Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taiwanese Treats

Savory Bean Curd Soup
I never took the time to look for Taiwanese food.  I figured that it didn't exist in these parts.  I got turned onto the Taiwan Cafe in Chinatown by a friend of mine who is well versed in Boston area restaurants.  It just so happened that my aunt was in town for a weekend and thought it would be great to give her a taste of her childhood. 

She asked me what I would like to eat.  I told her that I'd like to try what she enjoyed in her younger years.  Check out the highlights.

*Steamed Pork & Mushroom Sticky Rice w/ Gravy
This brought me back to a time when I was a kid and my mom stuffed the Thanksgiving turkey with sticky rice.  I think the key to good sticky rice is the reconstituted dried mushrooms.  There's this earthy quality that is unique to the ingredient.  The mushrooms have this concentrated flavor punch that is a great contrast to the rice background.  Sticky and slippery were part and parcel of a good percentage of dishes I tried.

*Braised Pork w/ Peanuts & Sour Mustard Green[s] in [a] Steamed Bun
The crown jewel was this braised pork belly topped with pickled mustard greens, chopped peanuts, sugar and cilantro in a steamed flat bread.  The topping reminded me of a mochi treat filled with chopped peanuts and granulated sugar that I'd had time and time again.  Talk about a neat flavor and textural experience.  Slight sweetness of the bread, salty meat, sour punch of greens, deconstructed peanut butter topping and brightness of cilantro.  Airy light bread, pork fat melting in your mouth, tender & juicy meat, crunch of the sugar & peanuts, and crispness of the cilantro.  For me, it would be a tough choice between this and a bahn mi.  I do love a good bahn mi. 

The ketchup-soy red gravy on a couple dishes made me think about the origin.  Long ago, I read that ketchup originated from a fish sauce.  As a shortcut, I looked to see what Wiki had on the subject.   

Directly from Wikipedia:

In the 1690s the Chinese mixed together a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it ke-tsiap.

The Webster's Dictionary of 1913 defined "catchup" as a "table sauce made from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, etc. [Also written as ketchup].

After this quick etymology look, I wondered how two completely different products were given the 'same' label.  Umami was a strong possibility.  They both have glutamic acid, which adds body to what they're smothered on.  My guess is that Americans back in the day would have been less accepting of the unctuous bottle of our fermented finned friends.  Tomatoes and sugar are an easy sell.  Just check out any kid at a restaurant who is availed the sweet bottle of goodness.  Today, that is clearly not the case.  People are a lot more adventurous and willing to accent dishes with all sorts of umami pop.  Maybe a new soda concept?

I'm going to have to dig a litter deeper on the etymology.  Maybe Harold McGee will be open to helping me out?

Don't forget The Plans we made.

* Caption title taken directly from Taiwan Cafe menu

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Brittle Based Bantering

Cold Sesame Noodle Inspired Brittle

I feel that one of the keys to great cooking is inspiration.  "It's the world around you, always." - Grant Achatz at his recent Harvard lecture. 

My cousin hit a significant milestone in her life and I wanted to play a small role in helping celebrate the achievement.  The event has a tradition of having families bring food that is representative of the presenter's roots.  I figure on candy because the preparation is straight forward and people love their sweets.  I decide to base it on familiar Asian flavors.  Here's one of the candies I prepared.

My mother used to make this amazing cold sesame noodle when I was a kid.  This was before the ubiquitous displays of prepared foods from varied ethnicities.  At school, I would commonly get a skeptical, "What is that?".  I took pride in turning a few friends the moment they tasted it.  When she made it, we didn't have sesame paste on hand, so she'd improvise with the ever present jar of peanut butter.  The other common adaptation was the use of linguine instead of the typical wide noodle.  I never gave it much thought until I started cooking a lot.  It's all about having a tool kit of fundamental techniques and preparations to make dishes that are your own.   

I recently made the acquaintance of Stella Parks, the CIA trained pastry chef behind the BraveTart blog, who is quite good at what she does.  I told her about this cold sesame noodle inspired brittle I made and she was very interested in the process.  Curiosity was piqued even more when she saw the Chef Andres interview with him evaluating the candy.  Here's a synopsis of how it was made.

Old fashioned peanut brittle base recipe:

I toasted some sesame seeds prior.  I used lightly salted dry roasted peanuts whole (16 oz jar ended worked out well).  I cut the salt on the nuts with the intention of adding it to the medium.  During the first stage, the sugar solution cooked for 20 minutes longer than expected because I was using a new burner and paranoid about the sugar burning.  This ended up thickening the solution and increased caramelization.  At the flavor adding step, I supplemented with 1/4 tsp of chili powder, pinch of cayenne (not too much because of the wide range of pallets), a few drops of sesame oil and sprinkled some kosher salt (probably 1/3 tsp).  Immediately after the candy was spread, I sprinkled on the toasted sesame seeds.

Taste, taste, taste...

...texture, texture, texture!

I told Chef Parks it wasn't anything Earth shattering.  She responded with:

Okay, whew! I was so interested because when you said "cold sesame noodle inspired" my brain latched onto the noodles more than the sesame aspect, and I thought you'd found some way to incorporate (soba) noodles into the brittle, which is something a) I had never thought of before and b) something I wasn't sure how to go about doing! I love the idea of sesame oil in the brittle, though, smart idea. Now I'm going to be obsessed with figuring out how to get the noodles in the brittle, though....

We exchanged a couple more emails on the subject and she's working on a solution.  I also need to make the thin and crisp brittle that Chef Andres suggested after the interview.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Check out Chef Parks' adventures at the BraveTart.  You'll be inspired.


Random photo at the onset of the packaging of the candies for the event.

"You will be assimilated!"