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  • hummus 15

    If you don’t want to go to all the bother of soaking and cooking them, canned chickpeas work extraordinarily well
    - James Beard, Beard on Food

    I wanted to go to all the bother of cooking dried chickpeas from scratch. Why? Well, because I never had cooked dried chickpeas before, and I really wanted to see whether taking the time to cook them from scratch would make for a more delicious and cheaper hummus. I had already toyed with the idea of making my own tahini; I figured I should see whether this was worth it.

    hummus 11
    Are you okay?

    So why does nearly every source declare that canned chickpeas are not just permissible, but actually okay? I’ve come to the point where canned black beans just can’t compare to the long simmered batch spiked with epazote, but for some reason I’ve trained myself into believing that chickpeas aren’t worth the effort. That’s mainly because so many sources advocate for just taking the easy route and going for that can.

    This was all tinged by the very real knowledge that I’ve failed before. Considering chickpeas are dried legumes but not actually beans, it should come as no surprise that they don’t work with the 90-minute no soak bean method, but I was still bummed. My one attempt came out dry and tough. No good.

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    Soaked chickpeas puff up considerably.

    But I wondered what a nice, long soak would do for them. Every single source I checked claimed that it had to be done this way. A few sources also called for using a pinch of baking soda. The thought was that it would both help the beans cook faster, and also help soften the chickpea’s tough skins. I decided to try both, and compare them to the canned variety, by doing a hummus taste test.

  • cider tasting 1

    There is no feeling in the world like popping open a batch of cider and realizing what you have created alcohol. It's really hard to describe. We've made all kinds of recipes before, including some meals that have taken days to prepare. But alcohol always seemed a little unreal, and dangerous. Making alcohol always felt too technical and lab-like. And if you're brewing beer, that's sort of true: you'll need a lot of ingredients, and don't you need hi-tech equipment and precision tools? The fact that we could make hard apple cider simply and humbly was inspiring.

    We have have been attempting to make our own cider using a what amounts to a jug of $7 organic juice from Whole Foods, a packet of yeast, and equipment we bought from the brewery store for a grand total of about $2. Not sure what recipe to use, we decided to make four different batches, which we detailed on our last post. We plugged those guys up with airlocks and felt rather proud of ourselves. But when would they be done? Were they supposed to ferment for two days or two weeks? And of course, what would they taste like?

    Yes, it got a bit serious when we realized that we actually had to drink the experiment. We went from hopeful of a heavenly brew to apprehension that the cider would simply be underwhelming, and then to a vague worry that this homemade cider might try to poison us.

    Brian from Daily Ikuru, a brew guru, gave me this bit of frank advice: "Drinking it today, a week from now, or even two weeks from now isn't going to kill you, you know."

    Yes, that was probably true.  And so we got our turkey baster out early this year, and plunged it in to have a taste.

  • homemade bratwurst 24

    My little adventure with bratwurst reached its pinnacle after a tortuous three hour process of grinding, mixing, stuffing, poaching, and charcoal grilling.  What I faced, fortunately, looked a lot like the bratwurst of my wildest fantasies.  It was perfectly plump, gushing with juice, and absolutely haunted by charcoal smoke.  I stuffed that sausage into a huge roll and piled it high with sauerkraut and grainy mustard.  The meat was layered with spices like nutmeg and ginger, and had a major snap from the hog casings.  My homemade bratwurst had worked.  

    Which isn't to say that the road to here had been easy.  Last post I didn't have a clue where to start.  My problem was that I didn't know there were so many styles of bratwurst out there.  Finding any kind of "perfect recipe" was nearly impossible.  But I did narrow my search, after realizing that the style that I was salivating over was Wisconsin-Style Bratwurst.  The German style is richer and, from what I can tell, emulsified.  The Wisconsin-Style is chunkier, and features no eggs or cream.  

    But I still didn't have a recipe.  For help I questioned Mr. Hot Doug himself, and finally asked all of you for help.  I received it in droves.  In fact, I was intimidated by how much information I got.  While trying to sort through the half dozen or so bratwurst recipes the number of suggested ingredients called for started to balloon to over 40.  So I did what any normal person would do and created an Excel spreadsheet with the dozen recipes and every single ingredient.  I sorted through the info, eliminating all ingredients that were only mentioned once, and finally came up with a kind of mathematical equation for what should go into a bratwurst.  It was made with pork, pork fat, and a plethora of spices including nutmeg, ginger, coriander, and marjoram.     

    What I was left with looked an awful lot like the recipe that commenter P.M. left for me.  Upon rereading the comment P.M. claimed he was a commercial sausage marker, and has "set up many people with formulas and procedures for making it commercially."  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  The only problem?  Since he is a commercial sausage maker, the recipe was for a 100 pound batch!  I was making a 5 pound one.  So, first order of business was converting his mammoth recipe into ounces, which I did with a calculator and some handy Google converter program.  That left some ingredients with insane measurments like 0.0025 ounces.  So I decided to attempt to convert the ounces by weight into tablespoons and teaspoons by volume.  Luckily, Michael Ruhlman listed many of his measurement in his Charcuterie book in both weight and volume.  

    Finally, I had recipe.  But then I had to face the hassle of actually stuffing.

  • pc britishbangers 8

    As I was digging into making my own British bangers for my Full English Breakfast challenge, I kept stumbling onto the same sad story which may or may not be complete bullshit: During the early 20th century thanks to two World Wars, meat was scarce in England and pork sausages were padded with some grains and extra liquid to help stretch the meat reserves. When cooked, these padded sausages had the tendency to burst out of their casings and the "banger" was born.

    Exploding sausages! How cool is that?

    Though this tale may be made up, it oddly shines a light on one aspect of the banger--besides the exploding part--which turned out to be absolutely essential: filler. There are stories about percentages, discussion on what kind of cereal to use, and cautionary posts about other nefarious ingredients that are included, but the case remains the same: Bangers must have filler or they simply aren't bangers. 

    pc britishbangers 10

    Even famed British chef Heston Blumenthal seems to agree. In his book and TV show, In Search of Perfection (check out the episode on Youtube) he sets out to create his perfect banger. At first he figures that the sausages should have no filler at all, just meat and seasonings. But the results seem to sever the tie with the sausages of his youth--his 8 year old self that cooked sausages over a campfire. The filler-less sausage may taste great, but it doesn't taste right. Heston eventually embraces the filler to a uniquely obsessive level (let's just say that toasted bread water is involved).

    So for my bangers, I knew I needed some filler of some kind, and I figured that breadcrumbs would be the logical choice. But what was most fascinating was that the many recipes I found called not for breadcrumbs, but for rusk. And thus a new question was born: What the hell is rusk?

  • CSA haul 1

    Even though it's been around for a few years now, I am still incredibly excited to have joined a CSA this year.  A few years ago, "CSA" was the big new food acronym, standing for Community Supported Agriculture, the rather wonderful setup where cooks and eaters pay in advance for the season and in return get a box  delivered to their neighborhood every week or two, effectiv

  • italian subs 1

    We assembled at 11 a.m., seven hungry men, at J. P. Graziano's. This unadorned storefront in the restaurant supply district of Chicago's West Loop seemed like an odd place to begin a journey to find the best Italian sub in Chicago. The shop's exterior had no tell-tale signals that it made sandwiches--just a sign stating their business as wholesale importers. The interior contained no vine covered trellises or nostalgic pictures of the Tuscan country side. All we saw were barren wooden floors and enormous barrels of spices. But we had reason to believe that they served one delicious sub.

    Indeed, the Grazianos' sub was a wonder. A slightly crackly exterior to the bread gave way to a pillowy, tender interior. The meats were the highest quality--Hot Capicola, Volpi Salame, Genoa salame, and mortadella--an intense, salty punch of porky goodness. The lettuce was tossed with the dressing in a bowl, and then added to the sandwich so each bite was flavorful with its sweet-tart crunch. And a final flourish of tangy, gently spicy giardiniera gave it a pickled punch that elevated it to greatness.

    It was a triumphant beginning to our day, the first stop on a mad tour of the Chicago's Italian delis, 6 in all, to find who was still keeping the Italian sub alive in the city.

    italian subs 2

    Why Italian subs? Variations of the "Submarine Sandwich" can be found in nearly every large city in the country, known variously as a hero, hoagie, grinder, blimpie, or torpedo (it has unwittingly spawned some sinister imitations from chains like Jimmy Johns and Subway). But they all owe their provenance to the Italian sub, a simple oblong sandwich that inspired them all.

    In its authentic Chicago rendition, the Italian sub is about 9 inches long and filled with dry-cured Italian meats like salami, capicola, soppresetta, or proscuitto; mortadella is often added to contribute a bologna-like creaminess. It's topped with provolone to help give it some salty bite; a little oil and vinegar for some tang; and giardiniera, that Italian pickled vegetable concoction that's found it's true home here, for a nice kick. It's blessedly simple and straightforward, a shockingly cheap workman's lunch wrapped in paper and slid across the counter to take on the road. And yet it is a culinary achievement, a mouthful of contrasting flavors and textures. When done right, it's about as close to sandwich perfection as one can get.

    Our ringleader for this event was fellow Serious Eats writer Daniel Zemans, who drafted the list of the six Italian delis we'd visit, from famous locations in the West Loop to a simple sandwich shops in the western suburb of Melrose Park. Over the course of five hours we consumed breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the form of Italian Submarine Sandwiches (plus an Italian beef for good measure, two cups of gelato, pepperoni bread, fried rice balls known as arancini, and a few slices of superb Neopolitan pizza) and arrived at some conclusions. It's not so easy to make a good Italian sub well. Certain things must be present, and certain other things should never be. Despite, and perhaps because of its simplicity, the Italian Sub is difficult to master.

    Our results shed some light on where Chicago's greatest renditions of the sandwich are served today. Here is our guide to the best.

  • fivesurprises 31
    The Al Pastor was way better...

    We travel to be surprised, right? While picking my favorite five dishes took some deliberation, coming up with five different foods or dishes that surprised me on a trip to Mexico should have taken me all of five minutes. But for some reason I wasn't expecting this. I have a vertiable library of Mexican cuisine in my condo courtesy of Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, and Susana Trilling, and have researched and cooked as many authentic dishes as I possibly could in the past three years. So how come I was wrong about so many things? Almost everywhere I turned in Mexico I was bewildered by some detail I’d never thought about, and which shattered my expectations. Luckily, they all turned out to be those good kind of surprises--cases where my preconceived notions actually hid something more intriguing and delicious.

    1. The Tacos

    fivesurprises 3
    Carnita Tacos at Mi Mercado in Coyoacan

    I expected to find some kind of insight about the taco during my two weeks in Mexico. By seeing it in its homeland, I’d formulate some kind of hypothesis on the correct proportion, contents, and preparation to create some kind of Grand Taco Manifesto. But I can’t. While I ate tacos nearly every single day on my two week trip through Mexico City and Oaxaca, I left more confused than when I came.

    fivesurprises 30
    Goat, Al Pastor, Chorizo and Potato, and Chicken Tinga Tacos

    I found them tiny and rolled, like the petite little al pastor tacos found at El Huequito. But I also encountered huge, generously filled ones from Tacos Gus in Condesa, where dozens of great cazuelas of stewing meats and vegetables were open for examination. Some were fried like taquitos, and others were housed in unnaturally soft and pillowy corn tortillas.

    The fillings were just as diverse. I ate thinly shaved versions of Al Pastor, juicy hunks of carnitas, and tongue so tender it nearly disintegrated in my mouth. But I also ate rajas with queso, mushroom with crema, and vegetable guisados stuffed with squash and corn. The possibilities for tacos are endless.

  • By Nick Kindelsperer After my excursion to Al's #1 Beef,...

    2italianbeef1


    After my excursion to Al's #1 Beef, I knew I had to make an Italian beef at home.  But it was more of a challenge than a necessity.  I could easily buy another sandwich for cheap.  I just become obsessed with the idea of turning a lowly and lean cut into something so delicious.  I thought I had most the particulars of this soggy sandwich down: lean beef, giardiniera, and an Italian roll.  But I was real worried about the "dip" or the juice that the beef hung out in and what the whole sandwich was eventually dunked into.  It's a very important component. 

    The recipes I found only worried me more.  If there wasn't beef stock, there was a beef bouillon cube.  It felt like cheating.  I wanted my humble cut of beef to provide all the flavor, but I didn't want to sacrifice the beef for the juice.  Many recipes advocated crock pots and long simmers that would have made a nice liquid but would have definitely cooked the beef way past medium-rare.  The texture would have been more like pulled beef than a rare roast like I wanted.   I found a very helpful site that started the roast at a high temperature and then reduced the heat dramatically.  But they also cooked the meat on a wire rack above the water.  I worried about all that steam.

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    I wanted as much juice to remain in the beef as possible to keep it tender.  But it had at least come in contact with water at some point.  Eventually I found this recipe in Saveur, which looked like a great compromise between the two methods.  Like the other site, the key was to roast the beef at a high temperature at first, then reduce it dramatically.  But for this recipe the water was added only after the heat was turned down.  So I'd get some nice caramelization, but still be able to control the temperature of the meat.  I was shooting for 130 degrees.  Though I worried the juice might taste too watery and not beefy enough, I eventually settled on this recipe, figuring I could mess with the juice after the meat was done.  

  • chilerelleno 27

    Around hour five, I became terribly exhausted from what felt like continuous marathon of chopping, sautéing, blending, grinding, broiling, stuffing, whisking, dipping, and frying. It was the most complex and curious chile relleno I'd ever laid eyes on and the flavor nearly bawled me over. Every bite revealed layers of flavor, from the salsa, pork stuffing, to the batter. Nothing was an afterthought. Though it doesn't exactly look like the most elegant dish I've made in a while, it was easily one of the tastiest. Had the process not taken hours, nearly frazzled my nerves, and been fraught with so much failure, I might think about making it again.

    It started as something of a dare. I had seen what looked like a pretty miserable looking version of a chile relleno on the first episode of this season's Top Chef. Far be it for me to criticize someone on a show that I wouldn't last 5 minutes on, but couldn't help but obsess over the dish. Head judge Tom Colicchio's claimed he actually liked chile rellenos when they are done right. This version had just been a disaster. So what does a really good chile relleno taste like?

    My next stop was, of course, Rick Bayless. What, with his recent Top Chef Master win and the advance buzz of his hot chocolate and torta restaurant Xoco (his method for making hot chocolate is insane), he's been inspiring me to dig further and further into authentic Mexican cuisine. I began to think back to my first trip to his Frontera Grill. My waiter had tempted me with chile rellenos, claiming that the kitchen only made a few plates per night because they were so labor intensive. One was left. It took a few moments to ponder how good a chile relleno could possibly be, before I was lured away by the suckling pig (jaw-droppingly good). But I've often wondered about it since then.  

    There was only one way to find out. And that was to make everything from scratch at home.