Category Archives: kitchen tools

Flowers for Foodies: You are what you eat?

When last we met, I made a promise about squash blossoms. These are lovely things and when I see them on restaurant menus, I am always captivated. Generally speaking, I really like the idea of eating flowers. This may be silly but I do. A flower is a thing of beauty and I happen to like the idea of eating things of beauty. Especially if it is true that you are what you eat.

You probably won’t find squash blossoms in an ordinary grocery store. If you do, I would not advise buying them unless you are going to pulverize them into soup. They could not possibly be fresh enough for stuffing. I found mine at one of my favorite local farmers’ markets. Squash blossoms are extremely perishable and difficult to keep. It is best to prepare and serve them on the same day they are picked, especially if you are going to stuff them. Mine had been picked the morning I purchased them and even still a couple were so badly bruised that I  had to toss them in the compost bucket! Don’t you just hate that?

You can see in the photo how beautiful they are. They have these delicate green veins – look closely. Mine were female as they had small squash attached which I removed for another time. The flowers tend to be about 4 inches in diameter and about three inches long. This leaves them with plenty of space to put some filling.

Apparently, squash blossoms open up early in the morning. One article I read encouraged picking them at that time so they would remain open and be easier to stuff. I had no problem gently coaxing mine open to get them ready for filling. I carefully washed them out. In one, I found a little bug. Unlike flowers, I am not interested in eating bugs. I also removed the stamens. Why? Because several recipes suggested that this part tastes bitter. It was easy to do. I just stuck the tip of a small kitchen shears inside and carefully clipped it away.

Most of the recipes I found called for stuffing the flowers, coating them in some way and then frying them quickly. Some called for a simple dusting with corn starch or flour and others suggested using a batter. I decided to use the same  basic batter I use when making Mexican style chile rellenos only with different seasonings.

 Here is the mis en place for the batter: a separated egg and a little bit of  flour (mixed with some onion powder, salt and pepper).

I also decided to use a fairly mild filling because the blossoms are hardly about flavor. With a lightly seasoned batter fried just so, this dish is so much more about mouthfeel than anything else. My meal consisted of polenta with guanciale and sous vide duck breast with a cherry gastrique in addition to the squash blossom rellenos. This dinner was a wonderful study of contrast in texture and taste: crispy and subtle vegetables set off against the meaty poultry with its pungent, fruity sauce and the creamy, bacony polenta.

To make the filling I used fresh ricotta flavored with preserved lemon, fresh mint, thyme, just a touch of basil, and some salt. I plucked the herbs from my garden – some of the few things I can grow in spite of my cursed black thumbs.

I finely minced the herbs in the small bowl fitted to my immersion blender (still my favorite kitchen implement), added the other ingredients and gave it a couple of pulses.

I ended up with a lovely emulsion though I wish it would not have thinned out so much. Next time I might add some flour or walnuts to bind it a bit.

To make the batter, I whipped the egg white until it was stiff but not dry, folded in the yolk which I had stirred well and then sprinkled on the seasoned flour. The flour was then lightly folded into the egg mixture, keeping the batter plenty light and fluffy.

Earlier, when I opened and cleaned out the blossoms, I set them on some plastic so by the time I was ready to prepare them for frying, they were pretty dry. As I filled each blossom with the cheese mixture, I brought the petals together and gently pinched them between my fingers just enough to keep them closed while I slathered them with the batter.

The batter more or less “glued” the petals together so the filling did not come out during frying – at least most of the time. I fried them up in very hot, but not smoking, canola oil. Canola works well because of its total neutrality. The frying went very fast – it took maybe a minute or two to get one side a nice golden brown. I flipped them over with a spatula, rather than a pair of tongs, to avoid having them break open and spill the filling. They came out looking really good.

I lost a little filling from one, but it was still  fine for serving.

Our dinner was lovely and romantic. We had great fun taking bites of the three dishes and experiencing the different flavors and textures. 

A couple of notes: Sour pie cherries have about a 3-4 week season here. I picked 25 pounds this year and canned them all. I made the gastrique from some juice that was unused after I had canned all the fruit. It was mildly sweet and intensely cherry flavored. After reducing the juice to 1/4 of its original volume, I amended it with some 18 year old balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon or so of honey. The polenta was actually left over from a meal we had earlier in the week. While it was in the fridge, the guanciale permeated the cooked polenta in a wonderful way. It tasted even better the second time around! The duck breast was cooked in the same manner described in my earlier post here.

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Duck, Farmers Market, kitchen tools, Sous Vide

Fanatic Fiddles with Fire; Lamb roast gets torched.

My mother-in-law (Libby) loves lamb. However, she also thinks that it is only for a special occasion. Thus, she only eats lamb at a restaurant…unless I cook it for her. I, on the other hand, eat lamb when ever the mood strikes. This is good for my mother-in-law! I was raised on the stuff (steak or Chinese food was what we ate on a special occasion). As a kid we ate lamb burgers, lamb chops and roast leg of lamb. My mom’s meatloaf even had lamb in it. From the left-over leg, we had lamb sandwiches. I don’t think I ever at lamb at a restaurant until I got a little older and went through a fancy French (aka a we-sauce-it-all)  restaurant phase when Carré D’agneau came into my lexicon.
 
So, when I seasoned up the last of the shoulder roasts I had in my freezer and sent it swimming in the Sous Vide Supreme, I gave Libby a call. Because of its size and somewhat tough nature, the roast was going to be in the water oven (at 57.5C/135.5F) for at least 36 hours. When it came time to take it out, if I didn’t serve it immediately, I knew I could hold it in the fridge for a couple of days after that as long as I quick chilled it down in an ice water bath before storing it. (See this if you have any questions about that.)  I stored it in the the bag I had cooked it in, with all the spicy juices infused with the garlic, herbs, and pepper I had put into the bag with the meat. There was about 1 1/2 cups of jus in the bag at the end with which I planned to make a sauce.  But I got distracted by spring. 

 

The season arrived here in the midwest like it has not done in several years and with it came plethora of articles containing recipes about cooking lamb. Springtime is, you see, the time when lambs are born, not to mention Easter, a traditional holiday for eating lamb (why not try rabbit…ok, ok, just a bad taste joke).  By the way, the spring lamb is not really ready for Easter, at least here, because our lambs are not harvested until May. Anyway I digress: I had seen one article in which people were mercilessly diss-ing that good old fashioned mint jelly (which is actually apple jelly flavored with mint) that we used to eat with lamb as kids. That stuff is really pretty disgusting. So I decided to try something suggested by one of these writers.

As instructed in the recipe, I took a whole mess of fresh mint from my garden, chopped it up with my favorite tool (the immersion blender) using the little chopper attachment. In the end, I had about a cup of chopped mint. I boiled a half of a cup of apple cider vinegar and a quarter cup of water with a half cup of brown sugar, making sure that the sugar was well dissolved. I set the liquid aside and when it was a bit cooled, I added the chopped mint. Voila! This was described by the writer of the recipe as a traditional English “mint sauce” and touted as being a much tastier accompanyment for roast lamb.

Meanwhile, back at the lamb, I heated the roast back up in the SVS about an hour before my mother-in-law was expected to arrive. This was more than enough time to get the roast heated back up to the 57.5C temp at which I had cooked it. And here is something beautiful about sous vide cooking: by heating the meat no higher than the temp at which it was first prepared, the meat does not become more well done!

Think about it. It is impossible for anything in the water bath to get heated higher than the temperature of the water it is cooked in. Even more important is the fact that heat transfer in water is far, far faster than it is in air (like in your oven). On the re-heat, by allowing the meat to spend only as much time as was needed to bring it up to temperature, the meat is not further cooked! If you re-heat something in a conventional oven, in order to get to a desirable eating temperature internally in a reasonable amount of time, it must cook more on the outside.

Just before I was ready to serve this dinner, I took the roast from the SVS, removed it from the bag and patted it dry with some paper towels. 

   

I took out my Iwatani Pro kitchen torch and worked that baby over thoroughly with the fire.

The effect of this was to put a yummy crust on the outside of the roast and also to heat up the outside just a little bit more.  Here is the roast after I torched it but before it was sliced completely. Look at that fabulous crust!

The roast was tender and moist and sliced with ease. It sliced up beautifully and looked so pretty on the platter. 

 

I served it with some lovely pasta from the farmer’s market which I sauced with a little mascarpone and butter. The pasta was flavored with pepper and lemon so it didn’t need much. I tossed together some organic greens with a very light vinagrette and let the lamb do all the talking.

Dinner is served

It was fabulously tender, juicy and so flavorful that it really did not need any sauce at all. This was a good thing because, in all honesty, I just hated that traditional mint sauce. I took one taste of that stuff – way, way, way too sweet (much sweeter than any nasty mint jelly, in fact) – and shoved it off to the side. It might have been nice to have a sauce made from the jus but actually, I was the only one to notice. Bob and Libby ate their meal with relish and my mother-in-law continued to rave about how she loves lamb.

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Filed under Cooking, kitchen tools, Lamb, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

Fanatic Found Fiddling with Fowl; aka DUCK, Part 2

A few posts ago, I showed you box containing a cooler full of duck  that I found on my doorstep one day. Well, I didn’t really find it, I ordered it from HVFG without having the foggiest idea of what I was going to do with it once I had it. A number of folks congratulated me on my purchases, and one person even expressed duck envy, but no one came up with any suggestions for what I ought to do with all or any part of this booty.

Oh, what’s that you say? I am supposed to tell you what to do with it. Moi?

Well, for future reference, if while reading about my culinary exploits you find yourself thinking “I would have done something like this …, or “why doesn’t she just do…”, please feel free to leave a nice comment. (“Hey, stupid” is not gonna fly for me.) Kathy recently did just that (left a nice, polite and informative comment) on Pi day and I very much appreciated it!

Nevertheless, it is my little red wagon so I guess I am going to have to push or pull it myself. And so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you the first sous vide DUCK BREAST I ever cooked (drum roll):

 OK, it was fairly crappy, IMHO. I cooked it too long and too hot. It was in the SVS for 4 hours at 59C (138.2 F). It was just a little too well done, at least for me since I like my duck on the more rare side and this was decidedly medium. Additionally, it was not the right texture. I could tell that I had cooked it for too long because it was too tender. It was not quite mushy like the expensive, grass-fed flank steak I destroyed, but it completely lost its steak/meat-like quality. 

My family, including my sweet, adorable, darling, teenaged, step-daughter, who is the pickiest eater on the planet, didn’t notice. Hubby and she ate it quite happily. I think it was the cherry and honey demi-glace together with the crispy, bacon like skin that I garnished it with. I will tell you how to make that below. I served a rocket salad with watercress on the side. It looks terrible in this photo. But trust me, it was not drenched with dressing or wilting as it appears. Note to self: don’t dress the greens before the photo, simply spray them a tiny bit to get a shine. I actually used a delicious, very mild lemon juice and olive oil emulsion to dress the greens, which was a nice complement to the rich duck and its sweet sauce.

Anyway, live and learn.

The second duck was, if I do say so myself, divine. Bob took a bite and I watched as his eyes rolled back in his head in a foodgasmic state. He said he would have gladly paid the big bucks for this duck in a restaurant. So here, for your enjoyment is the food porn with a little bit of explanation:

Preparing duck breast for sous vide

 I removed the skin from the breast meat. It was easy to do. All I had to do was carefully pull it away. In a couple of places I had to use my handy-dandy boning knife to help me out, but not much. I reserved the skin, wrapped in plastic, in the fridge. 

I cooked the duck this time around in the SVS at 57.5 C (135F) for one hour and 15 minutes. This was exactly right, as it turns out. It came out perfectly medium rare and it retained its steak-like quality. There was nothing tough or chewy about this duck, it was plenty tender and easy to chew. But you definitely knew you were eating some good meat.

When the duck breast was ready I took it out of the bag and patted it dry with a paper towel. Now this is the exciting part. I already told you that I am a serious apparataphilliac (pronounced: ap-uh-rat-uh-fil-lee-ak). I especially love kitchen gadgets. So, for the first time, I got to use my new blow torch. It was quite the thrill as you might imagine!

Food comes out of the vacuum bag and water bath cooked evenly, all the way through. No one part is more done than another because NOTHING can get hotter than the temp of the water. It’s brilliant! This, to my mind, is the number one benefit of this cute toy.

However, we the eating public have a preference for food, in particular protein, to have a nice “crust” on the outside, an area that has been carmelized or “browned” as my mother used to say. This is called the Maillard Reaction and it is all about a complex chemical change that occurs when you touch food with high heat. I highly recommend you read Dr. Baldwin or Harold McGee, if you really want to know more about this. Suffice it for me to say here that there are several ways you can accomplish this.

The easiest and simplest is to just heat up a good heavy skillet with a light coating of some neutral, high smoke-point oil (I like grape seed, Thomas Keller  likes canola) and toss that baby in the pan on the “show side” for no longer than a minute. Just don’t do your tossing until the oil barely begins to smoke (then, watch that sucker like a hawk) because you will risk overcooking the protein – the precise problem of using the skillet. You don’t want to do that, now do you, since you spent so much time and money figuring out how to cook it evenly throughout, sous vide in your water oven?

Another way to get the Maillard reaction is to use just the right tool (aka gadget). This is where my endorphins kick in, big time. There are a number of different kinds of torches you can use for this purpose, mine is the Iwatani Pro. This is the guy they use in the big leagues. Don’t bother with those namby-pamby creme brulee torches (wanna buy mine from me) they work only for that one purpose and they don’t really do that too well, either. And besides, the big (well, more like medium) Bertha is much more fun!

So, here is the finished result, after slicing but before it was plated:

This time I served it with a much milder, not so overwhelming, sauce. I made it from a very hearty clear chicken stock I had on hand. To the stock I added miripoix (that’s French for diced carrots, celery and onion which gets sautéed in a little butter) and a sachet (that’s French for a little bag) of a sprig of parsley, a sprig of thyme, some peppercorns, a couple of cloves and a bay leaf) and reduced the liquid by half. Next, I added some blueberry syrup (I made that last summer from hand picked blueberries and sugar). While that was reducing, I carmelized a shallot, deglazed it with Cointreau and then strained in the reduction. I strained the sauce one more time to get rid of the little shallot pieces and voila! The veggies you see are parsnips glazed with nutmeg infused brown butter and haricots vert. I got the inspiration for the parsnips from one of the many wonderful food blogs I read. Here it is plated and sauced and ready for feasting on.

Now, finally, I’ll tell you about the crispy skin I garnished the otherwise healthy and very low-fat duck breast with. I dried that sucker off again real well with a paper towel and rubbed it down with my favorite-for-duck Chinese 5 spice. I scored it in a diamond pattern and placed it in a skillet with bacon press on top, turned on the fire and let it rock. Watching it very carefully as it turned the entire stove top into a greasy mess, I fried that skin until it was just like crispy bacon. The whole piece of skin was crisp and most of the fat was rendered off. I drained the skin between more paper towels, weighting it down once again with the still hot bacon press (wiped off) until I was ready to cut it into strips for the garnish. Really, this was just to keep it warm. The end result was unctuous, yummy, deliciousness in a small enough quantity (it’s just a garnish, after all) to keep you from feeling too guilty. Bon appetit!

Soon come, mon: Chicken pot pie?

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Filed under Cooking, Duck, kitchen tools, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Failures, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven