Marshmallow + microwave = ?

Chris loves marshmallows and it’s partly because he discovered a magical property of theirs back when he was a youngster. Apparently, when you microwave marshmallows, they not only balloon in size, but they become the easiest way to make taffy ever.
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Braised short ribs two ways

French-style Asian-style

I have a special place in my heart for beef stew (from fond childhood memories of Chinese beef noodle soup) but braised short ribs are threatening to knock beef stew from its pedestal. Read more of this post

Blog as recipe archive

I use my blog pretty randomly, posting essays on the culture of science, photo galleries from hiking trips, and the occasional here’s-what-I-did-in-the-last-three-months-since-I-last-blogged. To those who wish I only posted essays, sorry — I know myself and it ain’t going to happen. In fact, I’ve been meaning to document more of my culinary experiences but even this has been a challenge for me; three hours of cooking and eating dinner at 10 PM does not put me in the mood for blogging. (Especially when a purring cat curls up on your lap.) But my “system” of index cards, scribbles torn out of notebooks, and sauce-stained printouts simply isn’t tenable. So over the next month or so I’m going to attempt to catch up a bit on some of the recipes we’ve tried and do a better job of archiving them online.

Let that be a warning to those who could care less about cooking. :)

Sydney International Food Festival: Flags

Whimsical, clever, beautiful and delicious – what more could you want? Food is a common denominator across the world!

Char siu pork, or Doing what I can about swine flu

In this heightened state of alert, I’m doing what I can about swine flu… which is, basically, not much. Because we as individuals can’t do too much about it besides wash our hands, cover our mouths, exercise, eat healthy, and get enough sleep – all things we should be doing more or less regularly anyway. No, I did my part by cooking up a couple of pounds of pork in the best way I (now) know how – Chinese barbecue style.

There’s meaty American barbecue slathered with thick, nostril-clearing sauce. Stripped down Korean barbecue with its more delicate, sweet marinade. And then there’s Chinese barbecue – the best of both worlds. The sauce is thick, but roasted on so that it caramelizes and becomes a part of the meat itself. It is sweet, yet savory; spicy, yet subtle. The flavors of hoisin, soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, and garlic melt together to create an olfactory experience that is enough to make you pause with amazement but not enough to stop you from devouring piece after piece.

I grew up eating what’s known as “char siu” pork (pronounced more like “chao sao” in Mandarin) but it was never something I thought about making at home. I don’t remember my mom ever making it, though she would often make Peking duck, something that seems much more fancy (but really isn’t, apparently). Char siu pork is like meatballs – a comfort food that is as natural in leftovers as it is freshly made. In fact, I was most used to it as the filling for my favorite snack – char siu bao, or sweet barbecue pork buns – or as a topping for noodle soup. But I always had it pre-prepared in those dishes, and never really saw the original roast it came from.

That changed last weekend, when I suddenly decided I needed to make char siu bao. Ironically, I’m too lazy to drive 45 minutes to the asian market to buy ready-made char siu bao, but not too lazy to go to Safeway down the street and then spend a good 6 hours making the damn things from scratch. So I got a couple recipes to reference for both the bao (buns) and the char siu, and had a good old mashup time of it.

Here’s the eventual recipe I ended up with, adapted from here and here:

For the char siu pork:

  • ~ 3.5 lbs boneless pork shoulder
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ~ 1 T ginger, peeled and minced
  • ~ 1/2 C rice wine or sherry
  • ~ 3/4 C hoisin sauce
  • ~ 1/2 C soy sauce
  • ~ 1/3 C honey
  • a dash of five spice powder

Cut the pork along the grain into long strips 1.5-2 inches wide and about 6-10 inches long. Combine all marinade ingredients, then place with the pork into large ziploc bags. Make sure the pork is coated evenly and then seal, removing as much air as possible from the bags. Marinate in the refrigerator overnight (or at least a few hours).

Place a rack on the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375 deg. Fill a pan (or two, depending on amount of meat) with 1/2 ” water and place a metal rack over it. I used two 9×13″ pans with cooling racks with slats about 1/2″ apart. Arrange the meat strips on the rack(s), reserving the marinade in a small pot.

(I got the roasting times from an Epicurious or Gourmet recipe but I can’t for the life of me find the page again, so here’s my best rememory of it…)

Roast for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the marinade to a simmer for a few minutes, then turn off the heat. Baste the meat with the marinade, then roast for another 15 minutes. Baste the meat generously on both sides, turn meat over, and roast for an additional 20 minutes, basting once or twice in the middle. Turn the oven temp up to 400 deg, baste the meat with the remaining marinade, and roast for about 10 minutes or until caramelized. Place the meat on a cutting board and cover with foil for about 10 minutes. Then allow to cool before slicing or shredding for use in soups, char siu bao, or to eat as is. When you’re done, it should look like this (except try to slice across the grain…):

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I was pleased with how red the outside of the pork got, since a lot of accounts I read claimed that it was difficult to achieve the vibrant red color you see in the stores. Some recipes had red food coloring, which just seemed weird to me. Thankfully, the visual experience matched the taste and smell I was used to. I’m really rather impressed that my first try at making char siu came out so well!

For the bao, I used this recipe as the base, which includes prepraring the char siu filling as well as the dough for the bao. I modified the filling slightly (still for 24 buns):

  • ~ 1 lb char siu pork, cut into 1/2 cm pieces (err on the side of small)
  • ~ 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 a white or yellow onion, minced
  • 1 scallion, minced
  • 1/4 C soy sauce
  • ~ 3 T brown sugar (I only used 2 T but I think it could have been sweeter)
  • ~ 1 T cornstarch dissolved in 2 T water
  • ~ 2 T oil

Heat the oil in a large wok or skillet. Add the garlic, onion, and scallion and saute until soft but not browned. Add the pork and saute for a minute or two. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch mixture and saute quickly until glazed. Allow to cool before filling buns.

For the buns, I followed the recipe exactly (note, just up to step 3, then go back to the previous recipe for the filling). Instead of foil wrappers on the bottom, I might try waxed paper next time (not sure how this will stand up to steaming though, so maybe parchment paper?), because the buns are great to freeze and microwave later as a quick snack but removing the foil bottoms is a pain. Here’s the final result:

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Unfortunately, the bao wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for – it was basically the kind of bao you would use for normal bao of the ground pork and chives variety, not the fluffy, soft bao I wanted with my sweet char siu. I think I need to look for a bao recipe that uses milk to achieve that. Then there’s also the other kind of char siu bao – baked, and golden colored, which is the kind I grew up with. I’m pretty sure that’s an egg-based bread.

I’ll definitely experiment with both kinds until I get it right, but we’re already almost out of char siu from filling the baos and using some for noodle soup. Guess I’ll need to make more of that again, too. :)

Mmm… pi

I bet the ancients didn’t know just how delicious Pi could be. And I simply can’t pass up an opportunity to mix food and geekiness together. Since today is Pi Day (3.14), clearly I had to bake a pi, ahem, pie. Nothing fancy – we had apples lying around and some store-bought crusts already in the fridge, so apple pi(e) it was. Happy Pi Day!

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Ciabatta shouldn’t usually be this challenging…

… but if you’re me, it means a two hour quest for lava rock and an explosion in the oven.

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I started baking bread once or twice a month about two years ago but I’ve yet to make my own starter (necessary for sourdough) and until today had yet to make a serious attempt at recreating the brick oven environment needed for truly great bread. Believe me, fresh bread is always great, but I was always a little disappointed with how quickly the crispness of the crust disappeared as the loaves cooled. I still liked baking my own bread, but there was something missing in the end product.

Today I tried to overcome the crust problem. The secret to a thicker and crustier crust is steam; in the past, I’d tried tossing a few ice cubes on the floor of my oven but evidently that didn’t work. I was also trying out a new recipe for ciabatta (from the excellent Wild Yeast blog) and I was determined to get the crust right, so while the loaves were proofing for the final time, I went out in search of lava rock and a baking stone. First stop, Bed Bath & Beyond two blocks from my house. No baking stone, even though they advertise one on their website. Second stop, the local nursery – no lava rock. Third stop, the local Orchard Supply Hardware. They carry lava rock but unfortunately were out of stock. Fourth stop, the Home Depot a couple towns over – 20 lb bag of lava rock, check. Fifth stop, the Crate & Barrel on the other side of town – only a small baking stone, not the larger size I needed. Sixth stop, Williams Sonoma in the high end mall next door to the Crate & Barrel. Expensive baking stone, check. Two and a half hours later, I hurry home to get the oven going.

This is where the disaster happened. You hear this warning all the time, but for some of us common sense takes inconvenient sabbaticals. You see, I put the lava rocks in a Pyrex baking dish and put this on the floor of the oven. 475 degrees later, I slid the loaves in, and poured a cup of hot water in the dish.

It exploded.

Duh. Glass doesn’t like temperature changes. And no matter how hot the water is from the tap, it’s not going to be 475 degrees. So now I had glass and lava rock all over the floor of the oven and I sure wasn’t thinking about steam anymore! (Luckily, the glass was all contained in the oven and none of it flew out when it broke.) So we scooped most of the lava rock into a metal pan and set the pan on top of the shards, poured some more water over the rocks, and hoped for the best.

After all that, the ciabatta seems to be fine. I’m mad at myself for sacrificing a dish and making a mess but the crust is definitely crustier and I’ve definitely learned a lesson. And now that I’ve seen what steam can do, there won’t be any going back.

Anyone need 18 lbs of lava rock?

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