Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Most Important Kitchen Tool

The most important tool in the modern kitchen may surprise you. It's not a pressure cooker. It's not a sous vide set-up. It's not any one of a collection of unfamiliar ingredients. No, the most important tool you need to be successful in the kitchen is planning. 

Chef's like to call this mise en place, a French phrase meaning "get your ducks in a row*." They treat it as a rigid philosophy, and this rigor is essential in a busy restaurant. I don't know that the same level of rigor is necessary in a home kitchen, but you must be able to think at least one or more days ahead. Thinking ahead requires a little more work upfront, but it will save you time and money in the long run. A lot of people are put off by this step when I tell them how we cook, but a little bit of patience is worth it for incredible food. 

Let me give you a few examples.

Friday pizza night is one of our family traditions. When do we start preparing for it? Tuesday night. Yep, before we go to bed on Tuesday night, we mix up a batch of dough and stick it in the fridge (actually, we typically make enough dough for three pizzas and then freeze two of them for later). When Friday rolls around, we toss the dough, slap on the toppings, and throw it into a blazing hot oven. Three days sounds like a long time to wait, but it results in an incredible crust that is so much better than any of the local pizzerias. And remember, you do nothing over the course of the three days.

Another great example is beef short ribs cooked sous vide. You cook these for 72 hours at a relatively low temperature. Again, you need to wait 3 days, but you will crave these for months. There just isn't another way to attain such a flavorful, tender, vegetarian-aspiration-destroying piece of meat. (Note: The vast majority of sous vide recipes don't take very long, so don’t be turned off by the method. This is one major exception).

Do you ever brine meat? You will soon if you stick around. A dunk in brine the night before takes 5 minutes to set up. And since we'll be cooking many meats sous vide, you'll find that having the meat pre-bagged means that it's ready for cooking the next day. 
Here's another simple one. Soak dried beans the night before you need to use them. The pressure cooker will then prep them in less than 10 minutes when you need them. Plus, you'll have freshly cooked beans which taste better and cost less than their canned counterparts. Starting the soak only takes 2 minutes, but it requires you to plan ahead.
In the next post, we'll use an easy recipe that shows how a few minutes of planning makes for great hummus.

*This may not actually be true.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pi Day Pie Contest Results

Thank you for voting for us in the Instructables and Serious Eats Pi Day Pie Contest. Your votes made us finalists, and we were fortunate to be selected as the grand prize winner of the contest!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Unbelievably Easy Caramelized Carrot Risotto

What could be easier than risotto? If you are a classically trained chef, this question is almost insulting. Risotto is notoriously temperamental. Hearty Arborio rice is slowly stirred over the stove as spoonfuls of rich liquids are slowly added. The process is anything but simple, and many recipes call for 30 minutes of continuous stirring. A little too much fluid makes the rice mushy. Not enough water results in burning and crunchiness. The end result can be fantastic, but don’t expect great results without a lot of effort.

The secret to an unbelievably easy risotto uses one of my favorite kitchen tools: the pressure cooker. Just stir together 2 parts Arborio rice with 3.5 parts liquid. Pressure cook for 6 minutes. Release the pressure under cold water, and then if needed, boil uncovered for a minute or two longer. Stir in butter, top with cheese, and then serve it hot. That's it. The rice will be perfectly al dente with a thick, creamy sauce, and the whole process takes only 10 minutes. It really couldn't be much easier.

I learned about this technique in Modernist Cuisine at Home, and it perfectly showcases how a modern cooking technique can make your life tastier without extra work. Pressure cookers are fast, economical, and easy to use. And newer pressure cookers are perfectly safe when used as directed.

So how can something that was invented hundreds of years ago be considered a modern kitchen tool? Well, there are at least two reasons. First, many modern pressure cookers are much more advanced in both sealing and pressurization methods than those used decades ago. Modernist Cuisine at Home recommends Kuhn Rikon pressure cookers, but I’ve had great success with a much less expensive stainless steel Presto pressure cooker. (Plus, my 10-month old daughter loves watching the weight on top jiggle and hiss while it cooks!) Second, modern techniques use the pressure cooker to do things that had not been thought of before. For example, this recipe uses another trick from Modernist Cuisine at Home to produce a rich, caramelized carrot puree. In total, this recipe will take you less than 45 minutes, and almost all of that time is unsupervised.

You don’t have to believe me when I tell you that the caramelizing carrot smell will be one of the best things to ever come out of your kitchen. But you do need to try it!

Special Equipment
Immersion Blender (a countertop blender will also work)
Pressure Cooker (At least 4 quarts)

Full Ingredient List
400 g/about 4 large Carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
30 g/2 Tbsp butter
55 g/0.25 cups water
2 g/0.25 tsp baking soda
200 g/1 cup Arborio rice
350 g/1.5 cups chicken stock
1 clove garlic (optional)
15 g/1 Tbsp canola oil (optional)
Parmesan cheese (as needed)

Step 1. Caramelized Carrot Puree:

400 g/about 4 large Carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
30 g/2 Tbsp butter
55 g/0.25 cups water
2 g/0.25 tsp baking soda

Melt the butter in the base of the pressure cooker. Toss the carrots in the butter until coated. Add the water and baking soda. Cover and turn up the heat until you reach 1 bar/15 psi (this is the standard setting on pressure cookers). Turn the heat to low and cook under pressure for 20 minutes. Release the pressure by running cold water over the top of the pressure cooker. Blend the carrots and scrape into a separate bowl with a silicone spatula. Cover and keep warm until step 4.

Step 2. Cook the Rice:

200 g/1 cup Arborio rice
350 g/1.5 cups chicken stock

Wipe the rim of the pressure cooker with a paper towel so that a clean seal can form. You do not need to wash the pot. Stir together the rice and stock. Cover and turn up the heat until you reach 1 bar/15 psi. Turn the heat to low and cook under pressure for 6 minutes. Work on step 3 while the rice cooks. Release the pressure by running cold water over the top of the pressure cooker.

Step 3. Toast the Garlic (optional):

1 clove garlic (optional)
15 g/1 Tbsp canola oil (optional)

Peel the garlic and slice horizontally into thin (1 mm thick) slices. Pour the oil into a small saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned. Remove the garlic from the pan and set aside.

Step 4: Finish the Dish

Stir the caramelized carrot puree into the rice. Taste the rice. It should be al dente (i.e. it will be soft and yet still provide some resistance when you bite into it). If it is too firm, stir over low heat for 1-2 minutes and add a little more chicken stock if necessary. Spoon onto dishes and cover in grated parmesan cheese. Garnish with toasted garlic. Serve immediately.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Three Point One S'mores Pi

Our first recipe is live! We created this delicious s'mores pie for a pi day contest sponsored by Serious Eats. It's a little more complicated than most recipes here will be, but we wanted to showcase a few techniques and make something extraordinary. This recipe draws on the classic campfire treat, but refines it with a rich chocolate custard, vanilla bean marshmallow créme, and browned butter graham cracker crust. Check it out at

Friday, March 15, 2013

Postmodernist Cuisine

A great meal is an incredible way to engage the senses and bring people together. Delicious food is amazing. I love to eat, and some days I even feel like I’m a pretty good cook. On other days, my work in the kitchen can be a disaster. On those days, I’ve often wondered why things turned out the way they did. My curiosity has led me to read hundreds of articles and many books explaining the “whys” of cooking. I’ve done a significant amount of work in both basic and clinical science, and so understanding how ingredients are transformed into delicious food has been a fascinating, enjoyable experience. Along the way, I’ve gleaned a few tips that have really improved my food.

As I understand it, Nathan Myhrvold’s book Modernist Cuisine may be the most influential book on cooking science. Sure, there are plenty of food science texts that explain many similar concepts, but these tend to be read by people in food manufacturing. Those books are best known for their contributions to a processed food industry that has flooded the market with cheap, unhealthy foods that are specifically tuned to satisfy basic cravings for nourishment. Modernist Cuisine presents so much more than that. It’s a confident title, but it’s also Myhrvold’s name for a movement that uses a rigorous understanding of food science to produce technically perfect, wonderfully artistic foods that delight the eater. The ingredients and techniques of Modernist Cuisine are unfamiliar to many people, but the results can be spectacular. Unfortunately, the amount of work that goes into the preparation of these dishes may be equally stunning. What may be great for a Michelin-starred restaurant is difficult to pull off in the home, and nearly impossible to incorporate into a busy schedule with work, children, and other responsibilities. The excellent companion book Modernist Cuisine at Home simplifies this somewhat, but many of the recipes may still be too complex for a busy weeknight meal.

As I’ve cooked in a more technical fashion, I’ve found that the things I’ve learned from Modernist Cuisine have actually made some of my cooking much easier. Sous vide is the ultimate slow cooker. Modern hydrocolloids can simplify sauces without diluting flavor. Pressure cooking may not be new, but it’s an awesome to whip out a delicious meal in just a few minutes. In other words, most home kitchens are not using many of the greatest cooking innovations available. You could be eating better without much effort!

My approach to cooking can be explained simply. I love eating food that tastes delicious, and I’ll go to almost any lengths to make it. However, my time is also limited, so only things that are fairly simple make it into my regular rotation. Hopefully I’ll be able to communicate a few of these dishes here, and I’ll do my best to cite the source of my inspiration. My other interest is in food science and safety. I don’t buy a lot of fad health claims, and you’ll be sure to hear from me about many of these in the future. I am often wrong, but I try not to be wrong for long. As a general principle, I strongly support Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He and I would disagree on a lot of things—including the meaning of the word food. But overall, I love the sentiment. Don’t worry too much about individual nutrients. Adjust your diet if it begins to stray into frequent indulgence of unhealthy foods, but don’t be anxious about what you eat. Cook for yourself and enjoy delicious, wholesome food.