Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Couple Awesome Drink Recipes

So I wanted to make a quick jump back to infusions.  I haven't forgotten them, I've just been scratching a different itch of late.  I thought I should go back and post the recipes that my partner developed from my infusions for the Edible Chicago Article that was published profiling my infusion work.  Here they are.  For the record they are a special kind of delicious.

Berries and Bubbles
1 ½ ounces homemade strawberry liqueur
½ ounce Disaronno (or other high-quality amaretto)
½ ounce Cointreau
2 ½ ounces champagne (or other sparkling white wine)
Pour homemade strawberry liqueur, Disaronno, and Cointreau together in a champagne flute. Pour champagne into the flute so that the total volume of the drink doubles. Drop a fresh berry or two into the drink immediately before serving.

Basil Martini
1 ounce ice-cold gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
1 ounce homemade basil liqueur
Garnish: lemon peel
Keep the bottle of gin in the freezer. Once the gin is ice-cold, mix ingredients in a shaker and pour into a martini glass over a strip of lemon peel.  Drink slowly and let the lemon mix with the basil and transform the flavor as you savor your drink.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Second To Last Meat Meal

My partners have been wanting to go vegetarian for some time.  There are many reasons for the change to our diet, most of them health related.  I highly recommend that anyone who has not seen it go out and watch the documentary Forks over Knives.  It explains a lot of why we are making this change to our diet.

In the mean time I have the final bits of an all organic meat share that we had to go through and the other night I made one of our last meat meals.  It was another smoked piece, and I'm taking these final meat preparation opportunities to try some cooking techniques I haven't tackled before.

I wanted to do a writeup on the second to last meat meal I prepared because it goes with my recent smoking interests, and produced some really excellent results.

I made smoked dark meat chicken.  It was a mixture of drumsticks and thighs.  I put together an impromptu rub of poblano chili powder, paprika, black pepper, salt, cumin, turmeric, paprika, garlic powder, and a little bit of brown sugar.  After smothering the chicken in the rub, and leaving it in the fridge to dry a bit and form a nice pellicle on the surface of the meat, I loaded all the meat up in my roasting pan.  It's important that you have it resting on a roasting rack, so the meat is elevated above the bottom of the roasting pan.  If you don't have a good roasting rack for this purpose I recommend loading up the roasting pan with vegetables that roast and smoke well, and laying your chicken on top of the vegetables.  If you roasting pan is large enough to hold a cooling rack you can also use an all metal cooling rack for this purpose.

I left a small area near the corner of the roasting pan empty to hold the wood chip container.  Then I set the oven to just about 200 degrees (which is kind of a guesstimate with my oven knob).  While the oven was preheating I covered the top of my roasting pan in aluminum foil and crimped it around the sides very securely.  I left the corner of the pan with space for the smoking chips uncrimped.  Then I started the chips going on the top of my stove.  I spoke about this process a bit in a previous blog post.  I use a small powdered sugar dispenser to hold my smoking chips.  Really all you need is a small stainless steel container that you can heat directly on your stove.  This works best with a gas stove.  Once the chips were smoking heartily I quickly stuck them inside the roasting pan with a pair of tongs and crimped the remaining corner of the aluminum foil shut.  Then I slid the roasting pan into the oven.  Then I set a timer for 15 minutes.  When the timer went off I pulled the roasting pan out of the oven, pulled the chip container out and re-lit it.  If you don't want to be getting up every 15 minutes for the duration of the smoking you can get away with refreshing the chips every 20 minutes.  I've found at 15 minutes the roasting pan is generally still fairly smokey, but the chips have gone out.  At 20 minutes the pan generally only has a few whisps of smoke when I pull back the foil to retrieve the chip container.

Now at this point I'd like to talk a little bit about the 200 degree mark that I set the oven for.  Most smoking recipes I've seen have targeted the smoker temperature at 250 degrees.  I aimed for 200 because this approach to smoking doesn't provide the constant high concentration smoke exposure that a commercial smoker provides, so I want it to be in the oven/smoker a little longer than if I were using a professional smoking rig to soak up as much delicious smoke as possible.

The other question I want to cover is "Why go to all this trouble?"  I'm not going to lie, this is a definite slow food approach to cooking.  It's not difficult, but it is a lot of hands on contact with the food.  For many people that will be a huge turnoff.  The big reason for me is that I love the flavor of slow smoked meats, and I live in an apartment in Uptown Chicago.  I don't live in a bad neighborhood, but I don't live in a great neighborhood and plenty of things have been stolen from the decks of our apartment building.  For people in similar urban situations a nice expensive smoker may just not be an option.   You can do this entire smoking technique in  your urban apartment/condo kitchen with no special equipment and get amazing results.

Then there is the ultimate advantage, that quite honestly would have me doing this even if I lived in the burbs and had an acre yard, the juices rendered from the meat.  When I completed the roughly 3 hours of smoking/roasting there was an amazing deep dark liquid that had rendered out of the chicken.  It was incredibly rich, and had enough gelatin to set at room temperature.  This stuff is pure culinary gold.  If you use a traditional smoker then this liquid is generally lost.  It depends on your setup admittedly, but the outdoor smoking setups I have seen do not save this rare and magnificent resource.  It is a full batch of incomparable chicken chili waiting to be made.  Or it can just be poured into the bbq sauce for the chicken and cooked down into near perfection.  I was blessed with a similar liquid in smaller quantity when I smoked ribs using the same technique.  Slow roasting meats at home, with or without smoke will generally render a liquid like this.  This is one of those cases where the food you make at home will ALWAYS render a superior result to what is accessible in a commercial kitchen.  Slow roasting meat this way is just not feasible in a commercial kitchen.  You can't oven roast enough meat to do to order cooking.  There may be a few Michelin starred restaurants that go to this length, but you don't want to know what a meal costs at these establishments.  The trick here is low temperature roasting, and a high walled roasting pan to protect the liquid from the direct IR heat being given off by the sides off the oven.  While using this type of "stock" requires an imaginative approach to cooking it's worth it.  You won't find any recipes that call for this ingredient, because it's so rare, valuable and can't just be purchased at a store.  It's highly concentrated and doesn't flavor quite like regular meat stock as a result, so roast or smoke up some meat and experiment.  Trust me it will make all the hard work seem more than worth the time.

Now that those mild asides are . . . well set aside we can get to the final step, the bbq sauce.  In my experience everyone has different tastes in bbq sauce.  I like mine tangy, terribly terribly overwhelmingly tangy.  In my opinion if any flavors really win out over vinegar in a bbq sauce then you're doing it wrong.  There should be just a touch of brown sugar to give some roundness, but not enough to make the sauce distinctly sweet at all.  I can't really tell you exactly what goes into my sauce, but I start with a base of tomato paste, some of the juice drippings I discussed at length in the last paragraph, a bunch of vinegar (generally unfiltered apple cider vinegar), chili powder, cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper, some oregano, a touch of brown sugar, a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, and a few splashes of home made hot sauce.  Then I start cooking the sauce down, and I taste as I go.  The flavor will depend on the freshness of my herbs, my mood and the quality of the various ingredients.  I grab various bottles and futz with the sauce till it tastes right.  There really isn't much more of a recipe than that.  Common things that I add while touching up are molasses if it's sweet enough, but I want more of that deep roundness brought by the brown sugar, smoked salt if it could be smokier but I don't want to thin it down with more liquid, more vinegar, paprika, sometimes soy sauce, and very occasionally if I want a really round sauce I'll add some cocoa powder.  I don't generally add any normal salt until the rest of the flavor is just right, because some of the ingredients I might add have salt in them.  So the final adjustment I make is to the sodium.

Finally I take the chicken, smother it in sauce and consume it in the undignified way that is required of such food.  I try to redeem myself with copious napkins . . . but I have a beard.  It's pretty hopeless.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Smoked Chili Improv Style

So I have something of a pet peeve when it comes to vegetarian and vegan chili.  That pet peeve is the lack of umami in most of the veg chilis that I have tried.  Umami being that rich round "meaty" flavor most people think of as being a big part of browned beef, and mushrooms and soy sauce.  A lot of times when I try vegan chilis they taste like beans and vaguely of cooked tomato.  The deep rich beef flavors I associate with all day cooked chili con carne is really what I love about chili, and I am of the opinion that there has to be a way to achieve that level of flavor without meat.  So I decided to try and tackle that problem head on.

I looked up a few vegetarian chili recipes to see what they included to take care of the "beef" aspect.  Many of them were obviously of the tomato and beans variety that I had become accustomed to and I passed those by.  Several included portabello mushrooms, which worked for me because I had an unused package of crimini in the fridge (close enough for my purposes).  So after thinking on it a bit I decided I was going to try and attack the umami problem from multiple fronts.  Here are the tactics I chose to use.

1 Build a Fond: This just isn't done enough by people, especially in vegetarian cooking.  It is the French secret to great flavor, but most people think of it as requiring meat.  It does not require meat at all.  What you need for a vegetarian fond is several vegetables that brown well, and that exude enough moisture and sugars to coat the bottom of a pan with the joyous products of their Maillard reactions.  Onions and mushrooms are both excellent choices for this.  So the first step of this process had to be a good solid fond.  So I began by browning my mushrooms in small batches on the bottom of my pot with a bit of olive oil each time, never crowding the mushrooms.  The fond builds up over time, and you have to switch the mushrooms out quickly so that there is always something pulling the heat out of the pan so the fond does not burn.  As the mushrooms browned I moved them to a bowl.  Once they were all browned I threw in my diced onions and garlic with just a touch more oil.  Normally I would salt the onions at this point to help with carmelization.  Unfortunately this was all destined to be the base of a batch of dried beans that had been soaking overnight, and beans that are salted before they're done cooking means crunchy unpleasant beans.  So no salt.  It makes the carmelization a bit more tedious, but the heat still does the trick.  If you see the fond starting to lean more towards black that you think is ideal throw a little liquid in to deglaze the pan. Let the glaze coat the onions and keep cooking them down.  They will caramelize over time this way, it might just take a little longer than you think is ideal.  Really get a nice even brown all over and through your onions.  This is a huge source of flavor and umami and you don't want to waste it.

2 De glaze the Fond with Something Worth While: So some of the recipes I looked at had water in them.  Water is an utterly useless ingredient in a dish you want to have maximum robust flavor.  There is always something better.  In my case I used a deep nutty beer and vegetable stock.  I collect scraps from my vegetables and boil them into stock once a week or so and it makes an amazing rich stock.  I learned this at a class on vegetarian cooking at Edible Alchemy.  If you're in the Chicago area I highly recommend checking out their classes.  It will change the way you look at food, and the are incredibly affordable.  Once you have the fond thoroughly deglazed then you can add your soaked beans to the mix.  For my batch of chili I deglazed with a bottle of Goose Island Nut Brown ale, added the soaked beans and then topped the mixture off with a container of my home made vegetable stock.  I kept the mushrooms aside at this point, because if they cooked the entire time with the beans they would be completely decimated by the time the chili was done.

3 A Few Less Than Traditional Ingredients: Ok, so I know I know, it's chili.  It should have tomato and beans, and peppers, and meat.  Here's the thing though, the meat is gone, and replacing it with a product like seitan or soy crumbles isn't going to bring back the gelatin, or the thick umami of the meat.  It just isn't.  The beer and carefully developed fond will help on that front, but it's not going to do the whole job.  My secret ingredients are soy sauce and smoke.  The smoke is fairly traditional, but the soy sauce really isn't.  Soy sauce was used extensively in Asia in vegetarian dishes because it provides depth to dishes that could seem flat because of their lack of meat.  In this case I add soy sauce slowly and taste regularly to make sure that it never actually tastes "like soy".  This is a case where I want the soy sauce to enhance the other flavors.  It doesn't get to be a central part of the performance, because that would just taste odd.  The other thing that really brought the flavor to life is fire roasted tomatoes and peppers.  This is a rare case where I use canned tomatoes.  Fire roasting tomatoes at home is a huge ordeal, so I use canned.  If you can find jarred USE THEM!  The BPA issues with canned foods have me almost entirely off them, but I haven't found a decent alternative for fire roasted tomatoes.  Fire roasting the peppers for this dish is a different matter though.  I turn my gas stove on high and just pop the pepper down, rotating occasionally until the whole thing is black.  Then I throw it under a bowl when there is no more skin to blister and let it steam while the chili works.  This can be done whenever you have a free moment early in the cooking process.

Finally that brings us to the smoke.  Smoking is an absolutely amazing way to infuse flavor in a dish, and most people think it takes a lot of equipment.  I thought that as well until I worked at Big Jones.  The chef would take a big roasting pan and fill it with the item to be smoked, then take a small stainless steel container and fill it with wood chips.  Then he would put that pan on the stove until the wood started smoking/burst into flame.  Then with tongs sneak it into the roasting pan under a tightly crimped cover of aluminum foil.  This can happen at the same time that the whole thing lives in a 200 degree oven and slowly roasts , or if the heat isn't required can happen out on the counter top.  In the case of this chili, I decided to use my dutch oven, and a steamer.  Since I don't have restaurant quality 9 pans I used a stainless steel powdered sugar shaker.  It worked beautifully.  I did the whole thing on the counter.  I would leave the lid to the dutch oven slightly askew so the chips had a little bit of oxygen to keep smoking.  To be honest they went out very quickly, but the smoke stayed in the pot for quite a while.  I recommend taking the container out and re-lighting it every 25 minutes or so.  It might seem like a hassle, but it's not much worse than basting a turkey.  I smoked super firm organic sprouted tofu.  I would have liked it to dry out a bit more than it did, so next time I'm thinking I will probably keep the whole thing in a 200 degree oven just to slightly roast the tofu, even though it doesn't need to be cooked for safety reasons.  I didn't really time this process.  I started the first smoking, then did the fond process and got the beans going.  Then I re-lit the chips and went about my day periodically re-lighting the chips.  It slightly darkened the tofu, and added an amazing smoky flavor to the chili. Then, when the beans were done I added everything to the pot, including the mushrooms and the fire roasted pepper. I also added half a bag of frozen corn for some additional texture and starch. That along with a few tablespoons of MASECA to thicken finished the whole thing off.

This might seem like a lot of work, and I'm not going to lie it was an all day cooking endeavor.  The people I know who love to smoke though are generally more than happy to be close to their food, and tinker with it and touch it.  In my opinion this was the best batch of vegetarian chili I've ever made.  It was rich and delightful.  The spices were as usual a bit improv, and started with whole dried poblano instead of messing around with chili powder.  Just once I really advise you to make a batch of this for your friends.  You won't regret it.

A Note on Dutch Ovens and Smoking: I used my exposed cast iron dutch oven for this, and it worked beautifully.  The smoke also imbued into the prime.  Not a terrible thing, but something to consider.  If you use your dutch oven to say occasionally make caramel corn this might not be a desirable effect.  You can use a stock pot, or a Le Creuset style dutch oven as well and you won't have to deal with a smoky prime in your pot.