so that they don't burn.  Touch the top of the meat with your finger.  It should be warm.  If not, remove the pan from heat, flip the legs and let them sit skin side up for a few minute to finish warming up.  I prefer not to expose the flesh to intense heat to keep it tender.  Serve with the accompaniments of your choice.

Cleaning and storing the fat
Warm up the fat over medium heat until it melts.  Strain into a large bowl through a fine mesh strainer.  Cool to room temperature and refrigerate until solid.  Scoop off the fat into containers leaving the duck juices in the bottom of the bowl.  Freeze the fat until next use.  The duck juices can be frozen too or they can stay in your fridge for a week.  They are delicious mixed with pasta, beans, vegetables or anything your heart desires.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Beet Jello, Prunes, Walnuts, Oranges

Beet Jello -- that's the affectionate name my kids gave to this dish.  Something tells me that term wouldn't stand a chance on a restaurant menu.  Beet verrines, maybe?  I can also see this problem solved by simply listing the ingredients and leaving the prep to the diner's imagination.

Prunes, Walnuts, Blood oranges, Orange Blossom Reduction

Now we are talking.  But the inspiration for this dish was not contemporary American dining.  It was a Russian salad of raw beets, prunes, and walnuts bound with mayo.  I hate raw beets and strongly believe that unless you are Dwight Shrute*, you should cook your beets before eating.  I've remade this salad before with great success and in the spirit of Food Perestroika, decided to give it another makeover, this time in a more contemporary style.

Beet Jello with Prunes, Walnuts, and Oranges 

Serves 8 as an appetizer

For Beet Jello
14 oz trimmed, scrubbed beets
1/2 cup pitted prunes, quartered
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp orange zest
1/3 cup orange juice
3/4 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (about half that for fine grained salt)
1 packet gelatin

For Whipped Goat Cheese
2 oz soft goat cheese
1 oz whole milk yogurt
1 oz heavy cream

For Orange syrup
2 oranges (regular or blood)
1 oz maple syrup
1 tsp orange blossom water

Smitten Kitchen Candied Walnuts

Beet Jello Procedure
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Wrap beets tightly in foil (if they are small, you can wrap them all together).  Place on a baking sheet and bake until tender when pierced with a knife, 1 - 2.5 hours depending on beet size.
  2. While beets are baking, put prunes into a small bowl, cover with boiling water and set aside.
  3. Cool beets, rub the skin off with your hands.  Cut into large chunks and place in the blender.  Add balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, orange zest, orange juice, and salt.  Puree until completely smooth.
  4. Drain prunes reserving the liquid in a 1 quart bowl.  Sprinkle gelatin evenly over the prune liquid and let sit for 5 minute.  Warm up 3/4 cup of beet puree until almost boiling.  Stir into gelatin mixture and mix until gelatin is dissolved.  Add another 3/4 cup of beet puree (that should be the rest of it, but you might have a bit leftover).  Add the prunes and stir well.  
  5. Divide among 8 ramekins or little cups.  Refrigerate until cold.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight.  
Whipped Goat Cheese Procedure

In a small bowl, mix goat cheese and yogurt with a fork until smooth.  Stir in cream and whip with a whisk or electric mixer until thick.

Orange Syrup Procedure
  1. Section oranges and squeeze the membranes to get as much juice as possible.  
  2. Put the juice that you got into a small non-stick skillet (you should have about 1.5 oz).  Add maple syrup and orange blossom water.  Simmer until thick and syrupy.  Can be made ahead and refrigerated.  Warm up the syrup before serving to loosen it up.
To serve
Top each beet up with whipped goat cheese, orange sections and walnuts.  Drizzle with orange syrup.

* In an Office TV series, Dwight Shrute, an overly ambitious paper salesman and beet farmer, bites into a whole raw beet as if it was an apple.  Kids, don't try that at home!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Thick burgers (unabridged)

I pick up the meat with my two bare hands. Shedding all veneer of civility, I take a huge, bloddy, juicy bite, chewing and moaning at the same time. I am aware of the risk involved in eating medium-rare ground beef, but I don't care. If I die at this moment, I'll die happy.* If you've never had a similar experience, you are not a burgerphile and should go read someone else's blog about chocolate chip cookies and quinoa salads. This post will probably either bore you to death or leave you appalled at what a person would do for a burger.

First, let me apologize for all my previous burger posts. While writing the first post, I was young and inexperienced. While writing the second one, I was pregnant and desperate for a med-rare burger that was "safe." How else can I explain cooking a burger sous-vide for 2 hours?  After doing substantial burger research over the last year, I am finally producing reliably stunning burgers, and it's time to share what I've learned on this delicious, artery-clogging journey with my readers.

Most serious cooks who love burgers, probably read the Burger Lab column Kenji Alt writes for Serious Eats. I think MIT should hire Kenji as the dean of the School of Burger Engineering (SBE).  I am forever grateful to his desire to make hundreds of burgers, analyze every conceivable combination of cuts, and test burger tenderness by smashing them with heavy skillets.  Let me distill some of Kenji's wisdom for you and add a few techniques of my own.

There are many burger styles. This post is about thick medium-rare burgers. If you are in the Boston area, good examples of these burgers can be found at Lineage and Catalyst

Here are the goals for my burgers and techniques that accomplish them.

A burger is not a sausage or a meat ball. It should be soft and slightly crumbly. To accomplish that, you can't mix anything into the meat. Not even salt. All the salt should be on the outside. I was very skeptical when I read this in Kenji's posts. Although I like the flavor of burgers that are seasoned throughout, I don't think it's worth the texture trade off. What about salting meat before grinding? Wouldn't it be seasoned throughout without kneading the meat after grinding? That's the Zuni cafe method. It's far superior to kneading the salt in after grinding, but it is a bit more sausage like.  The grind has a lot to do with texture too. After trying all different grinding procedures, I was happiest with a large hole grind, followed by a small hole grind. Don't forget to shape your burgers very gently and loosely.

What cut you grind makes a big difference. I tried chuck and skirt steak so far. Skirt steak produces a slightly grainier texture, but the flavor was through the roof!  I am sure that grinding a prime rib-eye would make a great burger, but I took a Hippocratic oath as a burger maker to do no harm. Destroying a prime rib-eye stake seems like harm to me. But a skirt steak actually tastes better in a burger form than it does in the steak form -- all the beefiness without chewiness. If you are not grinding your own meat, I found 85/15 ground beef from Whole Foods to be the next best thing. Don't forget to be extremely generous with salt on the outside of the burger. That salty crust needs to compensate for the lack of salt inside.

Juiciness goes hand in had with fat content and doneness. A lean burger is not a burger in my opinion. Ideally, you want about 20% fat (or even as high as 25%). Take the labels on store ground beef with a huge grain of salt. 80/20 label means that it's 20% fat or less. I found that the best way to get the right mix of lean and fat is to use skirt steak or chuck and add a few ounces of fat when grinding. I was thinking of buying some short ribs with a big fat cap to add to the grind, but then it occurred to me to ask the Whole Foods butcher if they could sell me some beef fat. He took out a pound of fat cap from rib roasts, and gave it to me for free -- certainly beats paying $7/Lb for bone-in short ribs. Adding about 2 oz of extra fat per pound of meat is helpful. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that while removing the grizzle, you'll remove some fat too. Trimming your meat of all grizzle and silver skin is crucial if you don't want to clog your grinder. I'll talk more about that when discussing the grinding procedure.

Reliable Doneness
This is the crux of the matter. A thick burger needs to be about 130F max after resting. Lower than 120F and it's raw mush -- very tender, but not juicy (juices don't release until 120F). The higher you go over 130F, the tougher and drier it gets. How do you get not only the center, but most of your burger to be around 130F? The best line cooks accomplish this feat through multiple flips over high heat, followed by a long rest. After trying that at home, I've discovered that this method is extremely unforgiving. Ambient temperature of a restaurant kitchen is a lot higher than of a home one, and knowing just how to divide your time between cooking and resting comes with experience of flipping 50 burgers a day. If you want even doneness at home, low and slow is the way to go. After extensive experiments with low temperature oven (my favorite steak/roast method courtesy of Kenji) and sous-vide, I came up with two fabulous though slightly different burgers. The sous-vide burger offers most even doneness and thus tenderness, but lacks a crunchy outside. The oven method produces a superb crust, but slightly less even inside. These differences were more striking when eating a patty completely unadorned (no bun, cheese, etc). After assembly, I had a hard time deciding which one was my favorite.

The oven method needed no more tinkering than dropping the temperature from 275F to 200F. Since a burger is smaller than most pieces of meat I'd cook this way, it needed a lower temperature to stay evenly cooked inside. The sous-vide method needed plenty of help. Vacuum sealing a burger and cooking it long enough to pasteurize, resulted in a flying saucer shaped atrocity that tasted mushy and tired. This approach to sous-vide, popularized by Douglas Baldwin, produces mediocre results for most meats, but it produces particularly awful results for a burger. Before you think I am attacking pour Douglas, let me clarify. Sous-vide mediocrity often tastes better than what most home cooks can produce with traditional methods, but it doesn't mean that one shouldn't strive for "best", not "better." I switched to using low tech zip-lock bags instead of a vacuum sealer to avoid squashing the sides and compressing the meat.  I also reduced the cooking time to puny 25 minutes at 126F.  The results were lovely.  You have a 5 minute leeway here, but not more. Ignore everything you heard about sous-vide not overcooking the meat. Any unnecessary holding in a bag results in moisture loss. The moisture loss is a lot slower with solid muscle, but with ground meat the results are devastating. Don't believe me?  Take the burger out of the water bath every 15 minutes and see how much liquid is in the bag.
200F oven burger
126F sous-vide burger

Developing a crust without overcooking the inside  
I found that salting only after the low/slow part and immediately before searing drew out less moisture and helped the burgers brown. Resting the burgers for 7 minutes after the low/slow part before searing let the outside cool off and prevented the searing from ruining the evenness of the inside. I was floored that a teflon pan produced a better crust than a stainless Al-Clad. The only way I can explain this phenomenon is that you only have 1 minute per side before you ruin your inside, so you want every little brown bit to stick to your burger and not the pan.

There is a difference between a med-rare burger and a med-rare steak. Bacteria is only found on the outside of the muscle and when a steak is seared, they die instantly. So if you like your meat cold inside, you are not taking any risk eating it that way. However, after you grind the meat, some of that bacteria ends on the inside, so an under-cooked burger is a tad risky. The question is how big is this "tad." You take plenty of risks every day. Driving is probably one of the biggest for an average civilian. How many people do you know who were injured in a car accident? How many people do you know that were injured with a med-rare burger? Of course, you could argue that you drive more often than you eat a burger. But let's look at some numbers. An average annual death toll from E. Coli is in the low 20s.  An average annual death toll from automobile related accidents is more than 30,000.  So in the grand scheme of things, that burger is unlikely to significantly change your risk of getting hurt.

To reduce the risk further, you could grind your own meat. This way, the grinder touches only a few pounds instead of a few hundred pounds of meat, which will reduce the risk of cross-contamination. You could take it even further and briefly sear the meat on the outside before grinding thus killing most of the bacteria. It works ok with chuck because you can get a bulky piece of it. It doesn't work with skirt steak because it's too thin.

Besides e coli, there are other, not so dangerous bacteria that grow on meat when it decomposes. My conclusion is to buy meat at a reputable place, keep everything (meat, grinder, bowls) extremely cold, and stop worrying.

Tips for grinding your own meat
  • If you own a KitchenAid mixer, you can get a grinding attachment for about $40.
  • Remove all silver skin and grizzle.  Here is a video on how to trim meat.  Any connective tissue left on the meat will wrap around the blade and clog your grinder.  
  • Freeze assembled grinder with large hole disk for 2 hours. Assembling the grinder after freezing is difficult since metal shrinks. Freeze the small hole disk separately. I keep my grinder in a large freezer bag permanently in my freezer, so that I can use it any time.
  • Cut meat into 1x1x2 inch strips. 
  • Freeze meat for 45-60 min or until very stiff, but not rock hard.
  • Refrigerate 2 bowls (you'll need 2 since you'll be grinding twice).
  • On KitchenAid, use speed 6-8.
  • Grind twice -- first time through large holes, second time through small holes
  • If meat gets stuck, don't keep pushing. Remove the disk with holes and clean out the blade before proceeding.
  • Run a dry paper towel through the grinder in the end to push all the meat out.
  • Wash everything with lots of hot water and soap using a bottle brush (OXO makes a great one)
  • Dry metal parts immediately so they don’t rust.
  • Sometimes you get a tiny bit of black discoloration on the meat. That's from the metal parts grinding against each other. It's not a health hazard. 
Thick Medium-rare Skillet Seared Beef Burger Recipe

Ground beef (15-25% fat content)
Salt and pepper
Grapeseed oil (or some other high heat cooking oil like safflower or canola)
Cheese of your choice
Red onion sliced into 1/4 inch half rings
Bun and toppings of your choice

Divide the beef into 6 oz portions and shape into disks 4 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Handle beef very gently and don't try to force it into a monolythic hockey puck. It's possible to use up to 8 oz of beef for a very hefty burger. In that case, make it larger in diameter, but keep the thickness at 1 inch.

Option 1: Warming up the burger using the water bath
  1. Put each burger into a separate quart-size zip lock bag. 
  2. Set up a 126F water bath. Be prepared to maintain this temperature for 30 minutes. If you don't have an immersion circulator, here are some hacks.
  3. Submerge each opened bag into the water bath, pushing out all air and close the bag. It should be very tight around the meat.
  4. Use a rack or something to keep the burgers submerged since they will most likely float.
  5. Cook for exactly 25 minutes. Additional cooking will result in detrimental moisture loss.
  6. Remove burgers from the water bath. Dry thoroughly on paper towels and let sit 7 minutes before searing. You'll need lots of paper towels since the meat will be wet coming out of the zip lock.
Option 2: Warming up the burger using the oven
  1. Preheat the oven to 200F. 
  2. Wrap a rimmed backing sheet with foil and set a flat rack (sold as cooling rack or cookie rack) on it. Place the burgers on the rack and cook in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. 
  3.  Remove from the oven and let rest 7 minutes before searing. 
Searing and Assembling
  1. Turn on the broiler.
  2. Put 1 tsp grapeseed oil per burger into a non-stick skillet and set it on the stove top over high heat. 
  3. While the pan is preheating, season burgers very generously with salt and pepper on all sides. 
  4. When the oil just starts to smoke, place the burgers into the skillet and cook without moving for 1 minute. Flip. Scatter onions around burgers and cook 1 more minute stirring onions frequently. At some point you want to sprinkle the onions with a pinch of salt. Remove burgers to a plate. Remove onions to a small bowl.
  5. Top burgers with cheese and put under the broiler until the cheese melts (30-60 seconds). 
  6. Top burgers with onions and let rest 4 minutes. 
  7. Return the skillet in which you cooked the burgers to medium-high heat and toast buns using burger drippings. Watch out -- they brown quickly.
  8. Assemble the burgers with any additional toppings or sauces pouring any juices that accumulated on the plate over the burgers. 
* If you read my section on safety in this post, you'll realize that under-cooked burgers are not nearly as dangerous as FDA makes them sound. Dying from one would be as likely as having a brick fall on my head while walking down the street. Even getting sick from one would be incredibly rare. But when I started eating my burgers medium-rare, I didn't know that, and there was an additional thrill of doing something mildly dangerous.