Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sous Vide: Hajimaru



Got myself a fun new toy: a sous vide immersion circulator! Basically you can clamp the device to the side of a pot or cooler full of water, and it will automatically maintain a constant temperature in the water over time. What's so great about sous vide? I'll let Nathan Myhrvold explain. And here's a handy guide with Q&A about sous vide, specifically steak, but the questions are more generally put.

Definitely many things to try sous vide-ing in my future, but this first trial I just cooked a couple chicken legs I had already seasoned with salt. It was a good one to start with so I could compare against results from pan roasting. I'd made some of my latest favorite pistou (which I'll do a short blog post on in the future) to go with the chicken and decided to try two approaches with the sous vide: one I'd just put in the bag plain (salted), and the other I'd smear the paste under the skin before cooking. You don't actually need to add any fluid for the meat to cook properly, and actually, Kenji L-A notes in the guide linked above that extra fluids can actually serve to dilute flavor.



 Allow the water to reach temperature, immerse bags and squeeze out the air before sealing (without letting any water in), clip to the pot to anchor them in place, and away we go!


An hour and twenty minutes later, voilà! Just kidding; food comes out of sous vide with no sear, of course. As indicated in the pic above, I cooked the chicken at 165 degrees F—far below browning temperature. After you're done sous vide-ing, you have to brown your food (if you want to) by other methods (pan, broiler/oven, torch).

I used my steel skillet, and found that searing happened much quicker than it does with raw chicken. I think this is because the fat had already rendered out of the skin—which may also be why the fabulously crisp skin seemed thinner than you usually get pan-searing/roasting.


Except that it was different with the leg I put the paste under the skin for! The skin on this leg seared even faster than on the chicken leg with just salt before sous vide-ing. I left it on one side a little too long, not knowing this was going to be the case. But also very interestingly, the skin seared up with more volume, and was thus an even better crispy texture. Not sure why that was. They may just have been better contact between the skin and pan for this leg, which maybe created better bubbling. You can see the browned area is much broader.


Both legs turned out very juicy and tender, and very chicken-y. No bland chicken here. Of course, it also was dark meat.

More sous vide-ing to come!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Salad: Produce Over Dressing


I've been playing around with salads more, recently. Sacramento has such an abundance of great produce--and is so hot in the summer--that raw produce cut and tossed together becomes an ideal dish to prepare in the summer.

After a couple months of more regularly making salads and trying different things, I've come to one general realization about what makes, to me, a better salad: it's about the produce rather than the dressing.

Unless the produce you're working with isn't very flavorful, and you're trying to cover it up with the flavor of a stronger sauce (same thing with higher vs. lower quality meats). The produce around here is so good (if you pick well) you could eat it straight, without any preparation except washing. So those flavors really shine best in a raw salad when the dressing is kept simpler and not too strong.

I'm really liking a basic lemon vinaigrette currently. It's just:

  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 3-4 parts olive oil
  • a pinch of salt and pepper, and
  • optionally a touch of honey

Whisked together. It goes great on all sorts of salads, brightening up and accenting the flavors without overpowering them, while also balancing out the sharpness of bitter greens.


***
I've never been a very frequent maker of salads, not because I dislike them (I like them), but I guess rather for efficiency and convenience's sakes. I think cut, raw produce is best consumed while fresh, even more so than cooked vegetables (excluding stews, curries, and marinated dishes that need time for flavors to develop and be absorbed). So, what with work and life, and a strong appreciation for better tasting food, I've historically tended toward cooked vegetables. Plus, with my Taiwanese background, we never ate a lot of raw salads when I was growing up, too. You'll notice that raw salads are more of a western thing.

Plus, I find that cut tomatoes don't keep long at all in the refrigerator; it seems like every time I have cut tomatoes in a leftover salad it gives me a little stomach discomfort. So I keep them whole if I need to make extra for a later meal.

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.