Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bahn Mí - 1

So I accidentally started this Tour de Bánh Mì.
(See below for "what IS a bánh mì?")†

A couple of years ago I dragged my poor, (at the time, heat shy) innocent son & NC cousin to a báhn mì joint barely a mile from my house (iSandwich 14525 Aurora Ave N, Shoreline, WA).  Good sandwiches, good bread, large slices of jalapeño peppers.

To this day, my now 10 yr old still remembers it as "the 1st time I ate a jalapeño."  (I am lucky that he sees it as a challenge, rather than "I'll never touch spicy food again" moment.)

But then… recently I was on a supply trip up to one of my "local*" Trader Joe's, when hungry, tiny breakfast, "excuse", been-seeing-this-sign-for-last-6-years-and-can't-stand-the-curiosity ANY LONGER, I finally decide to stop in at Yeh Yeh's Vietnamese Sandwiches.

One bite in to that lightly chewy and gently crispy bread, all I could think was "WHY?  Why did I wait so long?" These are really good sandwiches.

Got this far, and realized… whoops
need a snap.

Sure, they cost more than a full meal deal, but here the spiced fries come with curry ketchup.  The bread is that lovely crispy/soft cross, there is no skimping on the vegetables, there are plenty of sauces to choose from (sriracha, red wine vinegar, mystery dark sweet smokey) and the proteins are all tender and well seasoned. (That's right, even the tofu sandwich has oomph.  There is nothing to be gained by neglecting the Buddha and his followers.)

Then I became curious.
Is this the best báhn mì in town?

Given pointers, I stopped in at BooHan Plaza (Hwy 99 btw 225th & 226th) to check out Seattle Deli.
Good news - lots of good looking Vietnamese Pastry, rice noodle encased goodies and sweet rice in banana leaves.
Eeep!  Stuck for a moment when I see the báhn miì names are all in Vietnamese.  Well, having not memorized… I went with the 1st two guessing they were the most popular.  Bingo.  Thit nuong (w/ accents I can't find on my computer) is grilled pork and gá is chicken.  The grilled pork was a very tough thin sort rib slice but the chicken was OK.
(For information on how to NOT look like an idiot when ordering bánh mì - and pho for that matter, go check out  Especially "How to Say Bánh Mì" and "Tips on ordering Pho" and "How to Order Pho in Vietnamese")

I'll say, it was pretty tasty, but the bread was pretty hard - crumble and fall apart rather than crispy and chewy.

And the veggies weren't up to par.

Next stop…
Saigon Deli (1237 S Jackson St. -btw S. 12th Ave and S Boren Ave)

Holey Cow!  Now this place has PASTRY… and other food.  And boba and hot food ready to go.
But I'm just here for the sandwich.
Grilled Pork, Char Sui (Red BBQ) Pork and a Xui Mai ("shu my" - meat ball)

Sigh… the char sui was REALLY salty and dry.  The xui mai was very soft, a bit like chopped paté.  And the regular BBQ pork was not bad.  The bread again was hard and brittle, rather than crispy and chewy.  But what made me miss that Yeh Yeh's sandwich was the very scant amount of pickled veg. on top.

So after a couple of disappointments I headed back north, and looked carefully at what impressed me so much the first time.

1) The bread - it is a fluffy yet chewy bread.  They toast it so the crust is crisp, and the bread is warmed, but not so much the bread scrapes your mouth and crumbles.

2) The vegetables - there is a nice stack of pickled daikon and carrots along with the sliced jalapeños and herbs.  And those carrot and daikon threads are lightly pickled with a splash of sweet and chili heat.

3) The meat - every sandwich I've ordered has had plenty of protein on it, and they have been tender and flavorful.  The char sui pork is meaty and flavorful, not salty.  And it has been braising so it is also moist and fall-apart tender in the sandwich.  The chicken was moist and well flavored, the classic grilled pork was the 1st sandwich I had.  The one that knocked my socks off the 1st time.

So - best bánh mì in town?  Not sure, but while I'll keep checking around, I'll also be making regular visits to make sure they don't slack off.

†What's all the fuss?  Bánh Mì ("bunh mee"  I've been saying "bAHn" with that short "ā" for awhile, and everyone was to polite to correct me - or tired of correcting in general) is basically a Vietnamese style submarine sandwich.  They come on a short baguette (of a sort the French would roll their eyes at - but never mind that) slit down one side and stuffed with meat - mostly pork variations (or grilled tofu), a few slices of jalapeño pepper (in the US) a few fresh herbs (mostly cilantro/coriander leaf) and a nice pile of shredded and lightly pickled carrot and daikon (those giant Japanese ones) radish.

They are everything I wished submarined sandwiches could be.  So skip the Subway, and grab and Bánh Mì instead.
*Ha!  I live at a nexus of 3 stores all a little too far away.  So I just go to the one closest to the rest of my errands.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fruit Juice Caramel

From Pears to Caramel

The chemistry said it could be done.  And it works.

Here's the short version - and a regular recipe without all the side tracks.

about 4C (+/-) fresh non-citrus fruit juice - I had a box of pears that I peeled, puréed and strained.  Apples, plums, peaches, pears and the like will all work.
 1-2 Tbs coconut oil or butter
(a sprinkle of salt - optional)

paring knife
cutting board
food processor + strainer* (or a juicer)
sauce pan
tester spoon (regular metal spoon)
soft spatula
slotted spoon/small strainer

Juice your fruit.  I seeded and puréed and strained my fruit to get the juice.  I used a jelly bag to strain the juice, though cheese cloth in a colander would work too.  This method takes TIME.  A juicer is faster if you have it.

Place your juice in the sauce pan, bring to a gentle boil.  Skim off any large amounts of scum with the slotted spoon or small strainer.

Keep at a gentle boil for 20 - 25 minutes, until you have less than 1/4 of the volume you started with (3/4 - 1/2 C liquid).  Keep and eye out for bubbles to start forming and staying.  When this happens you are approaching caramel.

 When a foam starts to develop, and begins to mount up - you have thickened your juice to syrup.  Turn the heat down, and dip your tester spoon in.  Blow on it to cool.  When it is cool enough to taste - is it a thick syrup?  If so - off the heat.  If not, keep it on the heat, and stir with the soft spatula.
  Keep checking often until you get a thick syrup.  If you start tasting lots of "toast" in your caramel take it off the heat NOW.  You are about to burn it.
Add the Tbs of fat (butter or cocoanut oil).  Stir it in to melt.  Let it cool to thicken, then beat in the melted fat to make a creamy sauce.  Use what you want now, and throw the rest in the fridge for later.

Pear Caramel - an adventure

Caramel is having a moment.  Sort of out there with bacon.  Epitomized by the presence of bacon caramels in 2009 (this example by Suddenly SAHM & not bad.  I made 'em).

And America is having a VERY lo-o-o-o-ong petulant teenager stage.  (We'll show France how to mop up in Indo-China.  What does the rest of the world know about Afghanistan?  Let's show 'em how to not get bogged down.) The latest iteration being, "Tell me fat, salt, nitrites, the crispy browned bits of meat and lots of sugar are bad for me - I'll make bacon caramels.  And eat them.  While reading the nutrition information."

Granted, caramel is beginning to define itself in a new way.  Lately, it has gained a stint as The Poster Child for the crossover of cooking and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).  Damaged sugar is quite the celebrity.
Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking, Curious Cook) really did a number on some of the accepted wisdom regarding the necessary temperatures for caramelization, and the cooking and creation of caramel.  And possibly created the next food-fad you will never hear of, "aged sugar."

For me, the most interesting thing about the whole sugar ---> caramel thing was the sharing of the result that "sugar" doesn't truly melt.  It is decomposing.  It goes liquid, but it does not retain it's chemical identity the way water or wax does when it melts.  It is turning in to other stuff as it turns into a liquid. If you cool it back to a solid, it is not what it was - the way water would be.

When we say "sugar" in everyday conversation we mean table sugar, or sucrose.  This is a dimer - a two piece molecule - of a fructose and a glucose* hooked together.  Part of what is going on is the fracturing of this bond, maybe some thermal banging up of the chemicals, the release of some water, and maybe some melting of some of the crystals.  Most everything I read uses a term along the lines of "hand-wavey" to discuss the tangled chemistry that ensues.

To be sure there are definite chemical reactions that can be isolated and do happen.  The problem is, there is no single "caramelization" chemical reaction.  It is a whole host of reactions, all happening simultaneously, and the results of one reaction influence the speed and outcome of surrounding reactions.  It is organic chemistry at it's messy, carbon strewn best.  If you want to read more, with diagrams and such, look here: ScienceGeist - The Chemistry of Caramel.

But what all this reading told me was that there is really no reason at all to not try to make caramel from the box of pears I ended up with as a result of my dad leaving for New Zealand for a long trip.

 They weren't ripe when he left, and would be gloppy fruit-fly-heavan when he got back.  So they were mine.  I'm the only one in my house who eats pears.  It's a texture thing, and I'm still trying to get the Philistines to understand the harmony that is fruit and cheese.  Oh, never mind.

Anyway, I did enjoy a couple of pears the "regular" way.  You know, just part of a composed salad, with blue cheese, hazelnuts, up against a cole slaw with a dressing gently spiked with sriracha.  (1 part sugar, 1 part cider vinegar, 3 parts mayo, sriracha to taste).  Like I said, the regular way.

But there was no way I was going to finish them all myself in good time, and I was curious.  There seemed no reason not to try.  Fructose is important to caramel, and pears are swimming in it.  The degradation of sugar that is required for caramel gets a head start in rose-relative† fruit (apples, pears) thanks to the enzymes.  (That turn-brown-thingy).  And one of the biggest fears in caramel making is the reforming of crystals making the caramel sauce grainy or sandy.  This would NOT be problem when working with pear juice.  It is much to chemically "dirty" to risk the purity of chemicals required to form crystals.  So I forged on.

1. Peel and remove the seeds.

Why peel if I was just going to strain them anyway?  I find the peels have a strong tannin-like flavor.  That flannel, coat the tongue feeling.  Since these are yellow pears, they are not tannins-propper, but there is that effect, and I didn't want that in my caramel.  I also removed the seeds since I would be using the awesome power of the food processor, and didn't want stray, off flavors from the seeds either.

2. Create pear goop.

I was considering using the food mill.  Who was I kidding?

3.  Then I strained the goop through my jelly bag - cheese cloth would have worked too - or a fine mesh sieve.  I ended up with about 5 cups of juice.
Yes - you can see that the enzymes are
going crazy.  I've just let the juice get all
oxygen-y.  And it's gone from nearly white
to pretty much caramel color on its own.

4. Bring it to a low boil to start the evaporation, and the accumulation of scum.
This is what little is left of the nutritiousness
of the original pears.  Most of that (fiber, minerals)
was left in the pulp in the strainer.
That's right.  Don't even try to fool yourself. Just because this is made OF pears doesn't mean it is as good for you AS pears.  Most of the benefits of pears are in the pulp and that scummy stuff.

skim the scum off with a spoon
or strainer
dip the spoon/strainer in a bowl
of cold water to clean it.

The one MAJOR thing is this caramel is (just barely) paleo compliant, and people with digestive inflammation issues can eat it.

It also serves as a valuable object lesson when you see "fruit juice concentrate" in an ingredient list, this is what they have done, this is what they are talking about, and how little fruit is really in there.  I'm not saying don't do it.  I'm just saying don't let the kid snack people fool you.  Fruit juice concentrate has none of the virtues of fruit.

Anyway, back to the chemistry.

5. Boil - at a low boil.  And keep boiling until your 5 cups (or 4 cups or whatever) is down to just under 1/4 of the original volume (so I was down under a cup).
Look for bubbles that hang around.  This means
things are getting sticky.

Warning - Science:

Water boils at 212˚F/100˚C.  You will notice my thermometer says 229˚F.  This means I am starting to get a pretty high concentration of sugar.  I've raised the vapor pressure of the liquid (still mainly water).  A decent proportion of the surface is now inhabited by dissolved sugars.  This means my water molecules need much more energy (in the form of heat) to escape from the pot (i.e. boil).  So instead of all the over 212˚F molecules all being able to escape, thus keeping the pot at 212˚F, they need to gather more energy to escape.  So the boiling point rises.

Fine, when does caramel happen?

6.  Just about here.
Notice the syrup is so thick, there is a definite
foam on top.  The bubbles are forming
faster than they can pop.
When the syrup gets so thick that it foams, you are pretty much there.  You can take it off the heat, and dribble some on a cold plate and see how thick it gets.  Or see if it get syrupy when you blow on a spoon dipped in it.  Going by temperature would be folly.  Again, this is not a solution of known starting components they way traditional sucrose caramel would be, so the temperature at "done" is not a known quantity.

Also notice the line where the juice started.  I have boiled this stuff long past its original form.  It is tasty, but not really related to pears anymore.

7.  Stir in about a Tbs of solid fat.  I went with coconut oil just to follow the Paleo-track to the end.  But butter is more traditional.  Cream would also work.  (Note - it has to be real fat.  "non-dairy creamer" or  a soy replacement will not work.  Those are sugars and proteins and will produce a chemical hodgepodge that would be odd, disappointing, and possibly not yummy.)

Let cool until the caramel is thick enough to emulsify with the fat (will stay together even though they don't really want to, because you've broken the fat up into tiny enough droplets).

When all is said and done - about 2/3 of a cup

8.  Make sure it is real caramel.  Taste test.

The coconut oil was a little pronounced, so a calmed that with a pinch of salt.  Not enough to make it salty - just un-coconutty.
Eating it over a hazelnut shortbread topped with a pear chunk and blue cheese assured me that it really was a caramel.  It has a nice tart touch to it.  That is, the last of it's pear-y essence.

*Fructose - yup, that's right, "fruit sugar." Makes sense too, because we are getting our sucrose from plants - sugar cane or sugar beets.
Glucose - "our sugar" the one all our cells use as their basic food source.  Also known as dextrose.  Yes, 1 chemical, 2 names.  No wonder scientists can get weird.

† Rose-relatives?!  What?  Lots of fruits that have a 5 pointed star cross section are in the same family as roses.  Many of them contain those enzymes that brown their fruit when they are bruised or cut.  Apples and Pears are the ones most familiar to us.