Friday, January 27, 2012

Daring Bakers' January Challenge - Scones

Audax Artifex was our January 2012 Daring Bakers’ host.. Aud worked tirelessly to master light and fluffy scones (a/k/a biscuits) to help us create delicious and perfect batches in our own kitchens!

I had a dual reaction when I saw this month’s DB challenge. The first was “Yaaaay, easy challenge!” The second was “Nooooo, more biscuits!”

Don’t get me wrong, I love scones/biscuits. So much so that I’ve made quite a lot of them in recent months. I made big, cheddar-and-chives scones for a party. I made tiny biscuits for Christmas. I made a cheese-and-bacon version of those same tiny biscuits for New Year’s – and, since we were supposed to join a large crowd for the occasion, I made close to 150 of them. Except we ended up not going, because I was sick. I gave a third of the biscuits to my in-laws, and forced another third onto some friends who innocently passed by a few days later. Part of the remaining third is still in our freezer. So I was understandably not too jazzed about making more of these things.

But a challenge is a challenge! And our host, Audax, put so much work into this deceptively simple one that I would’ve felt bad playing hooky. Scones are one of the easiest baked goods out there: there are few ingredients, no beating eggs, no creaming butter, and minimal kneading. In fact, the less you handle the dough, the better. So it’s the little things that make the difference between an acceptable biscuit, and a great one. And Audax did a great job at reuniting all the tips that can help.

Another cool thing about scones is that they are very versatile. We actually don’t eat a lot of breakfast or tea pastries, so I usually make savoury scones. On the day I decided to do the challenge, I had planned to make a spicy Thai soup for dinner. So, in order to end up with a somewhat coherent meal (as opposed to the weird Italian-Indian-Thai combos I sometimes wind up with), I experimented with shiitake scones.

I really wasn’t sure whether it would work. I followed the basic recipe, adding 1/2 cup of finely chopped rehydrated shiitake mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. I kept the dough wetter than I usually do, too. When I was making huge batches of biscuits, I would use the food processor, but given that this was a fairly small load (8-9 medium scones), I mixed it by hand, using my fingers to incorporate the butter.

I did kind of a bad job rolling out the dough, so I got an uneven rise on some of the scones. But rise they did, and the crumb was light and fluffy. The flavour itself was decent, although it could have used more salt. I had actually contemplated putting soy sauce into the dough, but had decided against it; although I’m still very curious as to what would have happened. Overall, though, I doubt shiitake scones will be the next big Asian side dish... They were okay, but I would prefer a bowl of rice or some noodles any day.

The scone below was made from my last scraps, which I stacked. It looks freaky, but it was practically as good as the others.

Thanks, Audax, for a cool challenge! Please check out the challenge recipes at the Daring Kitchen (link to be updated as soon as the recipes go up), and take a look at the Daring Bakers’ blog roll to see what everyone else whipped up!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year / Têt / Oshogatsu / *insert other appellations* everyone!

Happy Year of the Dragon to everyone!

I've been trying to figure out if I know any dragons, but apart from a distant cousin or two, I can't think of one. The only dragons I regularly encounter are the ones I slay in Skyrim these days (some of which are, incomprehensibly, easier to kill than frost trolls, and even some types of bandits).

I can hear you: "Why are you rambling about a video game, this is a food blog! Where's the food?!" Well, I did make food. Because, as much as I generally dislike regular New Year (I don't know why, I can never completely get in the spirit of it, maybe because Christmas is so much better), I love Têt. Not that we ever celebrated it in a huge way. I actually have a fairly large number of Vietnamese and half-Vietnamese relatives, but they're scattered all over the world, so I've never gathered around a food-laden table with them. I can't recall my mother ever making traditional dishes for the occasion, although I'm sure she made a special effort on that day. Regardless, I just like it.

Of course, with just the two of us, making a whole array of dishes isn't really an option, and Têt crept up on me this year, so there was no time to put a crowd together. So, last night, I just made Vietnamese caramelized ribs, and Japanese shiruko (sweet azuki bean soup).

"What, no pictures? No recipe?" Sorry, not this time. I'd made the ribs before, but this time they came out too salty and very unphotogenic, albeit still good. The shiruko was fine, but desperately needs some fine-tuning, and looked too watery. So, call me picky, but they were not blog-worthy.

I'll be back with a real post later. I just wanted to highlight the New Year and wish a lot of happiness and joy to all of you!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Honeymoon, pt.2 - Prune

And now we come back to our not-so-recent-anymore trip to New York. As mentioned previously, I didn't have a lot of restaurants on my list of destinations, so a lot of the time we just drifted along and stepped in whatever place looked good; after all, there is no shortage of restaurants in NY. But there was one place, apart from Momofuku, that I absolutely wanted to visit: Prune.

It started, as it often does for me, with a book. Having read stratospheric praise for Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones, & Butter, I bought it soon after if came out. I’ll review it in my next post, but for now, suffice it to say that I absolutely loved it. I was dying to know what kind of food was made by the woman who had written this book. So, the day after we arrived in NYC, I dragged Laurent to the East Village for lunch, where we got lost and wandered around for a while before finally locating the tiny restaurant. As we examined the bright room, with its fuschia barstools and old mirrors, I couldn’t help but think of Hamilton’s description of the place when she first saw it: abandoned, cockroach-infested, covered in rat droppings, and packed with rotting food. I promptly put the passage out of my mind, as the place bore no remaining trace of its former filth, and who wants to be thinking about rat poop right before a meal?

I want to take a minute here to describe my state of mind on that first visit. It was a warm, sunny October day. There was a light breeze. I was wearing my favourite black polka dot skirt, the one that swishes around my legs in a way that makes me feel like a girl. And I was just married, and honeymooning in one of my favourite cities in the world. Most likely all these wonderful things influenced how I perceived my meal. But I’m thinking the food had something to do with it, too.

I confess, I didn’t even take pictures that first time. I didn’t feel like being a food blogger, I just wanted to enjoy myself. Descriptions of the dishes probably won’t do them justice, because they were so very simple. For starters, we split a half-avocado filled with olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon salt. Was it something anyone could have whipped up at home? Sure. But the avocado was perfectly ripe, and the olive oil was fragrant. Next, I had a shaved celery salad with a thick slice of blue cheese on the side, while Laurent had a coddled egg with wild mushrooms. Again, nothing fancy. But everything was just right, from my salad’s vinaigrette to the texture of Laurent’s egg. I could feel the love in the food, and that’s not something that happens very often.

We ended up coming back for lunch again a few days later. This time, we took pictures. Also, we were hungrier, so we ordered more food. We started with a chicken noodle soup with cracklings and matzo balls, which was fragrant and warming.

Next, I couldn’t resist ordering something which is mentioned in Hamilton’s book: an egg-on-a-roll. Apparently, she lived on these during her early years in the city, and I myself have eaten my share of these classic deli sandwiches. With crispy bacon, runny yolks, and a side of cold noodles, it was pure comfort food.

Laurent had a burger and fries. The meat was cooked rare, as requested, and was satisfyingly juicy.

Finally, we splurged on dessert: a poached peach with caramelized pecans and crème anglaise for Laurent, and fresh figs with lemon cream for me. Both were light and nicely cleansed our palates, but Laurent’s choice won, I have to admit.

Was this a pure act of fangirlism? Probably. Then again, so was our trip to Momofuku. But in both cases, the quality of the food spoke for itself, despite the absence of frills. Sometimes, you have to put cynicism aside and just recognize that there are cases where a good reputation is well deserved.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Daring Cooks' January Challenge - Tamales

Maranda of Jolts & Jollies was our January 2012 Daring Cooks hostess with the mostess! Maranda challenged us to make traditional Mexican Tamales as our first challenge of the year!

You may have noticed I skipped out on the last couple of Daring Kitchen challenges. Up until then, I had only skipped one challenge (the croquembouche one, which I still intend to make someday). But toward the end of 2011, there was just too much going on, and I was barely cooking at all. However, with the new year, I was ready to get back on track and get back to the kitchen.

I’ll just announce is right now so that you won’t be shocked when you get to the end of this post: it was a disaster.

I love Mexican food, but had never eaten, let alone made tamales. I wasn’t even sure what they were. Basically, they consist of a filling wrapped inside a corn flour dough, which is itself wrapped inside a rehydrated corn husk, then steamed. Sounded easy enough.

Up until two weeks ago, I had a pack of corn husks in my pantry, purchased on a whim at a Mexican grocery store, in one of those “Oooh, I wonder what I could do with this?” moments. They had lingered there for months, until I was seized by a rabid need to clean up the clutter that had seemingly taken over every shelf, cupboard, and drawer of the apartment, and began moving stuff around and clearing out spaces. In my enthusiasm, I chucked out the corn husks, in one of those “The hell with it, I’m never going to use this” moments. It figures that this month’s challenge called for corn husks.

Too lazy to go out and buy a new package, I decided to use parchment paper instead. In that same spirit of laziness, I opted for the proposed vegan filling, even though I made the very non-vegan lard-infused dough. Assembling the tamales was easy enough, and I used my Asian bamboo baskets for the steaming.

But when the tamales were cooked, I tasted a tiny piece of the dough, and decided I didn’t care for it much. Something about the texture, the way it came apart, and also something about the flavour... Keep in mind that I had never had tamales before, and therefore had no reference. I only knew that I wasn’t wild about what I had made. While doing some research (even when I’m lazy, I still do research, because I am a flaming geek), I found that some people liked to reheat their tamales by frying them. In my book, frying makes everything better, and crispy seemed like a better option than the crumbly, wet-yet-dry texture I had obtained. Into the oiled skillet they went.

Having lovingly stacked and photographed the tamales, Laurent and I dug in. Then stopped. Then looked at each other.

“I’ll make us something else,” I said matter-of-factly, and got up to look for those homemade gyoza I knew were in the freezer.

I now knew what the problem was. It wasn’t the recipe, it wasn’t even my technique. My masa (corn) mix had gone bad. It gave off that horrible stale, bitter, rancid aftertaste. It’s strange, because I made corn tortillas not that long ago, and they were fine; it’s hard to imagine the mix could have gone so bad so quickly. I should have noticed it while making the dough, the smell should have tipped me off. For some reason, it hadn’t. At the very least, I should have noticed it when tasting the dough right out of the steamer, but maybe the steam had temporarily masked the taste. Or maybe I was just distracted.

While I was cooking the gyoza, Laurent had fun salvaging the filling by picking it out of the tamales. He even took pictures.

So, not a particularly glorious start to the year. Obviously, this was completely my fault. But I think I’m going to order tamales from a restaurant before attempting to make them again. And, obviously, I’m going to buy a new bag of masa mix.

My thanks to Maranda for a great challenge idea, and my apologies for screwing it up so badly. If you want to look at real tamales, please look at the Daring Cooks’ blog roll. And if you want to make your own, check out the challenge recipes. Just make sure your masa mix is fresh.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Happy New Year - Schmaltz, Gribenes, and Almost Kosher Chowder

Happy New Year to you all! I hope you celebrated to your heart's content! Me, well... We were supposed to go out into the countryside, like last year, but I got sick. Nothing serious, but I was not up to frolicking in the snow, or even driving over to the chalet. So we just stayed in, and Laurent made us cacio e pepe spaghetti for dinner - not quite typical for a New Year's feast, but it was exactly the comfort food I needed.

My cold took a long time to heal, but yesterday I was finally up to cooking. Again, I veered toward comfort food, and made chowder. However, once again, it wasn't quite traditional.

I call this chowder "almost kosher" because it contains no pork. It does, however, contain dairy and chicken, so the title of fully kosher is out the window. But that doesn't really matter, since there is not an ounce of Jewish blood in me. So why did I substitute the pork? Simply because I had a lot of schmaltz to use.

(One needs to be very careful when opening what looks like a jar of jam in our house, because they usually contain something else.)

Why did I have schmaltz on hand? Well, it all started several month's ago, when I read David Sax's Save the Deli. I'll post more extensively about this book later, but suffice it to say the author went on a North American tour of Jewish delis, ate a heck of a lot of pastrami and chicken soup, and schmaltz is inevitably mentioned on every other page. Schmaltz, you're probably aware, is rendered chicken fat, and can replace most oils and fats in cooking. I was intrigued by how this influenced the taste of preparations; duck fat makes a big difference, so what of schmaltz?

Unfortunately, I had no idea where to find schmaltz. But since we were already regularly buying whole chickens, boning them, and saving the carcasses to make stock, I took it one step further, and started putting aside all the chicken skin and fat, and saving it in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. Then, when the bag was full, and I had over three pounds of fatty scraps, I rendered it, using the method indicated in Jennifer MacLagan's Fat. Thus, I ended up with two full cups of beautiful schmaltz, and a cup full of gribenes, which are basically chicken cracklings: the crispy bits of skin left over from the rendering process. I usually don't eat the skin off roast chicken, but this was something else: so crispy and delicious! We put them in soups, salads, and even just nibbled on them.

So, the gribenes were easy to dispose of, but for some reason we've been slow to use the schmaltz. Like I said, it can replace butter in most recipes, but we were so overloaded with leftovers (ours and other people's) that we didn't cook for several days. And when we did, they weren't really the kind of recipes where the substitution would be made.

So when I decided to make chowder, I was determined to use the stuff. I drew inspiration from a recipe by Jamie Oliver, but used schmaltz instead of pork fat, and the remaining gribenes instead of bacon. I also adapted the broth-to-dairy ratio. Obviously fresh corn would have been best, but in this season, canned corn had to do. And I used Nordic shrimp, for a local touch.

There was definitely a subtle difference in flavour: less smoky than if I had used bacon, but still more gamey than if I had used butter. I wouldn't say any version is flat-out better than the others, but it's nice to have options. Either way, this soup is a very flavourful and easy meal for a lazy weekday.

Schmaltz and Gribenes

450 g (1 pound) or more of chicken fat and skin

Cut the chicken skin in small pieces. Place them in a heavy-bottomed pan over low heat, and let the fat melt, stirring occasionally, until the skin begins to grow crispy. This can take several hours (between two and four).

Alternately, if you are rendering a large amount of fat, put the chicken skin in a Dutch oven and place in an oven preheated to 120ºC (250ºF). Bake until skin begins to grow crispy, which will take several hours.

In both cases, when the skin is just getting crispy and brown, drain out the rendered fat and strain it through a cheesecloth into a heatproof container. Return the skin to the pan and cook over medium low heat until it is very crispy golden brown. Strain the remaining fat through the cheesecloth, and place the skin on paper towels to absorb the fat.

Store the schmaltz in a clean airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks. Store the gribenes similarly, and consume them within a couple of days. You should obtain approximately 1 cup of schmaltz for every pound (450g) of chicken skin.

Almost Kosher Chowder
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Serves 4-6

2 tbsp schmaltz
One leek, cut in half lengthwise and sliced crosswise
450g (1 pound) of potatoes (approximately 3 large), peeled and cubed
500 ml (2 cups) chicken or vegetable broth
500 ml (2 cups) milk
375 ml (1 1/2 cup) canned or frozen corn
225 g (1/2 pound) Nordic shrimp, fresh or frozen and thawed
250 ml (1 cup) heavy cream

For garnish:
Fresh dill
Fresh red chili pepper, seeded and chopped

In a large saucepan, melt the schmaltz over medium heat. Add the leek and potatoes, and cook, stirring often, until leek is soft. Add the broth and milk, along with the shrimp and corn, and simmer for 10 minutes, until potatoes are tender and soup is somewhat thickened. Reduce heat, stir in the cream, and continue cooking until heated through.

Divide in bowls and top with garnish just before serving.