Sunday, November 25, 2012

Flipping the Bird

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving. Above's the 13-pounder I roasted for our gathering. Not bad for a whole roast turkey noob, right? This is just out of the oven--after resting a half hour, the skin was even more bronzed and beautiful.

In preparing to take on the all-important Thanksgiving roast turkey, I referenced a number of sources to take in ideas on how to keep the meat flavorful and not dry. I'm happy to report that what I pulled together turned out very well, with dark and white meat, both, flavorful and moist. So how'd I do it? Well, read on and I'll tell ya all about it. I'll try to be brief, and break things down so that the steps are more digestible (figuratively speaking...).

Salting (Dry Brining)
This is really important. There's all sorts of writing about how salting, brining (wet or dry), or otherwise marinating meats works, chemically, to improve moisture retention when cooking, so you don't end up with a hunk of cardboard to chew on. This piece on dry versus wet brining at Serious Eats is really good. Stick with dry brining; it takes up less space (a big deal! otherwise you need a huge refrigerator or a big cooler with lots of ice) and has better results when it comes to flavor. Bottom line is that you need to rub the surfaces of your turkey (or whatever meat you're cooking) with salt, especially if you work it under the skin, and let the salt it do its thing overnight or thereabouts.

Once the brining step is done, rinse off the salt on the outside of the skin and underneath the skin. If you don't, your bird will end up too salty. Use paper towels to dry the turkey and then let it air dry a while. Once it's dried off--

Season Under the Skin
The skin acts as a barrier between your seasoning and the meat. Same thing as with the salt. If you work under the skin, you'll be applying your seasoning directly to the meat. If you're using butter or oil (fats), rubbing them under the skin also helps keep the meat moist while flavoring it as well. Of course, the skin is itself a delicious part of the bird, and should be seasoned, too. So do both; rub your seasoned butter (Earth Balance in my case) both under and over the skin (but more under).

Trussed Up Like a...Turkey...
Tying up your roast, whether chicken or turkey, keeps the roast in a tight package, which helps keep outlying parts from cooking too quickly.

And now for that ever-vexing problem: how to cook the dark meat to doneness (around 170-175 F) without drying out the white meat (which is done at 165 F). This page gives a good overview of the safe temperature (USDA recommends 165 F for all parts of poultry) versus ideal temperature for doneness. I also relied on America's Test Kitchen's (ATK) guidance a lot in their The New Best Recipe, and this is where the title of this post comes from (of course the joke had to be made).

Flipping the Bird
While roast chicken and turkey recipes will commonly tell you to roast the birds breast side up (for browning of the skin), you actually want to roast them breast side down for at least part of the time, and finish breast side up to brown the skin. This keeps the white meat from cooking too quickly, as it cooks faster than does dark meat. I don't know about the science of this, but I'm guessing it's because the juices drip downward, keeping the bottom parts moister, as well as the bottom's being exposed to less circulating dry air.

[On a related note, if you don't use a roasting rack, the bird ends up sitting in the juices at the bottom of the pan, which keeps the bottom moist, but also results in flabby skin as this page discusses.]

So following ATK's approach, I started the bird breast side down for 45 minutes, then flipped it on one side for 15 minutes, then the other side for another 15 minutes, and finally roasting it breast side up for the final 45 minutes. I'm not sure the two side flips are really necessary. Maybe you could just do an hour breast side down and then the remaining time breast side up. Or maybe it helps get the dark meat (legs and wings on the sides) cooked through without drying out the breast.

It seems really risky flipping a giant roast, but the way ATK says to do it works well. Fold up a paper towel for each hand and just directly handle the bird. This gives you much better control than trying to use ladles, for example.

Insert Legs First
The back of the oven is hotter than the front of the oven because you let out hot air every time you open the oven to flip the bird, check the temperature, and/or baste. Pictured below is the wrong way to put your turkey in the oven. I only remembered the legs-first tip when in the last stage of roasting I was having trouble with the dark meat not cooking fast enough relative to the white meat. Once I reversed the orientation, everything went perfectly.

Remove Just Before It's Done
The interior of your roast will continue to heat up even after you pull it out of the oven. This is because heat will distribute from the hotter exterior to the cooler interior (as well as to the surrounding environment) as the roast rests. Thus, you should actually pull the turkey out of the oven when the thickest part of the breast registers 160 F on an instant-read thermometer, and the deepest part of the thigh registers 165-170 F. Speaking of thermometers...

Use an Instant-Read Thermometer
This is the most accurate way to keep track of the meat's progress. Pop-up thermometers won't tell you how many degrees you have to go. And whether instant-read or pop-up, you'll want to monitor the turkey carefully as it approaches the finish line--while avoiding opening the oven too frequently. As Alton Brown discusses, opening the door too frequently cools the oven temperature, requiring longer roasting time, leading to a drier result. (This is why he recommends not basting. But if you have to open the oven anyway, to flip the bird or check the temperature, you might as well, since it helps to flavor the skin and improve even browning.)

This is backwards.

Let It Rest
As mentioned above, the heat will continue to redistribute around the roast after its been removed from the oven. But on top of that, so will the juices. As the meat cools, the muscle fibers relax, allowing them to hold more fluid, leading to less juices lost when you cut the roast, and more evenly juicy bites. Tent the roast with foil while it rests to avoid too much heat loss to the environment.

And that's it! Those are my aggregated technique tips for how to roast a succulent turkey.

It's too late for Thanksgiving this year, but maybe you're having turkey for other winter gatherings. In any case, here's my recipe this time 'round:

Dry Brined Roast Turkey

1 turkey, 12-14 lbs (1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person), rinsed; giblets, nect, and tailpiece removed and reserved for gravy
1/4 cup coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 TBS sugar
1 tsp pepper

herbed butter
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp dried parsley
1 TBS dried sage
1 TBS Herbes de Provence
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp paprika
(or whatever herbs you want to use)

3 medium onions, sliced or chopped coarsely
2 medium carrots, chopped coarsely
2 celery stalks, chopped coarsely
6 sprigs fresh thyme

Note: This recipe is not for a Kosher Bird, which is already brined. You only need to dry brine (salt rub) an unsalted frozen or fresh bird.
  1. Rinse the turkey under cold water and pat dry. Combine 1/4 cup salt, the sugar, and pepper in a bowl. Rub all over the turkey and inside the cavity (use food service gloves; the salt hurts after extended contact with your skin—or at least for me it does). Put turkey on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, at least 8 hours or overnight. Rinse well and pat dry.
  2. Mix the butter, parsley, sage, herbes de Provence, pepper, and paprika until combined. Reserve 4 tablespoons of the butter for your gravy, then rub the rest under and over the turkey skin on the breasts and legs (especially under the skin). Let the turkey stand 30 minutes at room temperature before roasting. The melted butter will thicken on contact with the cold turkey.
  3. Put the oven rack in the lowest position; preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put two-thirds of the aromatics ingredients in the bottom of the roasting pan, and the remaining one-third in the turkey’s body cavity. Bring the legs together to tie a simple truss. Pour 1 cup of water over the vegetables in the pan. Put the turkey breast-side down on a roasting rack set over the vegetables in the roasting pan.
  4. Slide the turkey into the oven legs first (always). Roast 45 minutes. Remove pan from oven (close the oven door each time you do this) and baste turkey with juices at the bottom of the pan. With a folded up paper towel in each hand, flip the turkey on one side (thigh pointing up) and return to oven. Roast another 15 minutes. Remove pan, baste again, and flip turkey so the other thigh is pointing up. Return to oven and roast another 15 minutes. Remove turkey again, baste again, and flip turkey so the breast side is facing up. Return to oven and roast until breast registers 160-165 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer AND the thigh registers 170-175 degrees, 30-45 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest at least 20 minutes before carving.

Besides ATK, I also referenced these recipes in coming up with my approach.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bad Food > No Food?

Matt Yglesias makes an interesting point about how, despite coffee snobs' (Matt said it first!) protestations to the contrary, Starbucks has on balance been a force for coffee progress in the US. As he puts it:

"The worst coffee shop or bookstore or whatever is the one that doesn't exist at all, it's only by bringing ideas to scale that you can achieve ubiquity."

There are many places whose markets are so small that its tough to support much diversity in product offerings and/or more specialized stores. Although these lower quality, mass produced options are inferior, they help to spread acceptance and build appreciation for the specialized goods (and services), which may ultimately lead consumers to explore and pursue higher quality versions of those goods. The spread of bagels across America is another example of this.

You gotta start somewhere, right?

But this got me thinking, what about the innumerable bad "Chinese" (Americanized-Chinese) restaurants all over America? Or bad "Thai"? Or bad "Japanese"? This hits closer to home for me. It's easier for me to accept the Bad Coffee > No Coffee argument since I rarely drink coffee. But is bad, super-Americanized Chinese food better than no Chinese food? I don't ever eat at Panda Express or Charlie Chang's--but coffee connoisseurs probably don't ever patronize Starbucks, either.

If we could see a definite trend toward Americans' appreciation and demand for better Chinese food, then I think I'd agree with the Bad Food > No Food argument. And honestly? I think we do see that trend, very slowly but surely. Though, there are many (most) who are satisfied with the dumbed-down Americanized versions of "exotic" cuisines.*

*And to be sure, Americanized-Chinese, in particular, has really evolved into its own thing at this point.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pumpkin Masoor Dal

Having extra ingredients on hand, for example due to having bought more than you needed for a recipe, turns out to be great for making you improvise. And one particularly flexible ingredient, I've found, is squash of all sorts--pumpkin in this case. It seems like you can toss squash into any sort of stew-type dish and it'll meld right in.

I only used half of a pumpkin to roast, and with the other half, I decided just to toss it into a masoor dal (red lentil stew). I felt that the light earthy sweetness of the pumpkin really harmonized well with curried red lentils.

It kind-of goes without saying, but you just want to pay attention to cooking times when improvising with ingredients on hand. Squash (and pumpkin) is generally cooked through in 20 minutes [I should be clear: timing varies depending on the type of squash you're cooking from under 10 minutes for a soft one like kabocha to 20+ for butternut] of simmering. Remove peels or don't, depending on the type of squash (kabocha skin is soft enough that you can eat it when it's cooked).

And yes, you may have noticed that I throw chopped scallions on everything. I would probably also throw chopped cilantro on things more, too, except that I find it less flexible an ingredient, keeps worse than scallions, and is more of a hassle to prep.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mixed Rice Stuffed Kabocha Squash | Kabocha no Takikomi Gohan Zume

Takikomi gohan (rice steamed with chicken stock, dashi, or other stock, and other ingredients) stuffed kabocha squash. Before I get to that, though, first I just want to mention an encouraging article:

A Brief Interlude
NPR has a short story about how popular food blog Smitten Kitchen's author manages to do all her cooking in a tiny 3'x6' kitchen by being very organized. I haven't looked at Smitten Kitchen much, but I find the article encouraging because it's another reminder that we don't need fancy equipment and facilities to make great food. I anticipate moving from my current healthily sized kitchen to probably a tiny one next year, and will have to get used to cramped cooking conditions once again. I did it before in an even smaller kitchen when I was in Japan, but it's really inconvenient and limiting.

And now back to our regular programming 
I think I've mentioned before that I have a bit of a fascination with stuffing vegetables. So with a kabocha on hand and chicken stock left from trying out a black chicken (silkie) Chinese herbal soup, it popped into my head that these two dishes, baked kabocha and takikomi gohan, already great on their own would go together marvelously--like...rice in a bowl...ahem.

And I was right! Pictured above is my finished takikomi gohan, fluffed after steaming. Takikomi gohan is really just steamed rice using a stock of some sort with other ingredients and seasoning tossed in. If you have some harder ingredients, like carrots, gobou (burdock root), or lotus root, you may want to parboil or pre-stir fry them a bit before steaming to make sure they've softened enough to your liking. Once your rice is ready, you can stuff your (halved and seeded) kabocha and bake it. You will want to cover the halves in foil, though, to avoid a hard, crusty top.

Pictured above is the stuffed kabocha, cooked. You can see the holes in the squash, above, where I prodded them to test for doneness. The photo at the top of this post is before baking.

And below, packed up for lunch, a nice bento. Not so eyecatching as these ones, though.

Takikomi Gohan 炊き込みご飯

2 cups (the smaller cup that comes with a rice cooker, 1 rice cooker cup = about .75 cups) rice [traditionally sticky rice but other rices work fine]
2 medium carrots, julienned
~9 oz. fried tofu, julienned
[and/or try cooked chicken, turkey, or other protein]
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked 30+ minutes, sliced
[other ingredients to try: bamboo shoots, gobou/burdock root, konnyaku/konjac, soybeans, other legumes, fried gluten, anything]

Flavoring Ingredients
enough chicken stock and/or dashi [or vegetable stock for vegetarians] to fill rice cooker pot to the 2 mark (with rice in pot also)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp brown sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
2 TBS rice wine

Optional Garnishes
Scallions, chopped
Snow peas, julienned
Cucumber, julienned
  1. Soak, cut, and cook ingredients as needed.
  2. Add rice to rice cooker pot. Pour in stock up to the 2 mark. Add in the remaining Flavoring Ingredients and stir to distribute.
  3. Toss other ingredients (carrots, mushrooms, tofu, etc.) together and add to pot over the rice and stock, distributing them evenly over the surface.
  4. Let the rice cooker do its thing on the normal cook setting. Once the cooker signals it’s finished, let the rice sit several minutes before opening up the cooker to fluff and mix the ingredients together. Use rice paddle to distribute in individual bowls, add optional garnishes, and serve.
--of course, don't serve it quite yet if you want to stuff some squash with your rice.

Stuffed Kabocha

1 medium kabocha
stuffing ingredients (in this case the takikomi gohan)
  1. Heat oven to 350F.
  2. Wash, halve, and seed the kabocha. Place halves hollow-up on a foil lined baking tray.
  3. Fill kabocha halves with your cooked stuffing (the rice) and cover with foil to keep top from drying and hardening.
  4. Bake for 30 minutes or until kabocha is easily pierced with a fork. Kabocha is a soft-skinned squash, so once it's cooked you can just dig right in, skin and all.