Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Alien Ingredient #17: Jackfruit

These watermelon-sized fruits with the horned rinds (similar to Durians) are intimidating looking beasts, now that I see one in person. I've seen canned jackfruit in markets all my life, but when I try a fruit for the first time, I want to try the fresh version. And jackfruit has just become available at the local market.

The first thing that struck me about the fruit is the outstanding nose, perfumed with pineapple, mango, and banana. It is a simply beguiling smell. The flavor is—I don't know how to put it better—of straight up Juicy Fruit gum with a sweet banana finish. I can't explain Juicy Fruit to non-Americans because it's something you have to taste, but try to imagine a symphony of every tropical fruit you know.

So, how to attack one of these monsters, the largest tree fruits? I bought a quarter of one, about 5.5 lbs (2.5kg), already cut. Whole ones are easy enough to split and quarter with a sharp knife. When working with jackfruit, you definitely need to be mindful of the latex that the core oozes when cut. It can make a sticky mess, but I had no problem washing it off with hot water and soap.

I cut the core out of my quarter and this exposed the individual fruits (technically I think they're called arils, but really, who cares?). This is a fruit with training wheels: it is obvious how to disassemble it. The edible fruits are yellow and the stringy pithy white stuff surrounding them is not so good. Inside the fruit, you find a big seed that you discard. What's left is good, really good.

The texture of the fruit is unique in my experience; it compares to nothing in my vocabulary. The fruit is totally dry with no discernible juice. The texture is somewhat waxy and somewhat yieldingly crisp; it is not unpleasant though, but I just don't have any words to describe it.

Note: the next day, after we had pulled the fruit from the husk and refrigerated it overnight, the tropical complexities had dissipated and we were left with a fruit that tastes remarkably like cantaloupe with none of the sweet banana finish. Go figure.

Vote: Wow! We really like this fruit and the price is right!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Winter Ingenuity

Jerusalem Artichoke Bisque, garnished with beet cream, white truffle oil, and toasted pumpkin seeds. What to make when there's not much in the cooler.

Alien Ingredient #16: Spondias/Mombin

I'm very weak on the subject of tropical fruits for the simple reasons that I run a local and seasonal restaurant in North America and I have never traveled much in the tropics, save the islands in the Caribbean, whose markets sell more or less the same fruits we do in our grocery stores here. So, I just don't have a clue about most tropical fruits. Grandilla? Sapodilla? Morinda? Safou? Yeah, heard of them, but never seen one live and in color. So I'm always on the lookout to increase my knowledge of such fruit.

With that in mind, I've had my eye on the jar of pickled makok—you know there's a joke in here somewhere—at the market for a while now and finally decided that it needed to come home with me, anticipating that it is similar pickled green mango or green papaya pickles. The fruits are lime-sized and are peeled before being pickled.

Before leaving the store, I googled makok to see what I was buying and found that makok is the Thai word for the fruit of Spondias dulcis. That reminded me that I had also previously seen other Spondias in the freezer case. These fruits are labeled jocote, both types of which are labeled as being S. purpurea or purple (or red) mombin. The red-purple type is called jocote indio and the green-yellow type is called jocote de corona.

In reading further on the subject, it appears that the green-yellow ones are color variants of purple mombins, and not yellow mombins, S. mombin, but our taste tests do not bear this out. The green ones taste and appear nothing like the red ones. Here they are side by side for comparison.

Each of these fruits appears to be a drupe, that is, it has fleshy fruit surrounding a central pit. The pits are more at mango pits than any of our domesticated drupes. The central pit is connected by masses of fibers to the flesh, a real clingstone if I ever saw one.

The pickled makok flesh is light green and mildly sweet, with sort of the texture of a mushy watermelon rind pickle. On chewing the pickle, the good parts disappear quickly and after a few moments, you're left chewing on a sort of flavorless, pasty, fibrous mass. To quote me during our tasting, "This is not a good pickle."

The red mombins on the other hand had a leathery skin yielding to a grapey, plummy red flesh. They are sweet and pretty tasty. I think we'll use the rest of these to flavor a flan or sorbet. By contrast, the yellow mombins had the same leathery skin yielding to a broken custard-looking baby puke flesh. The flavor was a touch medicinal and the skin quite astringent. These quickly went into the trash.

Vote: Pickled makok—not a good pickle. Red mombin—a delicious fruit, if quite low on the flesh to pit ratio. Yellow mombin—baby puke flesh says it all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alien Ingredient #15: Fresh Green Chickpeas

I reckon my body is probably 50% chickpeas, so many do I eat. Chickpeas are no doubt my primary protein source and one of my favorite foods. I've never seen a chickpea plant or pod before, though I have seen pictures. That is, never until just recently when I saw a bunch of green ones in the pods at the market.

I assumed that like the other green shell-on legumes with which I am familiar, green peanuts and green soybeans (edamame), green chickpeas would be very good to eat out of hand after just shelling them. And I was right. They are delicious with a nutty vegetal flavor that reminds me of raw Kuta squash. They remind me slightly of raw green peas and the nuttiness also conjures slightly underripe avocado. I also tried boiling them like peanuts or edamame in salted water and they were equally delicious. Finally, I tossed half the remainder into fried rice and half into an ersatz risotto. Delicious!

Vote: yum, yum, yum!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Alien Ingredient #14: Choclo

There are many brands of the large kerneled South American corn called choclo in the freezer case over at the market, both on the cob (entero) and off (en grano). I chose a bag that to my eye was the best looking, with the most uniform, least blemished kernels.

You can see that by American standards, the kernels are huge. I ate a kernel right out of the bag, still semifrozen. It tastes like corn, albeit with a slightly thicker pericarp (skin) and a starchier interior.

By any other name, it is still corn and can be used in any corn application. The perfect application for me is soup and this bag ended up in a soup with black beans and hominy (mote blanco).

Vote: nothing much to write home about: it's just corn.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hidden Gluten

Who knew? Seriously. Who would even suspect that there is wheat flour in a can of chipotle peppers? I didn't realize it until this morning until the label caught my eye. We have a lot of gluten intolerant and celiac customers and we are extremely careful about what we make for them. We have it easy because we make just about everything from scratch. But this just goes to show that you can never be too careful.

I'm going to look for a new brand of chipotles.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Alien Ingredient #13: Silkie (Black) Chicken

You've seen them on cooking shows on TV, those small black-skinned chickens. I'm certain that other than its coloration, it's just another kind of chicken. But since I've never cooked one (though there was one in particular I wanted to cook, but more on that story in a minute) I am curious if it has a richer flavor than the chickens we normally eat.

These black-skinned birds are Silkies, an old breed probably originating in China. Although black-feathered ones exist, I've only ever seen the ones with fluffy white feathers and black wattles. Wikipedia currently says "Silkies are well known for their calm, friendly temperament. Among the most docile of poultry, Silkies are considered an ideal pet." Which brings me back the the Silkie I once wanted to cook.

When I was a kid, we had a Silkie rooster that reigned over the flock of bantams that scurried here and there about our yard eating bugs and whatever else they could find. This pint-sized rooster wannabe was a white furball with a black face and undoubtedly lays claim to the title of the nastiest son of a bitch to walk the face of the planet. I hated that chicken. Every time I would go into the chicken pen to look for eggs or to feed the chickens and ducks, that damned bird would come flying at me, his three-inch spurs forward in full-on combat mode, trying to slash me. I guess he hated me too. What the hell does Wikipedia know anyway? Maybe I will just go and edit the Silkie entry.

Back to the chicken at hand. Expecting a tougher than usual bird, I poached this scrawny chicken, first for one hour and then for a second. Not a good sign. I can report that what little meat there was on this tiny bird was tough as leather despite the leisurely poaching. And there was no fat on the bird anywhere: there was only about a tablespoon of fat on top of the broth. The meat is only slightly darker than the average chicken, but it is not black as some have reported. The skin does not necessarily separate from the meat very easily: that may be why some people are confused about the color of the meat. Some of the bones and all the cartilage are black, though.

What about flavor? The meat has a rich chicken flavor, almost as good as the best chickens I have ever had, but it is tough almost beyond compare. The broth is where all the goodness is. Once I picked the chicken, I reheated the meager five ounces of meat with the broth, green onions, ginger, garlic, and a touch of soy sauce. After 10 minutes, I added shredded napa cabbage. The soup as you see it here is truly delicious despite the tough meat. Crew comments: "Bomb!" and "Excellent!"

Vote: Nah! Silkies have good chicken flavor, but the meat is tough and the flavor is not good enough to merit the $13 price tag for this 18-ounce bird.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Alien Ingredient #12: Tteok

There's a whole lot I don't know about Korean food, and unfortunately, I don't have anyone to teach me about it. Volunteers? Email me. Twenty or so years ago, there was a Korean restaurant here run by two old grandmothers with some interesting dishes that they never put on the menu. Sadly, I was just getting to know them when they pulled up stakes and returned to Hawaii where it was easier to sell Korean food. A couple of fairly worthless Korean restaurants have come and gone very quickly since, for lack of any Korean base here in Winchester and honestly for lack of skill in the kitchen. What's more, all the Koreans I know around here are busy running Japanese restaurants which is decidedly not helpful in increasing my knowledge of Korean food, which I find to be utterly delicious.

My working Korean food vocabulary is limited to the dozens of kinds of kimchee that I have made, a few soups of which kimchee jigae is one of my favorites, and a few other standards of Americanized Korean restaurant menus. Korean staples such as tteok are really foreign to me.

Tteok (as I understand it pronounced somewhere between duck and dock) is a rice cake made from ground glutinous rice. They come in all shapes: balls, logs, and the sliced logs that you see here. As this package says, this particular sliced tteok often ends up in the celebratory New Year's soup called tteokguk.

I tried a piece uncooked and as I expected, it tastes like uncooked Thai sen yai rice noodle. Simmering the tteok bits in water for 30-60 seconds rendered them softer and chewier, a pretty neat texture. Aside from their natural affinity for soup, they'd be perfect sauced or tossed with stir fries of any kind. And for giggles, I fried some of them. Just like rice noodles, they puff up when fried. The fried ones would be pretty sick drizzled with honey as a riff on funnel cakes or Greek loukoumades.

Vote: Cheap and delicious, tteok are a useful addition to my repertoire.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Alien Ingredient #11: Cancha/Maíz Chulpe

In reading through my books on South American cooking, I had noted that a type of toasted dried corn called cancha is often served in Peru as a table snack and as a crunchy topping for seviche, but I had never seen any in the bodegas around here until recently. Cancha is made from a type of corn that is generally called maíz chulpe, though in this case it is labeled maíz montaña.

Armed and dangerous with this information, I set about toasting the dried corn kernels in a little oil in an open skillet. Mistake. Like popcorn, cancha go kaboom! Put a lid on yours! After toasting, sprinkle well with sea salt and enjoy! You'll find that it is a little spongy in the middle just like popcorn but a good bit starchier. You'll also find that it has great corn flavor.

Vote: addictive!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Alien Ingredient #10: Nilgai Antelope

The only antelope I have cooked before is our native Pronghorn which was objectionably gamy, so hoping for a tasty antelope, I was happy to get my hands on some Nilgai, a large—huge in comparison to Prongers—wary, and speedy antelope which is native to northern India and Pakistan, but which is now escaped in great numbers and thriving in south Texas, where it is considered a nuisance.

You see here a big hunk of leg that I have started breaking down into 5-ounce steaks. We grilled the meat straight away to medium rare just to check the flavor profile. The flavor is beefy (grass-fed beef) with a venison overtone, nothing objectionable at all. You can see in the photo that there is almost no intramuscular fat, similar to venison or ostrich. The texture of this leg meat, while not at all tough, has a decided chew to it. I actually like the texture which is more like New York strip than tenderloin.

Customers were not at all happy with having antelope as a choice on the menu. I just barely covered the cost of the antelope before having to pitch it. Nobody, but nobody was willing to try it, no matter how hard the servers sold it.

Vote: While not objectionable in any way, the flavor just isn't there to support the monstrous price tag. We'd eat it again, but for slightly less money, we'd rather have an awesome elk steak.