Monday, May 18, 2009

Three Experiments

The sun finally came out this weekend in Seattle. If you've never lived in the Pacific Northwest, this will be hard to appreciate, but after months of rain punctuated by what an optimist would call "bright gray" days, a warm, sunny day that actually falls on a weekend feels like an unexpected gift. I spent the weekend biking around the city, digging up beds for potatoes, and lazing around in the park--and, of course, cooking and eating. I tried three things for the first time this weekend--and, although I wouldn't declare any of them an unqualified success, each one broadened my culinary horizons in a different way.

The first was a sorbet-based concoction at Molly Moon's Ice Cream, the hyped-to-death new ice cream shop a block away from my office. Let me preface by saying that I don't like ice cream. Too rich, too creamy, too sweet, too much. Sorbet, on the other hand, I love--especially on a hot day, especially if it's not too sweet. Other things I love? Anything that sounds potentially too weird to eat. Which is how I ended up dropping five bucks on a "Sweet Dirt sundae," featuring baby beet sorbet (yum), balsamic syrup (oh...kaaay), shredded carrot (huh?) and parmesan cheese (say WHAH?!) The woman behind the counter described it as "sort of an ice-cream salad." Obviously, I had to try it. And it was... well... really weird. The carrot shreds were a little too coarse to combine with any of the other elements, and the parmesan was actually pretty gross at first--too salty in contrast to the over-sweet sorbet, and the conflicting textures (sandy shredded Parm, creamy sorbet) were really distracting. Eventually, though, everything kind of melted together into a palatable-enough compromise--not something I'd ever pay money for again, but a completely unique combination of tastes I'd never think to try together.

I must've had beets on the brain, because my second experiment was an attempt to rescue the sad bunch that have been sitting in my produce drawer since my CSA pickup two weeks ago. Taking inspiration from this post on Mark Bittman's blog by Stacey Slate, I decided to try pickling them in a simple brine of vinegar and salt with garlic and pickling spice. First, I boiled the beets in water for about 10 minutes--longer than Slate suggests, but I think my beets must have been tougher than hers. Then I let the beets cool (cheating a bit by holding them under cold running water to stop the cooking) and peeled them. While I brought two cups of water, a couple tablespoons of salt, and a cup of vinegar to a boil, I dropped a teaspoon or so of pickling spice (from Bittman's cookbook, How to Cook Everything) and a cut clove of garlic into a pint jar and packed the beets loosely on top. When the brine came to a boil, I poured it over the jars, sealed them, and let them cool. The jars--now filled with a gorgeous fuschia liquid—-are sitting in the refrigerator now, and I plan to open them in a few more days, assuming I can wait that long. (Next time I'm trying Jonathan Ryan's "Beets, Mexican Style," a simple method that also comes from Bittman's blog.)

(Photo via Tamarind and Thyme)

Experiment 3 was only moderately successful, and a little tedious--it took most of my Sunday afternoon and resulted in the removal of a good chunk of my finger and fingernail. (Partially frozen galangal + less-than-razor-sharp-knife = Erica with her finger on ice all night). The recipe was beef rendang, an Indonesian/Malaysian recipe from the London-based blog Tamarind and Thyme, and although it included many of my favorite ingredients--toasted coconut, tamarind pulp, Kaffir lime leaves, lemongass, galangal--the end product just needed... something. It had all the right base notes, but lacked a high note to balance it out and bring all those complex flavors to the surface. It was also, truth be told, a little dry. Maybe I used the wrong cut of beef (the recipe calls for "stewing beef," so I just used what I had on hand, a round tip roast). I'm not giving up, though. Next time I may try using boneless pork ribs verboten in Muslim countries, but more tender than beef) and adding some kind of vegetable to the mix. In the meantime, here's the original recipe, in all its complex, fingernail-slicing glory.

2 lbs. beef for stewing, cut in approximately 1.5″ cubes
3 tbsps peanut oil (or sunflower oil)
1.5 inch long cinnamon stick
4 cloves
4 cardamom pods
4 star anise
1 14-oz can coconut milk
1/2 tin of water
2 tsps tamarind pulp, soaked in about 1/2 cup warm water
1 tbsp sugar
7 kaffir lime leaves, very thinly sliced
7 tbsps dessicated coconut (not sweetened)
salt to taste

for the spice paste
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
6 small shallots (I used the Asian purple ones), peeled and chopped roughly
2 stalks lemongrass, tough layers removed and softer inner layers chopped roughly
1.5 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
1.5 inch piece of galangal, cleaned and chopped roughly
6 large dried chilies, soaked in warm water, seeded, and chopped roughly
0.5 tsp turmeric powder (I used chopped fresh turmeric, which I happened to pick up at the store recently)
1 tsp salt

First toast the dessicated coconut to make kerisek. In a dry frying pan, add the dessicated coconut and then gently heat it over medium heat. Stir the coconut often until it is a uniform golden brown. Set the toasted coconut aside.

Now make the spice paste. Toss all the prepared spice paste ingredients into a blender or food processor and blend until a paste is formed. Add a little water at a time if it’s not blending properly.

In a large deep saute pan or a large wok or a large heavy casserole, heat the oil over medium heat and fry the spice paste. You’ll find the paste will “soak up” all the oil during frying and when it’s done frying and fully aromatic, the oil will be released again. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, and star anise and stir thoroughly. Add the beef and stir again – the beef should just be coated with the paste, not left to brown. Pour in the coconut milk and the tamarind water and enough of the plain water to cover the meat – you might need to add more. Add the sliced kaffir lime leaves too. Stir thoroughly and bring the liquid to a boil.

When the mixture is bubbling, turn down the heat to a simmer. Sprinkle over the sugar and toasted coconut, stir that through and leave the coconutty mixture to simmer slowly, uncovered, stirring occasionally. After about 2 hours, the water should have all evaporated, leaving the beef in a thick paste and with lots of oil floating on top. Now you’ll have to stir much more often, allowing the beef mixture to fry in the oil. The rendang will darken and will be done when it’s a dark brown, which will occur in about 20-30 minutes. Turn the heat to the lowest temperature and proceed to spoon out the oil that’s been floating on top. Salt the rendang to taste, turn off the heat, and serve.

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