Saturday, September 24, 2016

Fish & Chips

How do you become a designer? According to Tony Fadell, don't let anything that annoys you slip away from your mind. We notice little annoyances all the time, but we let most of them go for the sake of sanity. If you want to be a designer, hold on to those little details...

Of course I notice little idiosyncrasies in the kitchen because I spend a lot of time in it. I thought I'd at least take the first step and not let these things slip my mind. I've always been annoyed at the little pot with its oversize handle. When there's nothing in it, the pot can't stand on its own! It tips over because the handle is too long and heavy. What on earth?

I bought a brand new set of silverware recently, only to replace it a couple of weeks later. After all these years, I've finally had it with poorly designed spoons, forks and knives that ruin my dining experience - every time they fall from the plate and bowl and hit the floor between the kitchen counter and the table, every time they feel awkward in my hands and in my mouth, every time they feel too heavy for what they are and what they are supposed to do.

I've also had more than a fair share of soup bowls that are cute but relatively useless. Other than serving soup, a soup bowl should also be able to be used as a serving bowl and as a meal in a bowl because I don't have enough cabinet space for every single-purpose tableware known to mankind. A soup bowl should not be too small for obvious reason, but also should not be too big that my hand can't hold it. Worse yet, some bowls are not even stackable.

Another thing I've not wanted to slip my mind is to do the fish and chips project. I've always wanted to make good fish and chips - fish with crispy crust, light but provides enough coverage so that the fish stays moist and tender, chips crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside.

I've found the perfect recipe for perfect chips. It is from April Bloomfield - thrice cooked fries. It is fairly simple, choose good ol' russet potatoes, peeled or not, cut into 1/2-inch thick strips. First boil them for 5 minutes, drain and leave to cool. Then fry them twice, each time for 5 to 7 minutes until golden crisp. I've found that sometimes, only one frying is needed, so use your good judgement. Don't forget salt and pepper and shake, shake, shake. They make a world of difference for chips.

It's the fish part that's been tugging at me. There are so many recipes, some with eggs, some with oil, others with baking powder. What really works? The one ingredient, other than flour, that all can agree on is to use beer as the liquid of choice. Beer has carbon dioxide and alcohol which help achieve a light and crisp crust. CO2 in beer dissolves at lower temperature, thus forming bubbles when it hits the hot oil, creating a crisp and airy texture. Since alcohol dissolves faster than water, a beer batter cooks quickly, reducing the chance of overcooking the food it coats.

One fine day, I went to Costco and bought 4 lbs of tilapia fillets. I used 4 different beer batter recipes, sampled them immediately after cooking, and compared them side by side. Here is my account of this very greasy saga.

1. With cornstarch and egg
1/2 cup of flour
1/2 cup of corn starch
about 1 cup of beer, enough to make a batter resembled of a thin pancake batter
1/2 of an egg, beaten
1/2 tsp of salt

First is an adapted version from serious eats where the author claimed that adding cornstarch made for a "shatteringly" crunchy crust, but "remarkably un-greasy". Well, the crust was certainly crunchy, but thick. When I pierced the fork through the crust, it broke off literally like a piece of fried corn chip. It took a while to become golden crisp, thus may work better for really thick fillets. For a piece of tilapia of about 3/4 of an inch thick, the fish was a little mealy inside, a sign that it was cooked for too long. I'm not sure why the author decided to use egg, since that would make for an even thicker batter. Make sure you add plenty of beer and perhaps reduce the amount of cornstarch to 25% if you will use this recipe. It should resemble the texture of a thin pancake batter.

Overall, this was my least favorite among the 4.

2. With egg and olive oil
1/2 cup of flour
1/2 cup of beer
1/2 egg, beaten
1 tsp of olive oil
¼ tsp of lemon zest
1/2 tsp of salt

The second version is a recipe from Saveur that I use for oyster fritters, which I love. This batter is very thin, so using egg makes sense. The egg helps the batter adheres better to the oyster and helps keep the oyster tender. The crust was certainly shatteringly crunchy. However, it was maybe too thin as a fish batter. It works well for oysters because they are plump and juicy creatures. This batter will not be suitable for thin fish fillets.

3. With baking powder
1/2 cup of flour
1/2 cup of beer
1 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp of salt

This recipe comes from Jamie Oliver, and it was my favorite among the 4. The baking powder must have helped the flour rise, creating a crispy and airy crust, at the same time provided adequate coverage for the fish. Fish was tender, moist, and flaky. Since the flavor profile is very delicate, it's best to use aluminum free baking power. I tasted a slight metal taste in the end result.

4. Basic, with spices
1/2 cup of flour
1/2 cup of beer
1/2 tsp of salt
1/2 to 1 tsp of spice mix of choice

The last version is from the local news station. It basically includes flour and beer. I added a teaspoon of mix ground spices, just to see if it makes a significant difference in flavor. The result is good. Crust is crunchy but does not feel light or airy like the baking powder combo. There is a light spice flavor coming from the spice mix. You will probably get more mileage from sprinkling on the spices after cooking instead of adding it to the batter.

A sprinkling of salt and pepper with a squeeze of lemon juice and the fish is ready for your enjoyment. It's recommended that you savor this concoction immediately after cooking, which is rather difficult if you are attempting to make both fish and chips. One way around it is to cook the chips first, then keep them warm in a 200F oven while you are frying the fish. The other option is just to enjoy the fish with something else, like coleslaw, and save the chips for another day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pão de Queijo - Brazilian Cheese Bread

I miss traveling...

The last trip was November of 2014, to New Zealand. It's been almost half a year, about the time it takes for me to get the travel itch again. But the reason I miss travelling intensely this time is because with everything else going on, it will be a long time before I can travel again…

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Not that I will not go anywhere at all. N and I talk about taking short, baby-friendly trips instead. We discuss Hawaii, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Jackson Hole, Montana, and other amazing places reachable by car or a short flight, of which I embarrassingly admit that I have never set foot upon.

But they will be short trips; in accommodating hotel rooms; filled with restaurant meals. They will give me the comfort of being on holiday; but not the pleasure of traveling. I will miss much the long train rides, the hostel beds, self-cook hostel meals, disposable time to stare out to a rainy day, and free time for contemplation.

If not for any reason other than my selfish one, I hope that my baby will also love traveling as much as I do. So that soon enough, I shall be able to take them on the road – maybe for a long hike to Machu Picchu, a boat ride among the Pantanal marshes, or perhaps to climb the Andes in Argentina, as I have always wanted so badly to return to it.

Paraty, Brazil

And along the way, to learn how the rest of the world lives and eats...

The Amazon, Brazil

About this chewy, gooey cheese bread - I learned from my trip to Brazil almost 5 years ago. It is made with iconic ingredients of South America – potato, manioc, and cheese. It is good bread.

200 gr tapioca flour
200 gr potato
50 ml milk
50 ml vegetable oil
7 gr salt (or 1 tsp)
50 gr queso fresco or other fresh cheese, grated
1 egg

Peel and cut the potatoes into small cubes. Put the potatoes into a pot with water and boil them until they are soft. Drain the potatoes in a colander. Add the potato cubes, tapioca flour and salt to a food processor and process until you have a coherent mixture.

In a separate bowl, add together the egg, milk, vegetable oil, and mix until incorporated. Add the liquid part to the flour part. Finally add the grated cheese and mix.

Oil your hands and form the dough into little round balls. If the dough is too wet, add a little bit more of the tapioca flour, but not too much! Only until you can mold the dough with your well-oiled hands. 20 minutes in the oven at 450F and enjoy warm.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

What to Pack for the Road

Over the years, I have been learning how to pack for the road. It shouldn't seem so difficult, but it's only after the last trip that I am finally confident of my ability to pack properly for traveling.

I am a backpack traveler: I carry a heavy-duty backpack and it carries most of my belongings during my travel. Everything must fit in it, meaning my wardrobe must be sized down to necessity. Yet it must also provide for a variety of climates and situations. During a month of traveling, I will move between humid forests and warm beaches, from dry and cool mountains to wet and cold glaciers.

Beloved backpack finally retired after 10 years.
Not because of wear and tear, but sunscreen spillover...

The keys to packing for this sort of adventures are light weights and layers. At the foundation, I pack for the summer: 3 camisoles, 3 short-sleeve t-shirts, 2 pairs of cotton/linen pants, and one pair of jeans. The jeans need to be loose enough to fit over a pair of tights, not one of those skinny jeans coveting recent fashion trends.

This makes 9 combinations for summer tops, which for me means I only have to do laundry every 2 weeks. For obvious reasons, I love the camisoles with built-in bras.

I usually have 2 extra short-sleeve shirts that are a bit prettier. They weigh little and take up little space, but add a small touch of fancy to my wardrobe. For a night out on the town, these two will also do the job.

For cooler weather, I add 2 more layers to my attire - one long-sleeve t-shirt and one sweatshirt. The long-sleeve t-shirt provides enough cover when it's a bit chilly. The sweatshirt keeps me warm when it's cold. These are my most boring layers, but they do their job well. Since I only keep one of each, I keep their colors muted so that the dirt and stains do not show themselves too much.

When it's really cold, I break out my last layer - wool hat and scarf, one wind-breaker, rain-proof heavy-duty jacket, and one pair of tights. The most important body parts to protect are the ears and throat, so I make sure to wear my hat and scarf. Each time, I also bring along a pair of gloves for good measure, but I find that I never use them. I use my hands often and the gloves get in the way. Colorful scarf and hat are preferred as they brighten up my winter attire, which would have been otherwise dull. The tights are to be worn under the jeans.

In a more conservative surrounding, I add 2 long-sleeve shirts and a large square scarf to wear as a headscarf. They are to replace layer 2, so I keep them interesting and lightweight. Wrinkle-free is of course preferred.

Adding a few other basics such as underwear, swimwear, sunglasses, sun hat and you should be well prepared for the road ahead, wherever you shall go.

May you travel much, travel light, and I leave you with a favorite quote, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

Friday, December 19, 2014

Chocolatey Chocolate Cake

A chocolatey chocolate cake is dark, so dark that it looks almost black. It's my preference for a chocolate cake.

How to achieve such darkness in color and flavor? -2 tricks that I have learned along the way. For color: by alkalizing the cocoa powder to create an effect similar to Dutch cocoa powder. For flavor: by using strong coffee as the liquid medium.

About: color
Alkalizing cocoa powder transforms its color and smoothes out its flavor as well. To make it "extra dark", I treat Dutch cocoa with baking soda instead of natural cocoa powder. Using natural cocoa powder still makes a stark difference, and in the case of the United States, it is easier to obtain than Dutch cocoa.

If you add extra baking soda to the cake mix along with all other ingredients however, the cake will be over-leavened as it bakes, and then sink into the center as it cools down. So to fix this dilemma, Shirley Corriher has a genius solution: to treat the cocoa powder with baking soda, separately, in a boiling liquid. The baking soda will have mostly activated by the time it hits the oven. This step kills 2 birds with one stone, because it also "blooms" the cocoa powder, which further intensifies its flavor.

About: flavor
Coffee and chocolate are like the long lost lovers born half a world apart. Did you know that the coffee originates from Africa and the cacao originates from America? Yet they complement each other so well. It's common to see chocolate being added to enhance the flavor of coffee. The Vietnamese coffee owes its unique flavor to added chocolate essence and believe it or not, butter essence. Vice versa, coffee also enhances the flavor of chocolate.

So to kill 3 birds with one stone, I will bloom the cocoa powder in coffee, and add baking soda while I am at it.

Aside from this extra step, this chocolate cake is unbelievably forgiving. The cake batter is thin, but the surplus water will only turn the crumb into a chocolate fudge, which is all around delicious. And the cake tastes better the next day. And it lasts up to 2 weeks. What more can one ask for in a cake?

Recipe adapted from Hershey's Black Magic Cake
2 cups of sugar
1-3/4 cups of all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of Dutch process or natural cocoa powder
2 tsp of baking soda
1 tsp of baking powder
1 tsp of salt
1 tsp of vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup of plain yogurt
1 cup of strong black coffee
1/2 cup of vegetable oil

Mix the sugar, salt, cocoa powder, and baking soda together. In a large sauce pan, bring the coffee to a boil and add the cocoa powder mixture. It will rise tall and rise fast, so watch it vigilantly. Once it does, turn off the fire and let it rest for at least 15 minutes.

Mix the flour and the baking powder together.

Add to the coffee cocoa liquid the vegetable oil and mix well, then the vanilla extract, the eggs, and the plain yogurt, mix well. Finally sift in the flour mixture and mix well.

Oven to 350F.

For one big cake: 50-55 minutes; for 2 smaller cakes: 40-45 minutes; for cupcakes: 30 minutes.

Let the cake cool completely before smearing on the frosting. I make a simple chocolate ganache as frosting for this cake.
1/2 cup of heavy cream
8 oz of bittersweet chocolate chips

Bring the heavy cream in a pan over medium heat to a boil. Take the pan off the heat and add the chopped chocolate, swirling the pan so that all the chocolate hits the heat, then leave for a minute to melt before whisking till smooth and glossy.

Let stand for an hour, whisking occasionally.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Good Chicken Roast

A few things on my mind lately...

1. I miss the old days when I could just sit by the pond for hours to watch the birds cooing on the power lines. But I still see back to those days when, as I sat by the pond for hours to watch those birds, I told myself that I must be back to working.

2. I learned finally that my struggle, it is the struggle for relevance. I had been doing so much, trying so much. But save for traveling, they had all been nothing more than hobbies. All these activities and learning help fill my time on this earth. But they do not make me feel like I've contributed something important.

3. I realized that traveling makes me feel so much alive. When I travel, I find my center; I see incredible beauty from nature, sometimes from people too. I have not traveled for more than a year, and I'm losing it!

4. I want some good chicken roast.

To make a good chicken roast, you want a free-range chicken, not too lean however. I prefer one with some fat so that when melted, it shall moisten and flavor the bird and later on, the potatoes and veggies too.

You will also want one of small weight, not exceeding 3.5 lbs. More skin per ounce of meat means more fat per ounce of meat. That translates to more flavor, more yum.

A good roast must be crackly golden on the skin and moist in the meat. So we will dry brine the bird for 2-3 days. Pat the chicken very dry. Slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets, then use a fingertip to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Push an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets. Rub the skin with a mixture of sea salt and cracked black pepper. Use about 3/4 tsp of sea salt per lb of meat. Place the chicken onto a rack and place in the fridge. If your fridge space is tight, just shove it into a loosely covered container.

We will roast the bird under high heat for the crackling skin effect, yet because the meat has been dry brined for a few days, it will not be dried out from the heat. Heat a cast-iron pan over medium heat, place the chicken in the pan, breast side up. It should sizzle. Roast the chicken in a 475F preheated oven for 30 minutes, turn over for 10 minutes, then turn over again for the last 10 minutes.

P.S. This recipe is not mine; it is perfected at Zuni Cafe.

Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until soft.

When the chicken is done, tilt it downward to drain the dripping into the pan and place it onto a plate. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting. Meanwhile, roast the carrots with half of the fat rendered from the bird - 375F for 30 minutes, turn over at half-time. Crisp up the potatoes in another pan with the other half of the fat.

Yes, this will go with a glass of wine, preferably red; perhaps paired with this: for glory; to celebrate death (of the bird), and life too.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Ramen Bowl

Ramen, like all great noodle soups, is best enjoyed in a reputable ramen shop. A hearty bowl of ramen doesn't cost much more than US$10, but attempting to make a great bowl of ramen is going to take time.

However, there are a few dilemmas where you may resort to making your own:
1. There is no reputable ramen shop in your area.
2. You are feeding many mouths and trying to save $$$.
3. The wait time to eat a ramen bowl from your reputable ramen shop is longer than the time it takes to make ramen!

My situation falls into #3. Lately, it's been taking hours even just to get seated at the reputable ramen shop. I am finally desperate enough to try my own hands at this addictive noodle soup.

The ramen bowl for those serious about ramen has to be tonkotsu, a melange of pork bone and pork fat melting into a complex and delicious soup over a number of days, then laced with an extra layer of creamy goodness that is finely chopped pork fat. If you would like to venture into the tonkotsu world, I redirect you there, there, and there.

I want to write here a simpler recipe for ramen: one that still takes time, but is more flexible to the working schedule. Now that I have a full-time job, gone are the days that I can labor, albeit with love, over a complicated dish.

This recipe makes its journey throughout the week, starting the weekend before and finishing the weekend after. The ingredients for this ramen recipe will also feed you well before and after your ramen bowl.

On an early saturday morning, you will make your way to your beloved Asian grocery store. You will wait for the butcher to come out with a gorgeously golden roasted pig - head, tail, feet and all. And since you are the early bird, you will get for yourself the best - the pair of front trotters. Not only the meat from these roasted trotters is delicious on a sandwich or on rice, they will add extra flavor and thicken your ramen soup nicely. Did I mention they are also among the most affordable?

On sunday morning, after that delicious trotter meat sandwich, you will gather the leftover. Into the pot they go with half an onion, a couple tablespoons of garlic powder, a knob of ginger, and a few healthy spoons of salt. Fill the pot with water, bring to a rolling boil and then reduce to a simmer for the rest of the day. Refill water as necessary. Before your day ends, turn off the fire and let your broth rest the night.

During the week days, the broth pot will sit on the stove, calmly waiting for you to come home to bring it back to a rolling boil again for a few minutes. If you live in a hotter and more humid area, you may need to let it rest in the fridge during the day.

Friday doesn't arrive fast enough, but you will wait patiently for your ramen broth to become sexier each day.

Day before ramen day
Bring the soy sauce solution to a boil in an oven proof pot:
1 cup of water
1/2 cup of soy sauce
1 cup sake
1/2 cup sugar
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 scallions, trimmed and roughly chopped
A knob of ginger, skin on, crushed
1 shallot, skin on, split in half

The chashu: Using butcher twines, tie neatly a 2-lb slab of pork belly (the best), pork shoulder, or pork leg (the most affordable). Drop the pork into the soy sauce solution and cover the pot. Oven to 280F, 3-4 hours, rotate the pork at half time. Let cool to room temperature.

The soft-boil eggs: use a pin to pick 2 tiny holes on both ends of the eggs; bring water to a boil and add a tsp of baking soda; reduce the water to a simmer and gently add the eggs; 6 minutes for room-temperature eggs, 7 minutes for cold eggs; drain the hot water and add tap water to cool the eggs; gently peel the eggs and add them to the chashu pot.

Let them both rest in the fridge overnight.

Ramen day
The broth: strain out the solids, bring to a rolling boil and add extra flavor to taste - more garlic, soy sauce, miso paste, sesame paste.

Fresh bamboo, cut into thin sticks
Fresh or reconstituted dry wood ear mushroom, cut into thin sticks
Minced garlic
A pinch of paprika powder to give color
Seasoning salt
Cooking oil

then stir in:
Sesame oil
Toasted sesame seeds
Chili, optional

Add cooked ramen noodle to the bowl, top with a slice of chashu, an egg, and bamboo-mushroom stir-fry. Use a blowtorch for a quick char before filling the bowl with the boiling broth.

Garnish with finely chopped scallions, a tsp of sesame oil, a tsp of fish sauce to taste, extra chilies.

Enjoy your ramen bowl now.
Enjoy the leftover chashu and eggs for the following week too!

Life is yum yum good.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rum Apple Clafoutis

I know this blog has been quiet for a while. And no, I have not given up on blogging...

The thing is that since completing all of my travel plans, I needed to get back to the white board and to figure out what's next. So it is back to job searching; and job searching can be frustrating and straining. Thus, there is not much energy left for cooking, for blogging, not even for photography.

A crucial item to job searching is time. Everything takes time means that everything requires patience, of which I do not have a lot. Whichever one lacks in character, life will throw the same test at oneself, over and over again until one learns it.

However, time thankfully goes on and it's apple season again! Again I found the little apples at the farmers market that warm my spirit. I baked an apple cake one afternoon. Then I had a glass of wine, I listened to some jazzy music and I realized that I was feeling pretty good. Life tasted sweet again. It was to cherish because these feelings come around rather rarely in this time of uncertainty.

Adapted from David Lebovitz's French Apple Cake

3/4 cup (110g) of flour
4 large or 5 mediums apples
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) of sugar
1/4 cup of dark rum
1 stick (115g) of butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup of whipped cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt

Peel, core, and cube the apples. Toss with a little lemon juice to keep them from browning.

Mix well the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a stand mixer, beat the sugar and butter until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time and beat the mixture until fluffy. Add the flour mixture, then fold in the apples, the rum, the vanilla, the whipped cream until just incorporated.

Oven to 176C/350F. Grease and heat a 9-in cast-iron pan. Pour the cake mixture into the pan. Spread in pan and bake for 50 minutes until golden and tester toothpick comes out clean. Let it rest for 10 minutes before flipping the cake onto a plate.

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