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Ad Hoc at Home – Melted Onions

February 9th, 2013 · No Comments

Ad Hoc at Home - Melted Onions

I think that I’ve yet to come across a cookbook that I like more than Ad Hoc at Home. It’s a beautiful book to look at, interesting to read, the recipies are uniformly delicious, and they’re not really that hard to make. While my current go-to book is Modernist Cuisine at Home, that’s more because it’s so beautiful (so many great pictures), has great step-by-step instructions, and I learn so much every time I pick it up. But there’s something missing in MCAH; I find it somehow too cold, too precise, too much like a lab manual for organic chem. Ad Hoc at Home has a naturalness and a casualness to it that makes me want to pore through its pages slowly, drink some wine, and move to southern France (or California).

But rhapsodizing aside, one of the most useful recipes in AHAH is ‘Melted Onions’. While caramelizing onions may seem like a trivial task, anyone who has tried and wound up with a bunch of acrid-tasting onions that has gone on to ruin whatever it was put in or on, knows that there’s definitely a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to do this.

AHAH makes it easy:
1. Take 2-3 large onions, cut and separated into rings

Ad Hoc at Home - Melted Onions

2. Put the rings into a pan with nothing else, and over medium heat, cook until they lose most of their water and become reduced in volume, collapsed, and quite soft. You’ll have to stir them a fair bit to keep them from sticking and burning, but if they do a bit, that’s ok too – just more flavour for later. This part takes about 20 minutes or so.
3. When you’ve got a heap of collapsed onions in the pan, add 4 tbsp of butter, put on a parchment lid, and stir every 5 minutes for about 30-35 minutes more. Optionally, add a sachet with thyme, garlic, peppercorns for more flavour.

After you’re done, you’ve got perfectly caramelized onions, all while you were in the kitchen, doing something else, and with almost no effort at all. Perfect for pizza, steak, whatever. Ad Hoc calls for 8 cups of onions, and 8 tbsp of butter; I just use as many onions as I need, usually 2-3, and 4 tbsp of butter.

I made the Modernist Cuisine at Home Pressure-cooker Caramelized Onions, but it was a lot of work – it involves glass mason jars in a pressure cooker, with the needed clean-up afterwards, and the onions had a bit of a funny taste to them – just a hint of bitterness (maybe from the baking soda they use to raise the pH) that wasn’t pleasant. Given the Ad Hoc foolproof method, the rich flavour (I’m sure the butter helps), and the single-pan method, this is basically the perfect recipe for this. Enjoy!

ps I prefer my onions a bit burnt, a bit brown, so I use higher heat. I tend to use my onions for pizza, so a bit of color, more fall-apart, with a bit stronger flavour is what I want. If I was making the Ad Hoc onions for incorporation into another recipe (e.g. Ad Hoc’s ‘Caramelized Savoy Cabbage’), I’d use lower heat, stirring more often, to keep the onions white and more crunchy.

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Bouchon – Garlic Confit

January 28th, 2013 · No Comments

I didn’t even know what this was before I found the recipe. As soon as you pick up Bouchon, you basically want to eat steak frites.

Bouchon - Garlic Confit

So in making the fries, it recommended making garlic aioli to go with them (make it, it’s delicious). The mayonnaise gets the garlic from first making a garlic confit.

What is confit? Basically, it’s poaching something slowly, at a very low temperature, in oil.

You peel about 50 garlic cloves, submerge them in a pot by one inch in a neutral oil (I used canola), and use very low heat for about an hour.

Bouchon - Garlic Confit Bouchon - Garlic Confit

Bouchon - Garlic Confit

And what comes out? Heaven, that’s what. The garlic becomes incredibly soft – you can (and should) spread it on bread like butter. The oil actually takes on quite a nice flavour as well. The garlic has this beautiful nutty flavour and loses any acridity that raw garlic has – you’ll find all kinds of new uses for it. Tonight, I just made a simple pizza – tomato sauce, cheese, and mashed up cloves from the confit – beautiful!

While Modernist Cuisine at Home has a recipe for Pressure-Cooked Garlic confit, it requires pressure cooking for almost an hour, not to mention using glass jars (and a pressure cooker). Given that all I had to do for the Bouchon recipe was peel garlic, put in pot, wait, I just couldn’t justify the extra work, knowing that the Bouchon recipe already gives you an amazing product.

As they say in Esperanto, Provu Mem! (try it!)

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Modernist Creamed Spinach

January 24th, 2013 · No Comments

Making a steak dinner – carrot soup, sous vide steak, heaps of shallots, strawberry gelato and mango panna cotta for dessert – but needed an extra side for the steak. Huge bag of spinach in the fridge, MCAH recommends creamed spinach as a side for the steak – OK, while it sounds like food from the Shady Acres Rest Home, let’s give it a try. How did it turn out? Good enough that I’d make it again, somewhat surprisingly.

Modernist Creamed Spinach

Making a big dinner is like shooting a movie or coordinating a battle, or any complex routine, with numerous options, inputs, and outputs, parameters and variables, and the timing has to be just right. I wanted a side for the steak that would be more than ‘mushroom gravy’ but not that much more work to make. After giving the ingredients and instructions a read, this one seemed just about right.

Modernist Creamed Spinach

Basically, take 600g of spinach, and sauté it in oil (and salt it), for a couple of minutes until it is cooked – then press out the extra water in a sieve. Let it cool completely and chop it finely. In a new pot, sauté 20g of shallots, 24g of garlic confit in about 1tbsp of oil. When the shallots have wilted, add the spinach, cook for 3 minutes, add 1/2 cup mascarpone, stir, and take off the stove. Mix together separately 80g cold milk, 0.4g xanthan gum, and 2g of Wondra, and then add it to the spinach mixture, and heat for a few minutes until the liquid is incorporated and the spinach is serving temperature. Grate 40g of comte cheese and add a 1/2 tsp of lemon zest; stir until the cheese is incorporated, season and serve.

Modernist Creamed SpinachModernist Creamed Spinach

Really, this dish stands on its own. You could serve it with just about anything – it could go next to the right risotto, it would go well with pork. Its flavour is delicate, but with grassy notes from the comte, and that bitter/sour note from the lemon zest. It doesn’t overpower on any aspect of its palate – it’s beautifully balanced, and the wondra/xanthan gum/mascarpone gives it an unctuous, yet creamy texture. It’s straightforward enough that the entire thing can be made in 30 minutes, and while it might lack a wow factor if you tell someone you’re serving creamed spinach for dinner, it won’t disappoint once they’ve had their first bite.

→ No CommentsTags: Cooking at home · Modernist cuisine

Fourth Sous Vide Attempt – Scrambled Eggs

January 19th, 2013 · No Comments

So, Modernist Cuisine at Home and a lot of other cookbooks make a big deal about eggs. But eggs, well, good for breakfast, or maybe in a sandwich, and super-important for cooking all kinds of things, but people don’t exactly rhapsodize about eggs the way they do about say, steak, or chocolate, or even bacon these days.

And in MCAH, they even talk about…sous vide cooking eggs(?) Yes, you pour a bunch of eggs into a bag, and put it in hot water, and out comes…delicious eggs? Actually, yes. That’s exactly what happens. Let me tell you more.

Fourth Sous Vide Attempt - Scrambled Eggs

Basically, you take 4 eggs, 4 egg yolks, about half a stick of melted butter, about a quarter-cup of milk, about a 1/4 tsp of salt, and puree it with an immersion blender, put in a ziploc bag and get the air out, and sous vide at 165 degrees F for 30 minutes. When it comes out, puree it again, and serve. Add salt/pepper/whatever to taste.

Fourth Sous Vide Attempt - Scrambled EggsFourth Sous Vide Attempt - Scrambled Eggs

Fourth Sous Vide Attempt - Scrambled Eggs

You’ll be left with a silky-smooth, unctuous, and most definitely delicious custard-like consistency dish that totally defies description. I can’t really even think of what to serve it with.

If you have the book, I’m convinced there’s an error. It calls for 1 tsp of salt; I used Trader Joe’s sea salt, and 1 tsp of salt completely overpowered the dish (and I *love* salt). I’d cut it down to 1/4 tsp for cooking, and serve with some fleur de sel flakes to let your guests season the rest themselves.

So while it sounds completely crazy, do it – it’s definitely not the eggs your mother made, it’s like nothing you’ve ever had, and it’s delicious.

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James Hook & Co Seafood – Boston, MA

January 16th, 2013 · No Comments

Every once in a while, you eat something and you’re like, “yup, that’s it. that’s the best there is.”

James Hook & Co - Boston, MA

And that happened a few months ago – I got back to the same place today and thought the exact same thing.

And the thing I thought it about was the lobster roll at James Hook & Co in downtown Boston.

This place is a bit odd – it’s a double-wide construction trailer situated basically in a parking lot on the edge of Fort Point Channel, surrounded by jillion-dollar real estate. I assume it’s zoned for commercial fishing or something, otherwise, I can’t see how selling seafood is worth more than real estate on Atlantic Avenue in Boston.

But back to the food. Since coming to Boston, I’ve tried and tried to pin down what a good lobster roll is all about. I’ve been to tourist places like the Lobster Pot in p-town. I’ve been to fancy places like B&G Oysters. I’ve been to places famed for their lobster roll, such as Yankee Lobster. Years ago, in Bangor Maine, I even had a McLobster. I grew up in Nova Scotia, for pete’s sake. But nothing has compared to James Hook. I didn’t really ‘get it’ – the ‘it’ being what was so good about a lobster roll until I came here.

And what’s so great about it? It turns out that a good lobster roll is bursting with lobster. It’s the fact that you had to crank open your mouth wide to get so much lobster in, and when you do, you get a big bite of delicious, tender, fresh lobster and almost nothing else. There isn’t onion or celery; there doesn’t even seem to be salt or pepper. There’s just lobster, with a bit of mayonnaise, and a soft toasted hot dog bun, maybe with some butter. The bun is so small (and I just had a regular roll, not the large) that it barely holds all the lobster, and just provides a bit of sweet starch to some of the bites. Both times I’ve been here I’ve had the lobster roll, and both times, I’ve been wowed by how amazing it is.

For years, I’ve told people that good atlantic lobster isn’t made into lobster thermidor, it’s not put into salads, it’s not served in a sauce – it’s just perfectly cooked, fresh, and served with some butter. Doing anything else with lobster is either done to disguise bad/cheap/off lobster, or it’s got minimal lobster to get you to spend maximum money. Warm water lobster in other dishes? Great! It doesn’t have much flavour compared to atlantic lobster. But it turns out that there is one exception: the lobster roll at James Hook. This is a *perfectly* good use of lobster, and should be tried by everyone who comes to Boston.

Just look for the funny trailer that’s so out of place a block away from the Federal Reserve building and hope it never goes anywhere.

James Hook & Co - Boston, MA

And while you’re there, pick up some lobster, take it home, put it in a pot – and remember: just some butter.

James Hook & Co.
15-17 Northern Avenue
Boston, MA 02110
Tel (617) 423-5501‎

James Hook & Co Lobster  on Urbanspoon

A friend just informed me that the James Hook storefront burned down in 2008, thus the double-wide trailer.

Thanks L!

→ No CommentsTags: Boston · Favorites · Seafood

Third Sous Vide Attempt – Fried Chicken

January 14th, 2013 · No Comments

The short version of the post: I made the MCAH fried chicken and the Science of Good Cooking double-fried french fries. Both worked out, it was delicious, I’d do it again.

Third Sous Vide Attempt - Fried Chicken

The long version of this post:
In what seemed like a good idea at the time, after deep frying the steaks last night, D said, “hey, with that leftover oil, we should make some fried chicken & fries”. I was looking at the oil, thinking, “how am I going to get rid of this stuff?” and as soon as the words came out of her mouth, I was like “of course – chicken and fries, why didn’t I think of that?”. I now know why I didn’t think of that as I write this, on the sofa, 2 hours post-meal, distended belly, oil malaise, asking myself “what was I thinking?”

But here’s how it all went down:
I again used Modernist Cuisine at Home for its fried chicken recipe – basically, just sous vide cooking some bone-in chicken thighs at 149 degrees F for an hour and a half, then dredging the chicken in a 50/50 mix of Wondra (pre-cooked flour) and potato starch with some added salt and pepper. Cook the chicken for 3 minutes in hot oil at 385 degrees F, and you’re good to go. Basically, as easy and no-muss, no-fuss as the steak recipe, with a 1-minute added step of dredging in the flour/starch mixture.

Third Sous Vide Attempt - Fried Chicken

Third Sous Vide Attempt - Fried Chicken

The chicken was basically perfect. Incredibly soft and moist on the inside, with a ridiculously crisp crust on the outside – the crust didn’t fall off, it stuck to the skin perfectly, it wasn’t too thick, and it turned plain chicken into something special.

Third Sous Vide Attempt - Fried Chicken

What would I do next time? Well, I found the crust perfect in texture, appearance, mouth feel, etc – but it didn’t have the colonel’s 11 herbs and spices – I think next time I’d add some other seasonings (than salt & pepper) to the flour mixture to punch up the flavour a bit. That being said, simple fried chicken with good fleur de sel (as in the first photo above), is its own special treat.

On to the fries: The whole problem here was that I forgot what making french fries was like. It’s easy, mindless work, and the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is excellent, and if you obey it and use a thermometer – it’s fail-safe, and the fries were definitely delicious. I just forgot that it involves you standing over a pot of boiling oil for about 30-45 minutes, which is one of the least pleasant places to be in any kitchen.

The recipe was like this:
– take some russet potatoes, slice them into fries (I use a mandoline, which saves a ton of time), and soak in cold water until the water is clear.
– dry the fries, add some corn starch, toss the fries to coat, and leave them for 20 minutes
– double fry the fries, first in oil at 325 degrees F, then at 350 degrees F

And how were they? they were great. Literally perfect french fries, as good as you’ve ever had. The corn starch gives the fries a little extra crunchiness/texture that takes them from being good to being great, and again, the thermapen was handy for keeping the temperatures in the desired range.

Fries after their initial cooking (the black specks on the fries are pepper from cooking the chicken in the same oil):
Third Sous Vide Attempt - Fried Chicken

Would I change anything about this recipe? Maybe I’d cook them at 360 or even 370 (Bouchon cooks first at 320 and second at 375) for the second frying, but this gives you a much smaller margin of error – at 375 degrees, the fries brown up in less than a minute, and burn all too easily. And instead of the thermapen, I’d get some kind of temperature probe that had the fast response & accuracy of the thermapen, but that I could clip to the edge of the pot. The last candy/oil thermometer I had was encased in glass and broke, and the $15 digital ‘instant read but not really’ thermometers have a half life in my kitchen drawers of about 2 weeks.

But that’s it – the riddle of how to get moist fried chicken is solved – just sous vide it first! And for french fries, just add a little corn starch, use some lightly used oil, double-fry, and keep an eye on those temperatures.

→ No CommentsTags: Cooking at home · Modernist cuisine

Second Sous Vide Attempt – Steak

January 13th, 2013 · 3 Comments

Since our previous sous vide attempt worked out pretty well with chicken, we had some ribeyes in the freezer that have been calling our name all week.

I’ve been experimenting with multiple different steak cooking methods in the last little while. I’ve always found steak really hard to cook properly, and I don’t have access to a grill these days, so BBQ-ing methods aren’t possible. The four methods I’ve tried are:
1. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon method – sear it first in a hot cast iron pan on the stovetop, then finish in the oven
2. Heston Blumenthal’s method – use an extremely hot pan, and flip it every 15 seconds
3. Cooks Illustrated ‘Science of Good Cooking’ method – heat the steak first in the oven, then sear on the stovetop
4. Modernist Cuisine at Home method – sous vide the steak, followed by deep frying

And how did I feel about them?
1. This is the ‘classic’ method – you sear the steak in a hot pan, then finish it in the oven. The sear gives you a delicious crust, and the oven cooks the interior. The recipe in Bouchon also calls for cooking the steak with a mound of shallots on top of it, which is a great technique for adding flavour to the steak. I like this method, even though it’s work, but finishing in the oven gives you time to clean up a bit and get everything else plated for your guests.
2. This method aims to be a ‘one pot’ method – by flipping the steak constantly, no side ever gets ‘too hot’, and the heat can distribute evenly through the middle of the steak to have it be perfect on the inside, with a nice crust outside. I found this steak to be the least flavourful, with the worst texture, and it was a lot of work to flip the steak every 15 seconds, with hot oil flying everywhere.
3. This method has some good science behind it – you are searing an already evenly-heated piece of meat, so you have better control over the internal temperature and can control for steaks of varying thickness. I have done this twice, and the sear at the end is good, but if you’re making several steaks, you end up with different finishing times for all your steaks, and while the warm-up in the oven is good to prep, you’re finishing up with the searing which makes a huge mess.
4. This method gives you perfect steak and is extremely little work. Put the steaks in the sous vide bath, pull them out a while later, and plop them in the deep fryer/pot of hot oil for 30 seconds to give them a sear. The sear isn’t as good/thick as methods 1-3, but the texture of the steak after breaking down all that collagen at 56 degrees for hours is so good that it balances out in the end.

And yes, I used a thermometer for all cooking methods, and let the meat rest for methods 1-3 (you don’t really need to let it rest for #4).

So, my completely unitless, purely opinion-based, and subject to bias, and completely unscientific chart of these four cooking methods is below:

Screen Shot 2013-01-12 at 8.44.29 PM

But at the end of the day, that’s how I feel about them. So let’s talk a bit about the sous vide method:

As I’ve mentioned before, sous vide cooking is where you seal a piece of food in plastic or a plastic bag, and cook it long and slow in a water bath at a relatively cool temperature. The benefits are that you can maintain the cooking temperature precisely, it can be very little work to do, and you can cook meats to be unbelievably juicy and never tough with fantastic flavour. The drawbacks are that it requires you purchase/make a sous vide setup (although for ~$120, it’s about half the cost of a good dutch oven, or about the same cost as an inexpensive pressure cooker or a high-quality, electronic slow cooker), and that if you’re not careful, you could make yourself or your guests quite sick if you undercook the food.

Second Sous Vide Attempt - SteakSecond Sous Vide Attempt - Steak

For the steak recipe, also from Modernist Cuisine at Home I brought the steaks to room temperature, seasoned them with salt & pepper, brought the water bath to 134 degrees Fahrenheit, sealed them in ziploc bags with a bit of oil using the water displacement method, and cooked them for about 2 hours. I then took them out, and deep fried them for 30 seconds in canola oil that was ~430 degrees F. And that was it.

Second Sous Vide Attempt - Steak

And how did it turn out? Perfect. That’s how it turned out. The method is so simple – you’re literally just following instructions that seem more technical than artistic, that what little skill I have in the kitchen had nothing to do with it. This recipe is quite literally, a no-brainer. The steak was juicy, and had a great, soft texture, without being mushy or ‘strange’ – my brain knew this was still steak – and it had a nice thin, crispy crust with lots of flavour.

Second Sous Vide Attempt - Steak

Why deep fry the steak when it’s done? Well, meat that has been cooked sous vide often turns kind of grey and is very unappetizing looking. And part of our enjoyment of meat, especially meat that has been seared, is that the high temperatures the outside of the meat is exposed to, causes the surface/crust of the meat to undergo Maillard reactions, which create compounds that are responsible for the flavours of seared meat. As well, we’re all used to steak being somewhat crispy on the outside – nobody wants to eat mushy, soft, grey steak. Deep frying is a kind of dry cooking – the oil just surrounds the meat, and transfers heat (very efficiently) to the surface of the meat – so we deep fry the meat to instantly raise the temperature of the outside of the steak into the range that these flavour-creation reactions can occur, which also gives us the nice ‘crust’ we associate with the mouth feel of steak. And before you say, “I don’t want greasy steak” – steak cooked for 30 seconds in oil at 430 degrees F (almost the smoke point of canola oil) isn’t greasy at all.

Second Sous Vide Attempt - SteakSecond Sous Vide Attempt - Steak

Could I have had a slightly thicker crust if I left it in the oil longer? Yes, probably. I could also have seared the steak in a pan, thrown it on a hot grill, or taken a blowtorch to the outside of the steak to finish it off and give it a flavourful crust – any of these would have worked, and every method has its pluses and minuses. Cooking with hot oil has its own issues, and definitely isn’t for everyone.

But would I make this recipe again? Definitely. It’s not a weekday night kind of recipe – 2 hours after I’m home from work, I’m basically ready for bed, so given the amount of time needed in the water bath, it’s much more of a weekend kind of recipe. It would be a great recipe to have guests over with – the longer the steak stays in the sous vide bath, the more tender it gets – late guests? Great! Just keep the steak in the water bath, and then when everyone is ready to eat, it’s only 30 seconds per steak in the deep fryer, with maybe 45 seconds in between to get the oil back up to temperature. For cleanup – throw out the ziploc bags, dump the water out of the water bath, and empty out the pot of oil.

And what to make with the steak? I’m still a big fan of the shallots as per Kellers’ Bouchon – maybe with some mushroom gravy. MCAH recommends spinach butter and creamed spinach – we’ve got lots of good options here. If you’re looking for a fail-safe, almost no-cleanup, very reproducible method for cooking steak – this is it.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Modernist cuisine

First sous vide attempt

January 7th, 2013 · 1 Comment

Ever since picking up a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home, I’ve been dying to try some sous vide cooking. So in December, I picked up a Hamilton Beach Manual Slow Cooker – I think it was on sale at the time for about $16. To go with it, I also picked up a DSV Temperature Controller to complete the Sous Vide set up.

Let me back up a second – Sous Vide is a cooking technique where you cook food slowly, sealed in plastic, at a controlled, and usually fairly low temperature. The benefit is that you get very juicy, very tender meat that has a degree of flavour and a quality of texture not achievable through any other cooking method. When Sous Vide was first popularized (at least when it first came to my attention), with the release of Thomas Keller’s book Under Pressure, the recommendation was that you buy a $1500 immersion circulator to do this kind of cooking.

And as I don’t have an immersion circulator, maybe that’s still the best way to do it. But in Modernist Cuisine at Home, Myrhvold and the team suggest that if this is beyond your budget, you can easily build your own with a crock pot and a temperature controller. So, a quick search on Amazon and I found this, which for $100 plus a $16 crock pot seemed like it was at least worth a try. If it worked, I’d have great food for the price of a meal out, and if it didn’t work out, well I could probably sell both items pretty easily.

So – tonight was the first attempt.

How did it work out? One word: Spectacular.

Seriously juicy chicken

No, really. It was great. The juiciest chicken I’ve ever had, and it was almost no work to cook.

Disclaimer: Cooking sous vide isn’t for those who aren’t familiar with the risks it entails, and eating sous vide food isn’t for the young, the elderly, or those persons who are immunocompromised. Any sous vide project can go wrong and expose the diner to pathogenic bacteria, which may lead to serious illness. This blog isn’t intended to be a ‘how to’ guide, but rather just to relate my experiences with this cooking technique.

Ok, back to it. Here’s how it’s pretty easy: I filled the crock pot with water, plugged in the temperature controller, and set it for 150 degrees. I put the chicken thighs (2 each) in Ziploc bags, with 2 tsp of oil, and then using the water immersion technique (p. 58 in Modernist Cuisine at Home), got the air out of the bags. Once the water bath had reached temperature, I cooked the (now room temperature) chicken for 90 minutes. Pulled the chicken out, seasoned it with salt & pepper; the thighs with skin got seared in a dutch oven with a bit of oil in it for 2 minutes/side to crisp up the skin, and it was ready to go. Here’s some pics:

The sous vide setupThermapen vs DSV
Just out of the cookerMore appetizing

And that’s pretty much it. The chicken was perfectly moist, not at all overly chewy or rubbery, had tons of chicken flavour. As sous vide food can be kind of grey and unappetizing looking when it comes out of the cooker, I’d recommend getting thighs with skin/bone and giving them a quick fry in a pot with a few tbsp of oil just to crisp up the skin before serving. Or, use skinless and choose your favourite batter and go for a quick deep fry. As well – this wasn’t $10/lb chicken – this was discount club, frozen chicken thighs.

And this worked out way(yyyyyyy) better than the last time I tried to pressure cook a chicken. The pressure cooked chicken was wet and slightly tough, and had very little flavour. Granted, you can’t cook a whole chicken sous vide, but given the easy availability of chicken breasts & thighs, I can’t see a good reason to cook a whole chicken when you can cook it this well, this easily.

Your mileage may vary significantly. This cooking method is not foolproof, and your results can vary depending on the initial temperature of the meat, the quality of the meat, if you get the air out of the bags, and a lot of other factors. But for the food I had, today, likely with a pinch of luck, it worked out really, really well. Happy cooking!

→ 1 CommentTags: Cooking at home · Modernist cuisine

Under Pressure

October 2nd, 2012 · No Comments

I don’t usually blog about stuff that I do at home; it’s just usually not that interesting and if I’m cooking for myself it usually comes out of a box (“there are those who believe that hamburger needs no help. I am not one of these people.”) But today, I did something new (for me) in the kitchen, something that’s not at all popular among my generation, and was until recently verging on ‘lost knowledge’: I used a pressure cooker.

Sure, we all remember our grandparents having one of these. My grandparents had some story about it exploding, and my grandmother going to wipe the chicken soup off the ceiling and stepping on the left-on burner, resulting in her falling off the counter and winding up in bed for several weeks. Not the kind of story that encouraged me to actually use a pressure cooker for a lot of reasons: if my grandparents did it, it probably didn’t taste very good; and the thought of something exploding in the kitchen, other than perhaps an ‘explosion of taste’ isn’t something I’m interested in.

But a friend of ours works at America’s Test Kitchen and she is wonderful for pointing us towards innovative cooking techniques, or new recipes that we should try. It turns out that ATK has a Pressure Cooker book coming out, and so she bought a pressure cooker, and was impressed with the results, and suggested I do the same.

It doesn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to get me to get a new kitchen gadget, so I went online and got one of these, a Fissler vitaquick 8.5qt pressure cooker. Let me just rave about this for a second. I’ve got lots of nice kitchen stuff at home. The usual stand mixer, some nice knives, a few nice pots and pans. But this thing is like having cookware made by Mercedes-Benz in your kitchen. It has a solidity that few other kitchen items I’ve ever owned has. When the lid engages, it makes a satisfying combination of a ‘thud’ and a ‘click’ that makes you say to yourself, “this thing is *not* going to explode on me”. Cooking on a gas stove for 30 minutes? No problem: the handles are still cool. It’s amazing.

And certainly, a common complaint about a lot of high-end cookware like Le Creuset or All-Clad is that it’s heavy. This is a bit of a physics problem. Le Creuset is heavy because it’s enameled cast iron; if you want the amazing heat spreading and heat retention properties that those pots have, you need to make them out of something like cast iron – it’s not a very good conductor, and it’s strong, and you enamel it so you can cook sauces and stews in it that wouldn’t be safe to cook in raw cast iron. The same goes for pressure cookers. It’s a physics problem – you can’t safely have 15psi of pressure in a very hot container without making it out of something very strong. And strong, when it comes to kitchenware, means heavy. An 8.5qt pressure cooker is going to be heavy – but the good news is that it’s not as heavy as a cast iron dutch oven and the nice thing about the Fissler is that it has two big solid plastic handles that are easy to grab on to for transporting it on/off the stove.

Ok, back to the food. The recipe was a modified version of one of the ATK recipies; it called for BBQ sauce, but as I didn’t have any at home, and I prefer my ribs to be more on the umami/savory end of the spectrum rather than on the sweeter end, I substituted a bottle of Trader Joe’s Soyaki Teriaki sauce instead.

Here is my very modified version:
3 racks of pork ribs (about 2.5lbs per rack), from the local discount club warehouse
3 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp ground pepper
1 tbsp salt
hot sauce
1 bottle Teriyaki sauce
1.5 cups water

1. Mix the brown sugar, ground pepper, and salt together in a bowl and set aside
2. Put out the racks of ribs in front of you on the counter, and rub them down with hot sauce. You can use sriracha if you like them hotter, or use whatever brand of hot sauce you have sitting in your kitchen door. I used a fairly liberal amount of hot sauce and the ribs weren’t hot at all – they just had a bit of sharpness to them that was flavour more than anything.
3. Rub the ribs with the sugar/salt/pepper mixture, and cut them into two-rib pieces
4. Put the pressure cooker on the stove
* And a word of warning here: pressure cookers are dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. You need to read the manual before you use your pressure cooker.
5. Add the water to the pressure cooker, ensuring you’re at least at the minimum fill line.
6. Stand the ribs up, meat side out in the pot.
7. Douse the ribs liberally with the teriyaki sauce; for 7.5lbs of ribs, use the whole 21oz bottle. At least 2 cups.
8. Cook for 30 minutes at the high setting, and do a quick release of pressure after the 35 minutes is up.
9. Baste the ribs with sauce from the pot and broil them under your broiler for 4-5 minutes.

The total prep time was about 10 minutes, and the total cooking time, including the pressure cooker warm-up and broiling was about 45 minutes.

And how were the ribs? Here’s the important thing: they were perfectly cooked; fall-off-the bone tender, none of the toughness that I have sometimes seen in meat cooked in slow cookers, and none of the rubberiness that you can see in other types of quick cooking methods (e.g. microwave). Just perfect.

And how was the flavour? Pretty good; for a $2.99 bottle of teriyaki sauce and about $0.50 worth of hot sauce and salt/pepper/sugar, it wasn’t bad. Sure, the ATK recipe would probably have been better, but this was just what I had at home, and it let lots of the meat flavour come through, with the flavour of the sauce and seasoning in the background. We’ve all had ribs slathered in BBQ sauce where you can’t really taste the meat over the liquid smoke and sugar flavour. Not these ones at all – slightly savoury, minimally sweet, and all meat, just how I like them.

One hint though: I would recommend not skipping the broiling step. Cooking red meat in a pressure cooker is a bit like sous vide cooking in that you run the risk of getting nondescript, wet, grey meat out of the pot when you’re done. The broiling step just slightly dries and crisps the surface of the meat, without taking away any of the inner moisture, to perfect the texture. You can skip it, but I wouldn’t.

So that was my first foray into pressure cooking. Nobody had to wipe anything off the ceiling, and everyone ate way more meat then they had originally planned at the start of the meal, always a good sign. I can’t believe that it cooked 7.5 lbs of ribs in 35 minutes, and not only did it cook them so fast, it cooked them better than I could have ever hoped to do on a BBQ without probably years of practice to get them right. It looks like my grandparents were on to something – delicious food, and fast.

The Fissler came out of the sink looking like it had when it came out of the box, and was easy to use and performed as advertised. No complaints there.

My thanks to my friend at ATK for the amazing suggestion and recipe. More to come…

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A word about bad reviews

October 1st, 2012 · No Comments

Some friends have criticized me for rarely (or never, basically) saying anything bad about restaurants.

Here’s mainly why: I don’t write about the bad ones.

Here’s the other reason why: I usually don’t eat at the bad ones. There are so many restaurant reviews out there now, including aggregation sites where reviews get pooled and the sample size is huge, that you can usually figure out what is good and what is bad before you go. So, I avoid the bad places. Thus, there are few, if any bad reviews on this website.

Here’s the other reason why: I’ve rarely been to a restaurant where everything is bad. I try to see the restaurant for what it is; I don’t go to a cheap Chinese restaurant and complain that it has plastic tablecloths or that the server was brusque. If I go to a tourist trap, does it live up to its billing as at least being fun, have overly-friendly service, tacky decor, and pretty run-of-the-mill food? If so, then that’s ok. You don’t go to the Lobster Pot for molecular gastronomy. You go because it’s huge, conveniently-located, they’ll seat you fast, their lobster will be decent, and you’ll get service with a smile. On that account, it gets 5/5.

I write about restaurants and food because I enjoy dining out, and I enjoy writing. That’s it. If I can share what I thought was good about an experience, and you go there on my review, and you like it too, then great. If you see a place on this site, even if you think I wasn’t crazy about it, you should probably go there and try it out; me writing about it meant that I thought it was interesting enough, or good enough to write about. It’s as simple as that.


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