Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Even More Flavor Infusion

In my last post I spoke about infusing flavors into beef by using stock to carry the flavors of other ingredients deep into the meat, thereby making it more tasty. I had also mentioned that stock works as a flavor carrier because of the collagen, and that it is better for pot roast than win because alcohol evaporates so quickly in heat.

But that does not mean that alcohol cannot be used in this way -- we simply have to make sure not to heat it up. But rather than using the alcohol to deliver the flavor to another ingredient, we will use it as the final destination. So if you are below drinking age, please avert your eyes....or at least promise not to do any of this until you are legal.

Start with a bottle of good (or at least decent) vodka. Vodka by itself has no flavor (unless "burn" counts as a flavor), but by soaking tasty things in it we can make a flavored vodka. And by adding sugar we are basically making a liqueur.

This liqueur is known as quarante-quatre, which is French for 44. Take an orange and make 44 holes in it with a paring knife. Into each slit insert a coffee bean. Place the orange into a mason jar, and add 44 sugar cubes. (Are you starting to get an idea about where the name comes from?)

Pour the vodka into the mason jar and put the top on. Shake, Now comes the fun part: waiting! How long? You guessed it: 44 days. Every day make sure to shake the jar so the flavors get mixed and the sugar gets dissolved. You don't need to completely agitate it; you don't want to damage the orange, since it will expose too much pith, and that can make it bitter.

After the 44 days are done, filter the vodka into a bottle. You'll need one a little larger than the original, since the orange will have given up some juice. (Be sure to squeeze out the orange too; unless you decide to eat the orange for a little afternoon buzz. Or morning buzz --whatever works!)

For more flavored vodka ideas, visit this forum thread I found on it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Infusion of Flavor

I love using liquids to cook things, for two reasons: first, it tenderizes tough foods, most notably lower-grade cuts of meat. Second, if you use the right liquid it can add a ton of flavor to what you are cooking.

One of my favorite such dishes is a good pot roast. A pot roast is usually beef, but sometimes pork, and is generally from a tougher part of the animal. This means it came from a group of muscles that are used a lot in walking or grazing, which means the upper joints and the neck area. By contrast, the middle of the back, the ribs and the inside section of the ribs known as the "tenderloin", hardly get used at all, so do not get developed to the point of toughness that the shoulder and hip area do.

However, these developed areas, although tougher, can be a lot more flavorful. We just need a way to tenderize the meat, and hot liquid is the perfect method.

So what constitutes the perfect liquid to use? First, it must be tasty itself, otherwise there is no point in using it. Second, it must be capable of dissolving flavor molecules since that is how the flavor is spread throughout the meat. Third, it must match the taste of the meat, otherwise the flavors will clash and that is just no fun at all.

For beef, there are two perfect liquids: beef stock and red wine. Beef stock works, because it is tasty, and it naturally will match the beef flavor itself, but the collagen in the beef stock will also dissolve flavor molecules. Red wine is also tasty (as long as you like wine, that is), and it pairs well with beef, and the alcohol is also a good flavor carrier. However, alcohol evaporates quickly in the heat, so this benefit is limited. Usually I go for beef stock, and add a little red wine for flavor.

So what else can you add to the pot roast? Anything that adds a good aromatic flavor is welcome: onions, carrots, bay leaves, celery, pepper corns, garlic cloves, parsnips, turnips, coriander seeds, chili flakes have all made their way into my pot roasts. With the hot liquid, the roast just soaks up those flavors while the meat is tenderizing.

Just make sure to keep the meat at a simmer, and not a boil, as it is actually possible to over cook even a tough cut if the temperature is too high. But if you keep it low, then the meat just gets better and better. If your roast has a bone, all the better: it will add flavor (that's where beef stock comes from!) and once the meat starts falling off the bone you will know it is ready!

And if you need something to use up the extra beef later on, try my Beef Barley Soup Recipe -- it's an easy, hearty meal that never fails to please!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Carmelized Onions, and Meat Enhancer

In my previous post I spoke about carmelization as it applies to condensed milk. In this post I want to talk about a different method of carmelization, and a really cool way to apply it.

Onions are my favorite vegetable, and I like them in every way possible: fried, raw, boiled, sweated, sauteed, and most especially carmelized. Carmelizing requires a lot of patience, because you are using the usual process of sauteing but at a lower temperature for a longer time.

Carmelization is actually a chemical process that simple sugar (sucrose) undergoes at a fairly narrow range of temperatures. Below this temperature, nothing happens to the sugar. Above, and it burns. So the goal is to keep the food that contains the sugar at this temperature range for long enough for the carmelization to happen.

When sugar carmelizes, it splits into two molecules: fructose and glucose. This adds no extra calories: in fact, this happens inside the body once sucrose is ingested anyway. The main benefit to splitting the molecules outside the body is that fructose is twice as sweet as glucose, so you are increasing the sweet taste without increasing the total sugar intake.

However, this is only part of carmelization, as there are a number of other molecular changes that take place that I won't go into. Suffice it to say that the flavor simply becomes more complex. So you get both a sweeter and richer taste.

With onions, you want to start in a shallow pan with thinly sliced onions and a bit of water and salt in addition to the butter or oil. The water will begin to steam, and this will quickly warm the onions and encourage them to release their moisture. This is important, because we cannot reach carmelization temperature until the water inside the onions is mostly gone. This is because evaporation cools them, keeping them below the 350 degree mark that we want.

When the onions have reduced, you can sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. For some reason this encourages the carmelization process, but I am not sure why. Just keep an eye on the onions to make sure they do not burn, and reduce the temperature as the onions become darker. The color you want to get to is a dark golden color, or even darker if you have the patience.

Carmelized onions are good in so many dishes: French Onion soup, mashed potatoes, or as toppings for hot dogs or hamburgers. But a nice little trick I learned from watching Heston Blumenthal is to include some Star Anise with the onions when you carmelize them. The way he explained it is that there is an additional chemical reaction that happens that creates flavor compounds that enhance the flavor of whatever meat you are cooking with. He uses this in his Bolognese sauce, but it will work equally well with stews, and a topping for roasts or whatever you can imagine.

Basically, it works like MSG, but without the side effects!

Dulce de Leche

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am a big fan of dairy products. One of the easiest treats to make that I know about is called Dulce de Leche, or "Sweet of Milk" in Spanish, although is normally translated as "Milk Candy".

There are ways to make this from scratch, but the easiest is to take a can or two of condensed milk, remove the label, and sit it unopened in a sauce pan just barely covered in slowly simmering water. Leave it there for about two hours or so, replacing any water that evaporates. The longer you leave the cans, the more the milk inside will carmelize, creating a sweet, thick sauce similar to butterscotch.

This is one of my favorite toppings for ice cream or cakes, and it takes just one simple ingredient! Just remember to let the cans coll down before opening!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Make Your Own Cottage Cheese

I think that one of the most fantastic foods in the world is milk, and you will see quite a lot about it in this blog. As a "whole" food, its purpose is to nourish an animal from infancy until it is able to eat more readily available food.

Since it is meant to be the only food in an animal's life for a significant period of time, by necessity it contains all the nutrients that it will need, and this is what makes it such a healthy food.

But its wholeness also leads to complexity, and that complexity leads to some very interesting things that we can do with milk. One such thing is to separate the protein component of the milk from the liquid. The proteins become solid, and are known as "curds", and the remaining liquid is the "whey". The curds can then become further processed into a cheese in various methods.

The curds are usually produced by acidifying the milk, usually with a bacteria culture. This bacteria eats the sugars in the milk, and produces lactic acid. This acid starts the curdling process, which is usually finished by applying an enzyme called "rennet".

However, for our purposes, simple white vinegar will do the trick. What we need is 3/4 cup of vinegar for each gallon of skim milk (and yes, this needs to be skim milk, because we do not want the fat).

Pour the milk into a sauce pan and gently raise the heat to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This is well below boiling temperature, so be careful not to let the milk start bubbling.

Remove the pan from the heat, and slowly pour the vinegar into the milk. Make sure to keep stirring for about two minutes, after which you can let the milk sit covered for about 30 minutes. If you did it correctly, you should already have seen the curds begin to separate from the liquid. After 30 minutes the process should be complete.

Now all you have to do is rinse and drain the newly-made cottage cheese in a colander or strainer lined with a tea towel. Season with salt and pepper, and enjoy!


Hi, folks!

I am an avid cook, and I enjoy learning new things about cooking and food in general. The point of this blog will not be so much about recipes, but about techniques. I will be starting a recipe blog soon, and will guide people back and forth between the two blogs as seems appropriate for the subject at hand.

I'll enjoy hearing from visitors about their thoughts on my posts, as well as hearing about their ideas about food preparation. I don't think that anyone knows so much about food that they will know everything, so this blog will be as much about my learning as my sharing my knowledge.

I hope you enjoy it!