Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mr. Rodale Goes to Washington

You know that big white mansion the president lives in? The one on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the columns and the fountain and the armed guards? You own that mansion. It's yours, roughly one three hundred millionth of it anyway, and as such your taxes fund its upkeep. When it needs a new roof, you pay for it. When the presidential plumber comes to fix a plugged up toilet (Oh Karl, not again!), it's deducted from your paycheck. When the paint starts to peel, when the floors need waxing, when the furnace craps out... all of that goes on your tab. And mine. We pay for that house. We decide who gets to live in it. Seems to me, we should have a say in what goes on in the yard as well.

Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow have come up with what I think is a pretty good idea: Rather that pay somebody to spend hours mowing that gigantic lawn, why not pay somebody to grow organic produce on it? They're driving around the country in a biodiesel fueled school bus they've converted into what can best be described as an inverted double decker rolling garden to promote their idea. And it's not as crazy an idea as it might sound. There's already a garden on the White House roof (which, per Laura's mandate, is entirely organic). Why not bring it down to ground level where there's room to expand? The fruits and vegetables grown could be sold at the Adams Morgan Farmers' Market. Or they could end up in local school lunches. Or fuel the people who do the difficult and unenviable work of running our nation's Executive Branch. I don't care. I just want to see an organic garden on the White House lawn, so I've added my name to their petition. Roger Doiron, over at Kitchen Gardeners International, also has a petition on behalf of this idea, which he's calling "Eat the View." If you're like me and want to see less grass and more food surrounding that big white house of ours, I invite you to add your voice to these efforts.

This came to my attention by way of last Wednesday's All Things Considered. A lively debate ensued in the comments section on the article's webpage, by the way, in which supporters of organic agriculture did battle with a shill from the Ag lobby. Check it out, along with the story here. Interesting stuff.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Carol Chomsky, 1930-2008

Retired Harvard linguist Carol Chomsky, best known professionally as a leading authority on the acquisition of language in young children, and publicly as the wife of MIT Professor and foreign policy analyst Noam Chomsky, died in her home from cancer this past Friday. My condolences go out to the Chomsky family and their friends and associates (and my apologies to Mrs. Chomsky for any typos or grammatical errors that may appear in this post).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dirty South Trad Meets Napa Valley Edge...

A seemingly normal fried chicken leg, right? Not much to look at when it comes right down to it, but this fried chicken is different. It's not overcooked as fried chicken can often be, and is in fact possessed of an unusually soft texture and weirdly "chickeny" flavor. How? Sous vide, my friends, sous vide...

Despite what fancy pants chefs - with their immersion circulators and physics lab vacuum rigs - may tell you, sous vide is basically boil in the bag, glorified. Except that you don't boil, you cook the meat for an extended period of time at whatever temperature is desired for "doneness." It's a technique that's been common in Europe for decades, but is only recently making inroads in North America. It's easy, if time consuming. Here's how it works with chicken:

Put said chicken into a plastic bag. It's worth noting here that the bag should, if possible, be free of PVC and plasticizers. I added 2 lemon slices, 2 Tbsp of butter, a couple bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme, some chopped onion and several cloves of garlic. Next, use a straw to suck out all of the air, then double knot the bag for an airtight seal. Place all of this into another bag and again suck air and double knot:

I used Glad oven bags, which worked fine. I would advise against Ziploc bags, though, as they're far from airtight. Once your chicken is bagged (and yes, you should probably put each piece in its own separate bag set-up), place it into a stock pot of heated water. You won't get 100% of the air out of those bags, by the way, which means they'll float. You also don't want them to make contact with the bottom of the pot. I put a ramekin in the bottom of the pot, placed a small colander on it, put the chicken in the colander, and kept it submerged with a brick, keeping the top of the bag above water:

The temperature of the water will depend on whether you're using dark or white meat. For dark, you want to keep the temperature right around 170F, while white meat needs to be kept at 145-150F. If you're using white and dark meat, well sorry, but you're gonna need separate pots. Let the chicken hang out and be sure to check on the temperature frequently. Once it's been in there for about four hours, fish it out, remove it from its bag, rinse off the lemon and aromatics and dry it as completely as possible with paper towels. Heat up a couple Tbsp of butter and oil in a saute pan until almost smoking, and place the chicken in for just long enough to brown the skin. Again, remove and pat dry. Now you're ready to dredge it:

When it comes to cooking, I'm not one to subscribe to orthodoxy. But in the case of southern food, I'm generally willing to make an exception and acquiesce to tradition, which manifested itself here in a couple of ways. First, a girl from "Hotlanta" (everything they say about girls from the south is true, btw) recently told me that real fried chicken is done bone-in (!!!) and with the skin on. Okay, I'll buy that. Second, I used a pretty conventional dredge: dip the chicken in buttermilk, then coat it with seasoned flour (3 C flour and 1 tsp each of cayenne, paprika, salt and ground pepper). Do this two or three times, knocking off any excess flour and allowing the chicken to dry on some sort of rack for about 15 minutes after each dredging:

Next, we fry. Put enough oil of your choice (I used a combination of canola and peanut) to submerge the chicken halfway into a skillet and heat to about 350F. Fry the chicken parts just until a golden crust forms, a couple minutes on each side. Keep in mind here that the chicken is already cooked. You're only forming crust and heating the chicken up:

And that's about it. So was the extra effort of going the sous vide route worth it? Probably not. This was better than fried chicken I've had in the past, but only by a matter of degree. Sous vide is really a technique best suited to those tougher cuts of beef and pork which would otherwise require a braise. Of course, the journey being the destination and all, this was definitely worth a try.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Molecular Gastronomy Chowder... Sorta.

The "kernel," if you will, for this idea came to me when I was perusing Carol Blymire's blog, Alinea at Home, in which Carol charts her way through Detroit homeboy Grant Achatz' cookbook. She recently tried her hand at Grant's liquified version of caramel popcorn, and her description of the recipe immediately struck me as an interesting base for chowder (minus the caramel foam, of course). After sifting through a few chowder recipes online, I cobbled together a pretty good formula, which I present to you now...

1/2 C popcorn
5 C milk
2 C cream
1 - 1 lb. salmon fillet, skin removed and coarsely chopped
1 large leek (white part only), chopped and rinsed
1/2 celery root, diced
1 small fennel bulb (or half a large one), chopped
1 large yellow potato, peeled and diced
1/4 lb. bacon, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 or 5 sprigs of thyme
Juice of half a lemon
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
Peanut oil for frying

Heat about 2 Tbsp. of oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat, until the oil begins to ripple, and add the popcorn:

Put the lid on the pot and let the popcorn do its thing. When this slows to a few pops per minute, remove from the heat. This is what you'll end up with:

Transfer the popcorn to a stockpot, and add the milk and the cream (henceforth referred to simply as "dairy"):

Heat on high until the dairy just begins to foam, back down the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes. While this is happening, heat 1 Tbsp of oil in a large saute pan over medium high. Add the bacon and fry until a good amount of the fat has rendered out. Remove the bacon, let it cool, and feed it to your dog. Add the leek, celery root and fennel to the oil and rendered fat and saute until just caramelized (I have to interject here to proclaim that leek, celery root and fennel are the new holy trinity. This combination of vegetables is nothing short of amazing):

Cover the pan, and kill the heat. While the vegetables continue to cook via residual heat, parboil the potato in another saucepan for ten minutes, or until just fork tender. Meanwhile, puree the popcorn/dairy mixture in a blender or food processor, or with a stick blender, and strain out the pulp through a cheesecloth lined strainer. Add the leek, celery root and fennel, along with the bay leaves and thyme, to the strained dairy, bring just back to the boil (beginning to foam), back heat down to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, fish out the herbs, and puree. Bring the dairy and vegetables back to medium, and add the potato, salmon, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Cook until the salmon is done, about five to seven minutes. Plate and eat.

So, how was it, you ask... Fantastic! The popcorn lent a nice subtle roasted corn flavor, as well as a lot of body from all that starch. It didn't have the briny quality of a typical New England clam chowder, and it was HELLA thick. I liked it this way, but replacing a cup or two of the milk with clam juice or shellfish stock to begin with would thin down the consistency a bit, and bring the flavor a little closer to a traditional East Coast chowder. So play with it, and tell me how it turns out...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Still the Best Viral Internet Phenomenon Ever!

WAY better than two girls, one... uh, never mind... Those of you who've been following this blog for any length of time will no doubt remember that I posted this Matt Harding video about six months ago. So why am I posting it again? Because I just put it up on my Facebook page, and it got such a good response that I figured it might be worth a re-post over here (a first in MacShall's history, mind you). So enjoy. And if you're anything like me, you'll find yourself watching it over, and over, and over...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Run for Your Lives! Tommy's Making Stock!!!

Continuing with the soup kick I've been on the past couple weeks, I whipped up a batch of chicken stock yesterday. I usually try and do turkey stock this time of year, but this Thanksgiving's dinner was catered, and there was no carcass to get my hands on afterward, so chicken it is (anybody here in Portland who's planning on cooking a turkey for Christmas, I'd be happy to take the carcass off your hands; feel free to e-mail me).

Stock is, of course, one of the foundations of pretty much all western cuisines, and chicken stock is arguably the most versatile. While a number of pretty good stocks, broths and bases are available commercially nowadays (even Rachel Ray™ has her own brand), you really can't beat stock made, properly, from scratch. I've made more than a few batches of chicken, turkey, and even antelope stock in the past, but I still saw fit to turn to Michael Ruhlman for some guidance, via his excellent reference The Elements of Cooking, which turned up a couple good pointers I'd missed. First, stock doesn't like to be boiled, which we all know, but it shouldn't be simmered either. Bringing it up to about 180F, well below the simmer but still hot enough to extract collagen from the bones, and keeping it there will prevent the sort of turbulence in the pot that stirs up particulate matter and clouds the stock. Second, Ruhlman suggests adding the aromatics in the last hour of cooking, which is long enough to extract their flavor but not so long that the vegetables begin to break down, which can also lead to a cloudy stock.

This whole enterprise begins, of course, with bones. For a stock with a light flavor - sometimes called a blonde stock - you can use raw bones. I like a stock with a little more character, however (otherwise I'd be hitting up Rachel Ray™ for some of hers), so I used bones from a couple of chickens I recently grilled. If you cook chicken on a regular basis, all you realy need to do is throw the bones in the freezer and make your stock once you've got six or seven pounds of them. Sure, you could make a smaller batch with fewer bones, but for the work you're putting into this, you might as well make as large a batch as you can. I had about four pounds on hand, so I got three more pounds of necks and backs, roasted them in the oven at 375F for about an hour or so, and added them to the pot. If you can find chicken feet, those work well too, as they've got a lot of collagen, which is, by the way, the most important consideration when making stock. Gelatin is produced by hydrolizing collagen, bones and connective tissue contain a ton of it, and collagen is what gives a stock the body and mouthfeel that can only otherwise be provided by fat. A word about meat is appropriate here as well: a lot of stock recipes call for bones only, and that's technically what a stock is (if this were made with meat only, then it would be considered a broth), but meat adds flavor, so if there's a little meat left on the bones, as with those necks and backs, that's fine. But enough talk, already. If you're down with making some chicken stock, here's what to do:


6-7 lbs. chicken bones and meat
Enough water to cover
2 large yellow onions, diced
8 cloves of garlic, minced
5 celery stalks, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 handfuls of parsley, leaves and stems
6 sprigs of thyme
5 bay leaves
5 cloves
1 Tbsp peppercorns

Put the bones into a large (at least 12 qt) stock pot. Cover the bones by a couple inches with cold water. It's very important that the water be cold at this point, as adding hot water to the bones right away can seal up their pores, thereby preventing collagen extraction and defeating the whole purpose of this endeavor. Slowly bring the temperature up to 180F. You'll definitely want to employ a good thermometer which you can stick on the side of the pot here:

Let the bones hang out at this temperature for about four hours, adding water as necessary to make sure none of the bones are exposed to the air. Adding water will, of course, alter the temperature. If it gets down to 170, turn the heat up a bit. If it gets up to 190, don't panic, just turn it down a bit. Every once in a while, carefully skim off the foam, fat and scum that's risen to the top. That's really about all there is to it at this point. You've got four hours to kill here, so read a book, smoke some dope, do your laundry, whatever, but if you're like me, you probably don't want to leave the house with the stove in use unless someone else is around.

After about three and a half hours, you'll want to get the aromatics ready to add to the mix. I find that caramelizing the vegetables adds a depth of flavor to the stock that you don't get when you throw them in raw. So grab a large saute pan, heat up a little butter and olive oil, and get to work (if you have a smaller saute or fry pan, do this in batches): saute the onions over medium-high heat, and once they've softened, add the celery and carrot. This combination of vegetables, incidentally, is known as a mirepoix. Continue to saute until the veggies just begin to take on a little color, then add the garlic and continue over medium heat for two or three minutes longer. Add the vegetables, along with the parsley, thyme, bay, cloves and peppercorns, to the stock:

Let this cook for about an hour, continuing to skim any residue. It's a good idea, by the way, to employ a colander to keep everything below the surface as it cooks (not just at this point, but throughout the whole process):

After the vegetables and herbs have cooked with the bones for about an hour, take the stock off the heat and remove as much solid matter as you can with some tongs or a slotted spoon. Strain the stock slowly through a strainer lined with two layers of cheesecloth into another stock pot or a couple of large saucepans. Clean out the stockpot, transfer the stock back into it, and chill in an ice water bath. Once it's cooled to below room temperature, put it in the fridge and chill it overnight.

In the morning, you'll find that a layer of chicken fat has formed on the top. This is called schmaltz. Schmaltz figures prominently into Jewish cuisine, and is very useful for frying, even for a gentile like myself, so reserve it for later use, as your grandmother might have done with bacon fat. Once the schmaltz has been skimmed, you'll probably find that the stock has taken on a rather gelatinous consistency (you'll no doubt remember that talk we had earlier about collagen). Heat the stock just to the point where it's liquid again, pour it into whatever containers you're using to store it, and freeze. I like to use ice cube trays:

These trays, which are Rubbermaid brand, have sixteen cubes apiece, each of which is exactly an eighth of a cup. Very useful for measuring purposes. If you go the cube route, remove them once frozen and store, double bagged, in Ziploc bags. And there you have it, an excellent base for soups and sauces to last you through the Winter (or part of it, anyway).