Thursday, March 30, 2006

Organized Madness!

I mentioned yesterday that I became infected while watching Michael Chiarello in the Food Network make a flan. It looked good. It seemed easy. Pour a little of this in, mix a bit like that, never break a sweat, and voila! Perfection in less than 30 minutes.


(I couldn't wait - it worked! You can just make out the orangey Kumquat flecks in the flan. More on the taste below)

Of course, I realize he has assistants. And there were probably some things prepared in advance. And naturally, every possible implement, bowl, burner, whatever, was exactly in the right place at the right time. An entire kitchen seemingly created just to make that one flan for that one TV show.

Well, I have assistants as well. Sometimes. When they are not watching basketball on TV while the onions burn to charcoal. Or if they don’t suddenly have huge amounts of homework that has to be done by tomorrow. Homework always wins, of course.

And my kitchen, while not set up specifically just to do this one flan recipe, has a reasonable amount of stuff – there is a stove, oven, utensils, etc.

So how hard can all this be?

But, naturally, when you actually make one of these recipes, the behind the scenes effort becomes clear. It usually takes me at least the entire 30 minutes just to find all the equipment I will likely need – or more than likely - to fashion a needed utensil that I don’t have out of some combination of things I do have. An example was the recent Cannoli shells I made. I don’t know how many people have Cannoli tubes in their kitchen, but I didn’t. Until I cut up part of an old tricycle to the desired shape, and spent some time cleaning it. Now I do – sort of. And it worked just fine.

Then comes the chopping, measuring and assembling of ingredients which alone takes more than the 30 minutes of the TV show.

Plus I have to spend a good 30 minutes cleaning the kitchen in general of assorted cereal bowls, juice glasses, half eaten bites of food, kitchen towels tossed about, etc. before I can even start anything.

So their 30 minute TV show can easily turn into a 2 hour effort for me. But that is part of the fun (except the cleaning the kitchen part).

But one thing I do follow, fairly strictly, is to prepare everything in advance – mise en place. Everything measured, chopped, set aside in the right amounts, ready for use. You don’t really notice this on the TV shows, but this organization is the reason that these shows generally go so smoothly.

A long, long time ago, I used to just go for it. Start cooking. No preparation. And often in the middle of a trying step in a recipe, something would go very wrong. Resulting in frustration, and even worse, hunger!

But that changed when I learned to cook Chinese – actually Cantonese – food. Maybe it was the teacher, maybe it is just the type of cooking in general. Since Cantonese cooking follows a fairly predictable route each time – sautee vegetables, sautee meat, add sauce, finish – it lends itself to a clear process and a solid mise en place technique.

Even better, it allows you to clean as you go, which is crucial in a small apartment kitchen. I have made multi-course Chinese dinners for several couples in a kitchen hardly big enough to turn around in – with virtually no cleanup, and no stress. Everything prepared and set aside in neat little bowls in advance, ready to be added to the process as necessary.

This mise en place organization gives me the confidence to go beyond my very apparent limitations and dabble in the madness that makes cooking fun (for me, anyways!).

So I apply that to almost all my cooking adventures. Including the Kumquat Flan I mentioned yesterday. Because it seemed somewhat intimidating – I am not sure if I have made one before – I made sure to prepare ahead.

But – as mentioned, my kitchen was not designed for just this one flan. And I do not have just the right baking pan. Something close – but not quite right. So when I poured the flan preparation into the baking dish, the potential for trouble became clear – my baking dish is somewhat larger than the one called for in the recipe – and there is about a 3 inch gap between the top of the custard and the top of the pan – meaning the flan will have to drop several inches through the air, somehow be caught on a plate – that does not then smash to the ground – without falling apart, and the now (hopefully) empty baking dish will have to be put down with one hand, while the flan on the plate continues to hover precariously in the air held by the other hand, probably with all the caramel flowing down my arm towards the floor. Good luck with all that!


But before all that excitement – the dinner. Whenever I see fresh green asparagus, I think of that Cantonese cooking course, and one of the best dishes I‘ve ever made - Asparagus Chicken in Black Bean Sauce. This is made with Chinese fermented black beans, preserved in salt. They smell STRONG. Powerful. Its not obvious at first that this is something you actually want to eat. But the taste is fantastic. Earthy. Pungent. And when mashed together with garlic to form a paste – it transcends description. Over time, I have increased the amount of black bean / garlic paste I add to this recipe. And the more I add, the more everyone likes it. The crunch of fresh asparagus, its grassy freshness, balances the heady taste and aroma of the black bean sauce perfectly. One of those perfect combinations.

And with a little preparation, the cooking is a snap.

Just a note - as you saw in the first picture - the Kumquat Flan worked! It dropped out of the way-too-big baking dish onto a serving plate with a sickening plop, but stayed in one piece! Whew!

And the flavor is intensly Kumquat and orange! I am not a flan expert - yet - but we all agreed the flavor in general was great. I don't think I did the carmel as well as I could have, but a nice way to highlight Kumquats!

Time for a glass of wine. I need to savor my new Flan expertise in peace.

So here is tonight's dinner:


Asparagus Chicken in Black Bean Sauce

Ingredients:
4 cups boneless chicken breast, cut into pieces the size of your thumb
Mix with:
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp soy sauce
2-3 tbsp Chinese salted black beans, washed through a strainer, and minced to a paste together with:
3 cloves garlic
3 tbsp oil

Gravy ingredients, mix together:
2 tbsp cornstarch
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 ½ cups chicken broth

4-6 cups asparagus spears, about the diameter of your thumb, bottoms snapped off and bottoms discarded, spears sliced diagonally on a slant

Add oil to a large pan or Wok. Heat till smoking hot. Add asparagus. Sautee, stirring for 1 minute. Add a few tablespoons water, cover, and cook for 2-3 minutes more. Stir, and remove to a bowl. Asparagus should be just crisp-tender, not cooked through an soft.

Add additional oil to pan. Heat till smoking hot. Add marinated chicken to pan. Spread out the chicken to cover pan, and do not disturb for a few minutes. Let the chicken develop a bit of a brown crust. Stir chicken, continue to cook – on highest heat – stirring as necessary, and allow the chicken to develop a brown crust on all sides.

Add gravy mixture to meat. Add asparagus. Stir to coat well. Cook until asparagus is just heated through, and gravy has thickened.

Transfer to a serving plate. Serve. Enjoy!

Kumquat Flan

Ingredients:
1 cup sugar for caramelizing
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
13 ounces evaporated milk (I used low fat – the fat police were watching again!)
1 teaspoon orange extract (I used Triple Sec, an orange liqueur)
1/2 cup Kumquat puree (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pour 1 cup of sugar into a 2-quart casserole or soufflé dish and bake in hot oven until sugar is liquefied and golden, about 30 minutes. Caramelized sugar is very hot, so be careful not to burn yourself when removing pan from oven. Tilt dish so sauce coats bottom and sides. Set aside to cool on wire rack.

For the flan: Put whole eggs and yolks in a medium bowl. Break eggs and blend gently. Do not beat; you don't want bubbles to form.

Add undiluted evaporated milk and orange extract. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into another bowl (this gets rid of any bubbles).

Gently mix in kumquat puree. Pour mixture into cooled caramel-coated dish.

Place dish in larger ovenproof pan containing at least 1 inch of hot water and place in hot oven. Bake for 1 hour until custard is golden and set.

Cover and refrigerate overnight.

To serve, turn onto a flat platter and spoon caramel sauce over the top.
Garnish with whole kumquats and leaves.

Serves 8 to 10.

- Adapted from the flan recipe that won best of show in 2003 at the Kumquat Festival in Dade City, Fla.


Pureed Kumquats:

To prepare:
Wash as many kumquats as needed. Cut fruits in half and remove seeds.
Place seeded fruits in blender, which makes a finer puree, or food processor.
Do not cook.
Use puree in recipes as called for or, after preparation, freeze in zip-lock bags or other freezer containers.

- Adapted from Kumquat Growers Inc.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Filipino Store said...

Spectacular post.

3:59 AM  

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