Fabricating Fabulous (Comfort) Food From Fowl

Meanwhile, back at the chicken breast…

Ok, so I have been working on learning about sous vide cooking for a while now (I got my copy of Under Pressure Christmas 2008). I didn’t start the actual hands-on part until February when I took delivery of my new, shiny magic machine. In spite of the lack of available recipes for the home cook, I have soldiered on, experimenting and learning as I go. I have made chicken breast, strip steak, flank steak, lamb shanks, lamb breast, duck breast, and chicken breast again. (Do I see a trend here?) You have heard about many of these in prior posts. It has all been very instructive and rewarding, but thus far the poultry breasts, both duck and chicken, have been the most amazing. A big challenge has been figuring out what to do with stuff once you have cooked it sous vide.

Now I don’t know about you, but I adore chicken pot pie. (I’m not talking Swanson here – that’s what we were raised on. In those days, they went on sale at 10 for a dollar and you understood why: you could never find any chicken inside. I hated that junk – even though in those days I’ll bet it did not have nearly the chemicals and additives that it has today.) No frozen chemical kits for me! I’m talking about the real, honest–to-goodness, made-from-scratch kind of chicken pot pie. I decided to try a pot pie with sous vide cooked chicken breast, instead of my usual method which uses breast meat poached on the stove top. Chicken pot pie is an easy dish to master and man oh man did it come out fabulously with that chicken.

Here is what I did: I cooked the chicken breasts sous vide for the pot pie at a slightly cooler (57.5C/135.5F) temp than for other chicken breast dishes. This helped to ensure that the chicken did not get overcooked because I knew that I was going to cut the meat up and toss it back into a hot béchamel sauce to combine it with the other ingredients just before serving.

I considered the option of putting the chicken into the sauce with the vegetables after removing it from the stove, covering it with a crust and baking the crust in the oven. I think this would have worked too – especially if I put the whole pie under the broiler, instead of baking it in the oven. In either case, I knew the chicken was going to have to endure an assault of more heat and I was working on finding a methodology that didn’t significantly alter the wonderful texture and juiciness the chicken takes on in the water oven.

A béchamel sauce is fairly quick and easy, especially a lower fat one. I always keep good, rich chicken stock on hand in my freezer. I make it from stewing hens – one good old bird will make a gallon of strong stock which I divide up into pint containers. I took a pint of that stock and brought it up to a boil on the stove, then turned down the flame and reduced the stock by a good quarter. Once reduced, I turned off the heat and stirred in a cup of low fat (2%) milk, some freshly grated nutmeg, a good heavy pinch of cayenne pepper, ¼ tsp white pepper and lightly salted it to taste.  In a bowl I mixed a quarter of a cup of half and half (you can use heavy cream if you want) with 1/3 cup of granulated flour. I then added in some of the seasoned broth/milk mixture, a little at a time, much like you would do if you were tempering egg yolks for custard. I continued whisking this mixture until it was nice and smooth. I strained this mixture into the broth and stirred constantly while I reheated the sauce got it to come to the desired thickness.

If for some reason you do this and your sauce is not as thick as you would like, you can add more liquefied flour in the same manner. It is best to correct the consistency of the sauce this way before you add back the solid ingredients. By the way, I have tried cornstarch and other thickeners but for pot pie I prefer flour. Of course, I really prefer to make the sauce the “right” way – first making a white roux with lots of butter and flour and then whisking in the hot reduced whole cream and stock little by little. But alas, in order to keep the very overweight person (“Big Merri”) inside of me from getting out, I have come up with this “skinny” method. It is not at all disappointing. Close enough to its more fattening counterpart the end result is a thick and velvety béchamel  into which you can put all the other ingredients to produce a delicious pot pie filling.

A wonderful thing about a pot pie is that it is well suited to individuality and variation. A great variation to the plain béchamel is to add a heavy dose of your favorite curry seasoning to the sauce. If you do this, hit it with a tablespoon of sugar because the curry tends to be a little bitter. Also, you will want to first simmer the sauce with the curry a little while before you start the thickening process.

The other ingredients can be altered or added to, as well. You like celery? Just lightly sauté some and add it to the sauce. My mom used to like it with lima beans (feh!). I make mine with fresh diced waxy potatoes, pearl onions, and carrots, and thawed frozen petit peas (I use the frozen variety as fresh peas are near impossible to come by). If my family ate mushrooms, I would definitely add these in. Remember to saute these well to release water so your sauce won’t thin out too much. I pre-cook all vegetables to just slightly al dente, individually so as not to overcook any of them. (Don’t you just hate mushy vegetables?) I add these to the final mixture, just before the chicken, gently stirring just long enough to get everything up to the desired temperature. The meat always goes in last – another bit of insurance to avoid overcooking.

Here is the end result:

Now you can see I had other motivation for settling on the stove-top method of pot pie construction: I had a sheet of puff pastry on hand that I wanted to use for my crust. The beauty of doing it this way is that it eliminates some time pressure, not to mention that a puff pastry crust is effing fantastic! You can cook off the puff pastry and hold it in your warm oven while you are getting your other ingredients ready. You can even re-heat the stuff once it has been cooked. Though this is less desirable to me, it is doable. Just before serving the pot pie, take your big French knife to the cooked puff pastry to cut it into smaller pieces. You can get a fine shape and a clean edge with a swift push of the blade. Cooked puff pastry looks great and you can portion it out however you like.

No, smarty pants, I did not make the puff pastry from scratch. It may be very satisfying and therapeutic to do so, but the quality of the ready-made puff pastry, which can be bought from the gourmet grocer, is totally fabulous. Moreover, I am not a martyr! (Just make sure you are buying a puff pastry that is pure and simple – and made with real butter.) I thawed out that puff pastry dough and made my crust on a sheet pan in the oven. By placing a second sheet pan crosswise on top of the one holding the dough. This way I was able to leave plenty of space for it to cook while at the same time prevent the dough from rising unevenly.

Though I can rarely get my family to tell me what they want for dinner, they do ask for this dish from time to time. They gobbled up this version up and they were not at all unhappy that it was lacking the more traditional crust. In fact, my adorable, darling, precious, sweet, lovely teenaged step-daughter even went back for seconds – a real rarity. For a formerly finicky pastatarian (a vegetarian who only eats carbs), I took that as a great complement.

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Filed under Chicken Breasts, Cooking, Pie, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, water oven

Of Food Fads and Fashion

 
This is only part of the collection

Shoes, glorious shoes!

Many foods, spices, ingredients and even particular dishes, are kinda like shoes (very close to the top of my list of favorite things, after food). Once it becomes fashionable, a style tends to hang out for a while and then, no matter how big it became, eventually it grows less important or even fades out completely.  However, with shoes and other things sartorial, trends don’t come on very gradually. Shoe and clothing styles get stuffed down our fashion conscious throats in one season. I am sure there is some invisible panel of fashion nazis who decide that starting next season, patent leather with studs is going to be in. If we don’t fall in line, at least somewhat, others look at us and label us as “old school” or, even worse, just old! 

Thankfully, I don’t think it works this way with food.  Culinary trends and specific foods sneak into our consciousness and down our gullet more slowly and quietly. One might see an ingredient or a particular dish show up once or twice over a period of time, especially if you travel and eat in urban environments. Then bit by bit they seem to mushroom out in the culinary landscape. I don’t know who decides or why, but when a food fashion finally takes hold, just like square toes or pointy, we regularly find ourselves eating in step with the trend.   

I like to refer to these ingredients and dishes as “it” foods. Some people might call them “food fads.” I don’t want to belittle them this way. Even though, in the most non-belittling way, I have to admit they seem to permeate our consciousness in a very faddish manner. Then again, once the meal is over, nobody cares about what you did or didn’t eat – we are not seen as out of step with the fashion, just because we don’t want to eat a particular food or ingredient. We are far more tolerant when it comes to what we eat than regarding what we wear.     

I think, more important, is the fact that we can learn something about what is going on in our society by focusing on these foods. Take the example of one “it” food that I love to moan about: the molten chocolate cake.      

Chocolate Lava Cake photo by Glane34 Wikimedia Chocolate Lava Cake Glane23 Wikimedia      

This dish got a complete hold on menus in the US sometime in the (I’m guessing here) early/mid 90’s. It is, IMHO, a perfect representation of the excesses of that decade: too much chocolate, too much sweet, too much gooey, gloppy goop, often made even gloppier and sweeter with someone’s idea of gourmet ice cream (which often turns out to be uninspired, or in other cases and very telling, the best part of the dish). For years and years we have been subjected to this over-rated, often badly executed and now totally unexciting dessert.  There is nothing new to be done with it, no new flavors, shapes, garnishes, or brands that can salvage the thing, it is just done.      

Sometimes, whole groups of foods are “it” foods. Within the fast few years, comfort foods have started to regain importance. Showing up on the menus of better restaurants, a lot of pub food, whether or not reinvented as haute (i.e. gastropub food) is typical comfort food. Not only is comfort food chef and eater friendly, it brings to mind our fondest childhood memories. Our mom’s fixed comfort food – even if they made it badly and even if we didn’t call it by that name, we loved to eat it. Tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf, chicken with rice, beef stew: kids of all generations become utterly nostalgic when thinking of the one that became the signature dish of their household. Formerly limited to the diner, these foods are now being offered as menu staples as well as daily specials in restaurants of all levels. The trend is in full swing and comfort food is “it!”      

At least for now, you won’t find me moaning about this trend one bit. I think that our society needs some comfort NOW. After all that has gone on with our political system, with the turmoil and constant discomfort of our economy, with the rising tide against all that we worked for in the 60’s and 70’s, our society needs some mothering!      

Next up: Chicken Pot Pie with help from the Sous Vide Supreme      

 

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Food Trends, Social Commentary

Formerly a Lobster Lover, Fanatic Finds this Food Fascinating

You know the deserted island game, right? I play it a lot because it just so happens that you can easily play it with yourself and I’m the person I spend the most amount of time with (awwww). I used to say that if I could only take three foods with me to the deserted island, one of them would definitely be lobster.

Sadly, a few years ago I developed an allergy to them. Everytime I ate one I experienced abdominal pain (right under my rib cage on my right side, if you must know) that made me want to kill myself. I should have gone to the hospital, it hurt that bad. But the thought of going to a hospital made me want to kill myself. I ate lobster two more times after my initial experience with the pain/lobster connection, just to test the hypothesis. Ever the experimenter, I am. Research resulted in more excruciating pain. Each time I said, “ok, next time I am going to the hospital.” I think it is my gall bladder but that is not a nice subject for a food blog so we will save it for another time. And besides, I am not really a doctor and I don’t even play one on TV.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that I still love to look at lobster, wax poetic and think about how wonderful I know it tastes. I do this even though  I know I will never eat more than just a tiny bite or two (or a spoon or two of that wonderful bisque), ever again.

That having been said, back on the subject of sous vide cooking, here is a wonderful blog post  that tells you how to cook the stuff. If you don’t want to kill your own, you can just do a tail (IMHO, the inferior part) using this guy’s techniques. Enjoy…and think of me!

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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

What’s all this talk about Sous Vide, anyway?

The internet is such a wonderful thing. Rich with information (and, unfortunately mis/dis information) and debate. I have learned a tremendous amount of the very little I know and understand about sous vide cooking from several great internet sources. Recently, I discovered a site called Cooking Issues. These guys are the real deal – they have a cooking school and they do tons of cutting edge culinary magic including all sorts of experiments with chemicals and processes that we, the ordinary folks, have no concept is even going on.

I don’t make a habit of quoting big passages from other sites but since Cooking Issues is so dense and chocked full of information, I thought I would give you an exerpt which is, I hope going to give you some food for though regarding just what sous vide cooking is about. This is from the February 10, 2010 blog post of CookingIssues.com:

Sous-Vide Defined:

In contrast, the simplest way to define sous-vide may be to refer to its French meaning, “under vacuum.” Anything associated with a vacuum machine is sous-vide. In restaurants, the sous-vide process usually (but not always) consists of:

  • placing products into impervious plastic bags
  • putting those bags under vacuum
  • heat sealing those bags
  • releasing the vacuum
  • further manipulating, processing, or storing

This is where it gets confusing: sous-vide techniques are often used for low temperature cooking, but not all sous-vide cooking is low-temperature cooking. The classic example of this is boil-in-bag meals. The cooking medium is boiling water—not low temperature. Yet, because there is a vacuum process involved, it is sous-vide. That said, sous-vide is very effective for low-temp cooking because food inside the bags neither dries out nor loses flavor during prolonged cooking if proper temperature is maintained. The vacuum bags also eliminate evaporation and evaporative cooling. The temperature of the food’s surface becomes identical to the cooking temperature after a short time.

Chefs and diners alike often confuse sous-vide and low-temperature cooking. Sous-vide must involve a vacuum process; but the food may be cooked at high or low temperatures. About 90% of what cooks want to achieve with low temperature cooking can be achieved without a vacuum.

For the full article, you can go to here.

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Oh Lard, its Pi Day

It being 3/14 today, there is lots of twitter (@fabfoodfanatic) on the internet about PI Day. So, in honor of this special occasion, which only comes around once a year, I thought that I would tell you my political views about pie crust.

I make it with lard, the old fashioned way.

WHAT’S THAT YOU SAID? I said lard!

No, I don’t buy that stuff in the store – feh! never. I make said lard by rendering pure pork back fat in my kitchen. This is very easy to do. Pork back fat is the solid, snowy white fat that comes off of the back of the pig.

I get that fat whenever I buy a mess of pig, which I do every now and then. I am lucky enough to be part of a group of fellow food fanatics who, like me, only want to eat locally grown and processed, organic, small farm/pasture raised, no chemical or drugs administered, pig. Just like the lamb I talked about in a previous post you get all sorts of interesting things when you buy your food this way. Though, I have to admit, I know to ask for the back fat because I had read about so many delicious things you can do with it! If you don’t have a hankering to buy a pig, you can ask your friendly butcher (hopefully an organic, pasture raised supplier of meat, that is) to get you some.

So, back on the topic of PIE and lard, there are a couple of ways to do it, both pretty simple. The back fat may come to you with or without the pig skin. This is fantastic stuff in its own right but, because you want to keep your lard as pure white as newly fallen snow, you don’t want to leave it on for the rendering. So just take a big ol’ very sharp french knife  and scrape that fat off of the skin. Save the skin for some craklins or other goodies. The first way is to chop up the fat in relatively equal sized small chunks (1 inch dice is good) and the second way is to run the fat through a meat grinder using the large die. Which every you choose, put the fat in a nice sturdy pot. A cast iron dutch oven is good, if you have it, but anything will do so long as you regulate your heat carefully.

For a couple of pounds of back fat – which is the least you want to bother with – put two cups of water in there with it. Heat the fat and water up to just below boiling and then lower the flame until it is barely simmering. You want to watch to make sure the heat is not too high because you must keep the protein and other stuff, which will separate out from the fat, from turning brown. This will discolor your final product and, most important, will make it so your lard tastes just a little too porky. (Porky tasting lard is only good for savory stuff, but not good for sweets like pie.) As the water simmers, the good fat will melt and the water will evaporate. When you have a pot full of just melted fat, with just a small amount of leftover solid matter, you are done. This might take 4-8 hours, so make sure you are available to keep an eye on it. Strain it off into a container that won’t melt so you can store it when it cools down. I use mason jars.

You can freeze your lard and it will keep indefinitely. In the fridge, it will keep up to a year. I also use it to fry eggs, chops, potatoes and so forth. A little bit goes a long way, as my mother used to say.

If you want to know how to make a pie crust with lard, make it like you usually do (from scratch, silly) but just substitute 1/2 to all of the butter you normally use with the lard. Add a teaspoon of white vinegar to your water, too. The more Lard you use, the softer your dough so you have to chill the dough well before you roll it out. It is worth it.

Happy Pi day.

Edit: This morning I received an email from Steve Atkinson who left a comment here too. He reminded me of something that I think is important to pass on to you. Specifically what he said is that “free-range pork lard is the food with the largest amount of Vit. D after cod liver oil—important during the winter months.” Thanks again Steve! You can find more great information on what Steve does by clicking on his name above.

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Filed under Cooking, Lard, Pie, Pork

Fanatic Falls For a Flight of Fancy: Duck, that is.

Ok, so were gonna have to do this one in stages. Feel free to send in any ideas you might have or things you would like me to try with this stuff. I don’t know what I am doing with it all. I just got a bug in my bonnet and had to have it. Here we go:

That’s my darling husband. (I purposefully cut off his head so he could stay incognito and so I could get you to focus on the box.) That’s the box sent to me after I placed an order with Hudson Valley Fois Gras. I was surprised that they just left it at the door and did not even ring the bell. Thank goodness I was home and watching for it! They make you pay for overnight delivery cause the stuff is really fresh. Needless to say, I didn’t have any issue with this.

That’s what the contents looked like before I unloaded the packages from inside of the styrofoam cooler which was inside of the box (who gave his father two zuzim). I was expecting, at least, some dry ice inside of that. But nooooooo, it was only Nordic Ice (a cold pak to you and me). Know what the Ruttles said when the learned that Leggy Mountbatten had left for a teaching job in Australia? Repeat after me in your best Liverpudlian accent: They were “shocked and stunned.”

After I unloaded the stuff, this is what the contents looked like:

So, what’s a girl to do??????

Coming soon to a blog near you: Sous Vide Duck Breast

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Filed under Cooking, Duck, Fois Gras, Sous Vide