Friday, March 28, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Heat Gun

A few posts back I mentioned crisping up my duck breast using a heat gun. I was talking with CookingForEngineers and he mentioned that his wife bought him a heat gun for purposes of work around the house but he mentioned that he's used it for some alternate culinary uses. This compelled me of course to pick one up (I think I spent around $40 at the local big box hardware store).

There's a low and high setting, you can set the gun as low as 250F or as high as 1350F. It's like (ok it is) a variable heat blow dryer. Typically you use a heat gun for paint drying, pipe thawing, paint removal, shrink wrapping, the list is pretty long basically anything that requires hot dry air. And when we're talking 1350F that's hotter than I can get my green egg and for $40 bucks I was willing to give it a shot.

Here's what I figured out: you gotta hold the heat gun pretty close to the subject in order to achieve the desired heat concentration. As you can see it's a pretty small patch that you heat up, so it's not very practical if you're working on a large piece of meat. The other downside is that since you're holding it so close the splatter from the marinade and fat from the duck breast created a caramelized gunk on the nozzle of the heat gun. (not easy to clean off)

But for a small piece of duck breast (even 4) it worked out pretty good (I set it at 950 "high" power). It took a while to get to the entire surface of everything (a few mins, but it felt like a while) but still faster than hitting a broiler that has the potential for further cooking the duck breast since all sides would be subject to heat in the oven. Granted the broiler can let me do all for duck breasts at the same time. My wife was pretty happy with the results but next time I may try a slightly lower setting and longer heat treatment, at 950 the skin crisped nicely, but it could have used a bit more heat further into the fat layer.

As a multi functional tool I think Alton Brown would be proud, I just need to find some more culinary uses for it. A word of warning  since you are blowing hot air, I would not recommend this device for finishing a creme brûlée you'll end up with sugar all over the place.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Roasted Bento

Today's bento theme is: Roasting. The application of dry heat to meat and vegetables to prepare a dish. A lot of the time, roasting is associated with low heat longer cooking but it's not limited to low and slow, sometimes you can apply the technique in a high temperature setting (usually on tender cuts of meat). But for the most part low and slow gets you a lot of flavor without having to stand and watch over a dish. In vegetables you get the sugars to caramelize, root vegetables get nice and tender. For tough or large cuts of meat it gives it time to break down collagen and connective tissue so it becomes "fall apart" tender.

The key is retaining moisture. A lot of time you either sear (in the case of meat) or slather in fat or oil to help in that process. In this case, I did neither....  This recipe came from listening to NPR on my commute home, it was a "copy cat/fast food fakeout" recipe for a roasted chicken. The idea seemed sound, you put on a dry rub on the chicken and then you sit it in a slow cooker for seven hours (no liquid) and roast it. The chicken smelled absolutely delicious and the meat was fall off the bone tender. The only problem was the meat itself did not retain any moisture. There was a large amount of liquid at the bottom of the slow cooker, all of the fat had rendered out of the chicken! The chicken I selected was the prescribed pounds so I was at a loss to why the dish turned out to be such a failure. After a bit of digging it seems that slow cooker to slow cooker "low" can vary quite a bit. I'm use to throwing things into a slow cooker and it magically "working" but apparently chicken is more finicky, which makes sense since it's low on the connective tissue and fat (in the breast). To correct for this problem next time, I will insert a probe thermometer and go for target temperature rather than time. It seems stupid and elementary when I type it out and read it to myself but there you have it.

Roasted butternut squash with sriracha.

Roasted turnips, which came out nice a sweet, just a bit of salt and pepper. Usually turnips and radish are used in soups and stews in Chinese cooking, I think i prefer it to the roasted version which has a little bit of bitterness to it.

Apparently brussels sprouts are in season so I picked up a box at the farmers market. I've been trying to recreate a balsamic brussels sprout dish I had a restaurant. I roasted them in the oven with a bit of olive oil and salt and ten minutes before I tossed in a bit of balsamic vinaigrette, tasty but not quite right. I may try to fry them next time. The sprouts sweeten as they roast and the balsamic gives it just a bit of tang but there was a missing crunch texture to the exterior and loose leaves.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Valentines day bento

I know it's a few weeks late, but this was a pre-Valentines day bento that I made my for my wife. (duck breast blows the budget for my normal bento list of people)

I marinated a duck breast in a hoison, plum, ginger sauce and then sous vide-ed them for about two hours. I actually ran a test with a Anova immersion circulator head to head against my new Nomiku. (I'll post details later) Then I used a heat gun (thanks for the suggestion from CookingForEngineers) to broil the duck breast. Finally I topped it with a little pat of foie gras mousse.

To keep with the asian theme I put together a bit of sesame fried rice. I used sesame oil (a little goes a long way) and a bit of scallion for flavor and aroma.

Roasted broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and red chili

Finally I sautéed Chayote in a bit of butter.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Happy Chinese New Year!

It's the Year of the Horse. As tradition for Chinese New Year we had family over, and lots of food involved. No we didn't have the roasted pig above (we only got one pound), but if you're in of one we saw this one ready for delivery from First Chinese BBQ in the Chinatown plaza while picking up food for our own dinner.

New Years Eve, I hosted a hotpot at the house. Chinese New Year is a week long celebration of food and partying we managed to wedge it into a weekend.

New Years Day dinner featured a large banquet of food, including a fish dish which is a Chinese play on words representing plentiful excess for the year and a dessert of Nian Gao to represent yearly growth, prosperity and achievement.

We grabbed some dim sum for lunch. (sorry I only remembered to snap a pic after we ravaged the table.)

Our final family dinner was sushi to go from our favorite japanese restaurant in town: Soto, while watching the big game. I figured the fish to add to the blessing of excess for the year was appropriate. Thank you Chef Andy for designing a wonderful last min takeout.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 4

Happy New Year! Sorry I didn't have anything interesting to post, we were kind of lame and stayed in this year. On the bright side I got to review some neat underwater photos as I continue my posts of our awesome Christmas vacation.

We took our first excursion on Day four. We went snorkeling out at Turtle Bay and a Cenote (fresh water cavern). I cannot take credit for the sea turtle picture, but I did pay for it as part of the photo package so I feel entitled to post it. The snorkeling at Turtle Bay was right off the beach so the visibility was pretty poor. 

The Cenote was a lot more fun. The Cenote (or Sacred Well) were entry points into an underground river where the natives were able to get freshwater. The freshwater was very clear and you could see a surprising amount under water. Since it was so dark I didn't get very many good shots, this was probably the best one (and still blurry), it was neat having natural openings that illuminated the cavern. 

For lunch we had fresh grouper, a very plentiful white fish in these parts (we saw many of them during our snorkeling adventure.) It was served with a "Crema De Ajo" cream of garlic described as a combination of oil, garlic, cream and egg. (sounds like a mayonnaise). It was originally on the table with the salsa and pico and we thought it was another dip for the chips. It was a simple sauce on a simply spiced grouper the combination was delicious it was accompanied with some steamed carrots and chayote and white rice.

For Christmas eve dinner we dined at El Mediterráneo it was the only reservation restaurant we could get into. Bummer that we couldn't get into Chef's Plate, but it turns out this was good find as well. My salad was the Tomato Custard (kinda like a quiche) it was accompanied by a Caprese Salad bite. My wife's salad was an Arugula salad with a fennel jam and spearmint vinaigrette. Maybe I'm too use to the excess' of American cuisine but these seemed pretty small for a salad course.

Soup course consisted of a Quail Consomme with a soft boiled quail egg. The Consomme was delicious with very rich flavors, clearly they had to have spent some time on it. My wife opted for the yummier Cream of Fennel au Tomato Soup. They served this course with what they called home made focaccia but it looked and tasted more like Indian naan served with Pesto. The fettuccini alfredo's pasta was homemade and had a nice bite, but the sauce was a little thin.

For our main course the top dish was the Calamari all Florentina, a stuffed calamari dish with a spinach sauce and the ever present mashed potatoes (this time with sundried tomatoes). I had the Pork Fillet Venetian Style, the pork was served with a red wine and wine mushroom sauce, my flavor of mashed potatoes was "pureed broccoli" which was actually pretty novel and actually worked pretty well.

Friday, December 27, 2013

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 3

Day Three was mostly a restful and un-eventful day. We moved rooms (this would be second of our total three room changes), but this was a planned "upgrade" (re: upsell when we got here) that gave us access to the premium "Chef's Plate" restaurant. This was the restaurant that required an upcharge of $80 per person and you had to dress nice (that's what they said but it turned out some people didn't do that). With the room upgrade all reservations at this restaurant were then free so we decided to check it out, after all we'd already paid for it.

I suppose since it was free for us I didn't know what to expect. The restaurant had about 12 total tables and started seating at 6:15pm with the last seating at 9:00pm in 15min increments. The restaurant was quiet, dark, and romantic. They had a maître d to greet you, two waiters serving the tables, bus boy, dedicated bartender, chef with assistant (that were visible) to provide for the experience. The Chef cooked each dish in front of the restaurant, a lot of pre-prep happened in the back but cooking did occur as well as plating right in front for all to see. It was a calm preparation and they made it seem effortless. The menu was a six course tasting menu. They presented you with the menu so you could see what was being served. The menu rotated every day. (not sure if it was repeated at the beginning of every week)

The Chef started us with an amuse bouche of whipped cheese with red bell pepper and a strawberry sauce over garlic crostini. The bell pepper's flavor was well incorporated into the smooth mousse and the tart strawberry sauce helped cut the richness of the cheese.

For bread side we were presented with a Chipotle wheat bread and a brioche with cream cheese in the center. It was served with a compound butter made of garlic paprika and cognac. The table had some flavored salts to accompany the meal. I couldn't tell what the salts were made of but I saw in other restaurants salts flavored with various wines, strong possibility. I'm not a carb/bread person but I made an exception for these delights.

Onto the first course: Grouper Fillet au Pesto. The bottom picture shows you that the grouper was stuffed with corn, spinach and a bit of goat cheese. The fish was very flaky and tender. The dish was very lightly seasoned so the pesto could stand out.

The soup course was a Spicy Cream of Gorgonzola with a bit of zucchini and carrot. I loved the presentation of zucchini and carrot half spheres. The soup was delicious, no overwhelming blue cheese or heavy cream texture. Despite the name I can only describe this as a light delicious cream soup.

For a palate cleanser we were served with a guava sorbet.

The first entree was the Giant Shrimp Temptation, it was served with a green curry over a grilled slice of apple. The shrimp was well cooked and curry sauce went surprisingly well with the grilled apple and yellow bell pepper. It was accompanied with some sauteed mushroom.

The restaurant was very accommodating when I asked about an alternative to the shrimp (I was ready to go sans shrimp) for the entree and they provided me with a Beef fillet served with a red wine reduction. It was very nice of them to prepare a separate plate for my entree, being a fixed menu they get some sense of scale when they can prepare flights of the same dish all night long. Even with the curve ball the chef pulled the dish off and served it at the same time as my wife's as if it were part of the tasting menu.

Second Entree  was a "Pork Loin Crystal Au Pink Peppercorn". The plate didn't match the menu no pasta here there must have been an audible called at the last second. The pork was glazed in an apple balsamic sauce with the half sphere carrot and zucchinis, toasted potato with basil and accompanied with a Portabello mashed potato. My only complaint here is that they tend to overcook their pork (especially chop/loin) I think because of the old rules of cooking over 165F internal temp (USDA has since ruled it to be the same as beef 145F with 3 min resting period) this isn't just this restaurant but each of the ones where we had pork.

The Portobello mashed potatoes were very interesting, earthy mushroom flavor in potato is pretty new. "A+" for something new (to me) I'm not even sure how they did it? Did they cook and puree the mushroom into a liquid and mix it in? I'll have to try and figure it out.

Finally we had a "Cheese Symphony" for dessert, medley of tropical fruit over a "fluffy" cheese cake served with a raspberry white wine and caramel sauce. I guess the symphony part was the dark chocolate garnish. The dark chocolate was a good balance to the sweet cake but after all the food before I was only able to get in one bite.

The bartender surprised us with a tiramisu martini, the cookie tasted a lot like lady finger and dipped in the cream martini tasted exactly like a tiramisu.

The presentation and service were amazing. We really enjoyed ourselves and loved it so much we immediately booked the rest of our dinners here!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 2

Day Two of my vacation at Playa Del Carmen. The daytime weather was a fabulous upper 70F and nights a warm 65F. They had nightly entertainment, above is a picture from their "Elements" show, obviously they were featuring fire.

Lots of food and drink so I won't bother you with a lot of yammering we'll just stick to the facts since there's more to write about for our day three dinner discovery.

I didn't bother with breakfast, it was the standard buffet, bountiful but just like any other you'd find. We were on the hunt to try out all of the restaurants in the resort and hit the Tapas and Pintxos. It was on the patio next to the Pelicanos.

The food was ok, they follow a very similar formula of plating and the same paprika red pepper sauce half crescent and very similiar pale colors.

I ordered the Cream of Artichokes soup which was a pureed cream soup they added clams, fennel and chives, very good combo. To the right was the grilled Cuttlefish, the cuttlefish/squid was extremely tender and had really good smokey flavor.

We followed that with the Mushroom Brochettes: shrimp and mushroom sauteed in garlic oil and white wine and Sirloin Pepito: Kind of a Mexican version of a philly cheese steak with a pineapple pesto.

Finishing up we had the "Little Patties" puff pastry stuffed with chard, goat cheese and green olives and Spanish sausage Chilindron Style. The Little Patties were good, they could have gone without the green olives, the Spanish sausage was a little too oily and reminded me of a kolache.

When we checked in we were told that there were a few restaurants that required reservation because they were quite popular. One even required an additional charge of $80 per person (not this one). Having had "pretty OK" food, above and beyond the low expectations that were set before us we figured we probably needed to start trying these restaurants. Il Pescatore was first on the list, it was located across the street at the sister resort. The chef started us with a amuse bouche of a serrano ham and potato mousse over toast it was tasty and a good start, we couldn't figure out what the blue stuff was and it didn't add any flavor (was it a play on surf and turf). It was quickly followed by my order of beef carpaccio au lime, the beef was marinated with anchovies which really gave this a unique flavor compared to carpaccio dishes I've had in the past we gobbled this up pretty quickly.

My wife ordered a minestrone soup and I had the florentine cream soup with mussels. The minestrone soup was light and surprisingly without beans (typically there are kidney or cannelini beans) my wife seemed to enjoy it. My florentine cream soup was very interesting, the spinach flavor was very present (not in a bad way) it tasted very fresh since they held back on the cream and the basil oil brought out a very fragrant note, it kept the soup from tasting like "pureed spinach soup", it was a pretty neat balance of flavors I've never had the chance to taste.

Time for the main course: My wife had a Fish Fillet A L'Orange served over polenta. The orange sauce was only a hint of citrus and the fish was very tender. I had the Pork Excalope Roman Style, basically pork pounded very thin over a tomato garlic sauce. The pork was extremely tender and delicious, I only regret how little I had. I opted to try their gorgonzola raviolis rather than the noodles in garlic sauce. The ravioli turned out a little dry in texture and the sauce was a little thin.

Finally dessert, Panna Cotta with kiwi and orange coulis, the green dots were the kiwi sauce that went really well with the Panna Cotta. I will say the Panna Cotta was a bit more gelatin-y than i've had before but maybe they did that so it could stand as tall as it did.

Worth going to the reserve ahead? Yes! This was definitely a finer dining experience than the day before.

Ok more later!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

TRIP: Playa Del Carmen Day 1

We're on vacation in Playa Del Carmen. Here's a view of the all inclusive resort. The resort has quite a few restaurants and bars. I was pre-warned that the food was "meh" and not something I should count on being a highlight. To my surprise we've run into quite a bit of good food. So I'll be chronicling it here.

I've finally found a nice way to distill a bunch of pictures of food down so that I'm not leaving a giant post.

First meal was at the Pelicano, it's a Caribbean fusion restaurant. My wife got a green salad, nice presentation but hard to eat. I got a octopus salad, it was marinaded in a sweet tomato dressing with fresh avocado. I had a cream of something soup I'll update with the name, my wife's seafood soup had a very prominent saffron flavor.

I ordered the zucchini gratin, I thought it was a large cut of zucchini covered in cheese it turns out it was stuffed with seafood (possibly the same as the seafood soup above)

For entree I had a marinated lamb shank and my wife had a seared scallop dish served over grilled papaya.

Next the asian themed restaurant, Asiana.  For the appetizer, chef presented tuna and melon skewer, the tuna tasted smoked it was definitely cooked in texture not raw. Salmon and tartar sauce roll, interesting not quite for me but it caught my attention on the menu. Spring roll with a strawberry sweet and sour sauce, I liked the use of strawberry in the sauce better than the standard sweet and sour. For a soup I had a Sake and rice soup, a lightly poached salmon with rice in a very nice fish stock broth.

I didn't get around to taking a picture of the menu so this is by memory. My wife got a fish and calamari in coconut curry. The fish and calamari were fried and the dish delicious, it could have used some rice to round it out. (Asian food and no rice?) My dish was a duck breast with a Hoisin sauce. The duck was a bit over cooked and as a result stringy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Nomiku immersion circulator

So a while back I kickstarted this project called Nomiku (about a year and half ago). It's promise was to bring an affordable immersion circulator to the home kitchen and spread the promise of sous vide cooking technique to all. I was pretty intrigued an immersion circulator runs around $1000, it's chemistry lab equipment for pete sake. The idea is simple, a device that can circulate water and add heat and hold it at a very precise temperature. I've had other sous vide devices such as the sous vide supreme and pid controller tied to a steam table but both of those solutions heat the water passively. There's the possibility that parts of the water bath are not evenly heated to the same temperature. Certainly it was close enough, but neither solution was really portable. Do I really need a third sous vide device? Sure more the merrier!

(Nomiku unboxed) So in comes the nomiku, I waited with bated breath and waited and waited. This was my first kickstarter project, I didn't know what to expect. I will say the project founders were very communicative, reading their posts about the process from start to finish was a lot of fun. I almost felt like I was part of it with each success and each annoying setback.  They are a neat group of people with a mission and i'm glad they shared the process and I finally have my nomiku.

The nomiku comes with warranty, a sous vide primer/cookbook and a quick start guide (which I really appreciated). The box, unit and instructions are all very high quality, they didn't cut any corners.

They do warn you to read the manual first, the key is that you have to have the water level set between the min and max (the two little holes you see on the metal shaft). The unit starts immediately when plugged in, so it's possible you burn out the motor or screw up the heating element if you don't first have it sunk in water. The power supply box is there so they can send you power plugs depending on what your country's plug configuration looks like.

You set the temperature by rotating the green knob. It's pretty free spinning and increments by .1 degrees at a time so there's a lot of spinning involved to get it to a high temperature. I immediately saw why they made it very loose spinning rather than a ratcheting lock step spin as I twirled the knob to get from 33 degrees to 142. The screen is touch enabled and touching it will change the readout from Fahrenheit to Celsius and back. The readout turns yellow if you're picking a temperature in the "danger zone" where bacteria thrive and can rapidly multiply.

I did a readout with my Thermapen and it was well within one degree of difference. The nice thing about the circulator is that you can clip the device onto anything. In this case I put it in a eight quart stock pot. It got the water from 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 143 in about 14 mins, eyeballing the water at about 6 quarters.

And of course the first (and quickest) test was sous vide-ing some eggs so in they went for 45 mins at 143. The only comment here is that the eggs started to cluster around the intake of the circulator.

The results turned out perfect with that thick gel consistency of perfectly poached egg. My only concern is that I could probably be more efficient with the energy by using a cooler, the pot obviously got pretty warm and that's a large surface area to be losing heat. I'll have to look into that.

This was actually my second Nomiku unit. I was originally going to employee my new nomiku during Thanksgiving dinner but it was dead on arrival. But the folks at nomiku were very responsive returning my email within hours the day before thanksgiving and got me squared away quickly. It took a little extra time, but they were super nice and very apologetic about the delay. Anyhow, the device is on sale at their website. I highly recommend it!

I'm going on vacation next week I might get the gumption to put out a few posts of what we eat. Hopefully in the new year I can get back to the bentos. Thanks for visiting and Happy Holidays!