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Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Gifting: "Applejack"

Spiced rum and applejack.
by Panda

When Mango and I were in Virginia for Thanksgiving, we were invited to an engagement party.  Someone at the party had brought home made applejack; he had his own still that he made moonshine with.  He explained that whiskey is usually cut down to 80-90 proof by adding branch water to it; branch water is the water that was originally used to make the mash for the whiskey.  If you were to replace the branch water with apple cider, and add a few sweet spices, the result would be applejack.

His description was a bit different than what I found on Wikipedia, which says that it's a distillation of hard apple cider or apple wine.  Mango and I don't have a still.... yet.... or a way to freeze apple wine at the right temperature... Still, the idea of it was intriguing.  Then it occurred to me that if whiskey has already been cut with branch water, couldn't I just add concentrated apple cider to it?  Concentrated apple cider + water = apple cider, and high proof whiskey + apple cider = applejack, so shouldn't concentrated apple + with whiskey = applejack?

I started off by measuring out 750mL of apple cider (which was the same amount of whiskey that I happened to have).  Boiling this down and then adding it to the whiskey should result in a liqeur that has almost the same proof as the original whiskey.  I let this boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it was thick enough to leave a trail when I swiped my spatula through it.

This can also be used to make caramel, or used in  apple pie.
After that, it was a pretty simple matter of letting it cool a bit (just until it was warm to the touch), and then adding my bottle of whiskey to it.  I stirred it around with my spatula until I could see that it had fully incorporated.

I tasted it after that, and it didn't taste quite sweet enough to me.  I added some honey - about half the amount of apple syrup that I had eventually made (I eyeballed this), and at this point it had just the right level of sweetness.

I picked up some 8oz bottles (I got these from the Container Store) and added sweet spices to them.  Then I used a funnel to ladle my applejack mixture into them.

I used the same spices for the spiced rum that I made, but I didn't need to cook down apple cider for it.  I just used molasses to sweeten it up a bit and to add some flavor to it - around the same amount as the honey I added to the applejack.

Ta-da, more Christmas presents done.  They should be ready in about a week.

Maybe I shouldn't refer to it as applejack, since it isn't really applejack... Fauxpplejack?...  Fapplejack?...  I can't come up with a better name.  Screw it.  It's applejack.

Panda: You should like this.
Mango: Why?
Panda: It's whiskey.  All Indian women love whiskey.
Mango: *sigh* we don't all like whiskey!
Panda: ..... whatever, you love it.

Home Made Applejack

750mL bottle of whiskey (doesn't have to be a great brand)
750mL of apple cider
~2tbsp honey
3 cinnamon sticks, divided into 1/2 sticks (crack in half with the back of a chef's knife)
6 green cardamom pods
2 vanilla beans, cut in half and then again lengthwise, opened to expose seeds
3 slices candied ginger
12 cloves
3 large pinches of peppercorn, crushed with a pan (very coarse, just cracked)
6 large pinches of allspice berries, crushed with a pan (very coarse, just cracked)
3 strips orange zest, pith removed

Cook 750mL of apple cider down until it is a thick syrup.  Allow it to cool until warm, then add 750mL of whiskey.  Stir to combine.  Add honey and stir to combine (more or less honey can be used to taste).

For every 8oz bottle, place 1/2 cinnamon stick, 2 cardamom pods, 1/4 vanilla bean, 1 piece candied ginger, 4 cloves, 1 large pinch of cracked peppercorns, 2 large pinches of allspice, and 1 orange zest strip.  Close bottle and shake.  Allow the mixture to sit in the bottle for at least a week, shaking once a day.

Makes 3 8oz bottles.

* For spiced rum, replace the whiskey with clear rum, and use molasses instead of honey.  Adjust molasses according to sweetness preference.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Gnocchi with Mustard Greens Pesto

By Mango.

You know how there are certain foods that don't taste like much, but the texture more than makes up for it? To me, gnocchi is one of those foods. By itself, it doesn't have a whole lot of flavor going on (unless you add a little nutmeg, then you'll want to eat it like popcorn), but its soft, pillow-y feel in your mouth just leaves you wanting more. And you can dress it up with any kind of pasta sauce, or even a thick curry, if you want to try fusion. I went with a quick and easy pesto. I like to use mustard greens in my pesto. It's a nice, tasty way to sneak in raw greens, and there's enough bite and color to bring vibrance and freshness to an otherwise heavy pasta dish.

Gnocchi ingredients.
Here's what you will need for the gnocchi; this should make enough for 4 people.

3 Russet potatoes, baked and peeled (I baked these whole, with skin, in a 425 degree oven until done. I've seen recipes that boil the potatoes too, but I've read that baked potatoes give a better flavor and texture to the end product)
3 egg yolks
1 cup of all-purpose flour
Half teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, about a quarter teaspoon
Quarter teaspoon nutmeg. (freshly ground would be better, but I didn't have any at hand)
A block of good Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which should be grated to yield a half cup of cheese.

The first thing that you don't want to do with the potatoes is mash them. The less squeezing and smashing, the more light and non-rubbery your gnocchi will be. So what you want to do is grate them using the large holes on a box grater. 

Grated baked potatoes. 
Once you have grated all the potatoes, make a little well in the middle of the potato mound and add the egg yolks, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and grated cheese.

 Use your fingers to gently mix everything together (no smashing!). Then, sprinkle about half of the flour onto the mound, and fold the potato mixture over itself two times to gently mix in the flour. Continue sprinkling the rest of the flour in, gently folding once or twice in between flour additions to bring it all together. You do not want to knead it or overdo the folding. It's very similar to making biscuits, where the less you bother with it, the better it will be. 

Gnocchi dough.

The dough will look uneven and messy, but that's okay. Now comes the fun part! Cut the dough into 4 pieces, and gently roll each piece into cylindrical shape, about a half inch in diameter. This part reminded me of kindergarten, when we were handed balls of plasticine and it was the best thing ever, which also somehow managed to occupy a solid 6 hours of my day.

(Panda: Plasticine? 
Mango: You know, that thing kids play with? 
Panda: ......
Mango: *making squeezing gesture with hands*
Panda: ...Playdough?
Mango: Yes! Playdough! That's what your people call it.)

Roll it out...

..and then cut into half inch pieces.

You can roll each gnocchi piece over the back of a fork to give it shape. The indents caused by the fork will also help the gnocchi pick up more pesto. 

Plop the gnocchi into simmering salted water. They will sink to the bottom but when done will float to the top!

And that's gnocchi! For the pesto, here are ingredients that I use:

One bunch of mustard greens (so green!), juice from half a lemon, a small bunch of basil leaves (20-30 leaves), a half cup of pine nuts (I've used hazelnuts too, quite delicious!), olive oil (in squeeze bottle), salt, pepper. Oh, and a heaped quarter cup of grated parmesan cheese which I forgot (as usual) to picture here. 

Blend away! Add salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. 
I over-blended :-(  I usually like it a little more textured, but it was still delicious!
Toss the gnocchi in the pesto and begin the nomnoms!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Quickie: Ddeokbokki

by Panda

Ddeokbokki is a dish often sold from snack stands in Korea.  It's... well, it's Korean hangover food, enjoyed late at night after partying.  While I do think this would be fantastic after a night of drinking (and I have done my fair share of drinking, so I should know), I associate this dish more with comfort.  It falls in the same category for me as chili, beef stew, etc.  It's a dish the Korean in me wants when Fall comes around.  In its most basic form, it's simply Korean rice cakes sliced and braised in a sauce.  There are many variations, though.  I like mine with meat and some veggies added.

Get about 3-4 cloves of garlic, and about an inch of fresh ginger.  Mince those up (or bust them up in a mortar and pestal).  Then, add some of the magic ingredient:

This is gochujang.  It's a mixture of chiles, rice flour and soybeans.  The mixture is allowed to ferment for a long time, and this is the result.  It's actually not overly spicy, although it does have a bit of spice to it.  Mostly, though, it adds an incredible depth of flavor.  I actually add this to my chili sometimes.  

You can find gochujang in any Korean supermarket.

Cube up around a pound of pork (pork sirloin or shoulder both work here - choose something a bit on the fattier side).  Mix that with 3 heaping spoonfuls of gochujang, the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a tsp of sugar, and a few healthy dashed of rice vineger.  I like to let the mixture marinade in the fridge for a few hours, but, since it'll braise in the mixture, it's not absolutely necessary.

Crank up the heat on a wok and add some high heat friendly oil (e.g. peanut oil).  Let the oil smoke a bit, otherwise known as "disfiguringly hot", and add your pork.  Cook that til you don't see any raw pork.

These are Korean rice cakes:

While they are called "cakes", they're actually pretty chewy.  As a kid we used to dip these into a bowl of brown sugar and eat them.  Delicious.  The flavor of them is very mild, almost non-existent, but they take on other flavors really well.  Cut these up into chunks, then add them to the pork mixture.  Pop a lid on it, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let it cook for about 20 minutes.  When that's done, remove it to a bowl, crank the heat back up to high, and add in some chopped napa cabbage:

Once it's cooked (slightly wilted), add your pork and rice cake mixture back in, along with some chopped green onion, and a healthy dose of toasted sesame seeds.  If you like it spicier, add in some crushed Korean pepper, too.

Now go nurse that hangover.


Feel free to adjust the amounts of ingredients.  If you want less meat, use more cabbage and/or rice sticks.  Rice sticks can also be found frozen, and are usually pre-sliced.  If you can't find rice sticks, just serve this with rice.

1/2lb pork sirloin or pork shoulder
1/2 head napa cabbage
5 fresh rice cakes, or a large double-handful of the sliced frozen ones
1 small bunch green onions, roughly chopped
1/4c toasted sesame seeds
3 heaping tbsp gochujang
2tbsp soy sauce
1tbsp rice wine vinegar
1tsp sugar
1 heaping tbsp Korean crushed red pepper (or more)
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, chopped and crushed
Salt and pepper to taste

Cube the pork.  Mix together the pork, garlic, ginger, sugar, rice vinegar and soy sauce.  Let this marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Heat a wok over high heat.  Add peanut oil.  Stir in pork.  Cook until no raw pork can be seen.  Cover and reduce to medium low.  Let mixture cook 20 minutes.  Remove mixture to a bowl.

Add more oil and allow the wok to return to high heat.  Add napa cabbage.  Add salt and pepper.  Cook until the cabbage is just wilted.  Add pork mixture back in, along with green onion and sesame seeds.  Stir to combine.  Check seasoning, and adjust it with salt and pepper to taste.

Mango: I got gochunjang on my fingers.
Panda: Well, don't pick your nose then, or you're gonna have a bad time.

Korean Beef Bone Soup

Feel-good beef bone soup. 

By Mango.

The other day, Panda's sister had mentioned how their mom used to make beef neck bone soup when they were little, and they would have it over rice. Simple and good. Panda had told me about this before too, and thinking about it, my mom used to make something similar, usually when she or one of us were feeling under the weather. She used goat marrow bones in her recipe, and would sometimes throw in lentils as well. I don't remember liking it as a child. But my tastes have changed, and after seeing a recipe that Panda's sister shared, I decided to try it out with a few changes, and was pleased with the results. With Fall just around the corner, this soup is perfect for making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And it freezes well too. Here are the ingredients that I used:

2 pounds beef bones
Plenty of water
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1-2 bunches spring onions, chopped
Half cup of mushrooms (Pick whatever kind you like. Not the happy kind. That's a different recipe altogether. We had dried chanterelles, so I used those)
Salt and pepper to taste.

Beef bones aren't the prettiest things around. They're all fatty and cartilagey. Yes, cartilagey. But that, together with whatever marrow is in there, yields amazing flavors and nutrients.

Beef bones.
The first thing to do is soak the bones in cold water for about 2 hours. I did the googles to find out why, and it turns out that it helps draw out the impurities and excess blood, so your soup doesn't end up a dirty grey color.

After the soak, discard the water. Fill a large, clean pot (stock pot or whatever you have) with water about 2/3 of the way. Bring to a boil. Gently plop in the bones. Bring to a boil again, and then reduce to a simmer. Let it simmer for 8 hours with a lid. Do not leave a pot over an open flame unattended. This dish is meant to be cooked on a day when you don't have a lot going on. House chores, perhaps. Do your laundry and come back and check on it once in a while. Say hello. Tell it about your work week. Ask it why Elena didn't pick Damon (I want answers!). 

Simmering away.
As you can see, it doesn't look like much while it simmers. It almost looks like dirty dish water, but I promise you that it will turn out well. You see that frothy stuff on the top? You will want to scoop that out periodically. We don't want froth.

After 8 hours, the liquid will have reduced a little in volume, and the color will be a faint golden brown. I forgot to take a picture of it at this point, because I'm useless. Discard the bones, because after 8 hours, they've given up all their goodness. As expected, the stock will have a really strong taste of beef bones. If you're not a fan of the flavor of bone marrow, you may not like it, because it's that flavor times infinity. But, the flavor lightens up a lot when you use it to make soup by throwing in other ingredients.  I used about a quart of the stock to make soup for Panda and myself, and froze the remaining. 

For the soup, I sauteed the chopped garlic, ginger, and half of the chopped spring onions for about 5 minutes. I added the bone stock, some salt and pepper to taste, brought it to a boil, and then reduced it to a simmer, and threw in half of the remaining spring onions. I added some of this simmering stock to the dried chanterelles. Once the mushrooms were rehydrated, I chopped those into really tiny pieces and added that, and the mushroom-stock juice, to the simmering soup. Cook on low heat for about an hour. Adjust with more salt and pepper according to your taste. Top with remaining fresh spring onions, and there you have it. Nutritious feel-good soup for cold days, warm days, bad days, good days. Your belly and soul will thank you for it. 

Beef bone soup with spring onion, garlic, and mushrooms.
Mango: How is it?
Panda: It reminds me of home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, Part 3: Frying

by Panda

Be sure to check part 1 and part 2 first.

Yes, that's exactly what you think it is.
And here we are at the best part.  Frying!  Well, ok, the best part is eating, but this is the part leading up to the best part.

There are a few things one needs to take into consideration when frying chicken (or anything, really):
  1. What am I going to use as a coating?
  2. What do I use for seasoning?
  3. How will I get the coating to adhere?
  4. What do I use as a cooking vessel?
  5. How do I work bacon into this?
All good questions.  First, let's talk about the coating.  I have tried many different coatings for fried chicken.  There was even a point at which I experimented with corn meal in my fried chicken coatings, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Fried Chicken Gods for not striking me down for this blasphemy.  After much experimentation, I've settled on a 2:1:1 ratio of all purpose flour, corn starch and rice flour (kudos to my friend Etoilles for the rice flour tip).  This seems to result in a nice, crunchy coating.

I bust this up with my stone motar and pestal, but if you don't have that, just run your chef's knife through it until it's fine, and then use the side of your knife and salt to grind it up.  However you want to make it, just make sure everything is well incorporated.
Second, let's talk seasoning.  There are many, many seasonings that work well with fried chicken.  In my humble opinion, less is more.  I like to go with lemon zest, salt, black pepper and fresh thyme.  Maybe also cayenne and paprika if I'm feeling frisky.  Many recipes will call for the seasoning to be mixed into the flour mixture, and possibly also the wet mixture... I don't do this.  I feel like mixing the seasoning into the flour just results in a waste of seasoning - you have to toss your leftover flour mixture after you're done coating, and if you mix your seasoning into it you'll be tossing that, too.  I prefer instead to sprinkle the seasoning on prior to coating, and then again after it's done frying.

Now let's talk adherence.  In the world of frying, the standard procedure for adhering a coating is dry, wet, dry.  In this case, our "dry" is the flour mixture.  The wet mixture should be some type of flavorful liquid that has a decent viscosity - the viscosity is important, because this is what will help it develop a nice crust.  I remember when I went to my friend John's house, and I got to try his mom's fried chicken. The chicken was sitting in a big bowl, swimming in hot sauce.  I thought it was nuts, and that the chicken would end up tasting more like buffalo wings than fried chicken, but it was great.  It wasn't really even spicy or tangy - just a hint of heat and a really nice flavor.  I like to go with a mixture of buttermilk and sriracha; if you don't have sriracha then, well, go get some!  Any hot sauce will work, but sriracha has a ton of flavor.

Buttermilk and sriracha - good friends.
As far as cooking vessels go, cast iron is your friend.  It heats evenly, which makes for some fantastic fried chicken.  So technically, you won't be deep frying your fried chicken, because it won't be entirely submerged in the oil.  Trust me on this, though - it'll turn out great.  And if you don't have a cast iron pan, shame on you... You could probably do this in a heavy pot, but come on, go get a cast iron pan already.

And now the most important consideration...... bacon.

Lard can be used instead of peanut oil.  Or... how about duck fat?  Eh?  EEEEHH??
This, my friends, is an entire package of bacon being cooked in an inch of peanut oil. What we're doing is flavoring the oil, so that the oil will then flavor the chicken.  As a bonus, when you're done, you have cooked bacon!  Medium low heat is plenty for this procedure.  Just keep cooking the bacon until it's nicely browned and has rendered its goodness, remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, then cover the pan and turn off the heat to let it cool.  I may or may not have considered crumbling the bacon into the dry mixture for the coating...  Maybe another time.

Before you begin assembly, make sure you have a nice, clean area to do all of this in.  Have a rack ready to set your chicken on after it's been coated.  Take your chicken out of your brine and dry it with paper towels, then set it in a bowl.  Have another bowl ready with your dry mixture, and a third bowl ready with your wet mixture.

Dry bowl, wet bowl and rack.
First, season your chicken evenly on all sides with your seasoning mixture.  Then add your chicken pieces to the dry mixture.  I like to assign a "wet" hand and a "dry" hand - if you try to do both with either hand, you end up with wet and dry on your hand, resulting in a giant clump of goo on your hands that just doesn't like to come off.  Use your wet hand to add the chicken to the dry mixture, then use your dry hand to scoop the dry mixture up and get it all over the chicken.  Feel free to shake the bowl around to ensure even coating; just don't shake too hard, or you'll end up looking like Casper the Friendly ghost.

Next, take your chicken out of the dry mixture, shake the excess flour off, and add it to your wet mixture.  Move the bowl around or move the chicken around with your wet hand to evenly coat everything. 

Use your wet hand to move everything back into the dry mixture.  Again, shake the bowl around or move the flour around with your dry hand to coat everything evenly.  Once that's done, shake off the excess flour and move the chicken pieces to your rack.  Setting your chicken on a rack for a while is a pretty important step, because it allows your coating to set.  You'll see its appearance change from white and powdery to pink and even after it sits for a while.  This also gives the chicken an opportunity to come up to room temperature, which will allow for even cooking.

Almost ready for a dip in the hot oil.
Before frying, make sure you have your frying station set up in assembly-line fashion: your chicken, a pair of tongs for cooking, another pair of tongs for removing the cooked chicken (to avoid cross contamination), another rack to set the cooked chicken on (place a sheet tray under it to catch any oil), and your seasoning mixture.  Make sure it's all right in a row to facilitate easy cooking.  It's very important to get everything ready prior to cooking... you really don't want to get confused while you're frying stuff in hot oil!

Two essential pieces of equipment you should have on hand - a deep fry thermometer, and a meat thermometer.  The deep frythermometer will let you know when the oil is at the right temperature.  You can guesstimate this (I have done this before), but it takes a bit of trial and error to know when the oil is at the right heat level.  If the heat is too low, the coating will absorb a lot of the oil and may even be soggy.  If the heat is too high, the coating will cook and brown before the meat has a chance to cook all the way through. Just set your burner on medium high and allow your oil to come back up to temperature until your thermometer reads 350F, which seems (to me) to be the best temperature for frying chicken.  The meat thermometer will let you know that the chicken is done... again, you can guesstimate this if you have enough experience cooking chicken, but otherwise it's really a good idea to have one of these on hand to know when your chicken is done.  Alternatively, if you just really need to know, you can cut open a piece of chicken (close to the bone) and see how it looks - if the juices run clear and it looks done, it's done.

When you add your chicken to the oil, do it slowly - don't toss it in there.  Lay the chicken down away from you so that there's no chance of splashing oil on yourself.  And be sure to only do a few pieces at a time, otherwise the pieces may stick together.

Bubblebath for chickens.
Keep an eye on the temperature of the oil with your deep fry thermometer.  You'll see the temperature take an initial dip (the chicken will bring the temperature of the oil down), but then it should come back up.  You may need to lower your burner to medium to keep the temperature from going too high.

Not every piece of chicken cooks in the same amount of time.  White meats cooks faster than dark meat, and smaller pieces cook faster than bigger ones.  I like to put in the thighs first and give those about 2 minutes of cooking time.  Then I add the legs and wait for another 2 minutes.  Then the breast pieces, and wait another 2 minutes.  Then finally the wings.  Check the undersides of your pieces occasionally to see how they're doing - if they've become a nice golden brown (see the picture above) it's usually time to flip.  From experience, I would say that thighs take about 12-13 minutes, legs take around 11, breast meat about 9, and wings about 7, but this can vary greatly depending on the size of your bird, what kind of bird it was (roasted vs. fryer), and how cold your chicken was prior to putting it in the oil.  Again, if you haven't cooked too many batches of fried chicken, a meat thermometer is your friend.  If the color of the chicken starts to get too brown for your liking, just lower the heat a bit.

When your chicken's done, remove it using your other tongs and set them on a rack.  Dust them evenly on all sides with seasoning immediately after doing this.  If you're making a lot of chicken, you can hold the chicken in your oven on the rack on warm until all of it is done.

And there you go.  Time to dig in.  Don't burn your lips.

Fried Chicken

1c all purpose flour
1/2c corn starch
1/2c rice flour 
8 pieces of chicken, brined and patted dry
Zest of 1 lemon
1 small bunch fresh thyme
3tbsp kosher salt
1tbsp peppercorns
1c buttermilk
1/4c sriracha
1 package of smoked bacon
Peanut oil or lard for frying

Pour enough oil into a cast iron pan to fill the pan up to 1 inch.  Separate the slices of bacon and all them to the oil evenly.  Turn your burner on medium low heat, and let the bacon render until it's crispy.  Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon.  Cover the oil with a lid, turn off the heat, and let it cool.

Meanwhile, grind together lemon zest, thyme, salt and peppercorns in a mortar and pestal; alternatively you can  use a chef's knife to chop the mixture up, and then grind the mixture together using the salt and the flat side of your chef's knife.  Side the seasoning mixture aside.

Mix together the all purpose flour, corn starch and rice flour.  Put this in a bowl and set aside.

Mix together the buttermilk and sriracha.  Put this in a bowl and set aside.

Dust the chicken evenly on all sides with the seasoning mixture.  Add chicken pieces to the dry (flour) mixture.  Toss to coat evenly.  Shake off excess flour.  Add the pieces to the wet (buttermilk + sriracha) mixture.  Toss to coat evenly.  Shake off excess flour.  Let the chicken pieces rest on a wire rack for about an hour to allow the crust to develop.

Set up your frying station.  Bring the oil up to temperature over medium-high heat, checking it with a frying thermometer until it reaches 350F.  Slowly lower your chicken pieces into the hot oil - start with pieces that take longer first (thighs, then legs, then breasts, then wings).  Cook evenly on both sides until a thermometer reads an internal temperature of 165 using your meat thermometer; or, if you cut into the meat close to the bone, the juices should run clear.  If the frying thermometer reads higher than 350, or crust begins to brown too quickly, lower the heat.

When the chicken is removed from the pan, place it on the rack and immediately dust it with more of the seasoning mixture on all sides.  Hold the chicken in a warm oven (200F) until it's ready to serve.


So if you don't want to think too much about getting the oil to the right temperature, there is a way around this.  Cook your chicken first by braising it or roasting it, let it cool, coat it, let it rest on a rack in the fridge, and fry it.  Use a hotter temperature (370 or so) for your oil.  Since the chicken's already cooked, all you have to do is fry it long enough to give it a nice, crispy coating, and keeping it cold in the fridge until you're ready to cook will keep the meat from overcooking (and frying it will bring it back up to temperature).  No one will be the wiser.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, Part 2: Brining

by Panda

Be patient, the good part's coming up!
Note: If you're sitting there with a whole chicken and wondering what you need to do to it, head over to part 1 to see how to cut it up.  If you've already done that, or you decided to take the lazy route and buy  chicken that's already been cut up, keep reading :)

This is actually going to be a pretty short post, because brining is a pretty simple procedure.  I thought about combining this with the part about frying, but it sort of deserves its own section, because it can be used with all sorts of different meats.

A brine, at its simplest, is a saltwater solution.  When you brine meat, the salt in the water penetrates the meat, bringing water into the meat with it.  That water, along with the salt, gets trapped in the meat.  The result is a moister, more flavorful piece of meat.  This works especially well with cuts that tend to dry out quickly, like chicken breasts and pork chops, but it works pretty well for just about anything.  I usually don't brine red meat, just because I don't think it really needs it (it's pretty moist already due to intramuscular fat), but you can give it a try if you want to see if you like it.

A bonus to brining meat is that other flavors can be introduced into the brine, and the brining process helps to carry those flavors into your meat.  Herbs, spices, etc. all work well in a brine.

I like to brine meats that I'll be frying or roasting.  I don't see much of a point in brining something I'll be braising or stewing, since it'll be sitting in liquid for an extended period of time anyway.

Some people brine their meats overnight.  I tend to favor a saltier brine, and do it for less time - 6 hours is plenty of time for a chicken, in my humble opinion.  If you prefer to brine your bird overnight, just double the amount of water in the recipe.

You may notice an interesting ingredient in my fried chicken brine - black tea.  Tea helps to break down meats and makes them a bit more tender, and it lends a nice flavor to meats.  I also like adding it just because sweet tea is such a Southern thing - it seems like a logical addition to me.

Fried Chicken Brine

1/4 gallon filtered water
1/4 gallon ice
1 lemon, cut into chunks
1 bunch thyme
1/2c kosher salt
1/4c honey
2tsp peppercorns, coursely cracked
1 head garlic, cloves smashed
2tbsp black looseleaf tea

In a large pot, add the 1/4 gallon of water, lemon, thyme, salt, honey, peppercorn and garlic (squeeze the lemon into the brine so that the juice is released before adding it).  Don't worry about peels, seeds, etc.  Heat over high heat, stirring occasionally, bringing the mixture to a boil.  Cover and boil for 5 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat, and pour this into another container*.  Add the black tea, and let it steep for about 4 minutes.  Add the ice and remaining water, and stir the mixture to cool it down.  The mixture should be cool to the touch - if not, add more ice until it is.  When the mixture is ready, add your chicken.  Cover and store in your refrigerator for 6 hours.

* The container should be big enough so that the chicken fits inside, but small enough so that the chicken will be submerged when all of the liquid and ice is added.  If any of the chicken floats, you can set a small plate in the container to help weight it down.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, Part 1: Cutting Up a Bird

by Panda

Crunchy fried goodness.
I have an almost unhealthy obsession with a few different dishes - macaroni and cheese, chili, and fried chicken.  While Mango and I love to try making all sorts of dishes, I keep coming back to these three, over and over.  Eating them is a hell of a lot of fun, don't get me wrong, but what I'm really obsessed with is getting them right.  I want them to taste as good as I think I can make them taste, and I want to be able to do that consistently.  While these dishes are relatively straight forward, the ingredients and techniques you use in their preparation can vary wildly, leading to all sorts of different results.

There is nothing like hot, crunchy fried chicken.  It makes my eyes roll up into the back of my head, and causes weird, gutteral noises to come out of me while I'm eating.  As soon as I get a hold of a piece, I turn into this half-Korean cave man and start tearing it apart, stuffing pieces into my mouth.  It's not a pretty sight.

So after many batches of fried chicken, I have settled on a process:

Day 1, part 1: Cut the chicken up.
Day 1, part 2: Brine the chicken.
Day 2, part 1: Coat the chicken and fry it up.
Day 2, part 2: Eat it.

Cutting Up a Chicken

If you don't feel like cutting up your own chicken, I'll forgive you.  It's easy enough to pick up a package of chicken that's already been cut up for you.  I think it's a pretty useful skill, though.  Sometimes whole chickens are on sale.  Sometimes you might find a really spectacular chicken that isn't cut up for you already.  Sometimes you're really stressed out, and, unlike cutting a person, cutting a chicken is legal.  Mostly, though, I think that a chicken has lots of great parts to it - thighs, legs, wings, breasts - and buying a whole chicken gives you an opportunity to have all of these.

Say hello to Mr. Chicken.
I like to use a nice sharp filet knife and a chef's knife (or a cleaver if you have one).  Mostly you'll need the filet knife - the chef's knife or cleaver is nice for when you want the breasts with the bones still attached.

Step 1. Take the bag out of its ass - the one with the neck, heart, liver, etc. in it.  I have forgotten to do this more times than I care to admit.

Step 2. Pull the thigh and leg away from the body and cut down into the skin in between.  After you do this, grab the body and literally dislocate the hip bone - you will hear it crunch.  It's OK, the chicken won't feel this.  It's dead.

Step 3. Cut down into the meat close to the body.  You should feel your knife come in contact with the hip joint.  You'll want to wiggle your knife into the hip joint and cut through.  Do the same thing on the other side.

Step 4. Remove the wish bone.  This can be a little tricky.  Feel around towards the front of the chicken (the side with the wings) and you should feel a bone in the breasts.  Scrape the meat over this bone with your filet knife (be careful) and the bone should become exposed.

Once the wishbone is mostly exposed, stick your finger in there to help work it out.

Ta-da.  Make a wish with it later.

Step 5. Remove the wings.  This is the same deal as it was with the thighs - dislocate the joint, then place your knife at the joint and cut in so that your knife goes down into the joint.

Step 6. Remove the breasts from the back of the chicken.  This is where you'll need your chef's knife or cleaver.  You'll be cutting down through the rib cage, towards the back of the chicken.

When your knife is almost all the way through, you'll get to two joints.  Just cut through these, and you'll free the back of the chicken from the breast.  Be patient if you can't get the joints at first - just work at it.  Once the breasts are freed from the back, use your chef's knife to cut through the breast bone so that the breasts are separated - just put your knife down, place a hand on top of the back of the knife while holding the handle, and put your weight down on it.  It should crunch and eventually go through.  If you're nervous about the knife skipping, place a kitchen towel between the knife and your hand.

Remove the breasts and separating them are really the only time you should be cutting through any bone.
Step 6a. For fried chicken, I like to cut the breasts in half width-wise - this will make two smaller pieces, about the same size as a thigh.  I like to do this because I feel that a whole breast is a bit much; chickens nowadays have been bred to have tig 'ole bitties.  Some chickens have not been bred this way (mostly the ones you'd find on a small local farm), so if they have smaller breasts then this step is unecessary.  Cutting it in half also gives you more surface area for crust, and crust is a good thing.

It's the same as separating the breasts - place your knife on the breast, place your hand on the back of the knife, and put your weight down on it.  It'll eventually cut through.

Step 7. Separate the leg from the thigh.  The easiest way I've found to do this is to squeeze the thigh and leg together like so, and then feel for for the place where it feels like there's an indentation - this is where the joint is.  Cut down into that.

Just keep cutting down through the joint.  Stop when you're through - don't cut down into your hand (duh).
Once you're through the joint, move your knife to between the leg and thigh with the blade pointing up, and cut up the rest of the way through to separate the leg and thigh.

This makes it easy to separate the leg and thigh.

Ta-da, a chicken cut up and ready for whatever you want to do with it.  By the way, the process for removing the leg quarters and wings is the same process you'd use for carving a roast chicken, so it's handy to know this stuff.

I'll cover making the brine in my next post.  Stay tuned!