Category — Reviews
The verdict? There’s a reason why La Maison du Chocolat is one of the leading purveyors of luxury chocolate, and the Petit Mendiant Pendant is a just one example. The piece is no delicate work, far from it – I used a butter knife to crack the thick pendant into rough quarters, and the combination of rich chocolate and nuts ensured that I would be satisfied extending the experience over several nights. And when all was said and done, I still had that beautiful red ribbon as a reminder of it all.
December 15, 2011 Comments
Once the exclusive province of fine dining kitchens and chefs whose names rhyme with ‘Lommus Beller’, sous vide cooking has recently emerged as a viable (albeit not inexpensive) option for the home kitchen. The technique, which involves placing food in a vacuum-sealed pouch, then immersing it into a water bath at a precisely-controlled temperature, has become such a staple of reality cooking television shows that it’s easy to perceive the process as something so complex, so prone to error, that it’s best left up to the professionals. But that simply isn’t true.
As 2010 drew to a close, I received an email from Frank Hsu, an entrepreneur based out of Toronto who heads up a company named Fresh Meals Solutions, the manufacturer of a sous vide system called Fresh Meals Magic. Frank was kind enough to provide me with a Fresh Meals Magic setup, which consists of an immersion heater, a Sous Vide Magic controller, an air pump, and a large 18 liter plastic bucket. It’s far from pretty, but it works well, and the Fresh Meals Magic system offers a scalable solution that’s not limited by the size of a fixed container. And did I mention that it costs less than the Sous Vide Supreme, the more widely known market leader in sous vide products for the home? More on that later.
Since receiving the Fresh Meals Magic system, I’ve dedicated myself to preparing nearly every protein imaginable using the sous vide technique. Starting with eggs, then progressing to steak, chicken, pork, and fish, I’ve accumulated a ton of notes detailing technique, rules of thumb, pitfalls, and other nuggets of wisdom. After considerable delay, I finally feel confident in sharing them with you. There’s only one problem – it’s a boatload of brain-bits that can’t be dumped en masse on an unsuspecting blog-reading populace.
The topic of sous vide cooking is far too vast to address adequately in a single entry, and it wouldn’t be fair to those of you who find yourselves on The Best Food Blog Ever seeking knowledge on how to properly sous vide a specific kind of food. This is why, from this point forward, you’ll begin to see more discussion about specific dishes that use the sous vide technique. Have I tried to sous vide eggs? Yes. Did I like the outcome? Eh. What’s my favorite dish to prepare sous vide? You’d be surprised.
From a practical standpoint, sous vide cooking is no more complicated than boiling, except everything occurs at a much lower temperature. Here’s the elevator pitch – the entire point of cooking is to bring the internal temperature of your food up to a certain level, whether that be the temperature associated with a medium-rare steak or a minimum safe temperature to ensure that your chicken breast doesn’t make you sick. Every technique that you would implement in the kitchen involves the application of heat that cooks your protein from the outside-in. That’s why even the most perfectly cooked steak will come off of the grill or saute pan with a margin of over-doneness surrounding the medium-rare core. It’s the reason why it’s hard to cook those ultra-thick pork chops that lovingly beckoned you to free them from their glass case at the market.
The magic of the sous vide technique is this – your food still cooks from the outside-in, but since you’ve placed the food into a water bath at a set temperature, your food will never cook past that temperature, no matter how long you leave it in the water. A steak cooked to medium-rare has an internal temperature of between 130 and 135 degrees. Set your sous vide setup to maintain that temperature, hold the meat in the water bath long enough, and you will be assured of having a medium-rare steak on your table for dinner that is exactly medium rare from edge to edge. That’s the essence and simplicity of sous vide.
Beyond precise control over the outcome of your meal, sous vide also offers the unique opportunity to experiment with foods in a way that would be impossible to do in a safe manner using any other technique. Take chicken, for example – we’ve been trained to cook chicken to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, which is the temperature at which harmful bacteria dies. A lot of cooks, just to be safe, will bring their chicken to even higher temperatures just to achieve greater reassurance. But once the internal temperature of chicken exceeds a certain level, the proteins begin to change, water is expelled, and your dinner begins its transformation into a dried-out, overcooked mistake.
With sous vide, you don’t have to cook your chicken to 160 degrees. While it’s true that bacteria dies at 160 degrees, what isn’t often mentioned is that 160 degrees is the temperature required to kill bacteria instantly. At lower temperatures, it just takes longer for the bacteria to die. With the constant temperature control that’s available with sous vide, it’s entirely possible to hold any protein at a set temperature for the appropriate duration required to eliminate the risk of bacteria. You have, most assuredly, heard of this before. It’s called pasteurization.
Is there a downside to the sous vide technique? Well, for one thing, most food looks horrible when it emerges from its time in the bath – chicken looks boiled, and beef has an unappealing grey character that reminds one of bad school cafeteria lunches. But it’s nothing that a quick sear in a hot pan with the fat of your choice can’t repair.
Also, you have to make some adjustments to the way that you season your food if you intend on cooking it sous vide. Fresh garlic, which is typically the first ingredient to hit the chopping block in my kitchen, is out – the vacuum seal locks in and intensifies flavors, so garlic would overwhelm, in a bad way. The same is true, in my case, with fresh pepper – while many sous vide recipes call for salt and freshly-ground pepper, I find that the sous vide technique tends to bring out a variety of bitter and generally unpleasant notes from my Tellicherry peppercorns. Generally, any ingredient that should be kept out of the vacuum seal during the sous vide process can be added later during the pan-sear, or as part of a sauce.
So, after all of that, let’s talk about the Sous Vide Magic setup by Fresh Meals Solutions.
The Fresh Meals Magic sous vide system consists of a Sous Vide Magic controller, an air pump, an immersion heater/bubbler, and a 18 liter clear plastic bucket. The bucket holds your water, into which you place your vacuum-sealed pouches of food. The immersion heater rests in the bucket and is cycled on and off by the controller box in order to maintain a constant temperature. A small sensor plugs into the back of the controller, with the other end resting in the water and providing constant temperature readings. The air pump, which is the same pump that you would find in an aquarium shop, ensures that a stream of bubbles circulates throughout the water, eliminating hotspots. There are a few connections to make, but it quickly becomes second nature after you’ve done it once or twice.
To get started, just plug the Sous Vide Magic controller into a power outlet, flip the switch, and program in your desired temperature. At any given time, you can glance at the readout on the front of the unit and see the current water temperature, as well as the target temperature. Using hot tap water, which comes out of my kitchen faucet at around 105 degrees, it usually took about 15 to 20 minutes for the water to reach target. During this time, you season your food and vacuum seal it using a FoodSaver device. Once the water bath is ready, place your bags into the water and leave them there for at least the minimum suggested cooking time, which varies depending on the protein you are using and its size. When you are ready to serve, cut open the bags and give the contents a quick sear in a hot pan.
I mentioned that one of the benefits of the Sous Vide Magic system over other alternatives is its scalability. With the immersion heater, there’s really no limit to the space that you use to house your water bath – you could conceivably cook multiple pieces of meat in the sink, or a bathtub, even…in any vessel up to 36 liters. The 18 liter bucket provided by Fresh Meals Solutions with the purchase of a kit is really for the sake of convenience, more than anything. The Sous Vide Supreme limits you to the dimensions of the unit, topping out at 10 liters. It’s fine for a steak or two, but you wouldn’t be able to pull off a large sous vide dinner party.
Admittedly, the Sous Vide Magic system doesn’t look as refined or elegant as the tabletop unit offered by Sous Vide Supreme, but this is a solution for those food geeks among us who care more about delivering a flawlessly prepared steak or salmon filet than showing off some new piece of kitchen gadgetry. It does the job, and it does it well.
Check back here for sous vide recipes, tips, and tricks, coming soon.
March 24, 2011 Comments
Somewhere on the western outskirts of Philadelphia, in the living room of the well-appointed home of a stranger, I find myself sitting on a couch with renowned New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser. Nursing a pleasant buzz from a hearty quaff of Victory Brewing Company’s Festbier, we’re discussing the benefits and disadvantages of no less than three different Twitter clients that I have installed on my iPhone. Nearby, a dining table creaks under the weight of pimento cheese, venison stew, stuffed mushrooms, cold sesame noodles, and a myriad of other delectable, homemade dishes.
How did I get here?
The story begins six years ago, with Hesser putting out a call for readers to submit their most beloved recipes from the pages of The New York Times. Six thousand responses later, and after years of culling, testing, and refining, Amanda Hesser has debuted The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, a collection of nearly 1,000 dishes spanning a culinary epoch that began in the 1850s and ends with me standing over a food processor last Tuesday night, making pimento cheese.
To celebrate the release of the book, a call to arms was heard throughout the City of Brotherly Love, beckoning food bloggers to a potluck, hosted by the author herself, Audra Wolf of Doris and Jilly Cook, and Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, with libations to be provided by Victory Brewing Company. “Food bloggers!”, I said to myself as I read the invitation, “I are one!” And so a plan was hatched to attend the fete. But first, I had to decide what to bring. And before that, I needed to get my hands on a copy of the book.
Thanks to living in the future, Amazon was able to drop a copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook on my porch the very next day. I hefted the 4.6 pound work onto my coffee table and started flipping, making mental notes, poring over interesting recipes, and flipping some more until I reached the index. The first impression that one gets from the book is how strikingly organized it is, for such an extensive collection of recipes. Yes, we have grown accustomed to expecting chapter headings leading us to soups, salads, poultry and game, fish and shellfish – but what surprises and delights the harried cook is the breakdown, for example, of the soup chapter into listings for cold soups, vegetable soups, soups for each season, even soups for 8 and soups for 2.
I decided to make two easy dishes that would survive the trek in below-freezing temperatures to University City. Pimento cheese was a natural choice, seeing that I had used other recipes to make it many times before, and could easily adapt to a different preparation. The other dish, Take-Out Style Sesame Noodles, was selected partly due to its ease of preparation and partly due to my ongoing quest to find the perfect cold sesame noodle recipe (hint – the search is over).
On Wednesday evening, our GPS guided us to a row of darkened homes on a short street that was made to appear even narrower by the fact that the houses sat above us, with imposing brick and concrete stairs arching upwards at a sharp angle. We made our way to the house number that was designated on the invitation, rang the doorbell, and basked in the warm glow of incandescent lighting as Audra Wolfe answered the door and invited us into her home.
Once inside, I set the dishes on the table and made a point of making nametags – not for myself and my wife, but for the dishes – “Hi, my name is Pimento Cheese.” With that duty discharged, I scribbled my name and site name in sharpie and proceeded to mess up my “look” with an inartfully placed adhesive rectangle over my heart. I made small talk with the other invitees and started grazing, taking small samples of everything. Over the course of the next few minutes, more folks arrived and the table started filling up, with the statistically improbable outcome of my pimento cheese meeting up with two of its twins. At least my sesame noodles stood alone in their spicy, peanut-y goodness.
Amanda Hesser, as it turns out, is far more approachable than I had ever anticipated, which is not to say that I expected her to be mean or anything like that – she’s just an incredibly friendly and open person. Someone who, despite her extensive list of accomplishments, still retains the humility to write her name out on a name tag at a party featuring her own book. We found each other hovering over the three bowls of pimento cheese, and started chatting amiably like soccer moms in the produce department of a grocery store.
At one point, I asked her if she had ever had the opportunity to try any of the offerings from Victory Brewing Company (a local favorite which, coincidentally, is ten minutes away from my house) and, when she said no, I took that opportunity to introduce her to one of my favorite beers, Festbier, a lovely Oktoberfest-style lager that uses all German malts and whole flower European hops. With the bottles of Festbier being in the shortest supply out of all of the varieties, we were lucky enough to snag two of the last bottles. While we were at it, she also had the good fortune to try a sample of the Bee Sting Ale, the homebrewed creation of our friends Melissa and Ray of Bathtub Brewery. And there we all were, my wife and I, Melissa and Ray, Dave Speers from Victory Brewing Company, and Amanda Hesser – drinking beers, crammed into the narrow hallway next to the staircase. It felt like college again, but with more flavors of awesome than the human mind can even begin to imagine. And without classes to attend the next day.
As the party wound down, I was glad to see that all of the sesame noodles were consumed, saving me the trouble of hauling the leftovers back home. We rendered the last of the pimento cheese onto a paper plate, and my wife was kind enough to give the bowls a quick wash. We bid goodbye to Amanda, Audrey, Marisa, and all of our friends both new and old, and scurried off into the dark of night, just a bit warmer than when we had arrived.
December 16, 2010 Comments
Everyone has probably owned a toaster oven at one time or another. It’s one of those things that you pick up – along with sheets, laundry baskets, and a mini-fridge – when you’re about to embark on your freshman year of college. It’s cheap, it gets the job done and it very quickly becomes an indispensable part of your student budget dorm meal prep routine. In fact, many of us remain allied with our toaster ovens long after graduation, first jobs, and first marriages have come to pass.
If you’ve moved on from your toaster oven to bigger and better things in the intervening years since your college days, you may be surprised to know that, much like Cylons, they have evolved.
For the past three months, I’ve been using a review sample of the new Smart Oven that was graciously provided to me by Breville. To even compare the Smart Oven to a toaster oven immediately does it a disservice – even though the Smart Oven shares elements that are common to your old standby, such as heating elements and an adjustable rack, the similarities end there.
Featuring 1800 watts of cooking power, the Smart Oven comes equipped with a simple interface that offers three primary dials and a single on/off button. A turn of the function knob brings the LCD display to life, backlit in a brilliant blue that makes for easier reading of your available options. Just scroll through the available modes – Roast, Bake, Broil, and Toast, among them – then set the desired temperature on the second dial and the timer with the third. Pressing the on/off button starts the cooking process. I appreciated the ring of red light that outlines the button when the unit is in operation – providing me with the assurance that the Smart Oven is on, even if I’m standing across the room. Nothing throws your meal pacing off more than when you forget to, you know, turn ovens on and such.
By default, the Breville Smart Oven prepares your food using convection heating, which can be toggled on and off using a small button. When it’s on, air is circulated around your food by a small fan, providing more even heating and reducing cooking times considerably. If anything, experimenting with different cooking times is the one learning curve that one would face with the Smart Oven. Preparing some frozen items, for example, according to the directions on the box may sometimes result in overcooking.
Since bringing the box in from my doorstep, I’ve spent weeks throwing everything that I could think of into the Smart Oven, and have been very impressed with the results. Bone-in chicken breasts roasted to perfection in about a half hour. One of my favorite sides, roasted brussels sprouts, cooked in half the time of the original recipe, with the added benefit of freeing up our oven for the preparation of the main course. The ‘Reheat’ function works extraordinarily well for leftovers, and I never had to worry about overcooking since the Smart Oven shuts off when the timer runs out. Of particular convenience is the ‘Warm’ function, which maintains a consistent minimum temperature of 160 degrees (or whatever temperature you wish) – this feature is very useful for parents of infants, where eating dinner in shifts is common.
From an economic perspective, I always felt a little wasteful whenever I would heat my large gas oven just to warm dinner rolls, and with the Breville Smart Oven, I no longer have to. It’s the perfect size for small-batch cookery, such as the aforementioned rolls, a few cookies, or scones for breakfast. Since it’s considerably smaller than a standard kitchen oven, it heats to temperature much more quickly, ultimately using less power but still delivering fantastic results.
March 18, 2010 Comments
It all started with a simple message, floating out of the darkness of the Internet: “Can you keep a secret?”
Behind those five words were an invitation to be a part of one of the largest product launches in culinary history, to have the opportunity to become the Chuck Yeager of cookware and push the envelope. But this was no covert training program, no secret military aircraft were involved, and this was no test rocket – this was a saute pan.
Along with a handful of others, I have been selected as an All-Clad ambassador, and have had the privilege of testing a piece of their new d5 line of cookware. Those of you who are familiar with All-Clad’s line of products are already well aware of the enhanced performance and level of control that can be achieved and, like me, are wondering how All-Clad could have possibly improved on their build quality.
Having owned a couple of pieces of All-Clad in my arsenal of well-used cookware, I was already well versed in their ability to heat quickly and evenly, so I approached testing the d5 series with high expectations. I’m happy to say that the d5 line not only meets those expectations, it completely surpasses them. Combining five alternating layers of high and low conductivity metals, All-Clad has created a line of cookware that excels in even heat control and stability, with a few surprising usability perks thrown in for good measure.
From a design standpoint, the d5 line sports a few highlights that are worth mentioning. For one thing, the handles on the lids are now oversized, allowing you to slip an oven mitt-clad hand through them, which provides greater stability than using mitten-y fingertips. A redesigned pour lip enables the transfer of hot pan sauces from any side of the pan without the associated random splattering and loss of control, like those people on late night infomercials that need locking perforated lids to avoid a trip to the hospital. The handles are now broader, allowing for less fatigue when dancing your meal across the flames of your burners. Fans of the ‘tip and roll’ technique of making omelets, take note.
As with prior All-Clad lines, the surface of my d5 saute pan heated quickly and evenly, and sustained sufficient temperature to maintain a steady sizzle even over medium heat. Over a few weeks, the pan held a starring role on our stove, serving as the stage for preparation of our usual weekday dinners of chicken, fish, and the occasional pork chop.
My wife, who absolutely rules the kitchen when it comes to seafood, professed that the All-Clad d5 saute pan provided “the best skin ever” on a recent fillet of salmon, prepared simply with olive oil and some garlic. Indeed, the salmon skin came out as crisp as pork crackling, while the flesh remained a rosy pink throughout, a testament to the ability of the pan to accommodate minor temperature adjustments. This matched my own experience with chicken breasts, coated with salt, fresh ground pepper, and a dusting of flour – searing them in the d5 saute pan yielded evenly browned, crisp medallions that, when paired with a simple pan sauce, yielded a quick and easy dinner. As a side note, the 2 quart saute pan is appropriate for couples and single cooks – if you are cooking for more than two people, I would highly suggest going with the 3 quart pan or larger.
Cleanup was quick and easy – since the d5 line maintains such even heating, there are no hotspots, so there are no burnt spots of food that need to be scrubbed away after the meal. Plus, as any cook knows, the secret to easy cleaning is deglazing – why wash with water after dinner when you can wash with wine or stock and end up with a killer sauce to serve with dinner?
January 13, 2010 Comments
When I was in college, in the days before Starbucks had transformed into the behemoth that it is today, I worked for a small coffee chain which was located in a well-trafficked corner of the food court at the mall. For up to eight hours a day, I pulled hundreds of espresso shots and made hundreds of cappuccinos and lattes, frequently for an audience that didn’t even know that the word ‘espresso’ does not contain an ‘x’. At that time, people bought espresso-based drinks as status items, and I can’t tell you how many times a customer tried to return a cappuccino because “it wasn’t sweet”.
Truth be told, I never understood what the fuss was about. I had free reign to sample everything that we sold, and the espresso didn’t really appeal to me. I found it to be a bitter, acrid concoction that was only improved by the addition of disproportionate amounts of sweetener and milk, and by that point I would have been better off with a regular cup of java.
I could have lived happily ever after never tasting espresso again, but then something happened that served to change my perspective forever. I got married, and we went to Italy for our honeymoon, just two young kids going out of the country for the first time.
We found ourselves in Venice, and on the first morning after our arrival in the city, we had breakfast on a rooftop hotel cafe overlooking the Grand Canal. With the morning sun glinting off of the waterway, which was beginning to fill with the early rush hour traffic of water taxis, gondolas, and speedboats, the setting was absolute perfection. A light breeze tinged with the faint smell of marsh, bright skies, and a stellar buffet of platters of prosciutto crudo, cheeses, and pastries completed the scene.
Feeling adventurous, and determined to sample the local product in the one nation that would definitively know how to make it correctly, I ordered an espresso. What was presented to me was nothing like what I had produced so many times by my own hand – the espresso was topped with a luxurious cap of crema, and the bouquet of the bean, instead of being acrid, was almost sweet, even without the addition of sugar. Tipping the cup to my lips, the taste was a revelation – intense, yet not bitter, and smooth on the palate. I spent the rest of our trip ending each of our meals in Florence, Capri and Rome with a single shot of espresso, accompanied only by a single sliver of lemon rind. Since then, I’ve often considered buying a machine for our kitchen, but was hesitant to do so, having heard unkind tales of inexpensive, underpowered machines, but also unwilling and unable to spend thousands of dollars for a higher quality one.
I’ve spent the last two weeks testing a demonstration unit of the new CitiZ espresso machine, manufactured by Nespresso and available for purchase in the United States on August 1. For you espresso geeks, I will certainly revel in all of the details of my experience, but for everyone else, here’s my summary: The Nespresso CitiZ produces a perfect cup of espresso, one that rivals the depth and quality of the product that is served in European restaurants.
If you’re in the midst of performing research on espresso machines for home or office use, you probably already know that the key to high quality espresso, one that features a thick layer of crema and maximum extraction of flavor, is the amount of pressure produced in the process. While most consumer-level espresso machines produce 15 bars of pressure, the pump-driven Nespresso CitiZ outputs 19 bars. The results speak for themselves – each shot of espresso that I have made has consistently been capped with a generous layer of golden foam, and the flavor profile is spot-on for how espresso should taste. Honestly, I never expected an espresso machine that is designed for home use to deliver results that so closely matched restaurant quality.
From a design perspective, the CitiZ offers an extremely easy user experience, with virtually no learning curve to speak of. The 1 liter water reservoir detaches easily from the back of the machine, giving you the freedom to carry it to the sink instead of using a receptacle to bring water to the machine. Once you’ve got the water reservoir filled, just plug the CitiZ into the nearest outlet and hit the power switch – the two buttons on the top of the machine (one for regular 1.5 oz shots, the second for the larger lungo shots) start blinking. Once they remain steadily lit, about two to three minutes in my experience, the machine is ready to do its thing. Just lift the lever, drop an espresso capsule into the machine, close the lever, and push a button. After the machine is finished expelling its golden elixir, a second lift of the level ejects the spent capsule into a holding area cleverly hidden behind frosted plastic. As the owner of the CitiZ, you’ll know if there are empty capsules to discard – but casual observers will never be the wiser.
With respect to physical dimensions, the CitiZ manages to occupy only 5 inches of horizontal space on your kitchen counter, although it is worth noting that the machine is around 14 inches deep – you may need to store it at an angle to prevent it from jutting out into your workspace. At nearly 11 inches tall, it easily fits underneath my kitchen cabinets.
I used to be an espresso snob, and wanted a machine that would allow me to measure, tamp, and pull my own shot. After all, I was a barista for quite a while, and part of me considered using capsule-based espresso systems to be cheating. The Nespresso CitiZ has changed my mind. You can tell that a lot of research went into creating a machine that’s calibrated to deliver the perfect shot, time and again. Plus, there really is a measure of convenience in being able to go from craving to satisfaction without all of the manual fuss. Granted, there will always be purists who insist on sourcing their own beans, grinding, measuring, and tamping, but when you’re pressed for time, or find yourself making many shots of espresso for a crowd, you’ll be grateful for the push-button ease of this machine.
The other mark in favor of Nespresso’s capsule system is the sheer variety of espresso variants that’s available, which allows you to serve espresso for hardcore enthusiasts as well as newcomers who aren’t sure whether they’ll like it. For benchmark purposes, I used Nespresso’s Ristretto variety as my definition of a “standard” espresso, which did not disappoint. Nespresso rates the Ristretto variety as a ‘10′ for intensity – if you were preparing a shot for someone who thought that the Ristretto was too bracing, you could easily opt for a Livanto (rated as a ‘6′) or even go as low as the Cosi (an intensity level of ‘3′, and way too low for my taste). The intensity of each varietal changes based on the origin of the beans and the depth to which the beans are roasted. Nespresso even goes as far as to recommend which varietals are appropriate for standard and lungo shots, or as components of cappuccinos and lattes, and offers a handful of varietals specifically designed for lungo shots. The cost per shot comes in at a reasonable .55 cents.
At a suggested price point of $279, the Nespresso CitiZ should definitely be on your short list of candidates if you’re looking for an espresso machine for use in your home or office.
July 30, 2009 Comments