Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Grill a Steak and Other Meat (Video)

This video is dedicated to my husband Jason.  Thank you for buying me my first All-Clad pan, my first Japanese knife, and my first serious video camera.  "To a bad dancer, the floor is always crooked," says a Russian proverb.  I live by this principle, always choosing to work on my skills over upgrading my equipment.  Thanks for making me realize when I reach the point of diminishing returns and simply need a better tool.  This video was shot with my new Canon Rebel T3i.  Just like the L'Oreal commercial.  "It's expensive, but you're worth it!"

YouTube Link: How to Grill a Steak and Other Meat

Frequently Asked Question about grilling meat

What cuts of meat work for grilling?
  • Beef: tenderloin, rib-eye, T-bone, porterhouse, skirt steak, hanger steak, sirloin, flank steak, flat iron steak
  • Pork: tenderloin, rib chops, loin chops, sirloin chops
  • Lamb: whole rack of lamb (or cut into rib chops), loin chops (aka lamb porterhouse), top round (top part of the leg)
  • Veal: rib chops, loin chops, sirloin chops
What about marinades?
I am anti-marinades with most cooking methods, but on the grill they do serve a purpose (as long as they are made wisely). They can help the meat brown, and they fuse with the meat during cooking giving it a more complex flavor. A successful marinade has 3 basic components:
  • Oil -- it helps the meat brown and prevents it from sticking. It also helps other flavors penetrate the meat since most herb and spice flavors are oil soluble.  Oils I like to use in marinades are olive, safflower, and grape seed. 
  • Sweet ingredient -- sugar speeds up browning, which is invaluable for thin pieces of meat. Sweet ingredients I like to use are soy sauce (I like Tamari), and pomegranate molasses (it's very reduced pomegranate juice; you can buy it at Whole Foods).  Use these ingredients in very small quantities since they tend to burn.
  • Emulsifiers -- they help the wet ingredients stay suspended in oil. I like to use Dijon mustard and garlic mashed to a paste. Both are also huge flavor boosters. Minced garlic doesn't work as emulsifier and tends to burn on the grill, so make sure you turn it into a paste before adding. Once you got the basics, you can add pretty much any herbs and spices, but remember that less is more. 
Keep in mind that the only ingredient that penetrates the meat deeply is salt.  I am a strong believer of salting a day ahead, but the marinade itself can go on your meat right before cooking.

Why do I need a thermometer?  Some guy on YouTube showed me how to test for doneness by touching the meat and comparing it to my thumb or nose.
That would be a wonderful way for testing doneness when grilling your thumb or nose.  Touch a raw tenderloin and a raw NY strip.  They feel different, don't they?  So why would they feel the same at medium-rare, and why on earth would they feel like your thumb or nose?  It's true that many restaurant line cooks test meat by touching it.  That's because they grill about a hundred perfectly portioned steaks of the same type every night.  It's true that the more done the meat, the tougher it gets, but unless you grill hundreds of steaks you won't be able to get your touch calibrated.  Even for line cooks, it takes months of practice before they are good at it.  The method is so unreliable that most good restaurants don't use it.  They either sous-vide, or use C-vap ovens, or use a metal cake tester needle to determine internal temperature of their meat.

What thermometer do you use?
I use a Thermapen, but you can buy a basic digital thermometer at Target for about $15.

How do you modify this technique for a charcoal grill?
Set up a charcoal grill for direct and indirect cooking by putting all your charcoal under half of the grill grate.  There is no need for the foil trick I show you in the video.  Charcoal can get hot enough without it.  Start your steak over the charcoal side following the flipping procedure in the video and then move it to the other side away from charcoal.  You might also want to close the vents once your steak is brown.  No oxygen means no flames means cooler grill.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo

Matthew Amster-Burton and I have a few things in common.  We share a passion for scary sharp knives, debunking culinary myths, and eating in Tokyo.  We also have kids who'll arm-wrestle us for the last piece of sushi or the last slurp of ramen.  What Matthew has that I don't is guts.  While I went to Tokyo alone, Matthew had the guts to bring his wife Laurie, and an 8 year old daughter Iris.  When Iris was 6, she and Matthew went to Tokyo alone.  They fell so madly in love with the city that they convinced Laurie (a Japanese food skeptic) to come along the second time.  Laurie challenged them to go for a whole month in the summer and so they did.  Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo is the memoir of their trip.

Tokyo in the summer feels like a C-VAP oven.*   The apartment Amster-Burtons rented was barely larger than a walk-in closet in a suburban home.  Sounds like a vacation from hell, doesn't it?  But it wasn't.  It was delicious, relaxing, and fun.  Before I went to Tokyo myself, I'd find this hard to believe, but Tokyo is a sweet and gentle giant.  As Laurie observed, it's not a beautiful city, but it's filled with beautiful things.

The beautiful things that interest Matthew the most are edible, and that's what his book is about.  But instead of focusing on high art of Japanese cuisines -- ceremonious kaiseki or glamorous sushi --Matthew focuses on the pop art -- fast food, chain restaurants, and convenience stores.  If you've never been to Japan, you might turn your nose up at Matthew's "plebeian" attitude to food.  But I wish I was armed with Matthew's book when I went to Tokyo instead of the Michelin Guide.  The 2 Michelin starred places were a disappointment and cost more than all my other meals combined.  Pretty Good Number One made me re-live the 7/11 culture shock (I'd challenge Thomas Keller to cook a better hard boiled egg than Tokyo 7/11); my favorite meal at an izakaya (it was a chain); melt in your mouth beef; a heart warming bowl of ramen; better French pastries than France herself could produce; and yes, the best toilets in the world.

When people set sails for far away places, they make a checklist of things they must see there. Eiffel tower: check. Trevi Fountain: check. The travel writers encourage that by giving you "Top 10 sites" and telling you what you must squeeze in if you are only in that city for 3 days. Matthew does just the opposite, and oh, what a breath of fresh air it is in travel writing. He invites you to experience Tokyo, not put another check mark in your travel itinerary. The only chapter missing was "How to entertain your kids on the plane and deal with jet lag."

* C-VAP ovens offer convection functionality with steam and are used in many upscale restaurants instead of the sous-vide method.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cooking for a Cause

Michael Krupp and Michael Leviton from Area Four
When you have a food blog, you occasionally get free passes to food events.  Normally, I ignore these invitations, but recently one caught my eye.  East End House is a non-profit organization that helps Cambridge families in need, and they were holding a Cooking for a Cause event at MIT Media Lab.

The first (and only) food charity event I attended was 10 years ago during my internship at Casablanca restaurant.  I was helping the chef hand out samples. My job was to repeat "Would you like a fig and blue cheese tart with arugula walnut salad?" roughly 500 times.  This time I was on the other side.  Surprisingly, I found it even harder.  It required 2 skills I do exceptionally poorly: take pictures in bad lighting and network with people I don't know.  Luckily, there was no shortage of liquid courage.  After a few mixed drinks, I finally got myself to start talking to people.

In some ways, the Boston food scene has changed a lot in the last 10 years.  Some trends were obvious and predictable.  The geeky city that we are, we embraced scientific cooking (better known as molecular gastronomy) with open arms.  Immersion circulators, mushroom foam, beet paper, and sherry caviar all made appearances.   Was the food any better than 10 years ago?  Not really.  Some of my favorite dishes at Cooking for a Cause were simple and traditional.

Green Street was handing out samples of addictive beef tartar.  It was a bit homey because they ground it instead of mincing.  But that was one of its charms.  It was almost reminiscent of rillettes, but raw.  When I asked Greg Reeves, Green Street's chef, what cut he used, I was in shock and awe.  Top round.  Top round?!  I could never find a use for that cut.  It's too tough to cook medium-rare, yet it's too lean to grind for a burger, or to braise.  It never occurred to me to make a tartar out of it.  What made his version particularly good was that he ground it twice to remove all chewiness and mixed it with truffle mayo to give it much needed richness.  The pickled mushroom was a perfect addition.  Now I'll have the answer for my students who subscribe to meat CSAs and are forced to deal with this frustrating cut.

The dark brown pasta from Craigie on Main tasted surprisingly smooth for something that looked like the latest health trend.  Turned out the color was due not to whole wheat, but to pig's blood.  And the rich brown sauce was made with pig's hearts.  It was a delicious dish and captured the essence of Craigie in one bite: meticulously manipulated food that feels deceptively simple and rustic.

The spread from New England Charcuterie (that's promising to open soon) attracted a lot of attention for a reason.  The cured sausages and meats were excellent.  The most memorable of their samples for me was a pork liver mousse.  We see plenty of chicken and duck liver on the menus, but pork liver is often overlooked.  It was a pleasure to see it cooked so well.

Foie gras torchon with apples and sherry "caviar" from Puritan and Co. was one of the few "modern" dishes that was as delicious as it was visually appealing.  The light and creamy texture of foie gras made me stop and talk with Chef Will Gilson.  Turned out it was passed through a tamis to remove the veins, and then whipped with a mixer.  The results were absolutely stunning.  Next time I make foie gras, I'll have to try this method.

Hmm, it looks like I ate nothing but liver and meat at this event.  Unfortunately, vegetables were non-existent and the seafood had a much smaller representation.

Catalyst's hamachi tartar provided a much needed break from a meat overload.  Pickled watermelon radishes were a perfect crunchy counterpoint to the creamy fish.

My favorite seafood dish was the squid salad from Area Four.  Chickpeas, olives, preserved lemons, and parsley solidly rooted this punchy salad in the Mediterranean traditions.

I wish more of Boston places came down to earth and put deliciousness before innovation, presentation, and virtuosity.  I feel like many of them are cooking way above their heads.  It's as if you took a fabulous salsa dancer and asked him to do Bill T. Jones choreography.  


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mon, April 8 Get Together at Catalyst in Cambridge

I'll be at the Catalyst bar in Cambridge on Monday, April 8, 6-8pm to hang out with my students and blog readers.  Hope to see you there and catch up on food and life.  Everyone is welcome.  Ask the hostess for Helen's Kitchen group if you don't see us at the entrance.

Are the soda companies to blame?

Here is a “serious” follow up to my April Fool’s sugar post.  

Last night I thought I came up with a solution to America’s obesity epidemic.  We’ll need CIA’s participation, but I think we can do it.  We plant worms in bags of sugar and randomly place them in stores all over the country.  Consumers will be so disgusted and appalled that they’ll swear off everything sweet for the rest of their life.  The inspiration for this idea came from the response to my post about fish parasites.  Hundreds of people wrote in saying that they found a worm in their fish and swore off fish for the rest of their life  -- not just cod, haddock, halibut or other worm prone species, but fish in general.  Media can help too.  A few articles about mercury contamination in Coke could do wonders.  At least they’ve done that for fish.  Of course, that’s fish -- one of the most delicious and healthy foods that civilizations have subsisted off for thousands of years.  Sugar is a different story.  It’s only been a regular part of human diet for about 100 years, but got such a hold on us that I bet after the initial disgust, most consumers will simply buy another bag of sugar and give those brownies another go.  Mercury in Coke?  That’s unpleasant, but why swear off all soda?  There is always Pepsi.  I guess it was not a good idea after all, but it does illustrate a point.

I’ll leave demonizing soda companies to the media and activist groups.  They do it so well, it would be a shame for me to get involved and ruin all the fun.  Instead, I’d like to take a serious look at ourselves: American home cooks and food consumers.  My data source will be a food porn site foodgawker.com where bloggers submit pictures to be featured on the site, that is if they are deemed to be worthy.  After following it for a few months, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern.  More than 50% of pictures are desserts.  It’s hard to tell if foodgawker favors desserts over savory foods or if they get way more dessert submissions than savory food submissions.  But here is something I do have data on.  Out of 8 images that I got into foodgawker, the most popular by far was a dessert (top row, third from the left) -- it’s not the best picture and it’s a brainless, artless recipe that takes 5 minutes to make.  Yet, it attracted more attention than any savory dish I submitted.  

“But wait,” you say.  Many desserts featured on foodgawker are fat-free, butter-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, and egg-free.  I get it.  Our desserts are so free these days, that soon they’ll write a declaration of independence and establish a state of their own.  Unfortunately, there is this ridiculous notion spread by the media, nutritionists, and medical community that there are good carbs and bad carbs, good fats and bad fats, good proteins and bad proteins, good salt and bad salt, and good sugar and bad sugar.  Somehow bad fats in foie gras and duck confit don’t cause people in Bordeaux to be dropping like flies from heart disease.  They have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.  The salt guzzling Japan is pretty healthy too.  It wasn’t until sugar and refined carbs got introduced to the diet of humanity that we started getting fat.  There is no such thing as good sugar.  Sugar substitutes?  Just give it another 10 years and we’ll find out that the latest sugar substitute causes cancer.  Adding whole wheat flour and flax seeds to your cookies does not magically eliminate the cup of sugar you put into them.  We love to point fingers at the soda companies, but what about girl scout cookies?  How would you feel if girl scouts sold cigarettes for a good cause?  Sugar is sugar no matter how good the cause is.

The scary thing is that we wove sugar into our culture and social fabric making it very hard to extricate ourselves from it.  Sometimes we don’t even notice it.  Muffin for breakfast?  That’s a dessert, my friends.  A muffin is a cake without icing.  How about cookies for a bake sale, or bringing them to your neighbors for Christmas, and giving them to teachers to thank them for their hard work?  I tried to break the mold the first year my daughter was in daycare and brought a rillettes to the Christmas party at her daycare.  Everyone viewed it with great suspicion.  Many told me they were vegetarian.  Others asked if it had a lot of fat?  The cookies, brownies and cakes did a lot better than rillettes.  I’ve learned my lesson and now bring desserts.

After painting this bleak picture and offending most bakers in America, let me offer some ideas for how to reduce the sugar your kids eat.  I will not tell you to take your children to local farms, or to feed them whole grains, or to control what they do in school and their friend’s house, or to bake them healthy brownies with kale.  Here is what works for us.

Make savory food orgasmically delicious
The number one priority for my savory food is deliciousness.  When you are done with your entree, you should not feel that now is finally time for the best part of the meal -- the dessert.  You should feel sorry that the best part of the meal is over.  The number two priority for my cooking is including things that provide satiety and necessary nutrients: protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.  Eliminating things that are “bad” for you, like fat and salt is nowhere on my list of concerns.

I don’t care what my children think of my cooking.  I cook for my husband and myself and they are welcome to eat what we eat.  It took me years to get to this state, but it’s a good frame of mind to be in.  Within a 5 minute interval, I might hear from my children that my Brussel sprouts are the best in the world and my lentils are disgusting.  Should I stop cooking lentils?  Of course not!  I don’t hold my breath patiently offering my kids foods 3, 5, 7, or X times.  You’ll drive yourself crazy this way.  My daughter used to love asparagus and now she hates it.  She used to hate parsnips and now she loves them.  Everyone is entitled to some dislikes, but they should be counted on one hand.

Stop worrying about your poor hungry child
Although I mentioned above that I cook for my husband and myself, I am mindful of everyone at the table.  My son is allergic to eggs, shellfish, nuts and kiwi.  Obviously, I won’t serve us shrimp for dinner.  My daughter can’t stand cheese.  Cheese fondue is not an option in our house either.  But say my dinner includes mahi-mahi with brussel sprouts and lentils.  One kid might only eat mahi-mahi and another might only eat brussel sprouts.  That’s fine.  Those are both nutritionally sound options.  Our meals rarely include empty calories in the form of pasta, potatoes, rice, or bread.  My children are no more special than yours.  Given pasta, they’ll eat pasta.  “Oh, but my children only eat pasta.  I can’t starve them,” you might think.  You’ll be amazed at what kids will do when they are indeed hungry and when there is nothing else to eat in the house.
Recently we stopped buying bread on regular basis.  After one week of whining, the kids stopped asking for it.
But don’t expect martyrdom from your kids.  They won’t eat dry halibut and mushy asparagus because they are good for them.  Your job is to learn to cook as well as possible and leave the choice of whether to  not to eat up to your kids.

Use sugar in savory foods
After my anti-sugar tirade, you might find it surprising that I use sugar very frequently in savory foods.  I cook Japanese food a lot which includes soy syrups and glazes on everything from fish to vegetables.  The important thing to note is what percent of calories comes from sugar.  When sugar is used in savory food, a tiny bit goes a long way.  The presence of salt amplifies the sugar making the food taste very pleasantly sweet and it satisfies the sugar craving we all naturally have.  Instead of bashing junk food companies, why not learn from them?  The combination of salty and sweet is addictive.  Sometimes I wonder if I should start bottling the soy concentrate I make and selling it as “Magical Kid Sauce.”  A tiny drizzle of it on any fish, meat, or vegetable makes my kids gobble it up.  You too can have kids addicted to Spanish mackerel and green beans instead of M&Ms.

If you can find a cookie, you can have a cookie
You don’t expect to get a cookie when you go into a public bathroom, right?  You also probably don’t expect to get a brownie when you go into a bank.  It’s all about expectations of what’s possible and what’s not.  My children don’t ask me for cookies or any sort of dessert because there isn’t any.  It just doesn’t exist.  I do make desserts for birthdays and holidays -- real unadulterated desserts with as much real sugar as necessary -- and they are welcome to eat as much as they want regardless of whether or not they finish their broccoli.  Columbus day doesn’t count as a holiday, by the way.  This policy applies to all snacks in our house with the exception of fruit and dark chocolate.  Fruit is always available.  Dark chocolate is available about half the time.  Other than that, if you want something, you need to cook something.

When my Grandma was visiting us, she was appalled at my empty cupboards.  I had my kids’ friends come over for a play date with their Mom.  When I offered the Mom tea, I served just that -- tea.  “Shouldn’t you serve something with tea?” asked my Grandma.  “I don’t have anything to serve,” I replied.  My Grandma didn’t say anything, but I could see how much she disapproved of my lack of hospitality.  Having something on hand for unexpected guests is polite, but that means it's always around.  If it’s around, it will be eaten.

I succumb to peer pressure in other ways.  I bring my neighbors cookies for Christmas instead of riellette.  But that doesn't affect our own health.  Keeping snacks for guests does.

Don’t try to control what kids do outside the house
If my kids go to a friend’s house and eats 3 cookies, that’s fine with me.  10 cookies?  That’s even better because it might result in a stomachache and discourage them from doing that again.  We take our children trick-or-treating and they eat the candy afterwards.  After 2 days, we quietly throw away what’s left.  The good old days of Sammy saying the candy tastes weird ended when she was 3.  Pre-school and kindergarten introduced her to enough sweets and cured her from her sensitivity to sugar.  I can cry about it, and try to change the world.  But I am not that person.  I am a pragmatist.  Making the sugar the forbidden fruit only makes matters worse.  My children eat their breakfasts and dinners at home; I have more impact on their taste preferences than anyone else.

Get kids involved in preparing savory foods
When children start to help in the kitchen, what do they do?  They stir the cookie and muffin batters.  Taking a lick of raw cookie batter is a rite of passage.  I don’t know of an American kid who hasn’t done it.  Salmonella?  What salmonella?  We are talking about cookie batter here.  The same parents will not let their children eat raw fish or medium-rare burgers.  Salmonella is actually much more common than e.coli.

Stirring cookie batter and pouring in chocolate chips are not the only activities kids are capable off.  My 2 year old snaps asparagus.  How often does a little boy hear from a parent, “I need help breaking these sticks.”  You should see the diligence with which he grabs those thick spears with his tiny hands and puts all his might into cracking off the woody end.  My 5 year old cuts them up.  Don’t want to give your kids knives?  Get them to help with washing and drying the veggies.  They think the salad spinner is a veggie amusement park ride and participate with great pleasure.  Just don’t expect that they’ll love the kale they washed with their own hands.  They might or they might not.  That’s not the point.  The point is that you are working on a project together and they are doing something useful.

Most of the above is probably not breaking news to anyone, but the response to that is usually, "Yes, but..."

What if I don’t have time to cook?
I know we love to fantasize about the good old days and complain about how hard our life is now.  But eating out and take-out are a novelty introduced to human civilizations fairly recently.  Do you think the Tuscan farmer we romanticize to death had more time in the 1800’s than you do?  He or she worked in the field from dawn till dusk.  A chicken dish required killing, plucking, and cutting up a bird.  So let’s not whine about a recipe asking us to cut out chicken's back bone.  We don’t have it so bad.  If you have time to read this blog or watch TV, you have time to cook.

What if I hate cooking?
We hate doing things we are bad at.  I was a chubby kid who hated exercising.  I wrote myself notes to get myself out of gym classes from 1st to 12th grade and signed them with my Mom’s signature.  Now I exercise regularly and take dance lessons with my husband.  I kept trying physical activities until I found ones I enjoy.  The more I did them, the better I got at them, and the more fun it became.  We are living creatures.  Enjoying the physicality of life like food and movement is built into us.  But like any worthy cause, it takes time and effort.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sugar Mama's Manifesto

I am a chef. I am also a Mom. Like any other Mom I want the best for my children. This means making sure they get the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and sugar. Sugar is a necessary part of a healthy child's diet. Without it, kids become subdued and anti-social. My journey to this discovery has not been an easy one.  It all started with a call I got from a daycare provider when my daughter was two years old.

"Mrs. Rennie, I am calling about Samantha. She seems fine, but she refuses to eat the birthday cupcakes Jenny's Mom brought for her birthday. She said the icing makes her throat hurt. We are concerned she is coming down with something." I assured the teacher that Sammy was fine. "She is a very picky eater and refuses to eat sweet things," I explained. Ice-cream was too cold. Cakes were too sweet. Halloween candy tasted strange. We had a real problem on our hands and if we didn't want our child to be left out, we had to do something fast. Over the next year, I've developed a 5 step program that turned my picky eater into a happy, healthy, and social child.

Step 1: Read the labels 
Just because the yogurt is organic or local, doesn't mean it provides your child with the necessary amount of sugar. When I was feeding my children plain yogurt, I thought I was giving them something that was good for them. Then I read the labels: there were only 9g of sugar in 6oz of plain yogurt, while vanilla had 18g. Luckily, they looked the same and my kids didn't even notice the substitution. See how easy it is to double the sugar.

Step 2: If you blend it, they will come
Sure, your kids love kale and strawberries in their smoothies, but did you know it's also a great place to give them a serving of sugar they desperately need? You can add that awesome vanilla yogurt I talked about in Step 1. Fruit juice, honey, maple syrup are also great additions. They won't even know it's there. That's the magic of Vitamix.

Step 3: Get the whole family involved
Family activities are a great way to introduce your kids to sugar.  Participate in a bake sale for a good cause.  Brownies that raise money for a local library won't taste nearly as sweet and your kids just might eat them.  Check out a local maple farm and see how they make maple syrup.  Visit a Ben & Jerry's factory on your vacation to Vermont and do a tour.  When your kids see the love and care that goes into that ice-cream, you'll be surprised how much they'll eat in one sitting.  Go trick-or-treating on Halloween.  Spread the love by bringing cookies to your neighbors on Christmas.  It takes a village to raise a child.  If we all swap lemon squares and brownies, earlier or later even the most stubborn child will increase their sugar intake to a healthy level.

Step 4: Set a good example
Stop gorging on Brussel sprouts when you had a bad day at work.  I am sure it's the liberal amount of oil used to roast vegetables that's causing the obesity epidemic all over the world.  Try a cookie instead.

Step 5: Don't use savory foods as a reward
If you promise your kids seared scallops for finishing the bag of M&Ms they'll think the M&Ms must be really yucky.  Why else would you give them such a great reward?  Instead offer all the food to them at the same time and let them choose what to eat first.

I know the plan seems overwhelming.  But remember -- little steps.  Take it one day at a time.  Small changes can make a big difference.

Before leaving scathing comments, please realize that this post was made on April 1 :)