Friday, April 30, 2010

Deep-Frying Basics for the Know-It-All

Some food items just have to be deep fried, and when you decide to do the deed, you can ensure a perfect result without a whole lot of trouble. You want to use a vessel that will hold an adequate amount of hot fat, made of a material that will not cool off easily. The goal is for the temperature of the fat to remain as constant as possible during the cooking process, with few fluctuations when uncooked items are added. A cast iron Dutch oven is ideal, as is a thick-sided saucepan, wok, or stockpot. Whatever you are frying, the level of the grease should never come close to the top rim of the vessel, so make sure it is large enough for the task.

You’ll need a thermometer, of the laser instant-read, candy, or deep-fat variety (lesser thermometers can’t read temps high enough). You want the food item you are frying to be as dry on its surface as possible: 1. so the breading will stick to it, and 2. so you’re not dumping a liquid into a vat of very hot oil. The thinner or smaller the food item is, the colder it should be when it goes into the breading station. You want smaller or thinner things to cook slower internally, so the interior does not overcook while waiting for the exterior to get golden brown. Something larger or clunkier should be closer to room temp, so that the interior has time to cook before the exterior gets too dark. Try to have all of the items being cooked cut to a similar size and thickness, so they will all cook at the same rate. Add items into the hot oil at a rate that doesn’t cause the oil to cool down too quickly. Adding sequential items to different areas of the surface of the oil can help prevent a rapid cool-down as well.

You’re gonna need some lube to heat up. I highly recommend rice bran oil as the healthiest, the longest-lasting, the tastiest, with one of the highest smoke points, and it’s reasonably priced. Use what you have to, but you can get rice bran oil online, at most Japanese food markets, and at Whole Foods (see my previous blog on rice bran oil). We always prefer a frying temperature between 355º and 365º, 360º is perfect. Have the temp too low, and foods will have a very greasy outer coating. Have the oil too hot, and the batter cooks too quickly, the inside can be uncooked, and the cooking oil quickly takes on a burnt taste.

Your batter station needs attention. You need to go flour, liquid, flour, so three bowls or containers will work nicely (you can use re-sealable plastic bags in a pinch). For the first flour, use a finely textured blend, such as half rice flour and half all-purpose flour or cake flour; adding some corn starch to the ratio will make the texture even finer. The liquid is usually some dairy (milk, cream, or buttermilk) with a little beaten egg added. The final flour station can be half a.p. flour and half rice flour (for a fine textured crust), plain flour (a little more texture), crushed crackers or panko crumbs (more texture still), or some variation of a cornmeal-based crust (hard textured). You can substitute all kinds of things for the coating mixture, such as crushed cereals, seeds, semolina flour, crushed nuts or nut flours, etc. The last coating is usually where the seasonings are added, and again, let creativity be your muse. A variant to the dry-liquid-dry method is to use tempura or beer batter for the liquid, which will preclude the final dry-dipping.

A key tool at the batter station is a sieve. After repeated use, the second flour mixture will get all kinds of chunky bits formed from liquid and flour. These work against getting a smooth exterior finish on your final coating, so they should periodically be sieved-out and discarded. It goes without saying to keep your hands as batter-free as possible; methods include using only one hand for touching any flour, disposable gloves, tongs, etc, or a combination. Use a spider, slotted spoon, or tongs to keep items away from each other when you first place them into the oil; they will stick like glue to each other without a little nudging on your part.

Some items can be very explosive due to high levels of internal moisture; soft shell crabs are a perfect example. We always lived in fear when Mr. Fish would show up with a batch of writhing, live soft shell crabs, knowing that the coming night would guarantee frequent eruptions of molten oil, and getting burnt was unavoidable. Items such as this should be drained thoroughly, carefully slipped into the oil, and handled as little as possible until cooked, with you standing an arm’s-length away.

When something is cooked, it will usually be floating near the surface, there will be little sound coming from the oil (little to no bubbling), and the fried item will be a light golden brown in color. Remove it from the oil and drain it well before placing it on a layer of absorbent paper towels. Since you will be frying in batches, keep the cooked items warm in an oven set as low as possible. Do not forget to turn off the heat under your fryer set-up when you are finished frying, and let the oil cool completely before you attempt to move it. Always filter your cooking oil through grease filter cones (available at your local restaurant supply house or online) if you plan on re-using it. Obviously oil used for seafood will not last as long as oil used to cook vegetables. Cooking oil dump barrels behind restaurants are ideal places to dispose of old cooking oil. Never pour it down your drain.

Enjoy, mick vann ©

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Great Knives Don't Have to Cost a Bundle

Through the years as a chef I, like most chefs, accumulated a nice little collection of exotic cutlery, with many of them being quite expensive. Those last years in the kitchen found me using a certain brand of knife much, much more than all the rest combined. I was inextricably drawn to a couple of knives from Kiwi, one wider and thicker than the other, both with kind of a santoku shape. Great all-purpose knives, perfect for scooping up what you just sliced, cheap if you ever did something stupid and harmed them, or if they got lifted or "borrowed".

They are made in Thailand, and I buy them from the local Asian market. My detail blade is the 6.5" steel-pointed stainless blade, thin and flexible enough to fillet a fish if need be, but a dandy dicer and slick little all-purpose knife. Its big brother is the 7" chef's stainless blade, which is also thicker and slightly less flexible: perfect for slicing stuff like spuds, onions, cabbage, meat, cheese, etc. When I first started buying them, you could get them for $4.59 and $5.49 each, respectively. Now they cost a bit more, but are still VERY affordable, and they make fantastic gifts for friends and family.

In Austin, you can find them at MT Market in Chinatown Shopping Center, left side, almost to the back by strange animal parts land, lining the shelves in knifeworld. Online you can find a fine assortment of Kiwi cutlery at: I highly recommend the newer ones with plastic handles, but the brass-riveted wood handles are still available (plastic is easier to sanitize than wood). You can get a great assorted set of three with plastic handles for only $22.50.

I started writing about Kiwi knives years ago, and always praised them to every chef I knew. They keep a sharp edge, and need just a few licks with the steel every now and then to regain sharpness. They don't stain, they last forever, cost very little, and perform their tasks with aplomb. Pretty much the only knives you will ever need.
Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts!: Aunt Jemima

In 1889 Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood bought the Pearl Milling Co. in St. Joseph, Missouri and developed the world’s first self-rising pancake mix. That fall Rutt attended a vaudeville show where a performer in blackface performed the popular tune “Old Aunt Jemima”, which he adopted as the name of his new product. The next year the pair went broke, and sold the product to the R. T. Davis Milling Co. Davis went looking for a living trademark for the mythical Aunt Jemima, and discovered 59 year-old Nancy Green, a cook for a Chicago judge.

In 1893 Davis built the world’s biggest flour barrel for the World Exposition in Chicago, and had Green, in character as Aunt Jemima, cooking thousands of pancakes for the crowd, while she entertained the attendees with verbal banter. Green was so popular that it resulted in 50,000 orders for the pancake mix, and she was signed to a lifetime contract, touring the country promoting the mix. By 1910 the name Aunt Jemima was known nationwide, causing flour sales to go from what had been a largely seasonal, winter-only product, to a product with a year-round demand. Green continued as Aunt Jemima until she was tragically hit by a car in Chicago and killed in 1923. Quaker Oats bought the rights to the mix and the label in 1925; Nancy Green lives on to this day on the packaging of Aunt Jemima products.
Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rice Bran Oil – The Healthiest Cooking Oil:

On one of my trips to Thailand, a friend of Mam’s had arranged a tour of a rice processing factory for me. The friend, Yong, was a rice exporter by day and owned a language university by night. We headed north of Bangkok, past Bang Pa-In and Ayutthaya, and met at his office building, set amid electric green rice fields near Ang Thong. A 10-minute ride away was the processing facility: a huge concrete pad covered with mountains of just-harvested rice, adjacent to a large rambling building reverberating with the sounds of rice processing machinery.

We went inside to find a maze of conveyor belts hauling a steady stream of rice from station to station, until it ended up at one end of the huge complex, perfectly polished and gleaming white. The most intriguing stage was the one where the bran is removed from the kernel. I asked Yong what became of the leftover bran, and he ran down a list of uses, one of which was pressing the bran coating to extract rice bran oil. I had never heard of rice bran oil, and asked what it was used for, and then the whole car erupted with a litany of applications for the oil. Yong and Mam proceeded to tell me about how Thais use the oil for cooking, explaining that it was very healthy. I decided to make a quest of finding the oil upon my return to the States.

Not long after my return I was at a cooking event with Hiroko Shimbo, a well-known Japanese cooking expert, teacher, author, and culinary tour guide, and mentioned that I was interested in rice bran oil. She explained that it has many uses in Japan, and that she was a consultant for a Japanese importing company that had a brand of rice bran oil. A week or so later, and a bottle arrived at my door for review.

Rice bran oil has a light, clean flavor profile, and feels less oily on the tongue than most cooking oils. It has a slight buttery taste component, and a mild, nutty flavor. It can be used for any application that any other culinary oil can be used in: grilling, sautéing, stir-frying, baking, dressings and emulsified dressings, etc. It is especially effective in deep-frying (it might cost a little more than vegetable oils in bulk packaging, but lasts longer in use). The Japanese have always used it for frying tempura, as it gives a nice crisp finish and color to the food being fried. The smoking point is 490-500º, which is beaten only by safflower oil (510º) and refined avocado oil (520º); almond oil is rated at 495º and grape seed oil is 485º. Many Asian food manufacturers fry in rice bran oil because the products have a much longer shelf life without degradation of taste or spoilage in the package, due to the extremely high levels of anti-oxidants found in the oil. These same levels cause the oil to last longer in the deep fryers before it has to be replaced. Many top flight US restaurateurs are now using rice bran oil for their deep fryers for these very reasons.

For a long time, there has been a tradition in Japan that women rub rice bran in or put rice bran oil on their face to keep their skin smooth. These women, having smooth and shiny skin, are called “Nuka-Bijin” (“Bran Beauty” in English). People there don't know the reason why rice bran or rice bran oil is effective in keeping skin smooth but they know it works. The same is true in Thailand: women use it in their hair to keep it soft and lustrous.

High levels of oryzanol, a component of rice bran oil, decrease bad cholesterol while raising good cholesterol. Tocotrienol, another component, is highlighted as the most powerful vitamin E existing in nature, and research shows it to have an anti-cancer effect. As a vitamin E source, rice bran oil has the highest amount of tocotrienol in liquid form vegetable oils. Phytosterols are nutrients with many health benefits and are abundant in rice bran oil. Scientific research suggests that phytosterols reduce cholesterol, provide anti-inflammatory effects and promote healing, inhibit the growth of cancer cells, improve the immune system, and have other health benefits. There are 27 different phytosterols in rice bran oil. Research in India showed that tocotrienol reacts with liver enzymes in animals in such a way that it clears toxic substances from the organ, and reduces or stabilizes liver tumors. Researchers in Europe concluded that long-term use of tocotrienol could reduce overall cancer risk. Not too shabby for a cooking oil.

There have been some pretty high profile articles lately on healthy cooking oils, and not one of them has mentioned rice bran oil, which just goes to show what the big time food writers know. And even if you don’t believe a bunch of egghead scientists’ research claims, or hundreds of years of tradition in Asia, at least believe me when I tell you that it tastes great. You can find rice bran oil at Whole Foods and at any Japanese food market, and you can order both organic and all-natural versions online, in a number of different sizes, through Restaurant-sized containers are available for food brokers or restaurant buyers through, among other sources. This is great stuff!
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Future Food!

In 1930 Italian Futurist Filippo Tommasso Marinetti released his Manifesto of Futurist Cookery, declaring pasta obsolete in modern society (including Italy!). He claimed that pasta induced lethargy, pessimism, nostalgia, and neutralism; everything that the Futurist Movement stood against. Manifesto dishes were concocted to produce the most sensual event possible, including flowers, exotic fruits, coffee, raw eggs, and fancy spices. To heighten the dining experience warmed perfumes were misted through the air, and diners were given textural materials like velvet and sandpaper to stroke with their left hand while dining. Sweet, savory, bitter, and sour were combined in startling combinations: pineapple and sardines, mortadella with nougat, roasted salami with coffee and cologne.

He believed that in the future “modern science would allow us to replace food with free, state-sponsored pills composed of albumins, synthetic fats, and vitamins that would lower prices for the consumer and lessen the toll of labor on the worker. Ultraviolet lamps could be used to electrify and thus dynamize food staples.” Marinetti’s culinary concepts never caught on with the Italian populace; after all, they do love their pasta. Some of his Futurist dining elements seem more in line with precepts of today’s molecular gastronomy, while Marinetti’s miracle food pills seem more reminiscent of Soylent Green.
Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bright Lights – Dim Wits: The Loss of Civility on our Roadways

This morning when I was driving in to work, some cretin was right behind me for approximately nine miles with their bright lights on. It wasn’t that this person of subhuman social abilities failed to realize that their brights were on…they would dim them for each car approaching from the opposite direction, and then immediately brighten them again as the car passed us. It was okay to blind me, but not the approaching cars.

I’ve noticed this more and more frequently of late: a total disregard for the other drivers on the road when it comes to civility and common courtesy. It’s pure selfishness; an attitude that “I am much more important than you”. So they feel justified to pull out right in front of you, usually when they could have waited 3 or 4 seconds and you would have been passed them, with a clear roadway behind you. Turn signal use has plummeted; it’s as if they have forgotten what that little stick on the left side of their steering wheel is for. You wait for a car to pass, only to find out after-the-fact that it is turning off just before you. You get out of your car and some mutant has dumped the festering remains of their mocha latte on the parking lot for you to wade through and track inside the store or onto your car’s carpets. They block the lane in front of you so that they can make an illegal turn into a parking lot, or hold up a huge line of cars and make everyone miss the light so they can turn left at a no-left turn intersection.

What’s the answer? I would hope it’s not road rage, although I have to admit to secretly coveting a pair of 50-caliber rotor guns on my front bumper, or being able to call in an air support attack by an A-10 Warthog. Nothing would please me more than to see these morons disintegrate in a hail of subsonic lead, but we should take the middle path, the higher road. Instead, let’s all believe in reincarnation, and pray that each and every one of these uncaring, obnoxious dolts comes back as the slow, lumbering June bug that just splattered on your windshield.

PS: To the a-holes with the blue plasma, Xenon, and H.I.D. headlights out there who argue that it’s safer to use these bulbs “because you can see the road better”: remember that you are blinding that driver hurtling towards you at 70 mph. Something to think about.
Mick Vann ©

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mark's Annual Fireworks Fest

Mark’s 2010 Fireworks Extravaganza:

Had to pass on Tom Lewis' festive birthday bash (didn't trust myself driving back from Shiner in the wee hours), and instead attended the 2010 edition of Mark Larkin's renowned fireworks show at his spread twixt Taylorsville and McMahan...basically due-east of Lockhart 18 miles or so, as the crow flies. Mark has been a serious fireworks freak for decades, and it's one of his guilty pleasures. Thankfully for his friends, and anyone within view of the show, he shares that pleasure.

Mark has been my mechanic and buddy for decades, and owns a shop off of South Congress, known as The Honest Mechanic. I credit Mark for singlehandedly keeping my old 1983 Nissan pickup roadworthy until its odometer reached a respectable 563,000 miles. I sold it for 600 dollars to a couple of guys from Guatemala that saw it in my driveway one day. They patched a leak in the gas line with some duct tape, popped a freshly-charged battery into it, threw all of their stuff in the back, and it cranked up the first time after sitting for a year and a half. They headed off to Guatemala, saying they were going to turn it into a pickup taxi. It’s probably still running today. Mark is automotive genius personified.

I went with my pal Art and his "Crazy" Cousin Dennis, who was visiting from Philly. Dennis has three daughters that sing and play like folksy nightingales; they are right on the cusp of breaking it big time. On the way out we got to catch a magnificent postcard sunset over a never-ending horizon, dosed with some glowing cloud banks: one of those huge shimmering golden-orange orbs that silently slips over the edge of the earth. It was a good portent of the visuals to come that night. Philly boys don't get to see sunsets like that very often.

It was dark when we finally made it to Mark's spread, which could have been 20 acres, or 100, or a 1000 for all we knew. City folks don't relate to acreage as well as country folks. Regardless, it is a big ranchette or ranch, with a very long driveway leading to his manse on the top of the hill. The caliche drive was impeccably smooth and well-maintained...not something to be taken lightly in Central Texas soil, and a sign of a rancher that takes pride in his spread. Had we been there earlier, we would have seen a huge pasture solidly covered in bluebonnets (or so we were told).

A handicapped parking space had been saved for us, right next to the curved rows on the lawn of friends and neighbors chillaxing in assorted lawn chairs. I tracked Mark down in his big detached shed-like workshop/inner sanctum, passing around a bottle of Scotch, introducing friends from different circles, and psyching himself up for the coming show.
He opined that we were in for a solid 45 minutes of continuous fireworks, and that the show was almost about to begin.

The sky was perfect: completely cloudless and almost black, under a blanket of crystalline stars, devoid of obnoxious light pollution. Austin was a dim glow over the northwestern horizon, Lockhart much, much dimmer to the west. A steady breeze from the south would keep the fireworks smoke blowing away from us. A perfect viewing setup.

Mark got up to give a brief intro and made some negative comments about some of the product he had gotten from his “fuse supplier”. We figured it must be a rarified group that can discuss problems with their fuse supplier. I didn’t know there were fuse suppliers.

The show was fantastic. Once it started, from the light given off by the sparks of ignition, you could see how the fireworks were physically laid out, and once that end fuse was lit, the show went uninterrupted for almost 25 minutes. Thirty seconds down-time to light the back row, and it went for another 20 minutes; 45 minutes of solid fireworks in all. Mark had set it up so that it ebbed and flowed perfectly, building to crescendos and then swooping back down, only to climb again. There were things in the show that we had never seen before, and it was auditory as well as visual, with those cool screaming high altitude spinners, and the thumping percussive blast of the big mortars. Cousin Dennis likened some of the blasts to looking “just like tracers”, but no ‘Nam flashbacks occurred, and a splendid time was had by all. I’ve never seen a private fireworks show as professional as Markk’s; damn glad I was invited.

Mick Vann ©

Friday, April 9, 2010

Blasphemous Roux Shortcut

Don't get me wrong...I love Cajun/Creole food as much as the next guy, maybe more. But with so many of the dishes relying on the inclusion of a good, rich, soul-satisfying roux, and proper roux taking so long to make, it means that not as much Cajun food gets eaten as should be eaten. Back in my chef days, I was frustrated that it took so long to make a roux, since we only had a 6-burner to make it on. Our menu changed daily, meaning there was always a lot of activity on that 6-burner, and using one burner for several hours of slow stirring presented a couple of problems: 1. you're down one burner for a couple of hours, and 2. you're stirring a big pan of roux instead of the 3 dozen other things that need doing. Most regular kitchens have a herd of task monkeys running around doing whatever needs to be done...our kitchen was tiny and the labor costs had to be kept low, so herds of helpers were out of the question. In our world, roux making had to be done by the chef...there was no other way around it.

The epiphany happened one day when some flour from a breaded pork steak fell on the hot stove top, and as the busy night progressed, I watched that little bit of flour take on a chestnut brown color. I had a flash! The flour in a roux is basically "roasting" in oil on the stovetop....why couldn't you dry-roast the flour in the oven before you combined it with the oil? I had stumbled on to a way to greatly reduce the amount of time a roux takes to make, but it needed testing.

I took a baking pan and filled it halfway with plain flour, set the oven to 325º and let it go. Periodically I would check it out, and the flour very slowly started to turn a light tan. I would stir it periodically, and in doing so, noticed that the flour was starting to clump-up as it roasted. After 45 minutes or an hour or so, the flour started to get a nice nutty aroma and it acquired a tan about the color of a manila paper towel. I pulled it out and let it cool enough to handle. I ran it all through a fine sieve to break up any clumps (and it does get clumpified). The main part of the test was now ready to run.

I got a large skillet hot, threw in some clarified duck fat, bacon grease, and oil, and whisked in my roasted flour. I instantly had a roux that was about the color it is when you really have to start watching it closely...when it starts getting dark quickly, and it's almost done. A few more minutes, and I added my Holy Trinity of diced green bell pepper, celery, onion (and garlic). Literally 10 minutes later I was stirring a thick, dark roux that was the color of a dark mahogany. The aroma was rich and nutty, and when added to a Pontchartrain sauce, duck and andouille gumbo, shrimp and crawfish jambalaya, or anything else we came up with, the flavor was magnificent.

It freezes well, and keeps a long time in the fridge when it's sealed with a layer of fat and tightly covered. Pre-roasting the flour, as far as I can tell, has no ill effects on the flavor or texture of the roux, but eliminates about 85 to 90% of the drudgery and time. It also lessens the chance that it will scorch, since the whole procedure gets compressed into a 15 minute span, and you're able to focus on the task at hand. It's the only way I make roux now: pre-roast the flour, crank out a big batch of roux, portion it into freezer bags, and have enough to last for many different dishes, with very little effort. Laissez les bon ton (and good food) rouler!
Mick Vann ©

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fun! Food! Facts! Microwaves!

The inventor of the microwave in 1946 was a Raytheon Co. radar scientist who happened to observe that during the testing of a magnetron, the peanut candy bar in his shirt pocket melted (magnetrons are vacuum tubes used to generate the microwave signals used in radar systems). The first microwave oven that they produced weighed 750 pounds, and was called the Radar Range. The military and very limited restaurants were the only buyers, so Raytheon sold the rights to Tappan Stove Co., who created the first home-use model in 1955. It was a much smaller, 220-volt, 24-inch unit which sold for $1295.00. Sales have increased dramatically through the years.
Mick Vann ©