Archive for the ‘Ingredients’ Category

I now have a vegetable garden. Vegetables coming soon.

Monday, May 4th, 2009

I am a big fan of vegetables. Fresh, flavorful, crispy, juicy vegetables can’t be beat. One of my favorite meals of all time was almost entirely composed of vegetables. (The meal was prepared emphasizing the greatness of the vegetables themselves rather than trying to simulate some sort of meat-based dish.) I would eat a lot more vegetables at home if this country was better designed for fresh vegetable consumption (1. Americans need to demand vegetables that have great flavor, not just ones that look good and are cheap, 2. these mythical vegetables need to be available within walking distance from your house, so you can buy them fresh every day.)

Pending a major restructuring of this country’s priorities when it comes to fresh vegetables, I had been resigned to mediocre veggies once a week from the supermarket, and eating expensive quality veggies from Wholefoods once every two weeks. But, I still yearn for better. The econapocolypse and the inevitable crumbling of society has brought all this into focus for me — I need to grow my own vegetables. Unfortunately, if I gauged my ability to nurture living things based on my history with plants then I never would have had children. Past performance would have indicated that they never would have made it to their first birthdays. In addition, the pacific northwest is not exactly prime vegetable growing territory.

Enter Seattle Farm.

For a minimum of $250 they’ll come set up a raised bed in a sunny spot in your yard, fill it with good dirt, run automatic drip irrigation lines so you don’t have to water it every day (this is key for me!!!). And then, even better, for $35 a week they’ll come and maintain your vegetable garden, pick the vegetables, plant new ones, and then walk the freshly picked veggies the 10 feet from the garden to the door to our kitchen. This is my kind of vegetable gardening!!! As for the $35, I spend that much on vegetables just driving by Wholefoods.

Here’s a shot of our new garden:

Over the next few weeks/months we’ll be swimming in: cucumbers, tomatoes, golden beets, sugar snap peas, red cabbage, arugula, ratte potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, purple carrots, scallions, radishes, shallots, cilantro, basil, garlic, and kohlrabi (Dana’s request). Be nice and you might get some.

This company is adorable. They’re providing an awesome and convenient service. While it’s too early to tell you about the quality of my veggies, so far they’ve been doing a great job. I hope they become a huge success.

Smoked Fish, My People’s Cured Pork

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I won’t go into why it does or doesn’t make sense to follow dietary restrictions created by some dudes thousands of years ago. And even if God created them, I can’t explain why he would care if we ate bacon. (In fact, I might say that a loving and compassionate god would want his children to experience the joys of bacon on a regular basis.) Suffice it to say though, that for whatever reason, there are at least a couple of million people in the world who choose to keep kosher. And there are many millions more who observe Muslim dietary restrictions which also mean pork is out.

For the Jews, the joy of curing and salting meat is not foreign to us. If you’re confused, go have a real pastrami sandwich and see what I’m talking about. We’re not fucking around. That said, because of additional dietary restrictions, (the prohibition on mixing milk with meat) having cured meat, even of a kosher variety, for breakfast, is just not quite right. You need butter, you need cheese, maybe some yogurt, etc. It just doesn’t work. Enter smoked and cured fish.

My grandmother use to make carp for us. My dad (and I’m sure his father) eat/ate lots of pickled herring. My grandparents (and before them my great grandparents) ran a friggin’ fish market. (And they actually sold fish and not software.) And it took me trying sushi to finally realize the joys of smoked salmon and lox specifically. I was so thrilled to realize that this wonderfulness came from my peeps. And as much as I love lox (my fave is gravlax), and a nice smoked whitefish salad, I can’t help but miss bacon.

What is salmon bacon you ask? Oh, you didn’t ask. That’s ok, I’m gonna tell you anyway.

Salmon bacon is:

  • my people’s attempt at having a bacon substitute?
  • an attempt to create a new revenue stream by a kosher fish company in Massachusetts?
  • a delicious salty component in my breakfast bagel?

Before I answer, I should offer full disclosure. I’m told that some people mistake blogging for journalism and that being honest about your influences, biases, and sources, is key to being taken credibly. More importantly I’m told that some people mistake food journalism for actual journalism — and that’s just silly. (Although in many cases over the last decade I think people have mistaken the “news” we see on TV and in newspapers for actual journalism. So who even knows what’s what anymore.) But enough of that. I was trying to come clean.

Feel free to ignore my recommendations because:

  • I am always on the lookout for new kosher products that expand the selection that kosher kitchens can choose from when trying to create really good meals
  • Because the selection kosher food (especially cured meat) is so poor, I’m likely to like just about anything that comes my way in this category
  • The nice people at the Springfield Smoked Fish Company fedexed me some free lox. I asked them for it when i read that they were trying to make a new product called Salmon Bacon and they generously complied.

This new product is called “Brekfish“. OK. The name is wacky. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Or does it. Actually, I think this name doesn’t matter that much. But the tagline of the product is “Salmon Bacon”. And I think that does matter. For some insane reason, I thought there would be some baconesque quality to the “bacon” and even though it was made of salmon, I couldn’t get the expectation of bacon out of my head. Salmon bacon does not in fact taste like bacon. However, once I got past my expectations I was free to enjoy it for what it was — a fryable, crispy, super salty, perfect addition to my bagel and cream cheese or bagel and egg sandwich. (In the faux Judaism that is Noah’s bagels – not good bagels – you would call that ‘bagel mit egg’.)

At first I was surprised at how salty the Brekfish was. Because I grabbed some of it almost straight from the frying pan and chomped on it. But in fact, I think it was not much saltier than some cuts of bacon I’ve had with nothing else. But it’s when the Brekfish is put in the sandwich that the magic happens. The couple of slices I fried brought my sandwich to life. The saltiness was muted and replaced with a smokey sharp counterpart to the smooth bagel flavor and eggy goodness. My bagel was some crap from the supermarket, but the salmon bacon made it delicious. Imagine what it could do with a good bagel. I dare to dream!

Along with the salmon bacon, I got a couple of its cousins. The whitefish spread was super oily in a good way. It especially worked spread generously on my toasted bagel. But the lox they sent was superlative. Normally I’m not a huge fan of mild flavors, but this lox had a slightly thicker cut, and the best way to describe the slices on my tongue is ‘creamy’. Just lovely.

The number of food producers trying to innovate in the kosher food space is tiny. There are many cool products that could easily be kosher, but the producers don’t take the time. The market isn’t big enough, or at least they think this. And frankly, the folks who validate food as kosher are often perceived as not much better than an extortion racket to keep certain sects of orthodox Jews in the money. A local example to Seattle:

In February, Leah’s Bakery and Café, the only kosher retail bakery in Seattle, closed its doors. Leah’s had been providing the local community with freshly prepared challahs, knishes and kugels, as well as making sandwiches and soups, for 10 years. Owner Leah Jaffee sited chronic financial concerns as the primary reason for the bakery’s closure.
“We liked making those things, but it was sort of a community service, as far as profit margins went,” Jaffee said.
The bakery had always been a money-loser, according to Jaffee. But she said that the additional costs associated with new policies recently adopted by the Va’ad concerning fruits and vegetables pushed the enterprise beyond financial feasibility.
“I just couldn’t justify having someone come in and wash one head of lettuce for $20 if I was only making six box lunches,” Jaffee said. “That’s more than $3 per sandwich just for your lettuce.” — JT News, July 2008

That said, the folks at Springfield Smoked Fish are trying. And for that, I salute them. And for the fact that they’re succeeding, I thank them and recommend that you buy some of their fish. These small specialty producers need all the help they can get and should be rewarded with your patronage. I think that once you try their products you’ll keep coming back simply because they’re excellent.

p.s. Anyone who wants to open up a company that does nothing but try to emulate fantastic pork products and create gorgeous cured meats and sausages out of kosher ingredients (I think turkey comes the closest to pork in many cases) will get my undying love and numerous biased posts recommending their products on this website.

Buttered Pecans

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

A component in a dessert at poppy, I have been keeping my pantry well stocked with buttered pecans.  It’s harder than one would think, what with the dessert they accompany being ridiculously popular.  The dessert is a play on sticky toffee pudding. Cubes of warmed date cake are drenched in hot butterscotch sauce, covered with pieces of medjool dates and the buttered pecans in question.  This warm concoction is crowned with a scoop of banana ice cream.

I can say with confidence, this is the first time, on any menu I have ever created, that a non chocolate dessert is the top seller.

So with the popularity of this dessert, playfully dubbed “hot date cake”, I am churning these buttered pecans out like there is no tomorow.  I realized today, after leaving the salty buttery nuts on the cooling rack too long, that it’s not just the high sales that are diminishing my stores.

Every cook that passed by nicked a few, popping them in their mouths before I noticed.  When I realized that 1/3 of the tray of pecans had gone missing, I confronted the scavengers.

It seems that I have created a few buttered pecan addicts.  I couldn’t blame them, I am one of them.

They get their flavor from being roasted in a coating of melted butter and salt.  As the pecans toast, the milk solids in the butter caramelize, giving these pecans a remarkable depth of richness.  As the pecans cool, the butter oil is absorbed by the pecan, leaving the salt clinging to the nut.  They are tender and crisp, melt in your mouth, salty, buttery, mapley, and completely addictive.

I highly recomend everyone treats pecans in this manner. While you can do healthy things with them, like put them in oatmeal or scatter over a wintery squash soup, I would highly recomend making a sundae.  Maybe with caramel sauce, over chocoalte ice cream, like those tasty little turtle candies.

Just don’t eat them all first.

Buttered pecans

150g pecans (about 1 cup)

25g butter (about 2 tbsp)

5g kosher salt (about 1 tsp)

1.  Melt the butter, and toss with the pecans and salt.

2.  Toast in a 350 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until the nuts deepen in color, become fragrant, and you can see that the butter has started to caramelize.

3.  Let them cool and sit for 2 hours before eating, so the butter soaks in.

All Rhubarb, All The Time

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

In other parts of the world, fruit is in season. In places other than Seattle, pastry chefs are working with more than Rhubarb.

But no matter how many sunny Seattle weekends drive a burning desire to work with fruit, nothing but Rhubarb, which technically isn’t even a fruit, is available to me.

I know, I know. Soon I will be whining that there is so much fruit and so little time. You see, here in this great green city, our fruit seasons are compacted onto each other for 3 quick and furious months.

In two weeks strawberries will come, followed quickly by raspberries. Plums will begin the stone fruit season, and by the time I have a dish worked out for them, cherries will be piling up and the first of the peaches and nectarines will be coming in.

But until then it’s all rhubarb, all the time.

This year, I have been making a lot of my favorite rhubarb recipe, orange rhubarb compote. Aside from being a fixture in my refrigerator and being gifted to friends, this working girl of a compote has a healthy professional career. She wakes up early dressed in soft hues of pink, to work at Veil’s brunch, served with toasted Columbia City breads in the morning. Moving into evening, she slips into something sexy, and nests a quenelle of buttermilk sorbet. Across town, this lady changes into her jeans and t-shirt and spends each day covering scoops of Molly Moon’s fantastic ice cream and is featured in a sundae with lemon ice cream, Chukar cherries, and vanilla whipped cream.

In a near brush with fame, this compote was to be featured in a local magazine. However, it hit the cutting room floor, making it necessary to share the recipe here with you. Soft, luxurious, and intensely deep in flavor, this compote’s real attraction is the simplicity in which it is prepared.  I think you too will find yourself coming back to this recipe again and again, maybe even well into the onslaught of seasonal fruit.

Orange Rhubarb Compote

2 tbsp butter

1 lb rhubarb

3/4 cup sugar

2 tbsp orange liquor

zest of one orange

1. Trim the Rhubarb of the ends, and split it lengthwise down the center. Cut across in 1 cm. intervals, leaving you with rough cubes of rhubarb.

2. In a large bowl, toss the rhubarb with the sugar and orange liquor, and orange zest, and set aside.

3. Melt the butter in a medium heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted add the sugar coated rhubarb. Let this cook over a medium heat, undisturbed, for about 2 minutes. When the rhubarb has started to release juices, gently stir.

3. Continue cooking the compote over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the juices are all released, then begin to thicken. Cooking time is about 10 to 15 minutes total, until the compote looks thick and the rhubarb is tender.

Notes:

* I set a timer last time I made it, just for you, and it took 13 minutes and 17 seconds until the desired texture and thickness was reached. This time will depend on the size of your rhubarb pieces, the particular heat of “medium” on your stove, etc, etc, etc. So use your intuition.

* Many of the cubes will break down from cooking, but some of the larger ones will remain as little tender lumps, offering bursts of tart rhubarb flavor in the mouth, and a pleasant texture on the tongue. If you like, you can break all the rhubarb apart with aggressive stirring, using the spoon to break the rhubarb up. You might even puree it and pass it through a sieve if you are looking for a smooth compote. But the less you stir, the more chunks you will leave intact.

Sour Cherries

Monday, May 12th, 2008

You may remember last summer, when I staged at WD-50.  What I didn’t tell you was that I rushed home for cherries.  Not just any cherries, Montmorency sour cherries, picked fresh from a tree in my neighborhood, by one of my favorite people on the planet, Iris.

Iris came over with the cherries, and her parents, she’s only 4 after all.  And her dad brought with him two more friends, Lara, and Neil.

We spent the afternoon making treats with the cherries, a goat cheese panna cotta with sweet pickled cherries, zeppolle with a sour cherry sauce for dipping, and a clafouti with an attempt at cherry pit ice cream.

The attempt failed when I took my chilled base out to churn, and looked in my freezer for the bowl to my counter top ice cream maker.  It was not frozen, and my base was not to be ice cream that day.  But all was not lost, we dipped zeppolle in the cherry pit infused custard as well.

I must argue for this clafouti batter.  This was the batter I learned clafouti with, blind to the fact that it is a bit nontraditional.  Where as most batters are just that, batters that sink a bit below the fruit, and bake into a custardy pancake, this batter contains whipped egg whites and cream, and soufflees above the fruit a bit, light and creamy, and unforgettable.   We kept it on the menu at Lampreia for as long as there was fresh fruit to sit below, which in Seattle means about 6 months out of the year.

The cherry pits ice cream, I must argue as well.  With trace amounts of cyanide, eating a handful of cherry pits is not something I would advise.  However, cracking them and infusing them into cream releases an amazing potent flavor, reliant on the flavor molecule benzaldahyde which is found in bitter almonds, apricot pits, peach pits, and regular cherry pits, and is responsible for what we consider, “fake” almond flavoring.  If you have ever wondered why an almond in no way tastes like almond flavor, it’s due to the fact that almond flavor is extracted from bitter almonds, not the kind we eat out of hand.

I didn’t write about it because Matthew, Iris’s dad did.  He wrote, Lara photographed, and finally Gourmet published it online!  So take a quick trip over to Gourmet.com, and read about our day in detail.  The clafouti recipe is published, along with the pickled sour cherries.  Following is the goat cheese panna cotta recipe, which is pictured covered with pickled sour cherries, and the cherry pit ice cream, which was replaced with vanilla for the day, delicious no doubt, but not quite the same.

Goat Cheese Panna Cotta

3 cups cream

8 oz goat cheese, at room temp

1 cup milk

½ cup sugar

Salt to taste

1 envelope powdered gelatin, bloomed in 3 tbsp water

  1. Bring the milk and sugar to a simmer and add the bloomed gelatin. Remove from heat and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.
  2. Warm the goat cheese slightly to soften, and mix the cream and goat cheese in a blender until the mixture is smooth and even. Taste the mixture and add salt to your liking. Strain in the warm milk/gelatin, and spin until the mixture is even.
  3. Pour the panna cotta mixture into molds, ramekins, pyrex custard cups, or pretty little teacups you may also collect from rummage sales.
  4. Chill these for 6 hours.

Cherry Pit Ice Cream

3 cups cream

1 cup milk

1 cup sugar

6 egg yolks

The pits 50 to 70 cherries

  1. Crack the pits open and extract the kernel inside, discarding the hard shell. I do this by folding them inside a dishtowel and hitting them with a hammer, or the back of a small heavy pot.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the sugar with the kernels until the kernels are fine. Alternately, chop them with a knife, then mix with the sugar.
  3. In a medium saucepan with a heavy bottom, bring the cream and milk to a boil and stir in the cherry pit sugar. Remove the cream from the heat and allow to steep for an hour, longer if you want a more intense flavor, and bring it back up to temperature before adding to the eggs. Strain this mixture through a fine mesh strainer before adding to the eggs.
  4. Whisk one third of the hot cherry pit cream into the eggs, and return this mixture to the pot of cream, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula.
  5. Cook this over a medium heat stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and reaches 170 degrees and thickens.
  6. Immediately chill this over an ice bath. When the ice cream base is cooled, transfer to a storage container and refrigerate over night, allowing the flavors to marry.
  7. Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturers directions.

The Flavor of Color

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

It is a fact that color has a drastic effect on your perception of flavor. The information received from our eyes will lead us to anticipate a flavor based on the color of a food or beverage, and that initial assumption can over ride the information we receive from our taste buds and olfactory system.

At The Fat Duck Heston served a disk of gelee, orange on one side, maroon on the other. The diner was instructed to taste each side of the gelee individually without being told the flavor. This little bite stopped people in their tracks. They were tasting orange and beets, but the red side was blood orange, and the orange side was golden beet. The recognition of the two familiar flavors opposing their expected colors teased the diner a bit, forcing them to recognize how strongly we associate a particular flavor with a color.

In Elementary school, our teacher gave us an experiment; blindfold our partner and give them two small cups, one filled with seven-up, the other filled with coca-cola. They were required to tell us which was which based simply on taste. In our youthful arrogance we laughed, positive we could tell. I mean come on, cola is like, so obviously a different flavor than lemon-lime. Duh. We tasted away, and our crumbling confidence became a new source of amusement as child after child was stumped. Without the dark color telling us what cola was, we couldn’t distinguish the sodas from each other.

Last week I was working on a bubble gum ice cream base for a dish coming out this spring. Not only am I flavoring the ice cream like bubble gum, but I am coloring it pink as well. As I had the cooks taste the nameless pink cream and tell me what flavor it was, all but one agreed it tasted just like they remembered bubble gum tasting. Ironically no one had tasted bubble gum in years, myself included.

Brian however, looked pained when I gave him a spoon of the pink fluid. He asked why I was giving him pepto bismol. After a little prodding and a promise that is was indeed something I made he put the spoon in his mouth.

He grimaced and said, “Yup, that tastes just like pepto bismol. It is, isn’t it. Why did you make me eat that.”

As soon as we stopped laughing and told him it was bubble gum, he relaxed his face and said, “Oh yeah, it is bubble gum.” His initial assumption that the spoonful was going to taste like the chalky pink fluid, based solely on color, was so strong that his olfactory gave in and agreed. It didn’t matter how strong the bubble gum flavor was, his eyes told him pepto bismol and that was that.

I will admit that the sauce was too brightly colored. A little color goes a looonnnnggg way. When diners do see my bubble gum ice cream, on a plate with strawberry covered bananas and a vanilla cream filled sponge cake, it will be shades lighter than what I was feeding my cooks. We wouldn’t want anyone tasting pepto bismol ice cream.

It sparked a conversation about the preconception of flavor based simply on color, and I told them about my own experiment I did earlier last year.

I made a fresh sour cherry sauce that while stunning in flavor, was an off brown color. I split the sauce into two batches, and colored one with a bit of red food coloring. Two drops changed the dull brown color into a bright, vibrant red, much the color of the unprocessed cherries themselves. I had the cooks I worked with taste both and tell me which one tasted better, citing a difference in method as the reason for the color variation.

Cook after cook named the bright red cherry sauce as the better of the two. Way better, hands down above and beyond, they all said in their own words. To them, the bright red was an indicator of real cherry flavor, a better product, better handling, thus the sauce tasted better.

This brings up a deeper question. If the two sauces were identical in flavor, one only varying by the addition of two drops of color, then could one possibly taste better than the other? In fact the sauces were the same composition of flavor and texture, but in perception they were different, so which one is true?

At WD-50 I was surprised to find bottles of coloring mixed in with the dry stores. But Alex’s argument was that people will perceive something to taste better if it is colored they way they expect it to be. Case in point was the sweet avocado sauce served with the soft chocolate dish. As the sauce was processed, it would begin to brown a bit, straying from our concept that avocados are green. One drop of color helped this sauce, made daily from fresh avocados, retain it’s identity as fresh avocado. No matter how fresh the sauce actually was, the faded color would lead the diner to assume it was passing it’s prime, and that information would change their perception of the flavor.

It’s a very strong argument for using coloring in your food, a practice that once seemed blasphemous. Color won’t hide the fact that your food doesn’t taste good, but it can help you ensure that your diners are perceiving the flavors in your dishes as you intended them to be.

Today’s Secret Ingredient…. Heat

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I wish with everything in my little cooks heart that Harold McGee wrote for the NY Times every Wednesday.

This week we are treated to an introduction to an ingredient every cook uses every day with very little understanding. In this weeks article, he talks about heat.

Having been in the kitchens I have been in,  I have been exposed a bit to the thought of better using heat to cook foods.  Take sous vide, a word that we hear thrown around with trendy modern food is actually an exercise in the most efficient manner to apply heat to food.  Yes, the method of putting food in vacuum sealed bags and cooking it in water has been used for a few decades now.  However it’s the more recent study into how the energy of heat changes and effects the molecules in our food that resurrected this method from the depths of reheating catered dinners, introduced perfectly controlled thermobaths from laboratories, and brought it to the forefront of haute cuisine.

While much of the study of heats effects on food relate to meat cookery, where our use of the energy is at it’s most inefficient, the application I found most interesting was for potatoes.

Almost every restaurant has mashed potatoes on their menu.  It seems to be a game of chasing the white rabbit, that of making the perfect, fluffiest, creamiest, mashed potatoes.  We as cooks hear legend of different kitchens and their ethereal potatoes, like Joel Robechons, “passed through the tammis 5 times!  Mounted with twice their weight in butter!”  Every kitchen has their spin on making theirs better.

At WD-50 I saw something done to the potatoes that makes a cook scream, “yes!” A method of cooking the potatoes with an explanation using true understanding of the molecules inside the potatoes and the effects of heat on them.

The potatoes are peeled, sliced, and cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees celsius for 30 minutes.  The potatoes are transferred to an ice bath to cool completely.  At this point the potatoes are still crisp, seemingly unchanged.  Once cooled, the potatoes are cooked just as you would have had you just peeled them.  If the potatoes are seemingly unchanged, you might ask what on earth did they just do?

Well, working with a method used by the commercial mashed-potatoes-in-a-box companies, they use just enough heat to cause the starch granules inside the potatoes to swell.  Think of these granules as little sacks of starch molecules.  They absorb water, and the starches inside grow.  If they are mishandled, or bounced around by too much energy, say that of boiling water, these little bags break open freeing all those starch molecules.  These rouge starches are now free to retrograde, recrystallize and cross-link forming long gummy chains.  This is not good.

So, after cooking the potatoes in gentle heat, just long enough to make these starch bags swell, the potatoes are then cooled in an ice bath.  The starch in the potatoes are allowed to recrystallize, or retrograde.

Wait, didn’t we just say that was bad?  Well, it’s bad when the starches aren’t contained.  Because of the gentle application of moderate heat those little starch sacks are intact with swollen starches inside.  The ice bath forces these starches to retrograde, gel, set, what every you may, inside their sack.  Retrograde is permanent.  The starches are now cemented into place safely inside their granules, and you can now cook the potatoes with a more aggressive heat, and break apart the starch sacks by mashing and passing through a tammis, processing the potato.  You can manipulate these particles into a nice smooth, even mashed potato with out risk of releasing the starches from their containment.  No gummy paste, no stringy gluey mashed potatoes.

And the best part?  You can cool the mashed potatoes, and reheat them for service with no change in texture.

Pretty cool, huh?

Perfecting Panna Cotta

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Panna Cotta is one of those desserts that can be spotted on almost every dessert menu, in every city. After a surge of recent popularity, this once “it” girl has proved her staying power. A chic custard with a little shimmy Gordon Ramsey calls the “chi-chi-lina”, the panna cotta won hearts in the dining room with the simplicity of a comfort food, and has made friends in the kitchen with deceptive ease in preparation. A simple combination of cream, sugar, a little flavor, and some gelatin, and like magic you have a sophisticated dessert on your hands.

It is with the simplest preparations that the most care must be taken, and I have adopted various extra steps to ensure the simple preparation of panna cotta, often a casualty of mediocrity, carries not just a memorable flavor, but a perfect texture. With a simple flavor so easy to achieve, it is in refining the texture that panna cotta becomes a great challenge. Just throwing in the recommended dose of gelatin, throwing the mixture in the fridge to set will get you so-so results, most of the time. However, armed with a little information you can ensure your dessert will stand out each time.

Gelatin itself, we know, comes from animals. Thus it is easy to conceive that gelatin is a protein. Rendered most often from the collegen in the hide of four legged animals, this protein behaves much differently than most we are used to working with in the kitchen. Where as the protein in an egg will respond to heat by unfolding and bonding permanently to neighboring proteins (aka coagulating), the proteins in gelatin respond to heat by releasing their bonds to each other. The unusually long protein chains in gelatin, when cold, bind to each other into a triple helix, which cross link with others to form a web. This web interferes with the movement of the water the gelatin is dispersed in, thus gelling it into a solid.

Many things effect the final texture of a gelatin gelled liquid, particularly the manner in which it is cooled. The warmed liquid, necessary to release the proteins from their initial web and disperse them, is most often immediately placed in the refrigerator and cooled quickly. In doing this, the protein chains bond to each other immediately, and randomly, causing bulky and weak cross sections. By cooling the gelatin slowly, at room temperature, the proteins are allowed to mingle with each other, forming a tighter, more structured web. Thus, if you are creating weaker bonds, you would need more gelatin to set an immediate structure. This gelatin will progressively continue to firm over a period of time, thus the texture you gained the first day will be softer than the texture you have in 4 days. In my restaurant, I want the textures to be the same each day I serve the dish.

The way I have interpreted this information has led to this method. I heat a small amount of milk to dissolved the gelatin in. This sits on the counter until it is at room temperature, which takes about an hour or two, a time that is well within the limits of food safety. It is stirred occasionally, and once it is cool, the remainder of the cream is added.

I never heat the entire amount of the liquid used to make a panna cotta. I have found that in heating the cream, or particularly buttermilk, the texture of the liquid changes, and feels thin on the tongue. This fact I haven’t been able to fully support with reading. Everything I find suggests that the fat globules are encased in a membrane that is strengthened by heating. So I am not sure what about the heating process changes the texture of the cream within the gelled panna cotta. My only guess so far is that the heat will cause the protein clusters bound by caseins which float freely around the fat globules (think of a tiny tiny dust bunnies) to stick to the membrane of the fat globule (like a little dust bunny protective shield), perhaps leaving room for the water molecules to become more active in the cream. And perhaps this increased activity in the water molecules creates the feeling of thinness?

Either way, I can use the tried and true method used by chef’s for centuries, to assume facts by observation. I know because I can see it and feel it with my mouth that heating the entire amount of cream for a panna cotta feels thinner in the final product. And the thinner feel makes the panna cotta feel more like milk jell-o than a chic custard.

Recently, I have been withholding a portion of the cream, and very very carefully whipping it just enough to thicken it. To do this, the cream must be very cold, and have been very cold for a continuous period of time. When you whip cream, you are using the shear force of the whisk to strip parts of each fat globules protective membrane. The exposed fat is now sticky, and will adhere to two things; other naked patches of fat globules, and air bubbles. Thus, the air bubbles introduced by the whisk become encased in damaged globules and are trapped in place. When warm, the fat which is no longer encased in it’s protective membrane, is now capable of leaking out and collapsing the air bubbles. Thus the importance of the cream not only staying cold, but having been cold for quite some time.

What we are trying to do is not add too many of these air bubbles, and definitely not large ones created by pounding a whip into the cream. Rather, I whisk slowly back and forth by hand, standing in my walk in refrigerator if possible. I am encouraging the fat globules to stick to each other rather than encase brittle air bubbles.

To steep flavor into your product, I either employ a cold infusion over a period of 24 to 48 hours often with fresh mint, tea leaves, coffee and whole spices, use a liquid addition to the panna cotta like a pulled shot of espresso, orange flower water, and liquors, or steep the flavor into the small amount of liquid heated to melt the gelatin.

And finally, I always use sheet gelatin. Those of my readers that work in professional kitchens will know this product well. Granulated gelatin is second rate. The amount of gelatin and the quality of the gelatin within the granulated form varies. The powder can contain a high amount of broken protein that will never re-bond into the triple helix’s that create the web like junctions. It can contain more or less of viable proteins from batch to batch, creating stronger and weaker gels than you expect. Plain and simple, it’s inconsistent. Unfortunately, it’s the only gelatin readily available to the average cook. I highly recommend finding a source for sheet gelatin if you plan to use much of it at home.

So after a long winded post, I will provide a step by step recipe for a panna cotta perfect for the fruitless season arriving soon.

Kaffir-Lemongrass Panna Cotta

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

zest of one lemon, and one lime

10 kaffir lime leaves

1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and chopped fine

1 tbsp chamomile buds

3 cups cream, 1/2 cup held very cold

4 sheets gelatin

Preparing;

Place 1/2 cup of cream in the bowl you intend to whip it in, and place it in the refrigerator along with the whisk you intend to whisk it with.

Gather six 6-oz serving dishes or desired molds

1. Steep the milk with the sugar and flavors. Place the milk, sugar, lemon and lime zest, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and chamomile in a small sauce pan and heat just below boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and steep for half an hour. During the last 5 minutes, soak the gelatin sheets in ice water.

2. Add the gelatin. Strain the milk, and return to a sauce pan, rewarming the milk. Remove the softened gelatin sheets from the ice water, squeezing to remove as much of the water as possible. Add the gelatin to the warm milk, and stir until completely dissolved and evenly dispersed. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool on the counter at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Whip the cream. When the milk is cooled, begin whipping the 1/2 cup of very cold cream. Do this with gentle back and forth motions of the whisk, avoiding beating much air into the cream. You should see the cream begin to thicken in a minute or two, once the fat globules are damaged enough to adhere to each other. Continue gently agitating the cream with the whisk, stopping when the cream is thick enough to hold itself, but doesn’t quite hold peaks.

4. Add the cream to the cooled milk/gelatin. Add the unwhipped cream to the milk/gelatin mixture that has cooled on the counter with a whisk. Carefully now, add the whisk thickened cream and fold with a spatula until the two are evenly combined.

5. Fill the molds or serving dishes. Pour the panna cotta into the dishes or molds quickly, as the cold from the cream will now begin to fully set the gelatin. You will see the mixture is thick, and may need to tap the glasses a bit to obtain a flat top, or use an offset spatula to smooth the top of the molds.

6. Chill the Panna Cotta. Place the panna cotta in the refrigerator and allow to set overnight. It will take a full day of setting to achieve the propper texture.

Sourcing For You

Friday, September 7th, 2007

In an alternate universe much like ours, every chef not only stands in their kitchen cooking every single dish we order, but spends each morning shopping for each piece of food that sits on those plates that are lovingly and painstakingly crafted just for us. They test each ingredient, knowing where to find the best of everything so nothing sub perfect comes within a mile of our food.

The fact of our own universe here, is that this kind of attention takes time. The kind of time that cuts into personal lives, takes away from a chef’s family, friends, sanity, physical well being. Most restaurants order from a few purveyors, taking what ever those companies deemed satisfactory. And often, those companies choices are dictated by price and easy availability. So what ever is carried in the door on the hand truck is what ends up on your plate.

This same factor is much of what holds superior restaurants apart from the median. That time one could be sipping coffee is spent tracking things down, taking them into their kitchen and testing their quality. Working in kitchens where chefs have put in the time sourcing the best ingredients for their cuisine, a girl could become very spoiled. When reaching for flour at Lampreia, I might not even notice that the farina shipped from Italy is what makes our cakes and pasta’s taste that much better. While at The Fat Duck, it could slip by me that the reason the chef isn’t in the kitchen that morning is because he’s in the lab testing the starch content of 10 varieties of potatoes to find the best one for his chips.

It’s not enough to be a talented chef, to develop a stand out menu, and train your team to reproduce it. You have to log the hours finding your food.

I am currently hunting for a product called Agar. A hydrocolloid derived from seaweed, this gelling agent is a staple in Asian cuisine and has been adopted by vegans and vegetarians alike. Rather than the soft melt in your mouth set of gelatin which we are used to, Agar sets up stiff and brittle. At low levels, this gel will crumble in your mouth pleasantly. At high levels, it’s a solid brick. I learned at The Fat Duck, to take this solid brick of gelled (and tasty) liquid, place it in a blender, and puree it. The gel doesn’t release any liquid, but the molecules break apart to the point that it takes on the fluid quality of a liquid. Thus, we make a fluid-gel.

The beauty of using this method is that you can take any liquid you want and create a soft sauce-like texture for plating. Imagine I want to include the flavor of brown sugar in a peach and yogurt dish. I can make a brown sugar creme anglaise and sauce my plate with that, but I am adding the additional flavors of the egg and cream. However, if I make a fluid gel, I could simply dilute the brown sugar with water to achieve the precise flavor I want, set that with agar agar, then puree it. In doing this, I have the advantage of presenting just the flavor of brown sugar, clean and free of anything else.

Hypothetically.

My problem has come in the fact that the Agar I have been testing tastes like seaweed. My “clean and free” flavors have all been tasting a bit briny. Gross, you might think, and you are right. It is gross. I’ll admit I was spoiled while staging at WD-50. I simply opened a jar and tasteless, neutral flavored agar came out.

My first Agar purchase was from the company L’Epicerie. This has by far been the worst of the lot, emitting a strong odor as the package is opened. I was so taken back by the foulness of this particular agar that I called the company. I was told repeatedly, “well, it comes from seaweed, what did you expect?” Then I was informed that they only sell to the finest restaurants and purchase the finest ingredients. Clearly the agar was fine, it was me that was a bit off.

Since then I have tried various sources, many asian markets in the international district, and various health food stores. One of our specialty purveyors was helping us source this product, and bought an entire case of the first stuff they found. Unfortunately, it tastes like seaweed. It’s a tough call. They sourced it and bought it at our request, but they fell into that trap of mediocrity mentioned above. They took the first thing that came through their door. No matter how guilty I feel, I can’t do the same thing and let it into mine.