Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Now I want a sous-vide setup!

What is sous-vide cooking? Here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

...a method of cooking that is intended to maintain the integrity of ingredients by heating them for an extended period of time at relatively low temperatures. Food is cooked for a long time, sometimes well over 24 hours. But unlike a slow cooker, sous-vide cooking uses airtight plastic bags placed in hot water well below boiling point (Usually around 60°C = 140°F).

The method was developed by Georges Pralus in the mid-1970s for the Restaurant Troisgros (of Pierre and Michel Troigros) in Roanne, France. He discovered that food cooked in this way kept its original appearance, did not lose its nutrients and maintained its natural texture. The method is used in a number of top-end restaurants under Thomas Keller, Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon and Charlie Trotter and other chefs. Non-professional cooks are also beginning to use vacuum cooking.

Deadly botulinum bacteria can grow in food in the absence of oxygen: sous vide cooking must be performed under carefully controlled conditions to avoid botulism poisoning. To help with food safety and taste, relatively expensive water-bath machines are used to circulate precisely heated water; differences of even one degree can affect the finished product.
As the Wikipedia article relates, it was originally targeted at high-end restaurants. It has recently crept into the repetoire of many home cooks who are looking to emulate the fine dining experience. While I occasionally like to do that myself, it's not often enough to justify the investment. Or so I thought...

Enter this eGullet thread on "Quotidian Sous Vide", which explores the many everyday uses to which cooks are putting their sous vide technology. The chief advantage of sous vide is its careful temperature control - it's impossible for the food to overcook, since the goal is to equalize the temperature of the food and the water it's in. This fine control over temperature is what differentiates sous vide from it's less dignified and more well known cousin - ye old "Boil in a Bag."

Slkinsey is making his own lunchmeat:
Lately, I've been using my rig (Lauda digital recirculating water bath heater, 5 gallon stock pot, FoodSaver Professional III) to make lunchmeat for the week. I'll pick up a turkey or chicken breast, a pork loin, a brisket, beef roast, or whatever looks good and is on sale, vacuum bag it with salt and whatever other flavorings suit my fancy, cook it in the water bath as appropriate, toss the bag into an ice bath to cool down and then into the fridge. I usually do this on Sunday evenings, and on Monday morning I pull the bag out of the fridge, slice up the meat, and I have incredible sandwich meat for the rest of the week. This is not only a huge savings over buying sandwich meat at the deli counter, but there's just no way Boar's Head can ever compete with what I can make at home. What's nice also is that it's a complete snap to do sous vide -- easier than any other method, really.

Repeat after me: there's no room in your kitchen for another toy, there's no room in your kitchen for another toy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Grade Inflation and Other Oddities in the Zagat Guide

Interesting article on Zagat Math from SmartMoney magazine.

The guide — which millions of consumers have come to rely on — bills itself as an industry "report card" with grades handed out by the voting public. But what's become of all those tough, if not picky, reviewers? When the Zagats started selling their 1983 New York restaurant guide, it was no mean feat for a chef to score a food rating of 20 or higher, the benchmark for "very good to excellent" in Zagat terms. Only one in four New York restaurants did so at the time. Today fully 70% reach those heights. It's as if the bottom tier dropped out: Just over a decade ago 189 out of 1,300 New York restaurants rated 15 or below; today only 23 do, despite the fact that the guide now rates more than 1,500 restaurants. Step outside restaurants and the numbers look even more buoyant — including a rather impressive handicap in the golf guides, where two clubs have managed a perfect 30 for their courses.

The Zagat guides definitely have their place, but they are not the end all, be all. They're based on eater surveys, (and as the article reveals, often based on surprisingly few reponses) and formerly good restaurants tend to stay high in the ratings for a long time based on reputation and memory, not actual recent meals. And like any restaurant rating system, your tastes may not agree with the reviewers. If I'm planning a trip somewhere, I might use the Zagat guides as a starting point to identify some potential candidates, then follow that up with research on places like eGullet, Chowhound, or LTHForum to get a broader perspective.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Wine Club - Sherry

I'm usually the one who researches and buys the wine for wine club every month, so it was a real treat for me in February when one of our members offered to round up some Sherries for us to try. Given that we are mostly all Sherry neophytes, and we were tasting through four very different styles of Sherry, we did this as an open rather than blind tasting and read up on the different styles as we tasted. He also brought an amazing and varied selection of food (pictured above) - homemade black olive tapenade, pistachios and almonds, olives, and Garroxta, a really wonderful aged Spanish goat cheese. Looking at the scores, all of the wines got better with the food, but in most cases they didn't necessarily go perfectly with everything - some played really well with the nuts, others with the cheese, etc. But overall the food pairings were really good, and led to us drinking rather a lot of Sherry as we had to keep trying all the different combinations, and all those salty foods made us thirsty!

Barbadillo Fino Sherry Sanlucar de Barrameda SP
Very pale. Nose of caramel and vanilla, butterscotch, with hints of lemon and hyacinth. Very dry and light bodied, quite acidic. Sour sweet salty, all in one. Good with almonds and olives. 2.3 alone, 3.2 food. 1/3 alone, 2/4.5 food. $7.99

Hidalgo Manzanilla La Gitana Sanlucar de Barrameda SP
Very pale. Nose is a little retiscent, but once it starts showing it just grows. Butterscotch, caramel, nuts, honeysuckle. Palate is compex with salt and honey. Dry but round, medium body. Great with pistachios. 3.0 alone, 3.2 food. 2/4 alone, 1/5 food. $11.99 (500 mL)

J.P. Perez & Co. Amontillado Sherry, Jerez SP
Honey brown/toasted caramel. Nose has vanilla extract, caramel and maple syrup. The flavor is reminscent of a tawny port. Silk sweet, but not cloying, with some earthy undertones. Very drinkable. Balanced acidity, medium to heavy body. Good with cheese. 3.3 alone, 3.7 food. 2.5/4 alone, 2/4.5 food. $8.99

Hartley and Gibson's Oloroso Sherry, Jerez SP
Deep brown, almost coffee colored. Sweet, and a little bitter. Slightly medicinal, like a horehound cough drop. Alcoholic heat in the throat. Heavy bodied. Particularly good with the tapenade and cheese. 3.0 alone, 4.1 food. 2/4.5 alone, 2/5 food. $12.99

(Understanding the ratings: Wines are scored on a 5 pt scale. The scale does not reflect a formal evaluation of the wine, just how much people like or dislike it. Scores reflect averages and ranges across the group. Wines are tasted and scored first alone, and then with food. )

Friday, February 23, 2007

Spicy Korean Pork Tenderloin and Asian Slaw for 32

This one is adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking. It's really easy, and really tasty. The most annoying part is pan frying all the pork pieces. I've experimented with doing them on the grill and the broiler as well, and that works okay, although frying tastes better. The marinade adapts well to tofu, which you then just bake at 375 for about 45 minutes or so.

Spicy Korean Pork Tenderloin
10 lbs pork tenderloin
2 2/3 c soy sauce
1 c rice vinegar
1 c brown sugar
1 head garlic, minced (about 16 cloves)
3/4 c minced ginger (given the quantity, I use the jars of pre-minced, but it would taste even better with fresh)
1/4 c sesame oil
1/8 to 1/3 c Sriracha or other Asian chile sauce (depends how spicy you like it!)

Trim the tenderloin of silver skin and membranes and slice on the diagonal into 1/3 to 1/2 inch medallions. Be careful not to make them too thick.

Mix the rest of the ingredients together. Pour half of it over the tenderloin. Reserve the rest for serving. Marinade the tenderloin for 30 minutes at room temperature, or up to 2 hours in the refrigerator.

In one or more griddles or large heavy pans (cast iron is great here), heat canola oil over medium high heat until shimmering. Place a single layer of pork tenderloin in each pan, shaking off any excess marinade. Be careful - it will splatter! Cook for 2 minutes, flip, then cook for 2 minutes on the other side. Transfer to a covered dish and/or low oven to keep warm while you cook the rest. Because of the sugar in the marinade, you will need to scrape or wash out the pans after a couple of batches. I kept a bowl of water, a dishcloth and some tongs by the stove, and used that to wipe out the pans as needed.

To serve, place on platters and top with reserved marinade. Sprinkle with some chopped scallions.

Asian Slaw
8 lbs napa cabbage, thinly sliced
2 lbs carrots, grated
2 red peppers, quartered and thinly sliced
2 bunches scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 bunch cilantro, minced
1/2 c canola oil
2 tbsp salt
1 c rice vinegar
1/2 c brown sugar
1/4 sesame oil
2 tbsp Sriracha or other Asian chile sauce (optional - I like to serve the slaw without any hot sauce to counter the spicy pork)

Combine cabbage through cilantro in a large bowl. Mix together dressing ingredients (oil through chile sauce, if using). Combine veggies and dressing only about 15 minutes before serving, otherwise it will be too soggy.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hot Doug takes one for the team

Chicago's first foie gras citation goes to Hot Doug's.

Not a surprise, given Doug Sohn's in-your-face defiance of the foie gras ban, but still a disappointment.

On Friday afternoon, Sohn seemed to be considering whether to fight on. He took the duck-liver dogs off the menu and got ready to go on vacation. If anyone wants to reach him, he'll be considering his options over a plate of foie gras in France, where they are surely shaking their heads.
My earlier posts on the Chicago foie gras ban can be found here and here, and I wrote about Hot Doug's here.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Blackbird has been on my Chicago to-eat list for quite a while now. But I get to Chicago so infrequently that there's always been something above it. So having a Monday night in Chicago was a blessing in disguise - most of the top tier restaurants are closed, and Blackbird was one of the few that was open. One look at the aintriguing menu and it quickly jumped to the top of my list.

I'm pleased to say the menu was as delicious as it was intriguing. And the location was certainly convenient - after 20 or 30 minute taxi rides to most of my Chicago dining destinations last time, this was just a few minutes ride from my Magnificent Mile hotel.

One of the reasons that I hadn't been to Blackbird before is that I usually seek out restaurants with tasting menus. That way I don't have to make those hard decisions, and I get to try a whole bunch of different things. Blackbird doesn't have a tasting menu, but that was another hidden blessing, as it was nice to walk out NOT stuffed to the gills. But it was hard to decide, since nearly every appetizer and entree looked tasty. We finally settled on two entrees and two appetizers, then each ate half and switched for maximum tasting opportunity.

The amuse was a split pea soup with a piece of perfectly seared salmon, some smoky bacon, and tiny cubes of tart apple. Very nice.

Appetizer #1: confit baby octopus and duck prosciutto with cocos beans, jerusalem artichoke and perserved lemon. The texture of the octopus confit was fascinating. Not rubbery at all, and somehow firm and soft all at the same time. The jersualem artichoke puree was delightful, and the duck prosciutto was swoonworthy. It all just came together beautifully.

Appetizer #2: crispy confit of swan creek farm suckling pig with cavollo nero, shaved winter radish, horseradish and banylus vinegar. On the menu, the words "suckling pig" were bolded, which was certainly eye catching. Some of the bits of confit were a little dry, but other bits were moister, and while I preferred the octopus, this was certainly no clunker.

Entree #1: seared loin of venison with parsnip, artichokes, smoked grapes and bacon caramel. This was wonderful, and a good example of what appealed to me so much about Blackbird's menu. I've been to lots of "food science" restaurants, and Blackbird strikes a good balance of using some excellent techniques from molecular gastronomy without making it the focus of hte meal. In this case, the bacon caramel and smoked grapes - wouldn't have been out of place at Alinea or WD-50, but they also worked with a fairly straightforward presentation. The venison was perfectly cooked. The smoked grapes were a wonder - still crisp, but surprisingly smoky. Excellent.

Entree #2: fried leg and slow-roasted loin of royer's farm rabbit with white corn panisse, fresh huckleberries, brussels sprouts and caraway. Lots of fun little bits to this one. The white corn panisse was really lovely, and the huckleberries worked really well. The coating on the fried leg came slipped off and was soft rather than crunchy, but all in all this was another winner.

The room is clean and modern, and unusually (but pleasantly) bright. The tables are quite close together - they're making the most of a tight space. The music is a little funky, but not so incongruous as at Schwa. Service was just right.

I wouldn't proclaim anything I ate as one of my "best dishes ever." But everything was very solid, very tasty, and very nicely presented. Quietly innovative. It was just an all around great meal, and I'd go back to Blackbird in a heartbeat.

619 W Randolph
Chicago, IL 60606

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day!

Please enjoy this virtual box of chocolates, from the the Valentine's Day collection that I offered through my fledgling business.
Top row: salty caramel, passionfruit, hazelnut praline. And in the center with the hearts, strawberry-balsamic.

The salty caramel is based off of this recipe from Epicurious. I used 2 tsp of coarse gray sea salt and only cooked it to 240 degrees. I used a very high bf content cream and butter, which made for a really nice texture and flavor to the caramel.

For the passionfruit, it's 4 ounces of chocolate, 3 ounces of cream, and just under an ounce of passionfruit concentrate.

The hazelnut praline recipe is from the new Andrew Garrison Shotts book. Caramelize some sugar, pour it over some toasted hazelnuts, and then let that cool. Break it into pieces and puree them in a food processor until it becomes a paste. The praline paste is then mixed with a little bit of milk chocolate and some cocoa butter for the filling. Very assertive and interesting flavor.

The strawberry balsamic was inspired by the Shotts book as well, although I made a lot of changes. There's a layer of strawberry pate de fruit on the top, and then a layer of dark chocolate balsamic vinegar ganache below. On the left, you can see what it looks like on the inside. The method is rather complicated, so I'm not going to post it here, but feel free to comment or email me if you want the recipe.

Here's hoping your Valentine's Day is sweet!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fun with sugar

I was making caramel for my Valentine's Day chocolates this weekend, and discovered this really cool star shape in my pot. It's caused by the shape of the grate over the burners on my gas range, and I thought it was nifty enough to deserve a blog post.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bourdain weighs in on the Food Network

Guest blogging on, Tony Bourdain provides his usual cutting and funny but insightful commentary on the "Newer, Younger, More Male-Oriented, More Dumb-Ass Food Network."

On Mario Batali:

Oh, Mario! Oh great one! They shut down Molto Mario--only the smartest and best of the stand-up cooking shows. Is there any more egregiously under-used, criminally mishandled, dismissively treated chef on television? Relegated to the circus of Iron Chef America, where--like a great, toothless lion, fouling his cage, he hangs on--and on.
On Rachel Ray:
Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So...what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could--if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?”

Monday, February 05, 2007

Truffles, Candy and Confectionary

I picked up this book on a recent Amazon splurge. After I took a look through, I almost sent it back. The truffle recipes are all very basic. And essentially variations on a theme, as the method is nearly identical for each page, it's only the ingredients that vary. Good for a total beginner to truffles, but I'm well past that stage now.

I decided to keep it, however, for the candies and confections portions. While I've developed an intuitive sense of how to work with ganaches for truffles, caramel is still something of a mystery to me, and this book had a bunch of interesting caramel recipes to try. Not to mention nut brittles, marzipans, fruit jellies, and fudges.

The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. This weekend we had a big party to go to on Saturday night, so I used that as an excuse to try out not one, not two, but THREE different recipes from the book. All of which turned out really well.

At the bottom are Espresso Caramels, in both wrapped and chocolate covered versions. To the left, wrapped and chocolate dipped versions of the Honey Nut Caramels. To the right and in the middle (with the chopped nuts on top) is a slightly overcooked Hazelnut Butter Crunch. It's definitely edible, but darker than I would have preferred. The caramels are both good, but the honey nut is the best.

Here's what the caramels look like inside:

My verdict: If you're new to candy or truffle making, this is an good book. It covers all of the basics, in an approachable style and with methods that don't require a lot of specialized equipment. If you've already got some confectionary experience, then you'll probably find it too simplistic and would be better served with a different book. Even a beginner might have that experience - do you really need a recipe to tell you to temper some chocolate and mix it with roasted peanuts? Or, a couple pages later, the same recipe but with coconut instead? But there are some gems in the mix, and a good grounding in basic techniques, so it's certainly worth a look.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Alain Ducasse's food is out of this world


In October, the Russian cargo ship Progress left Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmo-drome, bound for the International Space Station with 13 Ducasse-created gourmet plates on board. These so-called special-event meals included roasted quail in a Madiran wine sauce, smooth celeriac puree with nutmeg, and semolina cake with dried apricots.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Three simple sentences from Michael Pollan, that sum up a long, but completely fascinating article in the New York Times. This being the NYT, it will stop being free soon, so even if you don't have time to read it right now, I highly recommend printing out a copy or saving it to your computer for later.

The article chronicles the rise of "nutritionism" as an ideology in America, and how - for all our obsession with nutrients - we're fatter and unhealthier than ever before. The three sentences in the post of this title sum up his response and suggestion to counter that ideology. Definitely a must read. Here are some of my favorite bits.

On nutrients vs. food:

It was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by “nutrients,” which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like “fiber” and “cholesterol” and “saturated fat” rose to large-type prominence. More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.
The perils of reductionism:
If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.
Making things worse:
No one likes to admit that his or her best efforts at understanding and solving a problem have actually made the problem worse, but that’s exactly what has happened in the case of nutritionism. Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health. Perhaps what we need now is a broader, less reductive view of what food is, one that is at once more ecological and cultural. What would happen, for example, if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wine Club - Bordeaux

2002 Chateau Brown Lamartine Bordeaux Superieur
Pepper, leather, tobacco, dark fruits - raspberry?, chocolate. Palate much less complex than the nose would imply - pretty much just tart raspberry. Light bodied but alcoholic, with a peppery tannic bite in the throat. 2.7 alone, 3.7 food. 1/4 alone, 3/5 food. $17.99

2003 Chateau La Lauzette-Declercq Listrac-Medoc Cru Bourgeois
Opens with earthy mushrooms, then cherry, pepper and burnt sugar. Nose continues on the palate, with cherry and black pepper. Minerals on the finish, some pleasant bitterness. Quite tannic, moderate balanced acidity. 2.5 alone, 3.4 food. 1/3.5 alone, 3/4 food. $19.99

2000 Chateau Roland La Garde Cuvee Prestige Premieres Cotes de Blaye
Hints of sweetness on the nose - strawberry, caramel, black cherry, and a hint of fir trees. The wine is actually very dry, but fruit forward, with a nice and long lasting fruity finish. Just a hint of minerals on the finish as well. Moderate acidity, firm tannins. 3.0 alone, 3.6 food. 1/4 alone, 2/4.5 food. $20.99

2003 Chateau Cantenac Saint Emilion Grand Cru
Very evocative nose for some: "romantic, dark and mysterious," "blooming tropical flowers on a hot humid night." Cherry and black pepper on the palate. Very long, balanced finish. Medium to full bodied with well integrated tannins and balanced acidity. 3.4 alone, 3.7 food. 2/4 alone, 2/5 food. $31.99

For the food portion of the evening, I seared up a piece of NY Strip steak and served thinly sliced pieces. I really felt that we needed a nice hunk of medium rare protein to fully appreciate these wines. As I stood in the kitchen over the smoking hot cast iron pan, my wine club companions were a little skeptical of the lengths I was going to. But I'm pleased to say they all saw the light once they tasted the combination. In deference to our vegetarian member, and because we all love cheese, we also had some Piave, which is one of the all-time great cheeses.