Thursday, July 14, 2011

The secret ingredient

Instant-ramen gnocchi parisienne
When it comes to food, we all have our guilty pleasures--the things that we ate while growing up and that we're a little sheepish to admit to still eating and loving now. One of my boyfriend's is instant ramen. The noodles, admittedly, have a certain something to them--a flavour and consistency that you won't find in any other noodle. And the deliciously salty seasoning that comes in a little packet with them--well, it's the closest we get these days to those wonderfully rich and meaty broths of Asian noodle houses the world over (pescetarianism--it has its limits, you might say). Given this little penchant, both of us were delighted when we found out that the first issue of Lucky Peach--David Chang and Peter Meehan's latest brain child, a food quarterly--would be dedicated to ramen.
Instant ramen, hooray
Lucky Peach is just about everything I hoped it would be--there's the booze-fueled rant of which I posted an excerpt a while ago, Chang and Meehan's travelogue of the time they spent eating their way through Japan last year, Ruth Reichl's instant-ramen taste test, and, of course, a trove of ramen-centric recipes (and seven wicked egg recipes thrown in for good measure)--some simple, some wacky, some daring, and all likely brilliant.
Milk-soaked ramen
The one recipe for which I can vouch so far (it's latecoming, I know, but I've been busy lately trying not to inhale clouds of lead dust) is the ramen gnocchi parisienne. That's right--gnocchi made from an instant-ramen-based dough. Who would ever think of doing that, replacing flour with instant ramen in a pâte à choux (the same pastry as that used for eclairs)? It's insane. It's perverse. And it's awesome.
Into the pot!
Here's how it works. After a quick dip in some hot milk, the ramen get whirled in the blender with a bit of that milk and a few egg yolks. There's your glorious ramen pâte à choux--simple as that. Then, it all gets loaded into a pastry bag and piped into one-inch morsels, cut with a butter knife straight into a pot of boiling water. A minute later, the gnocchi come floating to the top, ready to be scooped out and chilled. Then, the royal treatment: a quick sauté in butter, a sprinkling of herbs, parm, and lemon juice. Just perfect--gnocchi with crisp, buttery crusts, creamy centres, and that wonderful savour that only instant ramen lend. (My parents couldn't place it, but they did enjoy the gnocchi--shhh, don't tell.)
2011-08-19 - Having finally had the chance to read through the first issue of Lucky Peach cover to cover, I have to say that, Chang's genius aside, the real gems of this issue are (1) Todd Kliman's piece, `The Problem of Authenticity' in which he does a fine job of reminding readers that cuisine is a dynamic, living, ever-changing thing, that traditions always undergo re-interpretation with the coming of different cooks and different contexts, and so that we shouldn't put too much stock in the idea of authenticity, and (2) Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's wild, weird, and fantastic short story, `The Gourmet Club'. I adore Lucky Peach and can't wait for the next issue.
Instant-Ramen Gnocchi Parisienne
Adapted from Lucky Peach, vol. 1
Note: if you have a garden spilling over with herbs, you might want to try Chang's intended finish for these gnocchi. Once the gnocchi have been sautéed, melt a tablespoon of butter in the pan, pour it over them along with the lemon juice and divide between two plates. Then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon chives, thinly sliced, and 1 tablespoon picked tarragon. Dust with parm and serve.

Pâte à choux:
2 cups milk
2 packages instant ramen, seasoning packets reserved for another use
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter

The finish:
lemon juice
grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons gremolata butter (see below)

Make the pâte à choux. Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan and remove from heat immediately. Break up the ramen noodles and add them to the milk. Let them steep and soften in the milk for about 1 minute. The noodles should still be pretty firm.
Strain the noodles, reserving the milk. Combine the noodles and 1 cup of reserved milk in a blender and purée for half a minute. Then add the egg yolks and process until the mixture is smooth, homogenous, and has the consistency of loose toothpaste. (If for some inexplicable reason the mixture is dry, add more milk a tablespoon at a time to loosen it. This shouldn't happen.)
Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted with a half-inch wide tip (try an Ateco no. 806). (Avoid spillage by first tucking a portion of the bag into the pastry tip--this blocks flow--and then twisting up the open end to push the batter towards the tip. Stand the bag up in a tall drinking glass for easy storage.) Put it in the fridge to chill for the amount of time it takes to bring a large pot of water to a steady boil. Lightly grease (olive oil, butter, or spray fat are fine) a half-sheet and set it aside.
Cook the gnocchi. Working in batches, pipe the dough out directly into the water, using a butter knife or small spatula to cut one-inch logs as dough comes out of the bag. After about a minute, the gnocchi will rise to the surface of the pot. Scoop them up with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the greased half-sheet. At this point, you can cool the gnocchi and store them, covered in plastic, as long as overnight in the refrigerator.
Heat a tablespoon of butter over medium heat in a wide sauté pan. When the butter foam subsides, add the gnocchi in batches and them, stirring occasionally, until they're golden-brown and delicious looking, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add butter to the pan as needed for the remaining batches.
To finish. Heat the herb butter in the pan just until melted and pour it over the gnocchi. Toss to coat and divide between two plates. Finish with a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a sprinkle of the remaining herbs, and a dusting of parmesan.

Gremolata Butter (Snail Butter)
Adapted from Melissa Clark's column, A Good Appetite

4 tablespoons butter, softened
2 generous handfuls of parsley (about 1/8 cup, packed)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 small shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

In a food processor, combine parsley, garlic, shallot, salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Pulse until minced. Remove half the mixture and reserve for garnish.
Add softened butter to food processor and pulse until mixture is smooth and tinged with green. (You can make butter a few days ahead and store it in refrigerator.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Fish at the bridge

Calumet Fisheries
Okay, I know I've been promising a report on some of David Chang's perverse ramen-based concoctions from the first issue of Lucky Peach for a while now, but the truth is, I haven't been spending much time in the kitchen lately. My parents are visiting from Toronto, and we've been running all around town on home-improvement-related errands all week. I've spent more time at Ikea than anyone really ever should, and, consequently, my living room is now a fortress of neatly stacked cardboard boxes. Hopefully, there will be time for ramen hijinks this weekend.
I'm glad to say that my boyfriend and I at least had the time to sit my parents down in front of the TV and not-so-subtly present them with the Chicago episode of Tony Bourdain's No Reservations, hoping to entice them into driving us to some of the more out-of-the-way destinations it featured. That's how we ended up on a desolate stretch of 95th Street on Wednesday, way farther south than we've ever ventured, taking our pick of some luscious smoked fish.
Now, I wouldn't have expected to find good smoked fish in the Midwest, much less at such an unremarkable-looking roadside joint, but I trusted in Bourdain as I tend to, and it definitely paid off. Calumet Fisheries is of a dying breed of smokehouse in America--since 1948, they've been smoking fish on premises the good old-fashioned way, smouldering wood and all. And they're really all about the fish--they do retail out front, take-out only, and smoke the fish out back. We took our fish home to eat, but there was definitely a line of parked cars when we got there, people inside happily eating away, picnicking on the roadside.
The fish was fantastic, the salmon especially. When we got home, we unwrapped our precious parcels at the table and just dug in. There was no conversation, only the occasional exclamation about how good everything was. It was a splendid meal after a long day of errands. I hadn't had take-out with my parents in years, and this was certainly the best we've eaten together.
Smoked trout
Update 07-13-2011: The folks at Calumet are great. My parents were so thrilled with the fish that they insisted we go back for more this week. The guys behind the counter were encouraged by our enthusiasm for their fish--so much so that they pulled out a salmon head, just smoked an hour and a half before, broke it down for us on the counter, and let us have at it. My grandmother has been a big fish-head enthusiast for as long as I can remember, and I guess I am now too. I still have mixed feelings when it comes to fish eyes--a little too mushy, if you ask me--but the rest of the head is awesome--wonderfully fatty and flavourful.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Simple pleasures

Sourdough brioche
For me, summer is about simple pleasures. It's about eating wild blueberries straight from the bush along a well-worn, wooded trail, about marvelling at the fireflies in the yard at dusk, winking in unison, about strolling between stalls at the farmers' market on sun-drenched mornings, everything fresh from the fields. And so, when summer hits, most of the activity in my kitchen comes to a standstill. It's too hot to labour over the stove, and I just want to eat everything pretty much as it is anyway.
Bread is an exception. For warm, fragrant loaves to be torn into at the end of the day alongside radishes and butter or a simple salad, it's worth it--I will sigh and fire up the oven. Sure, it requires a bit of planning and mixing and waiting--a drag, I know--but eating it? Now that's a simple pleasure...especially if what you've got is brioche.
Brioche is one of those breads that needs no adornment that first day--no butter, no jam, no preserves. Just savour it as is--plush, buttery, and barely sweet. If the croissant had a darling little sister, brioche would be her. Unlike with the croissant, the generous amount of butter that goes into brioche is incorporated bit by bit directly into the dough, making brioche more bread than pastry compositionally but almost every bit as buttery and luxurious.
Typically, my style in the kitchen is a little old-school--I'm a wooden spoon and whisk kind of girl. I've waved off the need to get a stand mixer, happy to mix and whip and knead with my own hands. But last week, I caved when my boyfriend's parents offered to buy us one (a housewarming gift--but more on that some other time). One of the reasons I gave in was, of course, brioche.
You can make brioche by hand. I did it a couple of Thanksgivings ago and ended up with quite the collection of blisters. The brioche was really good, but as you might anticipate, I haven't tried it again since. 
The stand mixer makes brioche a breeze--once you've got your yeasted dough together (from Tartine Bread in my case), you just drop in the butter, one half-inch cube at a time, until you have a gorgeously silky and buttery dough. And if you aren't imprudently eager to break in your stand mixer like I was this week, you'll do all this in a kitchen that isn't breaking 80 degrees--though, if you really can't wait, just let your dough proof in a bowl set over an ice bath, and you should be fine (the butter will melt out of the dough, otherwise).
I won't post the recipe for Tartine Bread's brioche here--because it takes off from the basic method used throughout the book, it's a little complicated and probably best explained in the book itself. I've already gushed about it before--if you're into making bread and want to try your hand at sourdough, it's well worth having. However, you can find Dorie Greenspan's recipe for brioche, the one I used two Thanksgivings ago, here--it's a little more traditional, a little fussier, but, again, still a breeze if you've got a stand mixer.
Need I even say that brioche makes the most indulgently awesome and custard-like french toast?
Brioche French Toast
In anticipation of my next post: my copy of the first issue of Lucky Peach finally arrived in the mail late this week, and it's so awesome. David Chang is a madman. Using instant ramen as an ingredient in another dish? Perverse but likely brilliant.