Sunday, February 17, 2013

The VacMaster VP112 and Preparing for Spring

This weekend was a weekend to take care of things. As the seasons change, so does the kitchen. Casseroles and roasts and pastas make way for lighter fare. In our case, we invariably migrate to the quick and easy protein of Mexican food similar to what my counterpart was exposed to as he came of age in Escondido and San Marcos. This always serves us well as the longer, warmer days pull us out into the yard to make further inroads into the holly and creeper and roses gone to seed that surround our home.

This focus on resolving longstanding problems was heralded by the arrival of the long-awaited VacMaster P112 we ordered back in January. For those not familiar, this is the prosumer vacuum sealer with the engineering of the professional food service vacuum sealer scaled down for home kitchen use. It does carry a price tag, but the bags that go with it are about a dime apiece. For anyone who stocks a lit of cheeses and specialty meats like we do, this device will pay for itself in the increased shelf life of your food.

 The real value of a good vacuum sealer is that it protects your food from its two greatest enemies - air and water. While a bad vacuum sealer can give you a false sense of security about your food only to have it go to rot and ruin despite your efforts, a good vacuum sealer more than doubles the shelf life of perishable items.

The devise is fairly straightforward to use. Start with a clean, dry bag and place your perishables inside.

Wisconsin sharp cheddar - highly valuable and highly perishable

Cutting the bag to size

Now here is where it differs from those inferior vacuum sealers we have tried in the past. Most consumer vacuum sealers attempt to suck the air out of the bag and then apply a heat seal. The VacMaster has a chamber that you place your perishables in. Then, the air is removed from the chamber.

In the chamber it goes

TheVacMaster VP112 in action

Vacuum sealed cheese

The vacuum strength and the duration of the sealing time are independently adjustable as well. so you can seal anything from hard cheese to chicken stock. Which we did. In fact, we vacuum sealed half the kitchen. Even bread. We even resealed a bag of MSG in its original bag.

In every instance, my counterpart gleefully declared "Suck It!". And, in every instance, a good, strong, airtight seal was formed, making our food safe for long-term storage in either freezer or fridge.

Labeled and ready for storage

For dinner, we turned to a couple of classics - roast chicken, Spanish rice, and beans.

Deboned chicken stuffed with jalapenos, cilantro, and blue corn chips

Gareth tried his hand at deboning again. This time, he stuffed the empty carcass with a mixture of diced jalapenos, fresh cilantro, and crushed blue corn chips,a wonderful combination that was spicy with a slightly peanut undertone.

He also made a cheesy sauce from flour, cheddar cheese, heavy cream, and the succulent drippings from the chicken roast.

Here's that chicken roast with the beans, Spanish rice, cheesy sauce, and a little creme Mexicana

And he vacuum sealed the leftovers.

Vacuum sealed chicken roast

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mini Po'Boy Sandwiches

February is a cold and dreary month, shortness being its best quality, for who could take more than 28 days of it? As the hours of sunlight increase, we know that spring will eventually arrive if only that cold wind would  just go away. I am huddled in my office looking at a crisp blue sky and a yard full of bright sunshine and am not taken in - it is hovering around the freezing mark today. Even the cat has taken refuge in my bed, having figured out how to turn on the electric blanket. Who among us can blame her?

The saving grace of February is the abundance of mid-winter festivals. Last weekend was Brighid's Day, marking the return of life into the cold dark world with the sprouting of grains and the birthing of sheep. This week brings us the Chinese New Year and Valentine's Day. It also brings us that famous festival to indulgence, the Mardi Gras.

Taken literally, Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday. This French Catholic celebration is the last day of indulgence before practitioners enter their fasting season of Lent, attempting to emulate the self-induced privations of Jesus as he wandered the wilderness before arriving in Jerusalem to be arrested and crucified. For many modern-day Catholics, and those in other Christian sects, it means foregoing those small physical pleasures to help focus one's attention on the state of the spirit. While I personally think cold and endless February is not the best time for this type of contemplation, this does not stop me from a little Fat Tuesday activities in the cold days of February.

Mini po'boy sandwiches

My counterpart and I participated in on of those MeetUp groups. The one we joined is focused on cooking and food, and the organizer planned a little Cajun potluck on Saturday night. Our assignment was to provide an appetizer or side dish. Gareth decided on a New Orleans classic - the Po'Boy.

First, you will need to make a Roulade. For that you will need:

Leek, minced
Onion, minced
Garlic, pressed through a garlic press
Salt and pepper
Pickles, minced - we used kosher dills
Lemon Juice

Make the mayonnaise as per usual. Gareth likes egg yolk, grape seed oil, and a little light vinegar. Reserve some for a little garlic mayo or a bread sauce if you like.

Then add the remaining ingredients, tasting as you go. If the sauce ends up too bitter, add a little squeeze of Karo light corn syrup. This will incorporate into the sauce more readily than granulated sugar, which will make your sauce gritty.

Then cook your fish. We used tilapia fillets. Gareth cut them to size, breaded them with potato starch, and slowly baked them in the oven.

Tilapia fillets, dusted with potato starch and ready for the oven

He also wanted some shrimp in there, so he steamed the medium sized (26-30 count) with just the slightest dusting of Old Bay.

Steaming shrimp

To complete the po'boy, we used butter lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and a little garlic mayonnaise.

Washed lettuce

Slicing tomatoes

We were going to serve ours on a baguette we bought at Wegman's (my bread-making has not ventured into this area yet), but our MeetUp host is a professional chef who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America.He had some sourdough that he baked in (I'm not kidding here) an adobe oven that he built in  his back yard. In suburban Maryland. In Joppatown, no less. Who knew?

Our sad grocery store baguette

Actual sourdough baguettes, cooked in an adobe oven

We cooked the fish in advance and assembled the sandwiches at the potluck. They were well received and fit right in with a spread that included coconut shrimp, jambalaya, roasted sweet potatoes, and the best red beans and bignettes I have ever had. We left with full bellies befitting the holiday and a warn feeling of belonging that comes from finding a group of kindred spirits.

Assembling the sandwiches

Ready to eat

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Traditional Bouillabaisse

One of the concepts I try to convey in my blog is that cooking is an art, and that the culinary arts are approachable. The more advanced artistry of preparing truly wonderful food can be achieved by the home cook with some planning, a sharp knife, and a little time. And one of my favorite culinary classics is bouillabaisse. I have presented this in the past in a quick form that can be done in the evening after work using items many of us have readily on hand. This is an approach that has worked for us well in the past. This weekend, however, we decided to take a more classic approach and attempted to create it as presented in the LaRousse Gastronomique.

That's a lot of bouillabaisse

This time, we did not hold back. If you want to try this variation at home, you will need to pick up some items that are probably not on your weekly shopping list.

For our stock we used:

Fresh mandarin oranges, including the leaves and rind
Fresh lemons
Bay Leaves

For our fish we used:

Large sea scallops (added at the end)

Fresh Tilapia fillets

Flounder and mackerel

We also used some olive oil, butter, and the liquid from a can of stewed tomatoes imported from Italy.

We started with a bouquet garni, which is really just what it sounds like: a garnishing bouquet. We bundled our more pungent flavorings into the bouquet garni, and we did this for a good reason. These are strong flavors that we wanted to infuse into our bouillabaisse  but because they are fairly potent and overpowering, we wanted to be able to easily find and remove them before they developed an undue influence on the dish.

Our bouquet garni consisted of:

Orange rind
Lemon rind
Bay leaves

We bundled these up with some kitchen twine, making two little bundles. This will allow you to remove one when the flavor starts to get strong while leaving some in the pot to continue cooking.

Zesting the lemon

Bouquet garni

Once that was completed, we started the stock. You will want to use your largest pot for this dish. On the stovetop, heat up a generous amount of olive oil. Add a good pinch of saffron threads and saute gently. Add to that a mixture of:

Cardamom (be generous with this)

Stir this mixture into the oil. Then add five or six whole peeled garlic cloves (cloves, not bulbs) and continue cooking until the garlic is soft and slightly browned.

Saffron, garlic, and our aromatic spice mixture

Now add your veg. you should have prepared:

Two white onions
A stalk of leek
A bulb of fennel, including stalks and leaves

Add these items, reserving about half of the onion to add later. Continue to cook until very fragrant.

Remove your pot from the heat and arrange your fish in the pot, making an effort to keep the fillets intact. You can also use whole fish if you want to go really old school. We used cleaned, boned fillets and placed them in the pot at a vertical, almost as if lining them around the edge of the pot.

Almost ready for the oven

Gently place in the center of your pot, the rest of the onion, a large carrot cut into large battonettes, and a couple of celery stalks. Also add the sections of the orange and the lemon you peeled previously, and your bouquets garni.

Add the juice from a can of stewed tomatoes, a generous pour of olive oil, and a generous chunk of butter. We also added a pit of a champagne reduction we had on hand, plus a healthy shot of the actual wine.

Place your pot in an oven and cook at about 300 for several hours. You'll want to check in on it form time to time to give it a taste and make adjustments to your liking. After several hours, my counterpart removed one of the bouquets garni and about half of the fennel and citrus.

After about four or five hours, remove the pot from the oven and let cool slightly. Separate the contents into three containers: veg, fish, and stock. Discard the citrus fruit and any other flavors you feel are becoming too pronounced. Cover and let rest in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, you have an opportunity to work with your stock and make any adjustments. My counterpart thickened his stock and mellowed it with some heavy cream and fresh parsley.

One thing we noticed about this more classic bouilliabaisse as compared to our previous quick renditions was that this had a more pronounced earthy flavor. While it retained that bright, citrusy flavor of previous attempts, there was also something unmistakably sweet about this version. I could readily identify the saffron, fennel, and orange, while the bitters like oregano, garlic, and cardamom came through as a little afterglow in the back of my mouth.

You will also want to reheat your vegetable matter and your fish, keeping them separate.

Now it's time to cook the scallops. The key to perfect scallops is a well-scoured pan. When scallops stick, they are adhering to crap residue in the pan from the last time it was used. So, to get those perfectly cooked, golden-crusted scallops, start with an immaculate pan.

To serve, reassemble on a plate or in a large shallow bowl. Serve with a nice, crusty bread and unsalted butter.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bread for St. Brighid

February 2, or Groundhog Day, falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and from a solar perspective is the midpoint of winter. Before the legend of the groundhog and his shadow, it was a very different time. It was a time of cold and dark and hunger giving way to light and warmth as the days steadily grow longer. It is a time to look forward to the coming spring, to begin preparations for the planting when the cold fades away and the earth is once again soft and warm and open.

My European ancestors called this day I Mbolc, meaning "in the womb", for it was around this time of year that the first lambs were born. They gave thanks to the goddess of home and hearth and mother to all - Brighid. This ancient fertility goddess was so popular among my forebears that as Catholicism spread to these northern regions of the Holy Roman Empire, reverence for Her could not be stamped out. And so She became St. Brighid, Her feast day sanitized into Candlemas. And the firing of big bonfires in celebration of the Mother of All and the fertility of the world was transmuted into the lighting of candles in honor of the mother of Christ and her purification after childbirth as required under the law of her land. While the elements of motherhood and womanhood associated with Brighid and Her feast remained in tact, the festival was decidedly altered.

Even so, people in Britain, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of Europe still leave an offering on their hearths to their ancient mother, as do I. A traditional offering is fresh bread and warm milk. In honor of the ancient mother of my people, and in remembrance of those who have come before me, whose blood flows in my veins and strengthens my heart, I made a little milk bread.

You will need:

4 teaspoons dry active yeast
1 1/4 cup warm milk
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
about 5 cups flour

Mise en Place

First preheat your oven to its lowest setting. This will be useful for helping your bread rise, especially in the winter.

Then warm your milk and water to between 105-115 degrees. You don't want it any hotter than that or you risk killing your yeast and turning your bread into a brick. I warmed my liquids by measuring them into Pyrex measuring cups and placing the cups in the oven while it was heating up. I  used a meat thermometer to gauge the temperature. If your liquids get too hot, let them cool until they are at the proper temperature.

This is hot enough

Once your liquids are warm, gently mix 1/4 cup of the milk with your yeast and let it rest for about 5 minutes or so - until the yeast has dissolved.

Yeast in milk

While that his happening, mix the rest of the milk and the water with your butter, sugar, and salt. Mix this gently until the sugar and salt have dissolved.

Add the yeast to the sugar mixture. Once combined, add three cups of the flour and stir it in until it is combined.

A wooden spoon is good for mixing the dough

Add the remaining flour, one cup at a time, using your hands to knead the dough together.

When it looks like this, it's time to use your hands

This is my favorite part of making bread. I love working the dough. It feels good in my hands, feels good to use my hands to make something. After a week of keyboard work, kneading dough gives your hands an opportunity to stretch. To me it always feels like a more natural movement. It lears my head and loosens the tension in my neck and shoulders. And then I have fabulous bread to boot.

And this is a fantastic dough - very smooth and elastic and easy to handle. It came together very easily for me.

Smooth and elastic and ready to rise

After kneading for about 10 minutes, your dough is ready for its first rise. Oil a large mixing bowl with a light oil - I used grape seed oil - and place your dough into the bowl, turning it over once to coat it. Cover it with a clean towel and place it in the warm oven to rise until doubled in size. In the warm oven, this will take about 45-60 minutes.

Once the first rise is complete, gently knead it again to release any air bubbles. You can knead it in the bowl or on a board. You can also dust it with flour if it feels sticky.

After the first rise

This bread recipe calls for a second rise. This can be done the same as the first rise. Or, if you need to leave the house to run errands, you can do a slow rise keeping the dough one the counter.

Whatever you choose, the second rise is complete when the dough has again doubled in size.

After the second rise, and much later in the day

Knead the dough to release any air bubbles, and shape it onto loaves. This recipe will make two full loaves, or six mini loaves. I made a combination of the two - one full loaf and three minis.

Place the shaped loaves in greased bread pans. I am partial to Pyrex as you can watch the progress of your bread through the glass. Cover the loaves with a towel and place in your warm oven for one last rise.

Keep an eye on things this time as you only want the dough to crest the bread pans. My dough did this in about 30 minutes.

Heat up your oven to 450. Bake the bread for about 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for another 30 or so minutes.

This bread did not get nearly as brown as most breads get in my oven. This stuff stayed a nice milky white with golden edges, so I really had to trust the recipe.

Milky white bread with a golden crust

Once out of the oven, the bread easily slid out of my pans onto the wire rack to cool.

This bread has a solid crust and a salty flavor when eaten plain. My counterpart and I enjoyed some later in the day with unsalted butter and raspberry jam. In context, the bread was quite good and should work well with one of our typical dinners.

Bread and jam for Mary

I will leave a slice out on my hearth for Brighid this evening, my heart filled with hope for the coming spring and the return of warm and sunny days.