Just because something is simple, doesn't mean it's easy. In fact, tiny defects are most apparent in the simplest dishes.
Panna cotta is a great example. I've never made it before, rarely even had it. Cream and milk, barley thickened with gelatin, and flavored with sugar and vanilla. That's a basic panna cotta and there is not much to it.
It's a good dish to know because it's a canvas on which you can paint any flavor you can imagine. Unlike some other "blank canvas" dishes, it is complete and splendid as is.
If you get it right!
Happy news for you and me: Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times did the work for us. Inspired by a perfect panna cotta he had at a restaurant, "delicately sweet, it was like a dream of cream held together by faith and just a little bit of gelatin," Parsons spent a couple of weeks deep in spreadsheets and cream matching it.
Today, my friend Butch and I planned a big food day and I had panna cotta in mind and Parsons' article in hand.
It's pretty easy. Simmer cream, milk, sugar, and a vanilla bean. Soften gelatin and add it to the cream mixture after it cools. Chill. Done.
The proportions are important. Too much cream and it's fatty. Sugar needs to be balanced. The gelatin needs to be just enough to hold it together — we want it soft, not like cream Jell-O.
Here's his recipe. I halved the recipe and made just a couple of technique changes to simplfy handling of the vanilla bean and the gelatin. The proportions were perfect.
Total time: 40 minutes, plus chilling time
2 tablespoons water
1/2 tablespoon powdered gelatin
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups whole or 2% milk
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 (2-inch) section vanilla bean, or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Stir to distribute, and set aside to soften 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Wipe the insides of 4 (one-half-cup) ramekins with a light coating of neutral oil and set aside. Half-fill a large bowl with ice and add enough water to make an ice bath and set aside.
3. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds.
4. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar and split vanilla bean, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, and whisk in the softened gelatin and the vanilla extract, if using. Remove the bean pod from the mixture, and discard.
5. Set the saucepan in the ice bath (making sure the top of the saucepan is well above the surface of the water), and whisk until the mixture is lukewarm. Rub your fingers together: There should be no grit from undissolved sugar or gelatin.
6. Ladle the mixture into the oiled ramekins and chill at least 4 hours or overnight. (I was in a hurry and placed them in the freezer for ten minutes, then in the refrigerator for two hours.
If you're going to keep them longer than overnight, cover them with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap gently against the panna cotta to prevent a skin from forming. Be aware that preparing the panna cotta more than 24 hours in advance will result in a somewhat firmer set.
7. About 10 minutes before serving, run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of the ramekin. Dip the ramekin briefly in a bowl of hot tap water, and then carefully invert onto a serving plate. If the panna cotta doesn't unmold right away, tap the ramekin lightly on the countertop to loosen it. If it still doesn't unmold, return it to the hot water bath for another five seconds and repeat. Panna cotta can also be served without unmolding.
Each serving: 320 calories; 4 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 29 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 107 mg cholesterol; 10 grams sugar; 50 mg sodium.
Jordan, a FeedMe reader, saw the article about a pulled lamb sandwich I had at Los Gatos Meat Company and decided he had to have this. He's not local, so he did what needed to be done: he deconstructed and reconstructed and reported it all in the comments!
Jordan's first question was what cut of meat they used. I surmised shoulder, but Jordan called them. He reports, "A very nice guy there told me that they use all parts of the lamb that don't make it into the butcher's case — well, the meat parts. And they pull it when it's fork tender, which, according to him, is around 160-165, much lower than pork."
That surprised me, since pork requires cooking to about 200 degrees. (See the recent article, "Pulled Pork, Perfected?")
Next, he reached out to Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, owner of the amazing amazingribs.com, (which is my favorite BBQ blog). They consulted back and forth.
Here's Jordan's full report back to Meathead:
The legs at my local grocer were a little small, and I was worried about shrinkage and not having as much meat as I wanted. I always worry about this, though it's never been a problem. I think I must like grazing on the leftovers in the fridge more than I realize. Anyway, once the butcher butterflied the leg, I decided to pick up a little shoulder meat to roll up in there.
At home, I made a paste out of garlic and rosemary and rubbed that on the shoulder and the inside of the leg. I also threw in some of the rub, which was made with a lot of pepper, some brown sugar, salt, a little allspice and some crushed garlic. I found this recipe on the net, but the crushed garlic is kind of dumb, since it doesn't really mix with the grainy/powdery things. It clumped and I ended up throwing it out and adding garlic powder. Then I tied it up, studded it with some garlic and five or six anchovies, coated it with Worcestershire sauce and hit the outside with the rub. Then I put it to bed in the fridge and me to bed with the wife.
I smoked it yesterday, using the smokenator and just one chunk of apple wood. Because I lose water in the smokenator's water tray faster than I can keep up, I put a drip pan full of water on the fire grate, under the lamb. The temp climbed steadily for a couple of hours and then hit the stall at 150. I thought I had time to wait it out, but several hours later, it wasn't budging. So I wrapped it with a couple tablespoons of beer (approximately — I poured some on from the beer I'd just opened) and put it back on. It immediately climbed to 167. Another hour and a half or so and I was at 180. I unwrapped and put it back on for a few minutes to firm the bark, and then took it off and tented it.
It didn't pull, so I sliced and chopped and hit it with a little bit of (Meathead's) sunlite sauce. I had a bowl of this at the table, as well as a caramelized onion and apricot sauce for people who wanted to get crazy. As a side note, I did mop occasionally with the sauce. I know you are not a proponent, but I was interested in trying the Kentucky technique with the Kentucky dish.
The verdict: Good. I thought it was a little dry, but people raved, so what do I know? The sauces helped there. The anchovy was kind of a waste of time. I didn't expect to taste them per se, but I thought it might add a little savoriness. Anyway, the pepper, garlic, and smoke pretty much obliterated all the other added flavors. I would do it again, but I might use a a little less pepper. Also, I might brine. Or I might just make a medium rare leg of lamb. Who knows? The world is my oyster.
Jordan, thanks for the report.
Do I really think I have reached the pinnacle of pulled pork?
No. Pulled pork is the highest achievement of pitmasters everywhere. They spend lifetimes, generations, even, fine tuning. I'm not there.
But as backyard smoking goes, I'm pretty happy with my latest results. I've achieved a really, really good result without much fuss. And onions and potatoes go right into the smoker to cook alongside the pork. Have you ever smoked an onion?
For this method you need a genuine smoker, not a grill. It has to be able to generate smoke at 200-250 degrees F for hours. I am using the Weber Smoky Mountain. (More on smokers another day.)
It starts with the pork shoulder, also called a Boston Butt, and it might also be called the king of BBQ. With its mix of well-worked muscles, it's the perfect cut for slow-cook methods. For pulled pork, we're going all the way -- low and slow, all the way to 200 degrees internal, where collagen turns into gelatine, the fibers separate, fat mingles with meat, and the flavors bloom.
The essence of the method is:
Here's the smoker, smoking and ready to do its work:
Let's look at the pork. The outside crust, called the bark, is a flavorful melange of dry rub, smoke, and slow roasted pork fat. Here is what it looks like when it exits the smoker, prior to the braising step:
Some disassembly required. The classic way is to pull the meat apart with two forks:
Now, it's your turn.
6 pounds pork shoulder (boston butt)
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup apple juice, or one 6.75 oz juice box
1/4 cup rub, see note
2 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
Soak pork overnight (8-15 hours) in a brine or do an injection. Don't do both.
Prepare smoker to run at 200-250°F. While it stabilizes, prepare the ingredients.
To inject: Mix ingredients. Place pork in a pan that can catch the juices. Draw solution into syringe and inject in many places. For each injection site, insert needle and squeeze plunger as you withdraw the needle. Change angle and reinsert into the same injection site, in a different direction. Continue until syringe is empty and move on to a new injection site, distributing solution throughout the meat. Some fluid will leak out; use syringe to draw excess fluid and inject again.
Pat pork dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with a generous coating of rub on all sides, patting rub to help it stick.
Wash potatoes and pierce with a fork. (Otherwise, the potato may explode. Ask me how I know.)
Cut onions in half, through the root. Do not remove root or skin.
Place pork in the smoker, fat side up. Place potatoes and onions in the smoker. Place the onions cut side down.
Smoke for 4-5 hours to an internal temperature of 150°F. Remove from smoker, wrap in heavy duty foil. Place in a pan, then in a 300-degree oven for 2-3 hours more, to internal temperature of 200°. Test to see if pork is pull-apart tender. If not, give it another 30 minutes.
When you remove the meat from the smoker, check the vegetables and if they are tender, remove them.
When you remove the meat from the oven, put the onions and potatoes in the oven to warm up. Allow the meat to rest 1/2 hour, then pull apart using two forks.
Serve with warmed barbecue sauce if you want, or just the way it is.
If you are a food lover in the San Francisco Bay Area, here's an event that you won't want to miss: Star Chefs and the Wines They Love will feature more than a dozen super-star chefs from top area restaurants. Guests will enjoy small plates prepared by all the chefs paired with favorite wines. It's April 29 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It's a foodie spectacular! See the list of chefs below -- it's a mind-blowing list. I am so looking forward to this!
It's for a really great cause: Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. The work Child Advocates does is moving and important. They recruit, train, and manage "Court Appointed Special Advocates" -- volunteers who are paired with abused, or neglected children in foster care. The ongoing relationship the children have with their Advocates often makes the difference between their becoming social burdens or having successful lives as contributors to society.
The event is Sunday, April 29, 4:30-9 PM. Tickets are $150. Corporate sponsorships are available which include tickets. Learn more and purchase tickets.
If you plan to attend, please let me know: I love to meet my readers!
Here is a list of chefs confirmed to date:
Chef Ross Hanson
Restaurant James Randall
Chef Josiah Slone
Restaurant Sent Sovi
Chef Chris Schloss
Cin-Cin Wine Bar and Restaurant
Chef Joey Elenterio
Chez TJ Contemporary French Cuisine
Chef Brad Kraten
Park Place Restaurant
Chef Tim Lyum
The WOW Catering Truck
Chef Ryan Farquhar
Chef Marty Cattaneo
Dio Deka, Fine Hellenic Cuisine
Chef Andrew Welch
Casa De Cobre
Chef Eric Jaeger
Chef Jeffrey Stout, Executive Chef
Chef Adam Bortolussi
Forbes Mill Steakhouse
Two weeks after I started my vegetarian adventure, Kenji started his (what a copycat!). Except his was just 28 days (weenie!) and while I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian, he went full-on vegan (okay, not a weenie). Gave up his leather wallet and wool coat, in New York in February (very not-weenie).
Kenji has posted all 28 of the recipes he developed (yeah, definitely not a weenie).
You have to love the compulsives at America's Test Kitchen (Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country). They test a recipe every which way and explain it all to satisfy my inner geek.
It helped solve a mystery about my hummus.
Hummus is a blend of ground chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tahini (a peanut-butter-like preparation made from sesame seeds), and oil, flavored with garlic and a variety of other ingredients. It's easy, fast, and healthy. It's not low-calorie, with its substantial oil content, but the oils are mostly the healthier types. It's great with vegetables, crackers, or the traditional pita bread.
And what could be easier? Place the ingredients in a blender and you're pretty much done.
But my attempts, while flavorful, were heavy and a little grainy. I tried a couple of recipes, from sources I trust, but they lacked the fluffiness and smooth, creamy texture of store-bought hummus. This is a simple recipe! There's no rocket science here! What could possibly be wrong?
From their May 2008 issue:
Most hummus has a coarse, dense consistency caused by the tough skins of the chickpeas.
We wanted hummus with a light, silky-smooth texture and a flavor profile that balances chickpeas, tahini (ground sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil.
So what's the cause of the coarse, dense texture? It's the skins of the chickpeas!
In theory, the best way to guarantee a creamy texture is to remove the chickpeas’ tough skins, but we couldn’t find an approach that wasn’t tedious or futile.
The secret? There are two.
First is to grind the chickpeas before adding any liquids.
Once the liquids are in the machine, the skins elude the whirring blades. When the chickpeas alone, the skins have no defense and are pulverized enough that they no longer wreck the texture. So I learned that a simple toss-and-blend approach won't work.
The second secret is to think of this as an emulsion like mayonnaise. As with a mayonnaise, the best approach is to work the wet and solid ingredients first and add the oil gradually while the machine runs.
The good folks at ATK said:
We started by grinding just the chickpeas and then very slowly added a small amount of water and lemon juice. To finish, we whisked the olive oil and tahini together and drizzled the mixture into the puree while processing; this created a smooth, light emulsion.
A commenter mentioned that a later article suggests microwaving the chickpeas for a minute. That also works.
The remaining issue is flavor. In the past, I found it really easy to use too much garlic. Raw garlic is pungent! A single clove is a bit light; three is definitely too much. Two is usually fine. But to be really safe, use roasted garlic. There's an easy way: Toss four or more cloves with the papery skins still on into a dry pan and toast over medium heat, shaking the pan from time to time, until the skins are charred several places. Let them cool and peel. (There's another way, too: Pressure-cooker roast garlic, which will be a future article.)
Toasting cumin seeds (pretty easy since you can use the garlic roasting pan) really amps up the spice! But you can use pre-ground and it will be nearly as good.
The flavors meld overnight so it's best made a day ahead.
Set aside about 12 of the whole chickpeas for a garnish. Place the rest in the microwave for one minute.
Drop peeled garlic cloves into the food processor while it is running and process. Add the chickpeas, salt, cumin, and cayenne and process until coarsely ground, about 15 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the processor and grind again.
Add the lemon and water through the feed tube with the processor running for about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides as many times as necessary to get the chickpeas well chopped.
Add the tahini and process.
Add the oil, with the processor running, until the hummus is fluffy.
Put the hummus in a bowl, garnish with the cilantro and whole chickpeas, and drizzle with some olive oil if you want.
Sometimes I wonder what makes people try things. Who was the first to eat an artichoke? Must have been really hungry. And what made Laura Pazzaglia put eggs in a pressure cooker?
Tips for peeling eggs are a-plenty but I haven't found any that always work. This method does. Even fresh eggs leap out of their shells.
And happily, I ran across this method right after buying a new pressure cooker! It was still in the box.
The method is simple. Place the eggs in a basket in the pressure cooker, turn on heat.
When the cooker reaches pressure, start the timer. Three minutes for soft-boiled, five minutes for medium, seven minutes for hard-boiled (which some people call hard-cooked). At the end of the time, douse the pressure cooker with running water, then remove and rinse the eggs in cool water.
This worked really well for me. One time, one egg cracked (first picture). The cracks closed as the egg cooled and unlike when an egg cracks during boiling, the membrane was unaffected and no water entered the egg.
How does this work? Pazzaglia suggests the air cell at the large end of the egg expands under pressure. That's not quite right — it would shrink under pressure. I don't know all the physics at work here. I suspect the magic happens during compression (because slow or fast cooling of the pressure cooker don't affect how well it peels). The fluid portions of the egg are not very compressible. Could the pressure on the air cell cause the air to squeeze into the space? No, because the air cell is outside the membrane, and when I peeled the eggs, the membrane stayed with the shell.
One interesting note is that the inside of the shell turns brown where the air shell was. I wonder why?
Regardless, this is a great method. Recipe follows.
Not fun enough? She also cooks little egg meals — a soft-boiled egg with cheese and prosciutto, for instance — in a glass in the cooker. Nice. Hit the link to see the recipes for those.
Place eggs in a basket or on a heat-proof trivet in the pressure cooker. Add a cup of water and set up to pressure cook according to the pressure cooker's instructions. Turn on heat. When the cooker reaches pressure (use the lower pressure setting, if your cooker has one, start the timer, as directed below. Cool the pressure cooker:
Soft-boiled: 3 minutes.
Medium: 5 minutes.
Hard-Boiled: 7 minutes.
Cool pressure cooker quickly by running water over it, release pressure according to your cooker's instructions. Rinse eggs in cool water.
Note: The original recipe says that for hard boiled eggs, to allow the pressure cooker to cool without the rapid, running water cool-down. I don't know why it differs from the soft- or medium-boiled eggs, which it directs to use the running water. But I have experiemented several times and found that 7 minutes with rapid cool-down works and is more convenient.
While you can do pretty much any cutting task with just three or four knives, consistently thin slices require some serious knife skills — or a sweet little gadget from hell called a mandoline.
I recently found a simplified mandoline that has some great advantages. But first, why is thin slicing so critical and what elevates the mandoline from the gadget category to almost a must-have? And how can it be both a must-have and a gadget from hell?
Ultra-thin slices make potato chips crispy. Fibrous vegetables like fennel become tender and juicy, bursting with flavor. Finely sliced carrots become like noodles. Strong ingredients like parmesan, chocolate, and truffles meld with the dish and melt on the tongue when shaved paper thin.
When slicing something really, really thin, consistency is key. While a variation of a millimeter or two makes little difference when you're cutting, say, 1/4-inch (6 mm) slices, a variation of even a fraction of a millimeter in paper-thin slices means some pieces will take twice as long to cook or a desired texture will be lost.
Enter the mandoline. We talked about them before, in the making of a celery-fennel salad. A very sharp blade is mounted so its edge barley protrudes above a platform. When food slides across the platform, a consistently thin slice is taken with each stroke. It's precise and very fast.
But there are liabilities. First, is safety. The blade is very, very, very sharp and fingers fly past the blade, very close and very fast. The finger guards are hard to use and are often ineffective. A foodie friend told me about a time he demonstrated the mandoline for his daughters. While he stressed how careful one must be, his attention strayed and the rest of the story includes the words, "chunk of thumb." (His daughters have never touched the mandoline). I have a similar story, also involving "chunk of thumb." I'll tell you that mandoline cut is painful and takes a long time to heal.
Gadget from hell.
There is a great remedy: The cut-resistant glove. Made of Kevlar, a super-tough fiber, these gloves withstand nasty blades. They cost about $15. I am still very careful with the mandoline but the glove is a great insurance policy.
Mandolines can be costly (some cost as little as $20 but many cost several hundred dollars). Some are complex, finicky, with loose parts. They can be large and hard to store. And frankly, many of the very expensive models don't work that well, according to tests in several of the cooking magazines.
I had a cheap, plastic mandoline. It had some flaws but worked reasonably well. Recently, I threw it out when I discovered the Kyocera CSN-202-RD Adjustable Mandoline Slicer. It's just about perfect.
It's small and stores flat (hint: A couple of rubber bands hold the finger guard to the platform and protect it in the drawer). It's easy to use — turn a bar on the underside to set the depth, put your glove on, and slice away.
The blade is ceramic, which means it never needs sharpening, won't corrode, and cuts very smoothly. I normally don't like ceramic knives because the ceramic is too fragile but in this case, the blade is protected from chipping.
And it costs about $22.
The finger guard is not great but serviceable and if you use your cut-resistant glove, you don't need to use it (but don't tell anyone I said that).
If you're looking for something to do with your new mandoline, the celery-fennel salad is a great choice.