Monday, February 29, 2016

Fish Poached in Buttermilk

Since I learned the benefits of poaching fish in milk, I've been researching other recipes which cook it in this fashion. I learned that a lot of them include a second step after cooking the fish in which the poaching liquid is reduced and used as a sauce. Given the magical properties of buttermilk to tenderize meat, I decided to try a recipe that poached the fish in buttermilk.

The recipe was not without it's issues as far as I was concerned. First of all, half of it was prepping vegetables to serve the fish with. I didn't really need guidance on side dishes so I skipped the first part and focused on the fish preparation. I also am not a big fan of dill so I used parsley instead. This is how my dish turned out looking:

It actually looks fine, despite being super pale overall. I used tilapia fish because that was what I had on hand. I'm very careful with the timing on cooking it because I know it can over-cook in a heartbeat. The texture of the fish was very tender and it flaked well.

The problem was with the sauce. I did reduce it a bit despite the recipe not asking me to do so. I wanted something a bit thicker than just plain milk, though I knew adding butter in would add some texture to it at a later stage. Despite my reducing the sauce a bit and adding in butter, it was still very thin. I added in lemon juice and gave it a taste. It seemed tangy and almost cheesy (maybe from the buttermilk) just out of the blender. I made the fish and sauce on the early side of the day because I had other things to do. I put both in the refrigerator for later consumption figuring that the flavors might come together more as time went by.

Unfortunately, what seemed flavorful at that point tasted like little more than mildly flavored slightly condensed milk several hours later. The sauce was just so bland and uninteresting that I threw the rest out. I was very disappointed. The other pieces of fish that I poached were not embellished with the milk sauce. Despite being poached in milk, they carried none of the flavor of it so I folded them into Asian rice dishes with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chilis.

This recipe was not only a bust for me, but it put me off any sort of recipe that uses the poaching liquid as a sauce. This just did not do it for me and, while I will absolutely continue to poach fish in milk (or buttermilk), I think I'm done sampling this type of recipe. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Try The World Paris Box: Unboxing

The Paris box was the bonus in my subscription to "Try the World." I'm guessing that labeling at "Paris" instead of France allows for greater subdivision of the food options from a country which has a great deal to offer.

The box includes:

Top Row: mixed herbs, Dijon Mustard, sea salt
Middle Row: Clementine jam, salted butter caramels, tea
Bottom Row: Butter cookies

The culture guide explains a bit about each item though the pictured items are a little different than mine. The herbs bottle is a different design and my mustard is Dijon and the one in the guide pictures whole grain mustard. I'm happier to get the mustard that I got because I think getting Dijon mustard from France seems like a better chance at a unique and authentic experience. I can compare what I get in America to this mustard.

The back of the guide offers information on "how to use your box." This includes a playlist of music from the country of origin that you can access via the Try the World site and some style recommendations for making tea and having the cookies and a baguette while listening to French music. I like this touch in the guides, even though I probably don't need to be told to smell the aromas and attend to the flavors of the food I eat.

The recipe included on the back for the second "experience" they offer is for steak tartare with mustard, herbs, and finishing salt. Since I don't eat beef, I'm not going to try that particular recipe, but it does look like it uses the ingredients in the box quite effectively. I'll have to find my own way to cook with them.

I don't want to focus overly much on the "value" (price of the items), but I am paying about $33 a box and it's hard not to assess it in that way to some extent. The guide itself represents an "intangible" asset that has value as someone is paid to compile it, write it, edit it, lay it out, and print it. Nonetheless, I'm going to rate each box on a scale of 1-5 in terms of various points based on my subjective sense:

Desirability of contents: 4
Mix of items: 4
Uniqueness: 3
Value: 3
Guide content: 2

In future posts, I'll talk about each item as I consume/use it. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Try the World (an introduction)

Contents of the "Try the World" holiday box (2015)

Though the name of this blog is centered around my trying recipes featured on the New York Times (and I will continue to try and do a new recipe from that place once a week), the core concept is about trying new things. The Times is just a guide on a journey, but it is not the only one.

I wrestled briefly with limiting my posting here to only recipes from the Times, but, it's my blog and I'll do what I want to in regards to culinary and gustatory adventures. I don't want to start another blog to talk about other things avenues, especially when they revolve around the same core concept; I am exploring new things. To that end, I'm going to talk about "Try the World" and my experiences with it.

"Try the World" is a subscription service that offers people the chance to receive a "goody box" of food items from various countries every other month. I first learned of them through targeted Facebook advertising and the concept appealed to me because it is always a surprise package and the food items are ones I'm unlikely to find locally, particularly since I currently live in a rural area. One of my friends gave me a gift subscription that offered me three boxes (Spain, Japan, and a holiday box representing many countries). From then, I was hooked.

Before I get too far, let me say that this is in no way a sponsored thing. I'm not promoting anything here, though my enthusiasm for the experience of using "Try the World" may make people think otherwise. I paid the regular subscription fee for the boxes I'll be discussing on this blog; that is $198 for six boxes.

From a cooking stand-point, the Try the World boxes are different from the services that give you a variety of snacks since they tend to offer cooking ingredients and recipes as well as snacks and drinks. The picture at the top of this post of the holiday box was an exception in that it largely featured snacks, though it did include olive oil, fruit sauce, and pistachio cream (things that need to be used with other types of food).

Given that the boxes are not cheap (though also not super expensive), I want to really take the time to appreciate the contents. To that end, I'm going to talk about the contents of each box as I receive it as a way of fully exploring and inhabiting the experience of receiving them. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Puree of Chickpea Soup

The internet is full of lies. I know this comes as no surprise, but there is no greater concentration of lies than in recipes. Bloggers offer gorgeous galleries of food porn and gush about the deliciousness of their recipes when the results are often quite terrible. They lie to your eyes as well as your ears.

This is something I have known for a long time, but I still am occasionally suckered in by a certain picture. Such was the case with this recipe for puree of chickpea soup. While looking over the ingredients, I couldn't help but think, "this looks like nothing more than hummus in soup form." I don't mean that anything with chickpeas is going to be like hummus. This actually duplicates a lot of the ingredients in hummus (garlic, olive oil, cumin, coriander, lemon juice, salt) and doesn't add much that hummus excludes. Red onions are pretty much the only deviation. Of course, there is also the method of preparation, but I was still drawn in by the gorgeous picture of a snowy white puree with golden droplets of olive oil and bits of fresh mint.

I don't know where the author got her chickpeas or how she got them to be so incredibly pale, but I'm guessing more than a little Photoshop trickery played a part. After all, you've got red onion, brown cumin, and coriander, and off-white chickpeas. How does any of that add up to a creamy pile of whiteness? At any rate, my soup looked like what it largely was, a bowl of slightly runny hummus:

I followed the recipe faithfully for this including going out of my way to purchase a red onion for the dish.  I even went so far as to pass the soup through a fine mesh sieve to get a super smooth texture and it is very velvety if you do that. I'd say it's worth it for the finer texture, but I'm sure it's very good chunky as well. The only thing I did not do is garnish it with olive oil and mint. I don't mind adding in the oil, but this is a delicately flavored soup and I found that stirring in the olive oil at the end of making the soup had already made it taste too strongly of olive oil. I didn't want this to be overwhelmed by more olive oil flavor and I frankly don't care for mint so I had it without the accouterments. I will note that you have to salt this very heavily to bring out the flavors.

In terms of how this tasted, it was very good if you like hummus, and I do. My only disappointment with this was that it wasn't unique enough nor did it provide the visual appeal of the pictured recipe. I may make this again, but, if I do, I'll likely make it in a pressure cooker as the dry chickpeas took forever to soften and even then they weren't super soft. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Tuscan Bean Soup

I read a site devoted to foodies called "Chowhound" because it has one of the more active forums and communities among various food-related web sites. Unfortunately, as is the wont of foodies everywhere, they can be rather snobbish when it comes to food. I once bore witness to some of the more common variety of this in a discussion about garlic. One person turned his nose up at the very notion of using powdered garlic in recipes. Another, quite appropriately, said that he couldn't imagine using raw garlic in his egg or tuna salad.

The irony of a lot of food snobbery is that the attitudes were the opposite in the distant culinary past. The reason we have dried spices rather than use fresh ones was that they wouldn't travel well. People in England who were fortunate enough to have access to dried, ground cinnamon saw it as something worth more than an equivalent weight in silver. They had something rare and precious that would last. 

The only reason we can be snobs about fresh vs. dried spices is that we have the luxury of allowing spices to go to waste. When I buy a bunch of fresh cilantro for 99 cents at the market, I know I'm never going to use all of it before it goes bad, and I make some pretty cilantro-heavy recipes that use more than most. I have to freeze the remainder or toss it when the remains go off.

When I found this recipe for Tuscan bean soup, I had to choose between doing some specialty shopping for fresh parsley, pancetta, and dry beans, or use what I had on hand - dried parsley, regular thick-cut bacon, and canned beans. I opted for the latter, but I did my best to retain as much of the original recipe as possible. 

Usually, I don't list the recipes ingredients here because I don't want to rob the Times of their page views. In this case, I changed enough that I'm going to list out what I used, but I didn't change quantities or essential ingredients; I changed quantities (I cut the recipe in half) and form:

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 (15.8 oz.) can Great Northern White beans
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, pureed
  • salt and pepper, to taste
Since I was using canned beans, I had to cook the onions separately. My method was as follows:

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook bacon slices until crisp and brown. Remove from the pan, leaving bacon fat and drippings behind (this was my substitute for the olive oil in the Times recipe). 

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add the diced onions and cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and saute until the strong smell diminishes (about five more minutes). Stir in the parsley and bay leaf; add black pepper and salt to taste. Cook until the onions are no longer releasing moisture through vapor and are thoroughly (about five more minutes). The mix should be very fragrant now.

Add the can of beans, liquid included, and then fill the can with water, add to soup pot, and stir everything together. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the pureed tomatoes and simmer for another 15 minutes. 

Remove half of the soup and puree in a blender. Add the puree back into the soup and stir. Taste and add more salt if desired. Crumble the reserved bacon and either stir back into the soup (adds flavor) or serve as a garnish on top (retains texture). 

I actually used more garlic than I'm listing here, but I realized it was too much and have adjusted the recipe here. It isn't overbearing, but I had to really cook it down to diminish the amount of strong garlic flavor. I think that can be avoided by using less garlic.

I have another recipe for Tuscan white bean soup and this one caught my eye because it is so different. Mine uses thyme and lemon juice. This uses parsley and tomato. When I smelled the finished soup, the aroma reminded me of minestrone. The texture was a creamy,  yet still chunky, delight. There is no picture of this soup on the Times recipe page, but this is what mine looked like:

The flavor is more "beany" than some if you don't drain the beans. I prefer it undrained, but I guess drained beans would provide a less robust white bean experience. I liked that the flavors were somewhat delicate while still being very present. Usually, I use some sort of meat stock flavoring (like bouillon) in my soups to give it a strong, savory backbone. This was relying much more heavily on the vegetables and spices so the sense was less intense, but in no way flavorless or boring. The tomatoes also shone through a bit which lent a nice warmth to the soup.

This is an excellent soup to have as a complete meal and I'm sure I'll make it again some time.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Pan-Baked Lemon-Almond Tart

I have an interest in any recipe that includes lemon and the fact that this also includes eggs and almonds sweetens the deal. In the video for this recipe, Mark Bittman describes it more as an almond frittata than a "tart." It did make me wonder why it's called a tart. My best guess is that this does bear some similarities to tart filling as it combines cream and eggs and could turn out like a custard, but a better bet is that it'll get more page views as a "tart" than a "frittata."

Given the unusual nature of the recipe, I read through the comments carefully before making it. A lot of the people who tried it weren't particularly happy with the outcome. Some people complained that it tasted like scrambled eggs. Some said that it completely fell apart. Others said that it'd didn't set in the middle at all. No small number experienced it sticking to the pan. These were all concerns that didn't dissuade me so much as make me decide to alter the preparation a bit. I decided to take on each of these issues and alter the method to (hopefully) avoid the undesired outcome.

My initial inclination was to use a stainless steel pan, but the sticking issue made me reconsider and I went with an oven-safe non-stick pan instead. The comments about it being like scrambled eggs made me wonder if the ingredients weren't incorporated well enough in those cases or the ground almonds were too coarse. I got around this by using a blender to blend everything except the sliced almonds. I tossed everything in and then poured the mixture into a bowl then stirred in the sliced almonds at the end.

In terms of dealing with the failure to set, my best guess was that it was because of the high fat content of the cream making it too custard-like in the center so I used half and half instead of cream. Well, that's not precisely true. I used half and half because it is what I had on hand and I figured it could also, perhaps stop the problem with it not setting. Finally, though I kept all of the rest of the ingredients the same, I also added a teaspoon of vanilla as I've found it tends to round out strong lemon flavors in sweet dishes.

My dish set just fine and it smelled fantastic. This is what it looked like after the baking. I did not bother to put it under the broiler as it was brown enough for me already:

I decided another thing that I'd do to decrease the chances that it would fall apart was to allow it to cool a fair bit before removing it. When I put a plate on the top and un-molded it, all but a few little bits came out. It was happy that it came out so clean, but the pale bottom wasn't so appealing looking so I took another plate and flipped it over again. That was probably not a good idea as a few cracks formed in it as the top was wider than the bottom and it was too delicate to support the structure. I noted that even the picture on the Times recipe page shows a slice with a crack in it (though it is largely covered and obscured by angle and powdered sugar). I'm guessing this isn't easily going to stay together as a solid mass.

In terms of the experience of eating it, it's definitely interesting and generally in a good way. The interior of mine was a bit like cottage cheese married to custard. It has a thick, rough, pudding type of consistency. The taste was super lemony. In fact, the almonds largely contributed texture since the lemon flavor overwhelmed nearly everything else. If I were to make this again, I'd cut down on the lemon flavoring, double the vanilla essence, and maybe add some almond extract to boost the almond flavor more. It could also, I think benefit from a touch of salt.

It's not a bad dish at all, and I'm pleased that I overcame the textural problems that commenters experienced, but I do believe the flavors need to be tweaked. I think this could be an excellent breakfast dish with a few adjustments.

Update: This was better the next day. The texture and flavors seemed to have "settled" in a way that is more cohesive. The lemon is still quite potent, but not as overwhelming. I'm storing the remaining slices in the refrigerator and found the second slice was better than the first. I did microwave the second slice for 10 seconds to remove the hard, cold feeling from it and bring it closer to room temperature, but I don't think is as good served warm.

Next time I make this, I will leave out the sliced almonds as I think they actually detract from the texture and are adding little to the flavor. Instead, I'll add a teaspoon of both almond and vanilla extract to round out the flavor profile and leave a cleaner textural experience. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Gajar Halwa (Glazed Carrot Fudge)

I'm lead to believe that Indian sweets are an acquired taste for the average American. For me, I found that I liked most of the ones that I have sampled pretty much the moment the first bite passed my lips, but others (including my husband) don't care much for them. I'm not sure if it is the fact that they tend to contain unusual spices or if they are either too sweet or not sweet enough, or if it's the use of milk in a variety of forms that is off-putting, but I've rarely found an American who knows what galub jamun is, let alone likes it. I mention that sweet because it is my personal favorite among Indian treats, though I also really like sohan papdi.

I chose this recipe not only because it was a fairly exotic option, but one that I have not had the occasion to try before at an Indian restaurant. I was also interested in it because it uses a lot of carrot and I bought one of those industrial-sized bags of organic carrots at Costco some time back and they're starting to get a bit shaggy as they age and start to sprout.

The Times recipe for Gajar Halwa subtitles it as "carrot fudge" so I expected that it would come out as something solid that you can eat with your fingers. I should have known better based on the ingredients. This is something which is fairly mushy when finished and has very little structure, even after being fully cooled. I was able to sort of take a wedge out of the pan, but it fell apart a bit one edge and eating it without a fork was out of the question:

I followed the recipe exactly as given (including using a little food coloring), but it lacked certain details which may have impacted my results. For one thing, it says, "grated carrot," but it doesn't say how finely grated it should be. Because this is a dessert and I didn't think enormous shards of carrot seemed appropriate, I finely grated mine using the smaller side of a box grater. I also peeled my carrots first because of their age and I wanted the sometimes bitter outer layer removed. I weighed the amount of carrot so I used almost exactly one lb.

This is actually an extremely labor-intensive dish despite being made in the microwave. From start to finish, it took a little over 90 minutes due to the effort of grating and peeling the carrots as well as monitoring the microwave and stirring the mixture at careful intervals. I am pleased to say that it progressed well and as expected through the stages as described in the recipe. It does seem that the half and half is reduced to unsweetened condensed milk quite easily throughout the process.

In retrospect, I think coarser grating may have added more structure to the result. It's hard to know for sure because the Times has no picture on the recipe's page, but after I completed mine, I checked and saw various presentations. Often, this seemed to be served in a bowl or in a free-form fashion, but occasionally it was also served as little slices.

The "mold" was also not especially specific other than saying we should use a buttered bowl. Since I didn't have any bowls of the right size, I used a round cake pan which I liberally painted with cooking spray rather than opting to use butter. This may have been a mistake since I could not un-mold it no matter what I did. I patted the edges in and tried to loosen it from the bottom, but it stuck pretty well and I gave up and cut out a slice with a plastic knife. My best guess is that suction with the wet carrot mixture held it fast to the slick bottom. I also wasn't sure from the instructions if I was supposed to press it into the mold and then un-mold it while it was still hot or wait for it to cool. I let mine cool for about an hour before trying (and failing) to get it out.

In terms of taste, this is actually pretty awesome. The various flavors come together especially well and the cardamom is a beautiful component. If I were to make this again, besides coarsely grating the carrots, I'd reduce the number of raisins as they sometimes dominate. I think it could also do with about double the amount of pistachios (from two tablespoons to a quarter cup).

I'd say this is a unique dessert option that would be a great addition to an Indian meal provided that your guests like the component parts. It's not especially sweet and uses very little sugar as it gets sweetness from the carrots and raisins, too. I hope to make this again, but I have to say that, while this tasted wonderful, I was disappointed in the texture.

Update: After letting this sit for an entire day, I found it was a bit more cohesive than it was initially, but is not exactly great as a finger food even though it is less crumbly than it was in the first 8 hours. After two days, it actually held together quite well (and after three, even more). I also think that, should I make this again, I might want to use chopped cashews instead of almonds as I think their flavor might be a better complement. I kept it in the refrigerator throughout the time that I ate it (which took about a week).