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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs

It never ceases to amaze me how something so simple can end up being so hard. Snicker, snicker. At least, we hope that it ends up hard. There's nothing more frustrating to me than to go through the motions of hard boiling eggs and then crack one open and find it's still soft in the middle. Or how about the opposite problem? I've had that happen too. I'm not a big fan of eggs that are rubbery with yolks starting to green.

Previously, I always used this process: place eggs in cold water, place on stove, bring to a boil, boil for fifteen minutes, cool with ice water. Ninety-plus percent of the time, this technique worked great, but occasionally, I'd end up with overcooked eggs. In my attempts to correct this issue, I started trying myriad methods found online and in cookbooks. The attempts just went from bad to worse.

Fortunately, when doing my research on sous vide, I came across a graphic that showed the characteristics of eggs when cooked to various temperatures. This image, which I found in the massive tome, Modernist Cuisine, showed an ideal temperature of 176° F. So, here's the great thing about having this knowledge: if you keep the water at this temperature, you can never overcook your eggs! Every time, you can have perfect, hard boiled eggs.

Here's how: place your raw eggs into a pan and submerge with cool water. Place the pot on the stove and turn the heat on high. Rig a thermometer so that you can keep track of the water's temperature. Heat the water up to 176° and then adjust the burner to maintain that temperature. Cook the eggs for 20 minutes. Unless you are cooking extra-large eggs, they'll probably be done at 15 minutes, but you can cook them for 20 without any adverse affects as long as the temperatures stays at 176°. Cooking for a full 20 minutes insures they are cooked all the way through. Drain the hot water and fill the pan half with cold water and half with ice to chill the eggs.

By the way, if you are frustrated with hard to peel eggs, make sure you use eggs that have been around for a little bit. In fresh eggs, the shell can be very difficult to remove. I try to use eggs that have been in my refrigerator a couple weeks before hard boiling them. It sounds weird, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Strawberry Shortcake

It always amazes me how early things start this close to the equator. I was shocked when a friend mentioned that it was already strawberry season in these parts. Granted, it has been plenty warm for a whole month already. In fact, it kind of reminds me of a summer day back home... I can handle the mid-eighties. Too bad the bottom will fall out soon. This friend said they were thinking of going strawberry picking this week, and I was tempted, until I realized I still had plenty left from last year and that I am trying to start "drawing down" the food stores in preparation for our move this summer.

However, talk about strawberries got me to craving them. So, when I was thinking of a dessert to prepare for company last night, strawberry shortcake came to the forefront. I love this recipe for a number of reasons. First, it is super quick. I always have strawberry topping in the freezer, so all I have to do is pull out a container. If you don't keep this on hand, you can follow the instructions in that post to prepare the strawberries. I also always have whipped cream on hand. All that's left is making the shortcake.

I'm a traditionalist. While I love pouring strawberry topping on angel food cake, I would never stoop to calling that strawberry shortcake. Those little sponge cakes you buy in the produce section? Not shortcake either. True shortcake is very much like a scone. It's made in a very similar manner and tastes somewhat similar too... except maybe it's not quite so eggy as a scone. It takes less than five minutes to mix up the batter and only twenty to bake. The cake can then sit out at room temperature until you are ready to serve. So simple! And I love the flavor! The shortcake is not overly sweet, so it provides a nice contrast to the whipped cream and berries. I like to sprinkle the top of my cake with sanding sugar; I like the nice crunchy crust it gives the top of the cake.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut the cold butter into small pieces and rub into the dough with your fingers. When the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, add the milk and egg. Stir until well combined and dump into a greased nine inch round pan (or similar). It can be a little tricky to spread out, as it is fairly stiff. It does not need to be smoothed out very much, just try and make the thickness overall mostly even. If you desire, sprinkle some sanding sugar on the top before placing in the oven.

Bake in a hot, preheated oven until it is nicely golden. You can test with a toothpick or cake tester to be sure, but usually, if it is golden all over, it should be done inside. Let cool in the pan for a few minutes before carefully turning out onto a cooling rack to finish cooling completely. Although most folks cut their cake so that there is a top and bottom which is filled with strawberries and whipped cream, I like to serve mine as wedges. This way, each serving is freshly prepared and the cake does not getting too soggy before you are ready to serve your family or guests.

Strawberry Shortcake
Yield: 8 servings
Adapted from the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook

whipped cream for garnish

1/3 cup sugar
2 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
2/3 cup milk (preferably whole)
sanding sugar (optional)

To prepare the cake, preheat the oven to 450° F. Grease a nine inch round cake pan. Mix together the sugar, flour, and baking powder. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Lightly beat together the milk and egg. Add to the batter and stir until well mixed. Spread out into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top with sanding sugar, if desired. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the cake is golden and a tester comes out clean. Let cool 5-10 minutes before removing from the pan to finish cooling. Cake can remain at room temperature, uncovered, for up to 6 hours before serving. Once the cake is covered and stored, it still tastes great, but that nice crisp top will soften. Cut into wedges and top with the strawberries and whipped cream. Serve immediately.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thai Style Curry

Despite the fact that I have never been a big fan of curry dishes, I am, in fact, a huge fan of this particular dish. It's got some heat, but isn't overwhelming. It's got a lot of flavors that all complement each other, and I love the combination of peas and cauliflower.

I adapted this dish from a Cook's Illustrated recipe. There's was a vegetarian dish, which is quite tasty. When I want a one pot meal, however, I usually like a little meat in there to give it more substance. While I enjoy eating vegetarian meals, I often find I'm back in the kitchen within a few hours looking for some more grub.

This dish is pretty straight forward to make. If you prepare all of your ingredients first, you can be done lickety split. If you really want to make this a quick fix dish, lightly pre-steam the cauliflower in a Ziplock steamer bag before adding to the dish. The most time consuming part of making this dish is waiting for the cauliflower to cook.

In the picture above, I used green curry paste. I've made this recipe with both the green and the red curry. I don't personally discern a difference in the flavor, but there is a difference in the appearance. Using red curry paste gives the sauce a pink hue. For aesthetic reasons only, I prefer using the green curry as it helps to preserve the stark contrast of white and green in this dish, which I find very appealing. Served over rice, this dish is heaven in a bowl.

Thai Style Curry
Yield: 4 servings
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated

4 TBS fish sauce
1 tsp lime zest
4 tsp fresh squeezed lime juice
1 TBS brown sugar
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1 tsp garlic, grated with a Microplane
1 TBS ginger, grated with a Microplane
1 TBS Thai-style red or green curry paste
2 cups (or one can) coconut milk

1 TBS vegetable oil
12 oz diced chicken breast
1 10-oz package of steamable snow or sugar snap peas
1 head cauliflower cut into bit sized florets (about 4 cups)

steamed rice, for serving

Mix together the first eight ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside. Steam the peas in the microwave. To speed the cooking process, you may also lightly steam the cauliflower in a Ziplock steamer bag. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and let it heat until it shimmers. Add the chicken so that it is as spread out as possible. Cook, turning as needed, to brown all sides. Reduce heat, if necessary. Add the cauliflower and saute for 2-3 minutes. Add the sauce, stir to mix, and cover, cooking until the cauliflower reaches your preferred level of doneness (anywhere from a few minutes to 15, depending on your tastes). Add the steamed peas at the last minute, stirring to distribute. Serve over white rice.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Wheat Sandwich Loaf

Christmas before last, my in-laws gave me a pain de mie pan from King Arthur flour. Somehow, I've managed to let it sit in my closet for two years before running it through its paces.

This long, heavy duty pan has a sliding lid and is specifically for making sandwich loaves. It came with a recipe for a soft white bread, but I prefer a wheat loaf. I started trying to think of the best, softest wheat bread I've ever eaten. Hands down, my raisin bread was the winner of that contest. I made a few minor adjustments and now have a wonderful, soft, delicious wheat sandwich bread.

While you can mix this by hand, it is much easier in a stand mixer. It's not the stickiest dough I've ever worked with, but it will never become completely smooth. Resist the urge to add too much flour to reduce the stickiness while kneading. Knead for 5-6 minutes and then place in a covered, oiled bowl to rise until doubled.

Oil the inside of the pan and lid, if using a 13-inch pain de mie pan, or simply oil one 5x8 loaf pans or one 4x13 pan. Spray an little oil on the counter to keep the dough from sticking while you shape it. Punch the dough down on the counter into a rectangle as long as the pan. At this point, at long as you've lubed the counter, this dough is very nice to work with.

To finish shaping the loaf, roll it up and pinch the seam together. Fold over the ends and pinch together to seal. Place seam side down in the pan.

If using the pain de mie pan, close the lid almost all the way. You want to leave yourself a little peek hole. Cover the open end with plastic wrap. Let rise until the dough is almost to the top of the pan. Close the lid and let continue rising while the oven preheats. If using standard loaf pans, cover with plastic wrap to rise until double.

If using the pain de mie pan, bake covered at 350° F for 25 minutes. Then remove the lid and continue baking for another 15-20 minutes, or until a thermometer registers 190° F. If baking in standard pans, bake at 350° F for 35-45 minutes, until the loaf if nicely browned and registers 190° F. Cool for ten minutes in the pan. Then remove from the pan to cool completely before slicing and packaging.

Wheat Sandwich Loaf
Yield: 1 13" loaf

1 TBS instant yeast
2 3/4 to 3 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup defatted soy flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cup warm non-fat milk

Mix all ingredients together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Knead for 5-6 minutes. Dump into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until double.

Oil a 13-inch pain de mie pan (and lid) or a 5x8 loaf pan or a 4x13 loaf pan. Lightly oil the counter and punch the dough out into a rectangle the width of the pan you are using. Roll the loaf up, pinching the seams. Fold over the ends and pinch together. Place in the pan seam side down. Place the pain de mie lid on a close so that it is only open one inch. Cover the open bit with plastic wrap to keep the loaf from drying out. If using a standard pan, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double. If using a pain de mie pan, let rise until it is just about touching the lid, close the cover, and then turn on the oven. When the oven is preheated, the loaf should be fully risen.

If using a pain de mie pan, bake, covered, 25 minutes at 350° F. Remove the lid and then bake for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until a thermometer registers 190° F inside. If using a standard pan, bake until nicely golden and it also registers 190° F. Let cool in the pan 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool completely before slicing or packaging.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sous Vide Cooking

A few weeks ago, my mom sent me a link to an article on sous vide cooking. Sous vide was a technique of which I was aware, having seen it used on Iron Chef America, for instance, but I never really paid it much attention. After reading the article, I became more curious and started doing a little research. Fascinating stuff!

If you're not familiar with the basic idea, sous vide means "under vacuum" in French. While generally the food is vacuum sealed to cook, the really significant part of this method is that it cooks the food in a water bath, very slowly and gently.

The most surprising thing I learned is that all this time, what I thought I knew about food safety and safe cooking temperatures was not quite accurate. What I didn't realize is that when you read one of those charts that dictates what minimum temperature to cook various meats, you are only getting half of the story. Apparently, the USDA/FDA doesn't have a lot of faith in the masses. Those temperatures? Those are the required temperatures for "instantaneous" safety. The government, for instance, recommends you cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. However, you can safely cook food to much lower temperatures provided you lengthen the time it is at this temperature. This graph shows the relationship between cooking temperature and time required for safe consumption. Notice that the longer the food, in this case beef, is held at a specific temperature, the lower the maximum temperature can be for safe consumption. For instance, at 140 degrees, you must cook the meat for 10 minutes while at 135 degrees, you must cook the meat for almost 35.

Now, why does this matter? Well, consider chicken breasts. This meat can suffer from problems with dryness if cooked to the USDA/FDA recommended "instantaneous" safe temperature. I don't know about you, but I don't particularly care for eating dry, tough, stringy pork chops or chicken breasts. Sous vide allows you to cook these meats at a much lower temperature, leaving those juicy flavors and textures intact, safely. If you go looking for your own sous vide information, I would advise you that in many cases, the recipes you see online do not guarantee pasteurization of the food. While I do not mind eating under cooked foods in some cases (sushi grade fish or very fresh beef, for instance), I personally don't want to consume chicken that has not been heated to the point of safety from a pathogen stand point. Therefore, if you are concerned about food safety, always look for guidelines that stipulate the food will be pasteurized at the times and temperatures given.

The best resource that I found for sous vide is put together by a mathematician named Douglas Baldwin at the University of Colorado. He has a lot of useful information on his website, but the most important, I think, are his tables of cooking times. Mr. Baldwin has taken all of the guess work out of how long to cook the food for pasteurization. Without these tables, it can be very difficult to be sure your food has been held at the right temperature for the right amount of time. He calculated the times using the thermal characteristics of the water and of the various types of meat. A few things to take note of: the thickness of the meat affects cooking time and so does the amount of fat in the meat. Thickness and time is not a one to one relationship. If you double the thickness of the meat, you must quadruple the cooking time. More fat equals more time required for pasteurization.

Using the tables is easy! Below, for example, is his Table 4.1 showing the pasteurization times for poultry. I realize the type is small in this picture... you can click on the link to the table to view in full size on his site if you'd prefer. Notice that he gives a range of temperatures. He provides the times required for pasteurization to any of these various temperatures. The trick is, which one to pick? It is purely a personal preference. The lower the temperature, the closer to raw color and texture you will end up with; the higher the temperature, the closer to fully cooked color and texture. The opening photo of this post shows a chicken tenderloin that was cooked at 142° F. Notice how juicy and still slightly pink it is? It is perfectly safe to eat, because I held it at 142 for the required amount of time, but it was so juicy and succulent! That's the joy of sous vide!

So how long did I cook it? Well, my chicken was about 15 mm thick, so once my water reached 142 degrees, I placed my vacuum-sealed chicken, which had been marinating in the refrigerator, in to the water bath. I then cooked, holding the temperature steady at 142, for 50 minutes. Pasteurization requires holding the meat at the specific temperature once it has reached that temperature throughout. His tables takes this "warm-up" period into account, so all you have to do is place the meat in the water and time. So simple!

Sous vide cooking has a lot of great things going for it... but there are also a few drawbacks. As you might guess, cooking meat in a plastic bag in water doesn't allow for much browning and that's where a lot of the flavor is developed. There are two ways around this problem. The first, especially if you are using skinless chicken breasts, is to ensure you use a flavorful marinade. The second possibility is to brown the food quickly on the stove top or under the broiler at the end.

While sous vide is a cooking technique that a person could spend a lot of time researching and learning about, in its simplest form, it's pretty straight forward. You place the food of choice into a vacuum sealer bag (you can use zip-top bags, but I'd stick with the heavier duty freezer bags) with your marinade or seasonings. In this case, I used olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, a splash of white wine, thyme, salt, and pepper. Vacuum seal - or close with as much of the air removed as possible. Place in the refrigerator to marinate for a few hours. When ready to cook, place a large pot of water on the stove to heat. I rigged a floating thermometer using some cork and a clothes pin. Heat the water to your desired temperature.

Once the water reaches the desired temperature, place your bag of meat, directly from the refrigerator (41° F) into the water. Begin timing based on the thickness of your meat, using Mr. Baldwin's tables. He has tables for whatever type of meat you are thinking about cooking! When the time is up, remove the bag from the water, cut open, and serve. If you want, you can sear the meat quickly in a pan or under the broiler for additional flavor.
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