Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Chicago Food Blogger Virtual Cook-Off

The Tribune's "news lite" arm, Red Eye is generating some content by staging an Iron-Chef style cookoff involving some fellow members of the Chicago food blogerati. It's a bracket elimination type contest that will be going on over the next few weeks.

Fun! I'm in.

The deal is that at 10am, someone from Red Eye announces the secret ingredient and then four of us all start cooking. And taking photos. And writing. The blog entry and photos are due by 8pm that evening, and then people vote. I face off against Titus Ruscitti, whose blog I'm a huge fan of, and he's also a three-time (I believe) Chicago Chili Cookoff champ, so I'm just going to try and do my best.

Last week's ingredient was cherries and two fine bloggers moved on to the next round with dishes like cherry meatballs and cherry knockwurst or something, and I was figuring the Red Eye folks would stay in the summer fruit mindset so was thinking peaches, plums, maybe...

But they hit us this morning with.....tamarind.

Crazy. I've worked with it sparingly. Mostly the paste, which is already processed, and have tasted it plenty in drinks like tamarindo, which is a staple in hot summer Chicago prep kitchens. The main idea with tamarind--which is sour, tart, and a bit astringent--is to sweeten it up plenty so as to get that really nice sweet-sour thing going. After brushing up on all things tamarind, I set out upon my quest.

First question; where to go to get some? My local Jewel isn't going to have any (my wife gave me a list, since we figured I'd be going to the store for the epic cookoff), so I figure I'll head over to H-Mart in Niles. And, as luck would have it, this is a day that I'm taking care of the kids, so wherever Battle Tamarind takes us, they're along for the ride.

Woo-hoo! H-Mart! Sweet bean cake samples!

They had some fresh pods, no paste, and I also picked up a few cans of tamarind juice, some tamarind candy and a whole bunch of other stuff that I was planning to use for my dishes. Once I got home, I got busy with lunch for the kids, naps, and processing tamarind!

Whole tamarinds come in large maroon-brown pods that are very dry and brittle and pulled away from the seed sac kind of stuff inside. You just crack off the shell and pull away the pulp and fibers, yank the strings out and then throw the seeds and pulp together into a bowl. It's way too sticky to clean so the way it's usually done is to soak the seed pods for a few minutes in hot water, and then work the whole mess with your fingers until the pulp separates from the seeds enough that you can strain them out and get a paste. I did it this way and got a nice smooth brown paste, which is what I worked off of for all my dishes.

That's it on the right. It looks kind of like refried beans, but the taste is strongly sour, also tart, but with lots of floral notes and a somewhat mouth-numbing kind of quality.

After tasting it straight, I mashed it through a sieve and sweetened it with a simple syrup I made from palm sugar and water, then added a bit of salt. I worked off of this basic tamarind paste for all my dishes.

First off, I took some of the tamarind paste, muddled it with some fresh mint and ice, and then added a couple cans of "tamarind juice" which, the label states, is 30% tamarind mixed with water, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, some fresh squeezed lime juice, and poured the whole thing into a pitcher of ice to chill in the fridge.

I served this tamarindo, strained, to Henry to have with his lunch, and then mixed up a little cocktail for myself to enjoy after I put him down for his nap. It consisted of the tamarindo, a tiny dash of bitters, more fresh mint, and a good couple glugs of Elmer T. Lee single barrel bourbon. I shook it all up in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice and served it in a glass dusted with pulverized tamarind candy. Kind of a Thai Julep, I guess.

Thank you, Red Eye, for giving me an excuse to drink bourbon at lunch!

Once I got a nice buzz on and promised Henry another tamarindo if he took a good nap, I got busy cooking.

I decided to do an appetizer and an entree, in addition to the cocktail. I laid out my prep and started working on both dishes. For the entree, my plan was to do an Asian braise with some chicken quarters, and then grill them to crisp up the skin, which I would glaze with a tamarind barbecue sauce. Braised-and-glazed chicken legs and thighs. Description to follow.

I got the braise in the oven and then started working on the shrimp appetizer.

Appetizer; Bacon-wrapped shrimp, herb salad, French melon sauce

I picked up some head-on shrimp at H-Mart, which were a bit small, but it's always more interesting to have the heads on, both visually and for sucking once everything's all brown and
crispy. I shelled the tails, rubbed them with a bit of the tamarind paste, wrapped them in bourbon-vanilla bacon from Father's Country Hams. Next, I made a syrup out of palm sugar, soy sauce, and fish sauce, that I reduced down to a thick caramel before mixing it with the tamarind pulp.

They had nice-smelling French melons at H-mart, so I got one, chunked it up with a little salt and lime juice, and hit it with the stick blender until it was as smooth as I could get it. Then I turned the stick up and streamed in some canola oil to emulsify and smooth-out the sauce. I stuck it in the fridge for a while and then strained it, since I knew I was going to take a picture, but if you wanted to make a cool melon sauce like this at home, you really don't have to strain it, and I normally wouldn't.

To fill out the plate, I picked leaves of cilantro, mint, and parsley, chopped them roughly, and dressed them just a bit with a squeeze of lime juice and a dash of oil. These flavors all play off of each other really well. The sour tamarind, bright lime, and fresh herb flavors cut through the richness of the bacon and the shrimp, and everything really plays well together in your mouth to give you that awesome Southeast Asian eating experience where all of your taste buds are going at full bore--spicy, sour, salty, sweet--all at the same time.

Entree; Tamarind Braised-and-Glazed Chicken Legs and Thighs, Sesame Slaw

After separating the chicken legs from the thighs, I browned them a bit and then sweated onion, ginger, garlic, scallion, and red chile before adding a can of the tamarind juice, a can of coconut milk and a bit of water. I brought the whole thing up to a simmer and then covered it and put it in a 275° oven for about 2 hours. My goal was to get the chicken really tender and infused with those Asian flavors, but not to allow it to break down to the point that it was falling apart and the skin came off. I pulled it out, refrigerated it, and then made my tamarind barbecue sauce.

The tamarind pulp, molasses, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, and palm sugar went into the glaze. I cranked up my grill and charred the glazed chicken bits over high heat, getting plenty of browning and caramelization. Since it was already braised, the chicken was fully cooked and almost falling-apart tender. I just grilled it to get the char on the skin and crisp up the glaze. It wasn't easy to get it on and off the hot grill without it falling apart, but I just managed.

The slaw is red cabbage, some napa, shredded carrot, some mayo thinned with rice wine vinegar and lime juice, and enriched with sesame oil. I added some anise seeds and sesame seeds as well. Crispy shallots went over the top.

It turned out great. You could definitely taste the ginger, garlic, and coconut from the braise, the meat was super-tender, and the burnt sugar and smokiness of the barbecue sauce nicely offset the sour tanginess of the tamarind. The slaw added a nice fresh, crunchy contrast to the braised dark meat chicken.

So that's that. It's now 7pm, I'm just finishing this post within the time limit, we've eaten dinner, my bourbon buzz is gone, Henry's begging me for yet another cup of tamarindo, and I can definitely say I learned a lot about tamarind today. Hopefully I will manage to move on to the next round as well.

Good luck to all the blogger-chef-testants and thanks to Red Eye for putting this fun deal together! Oh, and don't forget to vote early and often for me here, by writing a comment in the section after the Red Eye blog entry about Battle Tamarind!

1 comment:

Hank said...

nice work dude. sounds delish.

the cocktail reminds me of a personal favorite - the tamarind whiskey sour - at pok pok in portland. woodford reserve, tamarind, lime juice, palm sugar.

good luck in the contest!