Thursday, October 10, 2013

Homemade Apple Butter

As relatively recent transplants to New England, we are trying to make conscious efforts to do super New England-y things for a few reasons; one of which being that when February rolls around and we are sick of winter, we can look forward to the fun things that New England has to offer when it's not winter.  Fortunately fall in New England is amazing, so it's the perfect time to get out and make good on those little promises.  Late September and early October are prime leaf peepin' and apple pickin' season, and we cashed in on both of those this year.  We went to a local orchard in Ipswich called Russell Orchards, which is right near one of our favorite places on earth:  Crane Beach.  Despite crowds, unhinged children, and a bit of a traffic nightmare to get there, once we got into the orchards we had a great time.  We had prepared well, to the point of bringing a shopping list of apple varieties for our various applications (apple butter, roast pork with apples, apple pie, plain old eatin apples) so we quickly found our rows and got to work.  For the apple butter I chose a mix of McIntosh and Cortland.  Coincidentally the McIntosh's were so good that I ended up sneaking a few more in just for eating, they were by far my favorites.  Not too sweet, very crisp and not mealy at all.  We got home and I immediately got to work on my apple butter (sneaking snacks in along the way, of course).

Homemade Apple Butter

2 tsp butter
4 pounds apples (McIntosh, Cortland, Jonagold, Granny Smith, almost anything really)
Roughly ½ gallon apple cider
1 c sugar
½ c brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground allspice
Juice of 1 lemon

Start by peeling and coring the apples.  You should end up with roughly 3-3 ½ pounds of cut apples.  Heat up a large pot over med/low heat and melt the butter.  Add the apples and sprinkle some sugar on top of them in the pot.  Stir to mix and cook the apples for 5 minutes, until they start to soften and are fragrant.  

Pour in enough apple cider to come to the top of the apples.  Pay attention as you add the cider, because the apples will float.  You want enough cider for the apples to simmer evenly (exact amounts are not super important because this is all going to reduce down anyway).

Bring the heat up to medium and simmer the apples for approximately 30 minutes, until they are broken down and looking applesaucey.

Pour the mixture into a blender (be careful blending hot liquids, blend in batches if necessary and only fill your blender about halfway up to prevent the lid from blowing off and spraying hot applesauce all over you and your kitchen).  Or, if you have an immersion blender, now's a great time to make it feel like it was a solid investment.  Blend the apples until they are smooth, then return to the pot.

Add the rest of the sugar, as well as the spices and lemon juice.  Bring to a low simmer and let it reduce for roughly 2 hours.  If you have a splatter screen or something similar for frying, place it overtop of the pot.  As the butter reduces, it seriously turns into apple lava and it will explode all over the place.  Here's are some incremental shots of the butter reducing for me:

When it is heavily reduced, simply turn off the heat and allow the butter to cool.  At this point, you could can it, but I have to say that canning is something that I have not done yet in my time as an amateur food jerk, so I will have to defer to one of the many other internet resources for the best way to store this for the long term.  My alternative was to throw it all in mason jars and try to use it all before it goes bad.  So far this is working out well for me, and it has forced me to find creative ways to work apple butter into other recipes (like, say, pork roast... or morning yogurt... or oatmeal).  This butter is really amazing and totally superior to store-bought stuff, all it requires is some apples and a little patience.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pig's Head Terrine

So here's the setting for this story:  I come into work the day after a company barbecue.  One of our employees decided to do a whole hog barbecue for the outing, which by all accounts was a resounding success although I was not present to sample the bounty.  I open up my mini fridge behind my desk to put my lunch in for the day, and see a large foil package in there that is obviously out of place.  I remember being offered part of a pork belly from this whole hog so I assume that is where this large package came from, although the package is much bigger than a portion of pork belly.  I decide to open it up, and lo and behold a pig's head is neatly packed in the layers of foil.  I came to find out later that another coworker had requested it but was only really interested in acquiring the skull.  I saw an opportunity to do something fun and learn something new, in addition to taking what might otherwise have been waste and turn it into something better, so I offered to do something with the pig's head and just return the skull in a cleaned state, which worked out for all parties involved.  A handshake later and I was the temporary owner of a pig's head.

So now I faced this question:  what do you do when you have a pig's head and no idea what to do with it?  The answer, for me, was pretty simple - it's time to learn how to make terrines.  I had to go to my chef extraordinaire friend, Mike, who gave me a great recipe and was willing to let me share it.  It's time consuming - at least a couple days worth of work, but I was able to do it over a couple of weeknights after work.

After it was all said and done, I brought the head in to work for everyone to try, and it received pretty raving reviews, even from the non-adventurous eaters who knew damn well what they were about to try.

For the head:
1 pigs head
Potentially other pig parts (country style ribs, spare ribs, shoulder)

This is hard to provide a clear cut recipe on.  I ended up with what I felt was a smaller head, so I picked up some country style ribs to add to the recipe to make sure I didn't end up with less meat than expected.  If you can, make sure that you get a head including the jowls, as they contain a significant amount of meat (they are also delicious).  You will see in my photos that the jowls had been removed but I did have them separately, so they did make it into the terrine.

For the brine:
2 gallons water
1 cup salt
(Ratio = .5c salt to 1g water)

1 head garlic
1 onion
10 sprigs parsley
10ish sprigs thyme
4 bay leaves
2 tbsp black peppercorns

The amount of water you use is really dependent on the size of the head.  The salt to water ratio is .5 c per gallon of water.  One method to figure out how much water to use is add measured amounts of water  to a pot (so that you can keep track of how much salt you need to add).  Check whether the head is fully covered by the water or not, if not, continue adding measured amounts of water (I used a standard 2 cup measuring cup to add water.  For quick reference, there are 4 cups in a quart, and 4 quarts in a gallon.  That makes 16 cups in 1 gallon).  When you have the head fully covered, remove it from the liquid.  Start by heating up the water and adding all of the ingredients.  Feel free to add or remove ingredients based on what is available - the only required ingredient is the salt.  Bring the brine just to a boil and turn off the heat, allowing it to cool and the ingredients to steep.

When the brine is cool, add the head and let it sit in the brine overnight - 16 to 24 hours in total.

For the stock:
Amount of stock equal to the amount of water you used in the brine (I used 2 gallons)
1/2 c white wine
10 sprigs parsley
10 sprigs thyme
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 head garlic
1 onion
1 square foot cheesecloth

The plan here is to fortify stock with some flavors, which will then become our cooking liquid for the head.  I used the same ingredients that used in the brine, and I used a mix of homemade stock and store-bought stock (confession:  I don't often have 2ish gallons of homemade stock on-hand and ready to go).  In my mind, fortifying the stock in addition to the fact that the head will add so much flavor and body to the stock means you should feel no shame about using store bought stock here, just use a standard reliable stock (365, Pacific, and begrudgingly, Rachel Ray brands all come to mind for me).  Just don't use boullion paste, it's way too salty.

If you want make your life easier, wrap the ingredients in the cheesecloth and make a little bouquet garni.  Drop that into the stock and bring to a boil. Keep the ingredients at a simmer while you prepare the head for cooking.  You can see in this photo that I opted not to make my life easier, but somehow I was able to summon the strength to make it all work.

For the terrine:
Remove the head from the brine and pat it dry.  Discard the brine.  Allow the head to sit on a hotel pan or something that can catch liquid, it will continue to drip for a little while after being removed from the brine.

Another tip to make your life easier:  wrap the head in cheesecloth and tie it down with butcher's twine.  This will keep everything together, especially late in cooking when the connective tissue has broken down.

Bring your stock to a simmer and add the head.  Simmer the head for 2 to 2½ hours, or until the meat pulls away very easily from the head.  Something interesting to note while this is happening - take notice of the viscosity of the liquid before you begin braising and how much it thickens over the course of cooking.  I swear that by the time the head was fully cooked, my stock looked like it was the thickness of canola oil or something.  I realize that is a gross comparison, but it was crazy to watch the gelatin be released from the head and thicken the stock.

Remove the head from the stock and allow to cool.

For the terrine:
White wine vinegar to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Gelatin (sheet preferably, otherwise powder)

Reduce the stock:

You shouldn't need all of the stock for this - I used approximately a quart of stock and reduced it in a separate saucepan.  Add a couple of sheets of gelatin, or a packet of powdered gelatin if you are using that.  Reduce the stock by half, then season to taste with vinegar, just to brighten it up and cut through the richness a little bit.

Reserve the rest of the stock and freeze it, it's probably the best stock you will ever have on hand so save it for something special.  Like maybe ramen.

Clean the head:

Use your fingers to remove every piece of flesh from the skull.  This was a real test of my meddle.  It's easy to wax philosophical about 'nose to tail' cooking and believe in whole animal cookery, but until you have picked through an entire pig's head with your bare fingers, you can't really have a grasp of what that entails.  I'll leave out the gory details here but be ready for a couple deep breath moments.  Try to pick through and separate the meat from the large chunks of fat, glands, and other connective tissue.  I discarded most of those things and kept just the meat.  Try to keep it in nice sized chunks, you don't want it to be shredded or minced, it should keep some form and texture.  Put the meat in a mixing bowl and season to taste with white wine vinegar, salt and pepper.

Make the terrine:

If you are lucky enough to own a terrine mold, this is where you would want to break it out.  If not, choose a container that will hold the meat (I used a Pyrex bread pan).  You will also need a flat press-like object shaped roughly the same as the pan that you will use to compress the terrine.  I sacrificed a takeout tupperware lid to get something roughly the correct size.  Line the pan with plastic wrap on all sides, and place it inside of another container that will catch any runoff liquid from the terrine. The plastic wrap lining will make removal much easier after the terrine has been chilled.  Layer the meat in the dish and apply some pressure to try to compress it slightly.

Meat added and compressed

Pour over the reduced stock until the terrine pan is filled to the top, cover with plastic wrap, then allow the entire thing to cool for 30 minutes.

Stock added

Covered with plastic wrap
Lay your lid on top of the terrine and add a heavy weight to it - try to evenly distribute the weight as much as possible.  Place the terrine in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to serve, flip the container upside down and use the plastic wrap to help remove the terrine from the mold.  Remove all plastic wrap, slice pretty thinly with your sharpest knife, and allow to come to room temperature before serving.  Serve with pretty much anything - but here are some ideas:  cornichons, bread, crackers, mustard, aioili, olives, anything else pickled, beer, wine, cider, basically everything.

Although the head seemed super intimidating at first, it ended up being a fun unexpected weeknight experiment that taught me a lot about this whole 'nose to tail' business.  It also turned out great, which certainly helps.  If you find yourself with the opportunity to try something like this, I highly suggest that you go for it!  It's not that hard, although time consuming, and you will definitely learn a lot.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Eggsperiment: Slow poached eggs (onsen tamago) in 5 minutes?

The other week I was waiting in line at the grocery store and I saw a copy of Cook's Illustrated sitting on display.  An article jumped out to me, titled "Perfect soft boiled eggs."  My curiosity was piqued so I hurried up and skimmed the article before it was my time to check out.  The biggest takeaway from the article was the use of steam to cook eggs to precise doneness - it was kind of a revelation to me, someone who has struggled with getting consistent results with hard boiled eggs.  Often, because I am scaling egg amounts, my hard boiled eggs are difficult to get quite right.  Adding different amounts of eggs to already-boiling water changes the temperature of the water significantly enough that your assumptions about cook temperature can no longer be trusted.  With steam, you know that you are always cooking at 212º (assuming you are relatively close to sea level blah blah) so whether you are cooking 1 egg or a dozen, the times are consistent and the results are predictable.  It's a fantastic knowledge tidbit to have tucked away, and a reminder of how great Cook's Illustrated can be when it is on form.  Thinking more about the concept of cooking with steam, I eventually settled on a question that I wanted to resolve:

I often cook slow poached eggs at home, could I use the steam technique to cook them at a fraction of the time?  

Slow poached eggs are also referred to as 60 minute eggs, or onsen tomago in Japan (onsen being natural hot springs, the story being that eggs are traditionally left by local residents in onsen and, upon being retrieved, are perfectly cooked).  Slow poach eggs are cooked in a water bath at a temperature of 145º for 45 minutes to an hour - resulting in a white that is just set (white but still runny) and a yolk that is beginning to thicken but not yet cooked (which would first begin to turn into a fudge-like consistency before hitting what we think of as hard-boiled).  Because the water never goes above 145º, the eggs are never done past where they should be.  The only downside to the water bath is that it takes a long time and requires a fair amount of planning in advance.  Here is a chart depicting the different doneness of eggs.  Notice that at 144º we are seeing whites turning white but very much still runny.  Also - tangent - it's fucking fascinating that 2 degrees of difference from  146º to 148º causes that much of a change in the yolks.  Eggs are amazing things.

(photo from

Cook's Illustrated recipe for soft boiled eggs was to place the eggs in a steamer for 6 minutes 30 seconds before immediately transferring to an ice bath.  I cut that to 6 minutes 10 seconds because I wanted the yolks to be even runnier (they began setting at 6:30) but otherwise it works like a charm.  I wondered if I could cut that cook time in order to just solidify the whites but not cook them to soft boiled, thus rendering me a soft poached egg.  I attempted to steam 2 eggs with times of 4 minutes and 5 minutes (I made an assumption that cooking time would follow an exponential curve, taking a while to heat up but then heating incredibly quickly after a few minutes).  My results were that the whites on the 4 minute eggs were still mostly clear and uncooked - completely unusable in their current form. The whites on the 5 minute egg were milky and still somewhat runny, and the yolk was thickened.

5 minute egg
It was a  good result, unfortunately I realized that one of my fears had come true.  Because I placed the eggs in a 212º heat source, the whites closest to the shell will always completely set (to a rubbery state).  I ran head on into the very reason that sous vide cookery exists - providing even cooking throughout a product through consistent temperature application.  You can't fake even heating, you can only work around it.  My plans were foiled and my question is answered - you cannot make a slow poached egg in 5 minutes using steam.  However, I would say that cutting Cook's Illustrated's times down did result in a totally usable egg.  For times when I don't want to wait 45 minutes but I want something resembling a slow poached egg, I will be more than happy to quickly steam one to get a similar result.  At least I found a perfectly suitable substitute.  Next time, I will attempt cutting 5 minutes down to perhaps 4:45 or so, to see if it creates noticeable differences in the amount of set whites.  I suspect that it will be difficult to find the precise point where eggs stop being clear and start being whites through steam-based heating though.

Makeshift oyakodon - leftover chicken karaage and tomagoyaki with the 5 minute egg

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vietnamese Coffee At Home

Needless to say, living in Boston this week has been pretty hectic.  It has been emotionally draining and exhausting, even to those who were not directly impacted by the week's events.  After the week that we have had, a day for rest and creature comforts is a welcome change of pace.

Ever since our trip to Vietnam, I go through periods where I get intense cravings for Vietnamese coffee.  Vietnamese coffee is much different than western coffee, it is incredibly strong stuff - jet fuel by way of coffee beans.  Often served with condensed milk, both hot or iced, it was a treat for me to have in the afternoons, especially during our motorcycle trip through the mountains, when my ears were numb and I had been huffing 2-cycle exhaust for hours.  I had never seen the little drip coffee makers that were ubiquitous throughout Vietnam, so I picked one up in Hanoi before heading home.  I also bought a couple of bags of ground coffee to keep my addiction going.

Of course, upon returning home, I failed miserably at making the small potent servings of coffee, instead getting watery runoff that obviously left most of the coffee flavor in the grounds.  I would search the internet for tips or how-to's and found nothing but advice that did nothing - convincing me of everything from the grounds being both too fine and too coarse, needing to tamp the grinds, or needing an entirely new coffee dripper (which I had a hard time believing considering mine was no different than the ones I saw in Vietnam).  I attempted and gave up several times over the course of a year and a half, before finally coming across the secret.  I hope that sharing this with the blog world will get more westerners into this stuff, because it is absolutely phenomenal.

The coffee dripper can be found on Amazon for as little as $3.  I have seen fancy ones that include clamps and screws for tightening filter plates and all kinds of features, but you don't need anything more than what is pictured above:  a perforated saucer, a well for the grinds and water, and a lid.  You also will need coffee.  You can find coffee beans grown in the central highlands of Vietnam, or some sources say to use coffee with chicory added (Cafe du Monde coffee, based out of New Orleans, is the most widely available source for chicory coffee).  The coffee that I bought in Vietnam did not have any chicory added and I will probably try sticking to a dark French roast when my last bag is empty.  

Start by bringing water to a boil on the stovetop.  If you would like condensed milk, spoon some into a glass (standard amounts are anywhere from ¼-½ of the amount of coffee).  If needed, grind the coffee finely (nearly espresso grind), then add 2-3 tablespoons of coffee to the drip well.  Place the drip well into the saucer and place the whole filter on top of your glass.  When the water is boiling, add JUST enough water to cover the grinds in the well - probably 2 tablespoons or so.  Wait for the grinds to soak up the water, you can check by tapping the side of the well, if the water sloshes then it is not quite ready.  When the grounds are soaked but not sloshing, spoon in enough boiling water to fill up the well, and put the lid on.  It will take a minute or two for the drip to begin but you should see one part of the filter start to drip.  Get ready for liquid gold.

Start to finish, making a cup of coffee could take upwards of 5 minutes.  You can lift the lid to make sure that all of the water has dripped through, and when the coffee is ready, simply take the lid off and flip it upside down.  Take off the saucer/well and place them on the inverted lid and you have a safe and no-fuss way of setting aside your used grounds until you want to deal with them.  Stir to mix in the condensed milk and enjoy.  

Take baby sips and make it last, it is worth it.