Thursday, April 29, 2010

Noma! El Bulli No More Numero Uno

A restaurant lives and dies by the quality of the food it serves. That's the bottom line, plain and simple. Yes, food presentation, service and atmosphere do play their own parts as well but at the end of the day, isn't the food really what people go to a restaurant for? Now, if you are Ferran Adria, the Catalonian molecular gastronomy guru, the restaurant becomes your culinary playground-cum-laboratory and the food, becomes the stuff of almost science fiction. As for your your guests, they become sort of like privileged children who gets to play in that playground every 6 months out of the year.

The new culinary discipline of molecular gastronomy has gained prominence in the culinary world thanks in large part to Adria's creative genius in dazzling his guests with outlandish food creations like spherical olives, powdered yogurt, parmesan marshmallows, gorgonzola shell, popcorn cloud, melon caviar and various savory foams (here is a link to a gallery of Adria's creations). Adria's playful and almost whimsical ways in redefining and reinventing how we look at food is ingenious and certainly one of the most original ideas in the restaurant business in a very long time.

El Bulli, Adria's famed 3 Michelin Star restaurant is located in the town of Roses on the beautiful northeast coast of Spain. In 2006, El Bulli ascended to the throne of being named the world's best restaurant, an annual list compiled by Britain's Restaurant magazine, and has stayed on top ever since. Known as The "S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant," this list, whose influence is debatable, has been published since 2002 and in the 8 years of its existence, only 4 restaurants have been honored with the best restaurant title, with El Bulli claiming an astonishing 5 of them (it also came out on top in the inaugural 2002 list). After playing second fiddle to England's The Fat Duck (another molecular gastronomy restaurant) in 2005, El Bulli has never looked back since. (Here's a list of books that has been published about El Bulli: A Day at El BulliEl Bulli 2003-2004El Bulli: 1998-2002 and El Bulli 1994-1997)
However, in January 2010, Adria shocked the culinary world by announcing that El Bulli would be closing its doors permanently at the end of the 2011 season, putting an end to one of the world's culinary meccas. Adria also announced that it will reopen in 2014 as an academy for advanced culinary studies. As to why El Bulli was closing, Mr. Adria revealed that the restaurant was losing as much as half a million Euros a year and was not able to sustain this level of financial loss any longer.

On the heels of that shocking El Bulli announcement comes the brand new 2010 list of the world's 50 best restaurants. Revealed just a few days ago, the list puts a sort of a coda on El Bulli's waning influence on the culinary world. After 4 years on top, El Bulli has finally been dethroned and is replaced by Noma of Copenhagen, Denmark. Noma was placed no. 3 in the 2009 list and has leapfrogged both El Bulli and The Fat Duck to become numero uno for 2010. Unlike both the restaurants that it beat to get to the top, Noma is not another forerunner in molecular gastronomy but features cutting edge regional and seasonal Nordic gourmet cuisine.

Here are the opening paragraphs of how Noma describes itself:

At noma, we aim to offer a personal rendition of Nordic gourmet cuisine, where typical methods of cooking, fine Nordic produce and the legacy of our common food culture are all being subjected to an innovative gastronomic approach. Carrying this line of thinking further, we view it as a challenge to play a part in bringing forth a regeneration of Nordic culinary craft, in its capacity to encompass the North Atlantic region and to brighten the world with its distinctive tastiness and special regional character.

What you will find here at noma is not centered so much on olive oil, foie gras, sun-dried tomatoes and Mediterranean black olives. We’ve been busy traveling around in the Nordic regions and we have been finding a number of simply phenomenal ingredients that we have flown into town for our use: Horse mussels, deep-sea crabs and langoustines from the Faeroe Islands, which are living right up until the moment they are served to our visitors. Halibut, wild salmon, cod and seaweed and curds from Iceland. Lamb, musk ox, berries and the purest drinking water from Greenland. In much the same fashion, we are constantly scanning for new sources of inspiration in Denmark, especially, as well as the other Nordic regions, for purposes of securing reliable sources of top-quality raw produce. This pertains both to very costly ingredients and also to ingredients of a more everyday character that we feel have come to be overlooked in the formulation of a salient Nordic approach to cooking: cereals, hulled grains and legumes, which you will come to experience here in the context of surprising preparations.

In a sense, this changing of the guard is an appropriate statement to how we see the culinary world today. Yes, experimentation, cutting edge food science and originality do have their places in this world but clean, regional, fresh and sustainable have become key ingredients to dining out. And Noma is now a perfect example of that concept.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Rosemary-Rubbed Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Apricot & Ginger Glaze

Here's a great cooking idea if you are ever in the mood for roasting pork tenderloins. I first used a rosemary-spice rub to roast the tenderloin with and then finish it up with an apricot-ginger glaze, flavors that go very well with the fresh rosemary and pork.

Let's start by talking about the rosemary rub. I simply mix together fresh chopped rosemary with salt, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, coriander powder, chili powder and fresh ground black pepper. Clean the pork tenderloin by removing excess fat and then rub the mixture all over the pork, letting it sit for about an hour or so in order for the spice rub to penetrate the meat. When ready, pre-heat your oven to 375F and start roasting the pork for about 45 minutes. Check for done-ness by inserting a meat thermometer into the tenderloin. If it register 155F and above, it is done. But in this case, you don't want it to cook all the way through yet. Remember the glaze? We'll finish up cooking the pork after we get the glaze on.

To make the glaze, I used:
1 packet of preserved apricots
2 inches of fresh ginger (sliced)
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup of sugar
2 cups of water
2 tablespoons of salt

Add all the ingredients above in a small pot and bring it to a boil and then a medium simmer. Cook until the apricots are very tender and turn to mush when pressed with a spoon. Add more water as needed. This process may take up to an hour to complete. Remove the ginger slices when done or you can just leave them in the glaze to maintain the flavor.

OK, now back to the pork roast. The pork is almost ready and it it needs now is the apricot-ginger glaze that we just made. Generously glaze the pork with it and put it back into the oven for another 15-20 minutes. When the tenderloin is done, remove from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes. Slice it just before serving and you can serve it together with roasted rosemary-garlic potatoes (which can be roasted at the same time as the pork). Bon appetit!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Short and Sweet of It - Short Ribs, That Is

Short ribs, when done right, are such succulent beasts. A cut of beef taken from the primal rib and plate cuts, it is a less tender portion of the cow, thus lending itself better to the slow and long cooking method of braising. And out of the many types of braise that I've tried, the Asian style braise is still the one to beat. Maybe it's my Asian palate but there's something about the sweet, spicy and tangy flavors as you bite into an amazingly tender and juicy piece of braised short ribs that just can't be beat. Ever!

First and foremost, short ribs can be bought quite easily from either a supermarket, grocery store or your local butcher. Most of the time, you can find them as bone-in chunks of about 2 -3 inches long (like the picture above), which is also known as an English cut. Also available are boneless cuts, which in my opinion is less superior to the bone-in one. Although they may not be cheap (they usually go for between $5 - $8 per pound) but every once in a while, shouldn't we treat ourselves?

So now that you have your short ribs on hand, let's gather the rest of the ingredients for the braise.

2 medium sized carrots (peeled and cut into large chunks)
1 onion (peeled and quartered)
2 stalks scallions (white portion only, leave the green parts for garnish)
4 cloves of garlic (crushed)
2 cinnamon sticks
2 pieces of star anise
1 inch ginger (sliced)
1 piece rock sugar (palm sugar or brown sugar can be used as substitutes)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup orange juice
5 pieces of orange peel
4 pieces of dried chili
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 - 3 quarts chicken stock (or beef stock)

To braise, you would need an oven-safe pot or better yet, a cast-iron dutch oven (here are some great ones sold on Amazon: Lodge Color Enamel Cast-Iron 6-Quart Dutch Oven, Caribbean BlueCirculon 5-1/2-Quart Dutch Oven or Calphalon One Infused Anodized 8-1/2-Quart Dutch Oven with Stainless Steel Lid). Start by heating up about 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in the pot. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper and then brown them on all sides in the pot. When done browning, pour away most of the oil, leaving only just enough to sweat the vegetables. So, your next step should be to add all the vegetables plus the chilis, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks and star anise. Cook for about 5 - 10 minutes until soft. Next, add the short ribs back into the pot together with the vegetables. Now we can add all the liquids, starting with the rice wine vinegar. Make sure the level of the liquid almost covers the short ribs. Cover the pot with tin foil paper and put the pot into the oven at 350F. Leave it in the oven to braise for about 2 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.

When done, remove the meat from the pot and strain the braising liquid, leaving only the carrots behind. What you need to do now is to reduce the braising liquid on the stove until it turns into a syrupy consistency. You can now use it as a sauce for the short ribs. For side dishes, I cooked some jasmine rice and sautéd a bunch of asparagus. And there you have it, Asian-style braised short ribs. Yummy and so, so tender!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Guess What? The Grilling Season is On!

Well, spring is finally upon us and as the weather keeps getting warmer and the days keep getting longer, the cooking can now be shifted outside to the outdoor grill. My Weber charcoal grill has been out of its winter storage home (ie. the garage) for a couple of weeks now and on this gorgeous, breezy spring day, I thought what better ways to enjoy the waning evening hours than to grill some burgers and a couple of juicy steaks for dinner. It's official, grilling can now commence with vigor!

The burgers are a mix of ground beef (75%) and pork (25%) and spices like coriander, garlic powder, a touch of cumin, oregano flakes, chili powder, salt and pepper, together with eggs and breadcrumbs as binders. Mix everything together and let it sit for about an hour in the refrigerator in order for the mixture to come together. As for the type of bread, I like to use buttered slices of sourdough, grilled and oozing with melting cheddar cheese. As for the steaks, I like NY strips and T-bone or Porterhouse cuts. As for seasoning for the steaks, I like McCormick Grill Mates Spicy Montreal Steak Seasoning and I use it on all my steaks and also on pork roasts.

I'm so excited. Grilling season just started and I'm already bristling with various ideas of what to put on the grill in the coming months. Can't wait and I'll be sure to bring you with me!

Gorgeous New England Countryside in Groton, MA (Also Where I Live & Work)

With the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" blaring on my car's stereo, I slowly wind my way up the long driveway to the Gibbet Hill Grill restaurant located in Groton, MA. It is a gorgeous spring afternoon here in rural New England, one in an unbroken string of six mild and cloudless days. After all the rain that fell in the past month or so, this is a nice respite and it's great to be rewarded with such extraordinarily good weather for a change. Parking my car at the usual employee parking area, I stepped out and was immediately greeted by a strong but cool breeze blowing against my face and a nice warm embrace by the sun's rays--an ecstatic combination that has to be experienced to enjoy (words simply can't describe the feeling). Breathing in the clean country air, I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be working at such a beautiful setting that's just 6 minutes away from where I live. Talk about a dream commute.

The shots above are taken just outside the restaurant and you can see (in a distance) a small herd of Black Angus cattle roaming in the pastures. Gibbet Hill was founded in the 1600's. A farmhouse that was built in 1690 still stands on the property. The word gibbet (pronounced jib-bet) actually means a gallows-type structure where dead bodies of executed criminals are hung for public display. Whether this hill was so named because of what it was used for is unclear. In the early 1900's, a prominent physician bought the property and turned it into a private sanitarium. Since then, it had been used as a private hospital for tuberculosis patients and a hunting lodge for the Groton Hunt Club. In 1947, Gibbet Hill was turned into a farm to breed Black Angus cattle. 40 years later, the herd of cattle had grown to more than 600 and was producing "superior" Black Angus meat for public consumption. A decade later, the farm was in decline and was put up for sale and plans were afoot to build residential housing on the property. In 2000, a local entrepreneur bought the farm to stop the imminent development and in 2004, Gibbet Hill Grill, a steakhouse, opened its doors and has since built up a reputation for great food and service. Besides dining on some of the best steaks in town, customers are able to walk around the property and enjoy the beautiful countryside.

Last year (2009), the restaurant embraced the gaining popularity of the farm-to-table philosophy by developing a 2-acre lot on the property to supply the restaurant with fresh, locally-grown produce. If you think about it, this move is quite a no-brainer since the property is surrounded by farmland and what better way to build a niche market for itself than to embrace that concept wholeheartedly. This latest farming development brings the Gibbet Hill Farm full circle as corn was first planted on the property back in the 1980's. After going through some lean times, the farm is finally back. With a talented farm manager on staff, the farm is ready for a great 2010 planting season and has set up a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture to provide local residents with the opportunity to directly purchase fresh, seasonal produce grown on the farm.

Seriously, I can't think of a better way for the restaurant to promote buying from your local farmer and also having the freshest ingredients on hand for the chef to work with. Expect some amazing dishes from the restaurant come June when the farm is in full swing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thai-Indon Pineapple Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice)

A plate of fried rice is as ubiquitous in South-East Asia as a Big Mac here in the U.S. For this dish, I am combining 2 versions, the Thai pineapple fried rice and the Indonesian version called nasi goreng. And to add a little Malaysian touch to it, I've included some sambal belacan (here's a link on how to make it) as an appetizing and spicy condiment. To many Asian households, fried rice is what one makes when there are leftover food. It is a quick and easy meal and in one fell swoop, it helps get rid of all the leftovers without much fuss. And best of all, the kids can't complain about eating the same old thing yet again!

So let's get to it, shall we?

First, the ingredients:
2 cups jasmine rice (cooked al dente)
1 cup green peas
1 medium-sized carrot (small dice)
1/2 an onion (small dice)
1 medium can diced pineapple
2 jalapeños (sliced thin)
2 cloves garlic (chopped fine)
10 shrimp (or any other protein that you like)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce
Soy sauce to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 egg
2 stalks scallions for garnish

Cook the jasmine rice with a little less water than you would normally add. This should keep the rice just a little under-cooked to avoid it becoming mushy when you start frying. Next, fry the egg with a sprinkle of black pepper and salt. Now you are ready to start cooking the fried rice. Heat up the wok with about 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Cook the onions until tender, then add the garlic and fry fro another minute or so. Next, add the shrimp, carrot, green peas and pineapple. Cook until the shrimp turns red. Add the rice and all the other sauces and mix the ingredients thoroughly. Taste and season as appropriate. Finally, garnish with the fried egg and scallions before serving. Finally, add a scoop of spicy sambal belacan to finish with some spicy flair!

This version of fried rice provides the distinct tastes of sweetness (pineapple, sweet soy sauce), sourness/tartness (pineapple), spiciness (jalapeño) and saltiness (fish sauce, soy sauce), all essential flavors that typically embody South-East Asian cuisine. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pan-Fried Tilapia with Lemongrass-Tamarind Cauliflower Curry

The title may be quite a mouthful but this dish is equally a mouth-pleaser. A quick taste of this curry sauce will feel like a tiny tart bomb exploded in your mouth--courtesy of the tamarind and lime juice combo. But as the initial shock of sourness passes, the multi-layered flavors will begin to shine through, making this dish more than just a one-trick curry.

Since we are on the subject, what exactly is a "curry"? Many people usually associate the word "curry" with Indian cuisine and the generic flavor that they may have tasted with dishes cooked using the equally generic and widely available "curry powder."  To me, a curry is not just a single defining flavor of sauce but is really made up of layers upon layers of flavors that are reflected by the many exotic spices that are typically used to concoct it. A curry is really an amalgam of flavors that will get your taste buds buzzing with delight. It could be sour, salty, spicy, bitter, sweet, umami, a mix and match and possibly all of the above. Simply put, a curry is utterly more complex than the very simple 5-letter word that is used to describe it.

For all intents and purposes and full disclosure, I came up with this particular dish as I was rummaging through my refrigerator to get rid of any leftovers that have accumulated over the week. I came across a container of curry paste that I had made a few days ago but never got around to using it for an actual dish. The base for this paste was lemongrass and turmeric plus a bunch of spices. Here are the ingredients:

5 stalks lemongrass
1 onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 thumb-sized piece of  galangal (ginger can be used as a replacement)
1 small bunch of cilantro (stems plus leaves)
2 tablespoons turmeric powder
1 tablespoon mix of cumin and coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds
1 teaspoon crushed black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (peanut oil would be a better choice)

To use the lemongrass, cut off about an inch off the root side and all of the top green-colored stems, leaving the middle white part. Lemongrass is tough and for it to blend well, you first need to cut it into thin circular strips across the stem. Blend all of the ingredients above until smooth and you get a pasty consistency. Now you have your curry paste. What you do with it is pretty flexible as any combination of proteins and ingredients can be used. And best of all, this curry paste is usable for at least 2 weeks if it is kept properly in the refrigerator. Now you have options.

A quick taste of the paste did not reveal a strong enough tartness from the lime juice. But that's OK because I had some tamarind on hand and using the juice, I managed to amp up the tart quotient quite a bit. Here is the rest of the dish:

1 head of cauliflower (cut into small florets)
1 medium-sized carrot (cut thin)
5 -6 button mushrooms (quartered)
1/2 cup coconut milk
4 tablespoons of tamarind juice
4 tilapia fillets
turmeric powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt

First, let's marinate the tilapia in 2 tablespoons of tamarind juice, salt and turmeric for about an hour or so. When it is ready, pan-fry the fish by coating it with flour. You'll get a nice yellowish coloring on the fish courtesy of the turmeric. Make sure you blanch the vegetables first in salted boiling water to slightly soften them. You don't want to go too far with the blanching as further cooking in the curry will turn them into mush. To make the curry sauce, combine the cauliflower, carrot, mushroom, chili powder and the rest of the tamarind juice with about 4 tablespoons of the curry paste that we made earlier plus the coconut milk. Stir to mix everything well and season with salt to taste.

To serve, cook some basmati rice and add the tilapia plus the curry sauce. And there you have it, lemongrass-tamarind cauliflower curry with pan-fried tilapia. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Asian Meatloaf with Shiitake Mushroom Sauce

So how would you describe the meatloaf? No, I'm not talking about Mr. Bat-Out-of-Hell with his expansive, time-sapping rock opera songs but actually, I'm referring to the dish that is made up of a hunk of meat that is shaped like a loaf of bread (heck, that could've described Mr. Meat Loaf himself!). With its European origins, the meatloaf is certainly not the sexiest dish to make nor does it require an impressive display of culinary skills. Come to think of it, the meatloaf is really just a much bigger version of a meatball, isn't it? Well, it's time to change it up a little and create a healthier version that features an Asian-inspired sauce.

For my version of meatloaf, I'm using ground pork and turkey, not the types of meat that one would expect to find in a meatloaf. As I said before, the meatloaf is not the hardest thing to make and it only requires mixing all the ingredients together, a meatloaf pan and an oven to bake. Here are your ingredients:

1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground turkey
1 red bell pepper (small dice)
1 onion (small dice)
4 cloves garlic (chopped fine)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 eggs (beaten)
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon coriander powder
2 tablespoons Asian garlic chilli sauce
3 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon black ground pepper

All you need to do is to mix all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Oil the meatloaf pan or line it with parchment paper so that the meatloaf would not stick to the pan. Some pans have perforated inserts that lets the oil from the meats drip away. Here are some affordable examples of meatloaf pans from Norpro 2 Piece Nonstick Meatloaf Bread Pan SetOvenStuff Non-Stick Meatloaf Pan with Fat-A-Way Insert and G&S Designs Aluminum Clad Commercial Grade 2-Piece Meatloaf Pan Set. Once everything is ready, get your oven up to temperature at 375F and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. To check if your meatloaf is done, insert a small knife into the meatloaf and check if the liquid oozing out from your point of insertion is clear. If it is still slightly bloody, continue baking.

To make the sauce, start with dehydrated or fresh shiitake mushrooms. Remove the inedible stems first before boiling the julienned mushrooms in a pot with 2 cups of water for about 10 minutes on low heat. In a separate pan, cook about 1 teaspoon of diced onion and 2 cloves of garlic until tender. Deglaze the pan with 2 tablespoons of sherry wine and add the contents into the pot of mushrooms. Next, add 1 teaspoon of Minor's Beef Base, 1 bay leaf and a sprig of thyme and continue cooking on low heat. If the sauce is too salty, adjust by adding more water. Taste again and when the sauce is ready, use 1 tablespoon of corn starch slurry to thicken it. Your Asian meatloaf is now ready to be served.


Friday, April 2, 2010

I Love the Smell of Crêpes in the Morning

Oo la la! 
So how does one know when it is a good time for crêpes? I most certainly don't! LOL! I just woke up this morning and felt like making some crêpes, which is as French as apple pie is American. They look like pancakes but thinner and definitely more versatile. Crêpes are almost always served with a sweet fruity sauce (eg. crêpes suzette - with orange) but they also come as savory treats. And the best thing about crêpes? It's very easy to make, utilizing regular ingredients that can be found in any household. Here's a recipe for crêpe batter:

1 cup flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of melted butter

Simply whisk all the wet ingredients until they are thoroughly mixed. Then add the flour and salt and whisk again until everything is combined into a batter consistency. And that's it!

To cook the crêpes, heat up a small non-stick pan under medium-high heat until it starts to smoke. Then use either a cooking spray or butter to coat the pan and pour 1-2 oz. of the batter onto the pan, swirling the batter around to spread the it evenly over the bottom of the pan. Let it cook for about 45 seconds to a minute then flip it over. Another minute on that side and it's done. Fold it into half and there you have it, crêpes for breakfast.

For my version, I used sweet cranberry compote and some powdered sugar to accompany the crêpes. An idea for savory crêpes could be to add sautéd shiitake mushrooms and small shrimp and roll it up like a cigar.

Bon Appetit!