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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Go Fish! Go Turkey!

The other day I was going through an old email folder I keep titled "Food & Wine." It's where I put interesting emails, links, recipes, and other electronic ephemera I have collected over the years. Scrolling down through the years, I found an old email about fish, dated April 16, 2008. After over five year's time, I have no clue where this email came from—whether I found the information on the Internet and emailed it to myself or whether someone sent it to me. I had totally forgotten why I saved it, but after reading it, I recall why.

It was information about fish and how and why different types of fish have different flavors and why some fish are better prepared by frying, broiling, baking, or poaching. I thought it would be fun to share this information.

Not surprisingly, the factors that determine a fish's flavor are numerous. Obviously, where the fish came from is the biggest factor: salt water vs. fresh water or cold water vs. warm water. Other factors, however, are less obvious. For example, fat content. Fatty or oily fish may have more flavor, but they also spoil faster, which is why tuna must be well iced. And like their landlocked counterparts, a fish's activity level affects flavor. The turkey is a good example.

The turkey's active muscles, such as the legs and thighs, used for running away from Pilgrims with the funny guns and goofy hats, are full of blood vessels. These blood vessels contain myoglobin (or muscle hemoglobin), which delivers oxygen to the muscles. You guessed it! The more myoglobin the muscles contain, the darker the muscle. (In my opinion, the dark meat of turkey and chicken also contains more flavor.)

These kind of muscles are referred to as "slow-twitch." Slow-twitch muscles are built for endurance, thus allowing the muscles to work for long periods of time. As a result, the turkey can run around all day without getting tired, just as the tuna can swim all day without getting tired. 

White meat, however, is the result of well-rested muscles. These muscles are used for flying, which a turkey rarely does, and when it does, it is for short distances. As you might expect, there is less of a need for an oxygen-rich blood supply for these muscles. These kinds of muscles are referred to as "fast-twitch"—designed for quick bursts of energy. Think of a flounder lounging on the sea floor, who only occasionally has to make a quick escape.

Therefore, the more active the fish, as well as the distances it travels (e.g., tuna, salmon, and swordfish), the more slow-twitch, red muscle fibers and fat the fish will have. This makes it a good candidate for more "robust" cooking, such as grilling. The less active the fish (sole, flounder, and catfish), the more "delicate" the cooking technique (e.g., poaching or roasting).

Who knew that a little knowledge about ichthyology could make one a better cook?!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Falling Onto the Turnip Truck

One thing that people who like to cook seldom admit is, “I’ve never cooked that before!”, or its cousin, “I simply don’t know what to do with that!” For me, two vegetables in particular fall into both these categories: turnips and cauliflower.  For turnips, it's the former; as for cauliflower in particular, it’s the later. I freely admit that I have no idea what the hell to do with cauliflower. Does anyone really eat the cauliflower on those ubiquitous veggie party platers with the ranch dressing dip in the middle. (I always feel a little sorry for all that uneaten cauliflower on those trays, but it looks like brain and tastes like styrofoam.)

This past weekend, I decided to change all this. Recently, on a clear, bright Saturday morning, I headed out to Pepper Place Saturday Market to buy turnips and cauliflower and figure out some way to cook them.

©2103 Chris Terrell
Damn! No cauliflower! But I did find some turnips. Before revealing how I cooked the turnips, here's a little background.

Turnips have been cultivated and eaten in Northern Europe for centuries, particularly in England and France. It is a root vegetable that is typically roasted or used in soups. Turnips need to be peeled before cooking and, according to Julia Child, par-boiled before cooking to reduce their bitterness, especially if they are “winter” turnips. The turnips I bought were white and didn’t resemble the purplish ones I had passed by in my local Piggly Wiggly. Consequently, I asked the earnest young hipster at the stall what kind of turnip this was and he said “Hackerrai.” “What?,” I replied. (Thinking this was some kind of obscure Game of Thrones reference to which I was not privy.) According to Mr. Hipster, hackerrais are mild and sweet and can be braised, roasted, boiled, sautéed, glazed, fried, or even eaten raw. (I’ll pass on eating them raw—carrots are about the only raw veggie I like.) My limited Internet research also turned up that hackerrai turnips were developed in Japan in the 1950s (who knew?!), even though they are smaller than regular turnips—not at all Godzilla-sized. 

©2013 Chris Terrell
The finished product!
When I got back to my humble kitchen, staring at those pale specimens resting on my counter, I wondered: “Now what the hell do I do with these! As I usually do in such situations, I consulted Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Joy of Cooking. Both books had good turnip recipes, so I combined the two and came up with turnips braised in butter and beef stock. I borrowed Julia’s use of beef stock and the JOC’s trick of reducing the cooking liquid to a syrup and pouring it over the turnips. (Believe it or not, the JOC recipe called for less butter than MAFC.) 

I must say, the turnips weren't bad. The turnips had the consistency of potatoes with the sweetness of carrots, but with just a touch of tartness that you would get with Brussels sprouts. Will I cook them again? Probably. As is the case with most vegetables, simple works best. Braised turnips would make a great addition to a nice roast on a cold winter’s eve. Here’s the recipe:

Braised Turnips

1½ pounds white turnips, scrubbed and diced
1½ cups beef stock
3 tablespoons butter
sea salt to taste
pepper to taste
chopped parsley to taste

Put the turnips in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes. Drain the turnips and set aside. Meanwhile, return the pot to the stove and turn the heat on to high. Add the stock, butter, salt, and pepper. Stir until the butter is melted, then add the turnips. Turn the heat down to low, cover, and simmer until the turnips are tender—about 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the turnips to a serving dish. Then turn the heat back up to high and boil the cooking liquid until it reduces to a thin, syrupy glaze. Pour it over the turnips and serve piping hot.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

'Shine On!

"Bug Juice"
©2013 Chris Terrell
I recently got my hands on some moonshine. And just in case the NSA is reading this blog, I will not name names. And yes, it did come in a Mason jar! I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I opened the jar, I was pleasantly surprised by the aroma. This was some pretty complex stuff and it tasted even better! It was not that fire water I had heard about from watching The Dukes of Hazard as a kid. It was smooth, with just enough of a honey-sweetness and notes of vanilla and toast. This got me thinking. Why shouldn’t it be good? After all, most commercial liquor has homemade roots. I’m sure Laphroaig  got its start in a cooper pot-still supervised by a cantankerous Scot, and Jim Beam was probably once made in the back woods of Kentucky, just a few steps ahead of federal tax agents.

It is thought that moonshine gets it name from the moon-lit nights that provided just enough light to make the stuff and to see the tax man cometh, yet enough darkness to hide from same. Moonshine is referenced as early as 1785 in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as “white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and gin in the north of Yorkshire.” So apparently, it is not an American invention after all, though us Americans (especially Southerners) have taken it and run with it. Speaking of running, we probably owe NASCAR to bootleggers making ‘shine in the South. To get this stuff to “market,” one needed a good driver and a fast car to evade the law on the winding backroads of the American South. The best of these bootleggers became  the forerunners of today’s NASCAR drivers.

Moonshine has always had a backwoods, bad-boy reputation, especially because of its potency (though the proof of homemade moonshine varies widely). This reputation is reflected in some of the slang used for moonshine, such as: fire water, popskull, stagger soup,  busthead, and my favorite, panther piss. The stereotype of the folks who have traditionally made moonshine has not helped its reputation either: Snuffy Smith types camped out in the hills and hollers of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s as if the mere mention of the word moonshine or Mason jar triggers in one's head that dueling banjo song from the movie Deliverance.

Moonshine, however, is gaining respectability. Here in Alabama, Jamie Ray is making legitimate moonshine in Bullock County at High Ridge Spirits, Alabama’s only licensed distillery. http://blog.al.com/wire/2013/08/alabama_shine_veteran_beer_mak.html He calls his spirit Still Crossroads Alabama ‘Shine. And Chris Hastings, the chef and owner of the restaurant Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama, recently beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America with a course that incorporated some homemade ‘shine.

So the next time, you are down in our neck of the woods, grab some ‘shine—legit or not (I won’t tell). You could be pleasantly surprised as I was, when I sat back on a cool October evenin’ with a nice glass of squirrel whiskey. I'll let you know how I feel in the morning!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Madeleines (After Trial & Error)

Marcel Proust referred to madeleines as a “seashell cake so strictly pleated outside and so sensual inside.” I couldn’t agree more—the madeleine is one of my favorite treats. In fact, almost every Friday morning, I grab a package at Starbucks on the way to work. 

Apparently, I'm not the only one who likes madeleines. The British pop duo The Pet Shop Boys reference the madeleine in one of their songs, Memory of the Future:

Over and over again
I keep tasting that sweet madeleine
looking back at my life now and then
asking: if not later then when?

Like many things culinary, the origin of the madeleine is obscure and subject to debate.  According to Larousse Gastronomique, there are two possible creation myths. The first is that Avice, the chef to the famous French statesman Talleyrand, began baking a pound-cake mixture in aspic moulds.

The discover of the madeleine?
Others, however, believe that the recipe is much older and originated in the French town of Commercy, which was then a duchy under the rule of Stanislaw Leszczynsky.  Apparently, during a visit to the castle in 1755, the Duke was very taken with a cake made by a peasant named Madeleine. Thus began the fashion for madeleines (so named by the Duke). The madeleine really hit the big time when the Duke’s daughter, Marie, who was married to Louis XV, introduced it to the royal court at Versailles.  

As much as I like madeleines, I had never made any. That changed this past weekend, when I decided to give it a try. I was surprised to find that madeleines are pretty simple to make, at least when you remember to add a key ingredient! (More on that later.)

©2013 Chris Terrell
The first step was to get a madeleine pan. While I normally eschew any kind of baking that requires special pans or equipment, I made an exception this time. So I stopped by the nearest Sur La Table and grabbed one. (I really did get just this one thing, which is amazing. SLT is like the Walmart of cooking stores—it is nearly impossible to go in and buy one thing (e.g., a spatula), and not walk out of the store having spent a couple hundred bucks or more (e.g., sous vide machine)!

Next, find a recipe. After looking at several, I landed on one from one of my latest cookbook acquisitions: I Know How to Cook by Ginette Matzot. It is the French version of our Joy of Cooking or the Italian Silver Spoon. And while the title sounds a little silly to an American ear—in French, Je sais cuisiner, sounds sexier—it is a great French cookbook.  Here’s the recipe (doubled), found on page 807:


½ Cup (2 sticks) butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
4 large eggs
1½  cup superfine or castor sugar (if you don’t have this, take regular sugar and grind it in a food processor)
2½ cups flour (critical ingredient!)
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
zest of one large lemon

Preheat oven to 400℉. Grease madeleine pan with butter. Whisk the eggs and sugar with an electric until the mixture turns white and triples in volume. Slowly fold in the flour and butter, then the vanilla and lemon zest. Pour into the prepared pans and bake for 8-10 minutes.

Makes 24
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 8-10 minutes

As you can see this is a fairly simple recipe. That being said, however, I had a tough time with this one. Maybe I was tired; maybe I was distracted (twin 11-year-old boys clamoring for the finished product); but the first batch was an unholy mess. When preparing the batter, I noticed it looked a bit odd. Perhaps a bit too thin and almost curdled. Oh well, I thought, it is probably suppose to be this way. What did I know, I had never made madeleines before! After 10 minutes, I looked into the stove. They...looked...done….even if they had an odd yellowish color. 

©2013 Chris Terrell
Proust is rolling over in his grave!
Once I took them out, however, they collapsed into a gooey mess in the pan. I was flummoxed.  What happened?, I thought. I glanced over at page 807 of the cookbook and there in plain Helvetica was the word FLOUR! Oh crap! I forgot the flour! In baking, that’s like forgetting to lower the landing gear on an Airbus A380 on approach to Narita International Airport. Perhaps the Insouciant Chef had finally lived up to his name!

©2013 Chris Terrell
Anyway, I rebounded and started over. I added the flour and put another batch in the oven and, a mere ten minutes later, out came perfect madeleines. My kids gobbled them up. I was redeemed!