Thursday, July 30, 2009

Visit Number 10,000

That's a direct cut and paste from my sitemeter in the title above. Hooray for me, ten thousand visits have been logged to this site. Nice of the folks over at Wrigley to notice. When can I come sing the 7th inning stretch?

All things considered, I'm not even sure that 10,000 is a lot for the amount of time we've been open for business, but it feels like a big number and we're celebrating and feeling festive about it over here at C&EinC corporate HQ. Bourbon and blackberry ice cream may soon be busted out.

I'd like to take this opportunity to now thank a very special person, the distinct individual who was my 10,000th visitor; to you, person in unknown state, country, and city, someone who apparently did a Google image search on the term "SMOKEHOUSE" and somehow got linked to my site, and whose visit consisted of 1 page view lasting zero seconds, I say....

Thanks. Nice knowin' ya. Come on back, now.

The bloggers know all about the statistics and analytics that are available. I just have what they offer for free. It's crazy stuff. Mr. SMOKEHOUSE's info wasn't there, but about 75% the visits do give me info about the person's state, city, country, and often their ISP and/or the name of the business. I've checked my sitemeter and discovered that my wife or my mom is reading *right at that very moment*. Spooky.

It's kind of voyeuristic. I don't have that many visits (50-70 a day) that I can't recognize some of the individuals who come through fairly often. You get to imagining what that person in Auckland or Bettendorf is like, checking in nearly every day, using their XP or Safari operating systems, and I can't help but fantasize about how after that person from Kraft or Panera reads my site and becomes a big fan, they'll be calling me up to offer me a high-paying job any moment. More likely, though, it's just some staffer loafing on the job.

I can also see how people enter and leave the site, so I get an idea of where my traffic comes from. I can tell when friends check in via my Facebook page, especially if they do it from work, where the ISP and IP address are more likely to tell me the company name. When people log in from home, it's almost always just "comcast" or "cox cable" or something, so it's harder to tell who's who.

I can see how all this info could be really useful to people trying to generate orders or business through their site, but since I'm not doing that, it all just comes across as kind of surreal and nosy. Is it really my business what screen resolution the guy using Road Runner in Temple, Texas is running? Is it worth my time to speculate about whether the person reading me over at the University of Pennsylvania is a professor or a student? And why does that same address from the EPA keep popping up? Are the feds monitoring my carbon footprint?

Oh, and then there's my most loyal customer...the one who comes back time after time, never missing an article, yet not bold enough to write a comment and try and break the plane of the computer screen by engaging in a discussion. Perhaps someday I can meet this person, my most loyal reader and fan. You know who you are.....anyway, thanks for reading from your home out there in Mountain View, California.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Almost Meatless Virtual Potluck--Potato Corn Chowder

I met Tara Mataraza Desmond at the food writing symposium at The Greenbrier in May. Tara's book, which was published by Ten Speed Press in April is called Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet. It looks nice. I haven't read it, but Ten Speed always publishes lush, beautiful books, and Tara seems like she knows what she's talking about.

I also follow her blog, Crumbs on my Keyboard, and when she recently contacted me about taking part in a virtual potluck, where a whole bunch of food bloggers cook and blog a recipe from the book, and then everybody would publish it all on the same day, I said "cool idea. Just send me a recipe involving bacon."

So she did. But it also has silken tofu.

Of course, I left this until the last minute (it's supposed to be cooked, photographed, and blogged by tomorrow), and with all the other stuff I've been up to lately, I was pressed for time. First thing I had to figure out was where to go to buy good bacon (it only calls for two strips, so I figure I need to use the real stuff), the aforementioned tofu, as well as a fancy ingredient like chives. I didn't need to be going store to store to find stuff, so I was thinking that I was going to go to Whole Foods, but I doubted that they'd have real (read; cured) bacon, rather than that nitrate-free celery juice crap, so I headed over to Sunset Foods in Northbrook.

I make it a point to really never go to Whole Foods, because I spend way too much time and money in there, and the place just pisses me off out of general principle. I can't help but feel like I'm teetering on the brink of the fall of the empire when I'm in a WF, do you know what I mean? It's just such a big, overblown spectacle. It disgusts me, and yet I also love it. And then, later, I feel bad about loving it. Food shopping is just not meant to be that nice. I'd make an exception for this sort of thing, but to be honest, I'm relieved I thought of a better option.

Sunset is (or tries to be) just as fancy and upscale as WF, but they also carry everyday items like Diet Coke, Kraft cheeses, and Cheetos. I did indeed find good bacon (Neuske, long overdue review to come), silken tofu, and chives, so Sunset was the right place to go, but I wasn't overly impressed with their offerings. It's a high service place--they have people that put the food on the conveyor belt for you--but I'm much more interested in the food. I'm always game for a few impulse purchases in a new grocery store, but even though I hadn't eaten all day, nothing looked all that good to me, especially for the prices they were charging. I ended up with two pretty full brown paper sacks for around fifty bucks.

Besides the ingredients for the recipe, I picked up the makings for a salad, a loaf of sourdough bread to go along with it, and a few other things.

Almost Meatless' Potato Corn Chowder

Serves 4 to 6

2 slices bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice

6 ounces silken tofu

5 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

salt and pepper

1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

4 cups chicken stock (page 131)

1 bay leaf

3 (2-inch) pieces parmesan cheese rind

1 small bunch chives, minced

Cook the bacon in a Dutch oven or large saucepot over medium heat for about 5 to 7 minutes, until the fat renders and the bacon is crisp. Remove the bacon bits from the pot and set aside.

While the bacon is cooking, combine the tofu with 2 cups of the corn and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor and puree until smooth and creamy. Set aside.

Add the onion to the bacon fat left in the pot, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the onion is completely softened but not brown.

Add the potatoes and the remaining 3 cups corn, along with a heavy pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and stir to combine. Add the stock, bay leaf, and cheese rind, bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce the heat; let the soup simmer for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are very tender. Remove the cheese rind and bay leaf.

Working in batches, puree about half the soup in a blender or food processor. (Or blend partially with a stick blender in the pot.) Return the pureed soup to the pot and stir in the pureed tofu and corn mixture. Simmer for 10 more minutes. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed. Top with chives and reserved bacon bits.

I liked the flavor of soup. It had a lot of good sweet corn flavor. Basically, the jist of this recipe is that you take the silken tofu and puree it with the kernels from 3-4 ears of corn. This tofu "creamed corn" subs in for the cream and milk that would normally go into a chowder and makes the end result healthier.

By now, everyone knows that trick of cutting the kernels off the cob in a bowl, right? It works.

If I did this recipe again, I'd remove half the solids, then puree the soup well and add the chunks of corn and potato back into the soup. I pureed the whole thing a bit too far, I think, and the finished dish didn't have the characteristic chunkiness that you'd expect from a chowder. Doing it this way is easier (I just used my stick blender, rather than the food processor that the recipe calls for), but I think a smoother soup would be worth the effort.

It's hard for me to follow recipes. I found myself virtually unable to avoid adding some diced red bell pepper to the onions as they sauteed gently in the rendered bacon fat, although I did manage to restrict myself to only using Tara's proscribed two slices of bacon. Which wasn't easy. But it actually was enough since there was plenty of smoky bacon flavor throughout the soup.

I'm looking forward to seeing what the others bring to the virtual potluck!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Blackberry-Sour Cream Ice Cream (with recipe!)

I've been working with the ice cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid and having some success. My first take, an attempt at strawberry, went horribly wrong, resembling more of an icy, frozen mousse than ice cream. It tasted fine, but the texture was awful.

More recently, I've been working with blackberries. I made this blackberry ice cream recipe prior to leaving for our recent jaunt to the North Woods, and then I made it again, with the addition of sour cream, yesterday.

After the problems I had due to not properly chilling my mixture the first time, I've been letting it sit at least overnight before spinning, with improved results. Overloading the bowl is another pitfall I quickly learned to avoid.

I've been doing some reading about making ice cream and learning. Many people recommend allowing the mix to sit in the fridge for 24 hours before freezing, and say that this 'curing' of the batter ensures a creamier product. I also hit my mixture with a stick blender right before I churned it, per another website's recommendation.

I learned that the term "overrun" refers to the amount of air that's incorporated into an ice cream while it freezes. The longer the freezing process takes, the more air is whipped into the mix. Italian gelato gets it's luxuriously smooth mouth feel from its lack of overrun, and for me, the denser and smoother an ice cream is, the better, so that's what I'm working toward.

Using the KA attachment on the mixer's lowest speed ensures the quickest freeze time, and therefore the lowest amount of overrun, since the ice cream mixture stays in contact with the freezer bowl longer. Turning up the speed helps in avoiding ice crystals, since the mixture freezes more slowly and uniformly, but this also whips more air into the mixture. Also, as I learned with my batch of strawberry, that never fully froze, the KA's freezer bowl thingy only has so much time before it's not cold enough to perform. This is one huge drawback of the "freezer insert" style of home ice cream makers. You can't just add more ice and salt.

Making fresh fruit ice creams really smooth and creamy is even more challenging, due to the additional factors the fruit brings and how they work against smooth creaminess.

If I'm making a fruit ice cream, I want the flavor to really pack a wallop, so I use a LOT of fruit. I'm using stuff that's in season, and is inexpensive, and that's the point is to enjoy it and really concentrate its flavor as much as possible when it's available.

I also want to use the fruit in its *fresh* form. The first strawberry ice cream recipe I tried involved cooking the fruit down and making a jam, essentially, which was then mixed into the ice cream base. To me, that misses the point of using fresh fruit, which brings all sorts of wonderful flavor notes that disappear when cooked. Cooked berries are nice, but they are a distinctly different taste than fresh ones. It's the fresh flavor that I'm after here, so all the recipes that I'm using involve pureeing and straining out lots of seeds.

But these choices about flavor have a trade-off; the finished product will be less smooth and creamy. Raw fruit freezes to ice crystals, and pureed fruit is always going to lend a more sorbet-like quality to a finished ice cream. That being the case, I need to really try and maximize the techniques I use to ensure what I make is as smooth and creamy as it can be.

Making ice-cream is a very technique-heavy process. Each time I do it I'm surprised by the amount of bowls, strainers, and rubber scrapers that I use. Lots of moving things from one place to another.

Blackberry-Sour Cream Ice Cream

1 C half-and-half
12 oz. sour cream
1 C sugar
1 C heavy cream
4 egg yolks
2 quarts blackberries
1/2 a vanilla bean
pinch salt

1. Mix yolks and half the sugar together in a bowl.
2. In a saucepan, heat half and half, cream, the remaining sugar, scraped vanilla bean, and one pint of the berries. Scald cream, allow to simmer for about five minutes. Remove from heat for a couple minutes. Remove vanilla bean. Puree with stick blender. Strain.
3. Temper warm cream into yolk-sugar mixture, whisking quickly while adding a bit of warm cream, then more, to ensure eggs do not curdle. Return mixture to sauce pan, put on medium heat, and cook slowly, stirring with a rubber spatula until the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon.
4. Strain the ice cream mixture into a shallow pan or bowl set in ice*.
5. Puree remaining fresh berries with stick blender. Push through a fine mesh strainer to remove seeds. This should yield about 1 1/2 cups of seedless berry puree.
6. Cool mixture thoroughly. Once cool, add berry puree and sour cream, whisking to fully incorporate everything.
7. Allow to chill overnight in the coldest part of the fridge overnight or for 24 hours.
8. Process according to the ice cream maker's directions.

*lots of advice out there about cooling the mixture down as quick as possible. the bowl set in ice appears to be key. Some say to hold back 25% of the cream and pour it in cold to aid in cooling, but then the proteins in the cold milk won't have been denatured during the scalding process, which is also supposed to aid in producing smaller ice crystals and yielding a creamier product. Ice cream is all about trade-offs.

That's a good recipe, adapted from the one I linked to above. I'll keep working on it, but I've also found a few other recipes that look pretty nice.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Road Trip--Up North, Wisconsin

Due to spotty internet access, a few pics will have to serve as a sneak preview of the posts that will surely bubble up as a result of my recent trip to the North Woods.

Kids, Wisconsin, Summer, fishing, swimming, and eating. Lots of good stuff to write about. Over the next couple weeks I'll document my experience with an old fashioned shore dinner, the North Woods phenomenon known as the supper club, and some real-deal contender burger places.

For now, enjoy!

Very good (but not the world's best) burgers at Fred's in Burlington.

Enjoying the clean sands of Crystal Lake.

Shore dinner

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ice Cream Misadventures

Between the amazing peaches and cherries that have been showing up at Costco, farmers' markets, and even my local Jewel(!), we've been eating a lot of fruit recently, and when I stumbled onto a two-dollar ice cream maker at a garage sale on a particularly balmy lunch-hour, I instantly thought of making a great peaches and cream or cherry with mascarpone*.

But the two-dollar ice cream maker's motor died halfway through the first batch of nectarine I made and I ended up finishing it by spinning the metal drum by hand and holding the dasher. Needless to say the end result was not smooth and creamy. Once it was cured--stored in the freezer overnight--it was hard like a rock and full of ice crystals. Not very pleasant to eat, even if we allowed it to thaw for quite a while before digging in.

I had the taste for this project at this point, though, so I started researching. Everything I looked at for less than around forty bucks seemed cheap and chintzy and I figured that the motor on these cheapies would quickly burn out as well.

So when I came across the ice-cream maker attachment for the KitchenAid stand mixer, I figured, ok, that makes more sense, since it uses my KA's motor. (I have one of the older KA's, which are gems. )

After debating the pros/cons of spending $75 on something that's just an attachment, when all these full-on, freestanding appliances can be had for fifty or less, the next round of produce was upon us and my romantic notions of making some beautifully creamy fresh fruit ice creams motivated me to dip into my gifts/bonuses mad money account, and I doubled up on the shipping by including a copy of the new Wilco cd. Splurge!

I went looking for more nectarines or peaches in the midst of a trip over to Babies 'R Us for more childproofing stuff (Nora is into everything these days), but I found some organic strawberries that just smelled great at Fresh Farms, I spun up a batch of strawberry ice cream.

We were in a rush to eat dinner, get the ice cream made, and get out of the house for Henry's camp carnival, which is a pretty huge event here in bucolic Park Ridge, Illinois (an officially-designated Tree City, USA), so I didn't think to take any pictures.

The main issue was that I didn't allow the mixture to chill thoroughly before using the KA attachment to freeze it. Also, forgot to think about the mixture expanding while freezing, so I totally overloaded the bowl. And THEN added a bunch of chopped strawberries for good measure. Then, while it was spinning, I read the instructions where it said not to overload the bowl. Duh.

So it never quite fully froze. After about 50 minutes, it had a light, frothy, mousse-like consistency, and tasted great (I added a few drops of balsamic vinegar for tang), but it was barely cold and not at all smooth and creamy. Pressed for time, I dumped it into tupperware containers, threw them in the freezer, and headed out for an evening of bouncy slides and rubber chicken toss.

I knew it was going to be bad when I put it away, and it was. Very hard and crunchy, even after it softened and I mashed it around with my spoon a lot. Not good.

I'm holding out on any assessment of the KA ice-cream maker attachment at this juncture, because I just went about the whole thing all wrong. The ice cream mixture should always be well-chilled and allowing it to sit overnight is good for flavor development as well, so rushing the process the way I did was a boneheaded mistake. Overloading the well didn't help and, since I've never done this before, I'm just randomly pulling recipes from the web.

Anyone have a good ice cream base recipe? Maybe one that includes a measure for fruit or fruit puree? The peach one I made with the doomed garage-sale ice cream machine was interesting because it involved making a simple syrup, and then using the hot simple syrup to cook the egg yolks while running in the stand mixer. This technique seems easier to me, plus there's less risk of curdling than the traditional method involving tempering the egg yolks with the hot cream, then returning that mixture to the pot to finish cooking.

I'll try it again a few times over the next couple weeks and we'll see how it goes. As I write this, it occurs to me that I'm following Ruhlman and Leibowitz on Twitter, but it never occurred to me to check Ratio, or Leibowitz's ice cream book. Duh again. Learning process.

*ugh. huge pet peeve, here. The endless inability to pronounce the name of this soft, creamy fresh cheese. Mas-car-, folks, not mar-ska-. And don't get me started on Chee-pohl-tay.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Woo Lae Oak--Korean BBQ in Schaumburg

Ok, it's actually in Algonquin Rolling Meadows Greater Woodfield, but Mitch spotted this place when he was all drunk, riding in my car on the way back from Finn McCool's one time, and asked me what Korean barbecue's all about. After a brief description, he muttered something like "anything that involves meat and has the word 'barbecue' is alright with me" so when another high school friend came in from Texas for a visit, we looked the place up and figured out that it was Woo Lae Oak.

I couldn't find much online about the place. It's a chain based in Seoul, Korea, with outlets in New York, Beverly Hills, and Tyson's Corners(?). It's quite large and well-appointed, and I think for that reason they do a pretty good business on banquets and meetings--almost everyone else in the place was dressed up; the men were mostly wearing suits and there were quite a few of what looked like business meetings taking place. The four of us were seated around a large, very comfortable booth with a circular table, quickly plied with cold beer and soju, and our modest attire of shorts and t-shirts didn't seem to faze anyone.

I haven't had a whole lot of Korean barbecue, but I was expecting the server to bring a hibachi or some kind of portable charcoal grill to the table. Once we ordered, though, the waiter came over and removed the center portion of the table to reveal a round grill right there, embedded into the table. Cool.

"Yeah, grill in the table... real cool, Ed. Bring me some meat RIGHT NOW."

While the grill's getting hot, they bring you all the panchan, which are different relishes, pickles, and various fish-jerkies and such, and there was some sort of steamed egg custard-like cube served up, which I can't say I enjoyed. There are three essential dipping sauces, which our server encouraged us to use individually, or together. I liked the sesame oil salt best, and used that on almost everything, along with the soy-sauce based one. The three sauces can be seen at the far right of this picture, with chopsticks being dipped into the soy, the uppermost of the three little dishes. The sauces really did a nice job accentuating the flavor of the meat.

Because, basically, it's all about the meat. We ordered a few different kinds of beef, some pork belly, and some shrimp and scallops. I knew to ask for a couple specific things--bulgogi, for example--but some of the stuff we had was just me pointing at the menu randomly. The best one, which I won't even attempt to remember the Korean name for, was rich beef rib meat, cut from the bone into 'fingers' which completely melted when cooked quickly.

The experience was, over all, pretty nice. Our waiter wasn't the most outgoing, but he did a decent job of cooking and serving the offerings, using a scissors to cut neat portions of the various meats and doling them out bite-by-bite, suggesting specific sauces or other panchan to eat with each different item. I wasn't sure if we were going to have to cook our own meat, as is standard in some Korean BBQ places, but there it didn't seem to even be a possibility. Our server never gave us the choice, and whether that's because we weren't Korean and he assumed we wouldn't know what we were doing (he'd have been correct) or that's the standard practice at this place, I can't say.

Among the online reviews, I did read a few cranky criticisms about the waiters not speaking English very well. And while this is probably true, the staff did a fine job of communicating with us, and the menu's translated well enough, so I'm not sure why it's such a big problem.

Oh--good opportunity for a minor rant; what is it with people who get all upset if their server in an authentic (and by that I mean that it's run by people who are cooking and serving their native cuisine) restaurant doesn't speak great English, or they don't have tea or ketchup or whatever it is that person "must" have or they will just absolutely plotz?

People, please get over yourselves. Look, I can appreciate the LEYE-level standard of customer service, appointments, and just general fit and finish of the restaurant, but I don't carry that expectation out into the world of small, family-owned and run restaurants. Why would I?

If you're going to places like that (and you should be) you're going for the food, so forget about assessing the level of service, or focusing on the haphazard, chintzy decor, or the spartan qualities of the bathrooms. Leave your chain-restaurant expectations at home, strap yourself in, and just point to some stuff on the menu. Take a plunge, try something with a head or an eyeball fer crissakes. Order something with tendon, maw, or tripe in it, and allow yourself to be taken out of your comfort zone once in a while. It's just one meal. Really, what's the worst thing that could happen? If it's terrible, you'll have a snack at home later.

The meal at Woo Lae Oak seemed kind of slow, at first, since they could only really cook one or two different things at a time, but the pace actually ended up being something that I really enjoyed about the meal, since getting only a few bites of each item at a time, then waiting for the next course provided a much calmer, more leisurely feel to the evening and I think I probably ate less while not feeling any less full as a result. Plus, it gave us ample time to catch up, which was nice. Probably another reason why this place seems to cater to larger parties.

The one complaint I have is that the in-table grill didn't seem to generate enough heat to really put a good sear on the meat, and because of that, a lot of the stuff seemed to steam more than grill or "barbecue" once the cooking surface was loaded with raw beef, pork, and/or shellfish. Kind of a fatal flaw. I've only been to a couple other Korean barbecue places, but it's my impression that the ones using charcoal are cooking over higher heat and, subesequently, putting out a better-quality end product.

So, bottom line; Woo Lae Oak was nice, but nothing fabulous. It's acceptable Korean barbecue in a fairly luxurious and upscale setting, so it's perhaps a good middle ground for those who want to be adventurous diners without wanting to give up the mainstream-restaurant-level surroundings. Or for those who want the experience but don't want to go all the way into the city to go to somewhere like San Soo Gap San or Hae Woon Dae where you'll end up cooking your own food over live charcoal.

Our tab ended up being about $60/per person, including tax, tip, and quite a few drinks. Plus, we ordered almost all protein items, rather than adding some rice or noodle dishes that would have filled us up a bit more economically, so really, it's not all that expensive, all things considered. Definitely worth a try.

Just make sure you bring your English->Korean dictionary. Or have a couple glasses of soju and muddle through...that's more fun anyway.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Food, Inc. Screening (FREE)

I haven't seen Food, Inc. yet. It's currently the biggest thing since sliced uh, whatever in the food world and it's high on my list of to-do's, but I'm not generally a movie-goer and what with the two kids, we generally pass out shortly after 9:30 most nights anyway.

But, Chipotle Grill is sponsoring free screenings of the film next week, July 15th and 16th at the Landmark Century theater at 7:15. Free is just enough of an excuse to get me to motivate and get out of the house to check it out. It's a first come-first served deal, so expect lines.

The film, directed by Robert Kenner, features Eric Schlosser and Bay Area uber-food authority, Michael Pollan, so if you've read some stuff by those two guys, you already know at least some of what this movie is going to be about. My impression is that it will be a much glossier, better-produced presentation of the high points of Fast Food Nation, Omnivore's Dilemma, and Debra Koons Garcia's wonderful 2004, The Future of Food.

Some reviews I've read have said it's quite disturbing, and that you'll "never want to eat again" after seeing it. But Alice Waters is quoted on the film's ads as saying it's "the film I have always been waiting for". It'll certainly be thought-provoking, and should generate plenty of fodder for discussion.

Along those lines, I was hoping to get a post-film meet-up* going. For those who are interested in this, head over to the Duke of Perth, just up Clark, after the Thursday night screening. Around 9 or so, I'm thinking, and we can break it down. I'll be there having a beer or two, at any rate, for those interested in stopping by.

After learning about fun stuff like extra-virulent strains of E. Coli and Salmonella, I'll probably just limit my post-film intake to beer. And/or whiskey.

*Ok, I know the term "tweetup" but am I obliged to use it? Please don't make me. Though, I am going to "tweet" this event. Argh. I hate that term. I only use Twitter because people tell me I'm supposed to. I swear. Anyway, hope to see lots of you there.

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!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Bacon List Scoreboard

Seems like a good idea to tally up the scores and see how the various bacons stacked up. I'm sure most of you are scoring at home, but for those that aren't, here's a quick-n-dirty rundown for you:

  1. Broadbent's Original Hickory Smoked 9.1
  2. Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked 8.5
  3. Father's Hickory Smoked Country Bacon 7.7
  4. Kirkland Hickory Smoked 6.0
  5. Dutch Farms 6.0
  6. Andy's Deli Smoked Slab Bacon 4.0
  7. Cudahy Signature Applewood Smoked 3.0
  8. Gusto Brand Bulk Bacon 2.0

More to come soon! Anyone have a particular bacon that you think I should try and review? Let me know!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Bacon List--Father's Original Hickory Smoked

It's been a while since I've added to my now-approaching-formidable list of bacon reviews that I lovingly refer to as The Bacon List. Hence, a new addition to the future archives;

Father's is making country ham, bacon, and other cured porky delicacies out of Bremen, Ky, which sits, along with numerous other country ham producers, in the western tip of Kentucky. This area is centered loosely around Owensboro, which is a largely untapped culinary goldmine, considering the amount of really good barbecue, ham, and bacon being made in the area.

My brother gifted me a pack of four different flavors of this lovely-looking bacon; he's a big fan of the Grateful Palate and I believe he used their site to internet them to me as a birthday gift. Father's makes a huge selection of flavored bacons, stuff I've never seen or heard of before; honey-barbecue bacon, jalapeno bacon, vanilla-bourbon, peach-cinnamon, and a bunch more. For the purposes of consistency and comparing apples-to-apples as much as possible, I'm sticking to their most basic offering in the review.

Designation--Fancy or Grocery Store? Fancy. Dry-cured, long smokehouse smoke, not compressed. Definitely a artisanal-type fancy bacon.

Price--How much did I pay per pound for the bacon? $9.23/lb. I didn't pay for this, but when I went to their website and clicked through as if to buy a quartet of one-pound packs at $27 plus shipping costs, I got this number, which is by far the most expensive bacon I've reviewed to date.

Uncooked appearance--Color, texture, wet- or dry-ness, mushy or firm, etc... Nice looking slices, for the most part, dry yet moist, plump meat, nice and red. Asymmetrical slices, larger on one end than the other, show that the belly wasn't compressed or tumbled prior to processing. This is typical of a true artisan-quality product. The package I had, though, contained quite a few half-slices and what looked like trim. At this price point there should be only perfect center slices.

How it cooks--Tendency to curl, how much it shrinks, tendency to spatter... Cooks fast. I have no idea why, but this bacon cooks much faster than most that I get. It hardly shrinks at all, which is typical of true dry-cured, long smoked bacon.

Cooked appearance--Color, shape, texture. Cooks flat. Almost no curl, a normal amount of grease rendered, beautiful dark red color, perhaps indicative of a bit more nitrites than other producers.

How does it taste--Sweetness, saltiness, smokiness, texture (melting, chewy, flabby, spongy), "porkiness". Strong salty flavor. Salt is the dominant component with this one. There's nice pork flavor and smoke there too, but salt hits you first and keeps hitting. Very little sweetness as well, resulting in a fairly unbalanced overall flavor. It's a good hangover bacon for this reason, but it's not as well-balanced as I like to see from a producer of this level. I had high expectations, so that may have changed my perspective some. This is a very good bacon--the quality of the process is evident and the meat definitely has that great melting/crisp quality that you get from dry-curing, but the finished product, in my opinion, missed the mark due to being too salt-heavy.

One thing that occurred to me is that, given the fact that this company offers all kinds of maple, honey, vanilla, and cinnamon-flavored bacons, perhaps they veer towards the less sweet side on their products that don't overtly feature the sweet sticky stuff. We'll see. Although I don't include flavored bacons in the sweeping-in-scale project that is The Bacon List, my brother's gift did include a few, so I'll report back here at a later date if I find that I like them better than this straight-up hickory smoked stuff.

Overall rating--All bacons reviewed will be given an overall rating from 1-10, with 1 being practically inedible (I say "practically" since, you know, it's bacon--how bad can it be?), 5 being a perfectly serviceable bacon for use in cooking or on a sandwich, and 10 being....well, let's be honest; there won't be a 10. 7.7. This is a good rating, but not where a product of this caliber or price should be at. Father's puts itself up in the seven range simply by doing it the old fashioned way, artisanally curing and smokehouse-smoking their bacons. But the flavor of the finished product isn't as balanced between pork, smoke, salt, and sweet as I would've liked, and the somewhat sloppy packaging, which included some trim and ends, is simply unacceptable for something being sold for ten bucks a pound.