Sunday, April 21, 2013

The most useful tool for your kitchen*

Several years ago now, I decided that many recipes from even impeccable sources are very inaccurate. You know the ones I mean. “Finely dice one carrot,” or “Slice one medium onion”. When I first started cooking, I would really agonize over exactly what that meant. Exactly how big is a “medium onion”? I’d fake it, using my judgement and sometimes get wildly differing results from one time to the next.

Then I had a conversation with my friend Chef Paul Lasky, an experienced and very talented man in the kitchen (who, sadly, has given up professional cooking). Paul told me the problems was due in large part by inexact recipes. All good cooking operations – whether restaurants or caterers – have a “bible” for their standard dishes. This way, if the chef is unavailable, whoever takes his/her place can jump in and do the cooking. This is especially important for house specialties. You don’t want to disappoint patrons when certain standards on the menu are not available because chef isn’t.

That’s where the bible comes in. It has a list of ingredients, using accurate measurements that allows anyone with the necessary technique and knowledge to recreate the dish accurately. What separates the great cook from the merely good ones is the ability to turn out exactly the same dish every time. The possibility of achieving this begins with having accurate ingredient measurements.

Since being told this, I’ve been weeding out favorite recipes that have “fuzzy” ingredient lists. If it says something like “1 medium onion, chopped”, I either chuck the recipe or if I want to retain it, I figure out exactly what that means for best results. So “1 medium onion chopped” turned into “3/4 cup onions, diced”. However, lately I’ve been getting even more fanatical about measurements. Here’s why: depending on what the size of the dice is, you might get more or less onion than you counted on. Larger dice = less onion because of the space left in between.

So I got more precise and wanted to specify the size of the dice, ie “3/4 cup onion, 1/4" dice”.

Then about three years ago I started messing around with home curing. Researching that, it became clear that the only way to accurately measure the ingredients was by weight. In measuring salt, especially curing salt, it’s really critical.

I’ve had a kitchen scale for years, but it wasn’t all that accurate and it couldn’t deal with even medium amounts of things. It was only good up to about half a pound. Forget weighing a large piece of meat. Yes, for a large roast, I could use the bathroom scale, but I knew it was never really accurate.

So I cruised the internet for a solution. My parameters were (in descending order of importance):
  1. accuracy
  2. ability to weigh adequate amounts (up to 20 pounds, if possible)
  3. ability to weigh either in imperial (ounces) or metric (grams)
  4. electronic rather than spring-loaded (for accuracy over a longer period because springs wear out)
  5. easy to use and clean
  6. not too expensive
  7. compact for storage
The first thing I found is that there are a lot of scales out there, at wildly differing prices. Most for sale in kitchen stores (for home use) didn’t have a very large capacity. Others looked like they’d be a pain in the butt to clean.

My eventual choice was the Salter 3013 Stainless Steel Aquatronic Scale. It features:
  • a 22-lb capacity
  • a stainless steel bed for easy cleaning
  • it measures dry or wet ingredients
  • it automatically compensates for the weight of a bowl, plate or dish in which you might place what you are weighing or measuring
  • handles imperial or metric values at the push of a button
  • it’s very compact and lightweight
  • it’s accurate as all get out

I got mine for $49.95 (Canadian) from a site that’s sadly now out of business.

The only drawback I’ve found is that when you’re weighing in grams, it goes up only by twos. So if you want, say, 5 grams of something, you have to fake between 4 and 6. These are generally minute amounts (unless what you’re weighing is very light by volume, ie something like saffron). But all in all, I can live with that. If it could measure milligrams, this scale would be perfect for my needs.

Regardless of what you decide to buy, I highly recommend purchasing a kitchen scale. Mine is now in use nearly daily, and I cannot imagine doing any curing without it. The real problem is transferring all my recipes to weight measurements of ingredients wherever that’s possible (and that often means making a particular recipe a few times to get it accurate).

The results? All of my more finicky recipes that have been converted to measurement by weight now come out absolutely identically every time – (especially baking). For portioning, it is absolutely essential. For some ingredients (like spaghetti), it is absolutely indispensable. And obviously, if an ingredient list for a recipe does list something by weight, you’re all set if you’ve got a scale. (How many times in the past did I run to the supermarket across the street to surreptitiously weigh an ingredient?)

I cannot recommend strongly enough the inclusion of this very powerful cooking tool in your kitchen arsenal. If you want to home cure, you simply must have one.

Trust me…

*Well, at least I think it is!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bacon Report

And believe me, this tastes as good as it looks!
I am constantly surprised by people’s response when I tell them that we make our own bacon. It’s as if they think it is some arcane art, or subject best left to professionals who have dedicated their whole lives  to the study of bacon production.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Here are links to some previous posts on the subject of bacon here on AMFAS (Home curing: “The Smoked Bacon ReportMakin’ bacon: Adventures-in-home-curing & Smoking bacon). If you haven’t read them, please take the time to do so. I’ll go cook up some bacon while you’re reading…

There. Now does anything about making bacon seem particularly difficult or onerous? Yet probably not one in 10,000 people here in North America has ever tasted homemade bacon, let alone done some up themselves.

I wonder why that is? Yes, it does take several days for it to cure, but the actual production time can be measured in minutes. Karel and I made up a beautiful six-pound piece last week, and I’ll bet in actual “work time” we spent all of ten minutes on the job – not counting the smoking, and that was only a bit time-consuming because we like to do it over a charcoal fire. If we used an electric burner assembly that’s readily available for our little smoker, we probably would have spent a total of twenty minutes to finish the job.

If you don’t want to, or can’t smoke foods (if you live an apartment, that will be the case), you can still cure bacon that will taste fantastic. All you need is a pork belly, some salt, sugar and that’s it. The rest is all fancy stuff to jazz it up. Rub the dry cure (salt and sugar) into the meat, seal it in a plastic bag, throw it in the fridge, and in a matter of days, you will have bacon that will knock your socks off. When you cook it, it won’t spatter because you haven’t injected it with water (under the industry’s guise of “getting the flavor right into the heart of the bacon”). For the same reason, it also won’t shrink very much when you cook it. Hell, if you can’t smoke your bacon but demand that smoke flavor, throw some liquid smoke in with the cure, and voila! Your bacon will have a reasonable approximation of having spent several hours in a smoker. That’s what’s been done to that “Genuine Old-Fashioned Hickory Flavor Bacon” you bought at the MegaMarket last weekend.

The biggest problem you’re going to face in making your bacon is sourcing a really good pork belly. In these days of factory farming, nothing is more factory-farmed than pork. The conditions in which the pigs you generally eat have to live in is really quite horrendous. Go online and do a little research, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. We don’t purchase that pork anymore – ever. I’d rather go hungry than support that industry. Sure, we have to pay more for meat from pastured pigs, but so what? The pigs led a good life that hopefully ended humanely. The meat is of far better quality and flavor. We simply eat less of it.

Once you’ve found a good source of pork, all the other ingredients are readily available.

The rewards of making your own bacon are more than well worth the effort. You’ll have bacon with superior flavor and texture, no chemicals, and it will be cheaper than most supermarket bacon. Ours, all-in, cost about $7 a pound.

If you’re thinking, How could anyone eat six pounds of bacon before it goes bad? the answer is simple: bacon freezes very well and keeps for a very long time. What we now do is wrap a meal’s worth of bacon in plastic wrap, bundle all the portions into a freezer bag, suck out the air and throw it in the freezer. Even if you take it out at the last moment, ten minutes in hot water will thaw it more than well enough to allow you to separate the rashers and cook them. We also freeze chunks of bacon so that they can be cut up as lardons or for other uses. Try doing that with thinly sliced, supermarket bacon! Lastly, you have the rind. We cut it into four-inch squares and freeze those. Whenever we’re making a stew, we throw one or two of those square in for added flavor. In a crock of homemade baked beans or in cassoulet the results are amazing.

So what’s stopping you?

Our bacon made this weekend was the best yet. Karel and I have been experimenting with double smoking. In the case of bacon, this means cold smoking it for a number of hours (we like the results of eight hours of this), then hot smoking the bacon for probably an additional four hours (the temp internal temperature of the bacon needs to get to around 155°). We cook low and slow so that the bacon gets the maximum time in the smoke, but then we like things really smoky.

This piece of bacon was cured using kosher salt, maple sugar, birch syrup and a bit of ground black pepper (Karel’s brainstorm). Since the belly we purchased from Ben Gundy at the Sausage King was on the thin side and very lean, the curing took only four days, followed by a day of drying in the fridge. For the cold smoke, we used applewood pellets in our A-Maze-N Pellet Smoker and doubled up in the smoker with some medium cheddar for four of the hours, followed by two pounds of almonds for the remaining four hours. Next day, Karel hot smoked the bacon for three-and-a-half hours over a combination of apple and maple chips.

The results are absolutely spectacular: not too salty, wonderful round smoky aroma and flavor and just the perfect amount of sweetness (the maple sugar coupled with the birch syrup is a knockout combination). I honestly don’t see how we could improve on it. Sadly, both of us forgot all about taking photos. Sorry ’bout that!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

At last! A recipe I’ve long coveted: smoked trout spread

Two summers ago, we were in Vermont, but Vicki was in Montpelier helping the widow of one of her flute teachers, while I got to spend a few days in Shelburne visiting a high school friend, Ellen Gurwitz. I occupied my days doing some design projects while she was at work and we spent the evenings catching up. I also had the pleasure of watching Ellen do her weekly internet radio show, Stone Soup, on WBKM. (It will be back on the air in just a few weeks. You should check it out!)

When we hit Saturday, the weather was beautiful and really warm, so a picnic was called for. Ellen had a perfect spot not too far south, right on the shore of Lake Champlain.

Since it was a spur of the moment decision, we decided to buy the food for our picnic. There’s a small store, the Shelburne Supermarket, very close by, so off we went. At the store we grabbed a nice bottle of wine, some bread, cheese, veggies, and fruit. I caught Ellen looking rather fondly at a small container in one of the coolers.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a smoked trout spread they make here that I really like, but it’s pretty pricy, so I don’t buy it very often.”

Well, of course, I had to grab some of that. Once we got settled in our picnic spot with a spectacular view right across the lake to the far-distant Adirondacks in New York State, I was very glad I insisted on purchasing the trout spread. In a word, it tasted absolutely fantastic, the best I’ve had. When Vicki arrived the next day to pick me up, I rattled on and on about it and have been ever since. It was that good.

A few weeks ago, I had been talking to Ellen about the trout spread (again), and she said she’d drop by Shelburne Supermarket to see if by some chance they would share the recipe. Lo and behold, they did! I was over the moon when she emailed it to me.

I trotted down to Dominick’s at the St. Lawrence Market bought to two fresh trout filets. (You didn’t actually expect me to buy smoked trout, did you?) After a four-hour cure in salt and brown sugar with some added lemon zest and freshly ground pepper, followed by overnight drying in the fridge, Karel and I cold smoked them (applewood pellets) the next day for 4 hours, and I was ready to make my special treat.

The recipe, from Doug in the meat department at Shelburne Supermarket who developed the recipe, makes about eight pounds of the stuff, so it obviously required some cutting down for home use, but that proved pretty simple to reduce to one-tenth (about 2 cups-worth).

Even better is to be able to share it here with all of you, so I’d like to conclude with a special shout-out to Doug. If you’re ever in the Burlington area of Vermont, just drive a little south of the city on Highway 7 and stop in at this great, small, local supermarket to try some of the original trout spread. I know I certainly will next time we visit Ellen. The store has an excellent selection of fruits, vegetables and meat, plus any number of gourmet delicacies, many made in-house or locally.

An extra-special thank you to Ellen for doing the leg-work to get me the recipe!

As for the recipe, it’s simplicity itself to put together and quick, with a fantastic flavor. And it keeps for several days. What more could you ask for? It’s a perfect “make-ahead” choice for a before-dinner appetizer. Both times I’ve made it now, we’ve served it with our homemade crostini. The satisfying crunch of that provides the perfect foil for the smooth texture of the spread. For simple directions to make crostini, click HERE.

Shelburne Supermarket Smoked Trout Spread
Makes about 2 cups

1/2 lb smoked trout
1 Tbs minced shallot
4 tsp freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp Worchestershire sauce
2 tsp Frank’s RedHot sauce
5 oz whipped cream cheese
2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley

1. Skin trout filet (if needed) and break it into as fine pieces as you can by hand.

2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Notes: The spread benefits from “resting” a bit to let the flavors develop, so I suggest, if you’re not serving it for a few hours, covering the spread with plastic wrap, and chilling it in the fridge until close to serving time. Take it out and let it warm up for a half-hour or so. If you’re making it reasonably close to serving it, just let the spread sit at room temperature for a half hour.

I also came up with an even faster method for making it without changing the requisite texture very much. After removing the skin from the trout, break it into smallish pieces by hand, throw everything into your mixer (not a food processor or blender!) and mix the spread on the lowest setting until everything is just blended and homogenized.