There have been 3 culinary experiences that have confounded me in my Florida days (... and I mean confounded in the sense that they do not seem to make sense in the traditional culinary development of certain South American regional foods... at least not obviously to me).
The first experience was my introduction to salsa golf. Although there are certain other flavors added, the sauce is basically mayonnaise and ketchup and it's as traditional in Argentina and other countries as the churrasco. How and why, I have no idea. My first reaction to it was... how is this South American? We grew up making this sauce to accompany boiled seafoods in Louisiana... the same sauce.
The second experience was Peruvian rotisserie chicken (pollo a la brasserie). Now, when you think rotisserie chicken, you wouldn't normally associate it with the country that gives us causa, tiradito, papas criolla... but somehow, it is. There are tons of Peruvian rotisserie chicken joints throughout south Florida. They are all cheap, and most are fairly good. Supposedly it's the marinade, but no one can tell me exactly what it is and online searches yield a mixed up variety of recipes. Either way, it's probably survived because it's cheap, fast, and comforting. Get it with arroz chaufa (a Peruvian version of fried rice made with presumably left-over chickens from the day before).
The third experience sits under a larger umbrella and I simply refer to it as 'Colombian Fast Food.' My first tastes of it were from our AM grill cook, Juan, who frequently would hook up things like hot dogs garnished with melted mozzarella cheese and topped with crushed up potato chips. He would ask if I wanted some Colombian traditional food, and hand me one of these 'perros.' Confusion ensues. How is this Colombian... it appears as something American college kids would scarf down. He then would hook up salchipapas (fried hot dog chunks with french fries)... Colombian again. How did this late night drinking food come to be indigenous to Colombia? I have no idea again, but it's an accepted fact. The trend has become so widespread lately that many restaurants in the greater Miami area are specializing in that exact cuisine. We recently tried the dogs at Los Perros (the only slow-lounge latin version of a Guns 'n Roses song I've ever heard plays on their website home page... again, confusion... actually it's Shakira with Wyclef). The perros there come in a variety of concoctions, but most are topped with the crushed chips and their salsa golf contains a very compatible addition of pineapple adding sweetness to the overall flavor profile.
Hopefully, this trend will not go away anytime soon. Thanks for making hot dogs fun again! I have my own ethnic version of the hot dog which I dub the 'muff dog,' but that's another story.
I haven't bought any books in a while, so I was fortunate to get the "Momofuku" cookbook as a Christmas gift (thanks Chef K). Having been to both Momofuku and Ssam Bar, I had a firsthand reference (and reverence) for the flavors beneath the techniques and ingredients listed. Although I did not have the fried chicken, David Chang's opening line to the page was enough to reel me in... he professes, "I love love love love love fried chicken." My sentiments exactly. I grew up with a built-in appreciation for the flavor. Although my mom was horrible at making it, I learned years later in New Orleans how to throw down some pretty damn good fried chicken. It only made sense that Chang's version would be tasty considering his style and approach to simple foods.
I had recently tried prepping wings sous-vide first and frying later, so Chang's recipe was interesting. He brines, steams, then fries. Granted, it's not altogether strange to pre-cook chicken before frying as I'm sure there are many fast food and convenience products out there that do it for consistency or whatever other reasons they may have (I knew a guy back home who boiled his chicken in Zatarain's before grilling). The interesting part to me was the brine/steam portion. We usually brine meats that are low in fat to give them extra 'juiciness' for dry cooking methods. Steaming is definitely wet... even though the finishing method is frying which is dry heat cooking. Keller also used a brine before frying, but bypasses any sort of precooking.
David Chang's recipe is for larger chicken parts. I'm using wings. Although I do not have any sort of permission to divulge the book's recipe, I will list out my alterations for it.
Since wings are obviously smaller in size, I diluted the brine to 1/2 C salt, 1/2 C sugar, 5 C water and kept the 1 hour brine time the same (this is closer to the ratios I use at home for pork).
Steaming is much quicker than for larger parts. Depending on your steaming method, this time will vary. Ideally, you only want to steam them until they are just done.
Let them fully cool in the refrigerator before frying. Just allow them to sit out at room temp for 15 minutes before you drop them in oil.
Chang employs stove-top frying (which I assume is mainly for the book's purpose of cooking at home). I deep fry. You should just by a deep fryer for your home. It really makes no sense to not have one... especially if you have an inherent southern love of all things deep fried as I do (I keep it in the garage to prevent smelling up the house). I could not imagine living without one. Fry the wings at 375ºF for about 6 to 7 minutes (allow the skin to fully crisp).
Only toss in about 2 tablespoons of Chang's 'octo vinaigrette' (yes, this is the most important flavor component of the entire recipe, and you will need the book for that) per each round of 8 wings. I've made this recipe twice, and find that more is overkill as the pungent acidity of the sauce is hightened by the saltiness of the brine. The brine dilution also helps.
That's it... pretty good wings at home. I've also developed an appreciation for the texture and imbedded flavor when the wings are reserved for left-overs and reheated in the oven.
Much thanks to Chang and Meehan for one of the greatest books of the year. I will definitely try the brine/wet-cooking approach for other future applications (we've already done it for sous-vide, but there are many more possibilities).
Science may have replaced traditional or classical rules somewhat in the last few years, but there is fundamental soul satisfaction in the ritualistic making of stock (which in this case refers to chicken stock... the most universal and useful liquid after water). Take the recent pressure cooker version from Dave and Nils which would've been considered 'chef blasphemy' a few decades ago.
Open any culinary textbook, and the order is usually the same... 'knife skills' then 'stocks.' One reason being it is the foundation to everything else that follows, and another (unfortunately) is because all of those screwed up hacked veggie bits that students produce when embarking on knife weilding end up in the 'stock pot garbage can.' This is very unfortunate simply because it gives a slightly negative of what a stock is and what it can be. It becomes a chore at some point instead of a holy ritual.
I absolutely love making stock. This may sound strange to many cooks who relish the later and 'more advanced' applications of the culinary arts or to chefs who feel it is beneath them, but I find great meditative internal peace when devoting my attention to a simmering pot of chicken bones and vegetables. You've got to respect it. You've got to love making stock like Hank Hill loves cutting his lawn or cleaning his propane tanks... sure that kind of work can be delegated out to the rookies, but don't let them have all the fun.
Our good friend, Chef Alberto Cabrera, once stated in a question/answer forum of culinary students in regard to a slew of MG questions... "if you don't know how to make a stock, you don't need to be playing with methylcellulose... you need to be learning how to make a stock."
So, without going into an elemental tome on how to properly make a stock, here are a few short ramblings...
Every chef approaches a stock in a slightly different way, adding his or her own touches into it's subtlety. It is one of the first things you learn, which means that you should have been doing it far longer than anything else... and you should be damn good at it. You should know every little trick for bringing out the best in it.
There is no better scent than simmering chicken stock. Think of the associations with comfort that chicken stock sparks. It's just a brunoise and a few noodles away from being chicken soup. It's a heavenly elixir that it often taken for granted. It has been on more than one occasion when making stock in an apartment kitchen, my neighbors have inquired as to what I was cooking... just chicken stock.
Most textbooks say don't put salt in the stock. That's ridiculous. Nothing perks up the flavor (which you need to assess for guiding it) of a stock like a small handful of salt in a large pot of lightly bubbling broth. I don't eat or drink anything without salt.
Almost nothing can be equated to a culinary phoenix in the ashes than the clear beautiful liquid that is extracted from what looks like a train wreck of water-logged scraps.
The onion brulée is an ingredient that I always try to work in. It gives color, depth of flavor, and sweet intensity to the stock. Simply peel the onion, slice both ends of then cut it in half against the rings. Grill both sides until they are charred black. Mushrooms scraps also give great color and depth, so use 'em if you got 'em.
Herbs.. I used to crazy throwing them in the stock, but I practically leave them out these days. You can always add their flavor later on in whatever recipe you are working. A few bay leaves and some peppercorns are more than enough... and don't skimp on the laurel. I love the flavor of bay leaves and I'd throw a whole freakin' branch into it if I could.
In the Bruce Lee movie/biography "Dragon," Lee's character teaches his students to be like water. This can be translated into stock within the culinary field. Water is humble. It seeks the low spots. It does not dictate it's shape, but takes the shape of it's container. Be like water. Yes, if you are a culinary student... be like stock. Get inside it's head and love it.
Sometimes we need reminders of seasonal cause and effect, then mother nature waves her magic little fingers...
It may seem odd to some to start a garden in December, but it's not unfeasible in south Florida. Ming and I planted some herbs, tomatoes, green beans, some Taiwanese leafy greens, peppers, etcetera and have had mostly success despite the recent spurt of cold weather. After 4 plus years of living in condo rentals with a balcony as our only 'outdoor space,' it has been fundamentally uplifting to get my hands in the dirt every morning... if only for a few minutes.
While clipping a handful of fresh cilantro sprigs yesterday for breakfast, I was completely amazed at how the scent perfumed the entire backyard. Feeling quite happy that we had some unusually potent cilantro under our care, I didn't think much of it again until later that day. When the ladies from Tropical Delights in Homestead were dropping off our order of greens and sprouts, they mentioned how the cilantro in their garden and just jumped into hyper-mode. I relayed my own experience that morning to them, and they assured me that it was the weather. It seems that cilantro loves the cold... not 8 inches of snow cold, but the kind of pleasant chill we currently have here in the greater Miami area. Whether it's the oils or essence inside, the potency is amazing right now.
So, before you jump on the road today, before you submit yourself to the daily grind... take a moment out to stop and smell the fresh cilantro (I promise it's better than roses). When warmer weather comes around, mother nature will wave her fingers again... hopefully bringing fresh tomatoes.
One of my goals for this year is to push myself in the direction of simplicity and sensibility. True, these have been a focus for a long time now, but now they must become a religion. It really has been all about flavor. Not just the concept of pushing flavor or elevating flavor, but more so of just realizing flavor. This year I will talk less to my food, and listen more to what it has to say. This goes part and parcel with everything else that has come to pass... appreciating the simple joys of a baby's fascination with simple things, getting a chance to play in the dirt, becoming aware of the truly important things in the universe, blah, blah, blah.
To be all about flavor, you need to know where it is, where it goes, and what to do with it. There are no grey areas... it's really hit or miss. Working with much older cooks in New Orleans years ago opened my eyes to it. My tastebuds had already been open to it from childhood, but lofty goals and a young chef's ego are not the best recipe for great food. It has to be that simple. With experience, one learns to take things back down (or to drive it home in a way that inexperience can never achieve). The main reason is because that's how our gastronomic system works. Our brain has evolved to recognize certain stimuli on the tongue as either something the body needs or something the body needs to discard. As one of my chefs used to bark at us continuously on busy nights... "It's just food, not rocket science," I hear the echo of these words still today. True, many of us would like to believe that food should be elevated to the plasticity and trendiness of the fashion industry, but because it is not that, it is much more than that. It is food, glorious food. Because it is simple, it is something beyond what all of the magazines, blogs, television shows, and books make it out to be.
So here I go into a decade that I could not even fathom as a child. Something that seemed so futuristic and so beyond anything in the SciFi movies (can you believe we're not all driving around in space cars... what happened?), and the biggest focus in my head is simplicity. How ironic, and how incredibly perfect. It's realizing that anything can be beautiful, and even a southern breakfast of grits, slow poached eggs, and cherry cola glazed ham can hold all of the flavor and aesthetic sensibility of a Japanese dish (well, maybe a little more if I'd added some fresh scallion from the garden).
So, does this contradict my previous post on food and art? Not really. It is structure and aesthetic working together. It must still make sense. It must drive to the point. It can be elevated, but at the same time avoid what our friend, Frod, calls "too many notes" (from the naive but truthful words of the Emperor in Amadeus). It's the same with everything. No matter how much architecture may strive to become art, it doesn't succeed if it can't keep the rain off your head.