Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Testicles, Tongue, and Terrine: The Nose to Tail Beer Dinner at G2B Gastropub

December 6th, 2012

Carrie Schleiffer is a short, formidable woman in food-spattered whites. She began the meal like this:

There’s really no other way to say this, these are lamb balls.”

And we’re off…

G2B is a weird place in the way that a lot of RDU restaurants are weird.  It’s slightly remote, tucked into ugly strip-mall real estate (it shares a non-descript office building with Wells Fargo, and some kind of extreme powerlifting gym) and it’s slightly more trendy in decor and furniture than either the town or the location. It’s an ambitious place to be running in this economy; like a lot of restaurants they could probably always use more business than they’re getting. So, events like a “Nose to Tail Beer Dinner” make a certain amount of sense. Get a dozen people prepaid at $60 apiece on a Wednesday night and there’s a good chance you’ll make your nut for the evening.

My friend Andrew is a graduate student in the Religious Studies department at UNC and grew up in his families restaurant business so he was the perfect choice of companions. (Oddly, the only other time I’d eaten animal testicles it was with Andrew as well, a Rocky Mountain Oyster burger at Bull City Burgers in Durham.)

So, here’s the rundown of the five courses and five beer pairings we consumed over the course of about three hours. 

Chef’s Amuse: Lamb Fries with Harrisa Ketchup

I was a little surprised at the crowd, honestly; they weren’t the usual folks I tend to run into at local food events and at least one pair was extremely atypical, more there for the beer than the food. The male half of the couple had actually never eaten *any* of  the organ meats on the evening’s menu before. Which was nice because with the amuse served family-style, I got most of his lamb testicles.

Lamb’s nethers are more delicate than beef, less rubbery and not quite as musky. There’s still a particular sort of animal umami to them though, that off the beaten track funk that clam bellies have. Regardless, battered in panko and deep-fried if you served them without comment at a child’s birthday party the kids would eat them without complaint.

Alongside were some very nice breads, a dark rye and a poppy-seeded white and after trying the butter I was tempted to sneak the crock into my pocket on the way out. It was a blend, half cultured butter, half whipped Tuscan-style cured Lardo, slices of raw pig fat that had been brined and cured in spices and garlic. Amazing stuff; if common sense hadn’t prevailed I might have died of gluttony eating the bread basket and never made it to the rest of the courses. It was an auspicious beginning to the meal.

1st Course: Pig’s Head Salad with Sunny-Side Up Quail Egg
Beer: FullSail Brewing, Brewer’s Share “Chris’s Summer Delight” Berliner Weiss

Surprisingly enough there wasn’t a lot of salad to this salad, just a few pieces of frisee and radicchio weighed down by a lot of smoked and unsmoked pork products. I found that a bit of a cheat actually as there were applewood-smoked bacon lardons scattered with the bits of cheek and ear from the pig’s head; the extreme smokiness of the bacon made it harder to enjoy the milder cuts. Still, there’s no better sauce than just-warmed egg yolk, and hey, it’s a salad so it’s healthy!

I’m not usually a beer guy but I have to admit that every beer served during the evening was unique to my experience and fantastic with the food. The Berliner Weiss is a German summer brew, a weissbeer cut with a little bit of ascorbic acid. That gives it a hint of a citrus tang without the actual fruit, just enough of a bite to lift the fat off your tongue and leave you feeling refreshed and ready for the next bite of food. Good stuff.

2nd Course: Offal&Foie Gras Terrine, braised bitter greens with house-cured guanciale, red wine whole-grain mustard
Beer: Brooklyn Brewery “Sorachi Ace” Belgian-Style Saison

Terrines were often repositories for the floor-sweepings and fridge-cleanings of the kitchen, the Garde Manger’s last ditch attempt to make money out of what would otherwise be garbage. The chef honored that with this course, incorporating heart, lung, liver, and kidney into the mix, along with that single teasing nugget of foie gras in the center. Eating it with the terrine would have been a waste; both Andrew and I dug it out and smeared it on the baguette by itself. After that the terrine was, well, terrine, meaty, good with the mustard and the greens, but as with some other cold dishes there wasn’t much memorable about the flavors. Given the contents that might be considered a success rather than a failure. And with the mustard-greens and mustard it would have made a tidy little lunch. (The mustard was so good I actually ate it with a fork after the terrine was gone; was it just mustard seeds soaked in red wine? Need to look into that…)

Of the beers this was my least favorite, a complex heavy golden with that was too overspiced with grains of paradise for my taste. As a pair with the terrine it worked though, adding additional degrees of flavor to the slightly underseasoned meats. Not a bad beer, just not something I’d drink on its own.

3rd Course: Tongue and Cheek: Duo of corned beef tongue “sandwich” with a beef cheek confit French onion soup.
Beer: Green Flash and Brasserie St. Feuilllien “Frendship Brew” Dark Spiced Ale

There was really nothing not to love here. The tongue was cured to almost a meat butter that disintegrated under the fork. The bit of gruyere cheese and the rye bread crisp were nice touches but they weren’t necessary. The French onion soup was very good French onion soup, just with a tender little chunk of beef confit at the bottom. It was a little gristly actually, but with the soup being so good it was almost an afterthought. Both portions were small (we were three and a half courses and four drinks in at this point) but served as a full-sized portion this would be the ultimate winter evening dinner, the food equivalent of sprawling on a bearskin rug naked in front of a roaring fire.

This firey-nakededness feeling was enhanced by the beer, my favorite of the night. Dark but not heavy, and with just enough sweetness and spice to make it interesting, it was the only glass I actually finished during the evening. The staff was pouring full-sized portions of each beer and I’m a lightweight; by round three I was starting to feel it a bit.

4th Course: Sweet Spiced & Beer-Braised Oxtail with Veal Sweetbreads, sweet potato puree, Caramelized Brussels Sprouts, hen of the woods mushrooms
Beer: Nogne 0 and Terrapin Beer Co. Imperial Rye Porter

Whoof…I was getting tired (and tipsy) by this point, but it would have been a shame to give this course less attention. The oxtail was off the bone, a pile of buttery-soft shredded meat that had been spiced with a little bit of heat in the mix, just enough to sneak through the sweet potato and nip at your tongue through the richness. The brussel sprouts worked in a similar way, the bitter adding an additional wake-up call. The mushrooms were a nice addition but not really necessary; there were so many other strong flavors at play they mostly got lost in the shuffle. Still, it was a very pretty plate and a delicious one, another dinner I’d order as a full-sized plate in a heartbeat. A cholesterol-clogged, struggling, heartbeat.

The beer was described as the Cabernet Sauvignon brew of the evening and it *was* heavy, a little much after the other three and the food, but still tasty. The Rye malt is an interesting addition, adding a sense of heat to the beer, almost like tannins would in a wine. Again, probably not something I’d drink alone but with food it balanced rather nicely.

Dessert: Meyer Lemon Shaker Pie, Reisling-Poached Pear, Pickled Persimmons, Graham Cracker, and Goat’s Milk Sorbet.
Beer: Shandy 2.0 Fullsteam Brewery “El Toro” Cream Ale with Meyer Lemonade and Hop Simple SyrupL

After all that savory food you’d think dessert would have gone forgotten but honestly this was an absolutely amazing course, completely reinvigorating my enthusiasm. I’d never had Shaker Lemon pie before, and I can’t say it wowed me; bits of chewy lemon peel macerated in sugar in a slightly over-thick shortbread crust. Still, the lemon was the perfect flavor after all the fatty food, and there was an additional smear of what seemed to be Meyer Lemon foam/mousse that was delicious in the same way. The pears were chopped rather than whole, which strikes me as a much more elegant and exciting way to prepare and eat them; I’d devour any amount you wanted to give me, over ice cream or by themselves. The goat’s milk sorbet melted into them, giving a little bit of a gamey tang to the sweetness of the fruit and sugar. I need to find out how they pickled the persimmons; they were at just the last minutes before being fully ripe which meant that there was still the slightest hint of tannins left, just enough to slap you awake. Not listed on the menu but also delicious was a tiny petit-four cakelet, a layer of what seemed like goat-milk panna cotta on a dense white cake. Pale, light, and not heavily seasoned in any way by itself, it went really well with the various fruits.

The Shandy was the final beer of the evening but it was also the best in show, the perfect pairing prepared in the perfect manner. Shandys are summertime beers, an ale or lager cut with equal parts lemonade, light enough to drink all afternoon. This was light enough, but they’d taken it a step further with the Meyer Lemonade, sweetening it with simple syrup they’d infused with hops. That added one more level of complexity to the mix, plus just a titch more bitterness, another one of those olfactory and taste alarm clocks. The more I think about it, those little palate-cleansing tripwires really were one of the most impressive aspects of the meal and this beer was the last, and possibly best, example.

And that was it. Schleiffer and the beer steward took their bows (at our applause, she gave a dismissive wave and said “It’s just food, guys.” I like her.) and after settling up the bills we were out. G2B is a bit out of the way but it’s a ballsy little attempt at something and its heart is in the right place. (As are its liver, kidneys, lungs, and tails.) I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on them in the future.

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Is it Soup Yet? (Homebrew Sous Vide)

May 8th, 2011

It took me a while to get all the pieces together but this weekend I finally had a chance to assemble a temperature-controlled circulating water bath so I can do some sous vide experiments.


The rig is built around a digital thermostat for a kiln, wired to a solid state relay with a wall outlet powering a couple of coil heaters. A high-flow aquarium pump keeps the water moving. It’s not quite perfectly accurate (I was getting fluctuations of a couple degrees in either direction once the bath stabilized) but the results of this first run were pretty good.


The first test? Steak and eggs.
Me, with thing-what-burns.  90% of this particular experiment was probably inspired by the opportunity to blowtorch meat in the kitchen with impunity.

The propane torch works okay for getting some char on the meat but I’ll be more aggressive about it next time. Even hitting it full blast the well-done only penetrated a couple of millimeters, not quite enough to give it a really flavorful crust.

Sous Vide flank steak, steamed asparagus, and one-hour soft-boiled egg.  Pretty tasty.

Dinner: Just barely medium-rare flank steak with garlic and rosemary pan juices, roasted asparagus with miso butter and a two-hour egg. Also a salad of kale with lemon dressing, Gran Padano, and toasted breadcrumbs.


Next test, Minimum-Fat Duck Confit.  Details forthcoming…

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Beans and Rice

March 21st, 2011

It’s been a long time coming, but my doctor finally said the words I’ve been dreading forever:

“You know, you really need to start watching your cholesterol”

It’s not like it was a surprise. High cholesterol runs in my family and at least a couple branches of the family tree got pruned by the Dark Arborist of heart disease. Add to that the fact that pork is pretty near a sacrament to me and clearly I have some work to do.

What I’m *not* doing: Panicking. During a recent visit, I took my mother to Southern Season, a local place that’s probably the largest specialty food emporium I’ve ever seen outside of Montreal. They have Iberico ham at Southern Season (for only $170/lb!) They sell fresh duck fat and Tuscan lardo by the pound. For some odd reason their coffee selection sucks, but aside from that they’ve got quite a respectable stock of gourmet and international food items at prices only about two to three times what you’d pay at the appropriate ethnic grocery. In short, it’s my kind of place. After sharing my doctor’s news with my mother however, it was rather like I’d taken her to a particularly dirty and dangerous whorehouse.

“Oh god, you can’t touch that!”
“You stay away from that!”
“You should never EVER eat that!”

In keeping with the whorehouse metaphor, screw that. If I’m going to act like I’m dead, I at least want the tax benefits. However, if I’m going to continue to explore food, to seek out new recipes from new civilizations and boldy shove into my mouth what nobody I know has shoved into their mouth before, I need to look at my regular diet a bit so I can afford to splurge when the good stuff comes around.

A lot of the changes are really easy this time of the year. The farmers market is going full steam and only getting better. Fresh radishes, greens, hothouse cucumbers, and strawberries are all over, and the more substantial stuff is right around the corner. I’m already a huge fan of what a friend recently referred to as “Old People Cereal” (Shredded Wheat, Grape Nuts, the various porridges) so jacking up the fiber is easy. Another big source of fiber is dried beans and digging through the cookbooks, I remembered Paul Prudhomme.

I had to look up his bio to make sure he was still alive, because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen any serious food writing that referenced his name. Part of the New Orleans crowd, he had a bit of fame in the 80’s and 90’s with the Cajun/Creole craze but for whatever reason he never took the Emeril route and made the jump to TV superstardom. I have two or three of his cookbooks (Paul Prudhomme’s Seasoned America is particularly good) and there’s a certain comforting sameness to the recipes. They all start with emptying your spice rack into a bowl. Prudhomme is Penzy’s best friend; the garlic and onion powder, cayenne, and dry mustard get a serious workout in everything and surprisingly in this era of mandatory fresh herbs and spices, it all tastes pretty good.

One of the more unusual books he wrote however was about his trying to change his eating habits. Prudhomme wasn’t a small guy (In his photos he looks sort of like Dom DeLuise) and the years of roux and butter and pork fat were catching up to him. His cookbook A Fork in the Road reflects that shift with dozens of recipes that go to great lengths to eliminate any possible fat or processed sugar (though not salt) and still taste good. Some are more successful than others but there are several really innovative techniques. One of the things I’d discovered back when I bought the book 15 years ago was he had several recipes for making snacks out of dried beans as well as another recipe for a snack made from spiced, boiled, dehydrated rice.

Prudhomme never actually suggested combining them, but if you’re going for a reasonably palatable complete protein in a dry-pack format, you could do worse than this stuff:

The rice is Basmati, boiled with spices until tender, rinsed and then cooked down in a non-stick pan until dry and browned. The beans are Goya Great Northerns, soaked overnight in water and spices, boiled with a bit of added broth and then dehydrated in a food dehydrator. Prudhomme’s recipe doesn’t call for toasting the beans but I had the hot pan when I finished the rice so I gave them a bit of browning as well. The end result is spicy with cayenne and white/black pepper, lightly flavored with onion/garlic, and overall really addictive. It’s also astonishingly filling; like dehydrated fruit, serving sizes are often deceptive. More than once I’ve looked up at the end of the day and realized I’d missed at least one if not two meals and I still wasn’t hungry because I’d snacked on the mix earlier in the day and my body was happy enough with that. It’s not going to become my replacement for eating regular well-balanced meals obviously, but as a quick, light, convenient snack, it beats the hell out of PowerBars.


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It’s 97 degrees and this is all the cooking I want to do

August 6th, 2010

Paletas are sort of like a culinary time machine. Remember when you were ten and would throw whatever fruit or juice happened to be in the fridge into an ice cube tray to make your own popsicles? They were usually pretty good right? At some point you probably forgot and moved on to some more adult cooler like ice cream or gin. As it turns out, in Mexico they never really give it up. As soon as refrigeration started making inroads into Mexican villages, vendors began blending up and freezing mixes of fresh fruit on a stick to make paletas de agua, sometimes adding a bit of milk and sugar to make paletas de crema. Often made of fruit and little else, they’re more similar to the high-priced gourmet fruit bars in American supermarkets than the corn syrup and food coloring of the average popsicle. They’re so popular that one municipality in Michoacán erected a three-story statue of a paleta in the town square, sort of a gigantic pink finger to the forces of nature. “Hey summer! Eat THIS!

My first contact with paletas as an adult was through a local chain called Locopops. They make an assortment of very tasty ice pops in flavors aimed at the high-end palate like Lavender Cream and Pomegranate-Tangerine, as well as some more traditional ones like Mango-Chile. As with most interesting businesses, their hours are weird and their stores are strange spartan holes in the wall. In their Chapel Hill location, the only chairs and tables are designed for small children so you have to crouch while eating your locopop, staring at walls covered in a bizarre assortment of customer crayon art. The signature on a drawing often reads something like “Tim, Age 22”, but usually the locopop makes it okay. I like them a lot.

Watermelon-Cucumber Paleta

The picture above was my first attempt at making a Watermelon-Cucumber paleta, a flavor I first tried at Locopops and then all but ran home to replicate. It’s delicious and thirst-quenching, but it’s also a pretty good example of the basic paleta recipe. It’s so simple it’s almost not worth posting, but I couldn’t find it online anywhere so in the tradition of “If you look for something on the net and don”t find it, put it there.” I’ll include it here.

Watermelon-Cucumber Paletas:

Quantities are really rough, dependent on the quality and water content of your watermelon and cucumber. Whatever leftovers you have will taste good over ice or with a splash of vodka.


  • Watermelon chunks, seedless or with seeds removed, enough to fill your blender
  • 1 cucumber, peeled and seeded, cut into chunks
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh or bottled. (I use bottled key lime juice)
  • sugar to taste
  • 2 teaspoons Vodka (optional, seems to make the freeze less icy.)

Start your blender and begin tossing chunks of watermelon into the blades to get a decent slurry going. Once all the watermelon is blended, add the cucumber chunks and blend for longer than seems necessary, 2-3 minutes at minimum. The more you pulp it down, the better the texture of the paleta. Add the lime juice and vodka (if using) and blend to combine.

Taste the result for sweetness; supermarket watermelons are rarely sufficiently sweet but a good one from a farmer’s market probably won’t need a lot of extra sugar. Add sugar a bit at a time, blending and tasting after each addition. The sweetness will be blunted by the cold once its frozen so you want the mix to be slightly sweeter than you want in the finished paleta.

Using a mesh sieve, strain the mix over a bowl to remove as much of the solids as you can. If you’ve blended sufficiently there shouldn’t be a huge amount.

Chilling the mixture for 1-2 hours is optional; I’m told by being cold already when going into the deep-freeze, the paletas will freeze faster and the ice crystals will be smaller. It also provides some time for the air beaten into the mix by the blender to percolate out. I usually throw my empty paleta molds into the freezer at the same time so they’re cold as well. In the end though, we’re really not that far off from ice cube trays and Hawaiian Punch here, so do as much or as little as you feel like; the results will still taste good.

Fill your paletas molds, leaving room for the mixture to expand when freezing. Tovolo makes several different sets with their own stands for about $12 apiece; they’re available at Alternatively, you can use paper cups, adding popsicle sticks before the mix freezes hard.

Freeze for at least four hours, preferably overnight. To remove, run the molds under a lukewarm faucet. Eat before they melt.


That’s about it and it works for almost any flavor you’d like to try. Take fruit, blend until smooth, run the result through a sieve for texture, and then add sweet or sour as necessary until it tastes good to you. Lemon/lime juice and sugar work fine. Lowfat vanilla yogurt makes an excellent base for various kinds of paletas de crema; banana and peach have both come out extremely well.

The real charm of paletas is in their ease and economy. A batch can be whipped up in minutes and within four or five hours, you’ve got a one-handed cold treat in which you’ve had full control of the fat, sugar, salt, or whatever other diet parameters you’re trying to twiddle. They’re also a terrific laboratory for experimenting with new flavors if you’re into making your own ice creams. A test batch poured into a set of paletas molds while your ice cream maker bowl is freezing would go a long way toward letting you know there’s going to be a problem with that squid sorbet.

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Maybe if she had a (faux) leather jacket?

July 4th, 2010

It isn’t quite the season yet, the farmer’s market is tomorrow, and the food co-op has been a total failure. The theme of tonight’s dinner is “Corn and Tomatoes”, so you can see my problem. When these things happen, it’s time to switch recipes.

Deborah Madison has never struck me as particularly  edgy. Despite her badass pose on the cover of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone–all wooden spoon at port-arms, ready to kick herbivorous ass and inspire Italian boys to odd Oedipal stirrings, I’m not sure it’s possible to be an edgy vegetarian chef. There are edgy vegetarians of course–Euoplocephalus, mad cows, the occasional hippopotamus rising up from the river mud with greens still stuck between his teeth– but for chefs, the edge really needs to be drawing blood. Nobody flinches when you gut a squash.

Still, edgy or not, Madison knows her veggies and her farmer’s market cookbook had the chilled SunGold soup recipe I was going to make before I discovered a severe dearth of SunGolds in my locality. A couple of pages further in though is a “Lazy Taxi Tomato and Corn Stew” and that suits both my mood and the best ingredients available two hours before dinner is scheduled to be served. So out of the market basket, and into the pot.

The recipe calls for peeling the four Taxis, which is less of a pain than it sounds. Peeled tomatoes bear an uncomfortable resemblance to burn victims; crushing them in my bare hands over a sieve afterward is kind of bestial, I suppose. Maybe Madison has more spoon than I thought.

A couple summer squash get diced to suitably small pieces. The corn is shucked and the kernels cut away, the blade flipped to scrape the milk from the cob. Milking corn bears a certain visual resemblance to milking a cow, but only one actually involves a knife. Score another point for Deborah.

Her recipe calls for scallions, basil, and water all of which are less ballsy than I had in mind though. I opt for shallots and epazote, replacing the water with a tea made from dried Guajillo peppers. A little olive oil softens the shallots and then everything goes down in layers, squash, tomatoes, corn, the Guajillo tea with the refreshed peppers filling in the gaps. All told, there’s barely a half-cup of liquid in the pot. Turn to low, cover, and wait. Half an hour later, you’ve got stew.

I’m always surprised at how little you really need to do to vegetables. It’s probably a childhood thing. For all the fresh veggies my family ate, they were always adulterated somehow, with herbs, olive oil, garlic, cheese, or an all-purpose amalgam of the four that found its way into a surprising number of dishes both vegetarian and meat. As a result I have a blind spot when it comes to vegetarian cooking; the recipes just don’t seem that interesting written on the page. Now admittedly this recipe contains adulterants, but in the end what you get out of it is a blindingly yellow concoction that tastes of corn and tomatoes with just enough of the squash coming through to mediate between the sweet and tart. Everything has given up its liquid and individual identity to the cause and the result is *soup*. Nothing long-simmered or mirepoix-infused, just the end-sweat of a short, intense three-ingredient menage a trois. It’s kind of magical.

So I still don’t think she’s edgy, but maybe there’s  something more to Deborah than just the wooden spoon.

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The Secrets of Ramen (of which I know few…)

February 8th, 2010

If you’re in the Boston area, get yourself to Sapporo Ramen in the Porter Exchange and order a bowl of the Spicy Miso.

No wait. Don’t.

Why not? Because I’m going to build it up too much. You’ll be disappointed. And you’ll probably tell me so, and honestly, I don’t want to know. So here’s the deal: Go, and if you don’t like it or it’s not sufficiently authentic or your mom makes it better or you discover that they make their ramen broth with the flesh of roly-poly puppies, don’t tell me, okay? If we can agree on that, go with my blessing. Or not.

So what do you actually get? A large bowl filled with a milky reddish-brown broth, piled with ramen noodles, spicy ground pork, sweet corn, hard-boiled egg quarters, and a strip of nori. The broth tastes almost peanut-buttery it’s so rich. The pork is crunchy and hot and there’s not too much of it. The corn is, well, canned corn, but the nori adds the little bit of Japanese lagniappe that locates the soup’s origins better than a GPS. Sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy, with just a little bit of burn. It’s good. Really, really good. So much so that I needed to figure out how to make it here in the relative wilds of North Carolina.

Ramen is much more complicated than I ever realized and I won’t even try to claim I understand all the variants. Folks vastly more serious about the subject have catalogued at least 22 different styles, most the trademark of a particular Japanese prefecture. The soups can be soy-based, salt-based, pork-based, chicken-based; some places add seafood, some don’t. The color can be anywhere from light and clear to a cloudy white, thick with emulsified pork fat and marrow. Toppings range from the sublime to the ridiculous, too many to list.

The soup I was looking for is, unsurprisingly, based on the Sapporo style. The addition of miso to a rich fatty broth is traditional, along with that corn. The area is cold so they don’t fool around. Just to make sure there’s enough fat, an additional slab of butter is a common option as well.

It took me a while to find my way to all of this, and in the meantime I wanted ramen. So:

David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook has been getting a massive amount of buzz lately and after browsing a few pages and seeing he’s at least as in love with pork as I am, I bought a copy. It’s a charming book; Chang’s a bit of a goofball who fell into success through the back door and he comes across as cheerfully bewildered to suddenly be the food world’s darling. He also goes far out of his way to make sure his staff gets due credit for their recipes in the book which is kind of refreshing. The first few chapters describe the history of his first restaurant, a plywood-walled ramen shack in the East Village and that’s where I stole my recipe for broth.

Chang breaks ranks with tradition right away in his recipe for dashi. Dashi is the mother-liquid of Japanese cuisine, the equivalent of chicken or veal stock in European cooking. It’s usually made of a simmered strained mix of kombu seaweed and bonito flakes. Chang claims he couldn’t get good bonito flakes when he started Momofuku, so he needed an alternative, a smoky meaty flavoring agent readily available in the US. Which is kind of awesome, because that meant Chang wound up making his dashi with *bacon*.   If his references to Formula 51 and Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon hadn’t already convinced me, that sealed it.  David Chang is my brother by another mother.

Trader Joes sells Niman Ranch bacon and our local Asian grocery is fairly large, though after dark it has at most two flickering fluorescents for the entire store. It looks like a J-horror movie set but  the woman who runs the store isn’t actually a yÅ«rei.  She helped me locate the pile of other ingredients I needed.

I don’t have the freezer space for even more soup (I make chicken stock fairly often) so I veered from Chang’s recipe quite a bit, using up what I had kicking around. A couple of meaty pork bones, a beef knuckle, a pile of saved chicken skin, a few thighs, and a cornish game hen carcass went into the oven under high heat with some aromatics to get a good brown and build up a fond on the bottom of the pan. All of this was eventually destined for the pot with the bacon, kombu, and some dried shiitakes. First though, I needed to make taré.

Taré is one of those cooking things that’s probably so obvious to someone grounded in Japanese cuisine as to seem not worth mentioning. As a result many home attempts to duplicate Japanese dishes taste like crap. Chang describes it as Japanese barbeque sauce which doesn’t quite cover it but it would go too to describe it as Japanese demiglace. What it is is a mixture of deglazed fond, rendered fat, and bones and such, simmered in mirin, soy, and sake. It’s amazing stuff and goes a long, long way toward making ramen broth taste right. (The chicken fat sounds gross but it really is essential to the taste. In the book, Chang describes a yakitori place in Japan where the drippings from the massive daily output of grilled chicken are just channeled directly down into the taré jar to be boiled down with the mirin and sake each day. After tasting it, I can understand why.)

With the taré completed and the ramen broth simmered to a reasonable flavor level, my first attempt at putting it all together wasn’t bad. Though I intend to try at some point, even I wasn’t masochistic enough to try making alkaline noodles that evening. (I still need to get the chemicals for that in any case.) The dried noodles purchased from the Asian grocery were a reasonable compromise, boiled until barely done and washed and massaged under cold water to get out the starch and enhance the chew. The poached chicken thighs from the stockpot were glazed with taré, broiled, and served in the broth with the noodles, along with some sliced shallots, greens, and corn. It made for a passable meal.

Lunch today was the first attempt at replicating the bowl that inspired this whole mad project in the first place. Miso and sesame paste added an additional creaminess to the broth (For next time I need to remember that like adding flour, you need to make a paste of the hot broth with your grainy ingredients before adding them to the pot) and I happened to have some leftover spicy ground beef which, while not quite authentic, made a decent substitute the ground pork. For folks who keep kosher, it really doesn’t lose anything for the exchange; exclude the pork bones from the ramen broth and you’re golden. Finished off the bowl with boiling broth, warmed noodles, quartered hard boiled eggs, corn, and a good lashing of sesame-chili oil and while it wasn’t perfect, I think it was quite probably the best Sapporo-style ramen for at least a hundred miles in any direction.

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