Breakaway Cook

Umami Beef Jerky, Redux

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I was recently daydreaming about the green papaya salad they serve at Bodega Bistro, on Larkin in SF, and especially about that Vietnamese-style beef jerky they use in it, and wanted to try making it. I cruised around the net looking for ideas on how to make it (the always-informative Andrea Nguyen has a wonderful-sounding one), and was relieved to find that most are done in the oven. Why relief?? Well, I’m getting slightly jaded about my dehydrator, with which I usually make my jerky, and which was purchased several years ago with the idea of jumping full-bore down a vegan path, just for fun and enlightenment. But the dehydrator has left me all  “eh.”  And it takes up WAY too much space! So oven-dried jerky, here we come.

A little over a year ago I wrote about some beef jerky I was regularly making. I still like that jerky, a lot, but the one I made today was truly outstanding. I started emptying my pantry, looking for the most umami I could pack into the meat. The jerky I made was an umami play on the classic Vietnamese beef jerky, which is made with lemongrass, brown sugar, fish sauce, and soy sauce. This dish is slightly more complicated than most breakaway dishes, in that it requires a multiple steps every half hour or so, though most of that is pretty passive, so it doesn’t feel very hard/big dealish.

It has insane levels of umami, and a dark, bronzed appearance. This is total crack. Makes one pound of jerky. It’s especially nice julienned, and sprinkled into salads.

Umami Beef Jerky, Redux

  • 2 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese thin soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Bragg’s amino acids (forgive this hippie transgression, but it really does pack an umami wallop)
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
  • about a quarter cup of minced lemongrass
  • large pinch ancho chile pepper, ground
  • large pinch aleppo pepper (just cause it was lying around)
  • 1/2 cup coconut syrup, AKA palm juice
  • 2 or 2.5 pounds beef rump/eye of round

1) Freeze the beef for an hour to really firm it up, which makes it very easy to slice. I used my scary-sharp new Shun bread knife for this, but you could also use a sashimi knife or just your trusted very sharp chef’s knife.

2) Slice it as thinly as you can; try not to exceed 1/8 of an inch if you can. Thinner slices allow the marinade to penetrate better, which results in tastier jerky.

3) Make the marinade in a large bowl, one big enough to hold all the sliced beef. In it, whisk together all the remaining ingredients.

4) Add the beef to the marinade and mix thoroughly (I use my hands). Let it marinate in the refrigerator for a minimum of an hour, though you could probably marinate it for much longer, including overnight).

5) Move two racks in your oven to the uppermost and bottommost positions, and preheat to 300F.

6) Prepare your pans. Use two standard baking sheets (officially called “quarter sheets” and measuring 9 x 13 inches). Lay a piece of foil over each one, then set up a rack to rest on the foil/pan. I use wire cookie cooling racks.

7) Gently squeeze the beef to dry it out a bit. Get as much liquid out as you can, but don’t go too crazy.

8 Carefully place the beef on the racks. Don’t overlap the beef; you should have enough space to spread them out comfortably but snugly.

9) Bake for 30 minutes. Using tongs, flip each piece, and reverse the order of the pans (so that the one previously on top is now on the bottom, and vice versa).

10) Bake for another 30 minutes. Taste a few. They should be pretty close to done, but if you deem it requires more time, give it some more. Don’t go overboard though – excess carmelization can impart bitter flavors. It should be thoroughly browned and extremely tasty!

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Iron Chef — Sunday, August 30, 6pm and 9pm PST

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An email came in this morning from the Iron Chef people, telling me that the long-awaited episode has been moved up! It will air, for sure, on Sunday, August 30, at 6pm and 9m west coast time, and 9 pm eastern time. It looks like I’m finally allowed to say who the contestants were.  It’s my iron man Morimoto versus the remarkable Jehangir Mehta, whose book I reviewed late last year. My fellow judges are football star Tiki Barber, and sommelier Alpana Singh.

If anyone has any suggestions for a viewing party in SF, speak up! We may have a place in Berkeley if we can’t find a suitable place in the city.

Taking a mini camping trip to deep Mendocino later on today, be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend, all breakaway cooks!

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On the Massive Importance of Salt

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It occurs to me that, as much as I’ve talked about salt in the past few years, I’ve never really laid out a totally coherent/comprehensive post dedicated to this ingredient many of us take for granted. Forgive me for the length, please – but I would like to get all of this on table, so to speak.

There are essentially three types of culinary salt:

  • iodized table salt (the familiar round canister)
  • kosher salt, and
  • sea salt. Some distinguish a fourth type, fleur-de-sel, but it’s really just a kind of sea salt, so we’ll make do with these three.

A fourth category of salt, the blended finishing salt, or flavored salt, is especially important to breakaway cooks. More on that below. But first things first.

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Iodized Table Salt — The Enemy of Good Food

In every country on earth, salt is the most widely used ingredient, and for good reason: it makes food taste a lot better. But its proper use is kind of tricky. Proper use of good salt will make an average meal exceptional. Conversely, the use of iodized table salt in otherwise good food can turn a potentially fantastic meal into a grim one. The Salt Institute, which is kind of like the Rand Corporation of the salt world, says that about 70 percent of salt sold in the United States is iodized table salt.

Eons ago, I was one of the “salt is salt, bugger off” crowd who passionately believed that any differences in taste of various salts are purely in the mind of the taster, that the taste buds/neuroreceptors can’t tell the difference, and that the people who buy $12 little canisters of fancy French sea salt are being hoodwinked.

And then I woke up: iodized table salt is not only unhealthy – processed foods are LOADED with it — it just ruins food. It makes food taste hot, and nasty. It also tends to melt and go into solution in a general sense, salting the dish in toto,

Yes, I realize that iodine deficiency was a big health problem globally for a long time, and that’s why it’s added to table salt, but iodine deficiency is just not a problem for most people today; we get plenty of iodine through eating fish, dairy products, eggs, seaweed, and many more common items. There is no reason to consume salt that’s been sprayed with potassium iodate solution (which functions as a stabilizer) if you’re not worried about developing goiters. Table salt also contains anti-caking compounds (prussiate of sodium) to make it pour easily. These additives prevent table salt from absorbing water from the air, which is why it acts the way it does.

The net effect of table salt is nastiness. It makes everything taste like processed food.

So table salt is out, for all purposes.

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Kosher Salt — The Workhorse

The second type, kosher salt, has a much larger surface area/grain size than table salt does. It is harvested like table salt – i.e., by shooting pressurized water into salt deposits, capturing and evaporating that solution, and then collecting the salt crystals that remain – but kosher salt crystals are then raked, which give them much larger crystalline structure. These larger crystals absorb blood from slaughtered animals better than table salt does. And since Jewish dietary laws require blood to be extracted from meat before eating it, it became “kosher” salt.

For early stage cooking, I usually use kosher salt. It lacks the mineral notes of sea salt, but the oversized crystals are good for pinching with your fingers; they fall on food like little snowflakes. Because they have a surface volume many times larger than table salt, they don’t taste as “salty” as normal compact table salt does. It’s tasty, fun to work with, and dirt-cheap: you can get a large box of it for a dollar or two. It is the absolute workhorse of the kitchen.

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Sea Salt — Our Special Friend!

Type three, sea salt, is simply evaporated seawater. It contains all kinds of trace ingredients, and is generally les dense than table salt. It tastes like the ocean. All of the expensive fancy salts you see in a well-stocked market are sea salts. Many contain signature elements: Hawaiian sea salt, for example, actually contains clay; Indian black salt contains significant quantities of sulphur. Sel gris, by far my favorite type of salt, is a delicious, grey colored, large-crystalled salt, typically from Brittany, France.

I’ve done my share of blind salt tastings on finished food, and the results have been overwhelmingly conclusive: sea salt makes food taste better. Part of the attraction seems to be the trace amounts of other sea stuff that clings to it (notes of seaweed, maybe, or just a general “oceany” feel to it). But another major benefit is textural: the larger, crunchier crystals provide localized salt bursts that make food wake up and shine in your mouth. Larger crystals, resting atop the finished food, remain a separate component, not unlike an herb or piece of citrus zest.

For finished food, it’s sea salt. I keep two small ceramic bowls of it next to my stove. One is sel gris, and the other is a whiter, Mexican sea salt that has smaller crystals and that doesn’t taste quite as oceany. There is something satisfying and aesthetic about reaching into a bowl and pinching the exact amount you want. I never use salt shakers — they don’t make the holes big enough to accommodate my salt, and I have more of a “feel” for how much salt should be used by touching it with my fingers.

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Blended Finishing Salts / Flavored Salts

I also keep a half-dozen or so blended salts near the stove, each in its own little pretty ceramic bowl. Why do I bother blending salt with something else? Because you can achieve wonderful, symphonic flavors with them with virtually no work.

These blends couldn’t be easier to make – you simply add about a ¼-cup of sel gris to about a teaspoon of your ingredient of choice, and pulse it a few times in a cheap electric coffee grinder. Why sel gris? Because it has a very high water content. When you blend sel gris with some other ingredient, the resulting flavored salt is intensely vibrant both in color and in taste.

Typically, I have on hand:

  • matcha salt (ceremonial, superfinely powdered green tea)
  • lavender salt
  • tangerine salt
  • smoked paprika salt
  • kaffir lime salt
  • saffron salt

The color palettes and flavor profiles of these six salts are, I think, exquisite. They can turn the most ordinary of dishes – poached eggs, steak, a block of tofu, grilled chicken, corn-on-the-cob – into sublime taste sensations, with no work other than simply pinching some and sprinkling it on. This is my kind of cooking!

If you take away just one thing from this website and from my books, let it be this: good salt is your friend! It can elevate your cooking from the predictable and  mundane into something lofty and invigorating.

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The End of Overeating

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It’s not often that I read a book that begins to reach out, encloses itself around my neck, and starts to squeeze. Dozens of powerful ideas are like tentacles that not only grip, but begin to work their ways inside my throat. This isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds; I immediately know that I’m reading something that’s going to stick, and to live with me, for a very long time.

David  Kessler is the man, and his new book, “The End of Overeating,” is the cephalopod hanging around my neck. This is probably the best book ever written –well, to my knowledge it’s the ONLY book written—about the neurology/biology of appetite, and how this knowledge is used, developed, and exploited by industrial food concerns.

Kessler’s ideas are remarkable for many reasons, but let me outline just three of the big ideas in this book that I think are most relevant to our community here. There is much more to say about all of this, but for now:

  • Big idea #1` Human beings have evolved to react in autonomic ways to foods that are, to use Kessler’s term, “hyperpalatable.” By this he means foods that tend to combine fat, sugar, and salt, with much emphasis given to texture, in ways that are easy and convenient to purchase and to consume, and that are reasonably affordable for most.

If you imagine the menus of the big fast food chains and, especially, of the big chain megacorporate restaurants like Chili’s, the Cheesecake Factory, and Outback Steakhouse, and their 2,000+ calorie bombs like the “blooming onion,” and buffalo wings (which are actually appetizers), you quickly arrive at the definition of a hyperpalatable food: doubly, and sometimes triply, fried foods that layer fat, salt, and sweet on inexpensive delivery vehicles (onions, cheap meat, potatoes, zucchini, etc.) and serve it with a sauce. The insides of these foods are soft and almost pre-chewed, really, and the outsides are crispy/fatty. Just a few chews are necessary to get them down. All of this makes them hyperpalatable.

  • Big idea #2 Hyperpalatable foods tap into brain circuits in surprising ways. When we taste highly palatable foods, taste buds in the tongue respond by sending  a signal to an area of the lower brain responsible for controlling many involuntary activities, such as breathing and digestion. That activation enables the body to perceive a rewarding experience.

Neurons in the brain that are stimulated by taste and other properties of highly palatable food are part of the body’s primary pleasure system known as “opioid circuitry.” The opioids are also known as endorphins, chemicals produced in the brain that have rewarding effects similar to morphine and heroin. Stimulating the opioid circuitry with food drives us to eat foods that deliver the strongest “hit” possible, with “hit” being the combo of fat, sugar, and salt, delivered as pre-chewed as possible.

The opioids produced by eating high-sugar, high-fat foods aren’t just stimulating; they can relieve pain or stress, and calm us down, at least temporarily. Infants cry less when given sugar water. Eating highly palatable food activates the opioid circuits, and activating these circuits increases consumption of highly palatable food. It’s a perfect cycle that results in the consumption of more calories than we are evolutionarily equipped to handle.

One small region lies at the center of all that pleasure. The “hedonic hot spot” is just one cubic millimeter, the size of the head of a pin, in the nucleus accumbens. When the nucleus accumbens is activated, it causes us to like something, to *really* like something.

  • Big idea #3 The food industry has essentially hijacked the brains of tens of millions of Americans (and others, of course, but this is primarily an American phenomenon) by making and marketing foods that hit all these neuronal sweet spots, which only stimulate our desire for more.

Kessler offers mesmerizing – and bone chilling — descriptions of how restaurants and industrial food concerns manipulate ingredients to reach the “bliss point” – it’s an inverted U shape that adds more sugar, salt, and fat until we reach the top of the curve. Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. The section on the Snickers bar, and how it achieves its path to neuronal bliss, is alone worth the price of the book.

Early human diets contained only about 10 percent fat. Sugar intake, primarily from ripe fruit, was even less. But these foods were essential sources of the energy needed to survive, and we developed the biological tools/neuronal circuitry to lust after and appreciate them when we could get them. We have more than 300 olfactory receptors to sense the odors associated with fats, as well as an innate preference for sweetness, and it’s not hard to understand why, after reading Kessler.

The second half of the book is more concerned with practical ways to gain control of one’s eating habits, with emphasis on mindfulness as the path to lead us out of the grips of hyperpalatable foods that really are very, very bad for us. Effective intervention, mainly through mindfulness and “nudges” we set up for ourselves – don’t have bad foods laying around the house, reduce portion size by serving on smaller plates, learn to think of some foods as enemies that disgust us, and many more — draws us away from the conditioning power of a stimulus before it triggers its usual response. Breaking mindless eating habits is supremely, extraordinarily, difficult. But forming new ones, like we discussed recently, is one good way out of a bad cycle that we want to eliminate.

So how does all of this relate to breakaway cooking? Breakaway cooking, too, likes sweet, fat, and salt. Very, very much.  I couldn’t help but notice that some of my tastiest dishes are indeed somewhat hyperpalatable. Salts are used widely, as are fats like good olive oil and good butter, and even some animal fats, especially duck fat, and a faint touch of sweetener in the form of fruit, maple syrup, agave, honey almost always makes a dish really shine. Texture is hugely important – nothing satisfies like an umami-laden crust of, say, pulverized shiitake, pulverized dried tomato, and herbs pressed into a piece of meat or tofu and then lightly fried or roasted till highly crispy.

The difference between, say, the Cheesecake Factory and breakaway cooking at home, concerns both quantity and quality – small amounts of extremely high-quality olive oil, flavored salts, vinegar, fruit/agave/maple syrup/honey, and tarting up  a vegetable “carrier.” I also think the big chains have yet to understand the power of umami. God help us if they do!

Check out the book, please — you won’t find a more compelling analysis of why we eat the way we do today. Would love to discuss it here.

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The Art of the Quick, Tasty Lunch

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More often than not these days, around noon or 1 pm I find myself rooting around the fridge’s vegetable drawer in search of something for lunch. The goal is to have something on the table in 10 minutes, or roughly the same amount of time it would take to nuke and serve something frozen (not that anyone reading this DOES that!).

Now, this style of cooking and eating lunch necessarily means that you have some vegetables on hand, which is the hardest part of the whole exercise. But having a good selection of quality vegetable laying around the fridge is one of the kindest nudges you can give yourself. You can keep the bin pretty full by shopping regularly at your local supermarket, by visiting your local farmers’ market regularly, or by having your vegetables delivered through a CSA. I like the latter option, since it requires zero effort on my part (this is the most effective type of nudge: I do absolutely nothing after initially setting it up, and vegetables simply show up on my doorstep).  It also guarantees that I’ll eat seasonally, since CSA boxes are by definition seasonal. Then again, I like shopping at farmers’ markets too, but that’s almost as much of a social outing as it is a hunt-down-good-vegetables option.

However you do it, try to keep your veg bin fairly well stocked.

Carrots and onions are always worth keeping around, as are leafy greens of just about any type. These utterly simple basic ingredients mean that a tasty, quick, nutritious lunch is just minutes away. Here’s how I do it:

  • peel and chop a few carrots (I like chopping them in non-uniform shapes, though they should be fairly small since they’ll cook a lot faster if smallish)
  • peel and roughly chop half an onion
  • saute those together in some olive oil, and spice it up a bit: always add good salt and pepper in liberal amounts, but also think about having little bowls of spices around (my method of having these little bowls around can be outlined in a future post, if someone requests it). I like tossing in pinches of ground coriander, cumin, star anise, fennel, saffron, and whatever else I have laying around in pinchable form.
  • add some chopped greens (I used Chinese broccoli in the photo above), or just about anything green for that matter — regular broccoli, snap peas, blue lake beans, winter greens, spinach, etc.)
  • toss in some leftover meat, if desired and happens to be on hand. I omit this about as often as I include it.
  • cook until everything is soft. This may or may not include the step of adding a little liquid (stock, carrot juice, wine, etc.), lidding it, and braising it for a bit if the veggies require it.
  • top with some fresh herbs, if desired. But seriously, when aren’t they desired?

That’s it. As your knife skills improve, this daily task gets easier and easier, until it becomes pure pleasure to use a heavy, sharp, quality knife. It’s an unbelievably handy skill to have.

You’re now eating a terrific, wholesome, veggie-laden lunch that makes you feel great afterward as you go into the rest of your workday.

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Michael Pollan on How American Cooking Became a Spectator Sport

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Well the maestro has done it again. Michael Pollan has a lovely screed in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch: How American Cooking Became a Spectator Sport, and What We Lost Along the Way.” For anyone perplexed at the massive rise of viewers of the Food Network, and how it can be that jillions of people are more interested in watching cooking than actually doing it, and how this rise has paradoxically coincided with the rise of fast food and the “home-meal replacements” sold at supermarkets, it’s a must read.

Among other gems, Pollan writes:

  • We learn things from watching these cooking competitions, but they’re not things about how to cook. There are no recipes to follow; the contests fly by much too fast for viewers to take in any practical tips; and the kind of cooking practiced in prime time is far more spectacular than anything you would ever try at home. No, for anyone hoping to pick up  a few dinnertime tips, the implicit message of today’s primetime cooking shows is, “don’t try this at home.”
  • So-called fancy food has always served as a form of cultural capital, and cooking programs help you acquire it, now without so much as lifting a spatula. The glamour of food has made it something of a class leveler in America, a fact that  many of these shows implicitly celebrate. Television likes nothing better than to serve up elitism to the masses, paradoxical as that might sound.
  • The Food Network has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch.
  • I suspect we’re drawn to the textures and rhythms of kitchen work, too, which seem so much more direct and satisfying than the more abstract and formless tasks most of us perform in our jobs nowadays. The chefs on TV get to put their hands on real stuff, not keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi; they get to work with fire and ice and perform feats of alchemy.
  • In countries where people still take cooking seriously, they also have more time to devote to it.
  • When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat, and salt; these are three tastes we’re hardwired to like, which happen to be dirrt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as teh delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite.

And as a bonus, here’s a conversation with Pollan on yesterday’s Fresh Air, talking about the article. Check it out!

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The Pressure Is On! Star Anise Turkey

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Well, after WAY too long an absence, the pressure cooker reentered my life today! For years I did have a reasonably modern one but it was aluminum, got pretty scruffy looking, and didn’t make it with the last move, and I vowed to upgrade to a stainless, larger one (I got the eight-quart capacity one).  I never had one of the old-style scary ones, those rattling, dangerous-looking contraptions that would sometimes literally blow up, but I do remember being terrified of the one in my grandmother’s kitchen, with stories of extremely hot pressurized food on the walls and ceiling after scaring the crap out of everyone! So many of us have a not-so-irrational fear of these things.

Happily, today’s manufacturers of pressure cookers have figured all this out. They are now  totally safe, and easy to use; you can’t even open them until the pressure goes back to zero (why did it take them so long to figure this out?).

So what are they good for? Lots of stuff, but I especially like them for cooking tough cuts of meat. Many cooks are intimidated by the tougher cuts like shoulder, shank, and round, but pressure cooking quickly breaks down muscle fibers into collagen, which makes the meat so fork-tender and soft, infused with whatever flavoring you care to impart to it, that you almost need a spoon, not a fork, to eat it. And, of course, it imbues the house with its incredible aromas. They’re also wonderful for beans.

The virgin outing with the new machine featured turkey thighs. I do like the taste of dark turkey meat, but I’ve had problems cooking it to perfection. Problems, be gone! I gave them a very heavy coating of freshly ground star anise, which has a magical affinity with turkey, salt, and pepper, and sauteed them, with a little olive oil over high heat. After deeply browning both sides, I removed the two gigantic thighs and added a large onion (roughly chopped), a few peeled carrots, about half a cup of fresh ginger, a manzano chile, and a half a moqua (an entry on this remarkable Asian vegetable will follow soon), and cooked the veggies for about five minutes. Back in went the turkey, along with about two cups of homemade chicken stock. Cooked under pressure for about 40 minutes.

It makes me happy when meat just falls, with the slightest microprodding, off the bones. And that’s exactly what happened to this turkey. Most of the veggies just melted, so I pureed them with a stick blender, and added a handful of blue lake green beans. Served with a big pot of brown rice cooked in chicken stock and perfumed with a few kaffir lime leaves, along with a chilled glass of Australian riesling. It was heavenly.

Any pressure cooks out there? What’s your favorite thing to do with a pressure cooker?

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