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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tofu thoughts



I was asked about tofu, and I know that many of my BBQ friends generally eschew tofu as a tasteless and horrifically textured food item. However, for many of the world’s population, tofu forms a staple of their diet. It is actually rather a versatile ingredient once it is understood.

First thing to understand is that fresh tofu should always have a slightly sweet taste, tofu that has no taste is old, tofu that tastes sour is spoiled. There are some more advanced tofu preparations that require some getting used to, such as fermented tofu and stinky tofu, I highly recommend avoiding these unless you have a strong affection for powerful flavors and interesting textures. Tofu will have a very faint aroma of beans, however, unless you are eating it cold, that aroma is a non-factor.

There are three textures that are commonly found in most Asian stores, ranging from soft to firm. The soft tofu is very similar to a soft custard, and is most often eaten plain, or in preparations that do not require a lot of handling. The medium texture is probably the most common in Japanese cooking and many other Asian kitchens, it is rather unique in its texture, being firm to the touch, but yielding easily to the bite, Finally, there is firm, which is much like a firm cheese. This is often the most commonly found tofu in American stores, as it mimics cheese, and this is how most Americans have learned to use tofu. There are also pressed tofu’s, these are often found as flavored tofus, and are the most common style made in American companies, these are meant to mimic the texture of meat.

The idea of using tofu as a mimic of cheese or meat is what had given tofu such a bad name for many people who were not raised on tofu. It is a terrible substitute for cheese, as it lacks the fermented qualities that cheese has, and it truly does not have the taste or structure of meat. Tofu is at it’s best, and it’s most common best, when used as an extender for a dish that if flavored with other flavor elements. Using the right texture for a given dish really makes eating tofu a much more enjoyable dish.

My favorite use is as a cooling element is spicy stir-fry dishes, which are heavily seasoned with chiles and pork or lamb. The use of a medium tofu allows the tofu to not break down and that allows it to function as a cooling element in the dish. Most Asian dishes are based upon balance, for a hot element, a cooling or numbing element is added. The most famous of these dishes in Ma Bo Dofu, which is an incredibly hot yet flavorful dish from Sichuan Province in China, which balances heat from chiles, with numbing from Sichuan pepper corns, it uses tofu to carry the flavor, while providing a cooling texture. Taking hints from that, you can build any number of dishes in which you build strong flavors, and counterpoint those flavors with the tofu.  One of my favorite quick uses is to use some chopped up smoked chicken or pork, do a quick stir-fry with some greens, like Swiss Chard, then use a spicy BBQ sauce, some sugar and a little soy sauce to create a little interest, tossing in the tofu to function not unlike potatoes might.

To my sense, the key to making tofu more palatable is to understand that it is its own type of food, not a substitute for cheese, meat or vegetable, but, as a means to balance and enhance a dish. I highly encourage using the freshest product you can find and taking a small taste before using it. It should have a faint sweet taste.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Roasted Chicken with Sudachi butter

Just discovered that a local store carries my favorite chickens, they are frozen, but, from this farm, I am willing to eat frozen birds. A whole small chicken set me back $4.00. This was such a great deal, roasting a bird on the kettle is one of the best ways to get a low cost meal.

The butter and herbs

I made a compound butter from some unsalted butter, some minced chives, chopped flat leaf parsley and some garlic, crushed with salt. No measurements, but, that picture sort of show what I did. This was all made into a compound butter to which 1 tablespoon od Sudachi citrus juice was added. The Sudachi is a very aromatic citrus from Japan and adds a great aroma, as well as acidity to any dish.

Trussed bird

There are a lot of ways to cook a whole bird, of late, a lot of people are into slashing the meat, or spatch-cocking (butterfly) the bird. For me, trussing is the tried and true method, it takes little times once you've done a couple and will result in a more juicy bird. Because the bird is tied into a lump, cooking is more even and the meat remains very juicy. I do place seasonings into the cavity of the bird and tie it to minimize any openings. In this case, I also added compound butter under the breast skin and into the leg joint, this is done just by loosening the skin and working the butter under it. I had a small silicone spatula for this, it works great.

Rubbed and resting

Decided to mix up a couple of west coast BBQ favorites for this cook, equal amounts of Simply Marvelous Cherry rub and The Rub Company Original BBQ flavor, as well as some fresh medium grind black pepper. This was patted on, then left to rest in the fridge for 2 hours. When it was time to cook, I loaded a couple of pounds of lump, fired the kettle up with all vents wide open and let it rip. When the thermometer I stuck in the vent read well past 400°F, I placed the chicken in there, butt to the fire, along with my new mini-cast iron skillet full of potatoes and compound butter for Potatoes Anna. This was allowed to cook for 30 minutes, then the lower vents were closed by half, the chicken rotated 180° and left to cook for another 20 minutes. Then the chicken was removed and tented glazed with a little of the compound butter and foil tented for 30 minutes.

Rested and ready

Upon carving, it was clearly juicy and done just to the point where there was no pink at the joint. The skin rendered nicely and the aroma was what I was hoping for. When you loosen the skin, and add the butter, and with the high heat, the skin will crisp up nicely, and even after the rest, it remained delicate and crisp. I was really happy with the texture and flavor.

Artsy breast shot

Artsy leg shot

Some steamed broccoli, and the Potatoes Anna, which are just some potatoes severely caramelized with butter and herbs, and you have a fine dinner.

Potatoes Anna

And really, the measure of a good kitchen in my mind, every cook should be measured by their roast chicken. One of the most simple dishes, and hence the challenge.

Yes, that was dinner

Texture shot

I am really happy with the texture of the breast, it was quite moist, dense but tender to the tooth. A very satisfying cook. No sauce was needed, this was great chicken.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mizutaki of a sorts

After enough time, of eating ridiculous food, it was time to make something a little more homey. And since I was going by the Japanese food store, I stopped in to grab a few items. Mizutaki was on my mind, this is a fairly simple dish, that ends up being quite a bit more than one might think, for a boiled dinner. I secured some veggies, and some shaved pork loin. I figured that along with my staples of shiromiso, shoyu, rice vinegar and rice, and I would be in business.

The vegetables were an odd blend, basically what looked good at the market. Some Nappa cabbage, some green onions, some sweet peppers, and some Maitake mushrooms (Hen of the Woods). These were simply broken down into small chunks that would be easily handled with hashi.

The veggie players

The pork was rinsed, which aids in separating the very thin slices. And yes, I could have sliced them myself, but, this was easier. The meat would be added last, and one of the beauties of shopping at the Japanese food store, is that they have small chunks of beef fat, wrapped up for sale, that I was able to use, in a manner similar to Sukiyaki, to grease the pan.

Shaved pork loin, sure, I could have done this by hand

The pan duly greased, the scallions were quikly fried, as well, the stems of the nappa cabbage. When that was all about ready, I added the rest of the veggies for just a quick few minutes, then drizzled about 1/2 teaspoon of shoyu and a sprinkle of sugar, over the veggies, then poured water, just plain water over the entire pan until everything was covered.

Seconds before the water

Once the water is coming to a simmer, the veggies will wilt, and the pork will cook very quickly. Don't want to simmer for more than a few minutes. This would be complimented with a dipping sauce, and I am not at all sure this is traditional, although it was for my family, consisting of mayonnaise, shiro miso, rice vinegar, shoyu and I add some rayu (I use a Togarashi pepper blend spice infused sesame oil). This is about equal parts of the mayo and miso, with just a dash of the other ingredients to smooth things out. I decided to serve this with a chawan of Hijiki-flavored rice.

Din-din!

Oh, and those noodles, those are from a little experiment which worked out great. I tried making my own udon, which worked out fantastically. More on that later.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cooking for a Cause

I don't much cook at a commercial scale anymore, and every once in a while, I get to revisit the long lost skill set and experience of working over a large, hot, stove for a few hours, just for kicks. Today, was one of those days. The church I grew up in, does a few fund raisers every year, and today and tomorrow, they are doing what they call Choir Blast, where the youth and adult choirs sing and entertain folks. And then there are the food sales, the gospel is free, but, you gotta pay for the SPAM musubi.

In my case, I was asked to help with some kitchen work, as many of the regulars are either in the choir, or couldn't make it. Naturally, I said no. Then ended up going and helping Reverend Naomi despite that, as apparently she and I have a totally different understanding of my saying no to her. And so, I was tasked with cooking the yakisoba, which would be served in Bento-style boxes. This means warm, not hot, and that is a hard sell with fried noodles. Plus, a brand new pan, one equipment I have not used, and noodles that are the hardest to use for this purpose (despite what the label says). So, an 8-burner Wolf Commercial range, nice, with an 8" high, and 12" wide ledge built for the fact that everyone else that uses this stove is under 5'-2" tall. So far, by back is okay, but, reaching over that ledge, hmmmm...if I am going to do this more, we need to see about moving that thing.

Yes, I wore a hachimaki

It was hot, as are all commercial stoves when going full blow, and I prefer to cook full blow when I can. So, a hachimaki was fashioned, as I forgot a cap, my toque would be a little over-the-top, and let's face it, I rock a headband. The other beauty of this, is that as the celebrity cook, all of the prep was done, all of the mis was done, all I had to do was cook. Easy job, if a little toasty.

Brand Spanking New

Ever cook in a brand new, uber-shiny pan? Truly, I hate it, I much prefer my oddly greasy, well seasoned and worn out looking pans, as I know they cook with little stick. This thing was so new, and yet, here we are, several pounds of onions to saute, then many more pounds of cabbage, and then carrots. Prepare the chicken bits, along with a tare for flavor. It all goes along so swimmingly.

Veggies

There were actually four service tubs of vegetables and three huge colanders of noodles, all needing to be combined in my brand spanking new pan, sticking like duct tape every step of the way. One of the problems with this all, is that since these were to be served Bento-style, the noodles had to be lower in grease than normal, and a new pan wants more grease. Still, there was the job to do. Frying up the overall dish in 8 batches, things moved along nicely, with the final result being not too bad.

Done and ready for packing

My schedule goal was to have it all done by 3:00 p.m. for packing and sale. I hit that with about 5 minutes to spare, and things were looking good for all. And I did manage to do this, managing a few different pots, with just two grabs of a hot oven door, three scalding splashes of water onto my forearm, two dips of my hand into the boiling water and maybe three incidents of grabbing a very hot handle. Not so bad really. I have some chops still, I think. Incidentally, for those wondering, it was all kept very hot, well above Safe-serv standards. (I found myself thinking "I could totally do a ramen pop-up out of this kitchen")

And why would I do this anyways, it's not like I am all that religious, sort of religious, well, religious at all, okay, I am amazed the windows don't blow out of the chapel when I enter the church. But, I grew up in this building, a lot of who I am came from the people who are a part of this church, and who loved this old institution. They are the only people who are not family, who can call me Bobby and I will answer. And if they call, I will answer, as in the end, it isn't about the building, the Book or even about the food, it is about the people and what they mean to me.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chicken Curry on the Grill

Wanted to do a cook that took a few of my current interests and combined them into one cook. In this case, a peek at a traditional Japanese food, a more popular street food and a little grilling along the way. The end result, some good chicken curry, one of the most popular street and diner foods in Japan, and something I grew up with.

The first thing, was to get a little meat preparation done, so I could create a flavorful base for my curry sauce. Sure, the simplest thing would have been to toss a couple of S&B curry blocks into some water, but, well, blaaaa!

Skinned some chicken thighs, anyone who does competition chicken BBQ would recognize this unappetizing stuff. Oddly trimmed and naked chicken thighs and scraped skin. Yum!

Skinned, trimmed and defatted

Defatted and trimmed

There were bones and wings, these were to be grilled until browned. Now, I know that many folks think, why would you use wings for curry stock, because, wings are densely packed with connective tissue, the dark meat lends flavor, and with small mass and large surface area, it is the fastest and most useful cut for making stock. The gelatin release alone, makes these ideal for uses where a highly rendered stock is desired (such as in soup dumplings).

Must. Not. Eat.

Roasty bones

I would have liked a little more color, but, I ran out of charcoal, and time, so this had to do. The bones had plenty of char and smoke, as did the wings, which, to be honest, were hard not to eat. These were fully seasoned, having gotten a rub of Simply Marvelous Sweet and Spicy before hitting the fire. Then into the stock pot.

Chicken Soup
 Just three cups of water, the three wings and three roasted thigh bones, then a sheet of konbu, some cilantro, onions, carrots, shoyu and one clove of garlic. I added a pinch of salt to the stock, this is really a necessity. After a 20 minute steep, the konbu was removed and a vigorous boil was started. I reduced it to a rolling simmer, adding water to maintain 3 cups total liquid. After 15 minutes, I removed one cup, to fortify the water for the barley. Pearl barley was to be the starch, and it requires a 45 minute boil for the 2/3 cup of dried barley I had. With two cups water and one cup stock, the barley was boiled to al dente, and chilled for later. The stock took two hours, then was chilled and defatted.

Grilled Shishito Peppers

The peppers were grilled, to add a bitter component to the final dish. Japanese style curry is a sweet/piquant affair, and the takuan that traditionally accompanies the dish is also sweet. These peppers have a mild, actually non-existent heat, but, a great bitter/herbal note.

English Peas

I found some local English peas, which were a surprise in the store, these are so much better than frozen or canned. And Japanese curry really needs them. I was happy to get these, as they add a much needed texture that canned or frozen just lacks. I added these about 10 minutes before serving, just to heat through, the stove wasn't even on.

  
Grilled over oak lump and apple wood

The chicken was brined in a simple and light brine consisting of 3 cups water, 1 teaspoon of sea salt and 1 tablespoon of maple sugar. This was allowed to brine for 4 hours. It was far less salty than most brined chickens, not even as salty as a store bought chicken. The flavor of the maple was there, my plan for a Vermont Curry knock-off was Golden (you would have to be a fan of S&B curry to get that).

The finished curry sauce, with peas, potatoes, carrots

I put the chicken from the wings back into the sauce, and heated through, adding some cornstarch to thicken. The peas were added last. Slicing of the chicken from the grill and final assembly...oh, I forgot to mention, I made a quick tempura batter from 1/2 cup ice water, 1/8 cup each of AP flour and cornstarch, and fried the skins, strips of skin actually. I ended up only using one skin, I mean, who needs all that fat, and tasty, tasty, fried skin. The bowl was filled with the barley, which I reheated with some finely diced onion and celery, as well as some left over chicken stock.

Garnished with tempura skin, takuan, grilled peppers

A note about barley, as you are probably wondering about that. Although the Japanese diet is nearly synonymous with rice, and for most these days, sushi rice, in fact, rice has been a pricey commodity, and was not always available to all of the people in Japan. The milled and polished rice was a luxury for many, and impossible luxury for quite a few. The use of barley, either rolled or milled, was common for the lower classes in Japan. Many dishes, such as barley and rice, or barley tea survive in modern Japanese diets, but, at one time, barley was the staple for the poor.

de Mille moment

In fact, barley adds a wonderful toothsome texture to this dish. I have always loved the addition of barley to soups and rice, and this 'throw back' was quite welcome. I try to add dimensions to every element of a dish, and barley work beautifully for this. It has a very low glycemic index in the body. It has been shown to aid in lowering blood pressure, lowering serum lipids and aiding in dietary control. Not at all a bad option.

Yeah, I know, that is fried chicken skin on top, probably negates the barley benefits completely.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Bacon Tomato Sandwich

I wait all year for these, as I really only like them when I have grown the tomato. Even the store bought Frou-frou tomatoes seem to lack something compared to the one's I can grow on my own. And since it has been over 3 years since I actually planted a tomato patch, this was a great treat. Shown here, are a Brandywine Sudduth's and a Berkeley Tie-dye tomato.

Brandywine Sudduth's (l.), Berkeley Tie-dye (r.)

A couple of side notes, I have grown the Brandywine several times in my backyard, and it's reputation as one of the best tasting tomatoes around has been sorely missed by me. It was never a good tomato, but, since I was planting my front yard, I gave it a shot, and it has been quite good. The Berkeley Tie-dye is a particular favorite of mine, as I was friends with Brad Gates (back when I was far more active as a gardener)(who am I kidding, I have never been an active gardener) at the time he developed the tomato and was fortunate enough to be one of the people who got an early taste of the new variety. It killed me this year, soooo slow. The first one to set a fruit, it took months to ripen. That is the real color, no enhancement, it is one striking tomato.

Anyways, here they are sliced and waiting for the bread to toast up and the bacon to crisp.

Brandywine Sudduth's (l.), Berkeley Tie-dye (r.) 

Beautiful beefsteak type locules, I should have saved seed, but, I ate them. These slices were joined by some Neuske's bacon, allegedly and arguably the best bacon you can get. It is really quite good. I found some 'brown and serve' Ciabatta buns at the grocery store, that really offer a great fresh baked texture. And I used some frou-frou mayonnaise from cold-expeller pressed oil. It does taste good, especially with several grinds of fresh black pepper and a little smoked Maldon salt.

The sandwiches

Realistically, the only reason I grow tomatoes anymore is for the sandwiches and the occasional pasta dish. I am most definitely happy with how this turned out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Yakitori Day

It was moving day, my friends were moving in to the new family home. And what is the best thing to do on moving day? Why, invite a bunch of folks over for a BBQ. In this case, on the brand spanking new Konro that nobody has ever cooked on.

Ingredients were secured, or brought from home. The overall them, was to do some Japanese style grilling, and since this is sort of my area of expertise, largely by default that it is what I grew up with, I secured this stuff.

Groceries

Above, of most importance, is one very fresh sardine, two very fresh Aji Mackerel, some Prime+ Black Angus ribeye, some Duroc Pork belly, Monterey squid, octopus tentacle and some cookies. Oddly, there are two items, that did not get eaten in that pile, a package of Kurobuta Pork sausages and a package of Japanese King Trumpet mushrooms. I can't believe I forgot about them.

Other Stuff

The flavorings, that are what will be used to create various tare and sauce combinations. My family often joke that there are basically three flavors in Japanese cooking, shoyu, sugar and fish. That isn't true, of course, but, there is a little truth in humor. In this case, I made a simple dashi of katsuoboshi, smoked dried bonito flakes, and konbu, in this case, sun dried 'seaweed'. Actually, konbu is kelp, a large, leafy algae, common to all marine environments. The shoyu I chose was Marukin Shiboritate Nama shoyu, I really love the strong fermented aroma and complex taste of this shoyu. This is an everyday shoyu, and something that is easily affordable. Also in that picture of some interest, is the shiro miso, some Yuzu hot sauce, some Togarashi oil and rice wine vinegar. There were limes, lemons and some yuzu juice as well. I looked all over for sudachi and yuzu, not to be found this time.

I should probably explain, to my understanding, what a Konro is. Below is a picture of a konro (cone-row). In this case, with roasted potatoes and eggplant on the grates.

Konro

Often called a hibachi, rarely called a shichirin, this is actually a konro. What we in the United States know as a Hibachi, is actually a form of konro. A true hibachi is a wooden box, with a ceramic or iron insert, that was used to heat the house with a small fire. These were very much like room heaters and were quite common in the more urban parts of Japanese cities. A Shichirin and a small, round, stove, primarily designed for use with pots, or small grates. It is a family cooking device. A konro, is going to be rectangular, and is designed as a cooking device, and is most commonly associated with charcoal grilling yakitori and small fishes. More on that later. Konro and Shichirin are most often used with Binchotan or Sumi-e charcoal, very high quality charcoals from Japan, Korea or China. It is worth noting that the sides of the konro, made from diatomaceous earth, never heated beyond warm. After 6 hours over 750F, the sides of the konro could be held with bare hands.

Binchotan and Lump

Above is a photo of three pieces of Binchotan and one piece of American oak lump charcoal. We wanted to compare these in the konro. It took a good 30 minutes on the gas grill to even get the Binchotan starting to ash. In actual use, the Binchotan, which costs 4x to 10x the cost of the lump, was vastly superior. It burned hotter than the lump, and where the lump was gone after 15 to 20 minutes, we rolled the binchotan at 750F to 1000F for 6 solid hours. Beyond that, the Binchotan burned with no visible smoke, seared and atomized dripping almost immediately and was far hotter than the lump ever got.

Tare in reduction mode

I made several tare, based upon the original dashi, along with a variety of ingredients. The tare is the glaze/marinade that is brushed on to the meats and vegetables during the grilling part of the cook. These consisted of varying amounts of dashi, sugar, shoyu, mirin, sake, vinegar etc... Then I reduce these, to create a thicker liquid, this gives me a little more stickiness when applying the tare. For this cook, I decided to blow palates out of the water, ignoring subtlety, I used a base recipe like this.

Base Tare:
2 cups dashi
1/4 cup shoyu
3 to 4 shiitake mushrooms, preferably dried and soaked
2 tablespoons citrus juice
2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
2 tablespoons sake
1/4 cup brown sugar (amamizu, which is basically glucose syrup would have been great)

Combine and simmer down to 1/2 original volume.

Small, oily, fish

Under that stuff, which is NOT peanut butter, is a Aji mackerel, it was cleaned, scaled and had the hard swimmerlets removed from it's sides. I then covered it in a flavored miso and allowed it to sit in the refrigerator for 4 hours. This was to draw out some liquid, prepare the skin for grilling and add some flavor. Every surface had to be rubbed with the miso. I decided to use a flavored miso for kicks and giggles.

Flavored Miso:
1.5 cups of shiro miso
2 tablespoons or so, of dashi
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of Yuzu
Lime zest
dash of togarashi oil

Mix all ingredients thoroughly, apply cold to cold fish (important that all things are cold). Then wrap in plastic wrap and store in fridge for at least 2 hours, and up to 24 hours. And yes, the longer you go, the funkier it will get. For the actual grilling, I wash the miso off, and the fish goes down whole onto the grill. Grill it until the skin is charred in places and crispy. Serve whole. Once the meat is eaten, you can grill the spine, which some people really love. The other Aji and the sardine were simply scaled and rubbed with kosher salt, then allowed to sit for 40 minutes and grilled. Just that simple.

 

There were vegetables, shishito peppers, sugar snap peas, mushrooms, eggplants, Tokyo negi (a large green onion from Japan). We also grilled some SPAM and fresh pineapple, which we made into Spam Mususbi, the pineapple really added to the dish. I ended up making a cucumber tsukemono, and some other friends made udon soup to start the dinner off.

Meats

Here is the shot of the octopus tentacle, next time, I really need to get baby octopus. The ultra prime ribeye was rolled around slices of the Tokyo Negi. I understand this was delicious, I missed out on it. The squid was brilliant also, but, I have not one decent shot to show, there was a sake accident.

Torinegi

We finished off the dinner with torinegi, the classic yakitori dish of chicken with Tokyo negi slices. We held off this dish until the end, as one of our diners in deathly allergic to chicken. This dish was incredible though, as you can see, the charcoal is still ripping hot, and the chicken browned beautifully. I used a tare that combined the basic tare I listed above, with a couple of dashed of yuzu hot sauce, togarashi oil and shiro miso, to really get a lot of flavor rolling on the surface of the chicken. There is no doubt after eating this, that there is solid reason that chicken grilled over binchotan is a staple of Japanese street food and Izakaya culture, they marry perfectly. In terms of preparation, just some boned out chicken thigh chunks, interspersed with Tokyo negi chunks, grilled over the fire. Amazing chicken.

Oooo! Glowy!

I just like how the coals are glowing under the meat here. And yes, that is a large, fancy, stainless steel gas grill we are cooking over with a charcoal grill. I loved this cook, the long hours notwithstanding, there is something very engaging and direct about this style of cooking, if I could do this, gathered around a large table, just grilling and shoving stick of food at people, I would never tire of that.