Recipe: Grilled Corn Mexican Style

Grilled corn Mexican style

Grilled corn Mexican style

Those street vendors know what they’re doing. The intense heat of the grill causes the corn kernels to caramelize. You know it’s hot enough when they start to make a cracking noise, like popcorn. Serves 4-8.

4 ears good fresh corn (cut in half if you want smaller portions as a side dish)
Mild chili powder
Lime juice (optional)

Method: Shuck the corn and soak in salted water for a couple hours. Grill over high heat, turning so each side gets dark kernels but is not burned (see photo). Remove from heat and sprinkle with chili powder and optional lime juice before serving as an accompaniment to grilled foods.

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Recipe: Secret Recipe Ramen Burger

Mmm... Ramen Burger

Secret Recipe Ramen Burger towers above conventional counterparts

Don’t be distracted by those ironic burgers using dried ramen noodles instead of a bun. If you like ramen and you like burgers, here’s the secret way to have the best ramen burger. Makes 4 burgers.

1 lb. good quality ground beef
Noodles from 1 package dried ramen noodles for soup (I used Shin Ramyun)
1 vegetable packet from the ramen package
1/2 to 1 spice packet from the ramen package (if you use the full packet it will be pretty spicy)
1/4 c beer (I used Ithaca Flower Power) or soju

Ramen Burger mis en place

Ramen Burger mis en place

Method: Crumble up the ramen noodles and mix into the ground beef along with the seasoning packet ingredients and beer. Allow to rest 1 hour for flavors to mix and beer to be absorbed by the ramen. Shape into 4 patties and cook according to your preferred method. Serve with standard burger condiments or experiment with sriracha mayo, kimchee etc.

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15 Church shows how to make a good restaurant great

Fried Oysters at 15 Church

Fried oysters with liver pate at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs NY

Had Mother’s Day dinner at 15 Church in Saratoga Springs, NY, a place that’s been open just about a year and has recalibrated our definition of fine dining in this amiable but touristic destination. The pre-opening expectations were high: a centrally located but long abandoned historic building rehabbed at great expense (I remember walking by in the dead of winter as heated sidewalks were in the process of installation), a legendary chef in local icon Jason Baker, and a solid management team led by Paul McCulloch, a guy with a lot of big restaurant experience. 15 Church has not disappointed, and didn’t miss a step when Jason Baker departed for health reasons and was replaced by Brady Duhame, a locally raised chef who is a CIA graduate.

I’ve had a few meals at 15 Church at this point and none has been short of superb. This consistency is unusual in a tourist town where often crowds of transient diners, who may not ever come back, cause the house to scramble and possibly resort to shortcuts to ensure everybody gets fed. Tonight I found myself musing on why 15 Church has become a world class restaurant in an environment when even a little dedication would put them ahead of the many local places that charge almost as much for mass-produced food.

Empty butter dish at 15 Church

Cultured butter, now transferred to the house focaccia

Aside from the usual food excellence (why WOULDN’T you want liver pate with your fried oysters?) I took pictures of two telling pieces of evidence. First is the empty cup of cultured butter sprinkled with sea salt which is served (not empty at that point) with excellent focaccia as you sit down. This butter is at the perfect spreading temperature/consistency. A couple of degrees colder and it would be stiff; a couple degrees warmer and it would start to melt. But 15 Church has figured out the ideal temperature and the butter comes out at that temperature precisely, night after night.

Paul McCulloch tends to business

Co-owner Paul McCulloch setting tables at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs NY

My second piece of evidence is the picture of the gentleman setting the table, who happens to be Paul McCulloch. Everybody pulls their weight there and everybody supports everyone else; if a table needs to be prepped and Paul is nearby, why wouldn’t he help out?

Add to this the fact that Chef Brady Duhame has a hell of a lot of fun at his job. He effortlessly turns out the traditional dishes the high rollers demand (one of our party had a massive $50 NY strip that was worth every penny) while indulging a lively personal curiosity about rare and raw fish, Kewpie mayo and uni. His zeppoli (like donuts, but stuffed with ricotta cheese and served with a sweet cream sauce and caramel sauce) have become as locally prized as a winning ticket for a trifecta at the Saratoga Race Course.

I’m hardly the only one who has noticed what is going on at 15 Church. It’s very difficult to get a reservation (but not impossible, so try if you’re in the area) and many of the key dates during track season are completely booked months in advance. But they’re opening a patio next door where 50% of the seating will be first-come-first-served and the central attraction will be a raw bar. I’m there.

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How I made sourdough bread in a hotel room, sort of

The Finished Product

Hotel Room Sourdough?

Staying this week in a hotel room with a kitchenette, I decided to build on my experience with hotel room kale salad. Was it possible to come up with an edible loaf using only flour, water, store-bought yeast and salt? This experiment aims to find out.

It starts with a pinch of yeast

It starts with a pinch of yeast

The first night I mixed a pinch (maybe 1/8 t) Fleishmann’s Rapid-Rise Yeast from a packet into ½ c warm water then added 1 c Trader Joe’s White Flour. 24 hours later, I was gratified to see a frothy surface like a well tended sourdough starter.

Sponge after 24 hours

Sponge after 24 hours

I then added another 1/8 t yeast, 2 c flour, 2/3 c water to make a dough that my calculations was about 68% hydration. I autolysed it, mixed in 1 ½ t salt (the ingredients actually had little taste at this point so lots of salt was important) then did 4 stretch-and-folds over an hour, left it to bulk ferment for another hour and then covered with plastic wrap and stuck into my mini-fridge for 3 days.

Dough after 3 days

After 3 days

When I pulled it out I was pleased to see some nice bubbles accompanied by a faintly sour aroma. I brought it up to room temperature, divided it into a boule and two mini-batards, and let those rise for a couple of hours.

Loaves after rising

Loaves after rising

Baking was a challenge because the heat source was a confusing combo convection/microwave oven. After some experimentation I settled on 450 degrees (as hot as it would go) with the convection setting. I put the bread on a plate and a large stewpot upside down on top to capture some humidity. 20 minutes with that setup, then another 20 minutes with the stewpot removed so the bread could brown.

Oven seup with upside down stewpot

Oven setup with upside down stewpot

The result was what you see here and while not really sourdough, was pleasant and entirely edible, sort of like a Pepperidge Farm white sandwich bread. My tasters happily tried it with butter and with cheese and half a loaf was quickly consumed.

Crumb shot

Crumb shot of finished loaf

I’ll try this again, but will probably experiment with milk and some added nuts and fruit from the breakfast bar. (And maybe a packet of instant oatmeal?) Still got lots of that flour to use up.

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David Murdock, the pineapple king

Last Can of Dole

What if this was the last can of Dole pineapple in the world?

While writing my recipe for Carrot Pineapple Jello I experienced the following unusual economic behavior:

  • Unlike almost other canned fruits and vegetables, there was no store-brand alternative available in my local supermarket. Only Dole.
  • Unlike other products which offer a substantial discount when you buy scraps rather than perfect pieces, Dole Pineapple costs the same whether you are buying rings, chunks or bits.
  • Unlike other products which which charge a modest penalty if you don’t buy the bigger size, Dole nearly doubles the price per ounce for a slightly smaller can.
  • I later found a store brand pineapple in another store and it was truly terrible, as if somebody had cut off supply of all the good pineapples.

Clearly a not-so-invisible hand is at work here, and I did some research. It turns out Dole pineapple is owned by ONE GUY, David H. Murdock. (Not to be confused with Rupert Murdoch, who has less money.) Murdock bought the legendary but nearly defunct Castle and Cook in 1985, which included the Dole pineapple plantations. The stock traded publicly at one time but he took it private with a leveraged buyout in 2013.

I realize you can’t say David Murdock owns all the pineapples in the world because he deals with some independent growers. But how successful would they be at getting to market without him? Also, when billionaire Larry Ellison bought an entire Hawaiian island (Lanai) to turn into a private resort somebody had to sell to him. Yep, it was this guy.

So what happens if David Murdock decides to stop selling pineapples, dye them pink, or double the price? We really don’t have anything to say about that, do we? David Murdock seems to be a benevolent dictator but I was certainly surprised to see one of my favorite foods under such monopolistic control.

And one more thing: Murdock was born in 1923, which makes him 92 years old as of this writing. Let’s hope he stays alert and healthy. Wikipedia tells us he’s funded health and longevity research, which is encouraging.

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Recipe: Aji Verde (Mild Green Chile Sauce Peruvian-Style)

Aji Verde

Aji Verde (Mild Green Chili Sauce Peruvian-Style)

One of the two mild chile sauces I served with my anticuchos. This is a base recipe that can be adjusted to your liking: increase the amount of chile or reduce (or eliminate) mayonnaise for a more pungent sauce. Makes about 1 cup.

1 bunch cilantro, leaves only, or some combination of parsley and cilantro leaves
1 garlic clove
1 green onion, including green part, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno
½ t salt
¼ c water
½ c olive oil
2 T lime juice
¼ c mayonnaise

Method: puree all ingredients except oil and mayonnaise in a blender or food processor. Allow to macerate an hour for flavors to develop. Slowly add olive oil with blender running to emulsify. Serve as is, or add mayonnaise for a milder and creamier mixture. Will keep a couple of weeks in refrigerator.

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Recipe: Aji Roja (Mild Red Chile Sauce Peruvian-Style)

Aji Roja

Aji Roja (Peruvian-style red chile sauce)

This is one of two sauces I served with my anticuchos. It’s got a mild chili/smoke flavor and invites generous squirting onto tacos or alongside grilled meats. This is possibly the inspiration for the “Tacolicious” sauce which is popular at Bay Area taco stands. Makes about 1 ½ cups.

3 Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Half a medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves
¾ c plus 2 T vegetable oil
½ c dried chile de árbol, stemmed (or another medium-hot dried red chile)
½ c water
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 t Kosher salt*

Method: broil onion and tomato under low heat (in the middle of the oven, or in a toaster oven), turning occasionally, until nicely charred with most of the liquid evaporated. This will take about 20 minutes. First the tomatoes will put out a lot of liquid, but it will gradually cook away. Meanwhile, sauté garlic in 2 T oil until brown but not burned; add the chiles and cook till darkened a bit, about 10 minutes. Transfer roasted vegetables, garlic and peppers to a blender; add vinegar and water and allow to macerate half an hour or so, then add salt, grind to a paste and macerate some more. Now blend in oil pouring slowly so it completely emulsifies with the vegetables. Serve immediately; leftovers will keep a couple of weeks in refrigerator.

* A gremlin initially made me write 1 T, now corrected.

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Recipe: Grilled Beef Heart Peruvian-Style (Anticuchos)

Antichuchos Platito

Antichuchos (grilled beef heart) with traditional accompaniments of red and green aji sauces and chunks of corn and potato

This is the classic Peruvian street food, made with a taste-alike marinade created from ketchup and chili powder to replace the native Aji Panca. The sauce has a nice balance of sweet/tangy/spicy and would be good with other beef cuts or chicken as well. Serves 4-6.

1 beef heart, 2-3 pounds
2 T ketchup
2 T chili powder (I used 2/3 Tone brand, a mild version, and 1/3 chipotle)
1 t dried oregano
1/2 t ground cumin
6 T red wine vinegar
1/4 c olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Method: Cut the heart into bite-size pieces, discarding fat and connective tissue. Mix marinade ingredients and add the heart chunks, then marinate at least 4 hours and preferably overnight. Thread the chunk onto skewers (in Peru these are traditionally wood skewers, which need to be soaked in water first so they don’t catch fire). Grill until lightly charred, turning once. This should take less than 10 minutes on a medium flame; don’t overcook. Traditionally anticuchos are served with some mild dipping sauces (recipes here and here) and a chunk of corn and some boiled potatoes.

Note: With the skyrocketing cost of brisket, I’ve been looking for other meats to throw on the grill. Beef heart is a good solution. I had to special order it from my butcher, but it was just $4/pound and about 75% edible lean meat. Once it’s cooked, your guests will likely not recognize it as heart unless you tell them; it tastes like a tender steak though it’s red all the way through.

If you want to try the authentic recipe (or see how close my taste-alike version is), Aji Panca paste is available in jars from Amazon. It has a pleasant tangy/sweet flavor base which is how I came up with the ketchup substitution. To make the authentic version, substitute 6 T Aji Panca paste for the ketchup and chili powder and reduce vinegar to 4 T.

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Food for Thought: Chef Jacques La Merde

A typical Chef Merde creation

Dunkin Munchkins, Snickers haché, birthday Oreo soil on Shamrock Shake creme

Hah! On this Instagram feed, a wise guy who calls himself Jacques La Merde creates food porn by disasembling junk food and reconstructing it with tweezers, then shooting it with a big lens. See if you can recognize the Pop-Tarts®, gummmies, Hungry Man™ dinners and “Doritos© dirt” masquerading as real food.

There’s absolutely nothing redeeming about any of this, unless it disabuses you of the idea that composed food that looks beautiful is automatically good to eat. Check it out.

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Recipe: Carrot Pineapple Jello

Carrot Pineapple Jello

Carrot Pineapple Jello with a squirt of Kewpie mayo

I was going to share my family’s Southern recipe until I found this version which really is superior. I’ve only made minor tweaks for better management of proportions. Serves 8.

1 3-oz package jello, lemon or orange flavor (we traditionally used orange, but I think lemon is better)
1 c boiling water
1/2 c ice water
1/2 c pineapple juice
1/4 c crushed pineapple from can (do not use fresh pineapple)
1/2 t lemon juice
pinch salt
1 c grated* carrots

Method: Pour boiling water over jello in a glass or metal bowl and stir until jello is completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add salt, lemon juice, ice water and pineapple juice and stir to mix. Refrigerate 45 minutes until jello is just beginning to set up. Transfer to a mold or flat-bottom glass tray and stir in carrots and pineapple. Refrigerate until firm, about 4 hours. Cut into serving pieces (if it sticks to the pan, place it briefly in a tray of hot water) and top with a bit of mayo (ideally Kewpie brand) before serving as salad course or dessert.

* Grate the carrots with the stems facing into your box grater or other device. If you do it the long way you’ll end up with beautiful long strands which are impractical to cut and serve.

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