Wednesday, October 18, 2017

No Pressure Whatsoever

Recently I’ve…well, let’s not say “fallen in love” with a new kitchen device.  Rather, let’s say I’ve "developed a very strong infatuation" for a new kitchen device.  Except it’s not a new device at all.  It’s a very old device. Both personally and from a technology perspective.

About a month ago, I was reading an article on Serious Eats, as one does, and among the suggested links was something along the lines of “26 amazing pressure cooker recipes.” And I thought, “I have a pressure cooker.  Maybe I should get it out of storage.”

Way back in 2001, my mom got me a top-of-the-line Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker for Christmas.  Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking of when I asked for it in the first place.  Maybe that I’d make beans with it?  I made boiled peanuts, and later cooked a mess of beans with it, once.  Following which I boxed it back up and stashed it in my offsite storage.  Why?  Well, my kitchen didn’t have much storage space (still doesn't!), and the thing takes up a lot of room.  And it’s such a large device, you can only really cook for a crowd with it.

I never forgot it was there, this isn’t a story of rediscovery that way. But I never gave much thought to what I might do with it, either.  And yet, Serious Eats pointed out that you could take raw ingredients — chicken, chorizo, veggies, broth, and dried black beans straight out of the package, throw them in a pressure cooker, and have chicken soup in about 45 minutes.

And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try it out.

So, a few weeks back, I unearthed the pressure cooker, checked the rubber gasket (still perfect after all these years—Kuhn-Rikon makes a great product).  Gave it a thorough wash, got the ingredients together, and tried making chicken and black bean stew.

It was amazing. It looked so wrong when I sealed the pot, and looked and smelled so right when I opened it back up again.  What went on in there?  Nothing short of kitchen magic.

Chicken, chorizo, and black bean soup: before

Chicken, chorizo, and black bean soup: after
Since then I’ve made carnitas in about 90 minutes from cut up pork butt to tender, fall-apart perfection.

Carnitas tacos, super-fast

And I tried a third recipe last week: a Colombian chicken stew with just five ingredients.  Tomatoes, onion, potatoes, chicken, bay leaves (and whatever spices you like or have handy — I put in seasoned salt, pepper, and some smoked paprika--and, full disclosure, a couple of cloves of garlic).  It’s like barely even a recipe.  Cut up vegetables, throw everything in the pressure cooker, toss a bit, seal and fire it up.  No browning.  No liquid.

If I thought the black bean stew looked wrong going in, I was honestly worried about this one. But if you can’t trust J. Kenji López-Alt, whom can you trust?

And sure enough, after 25 minutes at pressure, I cooled the pot, popped off the lid, and was blown away.  Where did all the broth come from?  I swear, volume materialized from the ether. I know tomatoes are mostly water, but still.  Kitchen magic, yet again.

I have deeply embedded memories of a childhood with an old-school, constantly hissing pressure cooker, and dire warnings from my parents of the dangers it posed.  Next to that, my stealthy, silent Kuhn-Rikon is a little unnerving.  Each time I’ve used it so far, I’ve felt doubt.  I watch the little indicator thingy move slowly upward to peak pressure, but I still wonder, “Is it doing anything?  What’s going on in there?”  It’s not like you can peek.

I've long been focused on slow food. I guess it's only natural that now, after years of being enamored of sous vide and the long process of making no-knead bread, suddenly I’m bewitched by the super speed of the mysterious sealed pot.  

Pressure cookers are literally the anti-sous-vide.  The former is about high temperatures, the latter about very low.  The former features trapping several atmospheres of steam in with the food, the latter removes as much air as possible from around whatever you’re cooking.

And yet both have their place.  I can’t imagine wanting to make carnitas sous vide when the pressure cooker does such a great job in, what, 1/24th of the time? But then again, I have little interest in putting a chicken breast or a pork tenderloin into a pressure cooker.

Right now, I am not sure where this relationship is going.  As I said at the outset, I’m infatuated and I know it.  I’ve got a bunch more recipes to try, but at the same time my freezer is filling with delicious leftovers from my previous experiments.  I’ll have to slow it down at some point.  But I feel happy, belatedly, to discover or rediscover the magic of cooking by pressure.  Fun fact: The idea of cooking food under pressure dates back to 1679, when a Frenchman named Denis Papin invented it. So I'm really late to this party.
Where the magic happens...
Next on my to-pressure list is probably veggies for a creamy puréed soup.  Modernist Cuisine at Home states grandly that you’ve never had carrot soup until you’ve had carrot soup made from pressure cooked carrots.  I’m excited to put that to the test.

I'm deeply grateful Serious Eats for the inspiration, and of course to mom for the device.  It’s like she’s given it to me twice!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Uses for Sourdough

Part of the care and maintenance of R, my sourdough starter, involves throwing out a bit of it with each weekly flour-and-water feeding.  It's necessary:  gets rid of some of the waste products that the yeast and bacteria generate, and stops the starter from taking over its jar, and from there my fridge, and from there the world.

But it seems kind of wasteful to me to just toss it.  So I've been looking around for ways to cook with it, short of whipping up a whole loaf of bread.

King Arthur Flour has been the source of a whole bunch of inspiration on that front.  I've made sourdough waffles a couple of times and a batch of very tasty crackers.

By the way, I learned a long time ago from Alton Brown that if you've got a pasta machine, it's by far the easiest way to roll dough to any arbitrary thinness you want, and so is great for making crackers.

Most recently I whipped up a batch of popovers.  I always assumed you needed a proper popover pan to make them, and I bet they would've been prettier with one.  But, jeez, popovers are insanely easy to make.  And check them out.  They literally popped over.  The King Arthur Flour recipe made a half dozen, perfect for me to eat for breakfast for a week, with various sweet or savory toppings.

Check them out a whole pile of oddly-shaped baked deliciousness.

I've certainly seen popovers that were more perfectly hollow on the inside, but I'm not complaining.  Definitely light and puffy and slightly eggy and tangy.  My only regret is that I didn't realize how easy popovers were to make a long time ago.  I'm going to have a batch ready next time people come over for brunch, and (assuming they haven't read this) impress the heck out of them.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Night of the Choctopus!

A long, long time ago, my younger sister, aware of my love of cephalopods, gifted me with a cake pan molded in the shape of an octopus.  It's a super-complicated, bundt-style pan from Williams Sonoma, and perhaps unsurprisingly they discontinued it a long time ago.  But I have one.

I'm not actually a great cake baker -- I'm often intimidated by them, something about the creaming butter and sugar for the right length of time, it just seems like a lot can go wrong.  I mean, I can make a pound cake.  And I'm good at brownies. But a cake, of that magnitude, in that pan...

So although I've had this amazing pan for ages, I've never been brave (or foolish) enough to try it out.

Until now.

I was going to meet friends for dinner and a game, and I volunteered to bring dessert. And I looked at the pan, and thought about it, and decided, "I'm not going to make an octopus. But I will make a choctopus!"

After looking around at assorted advice on chocolate bundt cakes, and rejecting recipes that began "take a box of devil's food mix and add a box of brownie mix to it...," I set my sights on King Arthur Flour's chocolate bundt recipe, which seemed surprisingly simple. 

I was a little concerned about having enough batter to fill the octo-pan, but comparing quantities of flour and such, I decided it should work fine.

I don't have step-by-step photos of the process here, but one thing that attracted me to the King Arthur recipe is that you melt the butter (with chocolate and cocoa and coffee) before adding it to a bunch of dry ingredients.
Although it's ostensibly nonstick anyway, I really, really, sprayed the inside of the pan well.

A good trick I read for these complex pans is to put just a little batter in at first and coat the more complex bits with a fine layer, tapping the pan as you go to minimize the chance of air bubbles messing up the form.  Then go back and fill the pan the rest of the way

Another good trick was to put it on a sheet pan, to catch any spillovers while baking, but also to make it much easier to move it into, and especially out of, the oven.

I had a brief panicky moment when i realized I don't have any skewers around the house.  Would a toothpick suffice for the classic cake done-ness test?  Would it probe deeply enough into the dark heart of the choctopus?

These are the things I worry about when I bake.

Here is what the underside of the choctopus looked like fresh out of the oven:

Promising, I thought.  But would it come out in one piece?  Would i have to do choctopus surgery?  Would I have to hope it could, as some cephalopods can, regenerate a severed arm?


Fresh out of the pan, it was a little shiny, probably due to the care I took oiling it.  Fortunately, I'd made the thing a day in advance.

I knew I didn't want to cover up any of the details with icing, but shortly before setting out to dinner, I tried dusting it with powdered sugar.
I wasn't super happy with that result.  If I had all the time and patience in the world, I would've made little masks for the details, the shells and starfish and the eyes of the choctopus, and dusted to highlight those.  As it was, like a light coating of snow, I think even the small amount of sugar I put on just obscured the details of what is a very detailed cake.  Just serve it naked with some vanilla ice cream and call it a day, is my recommendation.

By the time we ate it, though, the powder had settled into the cake somewhat, and it was pretty much exactly what one would want in a chocolate octopus bundt cake.

Finally, the insides.  It was a most excellent chocolate cake indeed.  I can't think of what would make it better.  It had a very fine crumb, it was rich and dense but not heavy, it was moist, it was intensely chocolatey. King Arthur Flour wanted a cup of coffee in the mix, I used instant espresso instead, but either way, it really works to give a grown-up complexity to the chocolate.
My friends were all impressed and happy with the choctopus, too.  I look forward to more cakes, and more reasons to bake cakes, in my near future.

And finally, I'll just reiterate, for anyone seeking a great chocolate bundt cake recipe, I highly recommend the King Arthur Flour one.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

They Really Do Have the Meats...

Aside from Chipotle and Starbucks, I haven't eaten at a national fast food chain in, well, let's just say I can't remember the last time.  I learned too late that Arby's occasional foray into deer made a brief appearance at the newest Manhattan Arby's.  The Gothamist folks reviewed it, and very favorably.

I'm so bummed I missed it. I don't often eat venison, but I'd totally go to Arby's for this. I'd love to see more unusual meat at the nation's fast food chains. Everyone remembers Krusty Burger's Ribwich, for as long as that lasted.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fettuccine a Rachel

Two years ago now my friend Rachel and I took a pasta making class together at the Institute of Culinary Education.

A couple of weeks ago, we finally had a chance to put what we learned into practice, using her spiffy Kitchenaid stand mixer.  It was incredibly easy -- much simpler than kneading pasta dough by hand! -- and the results were fairly amazing.  Which is dumb because every single (rare) time I've made pasta from scratch I've ALWAYS said something like "the results were fairly amazing."  And yet, how many times have I made pasta from scratch?  Not enough.  Not nearly enough.

Anyway, Rachel's Kitchenaid definitely wins pasta night.  From unimpressive flour to impressive pasta dough in just a few minutes.

 And following a short rest and some liberal flouring, the rolling went super smoothly as well.

So lovely. Below is the post-cooking version, with apologies for the slightly steamed-up camera lens.

At Rachel's suggestion, we tried Marcella Hazan's famous/infamous (but new to me) tomato sauce.  It's barely a recipe: 
Take a can of whole tomatoes, 5 tablespoons of butter, an onion that you've peeled and cut in two, and a little salt, and throw them in a pot for 45 minutes, stirring and occasionally smooshing the tomatoes a bit.  Remove the onion halves.  Done.
You can see why I was skeptical.  But holy crap was that good.  It makes me rethink the whole idea of cooking Italian food with olive oil.  I insisted on adding a little fresh basil.  I make no apologies for that.
Such a good, simple, hearty meal.  And good fun to make and share it with a friend.

A couple of notes.  Since the sauce is so simple, using super-good tomatoes is imperative.  I hunted around a bit and I think Cento San Marzanos are the ones to beat.  Delicious, Italian, and the can is BPA free, which I look for in cans these days.

Also, the recipe from ICE said to use 100g of flour plus 1 egg per person.  We were skeptical, so we ended up using about 300g of flour and 3 eggs (and a small amount of salt and olive oil and water).  That made a LOT of pasta.  I had leftovers for dinner for most of the week.  I am not complaining in the least, just stating for the record that, yes, 100g of flour is more than enough for 1 serving of pasta.

Finally, I made a loaf of bread, since there might not have been enough carbs otherwise. So here's a picture of that too.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Aldi Adventure

I had heard of Aldi, a culty value-centric European grocery store that fans apparently obsess over, for some time -- I remember reading a Times article about it a while ago, I think.  But I didn't realize there was one semi-close to me until fairly recently.  My wanderings in the city don't often take me over to East River Plaza, the very un-Manhattan complex at farthest east 117th street, featuring ample parking, Manhattan's one Costco, a giant Target, and assorted other suburban fixtures.  And, it turns out, an Aldi.  Always curious about new grocery experiences, and always in favor of saving money, I headed that way last week.

I deliberately wanted to keep myself objective about Aldi, so I didn't do any research beforehand, didn't look up best values, or just why it's so beloved.  I knew nothing beyond the string of adjectives in my opening line.

Aldi:  Right next door to Gamestop!  This is definitely the most suburban I've ever felt on the island of Manhattan.

This picture is a good summary of my impression of Aldi.  It's not much to look at.  Definitely cheap.  But nothing is presented in a way that makes you want to try it, take a chance, get something new.  Unlike the other notable culty grocery store, Trader Joe's, which takes merchandising and presentation and friendliness to new heights.  Aldi seems to say "we're cheap.  Don't expect anything else."  Produce was...there.  I was a little iffy about it.  Four bucks for a pound of medjool dates, though.

Brands were an interesting thing.  There isn't an Aldi brand like there is a Trader Joe's brand, but it definitely leans heavily on various store brands.  And yet there were familiar brands in the mix, seemingly at random, as well.  It was, truly, a lot like a European grocery store.  Everything was just a little bit off.  Check it out, honey nut cheerios, alongside several varieties of "crispy oats."  And above them, "honey crunch 'n oats."

The things Trader Joe's excels at, like bread and pastries, and odd and interesting cheeses, were  disappointing at Aldi.  Some staples were there, and things were, again, cheap, but for me at least, little was enticing.  Bagels were pretty repulsive, though I think that about all prepackaged bagels.

And I won't even really talk about the terrifying and awful concept of frozen sushi, except I will.  What the heck is frozen sushi?  I should've bought some just to see.  But I was scared of it, and beyond skeptical.  Also, this freezer case is another good example of Aldi's general lack of care and presentation.  You might see that sort of chaos at a TJ's late on a very busy day, but it would be short lived.  I was at Aldi on a sleepy weekday afternoon.

So what did I get?  I spent $40.43, and came away with dates, a great price on maple syrup, almonds, ground turkey, ranch flavored sesame seeds, some awesome bacon, brussel's sprouts, corn chips, black beans, chicken sausages, and dark chocolate cashews.  Not a bad basket; I imagine if I'd bought equivalents at my local Westside Market I would've spent maybe $60 or even more.  And everything I've had so far has been tasty, although nothing has me wanting to go back to pick up more.

I have spent a small amount of time seeking hymns of praise to Aldi.  Slate and the Daily News both have them.  The Daily News writer treks across town for a particular kind of face cream.  Fair enough. And the Slate writer basically likes that Aldi has lackluster-to-bad customer service. Because in her mind it means the groceries are better (for some reason) and she has a general fetish for the German way of doing things. I'm not persuaded.

However, the Slate piece also informed me that Trader Joe's and Aldi are estranged corporate siblings, started by estranged real siblings.  Read the article, I had no idea -- it's fascinating.

Finally, I realize Aldi's far East Harlem outpost may not be representative, just the way the madness that are Manhattan's Trader Joe'ses (how do you pluralize Trader Joe's, anyway?) is nothing like a TJ's experience other places.  So I generalize with great care.  I can't imagine making a special trip just to go to Aldi again.  It's cheap, but the time and energy required aren't worth it.  If you're in the neighborhood and need economical beans or dates or slightly weirdly branded cereal or chips, though, by all means, stop on by.

Monday, February 6, 2017

My New Pet

It's not a dog or cat or gerbil or even a tarantula, but I'm happy to introduce the world to R, my sourdough starter.  R was a gift from my friend Rob, in whose shadow as a bread baker I humbly stand. He makes his own baguettes, even. I mentioned to him a couple of weeks ago that I was thinking of starting my own sourdough starter and he was like, "really, dude, it's not worth it, just take some of mine."

And without further ado, R was, well, I was going to say "born" but that's not exactly accurate.  Decanted.

Here is R in its resting state, safely ensconced in its jar.

And here's R tucked away in my fridge, where it'll be spending most of its time.

Next this is R in its active, growth phase, having just been fed and about to spin off some starter for making my first ever loaf of sourdough bread.  Doesn't it look bubbly and perky? I bet R would have like a thousand followers on Instagram, like a certain pug I know.  (Digression: searching for 'yeast' on Instagram, which I don't necessarily recommend, does yield two gems:  "Yeastie Boys Bagels," and "Yeast of Eden."  Bravo!)

And here's the product of my and R's collaboration. Cook's Illustrated's no-knead sourdough recipe from issue 142 is what planted this whole idea in my head.  It was an almost 40 hour process to make this loaf (albeit, most of it waiting around while R did its thing and gluten formed and such).  I made a project plan spreadsheet and everything.
And check out the inside.  The crumb needs a little work -- I think maybe some (more) kneading is in order?  But I was really happy with the flavor, not too sour, but definitely tangy, and amazing that thanks to R the only store-bought ingredients I need to make a loaf of bread are flour and a little salt.  Made some superb BLTs.
I'm finding I like having a companion.  Even if R doesn't know me or come when I call, I still have to feed it and keep it perky.  And how many pets can you eat a chunk of from time to time? 

I will close by mentioning that R is partly named after Rob (duh) but it's mostly named after R, the undead hero of my favorite zombie romantic comedy (or "zom-rom-com" -- I didn't make that up), Isaac Marion's beautiful Warm Bodies.  Seemed somehow fitting for a jar filled with wild yeast and who knows what bacteria.