Cornish Hen – 5/9/10

Roasted chicken is such a simple dish, and is something that can also be very satisfying. A roasted whole chicken is a great way to economically serve a number of people. At it’s most basic, all one needs is a chicken and some seasonings. While very simple, a lot can go wrong in the dish. The breast meat is often overcooked, or the dark meat undercooked, as they both cook at different speeds. In addition, it can be difficult to get a nicely browned, crisp skin on the bird. The heat needs to be just right – if the heat is too high, the skin will burn before the meat is done; if it is too low, the meat will cook before you get any browning.

In this case, I chose to prepare a cornish hen. As these are somewhat like “small chickens,” if I screwed it up, I wouldn’t be stuck with a whole chicken to eat. In addition, it was easy to buy two of them, so that I could work out any kinks in the first preparation to improve on the second try.

I brined both of my hens in a brine of salt, peppercorns, sugar, bay leaves, fresh parsley, fresh rosemary, and fresh thyme. This would be a very flavorful brine, I hoped.

Upon brining overnight, I rinsed and air-dried the hens in the refrigerator.

When I was ready to cook, I stuffed the cavity of the bird with garlic, thyme, rosemary, parsley and butter. I then trussed the chicken, seasoned it all over, and topped it with a layer of butter and chopped thyme.

Unfortunately, the skin broke at the top, effectively ending my quest for a crisp skin right there. I cooked my bird at 425 degrees, expecting it to take about half an hour. Using my instant read thermometer, the bird didn’t reach my desired doneness (160 degrees) until a whole hour in the oven.

I definitely did not get the browning I wanted. Next time, I would have to use a hotter oven. Upon carving the hen, it was noticeably very juicy. I’d like to think the brine was a big reason why – as both birds were subject to this, I had a hard time knowing how much of the juiciness was attributable to the brine. I then made a jus out of the pan drippings, mixing in chicken stock, a bunch of fresh herbs, and butter.

I also roasted some potatoes, finishing them in the drippings from the hen.

I was fairly pleased with this hen. Using a thermometer ensured that the hen was cooked to the desired doneness. I didn’t get the browning I wanted, but the meat was pretty juicy and flavorful. The breast was not dry, though it wasn’t overly moist, either.

For my next hen, I was sure to try to make sure it was as dry as possible before cooking – one of the keys to a crispy skin. I was also going to use a much hotter oven, in order to get some better browning. Again, I stuffed with hen with garlic and fresh herbs and trussed it. Butter, salt and pepper was all I put on the chicken.

This time I used an oven of 475 degrees. The bird reached 160 degrees in about 40 minutes.

The browning was much better this time around, and the skin was kinda crispy. Just kinda. I realize, with such a small bird, it’s kinda hard to get my ideal browning all around.

Again, this hen was extremely juicy upon cutting into it, with juices running all over the cutting board.

I made the jus similar to the last time, but this time I elected to serve the jus separate, as a dipping sauce. The flavors of the meat would be much more apparent by itself.

To go along, I made some potatoes separate. These didn’t turn out too well. I parboiled them too long, and overcrowded my pan when I was trying to crisp them up.

I drizzled a little white truffle oil on them to add some extra depth of flavor.

The meat was cooked very similar to the last bird. The dark meat was wonderfully juicy, and the breast meat..while not dry, wasn’t overly moist. The jus helped a lot though. I was quite surprised with both jus, as I often am not very successful at making pan sauces.  In all, I was pretty satisfied with my cornish hens – they turned out better than I expected. I might be ready to move on to a whole chicken next.

Chicken Curry – 5/1/10

I’m not sure what inspired me to make this dish. I enjoy curries, and I’ve been braising a lot, so I suppose this was a logical dish. I found one of Ming Tsai’s recipes (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ming-tsai/braised-chicken-curry-with-yams-recipe/index.html), and it was quite simple. I figured I’d give it a try. I didn’t want to make one of those packaged sauce curries that you add as a sauce to your meat – you miss out on a lot of the flavor. Here, where the chicken meat and bones cook for a while in the curry, makes a much more flavorful dish.

Ingredients

* Canola oil
* 2 pounds chicken legs and thighs
* 2 large white onions, chopped
* 1 tablespoons minced garlic
* 1 tablespoons minced ginger
* 1/3 cup madras curry powder
* 2 bay leaves
* 4 cups chicken stock
* 3 large yams, peeled and chopped
* Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

In a hot stock pot coated with oil, season the chicken and brown all sides. Put chicken aside. In the same stock pot, remove chicken fat, leaving only a coating of oil and saute onions, garlic and ginger. Caramelize well, then add the curry powder. Mix quickly for 2 minutes making sure not to burn the curry powder. Add back the chicken, banana bay leaves and chicken stock. Check for seasoning. Bring to a boil and simmer slowly for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, add the yams. Serve on white rice or with toasted pita bread.

I used this recipe as a base, and modified it according to my personal preferences. I was able to find Madras curry at Whole Foods, and used a combination of that and ‘regular’ curry powder, as Madras can be fairly spicy. Instead of yams, I used a combination of carrots and potatoes – the carrots would add sweetness, and I just love potatoes in my curries.

I started by browning my chicken thighs.

I caramelized the onions, added ginger, garlic, and the curry powder and added them to my dutch oven. Then, I added the chicken stock, chicken, and carrots to start the braise.

With about 40 minutes to go in cooking time, I added the potatoes.

In almost 2 full hours of cooking time, the chicken meat was just falling off the bone, and the potatoes were ready.
Finally, I plated my curry over brown rice, with a sprig of fresh parsley from my garden.

I was quite pleased with my first attempt at a curry. The curry wasn’t too spicy, but was a nice flavor. The chicken was tender, and cooked pretty well, I thought. Maybe a little overcooked, but that’s hard to judge in a braise. Close enough. I would make this again, and I wouldn’t change too much.

Braised Pork – 4/25/10

There’s nothing quite like a slowly braised piece of meat. Cheaper cuts of meat (brisket, chuck, shanks, short ribs from a cow) are slowly simmered in a liquid, creating moist, tender meat, and a rich sauce. Restaurants can charge $20-30 for a dish such as braised short ribs, which only costs a few dollars a pound. It’s actually pretty easy to make it at home – it just takes some time and patience.

Today I went with pork shoulder (the cut of meat for carnitas and pulled pork). Five pounds of it. This cut of meat usually sells for less than $2 per pound, making it very economical. In addition, it’s one of the most flavorful parts of the pig, yielding really moist and succulent meat without needing much skill at all.

I decided to first brown my meat in a large stainless steel pan, since there’s more surface area than in my dutch oven. I planned to brown the meat, saute my aromatics, and then transfer to my dutch oven for the braise.

After browning my meat on all sides, I was left with a pan full of browned bits – perfect. This is where a lot of the flavor is developed.

I sauteed my onions and garlic in the pan, and added  my white wine, scraping up the browned bits in the process. Adding chicken stock, carrots and celery, I put everything into my dutch oven and was ready to put it into the oven for a few hours.

After about 2.5 hours, I removed the meat to allow it to rest, and reduced the braising liquid.

At this point, the pork was evidently tender, as it was easily falling apart. I put a few chunks on a plate, spooned over some of the braising liquid, and garnished with some fresh parsley and rosemary.

Ta da! The pork was really tender and moist, and the braising liquid was both rich and flavorful. I’d definitely consider this a success and would make it again. I think it’s also a great dish to make for large groups of people, as the time and effort involved remain relatively the same no matter how much meat is used (as long as it fits in the pot, of course).

Steak – 3/14/2010

To me, there aren’t many things better than a good steak. A couple of months ago, a new butcher shop opened up in the Los Feliz area called McCall’s Meat and Fish Co. Owned by a husband-and-wife team with experience at restaurants such as Sona in LA and Daniel in NYC, it appeared to be a very promising place to get some gourmet meat and fish. I finally went, and was not disappointed. They offer a pretty good selection of meats (dry aged steaks and roasts, quail, kurobuta pork cuts, and anything else they find that’s good) and a vast selection of  fish. I came away with a 21-ounce dry-aged Angus ribeye. The whole roast is shown in the display, and it’s cut and trimmed for you upon order.

As usual for a steak, I kept the seasoning simple, with salt, pepper, garlic powder, a little rosemary, and olive oil.

I got my cast iron pan as hot as possible, and seared the meat.

On both sides, in order to develop a nice crust.

I finished the steak in the oven to an internal temperature of 130 and let it rest. Beautifully browned, the steak really developed a nice crust.

While it rested, I blanched some broccoli and finished it in the cast iron pan in the meat drippings. As the pan was still really hot, I was able to get some good caramelization quickly.

Time to eat! I was happy to see I got a very nice juicy pink with the steak, and a crusty, seared exterior.

The steak was very tender, as I expected. Even better, it had a nice beefy flavor, no doubt enhanced by the dry-aging process, which draws moisture out, and condenses the flavor of the beef.  This process had the effect of a noticeably more-developed flavor to the steak. At $27 per pound (bone-in), it wasn’t cheap – but I do think I got what I paid for. The quality of the meat, including the dry-aged process, really separated this steak apart from the common supermarket variety, and was also better than what many steakhouses serve.

In all, I was very pleased with my buy. Likely the best steak I’ve ever cooked, I can’t wait to get back to McCall’s to try out more of what they have to offer!


Steamed Fish – 2/14/10

One of the best simple dishes I prepare is a Cantonese-style steamed fish. It’s pretty easy to make – it requires only a few ingredients, allowing the clean fresh flavor of the fish to stand out. I like to use a white-fleshed fish for this (I often use tilapia) and I strongly recommend using a whole fish. It’s cheaper to buy whole fish, and the flavors are better whenever you cook anything on the bone.

For Chinese New Year, I got a whole tilapia to steam. I’m using a recipe largely in-line with my grandmother’s, adapted a little bit to my tastes.  I first packed the body of the fish with slices of ginger and green onion. Then I scored the fish on both sides, drizzled a little soy sauce, and inserted ginger into the cuts. Time to steam!

It doesn’t take too long to cook a whole fish, maybe 10-12 minutes. When it’s ready, I top it with green onions and ginger, and pour steaming hot canola oil over the top. Hot soy sauce is poured over as well.

And it’s ready to eat. You have to be SO careful with a whole fish not to eat the bones. I’ve found the best way to eat all the meat from one side, removing the chunks of  fish and leaving the bone intact. Oh, and, don’t forget to eat the cheek.

Then, try to carefully remove the whole bone in one piece. If successful, you’ll get the whole bottom fillet, as shown below.

Quite simple, and pretty healthy. I like to serve this with steamed rice and vegetables, creating a really healthy, balanced meal.

Christmas 2009 – 12/25/09

Since before I was born, my family has gathered at my aunt’s place in Alameda for lunch and at my grandmother’s for dinner (a very similar setup to Thanksgiving). This year was no different.

LUNCH

First off, was lunch in Alameda. The food is served buffet-style, and my aunt makes most of the dishes.

There are a number of finger foods served, including egg rolls, meatballs, shrimp toasts, and chicken wing ‘lollipops.’ The latter was one of my favorites, and is a chicken wing and drumette folded up into a lollipop shape and deep fried.

A wide array of dishes are also served. One of the staples is chow mein.

A new side dish this year was a curried rice dish, with cashews, raisins, peas and chicken.

Caesar salad.

Another new dish – quinoa with tangerines and peanuts.

Another classic is fried wontons. I tend to snack on these throughout the day.

Pan-seared shrimp.

A new dish this year was pork belly. My uncle’s creation – it had a very crisp skin and was not overly fatty.

Another dish my uncle made was pork ribs.

Desserts included a cake from Schubert’s Bakery in San Francisco.

And a cake from Sweet Stop in San Francisco.

Homemade apple turnovers.

As a take-home, my cousin baked these treats.

It is always a challenge to find room for dinner after all this food. We end up eating throughout the day, with the main lunching coming around 1230 and desserts coming out at 2-3. Dinner tends to be early, around 6, so there’s a brief window to work up an appetite.

DINNER

For dinner, I brought an extra special bottle of bubbly to celebrate with.

My grandmother made a soup of a chicken and pork base with mushrooms, dates and dried bean curd.

The centerpiece of our meals is always a beef roast. Traditionally, this has been a New York roast, and this year was not an exception.

Another meat option this year was whole roasted squab, which is stuffed with a Chinese sticky rice.

My grandmother makes a huge pot of this sticky rice, and it is served as a side (as well as stuffed in the squab above).

My grandmother also stir fried some fresh crab. The crab was broken down, cracked, and stir fried with ginger, green onion, and some whiskey.

For sides, there were yams,

asparagus,

mashed potatoes,

and gravy.

The dinner table, as shown below, was just totally full of food.

There were a number of desserts available, including the cake below, which is a duplicate cake from the one served at lunch from Sweet Stop. Interior photo below.

St. Honore cake from Victoria Pastry in San Francisco.

A homemade chocolate pie.

This was a pie with an oreo crust, rich fudge filling, and homemade whipped cream. At first glance, it looks like a lot of whipped cream. But it’s very light, and a generous amount really goes well with the rich and dense fudge. Delicious.

This Christmas, as in past years, did not fail to be full of food. For me, Thanksgiving and Christmas (as well as the American Wine & Food Festival) have to be some of the highest caloric intakes of the year.