Thursday, May 15, 2008

Using rice wrappers

Last evening I went to a Yelp event at a Vietnamese restuarant in San Jose. Lots of people mostly Vietnamese there. What a terrific experience. But from my rather selfish point of view, I learned how to roll up those wonderful Vietnamese spring rolls. The kind that have a thin, translucent rice wrapping around tasty ingredients.

I had made these kinds of rolls before, but had always found it a bit finicky and not as successful as I would have liked. One of the Vietnamese guys at the event let me into the secret. I had been soaking the wrappers for too long in the warm water. My way they become slippery and quite fragile.

However by soaking them for less time - essentially until they are pliable, but not flaccid they are much easier to control.

So good food, great company and lessons too. The only thing missing was Madame - she was at home while I am gallivanting in San Jose.

Practice, practice, practice

For me, using a knife properly is very important, but it isn't the most natural of motions. Whether it be slicing, chopping, paring, carving or whatever. So, to get around deficiencies I practice continually.

For example, when I am going to eat an orange, I always peel it as if I am going to segment it for an elegant salad or dessert. In the words of Gordon Ramsay, "Using a small sharp knife, slice off the top and bottom of the fruit. Standing it firmly on the chopping board, cut along the curved sides of the fruit to remove the remaining peel and pith. Holding the fruit with one hand over a sieve, set on top of a bowl, cut along each side of the membranes to release the segments. Let each segment fall into the sieve as you continue segmenting."

Why when there is no real need? Because that way when I need to have elegant segments I have practiced enough to be able to handle the technique with confidence.

I was working on a project for 3 months - just outside Paris. The project hotel (The Marriott Courtyard near the airport) had a very good breakfast buffet. Anything that has unlimited smoked salmon and crusty bread gets my vote. They always had whole, unpeeled kiwi fruit in the fruit basket. I had seen Christopher Kimbell peel these whole using a spoon. Top and tail the fruit, and then slide a spoon between the peel and the fruit and rotate to loosen the peel. In Christopher Kimbell's hands this looked simple. It isn't! I practiced almost every day I was there - again not because that was the easiest way to eat the fruit, but because I wanted to have the technique in my back pocket. This of course became a project standing joke.

So practice in cooking techniques is like practice in everything. We do it to improve our abilities, but there aren't many opportunities. With food as expensive as it is, we want to be able to make sure we eat the results of our practising.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Now that warmer weather is here and the butter is impossible to deal with

Butter - my favorite fat(well fat/water combo). Nothing tastes as good on toast, in pastry, for cooking eggs, making cakes......

However butter is problematic to make usable. Keep it in the fridge and you can't spread it easily, keep it on the counter when the weather is warm and it spreads in a greasy pool all over the place. So, what to do?

Enter the butter bell. This is a clever little device that keeps the butter away from the air so it doesn't go rancid, and keeps it cool by immersing it in cold (icy) water.

So to use it, you follow the simple steps....

Step 1: put about 1/2 cup water into the base of the butter bell, and then begin to add the butter into the lid.

Step2: Push the butter firmly into the lid.

Step 3: Immerse the lid into the base. Store the butter bell on the counter. Do not put in the fridge - if you do all your good work will be for naught.

That's the instructions according to the official site. However because we live in Texas and during the day our kitchen gets kinda warm, we use a slight variant. I fill the base with crushed ice to the top. Then add chilled water. When I invert the top into the base, some water runs out. I place the whole butter bell close to the sink, so that as the ice melts, the top slips down into the water, displacing some water into the sink. This give maximal cooling, but because the volume isn't huge, the effect of the ice is minimized - i.e. the butter goes a bit hard, but we do this after breakfast, and by lunchtime the butter is nice and usable again.

Using the butter bell means we don't have to resort to whipped/processed/artificial/chemistry set tasting spreads on our toast - and we end up not using as much as we would if we attempted to spread it straight from the fridge.

The web site sells these, but any good kitchen store does too. We have used ours for 5 years now, and can't imagine being without it.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Producers' picnic

All those hamburgers were for the picnic yesterday (Sunday). We were expecting between 30 and 40 people - and it topped out at 34. Since almost everyone is under 25, we were all ready for the hollow leg brigade - those people who can eat and eat!

We put out some home made guacamole, a jalapeno/quark dip, and chips for people to nibble on before the grill got cranking.

Since we doing both burgers and bratwursts, I needed a way to keep cooked brats moist and hot. The standard way of doing that is to make a caramelized onion/beer bath to put the grilled brats into. Brats and onions are such a good combination and beer? Well those folks in Wisconsin now something about that too.

The burgers themselves were pretty straightforward - grilled for about 4 minutes per side and they were done perfectly. I didn't season the meat prior to making the patties, so I simply had some ground pepper and salt in a small bowl beside the grill. As I put burgers on, I seasoned the top side, then when they were flipped I seasoned the other side. You end up using a lot less salt that way (maybe 2tsp for 64 burgers) and you get the hit of salt in the first bite. We put out traditional fixin's and were surprised that the raw onion (a Texas 1015) went faster than the tomato. Lettuce was (rightly in my opinion) of little interest to anyone. Ketchup, relish and mustard were used in about equal quantities. Surprisingly Swiss cheese proved more popular than "American" cheese for the cheese burgers.

I found it best to cook the burgers in batches of 6 or 8 - even though the grill has larger capacity. That way, I could ensure that we didn't have burgers sitting around drying out. And, oh yes the indentations did their thing - the burgers cooked up completely flat!

Onion and beer bath for brats.
4 large yellow onions halved (pole to pole) and sliced into wedges
1T butter
2T Vegetable oil
1t kosher salt
2x12 oz bottles of a well flavored beer (I used Shiner Bock. I would not recommend a light beer here, nor a stout)

Melt the butter in a large sauce pan and keep the heat going until it stops foaming. Add the oil, then the onions and salt. Stir to mix and leave over low heat to gradually caramelize. Mine took about an hour - but I deliberately had the heat very low since I was doing other things. When much of the water has been driven off and the onions are golden brown and very sweet and soft, add the beer and bring to a simmer.

Keep the onion/beer bath warm on a cooler part of the grill, and put the grilled brats in there to keep warm. When you serve the brats, make sure you get a good helping of the onions too, leave the liquid behind.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Burgers for a crowd

Madame and I will be having the annual "Thank you for all your hard work" picnic for the producers and staff at the TV station. This is the 5th. annual and is our way of saying thank you to all who worked so hard.

This year promises to be the biggest yet, with many burgers to be made. I don't know if Greg's record of 4 burgers (tied with Chad) will be broken this year, but we are determined to make sure there are plenty of burgers and brats.

So I was faced with the rather daunting challenge of making 64 burgers. Those who know me will recognize some obsessive behaviors (roasting coffee, baking bread, everything from scratch where possible), and burgers are no exception. Well, even though we live in TX we don't actually raise our own cattle! I like my patties to be around 5 oz in weight. That way they are thick enough to have something to bite into, and they perfectly fit a standard bun. Also, I like to use 75% chuck and 25% sirloin. I want the fat of the chuck, together with sirloin's beefiness. No off the wall seasonings...Obviously I am not about to trust my "friendly neighborhood grocery store". The local Tom Thumb doesn't grind meat to order and pushed me towards packages of mystery meat. The Albertsons at Lemmon/McKinney wouldn't either. I did however find a butcher on Lemmon who would grind meat to order. He didn't have enough chuck, but suggested that if I brought some chuck in, he would trim and grind it for me. He would also grind some sirloin and then regrind both meats together. Deal! Off to the nearest grocery store for 15lbs of chuck.

Who was this person who understands customer service? His name is Greg Geerts, and his store VG's Butcher Shoppe at 3527 Oak Lawn, Dallas.

So now I had the meat, how to shape the 64 patties? I don't like those hamburger presses that you can buy at high end stores - they produce excellent looking burgers, but I find the burgers tend to be dry. I hit upon what might be the perfect technique - learned from baking. If I were to roll out the meat to the right thickness, then I could use a cutter of some kind to cut out the patties. The challenge was, how thick to make the meat. Answer, weigh 5 oz meat and pack lightly into the ring that you are going to use to cut the patties out.

See how thick that is, and pat the rest of the meat to that thickness. Then simply stamp out the patties. Voila! 64 patties in 30 minutes without breaking a sweat!

Of course, don't forget to make an indentation in the top of the patty, so that when the burger is cooked, it doesn't create a little dome. The indentation before ensures a flat patty afterwards.

Look for the cooking results in the posting from the party tomorrow!