Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rum Without Boarders

I'm not sure why this topic inspired a return to this blog after such an exceptionally long hiatus, but it might have been waking up this morning to the joyful "blip, blip, blip" emerging from the makeshift airlock I haphazardly drilled through lid to an old gallon-sized salsa jar, and realizing that rum was being made.

I use the passive "being made" because to take credit for such a simple process would be a form of plagiarism against the magically yeasty beings hard at work, gorging themselves on toasty tasty molasses water and cranking out alcohol and carbon dioxide into the jar.  Don't ask what inspired me to make rum, but I think it fitting for this post because of the lack of measuring involved and the unpredictable outcome ahead.

To get it started, all you need is some sugar, molasses, yeast and water.  For the home cook, any form of any of those ingredients (with the exception of the water...the purer the better) seems to be acceptable.  I used what was on hand: instant bread yeast, some leftover molasses and....then I realized that we had no sugar in the house, so a quick bike into town solved that problem with a 2-pound box of good ol' Domino. 

The only rule of thumb is that yeast has trouble working in a solution of more than 25% sugar.  So for the gallon empty jar I had around, that's about 8 pounds of water.  So I added in a bit less than 2 pounds of sugar (just less than the box I grabbed) and enough molasses to make a nice toasty flavor (~1 cup?).  The leftover sugar I'll caramelize on the stove to add back into the final product for that little bit of sweet tang on the tongue.  Heat up about a quart or two of water, add the sugar, dissolve, pour back into the big jar, add water to fill (not all the might bubble over!), add the yeast, put the top on, shake, shake, shake, drill a hole for piece of plastic tubing to come out of the cap (with a good seal), put the other end of the tube into some water, and you have yourself a fermenter!

Now wait about a week until all that sugary goodness has been sucked up by those yeasty folk, and then we're onto distilling...

I'm getting giddy just thinking about it

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Delicata, Leek, Kale & Extra Sharp Cheddar on Sourdough

I know the combination may not induce spontaneous drooling among all the casual pizza-eaters out there, but I know at least someone will understand. This crazy and delicious pie was inspired by a late-day craving for pizza and an overall lack of ingredients, so on went the remains of the fall harvest.

For the dough, I simply kneaded some more flour into a dollop of sourdough starter and let it rise for a bit. The cut rounds of delicata squash was steamed with the sliced leeks in a cast iron while I chopped some frozen kale from the garden and shredded the last of the cheese (I threw some parmesan on there too...I like to sprinkle it last, around the edges so it gets on the exposed crust and crisps up a bit - great effect). The sauce was a more a light umami coating than sauce...a tablespoon or so of tomato paste mixed with a mashed anchovy fillet. Yum.

So, to recap: rolled out sourdough (the thinner the better....I like a cracker-like crispy snap around the edges), umami-tomato-anchovy spread, veggies, cheeses (parmesan on last and coat the bare crust sticking out the sides), some fresh ground pepper, a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. I do all this on a sheet pan coated with cornmeal and then stick it in a 400 degree oven on the actual bottom of the oven to get the crispiest crust possible. Bake until the crust is a golden brown and serve with some homemade hot sauce. Bam!

I'll go back to what I think I said in a previous post about how food just tastes better when you: (1) know it is good for you: and (2) know the story behind the food. Having known the person or even being somehow connected to the person who harvested almost every part of that meal (including the flour) simply enhances the flavor of the entire dish! People go to restaurants for a reason: the want the experience. People go to Italy to have "the best pasta or the best tomato they have ever had" because it has a story and experience behind it. Likewise, anyone can create a special experience in their own kitchen by developing a story behind the food. This meal was amazing, but I think it would have been even better had I known the fisherman who caught the anchovies, or visited the village where the pepper was produced. These things make a difference in the food experience, which I believe directly translated to the enjoyment and flavor of the food itself. Mmmmm.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Toasty Kale and Sweet Potato Stew

Hobbling and hopping around the kitchen, crutch in one hand and the other filled with random jars and kale, I only wish there was a fly on the wall to see the hilarity of the crippled cook's choreography that has begun to fill my day-to-day life. My dishes have become simpler, excluding things that would require another trip across the chasm that is my 8-foot-wide kitchen and a little hopes of healing this broken ankle as soon as possible. Today's adventure was this kale and sweet potato stew finished with toasted cumin.

I really don't think I could have hoped for a better bowl concocted from bits and pieces of meals past. For the base, I started with a jar dark and creamy black bean juice leftover from some beans I made last week. To that went some chopped onion (don't even bother to sauté it) and the cubed sweet potato. This boiled for a while until the 'taters were tender, then I added just a little parsnip puree that was hiding in the fridge for some extra body. While that was heating back up, the cumin seeds were toasting in a dry cast iron pan over medium heat until the seeds are a nice roasted brown color. You really want to do this slowly, or else you'll get a nasty bitter off-flavor.

Then comes the fun part. Chop up some kale or other greens, toss them in and then grind away at the now-cooled cumin and get it right into soup as well, stirring everything up and then taking the pot off the heat. Those roasted aromatics don't last forever and the more quickly you get them in the stew and on the table, the longer you can sit there with the bowl under your nose, inhaling with content. Yum.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sprouted Sunny Wheat Bread

Freshly ground wheat, dandelion flower water, sprouted sunflower seeds, rolled oats, sea salt and sourdough...yum. An airy and delicious loaf that defies the conventions of what whole grains can do (and perhaps another contestant for YeastSpotting?)

It was a gloriously beautiful day today, with sunshine aplenty, but there was nothing I was looking forward to more than slicing into the loaf I left to cool while I out on a 40 mile bike ride through the mountains (I got a bit lost). A true 36-hour sourdough, this all began two days ago when I was feeling lazy, so I popped some wheat berries into the grinder and started cranking away. I invested in a grain mill from Lehman's this winter and I can say that, aside from my waffle iron, it's one of the best investments I've ever made. Solid, sturdy and grinds like a champ. Buckwheat flour, lentil flour, chickpea flour, quinoa's all fresh and you can definitely taste the difference.

Not only is fresh stone-ground whole wheat flour tastier and healthier (germ oils are just being exposed to oxygen), it also forces you to work for your bread, making the final product all the more wonderful. With the flour ground, I added the standard dollop of rip sourdough, a handful of rolled oats and enough water to make a very wet dough (the oats and freshly ground flour will soak up a lot of water over time). For some added sunshine and protein, I pureed a handful of dandelion flowers with part of the water before adding it to the flour (you admittedly can't tell in the finally product, but the love is there). I left that all to ferment overnight and also started soaking some sunflower seeds to be sprouted for the bread.

The next morning, the dough was wonderfully elastic and really came together nicely. I had used about one and a half cups of water, so I added about a teaspoon and a half of salt and kneaded that all together for a couple minutes, then put it in the fridge. The sunflower seeds were starting to sprout already, so I drained the water, gave them and extra rinse and let them be for the day.

That night, I pulled the dough out to warm up a bit before kneading in the seeds. To incorporate those little sprouts, I flattened out the dough, covered the top with a layer of seeds, rolled it all up and gently kneaded them in until well incorporated. A boule was formed and put back in a bowl lined with floured linen (a piece of an old pillowcase is what I use for linen) to wait out the night in the fridge.

Baking morning...wake up, turn on oven with baking stone and flower pot inside. Let it preheat for at least a half hour, an hour if you can (to let the stone and flower pot absorb the heat), then turn out the boule onto a cornmealed peel (today was an old magazine), score, and flick it into the center of the stone. Cover with the pot for steam effect (see previous bread post) for 10-15 minutes, remove the pot, cook 'till golden brown and then let cool. The only way I could avoid cutting right into it was to go for a bike ride, at which point I took a wrong turn and got very lost, making 15 miles into 40, so upon my return I had to resist completely ravaging the loaf (at least before taking pictures).

A very happy man I am. I love when complete satisfaction can come from something as simple as a wonderfully moist crumb and light texture in a 100% whole grain rustic loaf...well worth every crank of the mill. Yum. So get a crankin' and a bakin' is guaranteed deliciousness.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mole Ribs

Yes, mole ribs, but thankfully not from the little burrowing rodent we know and love (though I may have to try that some time). This is a creation derived from a craving for something different and inspired by a jar of wonderfully aromatic smoked paprika that I bought on a whim, paired with some grass-fed beef short ribs that I got at a nice little farm down the road. A mole is a type of sauce that originated in Mexico and although there is no one way to make mole, the sauce is usually composed of a variety of spicy peppers, some tomato, other spices, maybe some fruit (I've seen raisins used), and usually chocolate as well. Though this dish probably cannot be called a traditional mole by any means, I did my best with what I had and I couldn't figure out what else to call it. So here it is in all its glory:
We started with some delicious fatty short ribs. Some people will cut off that chunk of fat, but I say don't. Instead, score it a few times with a knife and when you brown the meat, leave it on that side for a while over low heat to render off some of the fat and crisp it up a bit. After the ribs are nice and browned up...wait, a quick aside. I have met many people who think that "browning" meat means just cooking it until it turns from pink to brownish grey -- this does nothing for the flavor. To "brown" means basically to toast and create a nice deep brown roasted color and is best done over a moderately high heat in a thick bottomed (cast iron is great) pan, especially if the meat is to be cooked to temperature (rare, medium-rare, etc). For the ribs, it doesn't matter much and a lower heat might make less smoke and more brown without worrying about burning the meat.
Anyway, after the ribs are nice and browned, put them aside and toss in some onions to the pan with all that delicious beef fat (when in doubt of what to do next, sauté some onions, it will almost never hurt). Once the onions are starting to brown, pour in some water (it will sizzle violently) and scrape up any deliciousness that has stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour all this into a sauce pan for the long simmer to come.

To this I added the ribs, some chopped sweet potato and carrots (for thickening), a couple sundried tomatoes for the tomato component, a couple cloves of crushed garlic, few bits of unsweetened chocolate and spices. Really whatever you have in the fridge would work as long as you follow common sense and the basic guidelines of peppers, tomato, chocolate. Tonight's spices included some undertones drawn from the Middle East with some cumin,
coriander, fenugreek and star-anise seeds (in order of prevalence: only two anise seeds) and black peppercorns toasted briefly together and then ground up into a powder and added with a bay leaf. As for the peppers, I have no access to some of the unusual and speciality peppers of the Mexican pallet, so I used as many peppers from the cupboard as I could including a dash of crushed red pepper, a bit of cayenne and a generous helping of the wonderful smoked paprika. I didn't have any fruits on had, but I would have also added a few raisins for some subtle sweetness.
That all went in the pot, it was topped up with water (stock would have been nice), a dash of soy sauce for salt and robustness and then left to simmer for many hours (I think it was five hours tonight). A good meal to think about at lunch time, prep it and forget that terrible infomercial "Set it and forget it!". When the meat is barely hanging on with the last little strings to the bone, or maybe it has fallen off by this point, and is tender as a ripe tomato, then pull out the meat and bones and set aside for a brief moment. Now puree the sauce with a stick blender in the pan, or take it out to a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Taste and season with something quickly if it needs anything (mine needed a touch of salt), return to the pan and reunite with the ribs. Simmer for a couple more minutes and then serve over brown rice. Yum.
Ooooo...and those spring greens: some green beans sautéd with dandelion greens from the backyard topped with some fresh chopped garlic and a pat of butter. Bon appetit.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Whole Wheat Sourdough Oat Loaf

So delicious, so beautiful...that's how the boule turned out (perhaps worthy of YeastSpotting?). Bread is notorious for scaring away your average home cook and even your occasional professional chef who never developed a hand for it (I've actually worked with quite a few). Many recipes incorporate long rising times, yeasts, baking percentages and even flour measured in ounces (oh goodness!)...but unless you are working a professional bakery and looking for consistency, you can throw all that jazz out the window and start experimenting.

This one started with what all good bread should start with...a big dollop of sourdough starter (see the
pizza post for a good way to make your own). Since I was going for a small personal size loaf, I added only about a cup of lukewarm water (hot water will cook the flour and kill the starter while cold will just make the rising and fermenting process a bit slower). I had some wheat berries that I was sprouting, so I ground up and added handful of those to bring some extra enzyme activity to the dough. The sprouting process activates enzymes in the berries - I forget their names right now - that break down complex starches into simpler sugars, imparting delicious flavor to the dough and helping develop that nice golden crust. If you look at most unbleached flour, they will have malted barley flour as a minor ingredient which is essentially sprouted barley flour and since barley is particularly high in those enzymes, that little bit can make a real difference in the outcome of the bread.

Anyway, back to our loaf. A dollop of starter, a cup of water, some sprouted wheat and now enough whole wheat flour to make a very soft dough consistency. Always add flour a little bit at a time because it is always much easier to put more in than to try kneading in more water later (which can be done in a pinch - very slowly, just a splash at a time). I like to add just enough so that you can barely stir the dough, then let it sit and go do something else for a while (10 minutes to an hour). This will allow the flour to absorb the water and the gluten strands to start aligning, making kneading later a lot easier (also called an autolyse period). At this point I also added some rolled oats so that they could absorb some of that excess moisture as well and give a nice texture to the dough.

When I came back, the oats and flour had absorbed so much liquid that I could actually knead the dough pretty well...a little more flour was necessary, just add it a sprinkling at a time to keep the dough from sticking to the counter as you knead it. After a couple minutes, put the dough ball in a bowl and let it rise until you are about to go to bed (ideally a few hours). At this point, add the salt. Yes, probably the most important part of the whole flavor profile - without it the bread tastes closer to cardboard. As mentioned in my pizza post,
a good ratio is 1 teaspoon salt for every cup of liquid in the bread, so for this one I added a teaspoon plus a little extra to account for the liquid in the starter. Once it is kneaded in, taste the dough to get a feel for raw dough flavor...this will help you hone your skills and improvise more easily in the future.

Now comes the waiting and baking. For this loaf, I put the kneaded dough in the fridge for the night, then took it out and formed a nice little boule first thing in the morning, put it in a bowl lined with a floured dish towel and let it rise while I had breakfast. Other shapes can be fun too, like batards or baguettes, but this was my first time using the flower pot steaming method (follow that link to the WildYeast blog - great site - to learn more about steaming, but in summary: steaming helps oven spring and crust development). When it was starting to look puffy, I preheated the oven for an hour to 450 degrees with my quarry tiles and flower pot inside. Come baking time, the boule comes carefully out of the bowl, onto a cornmealed piece of cardboard, scored with a sharp bread knife, slipped quickly onto the tiles and covered with the flower pot for ten to fifteen minutes. After that time, the pot was removed and cooked until golden brown. Yum.

Now comes the most difficult part...not cutting in right away. I know from experience that cutting in too soon will spoil the crumb, so take my advice and wait at least a half hour, preferably a whole hour (torture, I know) before cutting in. When you do, enjoy!

ps. As for flour type, I love baking this type of bread with King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour. It is still whole wheat, but it is a special variety of wheat that does not produce the same level of tannins that your normal hard winter wheat has (what usually gives whole wheat flour its darker color and sometimes a bitterish taste). It also has a very fine grind and a high protein content, making it perfect for great bread. Check it out!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sweet Potato, Carrot and Butternut Curry

Curry is one of those funny dishes that is either a staple or a mystery to any given home cook. The unfortunate reality is that the first thing to come to mind for most people when they are confronted with cooking a curry is to reach for the "curry powder," a completely western invention developed in England (I believe, correct me if I'm wrong) in an attempt to capture the flavors discovered during colonization in India. Now one yellow powder is sometimes used to encompass a myriad of cuisines across the world...oh dear.
my bag-o-spices and some garlic to pave the way

You can look histories and recipes for different cultural spice mixtures (very interesting and definitely worth a browse), but here I will just describe last night's deliciousness: a curried amalgamation of orange. Yum. Unfortunately by virtue of the texture, a curry slurry is a difficult dish to photograph, so please forgive the photos, but if anyone has food styling or photographic expertise please let me know if you have any tips for capturing the beauty in a dish whose aesthetics do not necessarily do justice to the flavor.

To start, the essential base for the flavors to come are the whole spices and it is worth the paltry investment to go get a few little baggies from a store that sells them in bulk (much less expensive - you can spend less than $10 for all these and they will last for many many dishes). The basics to have (all in whole form...with an exception for turmeric which is not always available fresh) are: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, cinnamon bark, red pepper flakes and whole peppercorns. For some dishes you may want to play around with some nutmeg, star anise seeds, whole cloves and curry leaves if you can find them. It's all about experimentation! Make sure to keep these all in an airtight, cool, dark place and they will keep for a year or more.

So, it all starts with the onions (funny how that comes up in almost any culture). Saute some chopped onions in a liberal amount of butter, ghee or/and olive oil (a little cultural blending and's all about doing what you can with what you have). When the onions start browning, toss in some spices. This may seem vague, so here are some guidelines (what I used for this dish), but don't stress too much about being exact:

cumin and coriander - start with a heaping spoonful each
fenugreek and mustard - about half of what you did for the above two
a sprinkle of red pepper flakes
some of a stick of cinnamon
a few peppercorns

Saute these and some chopped garlic and ginger (if you have it) for a couple minutes with the onions until you start smelling the fragrance of the spices bloom into the oil. Add the orange stuff (butternut squash, carrots and sweet potato), some water or stock, a small sprinkle of turmeric and then cover and simmer until the veggies are nice and soft. There will probably be a lot of watery water around the veggies (not the texture you really wanted), so take out about half and puree or mash until creamy, then return to the skillet. This will both enhance the texture and flavor because some of those whole spices will now be pulverized, deepening their flavor. At this point I added some whole coconut milk and simmered until it was the consistency I wanted (creamy and not too thick). Serve over brown rice and garnish with chopped cashews. Yum.

There are infinite combinations of these spices that you can experiment with in your dishes. Sometimes if the dish doesn't come out quite strong enough for your taste (always better to err on too weak over too strong), it is nice to have a homemade spice mix to beef it up a bit at the last minute. You can do this by taking some of your whole spices, toasting a mixture of them in a hot dry cast iron until they are fragrant, then grinding them into a powder and storing them in an airtight jar in the fridge. You can look around the web for ideas as to what spice combinations and ratios are tried and true, though once you get the hang of it, making up your own masalas as they are called is a unique touch.

Making naan, chapatis or other flat bread is an amazing compliment to any curry-style dish as well, but I think that will have to wait for another post. Until then, cook well and keep experimenting. Pace.