Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why We Grill - An open letter to America's barbecue widows

Dear Ladies,

Soon you will notice the constant plumes of hickory-scented smoke out your window that herald another grilling season, the time of year when we men polish up the barbecues, whip out the tongs and get cooking. Thankfully, some of you have spent the spring embracing this, and looking forward to attending and enjoying every backyard barbecue you can find and perhaps even taking up the tongs yourselves. Others of you are less enthusiastic, already dreading the hot dogs, greasy pork ribs, T-bone steaks, crispy chicken wings and barbecue sauce-stained sun dresses that will soon be in abundance. Dinners out will soon be replaced with the refrain: "But honey, it's a nice evening. Let's barbecue."

Worrying, of course, is fruitless.

At some point—weeks or months out, depending on your tolerance level—you will become so exasperated with our endless grilling and barbecuing that you may want to beat us with our own marinated drumsticks. Please refrain. Not only are drumsticks terrible things to waste, but cooking meat outdoors is something we have to do. It's in our blood. It is a part of our man-DNA.

Our need to grill dates back eons, when our hearty cavemen forbears, known among grilling scholars as homo erectus barbacoas, grew tired of dining on raw meat—what we now call steak tartare—night after endless night. So they retreated into their cave-workshops, discovered fire, strapped on simple tool belts and invented primitive grills which they used to cook saber-toothed cat ribs and Wooly Mammoth thighs.

These early grilling endeavors resulted in delicious dinners for their families (we know this from early cave paintings featuring mothers, fathers and children next to grills, pointing to their bellies and smiling). But there were important side benefits to grilling, too. As they cooked, the men of homo erectus barbocoas learned the art of conversational speech, gathering around their hibachis and discussing the news of the day. Grilling became an important pastime for us, intimately connected with early bonding experiences and our identities as men; nothing less, in fact, than our very survival as a species.

Of course, you say, there have been many advances since those happy cave-dwelling days. Things have changed. We now have 60-inch plasma TV screens, wide-bodied jets and microwavable macaroni and cheese. Thanks to science, we have antibiotics to ward off disease and light beer to minimize our calorie intake. Most of us no longer hunt for our dinners, beyond brief forays to the butcher section of the grocery store.

While we're generally happy about these advances, there is a part of us that has become alienated from our ancestors, that yearns to run wild in the primordial forest, to hunt wild beasts with bamboo spears, to make fire and cook up a bison leg now and again. So profound is this need that even those vegetarians among us—men who have consciously sought to distance themselves from their carnivore instincts—still yearn to grill items like "veggie burgers" and "tofu dogs," items that conspicuously resemble meat.

So, barbecuing, you see, allows us to express this repressed yearning—the instinctual urge that Sigmund Freud so aptly called men's "Q Complex." It links us to a simpler time. Making that connection is healthy. It's good for us.

If only it were so simple. By now, you have probably discovered that the major backyard-appliance manufacturers have recognized this need in men. This is another complicated issue, and we must again ask for your patience and understanding. We men are now manipulated into purchasing larger and ever more dynamic barbecues than the ones we already own. When we make pilgrimages, as we call them, to the big-box home improvement stores, we are confronted with a dizzying array of styles to choose from.

There are sleek, shiny stainless-steel models with half a dozen burners and electronic igniters. Some come equipped with an infrared, rear-mounted rotisserie burner. Others feature 700-square-inches of prime cooking area and can produce temperatures exceeding 500 degrees—500 degrees! Needless to say, choosing a grill is nothing short of overwhelming for us.

It doesn't get any easier when we head to the barbecue sauce aisle in the grocery store, either. How to choose among so many flavors and sauce makers? (Note their names, such as Bull's-Eye, cleverly designed to appeal to us at our basest "hunt-that-animal" level.)

Grilling and barbecuing are, in a way, symbols of our postmodern condition. We men yearn to return to a simpler time, before cooking meat became so impossibly complicated. We have no hope of success, and yet we must try. It is the perfect expression of who we are.

All we ask of you is that you allow us this seemingly frivolous pleasure, at least for the summer months. Look at it this way: At least the men in your lives know how to cook.

Jim Benning is a Southern California-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He co-edits the online travel magazine World Hum www.worldhum.com

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Quest for Sicilian Granita

Found this floating around. Sorry, I do not know the original source. If you do, please tell me & I will credit it after verification.


Quest for Sicilian Granita

By Phil Torre
If you have never been to Sicily, you have never had granita. Granita is Italian ice, but it is nothing like the Italian ice you find here in America. They are completely different, from the taste to the consistency. Some of my fondest memories of my visits to Sicily are of sitting in the café in the morning and having a Granita di Limone and brioche for breakfast. That’s right I said for breakfast. In the summer in Sicily, granita and gelato are breakfast foods. That's what I call paradise!
This summer I decided to take on the daunting task of trying to approximate Sicilian granita starting with my favorite flavor, lemon. When I say approximate I do mean just that, I wasn't going to kid myself into thinking that I could get it exactly the way it is in Sicily. The only way you can get true Sicilian granita is by going to the island itself. There are just too many variables involved, starting with the lemons. You can pick a lemon off a tree in Sicily and eat it like an apple. They are much sweeter than any lemons you can get here.
My first thoughts went to trying to achieve the right consistency. You could never serve true granita in the paper cups for people to eat like an ice cream cone that Italian pastry shops in the states serve ices in. Granita is way too wet; it must be served in glass and eaten with a spoon.
I decided that I was going to try two methods. My Mother told me that my Aunt in Sicily makes her own granita, by freezing it and then using a hand blender to crush it up. I was going to try this method, in addition to my own idea, which is using my ice cream machine.

I thought that trying to get the flavor down was going to be harder. I had several formulas I was going to try. First, I went with the most basic method: water, sugar, and lemon juice. Later I would try adding grated lemon zest to the mixture to see if it helped. Finally, I was going to try spooning out all of the pulp from the lemons and puréeing that for the mixture. All along I would be adjusting the sugar until I got as close to the real thing as possible.

I placed 4 cups of water and 1-1/2 cups of sugar in a pot over low heat and stirred until the sugar dissolved. Then I added ¾ cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice and stirred well. Normally, if I am making ice cream I make the custard and chill it in the refrigerator for a few hours before trying to freeze it in the ice cream machine. But, since I didn’t want the granita to freeze too much I figured it was ok to just let it get to room temperature. That was my first mistake.

I was ready to freeze, so I got the machine going and start pouring in the mixture. I poured it all in and my first thought was I filled it too high. That was my second mistake. “No way is this going to freeze,” I thought. Well, I was right. So I had to go into salvage mode. I transferred the mixture to a container, covered it and placed it in the freezer. I figured in the morning I could try my Aunt’s method with the hand blender. Then I could have granita for breakfast, just like in Sicily.
Undaunted, I wasn’t ready to give up on the ice cream machine method just yet. I still had lemons, so I halved the recipe. Actually I halved the sugar and water, but I only cut down the lemon juice by ¼ cup. Then I put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight and I would continue the next day.
In the morning I took the granita out of the freezer and broke out the hand blender. This was a little harder than I thought it would be, but once I got some of it broken up it got easier. I mixed it up until it was nice and slushy and scooped it out. It wasn’t bad for my first try. The consistency was close to what I am trying to achieve(although it was closer to the Italian Ices you get here in the New York area than true Sicilian granita), but it was a little too sweet.
When I tried the ice cream machine method that night I got much better results. I could tell right away that it was going to work. I was pretty happy with the morning’s results with the hand blender, but this was close to perfect. Little chunks of soft ice sitting with just a little bit of liquid in the bottom of the cup. This one was a little more lemony than the first, which I like better also.

I didn’t finish all of the granita, so I transferred it to a container, covered and placed it in the freezer. The next morning when I took it out to have my Sicilian style breakfast, I discovered the flaw in the ice cream machine method. The granita was a block of solid ice and impossible to scoop or scrape out. The one made with the hand blender, on the other hand, retains its consistency better when sitting in the freezer and is always relatively easy to serve.

So, which method do I recommend? I say there is room for both. If you are making the granita for dessert after a dinner party and will most likely be serving all of it immediately, use the ice ceam machine. If you are making a big batch to keep handy in the freezer for refreshing snack on hot days or a breakfast alla Sicilia, use the hand blender.

I continued to experiment with the formula, adding the lemon zest, the pulp, adjusting the sugar, etc. To my surprise I found that the best combination was the second one I tried. So there you have my valiant attempt to duplicate something that is essentially impossible to duplicate. That doesn’t mean that it is not worth making, because it is still a delicious and refreshing snack.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Koreans Share Their Secret for Chicken With a Crunch

Found this floating on the web. Please let me know if you know the source.


Koreans Share Their Secret for Chicken With a Crunch

WHEN Joe McPherson moved to Seoul in 2002, he thought he was leaving fried chicken behind. “I grew up watching Popeyes training videos,” Mr. McPherson said. His father managed a Popeyes franchise near Atlanta and fried chicken was a constant presence in his life.
“Living in the South, you think you know fried chicken,” he said. But in Seoul, he said, “there is a mom-and-pop chicken place literally on every corner.” Many Asian cooking traditions include deep-fried chicken, but the popular cult of crunchy, spicy, perfectly nongreasy chicken — the apotheosis of the Korean style — is a recent development.

In the New York area, Korean-style fried chicken places have just begun to appear, reproducing the delicate crust, addictive seasoning and moist meat Koreans are devoted to.
“Food in Korea is very trendy,” said Myung J. Chung, an owner of the Manhattan franchise of Bon Chon Chicken, a karaoke-and-chicken lounge that opened in December. “Other trends last two or three years, but fried chicken has lasted for 20 years,” he said.

Platters of fried chicken are a hugely popular bar food in South Korea — like chicken wings in the United States, they are downed with beer or soju, after work or after dinner, rarely eaten as a meal.

“Some places have a very thin, crisp skin; some places have more garlicky, sticky sauces; some advertise that they are healthy because they fry in 100 percent olive oil,” said Mr. McPherson, an English teacher, who writes a food blog called zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal.

“Suddenly there will be a long line outside one chicken place, for no apparent reason, and then the next week, it’s somewhere else.”

Even Korea’s corner bars and fast-food chicken chains are preoccupied with the quality, freshness and integrity of their product.

With Korean-style chicken outlets opening recently in New York, New Jersey and California, fried chicken has begun to complete its round-trip flight from the States to Seoul.

“I really think we make it better than the original,” said Young Jin, who opened a friendly little chicken joint called Unidentified Flying Chickens in Jackson Heights last month. “We use fresh, not frozen, chicken, always fried to order, no trans fats, no heat lamps.”

In Korea, chickens are much smaller, so the whole chicken is fried and served, hacked up into bite-size pieces. But the large breasts and thighs of American chickens are a challenge to cook evenly.

According to Mr. Jin and others, that’s why the Korean-style chicken places here serve mostly wings (true connoisseurs can specify either the upper “arm” or the “wing”) and small drumsticks. The chicken is typically seasoned only after it is fried, with either a sweetish garlic-soy glaze or a hotter red-pepper sauce that brings the dish into Buffalo wing territory.

But do not look for blue cheese and celery sticks, or even biscuits and gravy. The typical accompaniment to Korean fried chicken is cubes of pickled radish and plenty of beer or soju; the combination produces an irresistible repetition of salt and spice, cold and hot, briny and sweet, crunchy and tender.

“People — even Americans — say the combination is really addictive,” said Ryan Jhun, Mr. Chung’s brother-in-law and business partner. Mr. Jhun spent a month training with the founder of Bon Chon to master the chain’s frying method, which produces characteristically light and crunchy pieces. Bon Chon, Bon Bon and Unidentified Flying Chickens all base their technique on the one developed by Kyochon, one of the most popular Korean chains. Although none of the chicken fryers interviewed would describe the method in its entirety, its outline is clear.

(Warning: partisans of Southern-fried chicken will find much that is blasphemous in the following.)
For crunch, American-style fried chicken relies on a thick, well-seasoned crust, often made even thicker by soaking the chicken pieces beforehand in buttermilk. When that crust is nubbly and evenly browned, and the chicken meat is cooked through, the chicken is sublime. But too often, the flesh is still raw when the crust is cooked, or the skin never cooks all the way through, leaving a flabby layer of skin between the meat and the crust.

Korean-style fried chicken is radically different, reflecting an Asian frying technique that renders out the fat in the skin, transforming it into a thin, crackly and almost transparent crust. (Chinese cooks call this “paper fried chicken.”) The chicken is unseasoned, barely dredged in very fine flour and then dipped into a thin batter before going into the fryer. The oil temperature is a relatively low 350 degrees, and the chicken is cooked in two separate stages.
After 10 minutes, the chicken is removed from the oil, shaken vigorously in a wire strainer and allowed to cool for two minutes. This slows the cooking process, preventing the crust from getting too brown before the meat cooks through. It also shaves off all those crusty nubs and crags that American cooks strive for.

After 10 more minutes in the fryer, the chicken is smooth, compact, golden-brown, and done. Then, it’s served plain (with a small dish of salt and pepper for seasoning) or lightly painted with sauce. When it’s done correctly, the sauce is absorbed into the crust, adding savor without making it soggy.

Last week, I tasted chicken from four different Korean-style spots, and arrived at a rule of thumb that the best chicken had the least sauce (although chicken with no sauce at all was weirdly bland). The chain Cheogajip was more heavy-handed with the sauce than the others, making their chicken too sticky and sweet. But all the other chicken was at least tasty and even delicious, remaining crisp through the day and when reheated the next morning. The sauces at Unidentified Flying Chickens, which Mr. Jin makes from scratch and is still developing, had the most rounded flavors.

Mr. Jin sees his new store, located in a neighborhood that is more Latino than Asian, as the cradle of a multicultural empire devoted to one thing: perfect fried chicken.

“You wouldn’t go to a soft tofu store and expect to find great kalbi,” he said, referring to the grilled, sweet-and-salty short ribs that are another Korean favorite. “When you make only one thing, and you make people wait for 20 minutes to get it, it had better be good.”

A Sampler
Here are places to try Korean-style fried chicken in New York City. Seating is often limited. All chicken is fried to order, so for takeout or delivery, call at least 30 minutes ahead.
BON CHON CHICKEN 314 Fifth Avenue (32nd Street), second floor, (212) 221-2222; and 157-18 Northern Boulevard (157th Street), Queens, (718) 321-3818.
BON BON CHICKEN 98 Chambers Street (Church Street), (212) 227-2375, opening in March.
UNIDENTIFIED FLYING CHICKENS 71-22 Roosevelt Avenue (71st Street), Queens, (718) 205-6662.

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