Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mark Bittman's Gravlax

The Food In Jars salt challenge is so wide-ranging, I had to try another recipe. Gravlax, or salt-cured salmon, seemed a natural. There's not much to say – I followed Mark Bittman's Gravlax recipe, using some techniques mentioned in the comprehensively informative Serious Eats recipe and essay, and a 2:1 salt:sugar dry brine. The required effort was minimal; some space in the fridge was needed. The results are excellent, luxuriously yummy.

Gravlax on cutting board

For this recipe the most important comments have to do with food safety. Salmon sometimes carries parasites that can affect humans, so the fish MUST be sushi-grade, that is, commercially frozen to render it suitable for consuming raw. And as this type of salt-curing is a fleeting preservation method, the gravlax MUST be eaten within five days of finishing its cure. Given the wide availability of "previously frozen fish" and the tastyness of gravlax, both safety requirements are easily satisfied.

Bittman's recipe says a 3-lb (1.36 kg) piece of salmon will yield 12 appetizer servings. A quarter-pound per person initially sounds outlandish, but it does seem most people if given half a chance will happily gorge on this stuff until surfeited, so the part that's mistaken is calling this an appetizer. At casa Jersey Knitter, there were suspicious mutterings when the curing salmon first appeared in the refrigerator, hogging so much shelf space, followed by impatient mutterings as it underwent its three-day cure, then more suspicion ("You try it first, and if you don't keel over..."), a sudden change of heart after that first amazing taste, then the soft noises of very contented feeding.

Gravlax plated

A bonus happiness is I used some of the overly salty vegetable bouillon to wash the raw salmon as described in the Serious Eats recipe. I was wondering what to do with it! We ate the gravlax with my own pickled nasturtium pods, which are similar to pickled capers, except they taste like pickled nasturtium pods (duh), flowery-mustardy-cresslike. I really must put up more... which means planting more.

I am definitely making more gravlax. I'd like to try the basic recipe with other fish, substitute shiso, an Asian pickling herb, for dill, tweak the dry brine mix. I used gin for the booze, which added a nice juniper berry note, and wonder what adding juniper berries to the rub will do. Mmm... so many things to try.

Brain hat wip

Meanwhile, fibery progress continues. I'm wishing I had a not-too-big stainless steel mixing bowl. They don't have much appeal as mixing bowls for me, but for craft purposes they're da bomb. Hm.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Vegetable Broth Base

This is a tale of two soup bases. Two, because this is the best of times and the worst of times – my first effort was not satisfactory. But I persisted and got it almost right the second time, yay me and yay the February Food in Jars Mastery Challenge, salt preserving, for prompting me to try something new.

I'll start with a clerihew and a stock photo (::groan::).
Sir Humphrey Davy
abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
of having discovered sodium.
Sodium being one component of table salt, chemically, sodium chloride or NaCl.

Generally when I make soup stock, cauldron work and/or the pressure cooker is involved. I'm not a big fan of using commercially prepared bouillon cubes or mixes because the flavors seem fresher and truer and I can control the amount of salt and other additives when I make homemade stock. By contrast DH loves bouillon because he loves its salt and convenience. Shrug. (The photo below shows the mise en place, or culinary setup, for chicken bone broth. I dunno why I didn't take a pic of soup base in progress or, for that matter, why I took this food prep photo. I have enough trouble remembering to take fiber WIP photos.)

Chicken bone broth prep

Attempt the first at vegetable soup base was Homemade Vegetable Bouillon. The recipe calls for 7 ounces (200 g) of salt to make one quart (almost one liter) of soup base, which makes 48 quarts of vegetable broth. The recipe yield was spot on. The soup base initially smelled very harsh and bitter, but within a day mellowed. Unfortunately, the resulting broth was so excessively salty, it could be used as an emetic. At least the colorful confetti-like bits of ground-up vegetable grit and the occasional peppercorn look rather festive floating in the pale broth.

Attempt 1

Attempt the second was Vegetable Broth Base. In striking contrast to Attempt the first, this recipe calls for two tablespoons (20 g) of NaCl to make one pint (0.47 liter) of soup base, which makes 8 quarts of vegetable broth. The yield for this recipe was also spot on. This soup base smelled much more appealing than the first, without the bitter odors. The resulting broth is dark and turbid...

Attempt 2, unstrained

... but when strained as suggested is quite nice in both appearance and taste. The need to strain the broth makes me want to try it in a teabag, an experiment for next time. Out of curiosity I tried steeping the strained sediment a second time as if it were tea leaves, which didn't really work. Not only had all the salt dissolved in the first steeping, but most of the vegetable flavor as well.

Attempt 2, strained

As I want a strong vegetable stock and am not fond of heavily salted food or liquid, the second recipe is the clear winner, YMMV. Both recipes call for a similar amount of vegetables; the first uses far more salt but also makes more broth. When diluted for serving the first broth is 1.6 times saltier than the second and has a less pronounced vegetable flavor. So Attempt the second it is. Were I to make the second recipe again, I'd reduce the amount of soy sauce, which contributes additional sodium (even if one uses low-sodium soy sauce), color, and a fermented soy flavor that to my palate is overly dominant in the final broth. Soy sauce can also be an unexpected source of gluten, which of course is problematic for those following GF diets.

Sad to say, soup base itself is not particularly photogenic. At its best it bears an unfortunate resemblance to the poo emoji (click if you dare). The commercial versions as well. After all, one starts with lovely fresh whole veggies and ends with unlovely paste. Ah, the photographic challenges posed by purees. Speaking of which, I imagine it might be possible to make soup base by hand, but I would never have attempted it without a food processor. The paste is sufficiently salty that it can be stored in the freezer, yet never freeze solid.

Vegetable Broth Base

Back in the world of fibery sausage-making, I bought an I-cord mill and have been cranking out I-cord. The gadget is a little finicky about yarn (not too thick, not too fuzzy, not low twist), but works well. Which is good, because science.

I-cord and mill

To be continued!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Snow Day

Yesterday's snow day was spent – what else? – shoveling snow, cooking, and knitting. On the shoveling side, the snow was powdery broken flakes because of the strong winds. We got a good seven inches, a surprise after the dry and warm weather of most of this winter.

On the cooking side, I used January's blood orange marmalade to make Nigella Lawson's richly fragrant Pantry-Shelf Orange-Chocolate Cake (in How to Be a Domestic Goddess and also scattered around the web). It's easy to mix up, appealingly lumpy from the marmalade peel (the lumps look a bit like raisins), and super sweet and sticky good. Here's the elevation view.

Marmalade cake, elevation view

Apparently the cake is so named because every proper British household has the necessary on hand at all times. The author suggests making it after a trying day and eating it in front of the television instead of dinner. I like the cake, but think the sugar load of a dinner-sized portion would render me comatose. Next time, I'd reduce or even eliminate the sugar – the marmalade is sweet enough – and consider substituting cocoa for the chocolate for a lighter cake. Like many chocolate cakes, this one went from too damp in the center when tested with a skewer to scorched on the bottom and sides very quickly. The scorched parts were hard and bitter at first, but unexpectedly absorbed moisture and flavor from the rest of the cake and became soft and interesting. Huh.

In the struggle to get a decent photo of the cake, I discovered that to get a nice elevation view of a slice, one needs to push it off-center on the plate, as revealed in the plan view. Another huh.

Marmalade cake, plan view

The marmalade cake was not the only cooking going on. For the February FIJ Challenge (salt), I made soup base. It seems to be vaguely trendy, a mix of vegetables and salt ground to a paste, ready to be used like bouillion cubes or miso paste. Alas, that effort turned out to be such a disaster it requires its own blog post to do justice to the enormity of fail. To be continued, sigh.

As consolation I knit a bit on a shortie sock I started on Inauguration Day, Send in the Clowns by Adrienne Fong, using recycled Ballooney yarn. The symbolism? Why ever do you ask? It's entirely coincidence, coincidence I tell you, that I stopped knitting this colorway eight years ago and am recycling it now. Unsurprisingly, the yarn flashed strongly at the gusset, chili red on on side...

Send in the Clowns, red flash

... and lime green on the other.

Send in the Clowns, green flash

I was thinking about putting tabi toes on the sock. On a boat red is port (left) and green is starboard (right), so were this sock a boat, it should be a left sock. Does that make sense? No? I'm too tired from shoveling snow to explain. Then there's the knotty question of what to do should the second sock flash in the same way as the first. Not that has ever happened, but still.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Small Batch Blood Orange Marmalade

Over the weekend I went to DC – not for the Inauguration of course, for the Women's March on Washington. But more on that in a later post. On my return, instead of sorting my march photos I cooked up another batch of marmalade for the January FIJ Mastery Challenge. While I liked my first effort, it seemed to me if the challenge is about mastery, then by definition a second attempt would be needed. This time I took a few more photos.

Blood Orange Marmalade

I used Marisa's Small Batch Blood Orange Marmalade recipe, which calls for soaking sliced fruit overnight to soften the peels and to encourage the pith to release its pectin. Because I wanted to use the marmalade in a recipe, Orange Marmalade Cake, that calls for coarse-cut peel, I made thick slices. Some blood oranges have deep purple flesh; mine had flecks of dark color, no more. After soaking overnight the overall color evened out and became pinky-orange.

Sliced fruit

After reading laments by other FIJ Challenge participants, it occurred to me that my thermometer may not be calibrated properly, something I've never tested. So I was very careful this time to note the volume in the pot at the start. The goal was to boil the fruit until volume is reduced by one-half. So I boiled...

Orange slices boiling

... and boiled (stirring to prevent sticking) until the blood orange slices looked quite wilted. The flesh of the oranges melted away, enriching the syrup and leaving the now-tender peels.

Orange slices quite boiled

My thermometer never went over 210° F (the standard is 220° F for two minutes), but it became clear the pectin was working pretty much when the volume in the pot was reduced by half. I tried the spoon test and the plate test, which didn't give unambiguous results, but somehow the hot marmalade just looked right, which may be one expression of expertise. There are no photos of this stage because there was much rapid flailing of implements in boiling hot sugar-fruit mixture. By the time the marmalade was in jars and ready for processing, it looked like the set was good – and so it was.

Blood Orange Marmalade

This time the yield was spot-on: three half-pints, or in my case six quarter-pints, plus a cook's share. The product was so tasty that one of the quarter-pints didn't make it to the class photo, and the flavor has only improved since then. It's hard to tell from the FO photos, but there are flecks of red amid the rose-gold marmalade, which is not what I would have expected, but is very appealing. And wouldn't you know it, having tried both it turns out I prefer julienned peel to coarse-cut. Although I haven't yet made the cake, so perhaps that may change (again).

Overall, I would say that while there remain many, many marmalade recipes to explore, marmalade success has been achieved, and I can move on to the February challenge without reservations.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

General Tso's Marmalade

On the Asian lunar calendar 2017 is the Year of the Rooster (technically starting on January 28). Over the summer I took this pic of a giant blue rooster to have to show off now-ish, but I didn't record and can't remember any details, which rather limits commentary. Ah well, Happy New Year!

Giant blue rooster

Apropos of the new year and in tribute to the recently departed Peng Chang-kuei, creator of General Tso's chicken, and for the Food in Jars Mastery Challenge (January is marmalade), I put up a half-batch of what I'm calling General Tso's marmalade. I love its deep orange color and intense orange flavor.

This was my first attempt at making marmalade. I blithely tweaked the original recipe which calls for Tabasco sauce by subbing red pepper flakes for a more Hunan-style flavor. Because it's a cut rind recipe, which eliminates much of the natural pectin in citrus, I was concerned about overly soft set and instead misjudged its done-ness, even with the aid of a thermometer. The set turned out so hard, the marmalade stays in place even if the jar is inverted. Oops. Initially the cook's share had very little fire, but as time passes it's getting hotter and hotter! Next time, I'd cut the peel into bigger pieces than the fine julienne I used this time, include more pith, and work for a softer set and corresponding higher yield.

General Tso's marmalade

The plan is to use the marmalade as a meat glaze. I tried the cook's share on lamb chops and like the flavor better than mint jelly. That texture, though, and the challenge of prising it out of the jar. Happily, the Food in Jars can-along community has suggestions (no crowbar needed!) – gentle warming in a water bath softens the marmalade nicely. The group also has historical perspective: in the Middle Ages, hard set was the standard. So my marmalade isn't too hard, it's medieval! Er, maybe that's not entirely positive either?

I'm not very fond of marmalade, or perhaps I should say I haven't been. Now that I've concentrated and preserved the essence of orange I will readily agree with Maggie Smith as the trenchantly snobbish Constance, Countess of Trentham, in Gosford Park: "Bought marmalade? Oh dear, I call that very feeble." Homemade is so much better than anything storebought that I've tried, there's truly no comparison.