Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tilapia and Green Beans, with Home-Dried Powders - the July Daring Cooks Challenge

This month’s Daring Cooks recipe was pretty unusual – at least, compared to what I usually cook for my family. The July challenge recipe was hosted by Sketchy, of Sketchy’s Kitchen. He chose a skate recipe from the Alinea Cookbook, which is to be served with “powdered traditional flavors” – more on exactly what that means in a minute.

First, the original recipe called for skate, a creature similar in appearance to a stingray. Many Daring Cooks chose to substitute other types of seafood because skate is on the “avoid” list. (According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other similar websites, skates have been overfished, and most are caught by a method that results in high levels of accidental catch of other fish. The fishing method also results in substantial damage to the seafloor.)

So, I substituted US farmed Tilapia for the skate, and thought the results were delicious. I suggest you do the same! (Please check out the rest of the list and try to make good seafood choices when you prepare seafood in the future!)

Besides the controversial main ingredient, the recipe brings up another interesting topic. For one, it touches on molecular gastronomy, a modern method of cooking that I have not, until now, had a chance to experience. This version of MG involves home-drying an assortment of foods to be pulverized into flavorful powders. Thus, the flavors of the dish are intense and very concentrated. The powders are served alongside the main course – seafood poached in a velvety butter sauce – and the fish is dipped into the assortment of powders as it is eaten. The result is really a taste explosion in your mouth – it’s delicious. Definitely something I’m not used to eating, though!

The recipe does require some special equipment. Best results will be achieved if you own a dehydrator. Some Daring Cooks were able to duplicate the results in a microwave. It’s also possible to use an oven set on a very low temperature – but it takes a very long time. You’ll also need some way to grind the dehydrated foods. Many people used coffee grinders or a mortar and pestle. I used a food processor and sifted the powders through a fine mesh strainer.

I wasn’t certain if I was going to be able to complete this month’s challenge. For one, I don’t own a dehydrator or a microwave. Nor do I have a coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. And, it’s been 90+ degrees nearly every day lately, so I wasn’t too excited about running my oven all day to complete the challenge. To top it all off, I have had a problem with my back lately, so I have been moving around more slowly than usual.

However, my mother owns an awesome dehydrator and I was able to talk her into shipping some dehydrated food to me. (Thanks, Mom!) In addition to her contributions, I dried some of the thinnest of the required ingredients in my oven, purchased some already-dried items from the grocery store, and pulled a few spices out of my pantry to come up with the rest of the ingredients. Sorry, with this bad back, that was the best I could do!

I’m glad I did what I could to put together the challenge. Like I said, the food was so flavorful and delicious. Definitely different, and definitely outside of my usual comfort zone of cooking – but that’s why I joined the Daring Kitchen. If you’ve got a dehydrator and haven’t tried a recipe like this yet, give it a shot. It’s really not too difficult at all.

The version I’m posting here reflects the changes I made to the original recipe. There were a few ingredients I was unable to source, so I left them out of this post. Check out Sketchy’s blog if you want to see how the challenge recipe was originally written for us. His blog also includes instructions for using a microwave or an oven to dry the powders.

Tilapia and Green Beans, with Home-Dried Powders
Serves 4

1 red onion, trimmed and thinly sliced
30 grams capers (in brine, not oil-packed)
1 cup fresh Italian parsley (left intact)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro (left intact)
1 ounce dried lemon peel (I used the brand Melissa’s, which is sweetened)
3 Tbsp dried instant milk powder
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 lb butter (4 sticks)
300 grams fresh green beans
Salt, to taste
4 tilapia fillets
2 bananas (neither overripe nor underripe)
Juice of 1 lemon

Pink peppercorns
Ground white pepper
Sweet Hungarian paprika
Any other ground flavoring you have or want to make that you think will match the flavors of the dish

First, the onions and capers need to be dehydrated and ground. Special thanks to my Mom, who dried these for me using her dehydrator. See Sketchy’s blog if you want to try a different dehydration method.

Dry the red onion slices in a dehydrator at 135 degrees until they are brittle, about twelve hours.

Use a food processor, mortar and pestle, or coffee grinder to grind the brittle onions. Pass the ground onions through a fine strainer and store the powder in an airtight container.

Rinse the capers under water. Use a towel to remove as much water as possible. Dry the capers at 135 degrees until dry, about 12 hours. Use a clean grinding implement to grind the capers. Pass them through a fine strainer and store the powder in an airtight container.

The parsley and cilantro also need to be dried, but they don’t take nearly as long. I used my oven to dry these. You can use a dehydrator if you’ve got one.
Preheat the oven to the lowest setting possible (mine only goes down to 200 degrees, so that’s what I used). Cover a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Bring some water to a boil in a small saucepan. Blanch the cilantro and parsley in the boiling water for one second, then transfer them to ice water to stop the cooking process. (You don’t have to keep the two herbs from mixing.) Pat the herbs dry with paper towels. Lay the cooled cilantro and parsley out on the parchment paper as flat as possible. Don’t let the leaves touch one another, or they won’t dry properly.

Dry the herbs in the oven, turning them over once, until they are brittle. At 200 degrees, I left them in for 15 minutes on each side. Nearly all of the pieces were sufficiently dried, except for the thickest stems and a few clumps of leaves I missed. I just crunched them up a little bit, picked out the couple of pieces that weren’t brittle enough, and ground the rest up. Use a clean grinding implement to grind up the cilantro and parsley (again, you can mix it together, no need to keep it separate).

Pass the ground herbs through a fine strainer and store the powder in an airtight container.

In a clean bowl of a food processor, grind the lemon peel until it is as small as possible. (It won’t pulverize like the other dried things will, but it’ll do. It will bring an interesting variation in texture to the final dish.) Store it in an airtight container.

In a small skillet, toast the dried milk powder over medium heat, stirring occasionally. (Be cautious not to burn it!) Turn it out into a small bowl and allow it to come to room temperature. Mix the brown sugar into the cooled milk powder. Store it in an airtight container.

The recipe may be made ahead to this point.

Before we start cooking fish and green beans, we’ll first make a beurre monte, a buttery liquid we’ll use for poaching. Heat 60 grams of water in a large saucepan to a boil. Meanwhile, cut the butter into rough cubes (approximately 1 Tbsp each). Once the water has reached a boil, turn the heat down to low. Stir in one cube of butter at a time, waiting to add the next cube until the last one has melted. Keep this liquid heated, but do not allow it to exceed 195 degrees F.

Now we’ll divide up the beurre monte. Three-fourths of the finished beurre monte will stay in the large saucepan over low heat. One fourth of the finished beurre monte should be transferred to a medium saucepan over low heat. After you've divided it up, add water to the each beurre monte to double it’s volume – this doesn’t have to be exact and can be “eyeballed” up the side of the pan. Or, if you’re more comfortable doing so, you can pour each portion of butter sauce into a liquid measuring cup and add an equivalent amount of water. Again, keep the liquids heated, but not above 195 degrees.

Decorate your serving plates:
The powders are to be plated alongside the fish, swirled in a decorative fashion. Since my back was causing problems and I wasn’t physically up for a lengthy trial-and-error process, I plated the powders on several smaller plates. (Much easier, because if you screw it up, you’re not out a whole plate of multiple powders.) You can check out other Daring Cooks' photos for more plating ideas.

I plated crushed pink peppercorns and ground white pepper (both storebought), garnished with whole pink peppercorns

the ground red onion and capers, garnished with a chip of dried red onion,

ground white pepper and sweet Hungarian paprika (also storebought), garnished with several chips of dried pineapple (another dried item my mom shipped - and they were delicious, but wouldn’t pulverize well enough to use in this recipe),

and the powdered parsley/cilantro and the sweetened lemon peel, garnished with a few of the larger, unground pieces of peel,

It is much easier to decorate the empty plates now, rather than waiting until after the fish is cooked. Otherwise the fish will get cold while you fumble with the various powders. Just be sure you leave room for the fish later!

We’re ready to start cooking:
Cut the green beans diagonally into bite-sized pieces. Add them to the smaller portion of beurre monte. Turn the heat to medium and poach the beans until they are done to your liking. Taste the beans and season them with salt.

While the beans are poaching, turn the heat of the larger saucepan up to medium. Add the tilapia fillets (you might need to do this in batches) and poach, turning once, until the fish turns white and easily flakes apart. (That should only take a few minutes on each side.) Be careful to avoid overhandling the fish, or it might fall apart. After you’ve removed the cooked fish, season it with salt.

Meanwhile, thinly slice two bananas diagonally. Squeeze the lemon juice over them to prevent browning. Fan several banana slices on each serving plate. Top the bananas with the drained green beans. Top the beans with a fish fillet. Sprinkle the milk powder/brown sugar mixture on top of the fish.

Serve the fish piping hot. Encourage your eaters to dip the fish in the various powders, experimenting with different flavor combinations. My favorite was definitely the capers and the red onions!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Simple Biscuits and Jam

Homemade biscuits are so easy, I never can understand why anyone would want to make them out of Bisquick. These biscuits are tender and soft. They don’t call for butter, so they’re the perfect neutral base for homemade jam. You can easily add a bit of sugar to them to make biscuits for strawberry shortcake.

I served these for breakfast this morning with some homemade blueberry jam, following the same small-batch blueberry pan jam recipe I used for the June Daring Bakers Bakewell Tarts challenge.

Simple Baking Powder Biscuits
Makes 5 to 6 biscuits

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with a piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper (or you can grease the sheet if you’d prefer).

Mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the shortening and use a knife, fork, or pastry blender to cut in the shortening until small pea-sized pieces are left. The appearance should be very similar to this picture, from the crust for the Bakewell Tarts I made for the June Daring Bakers challenge.

If you’re making homemade pan jam, start it now. Let it slowly simmer while you finish the biscuit dough.

Pour in the milk, and use a fork to mix the dough only until it is barely combined. The dough will appear rough and ragged and some dry bits will be left in the bowl. Do not overmix the dough.

Shape the dough into five or six freeform biscuits and place on the cookie sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned, fluffy, and just barely done in the center.

If you’d like to make these as dessert biscuits for strawberry shortcake, add 2 Tbsp of sugar to the dry ingredients in the first mixing step.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Strawberry Pecan Pork

I have recently rediscovered pecans. I didn’t think I cared for them much (pecan pie still doesn’t do anything for me), but after eating them on top of a strawberry poppyseed salad at a certain lunchtime restaurant here in town, I have been enjoying their nutty, crunchy taste.

This recipe not only makes use of pecans, but it also makes use of some of the two giant trays of strawberries I bought at the store today. (We’ll be having strawberries in *everything* until I get those things cut up and frozen…)

This recipe involves coating pork chops in ground pecans. I use three small cereal bowls to hold the flour, egg, and pecans. If your cereal bowls are too deep, it might be easier for you to use pie tins. You could also use large zip lock bags – that has worked well for me in the past, particularly when I’ve made pecan-encrusted pork for large groups.

Strawberry Pecan Pork
Serves 4
2 cups pecans, chopped
3 cups strawberries, hulls removed
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Approximately 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 egg
4 thin-cut boneless pork chops
1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil

In a small skillet, lightly toast the pecans over medium heat until they become fragrant and just barely begin to brown. Reserve a few tablespoons of the nuts to use as a garnish. Turn the rest of the toasted nuts out into the small work bowl of a food processor; reserve the small skillet. Process the nuts until finely ground – but not so much that they turn into nut butter.

While the nuts are toasting, slice the strawberries into chunks. Place the sliced strawberries in the empty small skillet. Add the brown sugar and balsamic vinegar. Don't start cooking the strawberries yet - just set the skillet aside until you’re ready to start the cooking process.

You will need three small cereal bowls or similar vessels. Place the flour and a pinch of salt in one bowl. In the second small bowl, lightly beat the egg and 2 Tbsp of water. Place the ground pecans in the third small bowl. Place a wire rack (like what you’d use to cool cookies) over a large plate – this will be the holding spot for the encrusted pork.

Use a pair of tongs to dip a pork chop into the flour mixture. Turn it, patting flour onto it to be sure it is evenly coated. Shake off any excess flour and transfer the meat to the egg mixture. Use the tongs to push the pork into the egg mixture, covering the entire piece. Allow any excess egg mixture to run off, then transfer the pork into the pecans. Gently pat the pecans onto the surface of the pork, coating the surface evenly. Transfer the encrusted pork to the wire rack. Repeat with the remaining pieces of pork. (Use tongs or something similar - try not to use your fingers – you’ll be picking gluey pecan bits out of your fingernails for hours.)

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the pork, cooking it in batches if necessary. Handle the pork as infrequently as possible, or you’ll risk damaging the pecan coating. Panfry over medium high heat until the pork is cooked through, turning it only once. The cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the meat, but you can expect 3 to 5 minutes per side.

After you flip the pork and begin to cook it on it’s second side, place the skillet with the strawberries over medium heat. Give them a stir every so often. They should soften up and begin to release their juices – it will just take a few minutes. Once they begin to soften, turn the heat down to low.

After the pork has finished cooking, transfer it to a serving plate, reserving the large skillet. If it’s cool in your kitchen, you might want to tent the pork with foil to keep it warm. Turn the heat off of both pans.

Transfer the strawberry mixture to the still-hot large skillet, reserving the small skillet. The liquid in the strawberries will start to deglaze the pan. (It will bubble up, so use caution!) Add a quick splash of water – maybe 1/4 cup at the most – just enough to keep the strawberry mixture from totally boiling down and burning. Stir the strawberries, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze any browned bits. (This all just takes a few seconds.) Once the browned bits are incorporated into the strawberry sauce, transfer the strawberries and sauce back into the small pan where it is cooler – again, this will keep the strawberries from burning.

Serve the pork topped with the strawberries and sauce. Garnish with the reserved nuts. I served it alongside some asparagus, too, because that’s one of my favorite veggies!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Grilled Pork Chops with Paprika Rub

This spice rub is so easy to make and it tastes great. The prep is quick, but it does need time to sit in the refrigerator to let the meat take on the flavors. I usually make it in my mini food processor so I don't have to cut up the garlic - especially if I'm multiplying this recipe to feed a lot of people.

A lot of my weeknight meals are inspired by recipes in Everyday Food magazine…this is modified from their July/August 2009 issue.

Grilled Pork Chops with Paprika Rub
Serves 4

4 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp coarse salt
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
½ tsp hot Hungarian paprika (cayenne pepper will work if you don’t have hot paprika)
½ tsp ground black pepper
4 bone-in pork chops

Place all of the ingredients except the pork in a small food processor bowl. Process until the garlic is finely chopped and the ingredients are all incorporated. Scrape the mixture into a gallon-sized thick plastic bag.

Add pork chops to the bag. Seal the bag up, squeezing out any excess air, and gently knead the bag to coat the meat with the spice rub. Refrigerate at least one hour, up to overnight.

Grill over medium-high heat until pork is cooked through. Cooking times will vary depending on the thickness of your pork, but you’re probably looking at 3 to 5 minutes per side. Pork is considered “medium” when the center is at 160 degrees F – don’t overcook it or it’ll be dry and tough.

If you’re not into pork, try this on beef. This past Father’s Day, I served this spice rub on ribeye steaks and it was a hit. I’m sure it’d be good on chicken too.

If you’re looking for something to take along on a camping trip, toss this together in a thick baggie and freeze it before you leave home. Stick the baggie in a watertight container and let it sit in the ice in your cooler, thawing little by little over the course of your camping trip until it’s soft enough to successfully grill over your campfire. It’ll be delicious, I guarantee!