Sunday, August 22, 2010

Is It Real Or Is It Memorex? Fresh vs. Canned, Lessons Learned

It is the inching towards the end of summer here in Louisiana and it is damned hot. So hot and humid that it feels as if you’ve been hit in the face with a nasty sweaty sock just off a foot from PE class every time you step through a door outside. What better than a nice cool tangy soup to cool a person off in such an environment? Gazpacho!

Of course the urge to make this hit me late last night, say midnight-ish. I wasn’t going to the store. I had plenty of canned tomatoes and a yellow pepper in the fridge, so I was a good part of the way there. Looking on-line I found a recipe that looked something like this:

2 each 14 ounce cans of diced tomato

1 diced onion

1 diced yellow pepper

Some portion of a diced cucumber.

1 minced clove of garlic

2 cups water

1 jalapeno

Splash of rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons of olive oil

I decided to proceed without the cucumber. I also deviated with the canned tomatoes going with one can diced tomato and another can diced tomato and okra, using plain white vinegar, and using the remainder of a jar of pickled jalapeno slices. I figured the okra would be a decent fit, the other compromises would just have to do.

Plowing ahead all went according to plan. To tell you the truth the best part of this whole thing was the chance the finally use the immersion stick blender I picked up in June. I’ve wanted one for years- they just look like so much fun! And I can now say that they are a blast.

I was disappointed last night when I first tasted the soup. Everything tasted flat. I added more vinegar to brighten things up, then the last of a bottle of Green Tabasco. It was still flat but at least it resembled gazpacho as I remember it. What was the take-a-way from this? Use fresh ingredients. Skimping on ingredients will always compromise a dish. I didn’t want to leave the house and hit a Wal Mart for what I needed and the soup suffered for it. Was it worth it? Yeah. Given 12 hours to come together in the fridge it tastes quite a bit better, but it is still muted. Sometimes you just have to compromise. Sometimes substitutions pull a dish into a whole different and yet exciting direction you might never have imagined. Live and learn. Meh.

If I had planned things out I would have followed a recipe like this one: . Cucumber and perhaps some cilantro would have made the dish brighter and fresher. Don’t worry- the dogs won’t get a bit of this stuff.

Have you ever found yourself mid recipe scrambling to find a substitute for something? How did it work out?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Restaurant Review- Sweet's Outdoor Grill

I never planned to publish reviews of eating establishments but at the request of one Theresa Overby, @TheresaOverby, of Doe's Eat Place I'll throw this into the mix.

I just finished gulping down a Brisket Plate from Sweet's Outdoor Grill , 2504 Government Street, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Sweet's is a pretty simple place, a storefront with a large roof thrown out in front to cover the area where patrons order food and some plating occurs. No seating. No reservations. Get in line Brother. The menu is pretty much standard BBQ fare- chicken, rib, brisket, sausage plates or sandwiches make up its bulk. There are options for 1/2 pound or full pound meat only plates, which I almost considered. Side dishes include smoked beans, potato salad, rice dressing, and cole slaw. Sweet's also offers Italian Ice, a shaved ice or snowball like product and cookies as well as bottled cold drinks.

I was already on my way to campus so I packed my brisket plate and found a seat near the BRCC admin building. There I opened the black foam container to find my brisket, rice, potato salad, and cole slaw. My first impression was, "Wow the brisket looks great, but there just doesn't seem to be enough of it." How much brisket was there? I can't say. I imagine that it was somewhere between a quarter and a third of a pound. For ten dollars I wanted more.

Sides: The Cole Slaw- This reminded me of Waldorf Salad. A traditional cabbage cole slaw with rasins, walnuts and a bit of red pepper added kick. It was different for certain. People who know the Red Stick food scene will already be familiar with TJ Ribs cole slaw with peanuts. This is not as creamy or a dense with crunch. Walnuts are more of a solid bite through and offer different mouth feel. The raisins are a nice touch adding some sweetness that the acid in the dressing can be balanced with. The red pepper on the otherhand was not as obvious as the other ingredients. The first bite was surprising. Where did all this heat come from? It is unusual, but not a bad idea. I think that this could be incorporated a little better with some slight changes.

The Potato Salad- Sweets offers a standard Mustard Potato Salad. It is quite creamy both in mouthfeel and in taste. Plenty of paprika gives a good smokey flavor to this dish.

The Sauce- This is a vinegar and ketchup based sauce. There is a good bit of vinegar bite and quite a bit of sweet added from an unknown source. I'd hazard the guess that they use straight white sugar not a molasses or brown sugar. It is most definately not a bastardization of Cattlemen's.

The Rice- While I've lived in Louisiana for ten years now, I just cannot fathom why Sweet's plates with rice. This is plain white rice and butter, not rice dressing. Perhaps the idea is that it, like the white bread many BBQ joints serve, is to sop of grease. If so, I still don't understand why it is on the plate because they sold me a piece of white bread as well.

The Meat- The brisket was well done. Cooked through. No food safety issues to think of. Bark lovers rejoice, there is bark, nice crunchy black bark on this meat. Those of you who measure a man's meat by the depth of the smoke rings he leaves: One eigth to one quarter of an inch deep depending on the piece of meat. Plenty of smoke seasoned the brisket. It seemed that the rub stayed on the outside of the meat as only a few of the pieces in my container had much more than a smokey flavor. I could discern the standard rub ingredients, cumin, paprika, sugar, garlic powder, and salt. I did like the brisket, but I wanted more.

Unfortunately I did not catch Sweet's Outdoor Grill's hours. I was aware enough at the time to see that they do take three kinds of plastic- Visa, Master Card, and Discover. Plates are between 9 and 12 dollars.

Summary- I'd love to try more of the sides. If Sweet's other dishes were crafted with the same kind of imagination that went into the cole slaw they must be interesting and worh the time and money to try. I would love to trade the rice for more meat on my plate. I do plan to drop in again. And when I do I will try the rib plate with a different set of sides. Good barbeque, good low and slow smoking cooking methods do take time and while the cuts aren't always the most expensive, that time is a cost. What does that mean? I don't think the price I paid was out of line- if only I had a few more pieces of meat. Please Mr Sweet, ditch the rice. I will be back.

Sweet's Outdoor Grill
2504 Government StreetBaton Rouge, LA 70806
(225) 308-1414


UrbanSpoon Review

Sweet's Outdoor Grill Facebook Fan Page

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Plastic Baggies, Water Baths, Funny French Words

So it has been over a year since my last post. Either I’ve become lazy, or something wonderful and exciting has happened. Let us pretend it was the latter.

On the barbeque front this last summer my wife and I cooked several racks of ribs a number of methods with various results. She is pretty darned good. Her preparation ideas trumped mine, producing better results. We tried boiling racks before a short smoking session, boiling and then grilling, smoking a few ways. It seems that boiling produced consistent and delectable results.

Somehow late last year the sous vide method caught my eye. For those of you who don’t know of sous vide here is a quick run-down:

Imagine you could cook something through without making the outside burnt. Imagine a way to cook something at a constant temperature from outside to inside such that the whole thing was of consistent texture and doneness. That is sous vide. No more crusty dry steak surrounding a small nicely done pink center. Your whole steak can be the nice pink center. Now you’d still want a bit of a crust on your steak because of all the wonderful flavors the Mallard reaction creates. The browning of meats, all those flavorful bits left over in a pan after you sear off a steak. How do you accomplish both? That is the trick.

A water bath can be set for the temperature you want the final product to be cooked to. If you want salmon cooked to 122F, the water bath is at 122F. It is a matter of how long it takes for the food to come to temperature. Thermodynamics and heat transfer are the names of the game. If you are interested in this method of cooking, be weary of any recipe that does not discuss the length of time food should be cooked depending upon the thickness of the food. Remember, the inside of the food has to warm up to the same temperature as the water bath.

A water bath set for a constant temperature is the high end way to cook sous vide. This requires a piece laboratory equipment called an immersion circulator. There are several manufactures of this item. If you have at least a thousand dollars to play with, you can grab one of these, a hotel pan or large stock pot and go to it. The circulator heats and pumps the water around the pan to keep the whole pot or pan at a constant temperature. They can be as accurate as to be within a fraction of a degree Celsius or Fahrenheit. These are required for more sensitive foods, like eggs. Fear not- there are less expensive ways to cook sous vide. Variations of this range from using hot water and an ice chest, a stove and digital thermometer with spoons and ice cubes (as I’ve been doing), buying an appliance like the Sous Vide Supreme for round about $500. You can also purchase an electronic controller that uses a thermocouple or resistance thermal device, better known as an RTD, to control a heater of some sort- a hot plate, crock pot, or even a rice cooker. The nice thing about a hot plate or crock pot is that you might already have one. The bad thing about these devices is that in general the heat will only come into the pot from the bottom, so keeping the entire volume of water at the same temperature can be tricky. Some people have used bubbles to mix the bath up- an el-cheapo aquarium air pump will do the trick nicely. A rice cooker can also be used- supposedly the heat in a rice cooker come from the sides of the cooking vessel.

How do you keep the food in the water without soaking your food? A plastic bag is how. Foodsaver and other kinds of vacuum bags are supposed to be the best way to do this. According to the forums I’ve read lots of DIYers use freezer baggies or a vacuum bag that Reynolds made at one time which was evacuated by a hand pump. I contacted SC Johnson Wax about the use of their name brand freezer bags and sous vide. They suggested that it was not wise to use freezer bags as the bags had a melting temperature of about 180F. What do I use? I haven’t purchased a vacuum bagging device. At some point in the near future I would. My preference would be for a model that is able to handle liquids, as you can marinate food as it sits in the bag (some suggest freezing your marinade to eliminate the need for a vacuum sealer that handles liquids). I currently use heavy duty freezer bags. But I’ve been cooking at low temperatures- 122 for salmon and 155F for beef pork. I’m not too concerned about the bag melting. There may be a concern for the grade of plastic breaking down at higher temperatures. I am not qualified to make a call about this. You are left to your own research and judgment here.

What about that Mallard reaction? This is the fun part. Sous vide is like watching paint dry- keeping that temperature within a window for a half hour to 72 hours is boring as all get out (this is why people invest in a controller and timer or more- who wants to stand at the stove that long watching a bag sit in water?). Putting the finishing touches on the dish; however, is fun. I got a butane torch from Williams Sonoma. You could just as easily get one from Sears or Home Depot. You’ll just want to brown the outside of your beef, pork so that it looks like it sat in a pan for a while. You’ll burn some seasonings, but that happens anyhow. Now you’re “cooking with gas” and painting with flames.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by sous vide. If you are interested google Douglas Baldwin’s Sous Vide Guidebook. You can download this as an Acrobat file. It is the most comprehensive guide I’ve seen to sous vide. There are some cookbooks published by Thomas Keller that are supposed to be excellent as well, but not necessarily written for the home cook. I’d love to get one for the pictures at least… but the book is pricey. Again, beware of other books published by suppliers of DIY sous vide controller parts and equipment. I purchased one book published by such a company and was seriously disappointed. The recipes were minimal and didn’t bother with details such as cooking times, which in my opinion is dangerous. Use the following resources and Baldwin’s book and you’ll be in good hands.

I’ll keep you informed as to my progress with the temperature controller and my sous vide concoctions. What about you? Have you tried sous vide before? What resources have you found invaluable?


Douglas Baldwin: A Practical Guide to Sous Vide

Under Pressure At Pembroke

Science of Food And Cooking- Sous Vide Eggs

Sous Vide Rack of Lamb

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Empty Cart

Suffice it to say that it has been a while since my last post. Quite a lot has happened in the meantime. We can get into that later.

I watched Food Inc yesterday afternoon and now I’m bewildered. See, I went to Wal Mart to make groceries this evening and I came away with an almost empty cart. There are two reasons for this. First, it was 7:30 P.M. on a Sunday and the whole store had been picked over almost as if a hurricane had entered the gulf, and secondly I kept thinking about the food I was about to put into the cart, deciding not to purchase it because I wasn’t sure of its’ origin or had second thoughts about the trip it took to get to my store. It was if I’d been shell shocked. What didn’t make sense is that I knew most of this already. I’d already seen Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms on CSpan once and watched the video in this link (It is long, but well worth it. Honest). I’ve heard about how Monsanto owns Round-Up ready seed and doesn’t let farmers keep it, I knew that a lot of the fruit and veg that are on the shelves of our markets are picked way before they are ripe, are artificially ripened, and coated in wax to preserve them. I had no idea how dangerous meat packing jobs are. I had no idea how horrid the conditions chickens are raised in. I had no idea how the fast food industry caused fundamental changes in the way food gets from farm to market and to our plates.

It is a shame that we allow our food to be raised in such intolerable and inhumane conditions. It is a shame that we condone similar treatment of those who get our food off the vine and carcass. We must do better. We must find ways to make good honest and healthy food available to everyone. Healthy food must be as easy and inexpensive as the processed crap we shove down our gullets because we don’t have the time or money to prepare a proper meal.

It seems that Jamie Oliver has a point. It seems that the First Lady also has a point. Children in urban settings are far more likely to eat processed foods and less likely to be able to identify an eggplant on sight. How sad is that? We must do better.