Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Check it as I freak the Gucci Technique

I first heard about this from strange corners of the internet and never forgot about it due to the boldness of the claims. But when a near and dear blog-friend brought up the same technique I had to give this a go. Turn Choice into Prime!*(of course impossible due to those being grades of fat marbling, but, nevermind) Pay for a Hyundai and get a BMW! Turn a $5 steak into a $50 steak! It was begging to be done.

Now, my meat isn't necessarily crap. The steak I started out with was a cut of top round from a free-range, locally raised angus beev. But top round isn't frequently thought of as a 'great grilling steak', more as a supporting cut that should be roasted and thinly sliced. Also I was using this in lieu of flank steak for an asian-inspired stir fry which used (amongst other vegetables) a bunch of zucchini. It wasn't going to be the star of this ensemble show, so if it became a little salty, what could go wrong?

Well, what could go wrong is that it could get a *lot* salty. A few weekends before my bro-in-law recounted a story of my sister creating salt-bomb steaks that were just inedible. Additionally I was raised to not believe everything you read on the internet ;), so copious research was necessary. If I could understand the mechanics I could potentially 'Alton Brown' my way into good foods (or eats. whatever).

Blinding Me With Science

The first point of confusion was the process. You put salt on the meat, it ionizes in any surface moisture (especially if this steak is coming up to room temperature from being in the fridge and condensation is collecting) and now the process of osmosis draws out more water from the steak.

Which is all fine and good, but we're trying to get moisture and some salt back into the steak through it's cell walls. How is that going to happen? Various spots on the internet kept claiming "osmosis draws it back in" but given the restrictive definition of "flowing from an area of low concentration to an area of high concentration" I couldn't make the math work. But that's where osmotic pressure comes in. The equation to represent this is fairly straightforward:
Π = iMRT,
Capital Pi (mmmmmm, Π!) representing the pressure, i is a dimensionless factor (so we don't care, it's just there to make the math work), R is the gas constant (again, we don't care), and what's left are M for molarity (in our case the concentration of salt), and T for temperature.

Where this gets interesting is that this gets applied to both sides of the steak membrane; creating a differential (based on amount of salt on each side and the temperature on each side). If you salt a cold steak, the outside will be saltier and gradually warmer than the inside. Thus, two factors will lead to a higher osmotic pressure outside which is how we push some of that water back in: Reverse Osmosis! This pushes the solvent (water) back in!

Further research confirmed the finding in the pages of Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci (with special thanks to Google Books for making page 44 available online!).

Additionally the salt denatures the proteins in the meat; this is also accomplished when you cook over heat however the proteins 'squeeze' out water. We are also pumping water back in at the same time. We should end up in juice-heaven!

Enough of this math-making, let's say we eat!

Now I was convinced with the technique, had published proof of it, and I also noted that temperature was part of the process. So I dumped about 1/2 Tbsp+ of Kosher salt on each side of this steak fresh from the fridge, left it out to come to room temperature and went and walked the dogs for a little over an hour. (*you'll note the time and amount of salt are larger than some other peoples recommendations. This is a plot point.)

A pound of this was to be thinly sliced and stir-fried; I had an extra four ounces which were sliced off and grilled separately (all meat was washed off of surface salt, first).

Wow! Look at those insides and that red layer! I thought "perhaps the water is bringing in oxygen and is reacting with hemoglobin" but that's too much science and we haven't even eaten yet! (as such, the subcutaneous color reaction is left as an exercise for the reader, to be graded at the end of the term. This will go down on your permanent record.)

The top-round hit the grill and received what felt (to the touch) like the medium-rare treatment. And the result was... salty. Not "this is inedible" salty, but noticeably salty. I put this poor piece of meat in the fridge and furrowed my brow.

This was not going well. I had a whole pound left to cook for a stir-fry! "well, I'll slice it thin and hopefully it will hide amongst the zucchini."

And because I have a large amount of zucchini on hand I doubled this stir-fry recipe. Now I think stir-frys are my not-so-secret weakness. From what I understand of using a wok the center cone stays very hot in order to cook things quickly and the upper sides of the wok are not nearly as hot; so you throw in the center, stir furiously to cook the surface, move ingredients up the edge (where they still cook but at a slower rate) and add in the next ingredient.

But I don't have a wok. I also have a smooth electric cook-top which prevents me from even using one. And when I saw just how many zucchini slices I had, the only recourse was a high-walled french oven. And while it's a versatile piece of cookware, it doesn't make for fast stirring. Add in very thin slices of meat that were sticking together and I admit to some clumsiness while performing the stir-fry, which would usually lead to tough meat.

But it wasn't tough. In fact, it was the best stir-fry meat I'd ever done. Even being in a sea of zucchini wasn't enough to hide that this was pretty darn tasty meat! My wife also noticed this immediately.

Why was this working? Sure, the reverse osmosis and surface denaturing keeps water in at the edge but I went and increased all the surface area a thousand-fold by slicing the beef thin! But perhaps it balanced things just enough in my favor...

Emboldened by that, the next day the steak came out of the fridge as a surprise ingredient for panini (along with asiago fresco, basil, some left-over gruyere and mayonnaise)

And I don't have to tell you that it came out quite delicious. I think in this application the already med-rare meat (note that bright red stripe in the above picture) stays moist and the saltiness is offset by the asiago fresco (mixing with a saltier cheese might have been disastrous...).

Lessons Learned

I would use this technique for a thin-sliced meat in a heartbeat, and maybe even with the same amount of salt. I'm sure I overdid it, both in time, molarity (quantity of salt), and temperature, but if you are even slightly careful you can make this work. For Porterhouse/T-Bone/NY Strip, I'll stick to the usual "salt-pepper-granulated garlic" rub fifteen minutes/half hour before grilling (which *is* this technique, just at a lesser concentration and for less time).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Kitchen Disasters: Hash Brown 'Omelet'

Summary: It didn't work out, but I've made some notes on improving it, and maybe it will work out for you!

My wife found this recipe from Cooks Illustrated and it seemed rather interesting; it's an 'omelet' but there are no eggs in it. You shred a russet potato and squeeze out its moisture and that's our omelet. Sounds simple. I was worried about undercooking the potato and I think I went in the wrong direction. Perhaps the butter didn't protect it and I should have used oil? Perhaps I didn't have enough butter in the pan? Either way, it wasn't just crisp, it was burnt.

But even barring that, the flavors inside of it weren't anything special. I'm rather surprised, usually Cooks Illustrated does a decent job. But this was rather bland; even though we used a good cheddar (Whole Food market organic sharp cheddar) and had fresh basil in it. So next time I would sub those out for feta and fresh oregano; that should be enough to give life to the bland potatoes (which hopefully won't be burnt!).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

MD Farm Tour day one

Pics from the first day of farm tour. Thanks to all who came out!

And for those who didn't, there will be more goat kabobs!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Eeny Meeny How Much Zucchini?

A lot.

I turned around and a small, perhaps four inch zucchini on Monday became a three-and-a-half pound+ monster on Friday! What doesn't come across in this picture is that this Zucch is as long as my forearm and bigger than my bicep.

That, plus the zucchini I've gotten from friends, farmers, and my CSA share... we were swimming in zucchini. So we cooked and baked and, all told, used up seven pounds of zucchini in things like:

Zuchinni muffins

Zucchini gratin

Chocolate chip cake (with zucchini and some whole wheat)

Zucchini Wheat bread

Beef and Zucchini stir-fry (doubled the recipe and the only pot of sufficient size was the french oven... does that make this a fusion dish?!)

And of course, add to scrambled eggs.

Amazing the different things you can do with this squash...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Grill Pizza tip for ScottE

I was going to talk about Zucchini, but if anything I write here can 'help a brother out', then so much the better.

The dough my wife makes for grilled pizza is slightly different. The recipe from our pizza book (which itself is an adaptation from Alice Waters' book Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone) has you start the sponge with Rye Flour (though whole-wheat flour could be substituted).

2 1/4 tsp Active Dry Yeast (though I think she's using SAF Instant Yeast these days...)
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup rye flour

-- combine cover with plastic wrap/damp towel and let rise for 20 minutes. (*we do this in a mixer)

then add:
1/2 cup plus 1Tbsp warm water,
2 Tbsp olive oil
3/4 tsp table salt (1 1/4 for kosher)
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour

Mix (on and off) until you've got a smooth and slightly tacky ball.

Put in a coated glass bowl (oil, butter, whatever) cover and rise for two hours. Punch down, rise for another 45 minutes.

I think this makes for two crusts.

After you've stretched out/rolled out your dough as normal, coat one side with olive oil and grill at Medium/medium-high for 3-4 minutes. If you see in the above picture, you're looking for brown grill lines on the dough.

Before flipping, top the other side with olive oil, and flip, then add toppings.

Since your dough has already done a decent amount of cooking, do pre-cook your ingredients. Also some recipes that work well on a 'normal' pizza lose some pizazz on the grill; this regular ol' tomato sauce, grilled peppers and sausage pizza was good, but not great on the grill. You can go minimal on a grilled pizza and really get away with it.

For example, a favorite of ours (also from the Pizza book) was Grilled Sweet Onion slices (walla walla or vidalia), Fresh Thyme, and Farmhouse cheddar grilled pizza. Add a bit of cracked pepper and you've got something that really lets the crust shine, provided it isn't overloaded.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

MD Farm Tour and grilled pizzas done right!

Why should you go on the Montgomery County, MD Farm Tour?
To see where you food comes from and meet with the farmers who make it.

Why will you go on the Montgomery County, MD Farm Tour?
to get a chance to buy a goat kabob and have some corn at Fox Hollow Farm!

It doesn't have to be a political act nor do you have to be guilted into doing the 'right' thing. And my whole journey into eating locally always started with my mouth. I did it and I continue to do it because it just tastes better. So pack your friends and family in the car and stop by a farm or two. (and if you do go to Fox Hollow, tell them Tony sent you...)

Proof that I don't always ruin pizza on the grill
I'm sure we all had a good laugh at my failed attempts to grill pizza on vacation, but here's how it usually turns out. Friday Night Dinner: Grilled red pepper and eggplant (aubergine) with fresh oregano and fresh mozzerella:

And for Sunday Lunch, sausage and pepper pizza. Of note on this one: the sausages were topped raw; this led to a bit of a challenge since the rest of the pizza was done while the sausage wasn't.

However creative manipulation of the heat (read: indirect) prevented the crust from burning and an instant read thermometer was used to ensure proper temperature. Perhaps in the future I will pan cook the sausage first.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I'm ready for my close-up!

Fox Hollow Farm is on tv this morning! Not sure when, but if the clip comes up on Fox DC's website, I'll post a link.

/next time I pick up eggs, I'll be sure to ask for an autograph

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Going Granola

The trip was not an entire disaster when it comes to food, however that is mostly because we came prepared. Since we planned on hiking in the Shenandoah valley we figured we'd try to fit in and bring some granola for the trail. Of course, we made it at home thanks to King Arthur Flour.

Super easy to make, and very tasty. It would have been perfect as a pick-me-up on a very long hike. However our dogs completely gave up on us (something about the heat and the humidity? They're prone to heat exhaustion) so we never trudged for more than two miles. But that doesn't mean the granola wasn't enjoyed on skyline drive!

The remainder of our meals were geared towards getting up and going. Breakfast was a Sausage, pepper and cheese loaf from Bread Machine Magic.

And the magic here was that the loaf stayed sealed! It's an almost brioche-esque loaf that is packed to the gills with sausage and cheese goodness. The plan was to get enough protein and carbs early as trail fuel.

For lunch in the picnic areas, we had various pasta salad and pasta-esque options. Cheese-less salads are great for throwing in a day-pack and eating on the trail. But since we were driving to designated picnic spots and eating like civilized people (plates, cutlery, tablecloth, and everything!) we could keep food cool in the car, thus allowing for shells, cheese and roasted vegetables (squash, zucchini, peppers).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vacation Cooking Disasters

(shown above: glass of Hillinger Secco, Olive oil, bag of flour, bag of dough, silicon brush, salt, pepper, shot glass of garlic, bowl of roma tomatoes, fresh mozzerella, home grown basil and oregano. The cutting board and shot glass )

Summer Holidays; 'tis the season for train wrecks in other people's kitchens.
Things started off simple enough. We brought a giant cooler filled with food, condiments and accoutrements (strangest gadget: silicone brush. We had our reasons).
As evidenced from the picture above the plan was to do two pizzas on the grill; one night would be a marguerite; the next night a grilled vegetable pizza.

Sounds simple enough! But this was no ordinary grill. This was a cheap and small grill.

The problem with most cheap grills is uneven heating. As you can see, this grill had no indication of what the internal temperature was. Luckily, the aging kitchen oven had a removable oven thermometer to make a better guess. The hope would be that you could crank one burner to a given temperature and then use indirect heating to distribute the heat sort-of evenly. However since this was also a small grill, you have highly uneven heat over a very tiny area. And if you plan on cooking anything of decent size, you will end up with something like this:

Of note is that this was actually a double recipe for crust; so it was not stretched out very thin. Those blackened areas are completely burnt through. And those crumbled areas towards the bottom? Not even cooked.

But the lesson here is: it's my own darn fault. All grills should be treated as suspect until proven otherwise. On the first night, we grilled burgers. The grill couldn't get below 400 Fahrenheit, but turning on one side of the grill left the other side nearly cold (the burgers had no grill marks on one side and barely looked cooked at flip-time).

That really should have been my first clue.

But instead, I figured I'd use both burners on low, pre-heat a bit, and 'every thing would work out.' Famous last words!

Luckily we hadn't committed the toppings and we still had more dough which we fired in the oven (which did need a good cleaning, but I supposed we smoked the mozzarella as we went?). The results were good, and lasted us two nights.

/side note: the place was wonderful, had a lovely view of the Shenandoah valley, was wonderfully updated and quite comfortable to live in. Just not to cook in. ;)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Not your usual Pan Pizza

We harvested our first zucchini from the garden yesterday and had to do something special with it. Why not make it the focus of a quick-crust pizza?

Quick Crusts please both the DIY'ers like myself because you are making everything from scratch, but they also appeal to anyone who doesn't want to spend all day in the kitchen or schedule things four or more hours in advance.

The recipe from The Italian Collection is five simple ingredients: a cup of semolina flour, a third cup of hot water, a tsp of baking powder, 1/2 tsp of salt, a Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil. Throw everything into a food processor and blend for 45 seconds, then wrap in plastic and let it sit for 15 minutes to 2 hours.

That's it. Fifteen minutes. Shoot, that's the time it takes to get all of your topping ingredients together! After the minimal settling time you roll it out like any other dough*. (*but not like normal pizza dough. That you stretch and throw; for this, use a rolling pin)

The topping of zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and basil was sauteed, the the rolled out dough was cooked in a hot cast-iron pan (covered, preferably), then all was added with a bit of mozzarella and allowed to melt. You could even a bit of lemon zest to this; it was light, easy, and very summer-friendly. As pictured, we paired with a Sangiovese blend, but if you added lemon zest I'd suggest a Torrontes or a citrus-y Sauve Blanc.

And that's a fine summer meal.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Difference is Ginger

Last time I defended the Betty Crocker cookbook; now I draw attention to it's differences. Specifically, with a recipe from Some People Outside Of Boston. Perhaps still not the most authentic source, but the Cooks Illustrated/Americas Test Kitchen folks do try their best to really engineer good flavor and technique out of every recipe. Above you'll see the picture of Stir-fried tofu and bok choy in ginger sauce. And as the name suggests, the real difference here is ginger. The Cooks Illustrated recipe also makes liberal use of Dry Sherry (both in the sauce, and as a pre-stir fry marinade of the tofu along with soy sauce; the Betty crocker recipe just combined soy sauce and cornstarch as a dressing for the steak).

But in terms of final taste and what I would expect from a 'restaurant' vs. what I would expect from a home cook, that fresh zing of ginger is the one thing missing from 'Madame' Crocker's recipe. If you were to add about half a tablespoon of grated fresh* ginger (*and by fresh, I mean a piece torn from the giant hand of ginger I keep in the freezer...) to the Betty Crocker recipe it would be a significant update.

/As you may have guessed, this recipe fulfilled the bok choy content of our CSA haul!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Peas are a Snap

Steadily working our way through our CSA snap peas and the last of our own snap peas (the pea plants have turned greyish and are not long for this world) in one fell swoop, we turn to an odd recipe book that holds a place on our shelf, the Betty Crocker Chinese Low-Fat cook book. Betty, bless her American corporation-invented heart, is not normally the first 'person' I'd turn to for so-called Chinese recipes (especially considering the vast differences between regional cuisine from the Mongolian-influenced north west to the spicy "four rivers" Sichaun style to the imperial Beijing cuisine, and all inbetween). Add in the 'low fat' moniker and red stop signs should light up. But Take-out Chinese food is as American as apple pie (ask Jennifer 8 Lee if you don't believe me*). Also, this book contains an actual, bonfide gem: "Spicy Sweet Potatoe With Fragrant Green"; a sweet potatoe and ginger-cilantro concotion that has an inspired South-Asian flavor welcome at any table set with Bohti Gosht, Saag Paneer and Poori. (when I get sweet potatoes from my CSA share, I *will* post the recipe!)

Snap Peas, along with some baby corn (canned) and top round beef (locally raised from Wagon Wheel Ranch, defrosted a few days ago) danced around a flat-bottomed pseudo wok, and turned out light and tasty.

/*it was nice to find out exactly how "fortune cookies" came to be paired with Chop Suey.

also: Miller Bran Bread was made last night, as well, compliments of the bread machine (which no longer squeaks, thanks to a few squirts of 3-In-1 oil).

Also of note: Fox Hollow Farm is now taking orders for Fall chickens. That's right; if you want to eat locally raised chicken in November, you need to plan for it in July. No one said this planning was going to be easy... better to be safe and put in an order for five roasters.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Start your cookbooks!

It's that time of year again, boys and girls! The basil is blooming and it's up to you to find a recipe that won't kill you with garlic! Even after breakfast and coffee, I can still taste the garlic from last night.

Apparently it's been too long, I couldn't remember what recipe I was using last year, and I picked the wrong one for this year. How can pesto be ruined? It's simple enough; buncha basil, garlic, parmesan, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, some salt, and voila. One should be able to taste and adjust as you go, right?

But without denuding my plants, I hit a hard limit on the amount of basil I pulled and couldn't compensate for the garlic content. Mea culpa. So I've left a note in the cookbook as a gentle reminder for the future me of next summer. Won't get fooled again.

/That recipe book is normally dynamite, by the way. We've had at least 20 perfect recipes and it is one of my "Hall of Fame" cookbooks (along with Madhur Jaffrey). I guess I just found the one stinker.
//And who puts butter in pesto?!