Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crowded, hot kitchen here I come!

Here it is. I'm in. The dreaded class where we create food for paying customers, under the noses of at least three chefs who won't hesitate a nanosecond to come down on any errors like a ton of polenta.

I feel like Dorothy, going up the tornado in the house, looking at all kinds of things and people flying by as I look out the window. In this case, knives, potatoes, duck breasts, rondos, slabs of meat, flames, heat, dishes, looming faces of supervisors, haggled fellow students. Drama, emotion, all that Kitchen Confidential stuff. Well, this time there's no Auntie Em to help you, my pretty!

My first task is to find three chefs, each with twelve recipes that I'd really love to prepare. I suppose this means they're favorite foods. Do I even have 36 favorite recipes from one chef?

When I buy cookbooks, I look for variety. What cuisines don't I have covered? Which recipes look good? Is there a good recipe for civet de lapin? So, I tend to jump chefs.

I'm just not a hero worshipper. They're just people. I don't even want to meet a famous chef; they appear authoritarian, arrogant, obnoxious, unpleasant. I imagine myself treated to some combination of ignored, screamed at, dissed, insulted, cussed at. There might be a laughing Buddha style zen master chef, a mentor worthy of meeting out there, but I've never heard of him. Zen master chefs don't get multimillion dollar television contracts or run three star restaurants, it seems. Except maybe that guy in the subway in Japan, serving sushi.

A fellow student who survived the class added some sage advice: don't pick recipes that might be challenging. Pick things that anyone in the class can put together, yet are somehow excellent nonetheless. So much for my crazy chef with grilled and planked meats. Not practical. Although the techniques are relatively straightforward, they do involve hot coals, soaked planks of wood, basting and lots of smoke in the face.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Live long and...?

There's a doctor in France - ‪Laurent Alexandre - who says people are going to live 1,000 years, starting in a few decades. He says this is wonderful. Is it?

Physically, everyone treated for aging should be better. I'm assuming that if people live 1,000 years, they'll somehow be rejuvenated. Otherwise, what would be the point, if they were confined to a wheelchair, hooked to various artificial life supporting machines, unable to run, swim or play.

Just because someone is healthy and able to play tennis again doesn't mean he or she will be fit for the new world - unless they're readjusted somehow.

Today's elderly, at least the people we've talked to, live in a world completely different than what they knew. Nothing makes much sense. Everyone in their families have moved on, leaving them to cope with life on their own. How do you understand all the facets of today's immersive technology where it seems everyone is constantly linked to their friends, where everyone has a movie studio in their pocket, where nothing ever stands still. Does anyone stop to smell the roses? 

The future is scary, and getting scarier. That golden age with flying cars and floating cities looks less and less likely. The economy is broken, with no solution in sight. The weather is crazy, cities go underwater during storms, terrorists lurk everywhere, rogue states will have nuclear missiles and there's certainly more bad stuff that nobody's even thought of yet.

Where will their oxygen to breathe come from when we've cut down all the forests and polluted all the seas? Will they extract it from asteroids and drop it in the atmosphere?

What about the food?

Who is going to feed all those people? If the birth rate is above zero and everyone lives 1,000 years, this planet is going to get very crowded. Even if they're shipped to the Moon and Mars, they'll still need sustenance.

What will they eat? Synthesized food made using some form of energy and raw materials mined from the Earth? Not a pleasant prospect for chefs, imagining a recipe that would read, "take 1400 grams of protein red No. 437, sauté with 30g of Onionizer, 15 g of Garlifier in Type A65 oil..."

Will everyone live underground, leaving the surface of the planet for crops and carbon dioxide absorbing forests?

Imagine how many CAFOs it would take to feed 30 billion people... not pleasant. Maybe we'll be vegetarians by necessity.

Earth, not as we know it

Imagine living in this world. Everyone will probably have some kind of implant that makes them into walking smart phones. Our national parks will be little bits of green surrounded by human hives. Parts of the planet will probably be radioactive from dirty bombs and nukes. The weather will be chaotic, everything and everyone will be in constant rapid motion. People will be able to choose from thousands of different TV stations, but nothing on any of them will be worth watching. Commercials and corporate control of everyone's lives will make stepping outside of one's dwelling like a star surrounded by paparazzi. Privacy will be but a vague concept from the past; everything will be known, tracked, indexed and instantly knowable to all.

I suppose that if this rejuvenation technology works, the formerly elderly will gather together in retro-communities. They'll create something that looks familiar to them where they can live comfortably and adjust their interaction with the outside world to suit their needs. Some may cyborg themselves to run off and join the rest of the species. Many might choose to euthanize themselves, considering that they've seen enough change and don't see any point to seeing more.

What do you say to your great, great, great, great, great, great... grandchildren?

A thousand years of this? Really? What was that guy smoking?

Monday, January 14, 2013

All I wanted for Christmas was a... bread scorer!

Sometimes the best toys are simple, cheap and don't take up too much space. It's even better when they're useful, too. I'd been slicing my loaves with knives, but the blades were never thin enough, no matter how sharp they were. The result was slightly pulled dough and less than perfect cuts.

Enter the lame. That's French for "blade", not English for "crappy". Basically a double-edged razor blade with a trendy green handle and matching cover so you don't remove fingers while searching for the thing in a drawer. Better yet, the blade is curved so it conforms to the round shape of the loaf. A couple of quick motions and the loaf is scored, ready to undergo interesting transformations in the oven. Look at that ear!

Correct proofing time is still critical, though. If the loaf is over-proofed, it will deflate like an unpowered pneumatic snowman when cut, then (hopefully) regain some of its bounce in the oven. Some bread types, like ciabatta, are inherently full of bubbles and air pockets, so the lame doesn't give clean, dramatic, eye-catching ears and gashes as it does with other formulas.

These loaves are mixed grain sourdough, slowly proofed in a freezing cold house (turning down the thermostat saves energy and as a bonus you get better tasting bread). I used a kneading process (as opposed to stretching and folding) because I wanted a solid country type loaf, the kind people living in cold houses eat (chewing hearty bread is as good a way to warm up as any). There was a bit of an "oops" when I dumped in organic blue corn meal instead of sprouted whole wheat (the bags are almost identical), but it turned out to be a happy accident, giving the loaf a sweeter finish than would wheat alone.

Colorful, festive, spicy

Nothing beats food that's really colorful, yet comes entirely from plant and animal sources that never went near colorful artificial dyes with unpronounceable names. This is one such dish, a little-known (to gringos) wonder from Mexico called chiles en nogada. Except it isn't really, since I omit the walnuts. Maybe I should just call them chiles rellenos arco iris

The recipe has three parts that all come together holistically in a tricolor splash of colors looking as though they just came from a Mexican flag party. 

The chilis

I use poblanos (aka ancho or pasilla), but I suppose you could use any other type large enough to stuff. Preparation is simple: just blast the skin with a torch or blister it over a gas flame. For best flavor, do this outdoors right over hot mesquite coals - although I'm happy sacrificing convenience for flavor and remaining in my kitchen. Place the scorched peppers in a plastic bag or between two bowls to steam a bit, then scrape off the burnt skin with a knife. I don't wash the peppers, since this removes flavor. I don't mind a few charred bits of chili skin since they tend to add rusticity.

The stuffing

This is where things get more fun: diced pork shoulder, trimmed to remove excess fat gets sautéed with chopped onions, garlic, cinnamon, salt, pepper, cumin, toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds. When it's hot, add some raisins or other dried fruit, maybe even some chopped bits of apple or pear. If it's still a bit dry, add some water or stock, and taste for seasoning.

The sauce

Nothing could be simpler. Just combine heavy cream (or milk, if you must), soft goat cheese and a bit of mozzarella to thicken. This remains cold, poured over the hot chilis at the last minute just before serving.


You have two options: chili lover's and milder. For chili lovers, slit the peppers down one side and spoon in the stuffing, leaving the seeds in place. Everyone else might thank you for carefully removing the seeds before stuffing in the filling. Place the stuffed chilis in a 350° oven with a bit of water in their pan for about 30 minutes, until everything is hot.

Place a hot chili on a warmed plate and immediately spoon on the white sauce, top with pomegranate seeds and rush to the table. Ideally, the first mouthfuls will be a mixture of hot pepper and stuffing coated with cool white sauce.

Chilis vary in heat, even when they're all the same variety. Some vary from pepper to pepper. You may find one underwhelmingly wimpy, while others are hot enough to make you drink hot sauce to cool your mouth. If potential heat issues loom, taste a small piece of the peppers when you slice them for stuffing.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Poor man's pizza oven: the BBQ

Fresh, out of the oven pizzas, without the oven. Just a charcoal grill with a lid, and all the fixings for a pizza. Possible? Edible? Practical?

The theme: Chicago. The event: a rowing club get-together. So, Chicago without pizza is like San Francisco without sourdough. Right? But how to make pizzas at a venue with no oven, nor even any cooking facilities whatsoever?

There's a lot of buzz on the web about pizzas on the grill. No doubt, they're expecting this to happen in summer, not when the temperature is hovering around freezing. Yet, nothing ventured nothing gained.

All the pizza stuff was standard: a sourdough-infused pizza dough with cornmeal, olive oil and honey added to the basic flour, salt and instant yeast. The sauce, basic tomato-basil vegetarian. Some roasted fennel, onions, mushrooms and roasted red pepper for toppings.

Doing pizzas outdoors in freezing weather is definitely sailing into uncharted territory. I had various equipment options for baking: a 12" steel comal, a 16" steel paella pan, or the bare grill. I opted out of using a pizza stone, since the last one cracked into five pieces when placed too close to incandescent coals.

Finding a workable technique

First try: the comal.
A comal is a round, thin steel pan typically used for tortillas (they also come in a ceramic version, but I don't have one). The idea was that the comal would heat quickly, crisping the bottom crust while the top baked in the hot air of the grill. I did indeed get a very crisp bottom crust. Black, but crisp. Too hot. Not enough heat on top, so insufficient bubble on the cheese.

Second try: paella pan.
The idea was to to diffuse the heat a bit with the paella pan, place the pizza on the comal on top of the paella pan. This created an air gap between the comal and the paella pan, hopefully something that would stop the burning. It did, up to a point. However, the paella pan blocked too much hot air, so the toppings didn't bubble as intended. By the time the toppings bubbled, the crust was scorched beneath. Worse, it took about 10 minutes to get the pie ready.

Third try: flipping. 
Perhaps the dough could be heated first, crisped enough to flip, then finished on the previous setup. The shaped pizza slid without toppings on the grill to pre-bake the pie a bit, then add toppings and finish on the combined pans. This didn't work much better than the previous effort, and was still slow.

Fourth try: reconfigure, cook on grill.
This was my reluctant last resort. Reconfigure the grill to provide hot-as-possible indirect heat. I placed all the coals at one side of the grill, in front of a lower side vent, then blocked the opposite vent with aluminum foil. I skewed the lid for better air circulation (and more heat). The pizza went directly on the wire grill as far from the coals as possible. Success! The pie browned slowly enough that it could be turned to avoid scorching on the side facing the charcoal. Improved air air circulation melted the cheese and baked the toppings, and the crust came out crunchy and browned, with only a bit of scorch due to a delay in turning the pie. Total time was still a bit long at about eight minutes, but the dough was thoroughly cooked with bubbly cheese, hot sauce and cooked mushrooms.

Bling factor: great. 
These pizzas are tossed for maximum showmanship and photo ops. The fire, smoke, pizza tossing, lined up toppings and sauce, board for cutting all combine for a fun outdoor show. Being next to a blazing grill even makes doing this outdoors bearable as long as there's no wind.

Weather: not so great.
The disadvantage is that the dough cools, extending cooking time. This dough has a great oven spring, so the pies weren't heavy, doughy manhole covers, but when cold dough meets high heat, things have to be managed carefully to avoid scorching.

Things to improve

Top heat
The whole setup would work better if there were more radiant heat coming from the top of the grill. However, the thin metal just doesn't stay hot enough once there's a pie beneath blocking heat from the coals. I had hoped that convection currents would be enough, but it really lacks radiant, top-down heat like a real, stone pizza oven. The trouble here is that grills with heavy, heat-radiating lids are heavy and not very portable. A round grill is light enough to carry in one hand, so maybe this is where I need to invent something new that's perfect for the task.

Cooking time
This thing is slow. A bigger grill would yield bigger pies, and the air circulation would let them cook in the same time. Multiple grills would work too, but that's just more junk to carry around. Still, perhaps there is a way to get more intense, wood-burning pizza oven type temperatures. More charcoal would just scorch the crust... but maybe some kind of vertical wire cage and a half-size grill... maybe a metal heat reflector over the pie, attached to the lid?

Dough temperature
Dough temperature needs to be higher, say 80° for the dough to be worked. This can probably be fixed with an ice chest outfitted with bottles of warm water. Dough at forty degrees is stiff and needs to be kneaded and tossed carefully to avoid tearing the center.