Sunday, February 21, 2010

Week Four: Potstickers

Pork and cabbage, friends forever.

There is nothing quite like a half a day of manual kitchen labor to chill you out. Or chill me out, I should say; I can’t presume to speak for the entire cooking population. But for me, getting my hands busy with chopping, kneading, and frying is one of the best things I can do for my head.

This weekend, I got to do just that, with good friend and fellow blogger Brandi as my copilot. A few weeks ago, she’d said she wanted to cook with me as part of her quest to become a better cook, and when I pondered what to make with her, I immediately thought, “meat.” We are both meat-eaters who live with non-meat eaters, more or less, and the chance to cook a meat-based meal that isn’t mostly destined for the freezer is rare.

From meat, we made the leap to potstickers, gyoza, jiao xi – whatever you call them, they are a treasured staple of both Chinese and Japanese cuisine, simple dumplings of pork-and-ginger goodness that are both pretty to behold (when made by a pro) and lovely to eat.

Having decided we would do this “the right way,” the first step was making the dough. 4 cups of sifted flour, 2 cups of water, then, “slowly pour in the water and mix to a firm dough.” I gamely poured the water with one hand and shifted the flour and water around the bowl with the other until my dough-stirring hand became subsumed by a sticky mass of wallpaper paste.

This dough would make excellent handcuffs.

The authors probably meant that you should only use as much of the water as you need to form a firm dough, but with that option gone, I added more flour until it became a workable mass. From there, I kneaded it, had Brandi (who makes her own bread every week) check to see if she thought it was “smooth and soft” as the recipe said it should be, and put it back in the freshly de-pastified bowl to rest.

We then turned our attention to the Napa cabbage, which needed to be blanched, drained and chopped finely. I knew what blanching meant – precooking for a short time in boiling water – but had never done it, and the combination of thick stems and leafy tops made for a daunting first foray into the technique. In the end, we watched until the stems looked soft, took them out and, at Brandi’s prompting, rinsed them with cold water to stop the cooking process.

The filling itself is simple to assemble once you get the cabbage handled: ground pork, soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, fresh ginger, scallions, rice wine or sherry if you have it. I had expressed my distaste for handling raw meat, so Brandi dealt with mixing the filling.

Next up: Wake the resting dough, roll it into a long snake, cut it into 80-90 bits, roll those bits into perfect 2 ½” circles, then fill each circle with 1 ½ Tablespoons of filling and close it with gorgeous little pleats.

The dough, much improved by its rest.

In the interest of brevity, I will only say that we did get the dough rolled and the dumplings filled, and that in cooking, as in life, looks do not always matter. Also, it is extremely important to use enough flour that the uncooked dumplings don’t stick to the plate and stretch like so much melted mozzarella when you try to lift them, causing you to moan and alarm your helpmate.

According to the cookbook, we had several cooking options: Shallow-frying, steaming, or poaching. Steaming was ruled out, as I do not own a bamboo steamer and didn’t think very long about how to rig a reasonable facsimile. Shallow-frying seemed the best bet, so we did that for the majority of the batch and then tried poaching, which gave the skins a texture not unlike rubbery chicken skin.

Brandi handled the dipping sauce: 1 T. each soy sauce and chopped scallions, 1 t. minced garlic, 2 T. hot chili oil, which sadly I did not have. She subbed red pepper flakes, though, which worked to add bite.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for I’m sure, the four Ds:

Deliciousness: Holy mother, these things are nothing but succulent goodness. We were both expecting more delicate skins, though I’m sure that has to do with our inexperience.

Difficulty: If you don’t make your own dough, quite easy; but either way, quite time-consuming.

Do-over: Most definitely, though I will try pre-made skins next time, and put more ginger and maybe some garlic in the filling. Also, we discussed adding water chestnuts and some uncooked cabbage to liven up the texture. Finally, I will make sure I have hot chili oil on hand for the dipping sauce.

Details: The filling is equal parts ground pork and cabbage, 1 T. finely chopped scallions, 2 t. salt, 1 t. finely minced ginger root, 2 T. light soy sauce, 1 t. light brown sugar, 2 t. sesame oil, 1 T. Chinese rice wine or dry sherry. We left out the sherry, forgot to add the salt, doubled the ginger and used dark brown sugar.

I can't speak for B, but I ate so many I wasn't hungry for the rest of the day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Week Three: Snickerdoodles

Snickerdoodle ingredients (dog optional).

Late last week I was seized with an inexplicable and strong craving for the simple, cinnamony goodness of snickerdoodles. I had never made them, and the recipes I found online seemed straightforward enough: butter or shortening, sugar (in shockingly varying amounts), eggs, cinnamon, baking soda, flour, cream of tartar.

Cream of tartar? Weird, I thought, who has that on hand? Not me, I don't think. But surely this must be a fluke. Next recipe: cream of tartar. Every single recipe called for it, so I went to see if I had any. I did not, and with fresh snow on the ground and a generally lazy day-off-work outlook, I began to troll the Interwebs to see if I could substitute something else.

And that's why you see that big jug of vinegar in the photo above. My reserach revealed that cream of tartar is an acid salt, a byproduct of winemaking that inhibits the formation of crystals and is generally used to stabilize beaten egg whites, make frostings creamier, and clean brass and copper. The substitutions of choice are lemon juice and white vinegar, in a three-to-one ratio to the original amount called for.
I knew I didn't have any lemons in the fridge, but because this is humidifier season, and the crusty gunk that accumulates inside them responds well to vinegar, I have the aforementioned jug stting on my pantry floor.

Problem solved, I set about making the recipe I selected for its low cream of tartar content and reasonable sugar-to-butter ratio. I'd decided to use margarine, because A) butter is difficult to work with if, like me, you don't own a stand mixer, and B) many recipes I found called for shortening, so it seemed like a workable substitution.

The dough, even having been refrigerated for an hour, was sticky beyond what seemed reasonable, but I was able to make a full dozen one-inch balls and roll them in the cinnamon sugar. I stuck them in the oven and crossed my fingers, and put the remaining dough in the freezer to see if that would up the rollability factor (it did, but only for the first 2.5 minutes).

The results: Totally delicious, crispy on the edges and soft in the middle, excellent with mid-morning coffee. Next time around, I'll use at least half butter, but I'll stick with the vinegar substitution, or just leave it out and see what happens. FYI, the recipe I used makes about three dozen -- if there are no raw dough fiends in your house.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Week Two: Yogurt, again, still

Last week’s semi-debacle stoked my fires with stubbornness and made me determined to succeed at making yogurt. And let me tell you, the stubbornness came in handy.

It wasn’t that the yogurt I made last weekend was inedible; I ate every last bit of it. Every last, gritty, charmless bit. As I noted at the time, the flavor was fine, but the texture was way off, and I suspected that had something to do with the skim milk I used.

So for the next round, I used 2%, just like the recipe recommended for beginners such as myself. Into the pot went four cups of organic 2%, up to 170 it went, into the ice bath, and then really, truly into the ice bath. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but the lip of the milk pot slipped, and four cups of lovely, 170-degree milk infiltrated the icy waters of the big stockpot.

For a few moments, all I could do was stare in disbelief. It was actually kind of pretty, the milkiness slowly spreading through the water, reminding me of milk spreading into coffee and briefly bringing to mind that “clouds in my coffee” lyric. Then I snapped back into reality, potholders were thrown, F-bombs were dropped, and my husband came running to see what had happened, said a few reassuring words, and resumed his post on the couch.

I started again immediately, draining the quart carton of its remaining four cups of milk. This time, though, to save time (it was past my bedtime) I decided to heat the milk in the microwave. Terrified of a boil-over, I put it in for umpteen rounds of 1 or 2 minutes, then 30 seconds, and so on, taking it out to stir it and take its temperature over and over until I got it to 170. The rest of the process was completed without incident. At some point, my husband wandered in, kissed me and said, “From failure comes great things!” and pumped his fists in the air triumphantly.

And now we get to the part where I had a simultaneously brilliant and stupid idea. Earlier in the week, while making rice, I thought, “Shazam! We have a rice cooker!” It’s a fancy modern one, too, because I accidentally and regrettably killed the old one. It seemed like the perfect incubator. Surely the “keep warm” setting would do the trick.

Ladies and germs, it did not do the trick. I left it on “warm” all night, and in the morning, it was jelled in random globs, and it was way hotter than the recommended 110 degrees. Ever hopeful, I put it in the fridge, in a strainer lined with paper towels set over a big pot, and went to work. When I got home, not one drop of liquid had seeped through. It tasted yogurty, but way too sweet, and way too milky. Waves of guilt and inadequacy washed over me as I poured the stuff down the drain, but I really couldn’t think of a way to consume it.

The rice cooker failure got me thinking about the possibilities of using the crock-pot, and then a friend commented with the same suggestion, and it was like “shazam!” all over again, because one quick online search revealed scads of crock-pot yogurt recipes. One of the first that popped up was from the consistently awesome Crockpot365 lady, which I found greatly reassuring.

My big beef with these recipes, though, is that they call for leaving the milk in there on “high” for two and a half hours, which makes no sense to me in terms of either efficiency or energy use. If the primary advantage of the crock-pot is to keep the proto-yogurt warm enough to gel overnight, then why not just pre-heat it?

So that’s what I did. While I was heating, cooling and prepping the milk and otherwise puttering around, I filled the crock with water and turned it to “high.” It was on for perhaps half an hour. When the milk and yogurt mixture was ready, I turned it off, emptied the water and dried the crock (with a paper towel to minimize introduction of new bacteria), put it back in the base unit, added the prepped liquid, put the lid on, and wrapped the whole thing in three bath towels. (One folded on top, one folded in thirds lengthwise around the circumference, and one unfolded under the entire pot, wrapped up and over to hold the others in place.)

Back on the couch, my husband asked if there was more to do, and I said, no, this is the part where I hope fervently that it works, go to bed, and check it in the morning.

It’s a good thing it’s not possible to OD on yogurt. It’s gorgeous, creamy, delicious and definitely full-on yogurty. I stirred, refrigerated, and strained it, and immediately had some, warm, with bananas and cereal. I’ll definitely be making yogurt on a regular basis – not only is it at least four times cheaper than buying it, but I’ll know exactly what’s in it, and it will be mild enough to eat plain.

A few final notes for those who will want to know:

- When I finally succeeded, I used ultra-pasteurized milk, which isn’t supposed to work.

- I used one 8-oz. tub of Greek-style honey vanilla yogurt as starter. Now that I’ve been successful, I’ll be using my own yogurt as starter.

- To strain it, I used paper-towel-lined strainers over stockpots and bowls.

- I didn’t time the straining process, just kept checking it until I was happy with it.

- I learned, during my further research, that it is important to stir the yogurt before you refrigerate it – it helps stop the bacteria from reproducing, which keeps the flavor mild.

- I did not believe it, but it’s true: the yogurt will firm up quite a bit in the fridge.

- One half-gallon of milk made roughly 32 ounces of Greek-style yogurt, but if you don't strain yours, you'll end up with as much yogurt as the amount of milk you used.

- Here are a few recipes and sites I found helpful: brief but helpful explanations of the whys and hows; great detailed step-by-step with nice photos and crisp layout; a scholarly approach from the University of Kentucky.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Week one: yogurt

A while back, on my old blog, I wrote a rhapsodical post on my discovery of Greek yogurt. When I was discussing the post with a friend who was born and raised in Iran, she told me that she routinely makes her own yogurt, and swore that it was really easy. Ever since then, I’ve been itching to give it a try.

I began by perusing recipes online – my standard approach – and printed two that made sense. I can no longer find the one I mostly followed, but here’s the ingredient list:

4 cups of fresh, organic 2% milk
1/3 cup powdered milk
½ cup organic yogurt

When I went to the store, the only dry milk they had was the cereal-box-size, and it was $6, which, go ahead and call me cheap, I didn’t want to spend for a couple of reasons. 1. It’s optional (the recipe explains that dry milk makes the yogurt thicker, quicker). 2. If this experiment goes awry and I don’t start making yogurt on a regular basis, that box of milk will be in my pantry until the end of time. So I picked up regular, liquid milk and a small tub of Fage, which is ridiculously expensive, but has the best flavor of all the yogurts I’ve tried.

A note on the milk: I used skim, because I am trying to be healthier, and I used Oberweis, because it is the best milk in the known universe as well as basically organic without the certification.

The basic idea behind making yogurt is this: Heat the milk, cool it a bit, add the starter yogurt, keep it warm for a while, put it into containers, refrigerate it, strain it if you want Greek-style yogurt. That’s it.

The reality is that you need a thermometer, because you need the milk to reach 170 degrees without boiling. Then, you might want an ice bath, because the milk needs to cool to 110° before you add the yogurt, and that takes a long time if you just wait for it to happen. And if your oven doesn’t have a “warm” setting, you need an incubator or some sort of heating contraption. (One recipe I read suggested placing a heating pad at the bottom of a towel-lined box.)

I had no trouble getting the milk to 170°, as I have an instant-read thermometer and the ability to stand watchfully for ten minutes at a time. The ice bath could easily be rigged by a three-year-old. Adding the starter yogurt was likewise far from difficult (though I recommend using a whisk to break the clumps up). The real problem was keeping the stuff warm.

Ideally, you want your milk-plus-yogurt mixture to stay at 110°. For anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. If your oven goes that low, it’s not a problem. Two days ago, I discovered that my oven does not go that low, but because I’d remembered my Persian friend saying something about towels, I wrapped the pot in several old towels, heated the oven to 170, stuck the bundle in and turned the oven off, but left the light on for warmth.
At this point I was so seized with anxiety that my yogurt would not yogurtify that I immediately started a no-fail dish for which I no longer use a recipe: dal. (Here’s how I make it if you’re interested.)

The yogurt baby, as I came to think of the swaddled pot, went in the oven at 7:50 a.m.; most recipes say it needs to incubate for 4-6 hours. When I unwrapped it at 1:30 p.m. it was slightly thickened, but kind of in weird globs, and so loose as to make me think it needed more time. I put it back in, sans towels this time, goosed the oven to 150 and then turned it off. My logic was this: I’d intentionally used a cast-iron, enameled pot for its superior heat retention. Infusing it with some heat from the outside should give it the additional incubation boost it needed to firm up.

At 3 p.m., unable to sit on my hands any longer, I checked it and found it much firmer, with a bunch of yellowish liquid floating on top. I took this as a good sign because it was exactly like the liquid you get on top of plain or vanilla yogurt when it’s been sitting in the fridge for a while.

Because my goal is Greek-style yogurt, I dumped the whole thing into a strainer lined with paper towels, set into a big pot. At this point I feel obliged to say that yogurt is so disgusting at this stage that I don't even want to describe it, because I like my readers and want them to be happy.

The recipes I read all said that you must refrigerate your yogurt, preferably overnight, before you can consider it fit for consumption, so I made room in the fridge and snuck a taste from a bit left in the pot. The texture was a weird dry-gritty-squishy amalgam, but it tasted like yogurt – another good sign.

About four hours later, I turned the stuff out of the strainer and into an old yogurt tub. It’s very thick and chalky, but the flavor is great (the hubs agrees – I had him taste it). I’ll be giving it another shot, probably with 2% milk and possibly with dry milk – if I can find a non-family-size box. Whatever happens, I’ll write about it here.