Tofu The Size Of Texas

I finally ordered some nigari (magnesium chloride) for making tofu. I had bought organic soybeans–both white and black–a while ago, but it took an age for me to get the order in. Once it arrived, though, the intervening time spent waiting helped spur me to quick action. I soaked some of the white beans overnight and re-read the tofu recipe I wanted to try from the Shunju cookbook. (Shunju is one of Tokyo’s finest restaurants, and the book is beautiful. I haven’t made anything from it before, but it has inspired a number of improvisations of late).

Basically, the technique is a two-step process. First you make soymilk, then you make tofu with that. You purée the soaked beans in the fo-pro for quite a while until they are seriously frothy. You take that foam and gently heat it, stirring, and add some boiling water to loosen the mass a bit.

And then you simmer, stirring frequently so it doesn’t stick and scorch. And it bubbles up to many times its original volume, so be advised. Eventually (after about half an hour) the bubbles subside and you’re left with the familiar off-white liquid that is soymilk, with all the solids on the bottom of the pot. You strain this, separating the latter (okara) from the former. Then heating the milk back up to 167˚ F I think, you add a bit of the nigari and stir it in. Then you let it sit to coagulate.

In this case, I poured some of the mixture into individual dishes so it would set up inside the confines of the square plate, making for a cleaner presentation than a lumpy pile spooned in after the fact. I drizzled a little light soy and sesame oil on top, along with minced scallions.

But first, to get going and provide a weather-appropriate cold soup, I simmered some fresh-cut red kale in the beef/lamb stock that didn’t get reduced to demi-glace, puréed it all together, and strained it. The kale solids that remained in the strainer looked so similar to the okara from soymilk-making that I impulsively combined the two for a grainy green goodness which I made use of in the next course.

Which was okara-kale cakes. I added an egg yolk and a pinch of flour, plus a dribble each of nam pla, usukuchi, and sesame oil, then cooked them in a lightly oiled pan. To accompany, I made salad with some lovely curly endive: I fried up some large dice of our bacon, then dumped lardons and hot fat right into the bowl to lightly wilt the greens. I followed that with some vinegar and thinly sliced radish, then tossed it all together. I deglazed the fritter pan with a spoon of demi-glace and a splash of sake to make a rich little sauce for the cakes.

Then we had the tofu. It hadn’t set all the way (I’m not sure how long it’s supposed to take) so it was still pretty liquid. And the nigari was tasteable, which is not really such a good thing. Nigari is pretty awfully bitter and quite alkaline. So I should use less, obviously, but why then did it not set in the hour it had to sit? These and more questions will be answered when I use a source other than a book which appears to have been somewhat haphazardly translated–or at very least converted from metric to English. But the process is simple enough, and the result holds a great deal of promise–especially the ability to flavor and season the result.

For dessert, something that accidentally ended up being quite close in spirit to the book. Milo had been clamoring for me to take the coconut water from the remaining young nut that Mike brought over when we had Korean BBQ night and make a gel with it. Where he got the idea is anybody’s guess. He’s just sort of brilliant like that. So we bloomed a couple of sheets, then dissolved them in the coconut water which we sweetened with a squeeze of good local honey. Then we poured the mixture into a pyrex dish and chilled it in the fridge. We also had a cantaloupe on hand (shopping with children is hell for locavores) that was very sweet, so I cut both the melon and the gel into roughly equal sized cubes and served them in little glass bowls with a chiffonade of spearmint on top. This was a winner: sweet, clean, and light as a feather, it came closest to the sort of taste and texture I imagine based on extensive reading of the cookbook. Someday maybe I’ll have cause and means to get to Tokyo and eat there, and I can revel in the subtle mastery of their technique.

And then I can upend the table and storm out, yelling over my shoulder that their tofu recipe tastes like drano.

Good Night And Good Luck

So we returned home from a day trip to Delaware county later than forseen, and with nothing at all planned for dinner. A quick stop at the place in town that carries wild Alaskan salmon later, and we were fully in business, thanks largely to the presence of some high-end leftovers in the fridge. And I like a high end. We lost power on Thursday, but it was only for four hours, so nothing was lost. I was beginning to sorely regret the purchase of our chest freezer, and vowed to stock it with jugs of water to add thermal mass if the power was restored fast enough to save all the beautiful meat, stock, and the heads of my enemies that we have stashed in there.

The fridge yielded potato salad–a week old, and needing dispatching–and the lentil soup-turned-salad that I haven’t actually written about yet, so this post is ruined. Green lentils, some kind of stock, homemade prosciutto, duck sausage, carrots, aromatics, etc., all simmered, blah blah blah you know how to make lentil soup.

So anyway, it was in the fridge, having undergone a subsequent transformation into a salad of sorts by way of the addition of copious vinegar, olive oil, fresh garlic, and chives to the mix. I took the potato salad (German-style, with vinegar and pickles, just like in a recent post that I can’t be bothered to find and link to) and mashed in an egg yolk along with more chives, then formed it into little cakes, dredged them in panko, and got them all bronzed in a greezy skillet. The lentils I just heated up to a good bubble, covered, and took off the heat. I like to re-boil my meat-containing leftovers every few days when applicable.

The salmon got a dusting with salt, pepper, and some herbs, and a quick stay in the selfsame skillet on higher heat for a good crisping of the skin and a stabilizing and opacifying hit on the fleshy side. The center of the fillet remained translucent and meltingly tender, offering a lovely contrast to the crisp exterior. And I had cut a salad of young lettuces.

To really set this off and make it special, I took a quivering spoonful of the demi-glace I made last weekend and melted it in the salmon pan, adding a splash of white wine and a pat of butter to emulsify them. Such a sauce. Chive flowers, tarragon, and lime thyme formed the garnish. And thus was leftover picnic food retooled into something shy of haute, but not too shabby on short notice. And to drink, a bottle of bucket-chilled 2009 Les Agaves rosé. I’m not going to bother with tasting notes; as with the others I’ll cover in upcoming posts, it’s classic Provençal herbs and minerals under reticent yet insistent fruit (leaning less toward strawberries than other offerings). At around $10, it’s a must-drink. Please ignore the fuchsia rosés from other parts of the world that taste like Fresca or watermelon Jolly Ranchers. This is the shit.

A Lighter Shade Of Fail

So prior to our dinner with Mike and Claudia, I ran out to procure some libations. Rosé was easy, and yes, I know I’m supposed to be writing a post about the ones we’ve been knocking back with extreme prejudice in this suddenly sweltering weather. (It’s a good thing Al Gore is fat, or I’d really be worried about this climate change hoax that he’s trying to scam us all with). But I also wanted sake, on account of the Korean barbecue.

Now our local place–that’s pretty much across the street–has a good selection of rosé. Sake? Not so much. It looks like the Gekkeikan distributor made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, so that’s pretty much all they have. Except that they also have a bunch of nigori sake, the opaque, unfiltered sweet variety about which I know next to nothing. It might be worth mentioning at this point that I know next to nothing about sake period, other than a few kinds that I particularly like and a few words to look for. But the low alcohol and frequent use of the English word “sweet” kept me away from it.

So I asked Mike to grab a bottle from a different store about 3 miles away, remembering a particularly nice bottle of junmai daiginjo I bought there last year for about $25. I told him to call me from the store with any questions, and he did. He said “this place got mugged by Gekkeikan” or something along those lines, and he brought two bottles identical to those I had resisted buying next door. So we chilled, opened, and tried them.

They weren’t altogether terrible. Unfiltered things can certainly have a character to them. And I love good sake. But for the life of me I can’t think what marketing genius decided that this is the product that is finally going to break into the American market. It’s sweet, yeah, and sort of cloying, but it’s hard for me to imagine average joes getting behind something that looks like milk and tastes a lot like expired horchata. Hell, my 5 year old loves sake (I let him have little sips of whatever we’re drinking) and he doesn’t even like this stuff. And I’m pissed that I can’t get something decent in the vicinity any more. These two bottles don’t have Gekkeikan on the label–the only ones, apparently–but I’m wondering what exactly the hell is up with this seeming takeover of local liquor stores by this obviously inferior (and not less expensive) product. Anybody know anything? I’m going to put on my Very Serious Journalist hat and look into this at some point, but meanwhile I’ll be straining the lees out of these bottles to make pickles, and using the liquid (both with and without the goat whey, since they’re both cloudy and white) in marinades, gravies, and the like.

Lambakopita

After I made all the stock on Sunday, I threw the beef bones away and rescued the lamb stew meat from the bottom of the big stock pot. After hours of simmering, it was shreddy and lovely, but still had some good lamby flavor. I put it in the fridge with an eye towards doing something later using the goat whey we had left from cheese making. And a day or two later, I noticed the fillo dough in the freezer. Along with some ground lamb.

After thawing, I browned the ground meat well with onion, herbs, chopped Kalamata olives, preserved lemon, and copious minced garlic. I folded in the shredded stew meat, and made a roux using a little of the marrow-roasting fat (from two posts ago) that I had reserved for such a nefarious purpose, and then whisked in a bunch of the goat milk whey to make whéchamel. This I used to liase, elide, and otherwise dipthong the hell out of all the meaty goodness. And then I rolled it all up in about a dozen sheets of fillo, brushed with 50/50 olive oil and butter. And baked it until done.

We ate it with chives, their flowers, and a squeeze of lemon. Also playing an important role was another stunningly fresh salad of everything good from the garden, picked mere minutes before. Salad picked à la minute is noticeably superior to longer-languished greenery. Last, a delightful Provencal rosé; I’m going to write a little post soon about our current favorites since it’s just about all we drink now that it’s hot. A perfect match for this kind of food. The pie was even better cold for lunch the next day; using the whéchamel really helped avoid the gritty cold tallow texture that can be so off-putting when cold red meats are involved.

Dirt Makes You Smarter

There will be more food shortly, but in the meantime this article made me smile.

It’s Only A Day Away

When at the butcher’s the other day, I also stocked up on some things for pantry and freezer. First off, a big bag of beef knuckles for stock (which have now, along with a bit of lamb stew meat, been transformed from nearly 3 gallons of stock into about 1 cup of utterly sublime demi-glace) and some marrow bones because the kid adores marrow bones. When I mentioned that, the guy who served me asked me how old he is, and did a hilarious double-take when I answered “five.” That’s my boy.

After roasting the knuckles, I put the marrow bones in a dish with a sprinkle of big salt on top and let them go until bubbly and brown. While that was happening, I picked, washed, and dressed an herby salad. Now Fergus Henderson’s epic marrow with parsley salad calls for pretty much all parsley, but I wanted to use what we had–a lot of which are the remnants of last fall’s plantings, and need to get et and pulled so I can get the tomatoes in. As a result, there was parsley, but also chervil, arugula, mustard, mizuna, claytonia, radish, baby lettuces, chives, and oregano, all tossed with a tart, very lemony vinaigrette to really cut the bountiful fat of the marrow.

And toast: there was a little bit of bacon fat left in the skillet from the samples I cooked up for the cheese-making group we hosted earlier in the day (post to follow) so I just plunked some bread down in it and let it get all grilly. I like to leave good fat from breakfast or lunch in the pan on the stove in case it might come in handy for dinner. My wife does not agree that this is an admirable practice. She does, however, eat the result.

And what a result. The key with this is to have all three components. The marrow is so rich, and the salad so cleansing and sharp, and the bread so crunchy and substrate-providing. Spread the marrow with a knife, top with salad, and go to town. It’s humble and luxurious all at once–like most food should be. Milo was so excited about it that he wanted it again in his lunch for school the next day. So I mashed the one remaining hunk of marrow with some olive oil (for fluidity when cold), scallion, caper, and more lemon juice, spread it on a piece of toast, and put it in his snack container. It came back empty.

Schooled

Friday night Mike and Claudia, our favorite celebrities, came over, but this time Mike cooked for us. It had been suggested by my wife that some Korean barbecue might be in order, since she had seen him make it on Bourdain’s TV show (he loaned us the DVD) and couldn’t shake the craving. (If you watch the Hudson Valley episode, you can see it too, as well as Mike’s then 10-year-old daughter completely pwning Bourdain while Ruhlman looks on, laughing). Good times.

So I picked up some short ribs from Fleisher’s and they brought the rest: shiso, sticky rice, denjang, gochujang, wine, sake, and a case of young coconuts for drinking. First up, after the coconuts, sticky rice rolled in shiso with the two pastes. Claudia made them, and they are a very addictive appetizer indeed. Here she is pretending to have a good time:

Next, Mike broke down the short ribs into thin slices, kindly saving both fat and bones for me to play with later. I had sharpened all our knives that afternoon, but he only gave me a C for the job I did. In my defense, Milo broke my sharpening stone last year, so it’s harder than it should be. Never underestimate the “my kid ate it” excuse. Also, I’m lazy.

He whisked together a marinade using the pastes, fish sauce, scallions, sesame seeds, and probably some other things I didn’t notice. Yuzu juice I think. So I pretty much failed this part. I blame Claudia, who was throwing paper airplanes and spitballs at me the whole time.

He also made some quick pickles: daikon kneaded with salt, asparagus with red radishes, and a wonderful salad of shredded scallions. We picked some fresh pea shoots, and a green salad for which he made a pretty insane dressing from preserved yuzu, ginger, walnut oil, and Indonesian long pepper. I got much geeky gratification from his delight that I have such things as preserved yuzu and long pepper on hand. My one A of the night. Claudia just kept making dick jokes.

Then we headed out to the screen porch where the shichirin was hot and ready. Armed with shiso leaves, we grilled the meat to rare-ish, then assembled all manner of variations inside the leaves. Grilled meat with pickles and salty, spicy pastes are such a winning combination, and when made at this level, with this quality ingredient, the result was something very special.

Then he did most of the dishes and took the whole stove apart, reprimanding me for not cleaning it that way every night. My wife thought that was better than dessert.

Stealth Stew

Beef stew was never something I liked much growing up. Nor was pot roast. We didn’t have them all that often, though my Grandmother–a superb cook–liked to make pot roast. Boiled beef just always tasted like boiled beef and not much else, except for soft hunks of carrot and potato.

Since returning to carnivory about 6 years ago, I’ve learned a great deal about how meat flavors can be intensified and how stews can be made into sumptuous feasts rather than drab dinners that old people eat. The key is to use other ingredients that have lots of umami and/or umami-boosting qualities. For those squeamish about adding too many foreign-sounding things to their stew, or afraid that picky family will recoil in horror at the same, the trick is to use them in small enough quantity that nobody can tell they’re there. The difference is pretty astonishing.

So next time something in this genre seems like a good idea for dinner, try this. Take the recipe you usually use for beef stew, pot roast, or similar, and just add the following as well, making no other changes:

1. Trim any silverskin or gristle from the meat before beginning. The trimmings can be used to make stock. Brown the meat all over after trimming if you don’t already.

2. Add three anchovies at the outset when you sweat the onion, etc. (the small kind that come in little jars of oil).

3. Mince a few dried porcini, shiitake, morel, or black trumpet mushrooms–about a tablespoon, or more to taste–and add it to the mix.

4. Use homemade chicken or beef stock, ideally made with a charred onion.

5. Tie one star anise pod, one clove, a quarter stick of cinnamon, and five black peppercorns in a bit of cheesecloth and put them in along with the stock. If your stock wasn’t made with charred onion, add half a charred onion to your bouquet.

6. Add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste as well, and about as much soy sauce.

7. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, make sure that it has a solid two hours or more to simmer low so the meat is really tender. Nothing is worse than dry, chewy stew meat.

8. Before serving, thicken the liquid with beurre manié (equal parts of softened butter mixed with flour). For extra wonderful, add minced fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano, etc.) and garlic to the paste. A couple of tablespoons should work well; all of these approximate measurements are for a stew made with roughly one pound of meat.

Now if you have the sort of family members who might be inclined to lunge for the phone and speed-dial the pizza place if they knew there were anchovies in their stew, do it on the down low. I promise you that nobody will notice anything other than how unbelievably good your stew has become all of a sudden. If their reactions are not sufficiently effusive, try again, using exactly the same techniques, but this time have everybody do a couple of bong hits before dinner.

Bacon Sushi

Today I took a trip to Catskill Native Nursery to scope it out and get some information to help me fill in the picture for what I want to plant this year in the way of fruit and nuts in the field. It’s a beautiful drive, and the day could not have been nicer. I came home with lingonberry plants, and some flowers for the bed next to the driveway that needs some work. I spent the afternoon doing that work, and I’ll be posting pictures next week.

Tonight, in keeping with the recent theme of lighter, warm-weather food, a quick improvised 3-course feast that turned out pretty well. I was tired, but so were the others, and we were all hungry. To get something on the table asap, I decided to do it in stages. First up, super-fast wilted spinach with garlic and a splash of white wine. I threw out the seed packet for this spinach, which is a pity because it’s both beautiful and tasty. Since it bolted, this was the last of it.

Next, cubes of sweet potato steamed and then dressed with our old standard tahini-miso sauce. Those two things mixed with lemon juice and not much else (sometimes a little water) make for a pretty great anointment of most steamed vegetables.

Last up, a happy confluence of freezer and pantry in the form of Berkshire pork belly sushi. There was some black rice in a jar, and I hadn’t made it in ages, so I pulled it out. And some thinly sliced belly, after a very prim kiss with a hot pan, draped ever so nicely over the sticky purple grain. I made a sort of insta-barbecue sauce by mixing hoisin, HP Sauce, and ketchup with soy sauce and rice vinegar, and dabbed a little on each piece, topping them with a claytonia leaf. It made kind of a mess in the kitchen; I spent more time cleaning up than I did cooking. But it was worth it.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

OK, here’s that sushi. Our regular fish guy is on hiatus, so we’ve been missing him and the superb product he purveys. Feeling the sun-inspired urge for something clean and raw, I went to a nearby store that sometimes has good fish. Good timing; they had both wild Alaskan salmon and sushi-grade ahi. Score.

Since we had leftover brown rice already in the fridge, this was beyond easy. I ran to the garden and massacred some asparagus, pulling up radishes, spinach, scallions, and herbs as well. I cut up a nice fat piece of burdock and set it simmering with water and soy sauce while I did the rest: tuna and salmon maki, each with scallion, sashimi of both fish, and a nice asparagus salad. I like to skin salmon by putting it skin-side down in a hot pan for a few seconds, then peeling the skin off. I chopped the skin into pieces, added it back to the pan, and followed it with the asparagus cut into pieces. Once of a doneness, I pulled it all out and put it in a bowl with a bunch of claytonia (miner’s lettuce) which I planted years ago and has now become a most welcome weed, seeding itself throughout the garden. It’s tender, mild, and the leaves have an elegant spade shape. I dressed the salad with an egg yolk beaten with rice vinegar and miso tamari.

Not much else to report, really. It was simple and good. On an unrelated note, yesterday would have been my Mom’s 65th birthday, so you can read 2008′s post about the dessert I made. Our lilacs are already done this year, due to the very early spring that no doubt harbinges impending global disaster. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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