Cheeky

Several weeks ago, I had a go at making my own bacon. This was my second foray into the world of simple homemade charcuterie, after duck prosciutto, which I recommend as a good entry-level effort to the craft of curing.

Bacon is pretty easy. Buy yourself some good quality, free-range pork loin or belly… or even better, the loin with the belly attached. Cure it in a mixture of salt, sugar, some cure #1, plus whatever other flavourings you want to add and then massage it into the meat. Chuck it all into a big zip-lock bag and put it in the fridge for a week, turning it every day or so. Once it’s cured, you can hot smoke it or in the absence of a smoker, cook it in a low (120C) oven for a couple of hours.

To make it smoky, you can lightly spray the meat with a liquid smoke before it’s popped into the oven. The one I bought from Misty Gully is great and smells like Cheetos’ Cheese & Bacon Balls. There are a few more steps to it than what I’ve outlined, but this post on the Overclockers Forum is a great resource if you want to give it a go yourself. Kudos to kodo78.

bacon

As for my attempt at bacon – it looked like and smelled like bacon. Finely cut and pan fried, it also tasted pretty bacon-y and damn good between two pieces of bread, butter and a good dollop of HP sauce.

Wanting a greater challenge and with some spare time on my hands at the moment; I sought some inspiration from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie to seek out my next curing venture. As space is a bit of issue at my place, there was a requirement to stick to a smaller cut of meat, so I decided that Guanciale would be the most viable as it could be used in a number of recipes, as well as being delicious on its lonesome.

The direct translation of Guanciale is ‘pillow’, which may relate to the delicate texture, thanks to the higher fat to meat ratio in the cut. Or the simpler inference is that its name is derived from the Italian word for cheek (guancia). Either way, the cured and dried pork jowl is a little stronger in flavour than pancetta and as any staunch Italophile will tell you, is the only meat to use in a Carbonara or Amatriciana sauce.

Now you would think that with all of the various bits of pork we consume regularly, the cheeks and jowls would be a little more omnipresent and therefore easy to find, but they’re not. That is, until they probably feature in a future series of Masterchef and Coles will start to sell them at ridiculously-inflated prices. Alas, it wasn’t as simple as walking to either of the butcher shops on my street. I suspect the local restaurants might get first dibs, given jowl is so meltingly delicious.

After unsuccessfully widening my search to incorporate the surrounding suburbs, the next obvious place was Victoria Street, Richmond. Sadly, after 10 minutes, I was zero from six on Victoria Street and so I decided to cut my losses and head to the most next obvious place – the Queen Vic Markets.

Thirty five minutes, a further nine butchers, eight bucks for parking and a doughnut from the American Doughnut Van later (alright, it was two), I was still jowl-less.

A quick Google search had me back in the car heading towards the next, next most obvious place –  the Footscray market, which in hindsight was probably what I should have done in the first place.

By butcher number five, my luck had changed and the guy was only too happy to hack off a couple of jowls right before my eyes… All for the bargain price of $4.50, later finding out for an extra dollar, I could have purchased the whole pig’s head. Perhaps next time.

Cheeks getting a trim
Cheeks getting a trim

Sourcing the jowls was easy, compared to my next dilemma; to cure or not to cure with curing salt. And if I did use it, which cure do I use? Cure #1 or Cure #2? There were so many conflicting recipes that used different cures, if at all. Now I wasn’t in the mood for seriously harming my family and friends through some serious food poisoning or worse, botulism.

Therefore a bit of research is always a good thing. In Cure #1, the sodium nitrite only keeps the meat safe for a short period of time, as well as imparting that nice ‘cured’ taste. It’s also assumed that anything cured with Cure #1 is cooked after curing. In Cure # 2, the sodium nitrate breaks down over time and transforms to sodium nitrite, which is further broken down to become nitric oxide; the key oxidising agent that keeps the meat safe from that nasty old botulism. This cure is reserved for the likes of salumi, etc; things that aren’t intended to be cooked before consuming.

So knowing which cure was the best for me, the rest of the cure recipe was pretty simple and the one I used was from Nuovo Mondo, by Stefano de Pieri & Jim McDougall.

Guanciale (for 2 cheeks)

2 pork cheeks
300g table salt
300g caster sugar
5 garlic cloves, smashed
30g black pepper, lightly crushed (I only had white pepper on hand)
½ bunch thyme, chopped (stems and all)
2.5g Cure #2

The cheeks needed a bit of a trim up for starters. Mainly to get rid of some of the flappy bits, as well as to remove some of the glands that still may be attached to the jowls. The glands are pretty obvious-looking things; they’re grey in colour so they are usually pretty easy to distinguish from the fat or muscle.

Simple ingredients
Simple ingredients

Once trimmed, they were ready for the cure, which was as easy as combining all of the ingredients together. As for the amount of cure, I used the cure packet as a guide. The 100g pack was enough to cure 40kg of meat, so using my trusty brain and a calculator, I worked it out to be 2.5 grams of cure per kilo of meat. My jowls weighed in at around 1kg after trimming, so 2.5g of cure was mixed well into the salt and sugar before adding the thyme, garlic and pepper.

As the cure was going to draw out moisture from the jowls, I added an extra base of salt to the bottom of my container before rubbing down the cheeks with the cure mix and placing them into the container. I also made sure that the cheeks were only in contact with the cure mix and not the container or each other.

See you in a week
See you in a week

There was nothing left to do, other than pop them in the fridge and let the cure do the rest, for about a week. Every day or so, I check on them and ensured that they were happy and the cure was still covering each cheek.

After a week, it was time to wash the cure off the cheeks, but not with water. So, unless you were a magician, like Jebus, white wine was the traditional method for washing the cheeks and I thought I’d do the same thing. I can’t remember the last time I’d bought a cask of goon and sadly, I thought Fruity Lexia might be a tad too sweet for washing the cheeks, so I opted for a drier, more highfalutin Semillon Chardonnay.

Goon-ciale
Goon-ciale

Once the cheeks were well washed in the good stuff, I patted them dry with paper towel, ready for the next step. They had firmed up in the cure nicely and now they were ready for a rub down of spices, ready to hang. I used a combination of juniper, green peppercorns, fennel seeds and chilli. I went for green peppercorns as I wanted a milder pepper flavour. Juniper, fennel and chilli are fairly traditional spices as far as Guanciale goes.

Ready for hanging
Ready for hanging

The last step before hanging was to weigh the cheeks. I’d read that the same principle I’d followed when making duck prosciutto was also relevant to making Guanciale; that was when they’d lost 30% of their initial weight, through loss of moisture, they were done.

Actually, a precise figure of 30% is a little subjective. Jowls that contain a lot of fat won’t lost as much weight as the moisture is lost. I guess I just had to wait and see. My cheeks had lost around 100 grams in the fridge cure, so I was aiming to lose around 120 grams. In my little wine fridge, set at 13 degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around 65 percent, this could take anywhere from four to eight weeks.

Patience
Patience…

Fast forward to just shy of six weeks later and my impatience had gotten the better of me. On the scales, they hadn’t met the ’30 percent’ rule (closer to 20%) and since I first checked on them at the one month mark, there had been very little additional weight lost over the past two weeks. However, they were nice and firm; I was pretty sure that they were ready.

Worth the wait
… is a virtue

From the first cut of the knife, I knew my impatience was justified. The flesh was a rich and red in colour and the fat was lovely and firm. It smelled fantastic and tasted even better! Rich, buttery and a little nutty. A little bit of sweetness lingered from the cure and the spicing rounded it out perfectly.

A wee favour called in at Maria’s Deli (a few doors down from me) and soon enough their meat slicer had transformed one of my cured cheeks into paper-thin slices.

Patience truly is a virtue.

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Thrifty

They say that 2015 is going to be the year of recession, so maybe we should get in early and start to tighten our belts. As I’m not working at the moment, I’m already trying harder to not be so frivolous with my money. I am not yet at the stage where I am making my own moonshine or clothes, but I am spending far more time planning when it comes to grocery shopping, so there is less spent on the weekly shop and as a bonus, less weekly wastage.

Our household still produces its fair share of waste; but more recently, it’s been a case of an increasing awareness to minimise what is getting binned. Any bananas that are still around at the end of the week are chucked in the freezer and when there are enough, I’ll make banana bread. The abundance of lemons that are often given to us are turned into curd and any vegetables that look like they only have another day left are easily turned into pakoras or okonomyaki with a few other pantry staples.

It’s led me to think more about the things that we would normally throw away; things that could easily have a second chance as something else to enjoy, rather than simply becoming landfill or worm food. Stuff that we simply do not think about or most likely; couldn’t be bothered doing anything about. Using vegetable peelings for stock is one that comes to mind. Sadly, I’m just not that driven to be that overtly conscious, although I should try harder.

With summer fast approaching, my kids love nothing more than eating their bodyweight in watermelon and I’m quite partial to the stuff too, particularly as a salad with marinaded goats feta, mint and olives. I hate the wastage though. Over half of what is bought usually gets dumped in the bin or at the very least, if you buy a whole melon, you can make a zany helmet to wear to the cricket.

Using watermelon rind for a jam or pickle has been in the back of my head for a few months. A friend of mine in Adelaide is running a stall at a local market that sells a range of naan breads and other home-made treats. Their preserves and pickles have been big sellers and their watermelon jam is a winner.

This was enough for me to give it a go and see for myself. Is this the epitome of turning waste into a delicious commodity of a condiment?

So, what to make? A Pickle, preserve or chutney? What would I use more? I opted for a pickle to start with. It’s pretty interchangeable with chicken, pork, charcuterie or even with a good, crumbly cheddar.

The recipe is pretty basic. No more than 10 minutes of prep and 15 minutes on the stove.

Pickled Watermelon Rind (makes approximately 500ml)

Rind from one mini watermelon (mine was the size between a lawn bowl and a bowling ball), including some of the red flesh
1 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 tbsp salt
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick

I used a boning knife to cut the flesh from each half of the watermelon, leaving about half a centimetre of flesh on the rind, before using a vegetable peeler to remove the green skin.

After cutting the flesh from the rind and using a vegetable peeler to remove the green skin, I cut the rind into a half-centimetre dice. One mini watermelon gave me a little over four cups of peeled rind.

The rind was paced into a medium-sized saucepan with the other ingredients and simmered over a medium-high heat for around 15 minutes, until the rind becomes a little translucent.

If you leave it to cool, then refrigerate for a few hours, it’s ready to go. Otherwise, you can pop it into a sterilised jar, where it should keep for a couple of weeks. It’s a reasonably small quantity, so hopefully it won’t last you that long.

I’ll never be as inventive or inclined as Joost Bakker, but this is a great step forward in turning potential waste into deliciousness… one recipe at a time.

Thank you for Smoking…

I love birthdays. Especially mine. It’s one of the only times of the year I can usually get away with frivolous purchases, without the follow-up question of “do you really need that?”

This year, I was the grateful recipient of a Hark Electric Digital Smoker and happily ticking the frivolous box with a big fat red marker, the most problematic issue is that where I am living has no private access to an outdoors area… just a public laneway. Obviously, this makes it a tad difficult to crank up the smoker indoors (yes, I foolishly tried) and in the laneway, I’d hate for a panicky neighbour to think that their place was in danger of catching fire.

Fortunately on a recent weekend, I headed up to a friend’s property near Geelong for a few days; a great opportunity to load the smoker into the boot of the car along with several kilograms of ribs and some chicken.

Hark Electronic Digital Smoker

Ribs seemed the most fitting for the maiden trial of my smoker. Get it right and you are rewarded with one of the messiest, most delicious sharing dishes I can think of.

Way back when, there was little thought or effort that went into cooking ribs, other than ‘making’ my own sauce from a blend of commercial sauces, maybe some extra sugar and perhaps a few seasonings and whatever I could find that was on hand. Then it was a case of chucking them in the oven for a couple of hours, in foil, on a slow heat, followed by cranking up the heat as high as possible to caramelise the ribs.

I didn’t know any better or indeed know what better could be until several years ago when Melbourne became slowly indoctrinated to North American Barbecue, largely thanks to people like Burger Mary.

Nowadays, every third or fourth pub has revamped it’s menu to pay homage to the Pit Master and, like all the other food trends that we have embraced over the years, most of us are aware of what makes good Barbecue; meat, rubs, smoke, heat and lots of love, time and care… and perhaps a lick of BBQ sauce.

I’ve learned a lot about Barbecue over the last few weeks. Much more than I thought I would from just watching episodes of BBQ Pitmasters on Foxtel. For starters, there was a lot more to know about ribs than I thought I already knew. From a little piggy’s fourteen rib bones, there are two common cuts; Baby Back Ribs and Spare Ribs. Further to this, there are also St Louis-cut ribs, which are Spare Ribs that have been trimmed up (removing the sternum and flap of meat at the bottom), effectively squaring up the ribs to make them neat and more uniform (I found a really great post the Serious Eats website on how to trim ribs). Then there are also Country-style cut ribs, which are extremely meaty and cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin. Rib porn.

Far Left: Spare Ribs, in their entirety. Top: St Louis Ribs. Centre: Baby Back Ribs. Bottom: Country-Style Ribs
Far Left: Spare Ribs. Top: St Louis Ribs. Centre: Baby Back Ribs. Bottom: Country-Style Ribs

The common Baby Backs are the from the ribs found closest to the backbone of the pig and connected to the loin. They bones are smaller, curved and pretty close together and most of the meat is on top of the bones. When I was a kid, Mum would buy these ribs for maybe no more than a dollar or two for a couple of racks. Back then, they were tantamount to dog bones and were most likely sold as such. Today, they command around $20 per kg, which is a lot given that there is more bone than meat.

As you move further from the spine, you find the Spare Ribs, where the bones get larger, flatter, straighter and wider apart with more meat between the bones. Also, the further you get from the spine, there is a greater amount of marbling because it’s closer to the belly. In fact, because of their affiliation with the pork belly, the belly itself can be sometimes sold as ‘boneless spare ribs’. It’s kinda technically true, but it’s just pork belly.

Credit Photo: TMBBQ (http://www.tmbbq.com)
Baby Back Ribs on the left, Spare Ribs on the right… with respective loin and belly attached

Sadly, most ribs in Australia are butchered to be devoid of very little meat, which is largely due to the demand of other pork cuts that would otherwise be compromised if ‘proper’ rib cuts were made available in Australia. The vast majority of Australian butchers and retailers purchase specific cuts through a commercial boning room. Therefore the proposition of buying and breaking down an entire pig for awesome ribs would be to the detriment of leaving cuts that are not too popular in the Australian market, so unfortunately, it’s uneconomical.

Perhaps with an emerging demand for other not-so popular cuts of meat, we may find better ribs in the near future. For now, I’ve found the best quality spare ribs are from Costco at around $16 per kg. They’re meaty and require very little trimming up, unless you want to make them St Louis-style. One rack (around 1.6-1.8kg) will set you back about $28-$30, which is enough for two moderately hungry people. However, smoking just one rack seems pointless, so stock up and get your friends over.

BBQ sauces are fairly subjective as far as flavours go. As you move through the BBQ belt in the United States, flavour profiles are tweaked from region to region. A Kansas-style BBQ sauce is your typical tomato-based sauce. It’s unctuously sticky, dark and sweet from molasses and it’s the sauce that most people will duly recognise; albeit a far cry from the overly sweet sauces that most of us are subjected to, thanks to the mass-produced brown muck you find in squeezey bottles.

Sauces from North Carolina are all about tang that is driven from a big dose of vinegar. Pork in its many forms (but think pulled pork) is the most popular meat in this part of the world, so the preference of a vinegar-driven BBQ sauce that cuts through the richness of the meat makes perfect sense.

Tennessee sauces contain the ubiquitous slosh of whiskey, whereas Texan sauces tend to be on the spicier side and Louisiana sauces are even hotter.

With all this in mind, I started to trawl various BBQ forums and recipes to look at the more common ingredients so I could build a sauce of my own at this is what I came up with.

Paul’s BBQ Sauce (makes 1.5 litres)

200g Celery, very finely diced
200g, Onion, very finely diced
50g Butter
50g fresh Ginger, finely grated
500ml Tomato Ketchup (I used Heinz)
125ml Molasses
100g Brown Sugar
125ml good quality Bourbon
1 tbsp Habanero Tabasco Sauce (Note: start with a ½ tbsp and if you feel you need more heat, add another ½ tbsp.)
2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Mustard Powder (I used Keens)
125ml Orange Juice
60ml Maple Syrup
125ml fresh Espresso

Quite a number of rubs and sauces contain celery seed or salt. I opted for fresh celery and onion (as opposed to powder) to use as my aromatics, as well as to thicken the sauce after blending. I sweated this mixture down slowly with some butter (lid on, but stirring frequently) for 10 minutes, then added the ginger, leaving a soft, fragrant and translucent base to continue adding the rest of the ingredients.

Once the ketchup had been added and incorporated into the softened aromatics, the remainder of the ingredients were added judiciously, in the order of ingredients listed above. I tasted the sauce as each ingredient was added to understand how each ingredient contributed to the overall flavour. Over the slowest heat possible on my biggest burner, the process took around 40 minutes of simmering and adjusting until I was happy with the consistency and flavour. The espresso was a last minute addition and I’m glad I used it. The coffee notes really brought out the bourbon and the acidity helped to further balance some of the sweetness.

Once I’d blended the sauce to make it nice and smooth, I stored it in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to develop. When I tried it the next day, it was good, but not great and perhaps a little too spicy to be universally kid-friendly.

With some corrective action, I poured the sauce back into a saucepan over a low heat and added another 125ml of molasses. It was nearly there, but not quite. Rather than add more molasses or brown sugar, I added 125ml of kecap mains (ABC Sweet Soy) for a little more depth and colour. Finally, to further balance the sweetness with a little more acidity, another 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar was stirred in. At this point, the sauce was only back to blood temperature; enough heat to allow the new ingredients to emulsify.

The end result encapsulates all of the key elements of the various regional BBQ sauces from all over the US; the tempered heat from tabasco, the sweetness from the molasses and brown sugar, the twang from the apple cider vinegar and a cheers to the folk in Tennessee with a generous splash of Bourbon.

Another key step to smoking is the process of marinating the meat with a dry rub.

Ribs after a rub
Ribs after a good rub

Dry rubs are exactly as their name describes; a mix of dried herbs and seasonings that are rubbed onto the meat to impart flavour. Meat, obviously being moist, will make the rub tacky when left for several hours or overnight, meaning most of it will remain on the meat before and during cooking (although some rib recipes call for a thin layer of mustard on the ribs, which, additional flavour aside, also allows the rub to stick to the meat). Sugar also features as a key ingredient as it allows the meat to caramelise.

Like BBQ sauces, dry rubs are also very personal in flavour. Most recipes are a combination of sugar, salt, paprika, chilli or cayenne, pepper, powdered garlic, onion and ginger and dried herbs, like oregano, rosemary and thyme. From there you can then play with the combinations of the above or add your own personal touches. I’ve got an idea of maybe trying some freeze dried pineapple powder, but for my first rub, I stuck to a fairly generic recipe.

Generic Rib Rub (makes 2 cups)

3/4 cup Brown Sugar
3/4 cup White Sugar
1/2 cup Paprika
1/4 cup Garlic Powder
2 tbsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 tbsp Ginger Powder
2 tbsp Onion Powder
2 tsp Oregano, dried

On the day prior to smoking, I trimmed the ribs up, removing the flap of skirt meat that runs diagonally on the backside of the ribs. I ended up cooking the flaps separately, but in the same manner as the ribs, which became a tasty and fuss-free meal for my 4 year old. I also removed the thin, papery membrane from the back of the ribs. I’d never done this before, but many sites and forums advocated this for the sake of allowing better smoke penetration (also conversely refuted by other sites and forums). Another apparent and more practical advantage was better texture once the ribs are cooked. This made more sense. It’s quite a tricky and laborious step. The membrane is a slippery little sucker, but after a couple of little knife nicks to the fingers and some quality swearing, it was job done.

Once the ribs are trimmed, they’re given a generous coating of rib rub, then left to marinate in the fridge overnight until you’re ready to fire up the smoker.

Ribs at the ready
Ribs at the ready

The Hark Electric Smoker works well. My only gripe was that initially the door wasn’t flush with the body of the unit, which meant that smoke billowed out where the door seal wasn’t sealing adequately. Sadly, Hark did not respond to my photos, which was disappointing. I fixed the problem with some self-adhesive fibreglass tape I picked up at a BBQ store for around $25. A cheap, effective fix, but unnecessary when you’ve forked out $600 for a brand new smoker. Gripes aside, it’s also pretty economical, only requiring a scant 1/4 cup of (apple) wood pellets, so that 10kg bag I purchased might take a little while to use.

The cooking method I used for the ribs was the popular 3-2-1 method. This method consists of placing your rubbed ribs in the smoker for 3 hours with your wood chips or pellets, uncovered and untouched. This is followed by a further 2 hours in the smoker, wrapped in alfoil. Finally, the ribs are unwrapped and placed back in the smoker for another hour, lacquering every fifteen minutes or so with BBQ sauce and a trusty sauce mop. The temperature of the smoker remains at a constant 110 degrees Celsius throughout the entire process. I also threw in some bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and a couple of chicken marylands, adding them to the smoker after the ribs had endured their first three hours (I added some more wood pellets at this point to give them a chance to smoke).

The end result
The end result… with some delectable chicken thighs for the no-pork peeps

The whole process is most definitely a labour of love and time. But by God is it worth it. There are so many other things to try next… brisket, pork butt (neck) or shoulder. Maybe all at once. All I need is a backyard. If you can provide me this, I’ll promise you a meal you’ll never forget.

Hainanese Chicken and Rice

I’ve recently spent several months working in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs. Work-wise, it was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the corporate environment in the CBD. For food and my lunch in particular, the outer south-east is a great area to sample some good fare. So beyond avoiding Sofia’s colossus pasta meals or averting the temptation of yet another six-inch Subway Club on honey oat with all the salads, extra pickles… no onion or carrot, a short drive to Glen Waverley or Box Hill in pursuit of finding the best Hainanese Chicken and Rice was a far more sporting challenge.

Hainanese Chicken from the Chinese island province of Hainan is actually known as Wenchang chicken, which is not to be confused with UK’s new wave pop group.

DanceHallDays_cover

Wenchang actually means ‘white cut’.

As the Hainanese settled throughout South-East Asia, the dish became prominent in both Malaysia and Singapore. Of course, there’s contention as to which is better; the Malaysian version, which is subtler in flavour or the Singaporean version, which features a more savoury rice. My preference is the latter.

Did I find my utopian chicken and rice? I don’t think so. Whilst I scoured the net to give me a few clues as to where I might find a really good serving of chicken and rice, I also came across some real shockers; chicken that had been boiled for far too long that resulted in tight, stringy proteins, flavourless rice, insipid or no condiments.

Surprisingly, the best and most consistent chicken and rice was from none other than China Bar on Kingsway in Glen Waverley, with its robust condiments, moist chicken and extremely flavourful rice.

Still, nothing is as rewarding as cooking it yourself and taking advantage of a quiet weekend, I could think of nothing more therapeutic than spending several hours creating this wonderful dish. Of all of the recipes I read through, there are key methods that largely remain the same, as do the core ingredients of chicken, ginger, garlic, chillies and soy sauce. Then there are the hundreds of variances in the methods and other ingredients.

Very few ingredients
Very few ingredients go a long way

This was the second time I had cooked chicken and rice and I decided to stick with Adam Liaw’s Grandmother’s recipe as my base recipe, which features in his book, Two Asian Kitchens. I’ve made a few modifications, which are largely made out of taking on some of the other techniques in other recipes plus a bit of cheating in an attempt to boost the flavour of the rice.

The Chicken:

1 whole chicken (about 1.5kg), at room temperature
a good handful of sea salt flakes
5 whole cloves garlic
5 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 tbsp sesame oil
coriander, sliced cucumber and spring onion, to serve

The Rice:

350g jasmine rice
625ml reserved chicken stock
2 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 sachet of Asian Home Gourmet Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste

Chilli Sauce:

3 red birds-eye chillies
3 red long chillies… the mild ones
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp reserved chicken stock

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil:

4 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes
3 tbsp peanut oil

The Dressing:

1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
50ml reserved chicken stock

One of the great tips I found was to give the chicken some love by means of an exfoliation. A handful of sea salt rubbed judiciously all over the chicken will leave you with one good looking bird. It’s amazing how much gunk is removed leaving the chicken with taught, smooth skin and a better final result.

Remember to exfoliate
Remember to exfoliate

One of the other handy tips to produce really good rice is the use of chicken fat. Trim any of the visible pieces of fat from the chicken; there’s usually a good amount inside the rear cavity and I also use the parson’s nose. Roughly chop all of the fatty bits and place them into a small saucepan and over a very low heat, in around 30-45 minutes, you should have 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat.

Don’t throw away those crispy pieces of chickeny goodness either. Season them and stack them on top of your rice as a garnish or even better, crack a beer and have yourself a most excellent beer snack to keep you going whilst you’re cooking.

Ready for some gentle cooking
Spa Bath

After your chicken’s skin rejuvenation, it’s time for a spa bath. Place the garlic cloves and ginger slices in the cavity of the chicken and place breast-side down in a saucepan that is just bigger than your chicken. Ideally you want to make enough chicken stock to cook the rice, plus the small amount required for the condiments and at least a litre left over to serve as a cleansing broth. So that’s probably around two litres of cold water to cover your chicken.

Get the heat ticking to just under a simmer and keep it going for around 20 minutes, then place a lid on your saucepan and leave it to continue cooking in the residual heat for another 30 minutes. The end result should be a perfectly, ever so just cooked chook.

Remove the chicken from the stock, drain, then place your chook onto some plastic wrap.  Rub the chicken all over with a good drizzle of sesame oil, then wrap it up snugly. It will look a little like Laura Palmer.

Your chicken is now ready to cut up when it’s time to serve. Put your stock to one side as you’ll be needing it later on.

Laura Palmer
Laura Palmer

While your chicken is cooking and resting, it’s time to get stuck into making the condiments.

To make the chilli sauce, combine the chillies, ginger, garlic, sugar and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for six birds-eye chillies, but to make this a little more kid-friendly with less heat, I used three long red chillies to keep the chilli volume without adding any more heat. Once I had a relatively smooth paste, I added the lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of the reserved chicken stock. The result is a fragrant, spicy and sweet sauce that it much needed to cut through the richness of some of the other elements.

Chilli & Ginger Paste
Chilli & Ginger Paste

To make the spring onion and ginger oil, again in your mortar, add the spring onion, ginger and salt and pound lightly with the pestle. Heat the oil in a small frying pan until it just hits smoking point and pour onto the mixture. Once the crackling and sizzling stops, combine lightly with the pestle and leave to infuse for a few minutes, giving you a punchy, yet rich condiment.

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil
Spring Onion & Ginger Oil

The dressing for the chicken is pretty simple and serves as an integral background flavour for the chicken. Mix together the sesame oil and soy sauce with 50ml of the reserved chicken stock and add the sugar until dissolved. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for light soy. I didn’t have any, so I used normal soy. I also opted to add a touch of sweetness, hence the addition of a little sugar. You can leave it out if you want to.

My Little Secret
My Little Secret

My tweaks to the rice would most likely raise the scorn and ire of the purists, but it’s a delicious result, so I’ll stick to it. Heat your 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and the sachet of Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste, which is pretty much shallots, ginger and garlic. Cook out the paste until fragrant, then add the rice and toss until well coated and it starts to become opaque and begins to crackle… a bit like making a risotto. Add the reserved chicken stock, give it a stir and when it comes to the boil, pop the lid on, set your smallest burner to the lowest heat possible and leave your rice to cook slowly for 12-15 minutes. Try not to remove the lid and after the time is up, leave your rice to rest for a further 5-10 minutes.

The Final Result
The Final Result

To serve, slice the chicken up without hacking it into a complete mess. One day I’ll learn how to cut a chicken ‘Chinese-style’, which for me means annoying bones in every bite. Pour over the dressing and make it look pretty with some coriander and cucumber. Serve it with your most very flavourful rice, condiments and broth, which is the remaining chicken stock plus a little adjusting to the seasoning thanks to some salt and soy sauce.

Cooking Hainanese Chicken and Rice is most definitely a labour of love; given there are quite a number of steps. However, it’s more than worth the end result as it is one of those dishes that exemplifies how you can treat a very small number of ingredients with some care and respect to deliver a complete meal.

Gua Bao – Part 1

I missed the beginning of the Bao phenomenon. I must have been looking the other way or sick that day. I guess they were probably made famous throughout the western world by David Chang’s momofuku Pork Buns. Here in Melbourne, Wonderbao and Bao Now turned up around 18 months ago and have been belting out these Chinese / Taiwanese / Vietnamese steamed treats. Wonderbao sticks to the more traditional fillings, whereas Bao Now opts for an ‘international’ twist, stuffing buns with buffalo chicken, bacon cheeseburger, cheesecake and so on.

I’ve had steamed buns before. Lots of times. But I have simply known them as ‘steamed pork buns’ and didn’t think anything else of it or really care. Several weeks ago I attended the launch of lil nomnoms; Melbourne’s newest food truck, dolling out Vietnamese-inspired food. At the launch, I tried my very first Gua Bao and I loved it! I liked the beer in one hand, food in the other convenience and I liked the contrast of warm, soft, sweet dough stuffed with cold, crisp, fresh ingredients. Then of course, I noticed them everywhere.

Bao means bun or bread in Chinese (and I think Vietnamese). The universal characteristic is the whiter than white, soft, steamed sweet dough. The aforementioned Chinese Bao (also known as bāozi, bau, humbow, nunu, bausak, pow or pau) is the ubiquitous steamed bun, traditionally stuffed with char sui pork. The Vietnamese Bánh Bao (meaning enveloping cake) is also a steamed bun, but traditionally filled with minced pork or chicken meat, Chinese sausage, onion, boiled egg, mushroom and other vegetables. The Japanese also have a version called Nikuman. The Filipinos have Siopao and the Thais have Salapao. I could go on. Basically one can deduce that every Asian country has their own version.

Gua Bao originates from Taiwan and the dough is rolled and steamed to form a taco / slider hybrid. It’s traditionally filled with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander, peanuts and Taiwanese red sugar. Tradition aside, it’s a no brainer that it also makes the perfect base for other combinations, but why you’d want to deviate from pork belly is a mystery… unless it’s duck, but more on that in Part 2.

Being the ever-inquisitive person that I am, I decided to have a go at making these for a friend’s up-and-coming dinner party. Given that there was dough involved and the more regular readers would already understand that dough and me have a strained history, I decided that there had to be several experiments to get my head around achieving perfection, or at the very least something that wouldn’t make me look inept.

Let’s start with the dough. In most recipes, it’s pretty simple; flour, water, sugar, some kind of fat, a raising agent of some description and salt. Then come all of the variants which seem countless; even when it comes to flour. High protein (12%-15%) bread flour will give a better result as it produces a light, springy dough that also stays moist and softer for longer because the protein continues to absorb moisture.

Contrary to this, there are some recipes that use cake flour, which contains less protein (7%-9%). This is what tends to happen when you do too much research. If it’s all too hard, stick to plain flour or another option is to buy ready-prepared flour from most Asian grocery stores, which already contains the required raising agents. But I guess if you want to steer clear of phosphates and sulphates, then avoid the ready-prepared stuff, which looks like this…

Bao Mix

The quantities of sugar vary from recipe to recipe and I guess it’s up to personal choice and to an extent, your filling of choice. Most recipes call for around 25-30g (2 tablespoons) per 125g (1 cup) of flour.

You didn’t think I’d need to mention water, did you? It warrants a mention; only because most Taiwanese and Chinese recipes call for water and the Vietnamese recipes tend to use milk. My preferred recipe usues water, but it also contains milk powder.

As far as raising agents go, some recipes call for dry (instant) yeast, baking powder or both. However, I’d stear clear of baking (bi-carb) soda. In an attempt to produce a lighter, fluffier Gua Bao, I decided to modify a dough recipe to incorporate yeast, baking powder and baking soda. My Gua Bao turned an unappealing shade of light brown and after some research, I later discovered that when baking soda produces an alkaline solution in water, the alkalinity accelerates the browning reaction. Apparently this is the reason that baking soda (or lye) and a water wash is recommended for pretzels to achieve that deep brown, pretzely colour.

Some recipes call for (melted) solidified fats, like lard or some simply state to use canola oil. Whatever neutral tasting oil you have at home is probably fine. I used duck fat.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I had succeeded and failed with a number of Gua Bao dough recipes. The first version I tried was from Gourmet Traveller; purportedly adapted from a David Chang recipe, however the recipe is very different from the original. The outcome was OK; they kinda looked the part, but they just weren’t fluffy enough and a little on the heavy side.

The second attempt was from some random blog. This is where I went a bit freestyle in the desperate pursuit of lightness and fluffiness, used baking soda and failed. Whilst they tasted OK and were a little bit lighter, the colour was a little off-putting.

Two bags of the ready-prepared flour from an Asian Grocery store ($2.20 for 445g) remain unused in my pantry, so I never got around to trialling them. Although the instructions give an indication that it required far less time to prepare the dough, the recipe didn’t contain yeast.

I doubt I’ll even get around to using the ready-prepared flour because when D-Day came along, another google search found me the original momofuku book recipe and the results were brilliant:

1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups water, at room temperature
4 ¼ cups bread flour
6 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons non-fat dry milk powder (mine was full-fat)
1 tablespoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda (I omitted this)
1/3 cup rendered fat or vegetable shortening, melted in the microwave (I used duck fat)

The first thing I noticed was the quantity of this recipe. It yields 50 (smaller) buns. The second thing I noticed was that it was an easier recipe; the yeast and water were added straight into the bowl of a stand mixer, with a dough hook attached. The flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder (I omitted the baking soda) and duck fat were all dumped into the bowl and then mixed on the lowest speed possible for 8 to 10 minutes… No waiting for the yeast to activate in the water. It was practically fool-proof.

After the required time, the dough had gathered into a smooth, not-too-tacky ball on the hook; very similar to a brioche dough. I then placed it into a lightly oiled pyrex bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and placed it into my oven, set at 50 degrees (fan on), with the door open. The recipe suggests leaving it to prove for at least an hour and 15 minutes. I had other stuff to do, so mine was left for about twice that amount of time.

After punching the dough down, I digressed a little. Whilst the recipe called for dividing the dough to make 50 x 25g balls, I only needed 12 and upped the size to 50g, as I was serving two per person. I wrapped the rest of the dough in cling wrap and chucked it in the freezer. The balls were then left covered with cling wrap for a further 30 minutes to rest and rise. I had more stuff to do, so they again had a little more resting time (around two hours).

Dough

Before the next stage, I cut out a dozen 10cm squares of baking paper; one for each bao. Each ball was the flattened lightly by hand, before lightly rolling to make a 15-20cm oval. From previous experience, I then sprayed the dough with a little rice bran spray oil before folding over very lightly to form the bun shape and placing each bun onto its baking paper base. The third and final rise took place under some more cling wrap for another 30 to 45 minutes.

When it was time to steam (placing about ½ a cup of white vinegar into the boiling water, which apparently makes them whiter), I placed three buns into the steamer. The baking paper made it easier to transfer the buns without touching the dough and flattening them. After about 10 minutes, they were ready and I almost shed a tear; they were perfect; light, billowy, soft and more importantly, looked exactly like the ones in the Momofuku book. From there you can use them straight away, pop them in the fridge for later or freeze them for up to a week.

Gua Bao

Stay tuned for Part 2… dinner party Gua Bao.

ANZAC Biscuits, my way…

It’s a day late, but better late than never.

Most people are familiar with the background of the ANZAC biscuit; it probably formed part of what we learned in school, but for the sake of padding out this post, it’s claimed that the biscuits were sent by wives to soldiers abroad because the simple ingredients (rolled oats, flour, desiccated coconut, sugar, butter, golden syrup, baking soda and water) did not spoil easily. The omission of eggs was also thought to be because of the scarcity of eggs during the First World War, after most poultry farmers had joined the war effort. Then there is also the typical Trans-Tasman rivalry and conjecture around whether it was the Kiwis or the Aussies that invented the biscuit first, like the pavlova, lamington or claiming Neil and Tim Finn as our own. Alas, still no one is willing to claim Russell Crowe (don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming).

Personally, I am not a massive fan of the ANZAC biscuit. Whilst we grew up on Nan’s homemade ones, like most Australian and New Zealand kids would have, I find them too sweet. However, like Nan’s, they have to be crunchy. The soft ones just don’t seem right. But, each to their own. We are lucky we have the freedom of choice, as trivial as it is to muse over a biscuit preference. I think that falls into the category of first world problems.

Yesterday morning’s last minute decision to make ANZAC biscuits was my 6 year old’s idea. She enjoys the helping part, but I knew that she wouldn’t be a fan of the end result… mainly because it’s not a mass-produced Tiny Teddy or a packet of the recently-discovered Uglies. I had all of the ingredients on hand with the exception of rolled oats, so a quick run up to the local Foodworks ensured we could knock up a batch to take to the park later on.

At this point, the traditional recipe started to take a turn. I ended up having to settle for quick oats (the smaller cut version of whole rolled oats) because that’s all they had, which in hindsight is what I will continue to use in the future. But more on that later. As I mentioned earlier, the sweetness is what puts me off ANZAC biscuits, so I began to think about what I could do to offset the sweetness… Maybe in a number of ways. Then slowly, I began to feel a tiny pang of guilt. I was messing with such a sacrosanct recipe! It usually pisses me off when people mess around with things that shouldn’t be messed with. Now I was one of those people. However, I was prepared to overlook it when I finally tried the end result.

Firstly, I decided to back off on the sugar in the recipe, using about ¾ of a cup as opposed to a full cup. Whilst this was a bit of a risk in achieving my preferred crunchy version, I did it anyway. A higher sugar content relative to the amount of golden syrup results in a crisper biscuit, whereas a greater percentage of golden syrup gives you a softer and chewier result. I kept the golden syrup to the one tablespoon, as listed in the recipe.

The second change was the  spontaneous addition of something controversial, mainly because I saw them in Foodworks, and hardly Antipodean – Hershey Reece’s Pieces. I guess you could dedicate it to our alliance with the US. Whilst they’re still relatively sweet, I decided that they might add some of that slightly salty, peanut buttery richness in bursts.

Thirdly, hot out of the oven, I gave each biscuit a tiny pinch of Murray Pink Salt to give that slight contrast to the sweetness and finally, a drizzle of bitter, 85% dark chocolate.

The rest of the ingredients were (practically) straight up and taken from Margaret Fulton’s ANZAC Biscuit recipe… that is with the exception of the oats. Using the smaller cut, quick oats resulted in a denser biscuit. Oh, and I used dried coconut instead of desiccated. And biscuit flour instead of plain flour… Actually, in hindsight, my version a little removed from the recipe developed by our ancestors to keep our troops fuelled and motivated. But they were delicious.

ANZAC Biscuits, my way

ANZAC Biscuits, my way…

125g unsalted butter
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 tbsp boiling water
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 cup quick oats (smaller cut ‘quick’ oats)
¾ cup dried coconut (not desiccated)
1 cup flour (I used biscuit flour, with a lower protein content)
¾ cup brown sugar
2 x 43g packets Reese’s Pieces
Murray Pink Salt
150g 85% good quality dark chocolate (I used Lindt)

Preheat oven to 150 degrees Celsius.

Melt butter, golden syrup and sugar over a low heat in a small heavy based pan until melted. Add the baking soda to the boiling water, then mix into the melted syrup mixture. When well combined and frothy, pour the mixture into the combined oats, flour and coconut dry ingredients and mix well. When the mixture has cooled a little, gently mix in the Reese’s Pieces until they are well distributed throughout the mixture.

Roll mixture into small (2cm) balls onto greased baking trays, leaving room for spreading. I found that using the smaller cut oats resulted in not as much spreading as you’d typically expect from an ANZAC biscuit.

Bake for 18-20 minutes. If you want to achieve a crispier biscuit, drop the temperature a little and extend the cooking time.

Upon removing the hot biscuits from the oven, flatten slightly and sprinkle each with a tiny amount of Murray Pink Salt. Cool on the tray for a few minutes, then remove onto wire racks.

When completely cooled, drizzle with dark chocolate and leave to set.

I’m not much of a baker, but I was extremely proud the end result. Overall, it was crispy on the outside softer on the inside and to be perfectly honest they were awesome – even if they weren’t technically a true ANZAC Biscuit.

Lest we forget.

Feelings & Memories

Food and feelings go together like… vegemite and cheese. How could you not cheer on your team at the footy without a lukewarm pie and sauce? How could you not mend a broken heart without ice cream? You get the picture. It conjures up memories, good and bad and it can effectively use all of your senses (unless you also see dead people) or at the very least, enhance them. It makes you remember.

As a lover of food, some of my happier moments in life have been closely related to it; a meal out with people that are special to me or cooking for them. Or even better, cooking with them.

It took some years to get better at cooking with people. I was told that I was too bossy in the kitchen… too much of a perfectionist, which I guess is a toughie when you lack the desired skill. And if things went a little pear-shaped, I cracked the shits. I’ve improved immensely over the years. I don’t know why… Maybe my knowledge and technique have improved with practise. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older and I’ve learned not to sweat the little things. I think I’ve said before that pastry and me are slowly learning to get along.

Whilst there are fond memories of great meals with friends, things I’ve eaten by myself in amazing places in the world or meals I’ve made for others that I believe I truly nailed, I have two very vivid memories of cooking with people dear to me.

One dates back to around thirteen years ago when I was living my carefree, backpacker life. I was staying in a town called Jelsa, on the island of Hvar in Croatia. My travelling partner and I scored this ridiculously cheap apartment and we ended up staying there for two weeks. I celebrated my 25th birthday there.

Most days we’d head to the markets. We’d buy whatever fish they’d have on offer… usually a small snapper, and we’d stuff it with ham, mushrooms (one day we endured a 16km round trip walk to another town because the market at Jelsa had no mushrooms) and leeks and make a flavoured butter out of some paprika-based seasoning we’d found that was a little bit sweet, salty, spicy and tangy. We’d bake it and serve it with what we christened ‘Jelsa Salad’, which was pretty much roughly chopped up red onion, red capsicum, carrot and cucumber, tossed in lemon juice. None of it was fancy or even regional for that matter, but every now and again, if I want to take myself back to those days, I’ll make Jelsa Salad and I am there.

Whilst my other standout food memory didn’t involve an exotic setting, it’s arguably to date, my best food memory. Why? Put simply, it epitomises why I love to cook; the challenge, the fun, being able to share and of course the end result. All combined it evokes happiness and isn’t that something everyone wants to be able to remember?

Over the years, I have attempted to cook Thai cuisine; it’s never really been something  that I’ve put my love and soul into in order to deliver something that is better than OK. It’s probably also a little out of my comfort zone. However, a friend of mine who had spent a number of years living in Thailand changed that. Having someone that knew Thai food beyond the probable farang holiday-maker stuff most travellers would sample helped a lot.

Raw protein polarises people. Most will try fish in the form of sashimi or beef as carpaccio or tartare. I love stuff raw, but I’d never tried raw prawns; accidentally or as a dish.

Gung Chae Nam Pla is something I have not seen in Australian Thai restaurants, quite possibly because it might not be popular. If you have a sense of adventure and can get beyond eating a raw prawn, then give it a go. It’s amazing. One of the most extraordinary, yet simplest dishes I’ve ever made or tasted, consisting of essentially fresh (the fresher, the better) raw green prawns that have been butterflied and just prior to being served, anointed with a paste that features the usual Thai suspects and some fresh mint.

Raw Prawns with Thai Chillies (Gung Chae Nam Pla)

10-12 medium sized, raw fresh green prawns with the tail shell on
6 chillies
coriander leaves
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
Fresh mint leaves

Now the method was no brain surgery; processing the chillies, garlic, shallot, coriander, fish sauce and lemon juice into a rough paste, then artfully added it to the prawns (tails up!). Grab a couple of mint leaves to top each prawn and eat the prawn in one go, picking it up by the tail shell. We paired it with a few glasses of Mumm, which you probably wouldn’t do in Thailand, but it worked.

Gung Chae Nam Pla

One of the quintessential Thai recipes is Green Curry. Made from scratch, it’s a true labour of love and the one we made was pretty close to perfection. David Thompson may disagree.

The recipe we used was a bit of a jumble from a number of recipes, plus a bit of our own doctoring along the way. What I’ve listed below will get you pretty close.

Green Chicken Curry (Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai)

Curry paste, made from:
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
10 white peppercorns
1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
4 or 5 fresh green chillies
12-15 small green chillies
4 -5 shallots, chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
Coriander stems and roots from a bunch of coriander
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, chopped
Shrimp paste, to taste (start at 1 tsp and go from there)
1 tsp salt
Zest of one or two limes

The rest…

oil
3 chicken thighs, bone in
6 Thai eggplants
10-12 Green beans
1 can of coconut cream
Fish sauce, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Palm sugar, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Lime juice, to taste (start at 1 lime)

Whilst it would be very much authentic to use a mortar and pestle to make your paste, the one we had was a bit small. So we cheated and used one of those small food processors, like you might get as an attachment to a bamix.

First, we toasted the coriander and cumin in a dry pan until fragrant, then ground the toasted spices in the mortar and pestle (at least it got used for something) with the white pepper corns. The ground spices were added to the rest of the paste ingredients (we forgot the ginger) in the processor and blitzed until they resembled a fine paste. Try not to add water to advance the process; it only dilutes your paste.

Some of the ingredients were amped up a bit, to taste. We added more shrimp paste (maybe another half a tablespoon… maybe more). As for the chillies, the long green ones didn’t provide the heat, as much as they added to the colour (although our paste was quite a brown colour, then end result looked like the proper green curry colour). The chillies we used for heat were purchased at the Footscray markets. I will have to go there again and find out what they were; they were tiny, no more than 2cm in length, quite thin, a bit nobbly and pale green in colour. They packed a good heat that built up on you.

After we were happy with the paste, we fried of at least half a cup over a slow heat in a heavy based casserole dish. Once the paste was fragrant, we added the chopped chicken thighs, to cook in the paste for a few minutes, then the halved eggplants, more kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar and a can of coconut cream. Then we left it for about 20 minutes, continuing on a very slow heat.

About 10 minutes before serving, we checked the flavours, added a little more sugar and some lime juice. The sauce, in my opinion, had reduced a little bit too much, but there was a little bit of coconut cream left in the tin, which I added and it seemed to correct this. We added the beans and popped the lid on the let the residual heat cook the beans, but leave some crunch.

Served with the some rice, this was the end result:

Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai

Whilst factors beyond just the cooking attributed to this being my best food memory (like the company, lots of wine, the fun and so on), I have never been so pleased with the end results of the dishes we created. Sharing the toils and fruits of your labour can conjure up some great memories. Just worry about the dirty dishes later.