Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Roast duck a l’orange with Le Birlou and Cointreau accompanied by mixed greens and saffron rice

Coming in at a very close second to pork, duck is my favourite type of meat.  It is rich in flavour with just the right amount of gameness.  Like pork (and unlike chicken), duck meat is covered by a layer of fat, which helps them float on water while they swim (or more accurately, paddle over water like a boat).   

What this means of course, is that you can get the benefit of nice crispy skin.   Contrary to popular belief, things at their crispiest are not things at their fattiest.  In the case of crisp skin, the crispiness results from the fat being rendered and cooked out of the skin.  If the fat was still there, the skin would be slimy and unpleasant to eat.   

A further benefit of crispy skin is the duck fat that is cooked out of the skin can be collected and saved for other purposes.  The classic use is to make roast potatoes coated in duck fat.  It not only makes them really crisp but with a pinch of salt, adds amazing flavour.  You can keep duck fat in an airtight container in the freezer for months.

A classical favourite when it comes to duck is the traditional French dish of duck a l’orange.  The essence of this dish is to contrast the rich flavour of a rare crispy-skinned duck breast against the sweetness and slight acidity of an orange sauce.   It is very simple conceptually, but quite difficult to execute well.   I am always reminded of an episode of Heston’s Feasts, where Heston Blumenthal re-invents duck a l’orange in the manner of Willy Wonka.

I too have tried to be creative with this dish, but my changes are much more subtle (and primitive):
  1. I roasted a whole duck instead of using duck breasts.
  2. I combined Navel oranges with mandarins to add a slight Asian twist to the sauce.
  3. I added Le Birlou and Cointreau to the sauce to add the flavours of chestnut and apple to the sauce.  I made sure to add the liqueurs in later on and not boil all of the alcohol out of them.  The alcohol adds a further dimension to this dish.  
  4. I originally planned to accompany the dish with roasted chestnuts as well, but ran out of time to do it properly.  I believe that this would work well with the dish.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Roast pumpkin soup with Mexican spices, fried chorizo and sour cream (with recipe)

This post has been a long time in the making.  I promised three of my colleagues that I would post a soup recipe.  For one reason or another, I either didn’t have the chance to cook or if I did, I didn’t have enough time to make soup.  However, I did eventually find time to make soup and weeks later, write about it.
Being male, I don’t have soup all that often.  That is, soup is usually not filling or substantial enough to constitute a meal and in general, there isn’t enough time on most nights to have more than one course for dinner.  Also, it can take a really long time to make soup, especially if you want to make your broth from scratch.  From a cooking perspective, a good soup must take the time it needs to take and cannot be rushed. 
In the vein of coming up with something substantial, I thought about making a roasted pumpkin soup.  I consider pumpkin to be a bit of a crossover vegetable.  That is, it is a vegetable in the squash family, but is essentially sweet in flavour.  Having grown up in America, my earliest memories of pumpkin relate to trick or treating on Halloween and pumpkin pie.  I had always associated it with sweets and dessert because I had never eaten pumpkin with anything savoury. 
However, it is the sweetness of the pumpkin that combines perfectly with salty meats as well as spices and heat.  As such, I came up with the idea of combining the pumpkin with:
(a)    homemade chicken and vegetable broth to form the flavour base and add complexity;
(b)   sliced chorizo sausage to add substance and balance;
(c)    toasted Mexican spices to give the soup some real character and give it a nice kick; and
(d)   a dollop of sour cream and fresh parsley to complete the picture.
I served the soup with slices of crusty bread, which is most useful for mopping up the last bits of soup in the bowl.  
Roasted pumpkin soup with Mexican spices, sour cream and parsley served with crusty bread.
I made the soup over two days because I made the chicken broth from scratch.  You can use store-bought stock if you want, but I think it is really worth the effort to make your own.  In fact, it turned out really well.  The soup was really flavourful, just the right thickness it disappeared really quickly.
Anyhow, now onto the recipe (which I will separate into the following two parts).
·        Stage 1: Chicken and vegetable broth.
·        Stage 2: Pumpkin soup with fried chorizo.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Roast pork shoulder with quinces poached in honey and orange blossom water (with tips on curing, roasting and making perfect crackling)

I had a pork shoulder sitting in my freezer for a number of months that I was meaning to use.  However, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a confit, roast it or braise it.  In the end, I decided to make a roast.  The weather in Melbourne has been pretty cold, wet and crappy as we are now into winter.  My girlfriend was coming back from interstate and I thought a nice roast would be a perfect welcome home on a Sunday night.
Pork is an amazing meat.  The meat itself is quite lean but there is a layer of fat between the meat and the skin.  The fat layer protects the meat from the heat and therefore keeps the meat nice and moist during roasting.  Also, when cooked properly, the fat will start to render and the skin will dry up and turn into crispy, delicious crackling.
As for the flavour, pork has quite a distinctive flavour that matches well with all kinds of other flavours.  It really allows you to be creative in ways in which are basically impossible with something like beef.  Also, because the flavour profile is stronger than something like chicken, you can balance pork with strong flavours.  If you tried to balance strong flavours against chicken, the chicken will be largely overpowered (such a dish could still be tasty, but you would not necessarily be tasting the chicken itself).
My girlfriend’s Mum very kindly left us some fresh quinces from her quince tree a few weeks ago.  They were probably at their peak of ripeness last weekend, and I really wanted to find a good use for them. 
Quinces are somewhat like sour green apples, but with much more sourness.  In terms of texture, quinces are really hard and need to be broken down through cooking.  When cooked properly, their texture becomes very similar to pears.  In a way, a quince is similar to a cross between an apple and a pear.
I decided to match my roast pork with slices of quince.  I ended up poaching the quinces in a syrup made from orange blossom water and honey.  After poaching the quinces in the syrup, I continued to gently boil the syrup down until it was a thick reduction on the verge of caramelising. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mother's Day special menu (with recipes)

Salt crust roast chicken with sides
As millions of other people around the country did on Sunday, I had celebrated Mother's Day with my parents for lunch at their place.  For her present, I designed a menu to cook at my parents' place.   Apart from not being great at picking gifts, I find it very difficult to express myself in material gift items.

Being Chinese, family has always been a central part of my life growing up (although I have a very different appreciation of it now than when I was a kid).  Food in turn has been pretty central to bonding.  Whenever I go back home to Taiwan, we always share meals with other family members.

Although we mostly go out to restaurants nowadays (Taiwan is a crowded place and most people have pretty tiny kitchens at home), my early memories of family bonding involve eating shared dishes around a table that have been prepared by my grandmother.  She was a fantastic cook and would always cook for the whole family.  I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, because I remember always wanting to eat out at restaurants or go to McDonald's.  I guess it's in the nature of children to want what other kids are having (or what they think other kids are having).

Unfortunately my grandmother passed on a few years ago, but I always associate home cooking with her, and I know that my mom certainly does.  As such, cooking for my mom on Mother's Day is kind of like a celebration for her mother as well. 
Fried bananas flambéed in Cointreau with
homemade vanilla and macadamia ice cream.
Anyhow, I thought that I'd make a roast for my mom.  The weather in Melbourne has been horrible of late, and I thought that a roast would be a perfect way to take the edge off the chilliness.  In particular, I had always wanted to try roasting a chicken using a salt crust pastry and thought that it'd be something my parents have never heard of and would enjoy.  
I understand that baking chicken in salt crust pastry is a classical French technique that produces a beautifully seasoned and really moist bird (although I understand that many different cultures have their own salt crust techniques, including the Chinese).  I understand that this cooking method has a few major benefits:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Smoky and spicy macaroni and cheese with saffron (with mac and cheese cooking tips)

In my first blog post, I wrote about an American-themed dinner party which included a macaroni and cheese dish served in a ramekin.  The reason it was served in a ramekin because it was a part of a six-course tasting menu.  Tonight, the macaroni and cheese was the main dish, to be served with a sausage.
Macaroni and cheese is a dish that is very close to my heart.  I grew up in Michigan in the States, and I consider macaroni and cheese to be an American national dish (if not the national dish).  I remember enjoying nice baked macaroni and cheese during the snowy Michigan winters.  It really was the best way to warm up after playing in the snow as a kid, perhaps second only to drinking hot cocoa with marshmallows.  It was the ultimate soul and comfort food.
An authentic mac and cheese is cheesy, saucy and well seasoned and spiced.  It is usually baked with a layer of breadcrumbs on top to create a crunchy textural contrast.  There is also a debate about whether it should be served with ketchup, although my take on that debate is that it’s all good – with or without the ketchup.
As I wrote in my earlier blog post, you can’t get good mac and cheese in Australia.  You tend to either get the Kraft snack version made with cheese powder, or you tend to get overcooked macaroni in bland cream sauce with some cheese.  Even the mac and cheese that I tried at Rockpool, a top restaurant in Melbourne, was decent but hardly amazing.
My latest mac and cheese creation retains its spirit of warmth and comfort, but I have tried to lift it to another level with the generous use of saffron, chili oil and my own blend of spices (chipotle chili powder, cayenne pepper, sweet paprika, turmeric and smoked salt).  These spices add a completely different dimension to a roux-thickened milk sauce with melted cheddar, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, provolone dolce, parmesan and Philadelphia cream cheese. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bangers and mash variation with general sausage cooking tips

To me, there is something comforting about sausages.  You can find variations of sausages in cuisines the world over.  Sausages can be made with all kinds of different minced meat, herbs and spices.  They can be cooked, smoked, dried, fermented or a combination of the above. 
In Australia, sausages are typically associated with barbecues.  It is pretty standard to have sausages cooked on the barbecue served on a slice of white bread with tomato sauce (ketchup).  If you want to get fancier, you can top that off with caramelised onions and shredded cheddar cheese. 
If you want to head indoors, sausages are often served with mashed potatoes as per the British tradition.  This is a standard dish you’d find in most pubs and it usually comes with rich gravy.  It is not the fanciest food, but it’s comfort food – something most people would have had at home with their families at some stage.
As for why sausages and mashed potatoes are known as “bangers” and mash, it appears that this term originated in poorer times, when sausages were made with higher water content.  The result is that if you turned up the heat too much, the water would turn into steam and explode through the casing.  This is less of a problem nowadays, although it still does happen sometimes, depending on the type of sausage you use and your heat settings on the stove.
When I recently made bangers and mash, I decided to try making the dish with Ćevapi, a traditional grilled minced meat dish found in southeastern Europe.  I understand it is a type of kebab meat, and is typically served with flatbread.  These sausages are short and stubby and don’t have casing (which means that they are definitely not of the “banger” variety, unless if you count the “bang” of flavour it contains).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mexican fiesta at breakfast with a Mexican omelette (with recipe)

We ran out of bread on the weekend (that is, bread without mould), and I had a quick look through the fridge to see if I could whip something together fairly quickly.  Otherwise, I would take our dog Chilli with me for a car ride to our local McDonald’s drive-through.  And to really add pressure to the situation, the time was about 10:15 so if I didn’t decide quickly, I would miss the 10:30 cut-off for breakfast at McDonald’s.
As it turns out, I had some eggs and some leftover salami sticks so poor Chilli didn’t get to ride in the car.  That was enough to form the base for an omelette and I was thinking about ways in which I could make it interesting.
In the end, I decided to go with a Mexican-style omelette.  For me, there is something festive and fun about Mexican food.  In fact, there was a stage of my life when I would go out to Taco Bill’s (not to be confused with Taco Bell) in the Melbourne CBD every Friday night with a friend of mine (and sometimes others) and rack up a $100-150 bill between us – mostly from drinking margaritas.  We would usually sit there drinking until the restaurant was truly closed and the staff were busy cleaning the floors and tables around us.  Then we would stumble out, and occasionally drink some more. 
Anyhow, I came up with a reasonably simple omelette.  That is, although the omelette had a few different ingredients, it was pretty simple to make. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

An adventure in making sourdough bread

Rye-based sourdough baguette.
I hope you all have had a wonderful Easter long weekend.
I have been making bread fairly solidly for the past two years.  Bread making gives me an immense sense of satisfaction, because unlike most types of cooking where you are essentially making something already dead even more dead, bread making is a process of giving life to something.  That is, you turn a very basic mixture of flour, water, yeast, salt and sugar into a living, literally breathing, dough.  You mix it, knead it, prove it, shape it, prove it again (and sometimes a further time) and bake it. 
I find a lot of parallels in the series of transformations that is bread making to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  Bread is like the beautiful butterfly at the end of the series of transformations from the source ingredients.  Like the life cycle of a butterfly, each stage must run its own course and can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be rushed.  This is probably where the simile starts to get a bit stretched, but if you rush or otherwise compromise any step along the way, you could end up with a moth.
Anyhow, even though I feel I have gotten quite adept at making bread with wheat flour and yeast over the past couple of years, I had yet not ventured into sourdough baking.  Aside from the fact that sourdough bread is delicious, there is something very traditional about taking some sourdough starter culture, feeding it and taking care of it before you even start the baking process. 
A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine gave me a small quantity of sourdough starter (or “levain” in French).  A sourdough starter is effectively a fermented bacterial culture (in particular, lactobacillus) that you feed with flour and water to breed it.  It differs from yeast because the bacteria creates lactic acid, which is what gives the bread its sour taste.  Also, it works much more slowly and gently as a leavener, which makes it suitable for low gluten flours like rye. 
I understand that this starter originally came from an organic bakery in Paris.  It made its way over to Australia on a plane and it was given to a friend of mine, who took care of it for years in Melbourne’s southeast.  At one stage, it was combined with another sourdough culture made locally by my friend in Melbourne, although I am told that the features of the Parisian culture dominate the dough.  A few weeks ago, I acquired it from my friend and the current starter lives in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. 
Sourdoughs take on different features depending on the climate in which they are stored, as the bacteria in the atmosphere, altitude, climate, etc. will change the sourdough culture.  Therefore even though my starter has European origins, it is now a very distant relative, but no doubt with a lot of similarities to its ancestor.  The only way I will be able to know for sure is to go over to Paris one day and taste the sourdough at that organic bakery.  However, that is an idea for another time.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Roast rack of lamb with roasted baby potatoes and boiled baby peas and carrots tossed in butter

Making food is my creative outlet.  To me, it is a harmony of science (namely chemistry, because cooking is really a form of applied chemistry) and art.  This process starts well before the actual cooking of a dish.  There is a design aspect to food, and this starts with picking what kind of ingredients you want to put together, what kind of product you want and then what techniques and processes you need to apply to bring life to the design (and this includes the flavours, textures and presentation).

Of course, when it comes to enjoying food, not all of the above steps are necessary.  For some people, presentation is a luxury and can be pretentious.  Also, if the food is bad, it doesn’t make it taste any better.  Similarly, you don’t have to be creative all the time.  Even though there are infinite combinations of ingredients and techniques that are yet to be tried, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t perfectly good “standard” dishes already.  That is, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it. 
However, I think that anyone will agree that flavour is probably the most important, and the rest can vary depending on the person eating, or just the mood that you are in.  Sometimes I feel adventurous, and other times I crave something familiar.
The design
This week, I craved something familiar, and decided to make a roast lamb dish from a rack of lamb that I bought at the market last weekend.  Quality lamb is naturally tender, with a flavour that is on the mild side (that is, compared to meat from more mature sheep, such as mutton). 
I also decided to keep it very simple to the point of matching it with baby potatoes, baby carrots and baby peas.  The advantage of using baby vegetables is that they tend to be sweeter in flavour (especially carrots).  I also think that they present better on the plate, due to their small size.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mini veggie burger with crispy potato wedges and habanero garlic ketchup (bacon optional)

I realised that the three previous posts this month all involved the use of bacon in one way or another. I was thinking about unofficially declaring this to be bacon month and going with a fourth bacon dish (you can never eat enough bacon), but instead have decided to go in an entirely different direction.
I am not usually one to eat or make veggie burgers (as they say on the Simpsons, “you don’t make friends with salad!), but on the spur of the moment my girlfriend and I bought some veggie burger patties on special. 
Anyhow, I find that to make a good veggie burger, it is not quite as simple as putting in what you would for a beef burger and then switching the beef with a veggie pattie.  This is because a beef patty is primarily a mixture of protein and fat, where a veggie pattie is predominantly carbohydrate, with perhaps some protein from lentils, chickpeas or the like.  Therefore if you are not careful, your veggie burger will be quite heavy, dry and bland.
The way around this is in the bun, sauce and salad, which I tailored for the veggie patty.