Friday, June 26, 2015

You Want a Rice Cooker Even If You Don't Eat Rice

You may think that rice cookers are only worth having for those of us who eat a lot of rice, but you'd be wrong. There's a lot more you can do with a rice cooker than just steam rice--like the polenta pictured above, perfectly smooth with no lumps. All you have to do is add polenta and water in a 1:4 ratio, hit the cook button, and perfect polenta comes out at the end. Well, you do have to stir the polenta once it's done cooking; it looks like this when the rice cooker flips over to "keep warm":

But then, you need to salt it of course, and maybe you want to stir in some butter at the end, so you have to give it a stir anyway. And that's after 45-60 minutes of no stirring at all, versus frequent stirring in the traditional method.

You can also make a great no-stir risotto with a rice cooker (Wolfgang Puck approves, though the timing and method in his recipe seems specific to his equipment). This one takes a little getting to know your particular rice cooker, since just letting your rice cooker do its thing on risotto will result in overcooked risotto at the end. Risotto generally calls for more fluid than steaming rice does since the targeted end result is wetter than steamed rice. And if you're Kenji L-A, you may add in more dairy/cream at the end, making some risottos a little soupy.

For my rice cooker, I have to stop the cooking about 10 minutes before it finishes "naturally", out of a normally 60 minute cycle. (Nominally 60 minutes, but my rice cooker will sometimes cut minutes short as it adjusts automatically with Zojirushi magic to whatever's going on inside its belly.)

On the other hand, Kenji L-A's method of making risotto in a skillet instead of a tall pot, which allows for more even heating over the volume of rice in the pan, works so well and easily (you only need to stir once in the middle of the cooking time!) that I think it's simpler just to do it on the stove-top rather than in a rice cooker. But the rice cooker option's there, say, if you need your burners or skillet. A caveat about Kenji L-A's recipe, though: I found his cooking time of 10 + 10 minutes (stir halfway through a total of 20 minutes) to result in overcooked rice, and needed to shave a few minutes off. Maybe it's the arborio rice I'm using versus his carnaroli, or maybe the minimum heat setting on my stove is higher than on his.

Besides polenta and risotto, rice cookers are also handy for making steel-cut oats without having to watch over them. I don't actually use mine for steel-cut oats anymore, though, since scaling up to doing 5 days worth (the work-week) at one time in a large pot, using the boil-and-overnight-soak method (I skip the frying and go straight to boiling).

Notice the theme here, about slow-cooking grains. Rice cookers are basically automated slow cookers, which may also work well for these uses. Though, my multi-function rice cooker has convenient "porridge" and "steam" functions as well, which I use for congee, polenta, and steel-cut oats, and, well, steaming, respectively. (Mine actually even has a "bake" function, which I've used for some tasty green tea sponge cake a couple times, but I haven't used it enough and am not enough of a baker to be able to say much about it.)

And what can you steam with a rice cooker? Whatever you want that will fit inside! Mine has a convenient plastic steamer insert (so as to avoid scratching the non-stick surface of the inner pot), but it's rather shallow and hangs close to the top. I've done vegetables, dumplings, and meats before. Pretty easy-mode for steaming chicken when you need a quick and easy weeknight meal, as I did here:

As always with meats, it's a good idea to salt it before you cook, for both flavor and moisture retention. And then I followed up with a modified chimichurri sauce, using cilantro, garlic, and gochugaru instead of parsley, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and whatever other variant ingredients:

You could also get creative and efficient with your rice cooking and steam meats over your rice to allow the juices to drip over the rice as it cooks.

The bottom line is that while named for and designed around cooking rice, rice cookers are just another kitchen tool, and very versatile ones at that. Have one just sitting in a cabinet? Try cooking something other than rice in it. You might discover a new convenient way to cook a dish you love (but which isn't quite worth the time and effort), or maybe expand your multitasking capabilities.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Link: 5 Lessons From a Scientist-Cook

I'm no scientist like the author of this piece's husband, but these are five good tips on how to approach cooking that also describe how I do things. Well, I absorbed the lessons of the scientific method early on in my academic education. While cooking with a spirit of exploration gives you the freedom to do, learn, and figure out new things, you also need some rigor in your experimentation in order to pin down what exactly it is in your variations that brought about the change in results.

Check out the kitchn's article!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Playing With Polenta

Played around with polenta recently after reading this guide on the real rules of making polenta. I think Daniel Gritzer's right about all his tips (and debunked tips), including not having to stir constantly, and that water ratio's more important; I definitely wasn't standing at the pot for 50 minutes straight, though I was stirring pretty frequently towards the end as it got thick.

The results were great. Notice how it didn't spread out after I scooped out a spoonful (below). This means it was properly thickened, and would hold together when pan-frying for a good looking and tasty sear (above).

I even tried deep-frying some of the cooled and solidified leftovers, for some very tasty polenta "fries". The insides were so smooth and creamy that they reminded me of cheese. But I had no dairy in my polenta--just a little Earth Balance stirred in at the end instead of butter for a little smooth richness. As Gritzer notes, using water to cook the polenta allows the corn flavor to come through.

Finally, I also tried cooking polenta in my rice cooker, and the results were perfect. Smooth, no lumps, and thick enough to set for searing if desired. And no need to stand over a pot! Just set and forget. I think I'm going to start stocking cornmeal as one of my staples.

I'm building a case for why even if you're Western centric and don't eat steamed rice much, you still want a good rice cooker for perfect and easy polenta and I suspect risotto, which I'll be testing soon. On top of perfect and easy steamed rice, of course. And congee. And steel-cut oats.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Deep-Frying Fun

I know, I've said I'm loathe to deep-fry because of the large amount of oil required, but that was what much of my cooking experiments centered around this long weekend. I got drawn into it by circumstances: shallow-frying stepping stone from the Brussels sprouts I recently did a couple runs of, followed by a sale on good chicken thighs at the local co-op, which reminded me of a Taiwanese popcorn chicken (the dish pictured above is called yansu ji, or salty crispy chicken) recipe I wanted to try, which led me to think of other things I've wanted to try out. But it's not that I dislike deep-frying as a technique, just that I avoid it for practical concerns. (A deep-fry/candy/oven roast thermometer is your friend.)

The yansu ji came out great. I used a mix of potato starch and cornmeal, which was light and crisp with nice bits of crunch from the larger cornmeal granules. Not sure about the Thai basil I used, though; it just lost all flavor after frying, though perfectly crisp. Maybe Thai basil's too delicate and using Italian basil would have been better?

But the potato starch (which is fairly common in East Asian cooking, instead of corn starch. They behave a little differently but can generally be substituted in dredging and thickening applications) got me thinking to try making agedashi tofu.

Lovely! --but the crisp exterior wasn't quite right. I used purely potato starch and it had more body than is ideal. It had too much presence, overpowering the soft insides. I wonder if maybe just cornstarch would work better. It's interesting that it behaved so differently on the tofu versus the chicken. I noticed, though, that with the chicken, after resting a bit in the potato starch dredge, the surface of the chicken pieces were properly dry. With the tofu, however, a bit of a thick paste/gum formed with the starch, which probably led to the too-strong skins. Maybe I just needed more thorough pressing and drying. Or not to wait too long between dredging and frying.

Heheh, also notice the fail in the background of the first tofu pic. Turns out that rather than loading up a slotted spoon and lowering the tofu in that way, you should just gently place them in the oil with chopsticks or tongs; they'll stick to the slotted spoon immediately when the starch hits the hot oil. Maybe with a wire or mesh deep-frying strainer/spoon it'd be different?

And one more thing: I also tried deep-frying taro fries. Double-frying works great on taro fries, same as potato fries. Some claim that double-frying gets results impossible with single-frying (Kenji Lopez-Alt is hardly the only one), but I'm confused as to why this would be so. Does the rest period do something that just turning up the heat in the middle of a longer frying time wouldn't do? America's Test Kitchen has an approach where you just start the potato fries in cold oil and do one long single fry, which makes me think that a standard single fry with a step up in heat would work, too, so I dunno. I'll have to try it another time.

Thing is, though, as deep-frying tends to do, I felt that the taro lost a lot of its distinctive flavor. Maybe this is why at dim sum restaurants they do taro balls--so that there's a larger interior portion that steams and keeps its taro flavor. Hmm...but anyway, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, fried starchy sticks? No complaints here!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fried Brussels Sprouts With Spicy Broad Bean Mayo

Spicy Broad Bean Mayo Y'All!!

Man, mayo's a funny condiment. Just by itself, it is so pedestrian (but tasty, don't get me wrong). As soon as you toss in another angle, though, whether that's ketchup, garlic, herbs, chipotle, sriracha, or anchovies and dill (or some combination things), and suddenly it's an amazing, savory, supercondiment.

Well, if you like sriracha mayo and/or chipotle mayo, definitely give my variation a shot: spicy broad bean paste (la douban jiang) mixed with mayo! It's a great smoothly earthy, slightly spicy, savory iteration of the magnificent mayo mixes.

Pictured above, I've smeared a dollop of the mix on a plate with some fried Brussels sprouts, which are a great pairing. Actually, this is a simple variation on one of my favorite dishes: fried Brussels sprouts with anchovy and dill mayonnaise, which I once had at the great Red Hen restaurant in DC. There might have been one or two more ingredients involved, but they were of lesser import.

As for the Brussels sprouts, well, as I've mentioned a number of times, I'm loathe to deep-fry, since it wastes so much oil unless you deep-fry a lot. So I shallow-fried mine, cut-side down, and it worked out pretty well. I tried just frying it on one side to see if there'd be a nice textural contrast. I don't know though—it probably would have been best either frying a little longer or frying on both sides. I'll play with it some more in the future.

Your choice of fat for frying adds more nuance: instead of neutral canola oil, consider peanut oil (if it doesn't bother allergies) or pork fat, etc.

[Updated] Tip: use a high-sided pot to deep-fry, since the sprouts will sputter a lot. This will cut down by a lot the amount of oil droplets flying out at you, compared with deep-frying them in a wok. As with deep-frying generally, you want your ingredients to be dry to minimize sputtering, but fresh, unbattered vegetables will sputter because of all the water content they hold.

Spicy Broad Bean Mayo

1 part spicy broad bean paste (la douban jiang)
3 parts mayo (or amount to taste)
(optional minced garlic)

Combine ingredients in a small bowl and stir well.

—same as making sriracha mayo or chipotle mayo. Spicy broad bean paste can be tough to find. You'll want to look for a Chinese supermarket.