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  • If bread making scares you like it scares me, but the lure of authenticity is irresistible, then focaccia may be the place to begin.

  • Dashi is the base of Japanese cuisine, and crucially important in making a simple miso soup.

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    I just wanted to make a bowl of miso soup.  That's all. It was going to be the first course of a casual dinner party, something that wouldn't require too much attention so I could focus and pull off the main course in a reasonable amount of time.  I figured all I needed was some miso paste, a hunk of tofu, and a seaweed or two to make it look right.  I was wrong.

    This perturbed me to no end. Japanese cuisine is not one I've indulged in that often, feeling far more comfortable across the Straight of Korea in, well...Korea. I find that cuisine brasher and more gloriously hedonistic. I certainly respect Japanese cuisine, but it's not one I've wanted to really figure out. Or at least not right now. Now I have no choice.

    To make a proper miso soup I needed to make dashi.  To make dashi I needed water, konbu, and bonito flakes. As for those last two ingredients?  I had no idea.  I just set off for my local Asian market figuring I'd run across them at some point.  There I spent well over thirty minutes trying to decipher labels with my nonexistent grasp of any Asian language. Finally, after a good 10 minutes sprawled out on the floor looking at the bottom shelf, I got the nerve to ask someone where I might find these things. She just laughed.

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    Konbu is dried kelp, which means my miso was going to have dried kelp and seaweed. Who knew?

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    As for the bonito, it's skipjack tuna that has been smoked and dried into something called katsuobushi.  This resulting wood-like block is then shaved into flakes and sold in plastic bags.  Of course, the bags of them were on the top shelf.

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    What about the miso?  In my mind miso was miso, but it turns out there are various kinds which vary in color and strength.  The recipe I was using called for shiro miso and aka miso.  I have much more to learn about this as well.

    As left the market with a bag of wakame (seaweed), dried kelp, two kinds of miso, a bag of bonito flakes, two packages of tofu, and scallions, I wondered how long this new obsession of mine would take and whether I'd ever get that first course out before the dinner guests got hungry.

  • Sirloin_1

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    What is a slider? A slider is a particular thing. It's particularly American. It's a small subset of our great culinary tradition, the hamburger. But as I explained last week, it's not just a mini-hamburger. To be a slider, it cannot be perverted with expensive ingredients like foie gras or tuna tartar, a cutesy version of a burger for a chef to play with. A slider consists of a thin layer of beef, American cheese, a soft bun, and way more onions than seem necessary or right. At some point in the cooking process, the meat should steam above the onions, turning the patty richly aromatic and strangely beefy considering its small stature.

    That's the secret about the slider, and why I am infatuated with them. It's that strange dichotomy of being petite yet robust, flavorful, and meaty despite its littleness. I can't think of many other dainty foods that have such a seedy reputation.

    And, yes, sliders are rather seedy. The slider joint has a stigma, booths haunted with the funk of cooking onions, a smell that seems to follow you out the door and all the way home. To get right to it, cooking these at home will make your place smell like White Castle. Perhaps this is why there aren't many recipes online for how to do it correctly. "Leave it to the take-out place," seems to be the message, or use just a little onion (or even onion salt). But these recipes are not authentic, nor as delicious.

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    But as I found out, making sliders at home is easy, cheap, and produces one of the best hamburgers I've ever eaten. By the end, it seems like a noble trade off. To be perfectly honest, I kind of like the aroma.

    I could easily show you how sliders are made at a White Castle, where most people have probably encountered them. But you could also find out for yourself, since the whole griddle is showcased behind glass. They just place ultra-thin frozen patties atop a bed of chopped onions. But I wanted to make the burgers from fresh meat. I wanted to do it how White Castle probably used to make burgers, before they switched to frozen patties.

    The question became: how do you get the patty so thin? Luckily, there are some places in New Jersey that still keep the slider flame alive and make them the real way. I need to point out the excellent coverage Nick Solares has done over on A Hamburger Today about this subject. One of his favorite places is White Manna, and that's where this video came from of the griddle man in action. This was my ticket. To my surprise the technique showcased in the shaky YouTube video was backed up by a comment that I got from George Motz, who wrote Hamburger America. I figured he'd eaten a few sliders in his day.

    Don’t pre-cook the onion. Use Vidalia (the way they do in Oklahoma), slice paper-thin on a mandoline so they cook faster, and never use a grind higher than 80/20. Smash the onion into the patty first – don’t wait to flip before you add the onion.

    And that's pretty much exactly how to do it. For the burger aficionados out there, it's like a modified Smash Burger. A small ball of meat is placed on the cooking surface, topped with thinly sliced onions, and then flattened with a spatula to the desired thickness. When the bottom is done, it's then flipped onto the onions to finish cooking. The second part, where the burgers steam on top of the onions, is the genius of sliders and why I love them so much.

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  • By Blake Royer One of nature’s gifts in winter is...
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    This is why beef chuck roast cooked in a 131°F–140°F (55°C–60°C) water bath for 24–48 hours has the texture of filet mignon.
    - Douglas Baldwin, A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking

    After my experiments with sous-vide chicken resulted in one of the finest birds I'd ever eaten, I immediately set off on a crusade to transform the cheapest cut of beef I could find into filet mignon. I know this sounds an awful lot like alchemy - that ancient (and ludicrous) practice of transforming humble metals into gold. But with the above quote ringing in my head, my mind started to race with the possibilities. Instead of starting with chuck, I decided to start with the least tender cut I could find. So chuck became round. This, my friends, is what is called "Nick getting ahead of himself."

    I should have taken a step back and assessed my situation. The recipe clearly calls for chuck, which is relatively fatty. But I wanted to test the absolute limits of the machine. So that's how I found myself buying two and half pounds of top round from Whole Foods. It's about the leanest and least flavorful cuts of beef on the cow. It doesn't even make a good stew. The only way with round is to cook it until rare and then slice it as thinly as possible. That'll leave you with good roast beef, or a great Italian beef if you're smart, but what if you didn't have to slice it thinly, and could instead dig in with absolute abandon?

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    I have been lusting after steak since I attended the SousVide Supreme event a little over a month ago. There I ate a rib-eye which was cooked until rare in the machine, and then seared in a skillet to give it that beautiful crust. As  you can see from the picture, it was perfectly rare from center to almost the edge. It was succulent and tender in a way I always wanted steak to be.

    I knew that round would never get me there, but how close could I come? Any connective tissue should dissolve after so long in the machine. That should me leave with tender, if a tad dry, meat. Without much proof beyond the quoted line from Douglas Baldwin's A Practical Guide to Sous-Vide cooking, I decided to experiment for myself. I chopped the top round into four 1 1/2 inch thick steaks, sealed them up in plastic, and placed them in the SousVide Supreme at 133 degrees and walked away.

  • By Nick Kindelsperger “What is the recipe for a perfectly...

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    “What is the recipe for a perfectly cooked egg?”
    - Hervé This, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor

    I am more confused now than when I began.  But, in a completely odd and mind-boggling way, isn’t that kind of exciting?  Before this weekend I never gave an ounce of thought to hard-boiled eggs or how to cook them.  I now have spent the better part of a weekend slow boiling them.  The previous method took under 15 minutes.  And I did all for a dish that I didn’t and probably won’t eat that often. 

    It was all because I picked up Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This (It’s a French name, and I don’t have any idea how to pronounce it).  The cover looked interesting and text was lively and inviting.  It approaches food scientifically, much like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.  But while the latter volume is encyclopedic in nature, this slender volume only covers a few topics and is conversational and completely engaging.  That’s where I found this incredible--and completely infuriating--chapter on hard-boiled eggs.

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    Why is it infuriating?  After three pages spent exploring the intricacies of cooking the eggs, he basically comes to the conclusion that hard-boiled eggs need to be cooked at a low temperature, around 154 degrees Fahrenheit, because that’s the point when the yolk will set (the white sets at 144). He concludes, “Obviously this would mean longer cooking times, but the result is a perfectly cooked egg.” 

    Great.  I’m all about exploring ridiculous recipes in search of perfection.  Who knew that a hard boiled egg could reach anything close to perfection?  We’re talking about the humble hard-boiled egg here. But there’s one little problem with Monsieur This’s chapter: He never gave the recipe. 

    I’m left dangling at the end of this beautifully written chapter with the knowledge that hard-boiled eggs should be cooked slowly at 154 degrees F, but am given no indication on how long it will take.  He hints at the traditional method Hamine eggs being cooked for “several hours,” but what exactly does that mean?  Are we talking about 3 hours or 10?  I scoured the net for some kind of reasoning.  I searched “hamine eggs” and got gobbledegook responses and some random site that wanted to cook the eggs for 10 hours.  A few other sites just linked back to that site.  I needed some proof.

  • mapo doufu 18

    Had you put a gun to my head a few years ago and asked me what my least favorite kind of food was, I'd have A) asked you why wanted to shoot me, and then B) probably said Chinese. Bad broccoli and beef, greasy fried rice, those strange orange packets of sauce--these were my impressions of the entirety of Chinese cuisine and what a billion people ate for dinner. Though I probably knew better, I couldn't block the mental image of those bad Chinese buffets that litter Midwest strip malls.

    So imagine what happened when I first tried Mapo Doufu from the Sichuan region of China. It's a mixture of tofu, ground meat, and chile bean paste suspended in a bright red and dangerously spicy sauce. The first bite knocks you over with heat, and then this strange numbing sensation takes over your brain and cools you down. It's like slamming five beers and then eating spicy buffalo wings, without having to, you know, slam five beers. It's so rich, you'd think every ounce of the dish was made of meat, but there is actually very little in the bowl. Tofu is the main star, and never has tofu seemed so racy and hedonistic.

    If our favorite foods make us obsess, then our least favorite foods probably just come from not understanding. Sure enough, if you point that gun at me today--though, let's stop with the violence from here on out--I'd first pick Mexican (my true love), and then say Sichuan.

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    Why do I love it? Well, just like Mexican, Sichuan cuisine seems based on relatively cheap ingredients coddled and transformed into something beyond the sum of their parts. Both feature a healthy helping of chiles and introduce spices to jazz up cheap cuts of meat. Sichuan usually skips the acidic element, but it makes up for it with one key ingredient: the Sichuan peppercorn. The peppercorn has no perceptible heat, and yet it tingles your tongue into a numbing submission.

    I attempted to make Mapo Doufu a few weeks ago for Serious Eats using a well respected recipe. Unfortunately, I couldn't find every ingredient, and had to sub a few other Korean condiments for Sichuan ones. The result was fine, but it wasn't nearly as good as the dishes I'd been eating in Chinatown.

    Luckily, I got a comment on the dish by resident Serious Eats scientific whiz, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who claimed that Mapo Doufu was his favorite dish of all time. Here's a guy that's been writing a burger column every week, and throwing all his talent behind meaty mains, and yet his favorite dish is a fiercely spicy tofu dish from Sichuan. Best part: He'd written about it in detail for the Boston Globe.