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It’s not elitism, we really do eat better stuff.

 

Squash for Adults

When I was a child, any kind of winter squash was my enemy. My mother was fond of acorn squash, roasted in the oven until soft, and pureed with brown sugar and margarine (ugh). To me the uniform texture, midway between watery and gummy, held no appeal. And I associated the sweetness of squash with the gagging texture, which may be partly why I've always been a fan of savory foods over sweet ones. My mind was set until a Thanksgiving at my grandmother's house, where she served a squash dish that included onions and a breadcrumb topping. It made a difference - both the savoriness and the sweetness from only the natural sugars in the fruit. Moreover, there was a textural contrast that I loved. Now, I like almost all winter squash. But when I prepare it, I like to marry differences in texture, PLUS invite the right balance between sweet and savory. Today I dreamed up a dish I call "Squash Three-way", a naughty name you would never find on an insipid jar of over-processed baby food. Essentially it's a two layer dish with a favorite simple topping - roasted pepitas, which are the hulled seeds of certain varieties of pumpkins or squash. The first layer is a basic savory latke, replacing the potato with shredded winter squash. The second is a sweetened mash of winter squash, upon which rests the slightly crunchy pepitas. Squash Three-way Recipe for 3 servings (scale up as necessary, swingers!) For the mash: 1 small to medium French variety winter squash (Sucrine Du Berry, Rouge D'Etampes, or Baby Golden Hubbard) 1/2 cup chicken stock (optional) 4-5 Tbsp butter Pumpkin pie spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, allspice blend) 2-3 Tbsp brown sugar For the latkes: 1 medium (7-inch) Delicata squash 1 large shallot 1 extra large chicken egg, beaten 1 tsp baking powder 3-4 Tbsp All Purpose flour Salt & Pepper to taste Ground dried sage to taste Ground dried oregano to taste 2 Tbsp corn or canola oil for frying For the topping: Handfuls of roasted, salted pepitas (available in Mexican or health food stores, and many Trader Joe's) Prepare mash: Preheat oven to 350°. Halve French squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Roast cut side down in a pan with 1/2 cup stock or water for an hour or until soft (while roasting, prepare latkes as below). Let cool. Scoop pulp into bowl, discard skins. Add butter and spice. Mash with a fork to a smooth consistency. Keep warm. Prepare latkes: Halve Delicata squash lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Peel skin from flesh. Grate raw flesh with a box grater (better yet, one of these: http://www.germandeli.com/bohachgr.html). Thinly slice shallot and mix with grated squash. Add baking powder, flour, salt, pepper, herbs, and mix well. Add beaten egg and stir thoroughly. Heat oil over medium heat until hot. Drop mixture in 1/3-1/2 cupfuls into hot oil, pressing down slightly. Fry 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown. Drain and blot, keep warm. Assemble by topping latke with mash, and sprinkle pepitas on top. Enjoy, but be careful any photos don't find their way onto the Internet!

Hope mom doesn't see this!

Sunday Morning Breakfast: Pretzel Bread French Toast

This one is worth getting out of bed for: chewy, salty pretzel bread meets the cream & cinnamony egg wash of french toast with a quick dip of sweet maple syrup an that awesome bit of salt for a killer quick and impressive breakfast to ward off any hangover. The software:
  • 2 small pretzel bread baguettes
  • 1 chicken egg
  • 1 duck egg (or a second chicken egg)
  • 2 tbls buttermilk (plain milk works fine here, too.)
  • 1 tbls sugar
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • pinch of cardamom
  • pinch of sea salt
  • butter
  • 3 tbls real maple syrup
  • pretzel salt (optional)
The method: The pretzel bread I buy from Zingerman's is about 7" long, 2-2.5 inches wide on average. The recipe scales up or down easily - add 1 pretzel bread per additional mouth and increment the rest of the ingredients accordingly.  As for the egg portion - I use duck eggs whenever and where-ever possible. They taste better and they are just fantastic in anything even slightly resembling pastry. That said, if you can't find duck eggs, chicken eggs work fine. Organic and free range farm fresh being the preferred choice in any situation. First order of business here is to grab that pretzel bread you picked up a couple days ago and forgot to eat and slice it into 1/4 inch thick medallions and set them aside. Put your griddle or fry pan to the fire. Your heat target is the high side of medium, enough to get a sizzle from an egg without scorching your cooking fat. In an appropriately sized mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine the eggs, buttermilk, flour, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and salt. Whisk it for at least a minute while your pan warms up to get everything distributed and get some air in there, too. When the pan is ready, lube it up with some butter, dredge your pretzel medallions, shaking off excess egg and place in the pan.  If you have any soft pretzel salt, sprinkle 2 or 4 grains onto each while the sticky uncooked side is still up. Like any other french toast variety, we're going for a just browning stage before turning, same on the other side and remove to a plate. This will go pretty fast, so don't get distracted or the smoke detector will wake everyone up. If you have a large quantity, put the oven on warm when you begin and keep the finished piles of pretzel french toasts in there until service time. Use real maple syrup if you can get it - it is SUCH A better flavor than the bizarre space aged chemical "maple syrup flavor" found in things like Mrs Butterworth. Pour syrup into a small bowl for dipping and warm it up in the microwave for 15 seconds.  Arrange everything and serve immediately. Hooray, you are now the champion of breakfast. -///
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.

Ponzu-Shoyu

A couple of the methods I've employed for storing the finished product, used soy sauce bottle and empty Sake bottle.

The most popular condiment in Japan, bar none, is Ponzu-Shoyu. A citrusy, soy based dipping sauce, it can be found commercially made by dozens of companies. It is, however, extremely easy to make yourself and the results are not only far superior to anything bought from a store shelf but also keeps almost indefinitely in the refrigerator. Simple ingredients, simple preparation, amazing flavor and versatility. In Japan it's eaten with everything from Tempura, to Shabu-Shabu, to noodles, to sushi and sashimi. Some of the ingredients I'll be listing you can only find at a Japanese grocer, but none of them are expensive and if you make it in bulk you'll not need to make the trip to one more than once a year. It's used fairly sparingly, being that it's fairly strong flavored, so a little will last you long while (unless you're like me and drink it straight outa the bottle...). The combination of flavors makes it my personal favorite condiment ever, but, if you haven't noticed by now, I'm fairly biased toward the Japanese palette of flavors. That aside, I can't recommend this enough! Make some, dammit! The ingredients (for a 2 cup batch): 1 cup + 2 Tablespoons Usukuchi Soy Sauce (regular soy sauce will work, but back off to an even cup) ¾ cup + 2 Tablespoons Unseasoned Rice Vinegar 2-3 Tablespoons mild Honey (optional) ½ cup Lemon juice, Lime juice, or combination of (lately I've been using straight Lime, but your call) If on the extremely off chance you find fresh Sudachi, or Green or Yellow Yuzu at the Japanese market, use that! One 5g packet Shaved Bonito flakes 3 inch x 3 inch square of Konbu (dried giant kelp) The procedure: Now here's where I get to talk about some of the basic concepts that run through all of Japanese cooking. There are a couple things to remember here about the handling of these ingredients, and how these ideas should be remembered whenever you use them for any reason. Boiling = Bad. You never want to boil anything containing Soy sauce or Bonito... Period. Miso also falls into the “never boil” category, but there's no Miso in this recipe so I'll leave that discussion for another post. If you boil Soy sauce it tends to give it an astringent after-taste, and if you boil Bonito you loose a lot of the depth it can bring to the table. You also never want to boil any citrus juice if you want it to be a star player in the final product. Doing so takes away a lot of the freshness of flavor, and just dulls the punch fresh citrus juice provides, which is the entire reason for using it. That said, you'll understand why I structured this recipe the way I did.

Damp cloth, not dripping wet, and don't worry about getting all of it.

Remove the Konbu from the package and wipe with a damp cloth to remove most of the powdery white coating. Don't be anal about this, you don't need to get rid of all traces. Next, place the vinegar in a non-reactive pot (meaning NOT aluminum, stainless steel or glass preferably) with the Konbu and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once simmering, dissolve the honey into the vinegar (if using) and add the Bonito flakes and turn the heat down a bit. Allow to steep, much like making tea, at just under a boil for 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Adding the Bonito. I was making a much larger batch in this build than the recipe I'm providing, no difference in concept though. Don't boil it!

Pour the vinegar through a fine mesh strainer into a mixing bowl to remove the Konbu and Bonito and discard them. Add the Soy sauce and citrus juice. TASTE! If the vinegar is too strong, add a splash more soy. Want the citrus to be more prominent? Add some more! Once you are happy with the results pour the Ponzu into an empty bottle for storage. I used the empty Usukuchi bottle, and have also been known to use empty Sake bottles to store smaller batches. So throw out that bottle of Kikkoman Ponzu, and make some yourself! Take notes on the process to remember how you tweaked it to suit your own tastes for the next time you decide to make this (and you will). The balance of soy, vinegar, and citrus with the undertones of Dashi are what make this my favorite condiment, and what makes me want to always have some on hand. Combined with it's sheer versatility, it's a must have for any aficionado of Japanese cuisine. Live well, eat better, and as Francis says, “good luck in the kitchen!” Jack

Cauliflower Comfort

This week's Chef's Night theme was to elevate a "comfort food" to a Rogue Estate level. Comfort food - warm, familiar, often simple, readily available and easily stretchable on tight budgets. It's a huge list of qualifiers to pick a single dish from, but after some inspiration from Michael Ruhlman, I settled on Roasted Cauliflower as my offering for this particular table. Roasted Cauliflower at it's most basic: a head of cauliflower is broken down into florets, oiled, seasoned and baked until golden, then served immediately. A preparation so simple that anyone can do it and the flavor and aroma so earthily wonderful that even the stubbornest anti-vegetarian will make room on the plate for it. How to improve something so perfectly wonderful as is? What could possibly be done that justifies the "it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule? I began my quest for gluttony by paging through various older cookbooks from home cooks and semi famous chefs alike and eventually did a bit of google searching on the subject as well. The evidence below is an amalgamation of influences collected from different eras, regions and even a few related only by virtue of containing cauliflower dishes which I tested the night before and prepared successfully and to much enjoyment on Chef's Night itself. The software:
  • 1 head of cauliflower, whole
  • 2 tbl lard (grapeseed oil works here if you're worried.)
  • 8-12 garden sage leaves
  • 2 springs silver thyme
  • 2 cloves of garlic, grated
  • 1 shallot, grated
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • 1/2 cup butter (more for a larger head of cauliflower)
  • nutmeg
  • 1 oz parmesan cheese
  • 1 oz asiago cheese
  • 1 oz gruyere cheese
  • 1 oz finely chopped fresh parsely
  • 2 oz freshly squeeze lemon juice
  • scant dash of tobasco sauce
Method: Rinse the cauliflower, remove leaves and cut the stem back flush with the bottom of the head, leaving enough to hold everything together. If possible, brine a mild salt water solution for an hour or so prior to the next stage. The Pre-cook: this is an interesting step I discovered during my initial research courtesy of Harold McGee: a low heat pre-cook helps some veg reinforces cell walls, which in turn keeps things in better shape during high temp cooking. Cauliflower happens to be one of those vegetables aided by this process, called Persistent Firmness. Since the intent is to keep the head whole for a stunning presentation, do this if you have the time. Put the cauliflower in a pot and fill til just covered with water. Heat until the internal temp of the cauliflower is 130-140F for 20 minutes, remove and drain. While the precook is going, preheat the oven to 425F and put your fry pan on the fire to melt the lard or heat the oil and saute' half of the total sage leaves, thyme and all of the garlic and shallot. Once the herbs are spent, remove and discard, reserving the hot flavored lube. With the cauliflower drained and dried, lube the bottom of  your baking pan and set the cauliflower in it, then spoon or brush the entire head with the remaining lube. use it all. season with salt and pepper as desired and shove the whole thing into the oven uncovered for 45 minutes, give or take. While the head is roasting, grate the cheeses and chop the parsley, then combine in a zip lock or a bowl along with black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg and set aside for finishing. Check your Cauliflower around 30 minutes - it should be starting to brown by now. Fire up the fry pan again, this time with the butter, remaining herbs, a pinch of nutmeg, the lemon juice and the tobasco. Sautee the herbs as before, discarding when they're spent. Continue to heat until the butter starts to brown, than remove to a bowl or cup for basting. Pull the cauliflower from the oven and drench with the butter. Cover every surface of the thing that you can and get it back into the oven to continue roasting. Pull and re-baste after 10 minutes and then sprinkle an ounce of the cheese mixture over the head, then send it back into the hot box for the finish. When it's reach your preferred level of golden brown, pull, slice it thick and transfer to your serving dish, fan the slabs out just a bit and sprinkle more of the cheese mixture over it and serve immediately. It's considerably more effort than the traditional roasted veg, but that's the kind of indulgent bastards we are around here and everyone present for this week's Chef's Night can tell you - it is well worth the investment. Cauliflower never had it as good as this. Cook this up for you next meal and put it in your heads! -///
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.

Cold Somen Noodle Salad with Soy Vinaigrette

The final product.

My most recent at-bat hosting our weekly food related night of debauchery I decided, as was no surprise to anyone, to take us to Japan once again. The original four course plan quickly turned into seven as I came up with further ideas, but it was the first course that seemed to be the show stealer. It was an extremely simple bowl of cold noodles tossed in a light dressing. It was the texture and balance of the dish that made everyone so enthusiastic about it. So much so that I was prodded to post the recipe, and soon! It's made with Japanese Somen noodles and a simple “vinaigrette” (in quotes because there's no actual vinegar involved). For those of you unfamiliar with Somen, it is essentially the Japanese equivalent of the Italian Angel Hair pasta, only much thinner and much more delicate. A wheat noodle, it's texture, cold or hot, is like silk. Much more befitting of the common moniker bestowed upon the Italian variation, which is, by the way, known to the natives as Capelli D'Angelo. As much as I love the Italian pastas, this is, by far, my favorite noodle. Bar none. It takes seconds to cook, it is well suited to hot or cold preparations, and, as I mentioned, the texture is like nothing else. It is widely available these days, as well. No need to seek out an Asian market. I've seen it at chains like Kroger and Meijer. If you have a hard time finding it Soba will do in a pinch, but it's texture is much rougher, so it's worth the search to find Somen. Another key ingredient was the Usukuchi soy sauce in the dressing. A generic reduced sodium soy sauce is a good substitute, but there is something magical about a Japanese Usukuchi. The company Yamasa was my source for this product, and it's a fairly common brand, so finding it shouldn't be all that difficult. This is a delicate operation, so you really need to taste your way through it. Every step, the addition of every ingredient, you need to taste the progress. So here ya go, cold Somen noodle salad with soy vinaigrette:

The players of an alternate build I did steeping konbu and bonito into the soy sauce before building the vinaigrette. Can be omitted.

3 bundles dry Somen noodles 1 bunch thinly sliced Scallion Half cup of Usukuchi Soy Sauce 3 Tblsp. Lime juice 3 small cloves Garlic 5-6 one inch round thin slices peeled fresh Ginger 2 cups dark Sesame Oil 1 Tblsp. Dijon Mustard 1-2 Tblsp. Chili/Garlic paste Kosher salt Black and white Sesame seeds for garnish

They always come with this little band of paper holding them together.

Begin by filling a large pot with water. Set on the stove over high heat and add enough kosher salt to make the water taste just a little less salty than sea-water (TASTE-TASTE-TASTE!). When at a boil, unbind the Somen and let it fall from your hand like a cascade into the pot, turning your hand as they fall (this helps prevent the noodles sticking together). Stir the pot every 10-20 seconds. Take a noodle out every 30 seconds after the first 2 minutes and bite into it. If it's cooked drain immediately and run under cold water, if not, continue until you've reached that point. Once cooked and cooled, place in a mixing bowl, toss with a splash of sesame oil (a ounce or so, about 2 tablespoons to prevent clumping), and set aside.

Slowly drizzling in the sesame oil.

In a blender, place the garlic, ginger Usukuchi soy sauce, and lime juice. Turn on high or liquify, whatever the settings say on your blender. The goal is to reduce the garlic and ginger down to a smooth texture. It will probably only take 1 minute. At this point, blender still running, add the Dijon and slowly drizzle in 1 cup of the sesame oil. Now taste. The goal here is to be able to taste every ingredient at the same time. Is the Lime being drowned out? Add a splash more. Is the soy still too strong? Add more Sesame oil. You probably won't need the full 2 cups of oil, if you managed to get your hands on the Usukuchi soy I'm guessing you'll need just under that amount of oil to balance the party out. Balance is the key to this dish. Bear in mind that the flavors will be very strong, but it's going on a starch, and noodles can take a punch. Just be sure the flavors are balanced. If you can't taste the mustard very strongly though, that's ok. It's really only there for backbone and to keep the dressing emulsified. Once you've tasted your way through the dressing, and all components are in harmony, all that's left is assembly.

Tossing them well, and gently!

Add your dressing to the noodles, toss in the scallions, and mix well. The measurements I gave should be just about perfect, but don't add all the dressing at once. Reserve a little to make sure you don't over-dress and end up with noodles floating in sauce. Again, I stress, add a little at a time and taste your way through it. Once you're satisfied with the dressing/noodle balance, add he chili/garlic paste. This is purely a point of discretion. Add as much as you like to suit your personally preferred heat index. I only used about 1 tablespoon, just enough to taste it, and not enough to melt anybodies face. Garnish with a small sprinkling of the mixed sesame seeds. This dish exemplifies the Japanese philosophy of simplicity. The inspiration for it was found one night at work. I was, early in the night, experimenting with a new menu item concept. The first half of the night was slow, so I started by cooking the noodles. After they were cooked and tossed in a little sesame oil we started to get busy, so I didn't have time to finish the project. At the end of the night, cleaned up, and ready to leave, my co-worker and I had not had time to eat yet that day. He asked what I did with the Somen, and dressed it with some chili oil to slurp them down quickly before we left. That was the “ah-ha!” moment for me. I took a small bowl full and dressed the noodles with scallion, chili oil, chili/garlic paste and a splash of soy sauce. After slurping that down I thought, “I can make that better... fuck... I can make that awesome!”. I hope you, the reader, have access to a local Asian or Japanese market to faithfully recreate this astoundingly simple and equally astoundingly good dish. It would suit any picnic, boxed lunch, or first course of any intricate Japanese themed meal. If you don't have such access, the substitutions listed will do well enough. My next post will be another recipe I loved from that evening of camaraderie with the boys here at the Estate (none of the girls could make it that night, sux to be them!) a home made Ponzu-Shoyu. I have decided that it is my favorite condiment and favorite flavor in the world.... So I must share the recipe... Throw out that bottle of store-bought crap, this will put it to shame... Until then, live well and eat better! Jack...