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.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Trying Out Harissa

Ever had harissa? I haven't really had the North African spice mix much before, if at all, myself. Maybe I did and just didn't know what it was, but I've started hearing about it a little more recently, and ordered some powdered harissa, rather than make my own blend. Turns out you can buy it in paste form already, but it's not hard to just heat the powder with oil and garlic.

So what do I think? Well, the pan-roasted chicken with harissa chickpeas pictured above and below was really delicious. Here's the recipe I followed, except I just added a heaping tablespoon of harissa powder instead of a 1/4 cup of prepared paste. Seemed to work well. And as you'll notice below, I had lime on hand rather than lemon, but the citrusy acid worked just fine.

This was actually the second thing I'd tried using my harissa powder in, with the first being some other random weeknight concoction of mine. In that dish, though, I found the harissa to be a little jarring. But the tomato paste in this Bon Appetit recipe linked above I found to be just the thing to balance out the sharp aspects of the harissa and make for a great, rounded savory flavor. Good thing I have a tube of the stuff, and that it keeps well. I think I'll try using harissa in some lentil and other applications.

Basically, though, I think harissa works best with something to balance out its sharpness. That could be tomato (which has a sweetness to it), or yogurt in a marinade, or mayo for a condiment, or using it as a strong flavor spice rub on a savory meat where the richness (as with yogurt and mayo) helps to cut the sharpness, or other vegetables with a sweet flavor profile.

I don't think bread is a typical accompaniment in Tunisian/North African cuisine...? But I made a loaf of my gluten-free bread (occasionally working through iterations still, but it's tasty) since I was going to be using the oven for pan-roasting anyway, and used the bread to soak up some of that delicious broth. Rice would've been great, too. I don't eat couscous, of course, because it is a type of wheat.