Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Chemistry Set for the Kitchen

Condiments are like old friends -- highly thought of, but often taken for granted - Marilyn Kaytor

From the beginning of my adventures in cookery one of my most agreeable tasks has been creating condiments.  In large measure I think the making of condiments rekindles the primal joy of a kid with a chemistry set. A simple vinaigrette can present one with solution, emulsion, suspension, diffusion, absorption, and colloids. That's just the beginning. Think fire. Fire is cool.

Mustard, ketchup, dressing, sauce BBQ and Hot, it doesn't matter. All are a hoot to make (and they make great gifts).

In the beginning it was steak sauce - an attempt to re-create the distinctive sauce used by the Rainbow Steak sandwich shop. (I think Rainbow Steak was owned by Amiel Mokhiber of Amiel’s, whose kids I went to high school with. Amiels has now been resurrected on Henrietta Road, near (in?) Rainbow's old location ). My kid brother Bobby and I had a Saturday afternoon tradition of blending, improvising and tasting. If we never quite achieved our goal, many results were quite tasty.

I have learned life lessons from condiment making, including that sometimes one shouldn't try to improve upon a prepared condiment. Mustards are easy and usually have great results but I still reach for the Weber's . My Hot Sauces are well received, if infuriating to others – I want each batch to be unique according to the moment (read that as “there is no recipe to follow") - but Cholula is still my "go to".  While my attempts at homemade ketchups have provided interesting results,they are not ketchup. None of them are going to compete with Heinz when it come French Fries.

Worcestershire sauce has a special appeal based on my interest in the history of fish sauce. I am fascinated by the movement of foods and flavorings as civilizations spread. As I outlined in Buffalo Rising:
Whether garum traveled from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia or not, it is certain that the inspiration of sauces based on fermented fish made the return trip.  India undoubtedly influenced the 1830's creation of the anchovy-based sauce known to the world as Worcestershire sauce. If you don't have that in your pantry, you certainly have the offspring (in name, if not in manufacture) of that venerable fish sauce known in the Amoy dialect of southern China as ketsiap.

There is a clear path from Asia to Britain, with the raw fish sauce being turned into more complex condiments like nuoc cham, then being then married to the spices and seasonings of the Indian subcontinent. Better to disguise the aroma and flavour of “off” rations.

Before fish sauce itself became my Number One Emergency Standby Ingredient, Worcestershire held that position. Something to add that fullness that only an umami laden component can give, when used judiciously as to avoid overpowering.

Yet my few attempts at a home-made Worcestershire, either using someone else's recipe or via my own experimentation, had less than satisfactory results. Clearly this was a topic that required someone(s) with more time and resources than I. Someone committed to achieving a result that was not merely acceptable. Dare I say it – someone more an anal perfectionist than I?

Enter Mark Scarborough and Bruce Weinstein, as they describe themselves: authors of over twenty cookbooks (including the delightful Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them), countless articles, two monthly columns, and lots of food. I’d add the host of the blog Bruce and Mark, a locale worth visiting. Mark is a Facebook Friend, the kind in the Food World who will take the time to chat or answer a question or share a joke. I don’t know if either meet the perfectionist description above, but when the recipe showed up in my RSS feed I could tell at first glance it was solid.

Buffalo has ample resources to gather the ingredients and preparation was not complex. The "foam and roil" had me cackling like the Wicked Witch. The toughest part was waiting.

Taken straight, result starts with a nice tartness – a combination of the vinegars and the tamarind. A mellow sweetness follows, bringing with the roundness of the spices - the heat of the chillies last. May I never write a food description as pompous as that again. Please don’t let that hinder you from trying this. It’s that good. It works very well for it's intended purposes, including mixing with Tomato Juice. Its consistency is thicker than commercial, and it works alone on those steak sandwiches.

A keeper.

Though I have reprinted the recipe below with permission, do stop by and visit the original and the rest of their site. I have a well-stocked pantry and only had to shop for two components*. You should not find the ingredient list off putting – everything is readily available at local markets (or by mail if you don’t have a Wegmans). For this first run through I stuck to the recipe written, though my sense of adventure has me considering playing with it. I dunno - maybe not - it's darned good as is.  My thoughts later.**

Here it is S/W Worcestershire in their words:

Worcestershire Sauce

2 cups (500 ml) malt vinegar (look for it from online grocers)
2 cups (500 ml) distilled white vinegar (the strong stuff)
1 cup (250 ml) molasses (preferably unsulfured molasses)
1 cup (250 ml) soy sauce (don't even think about low-sodium here)
1/2 cup (120 ml) tamarind concentrate (look for it in the Latin American aisle with the condiments)
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup brown mustard seeds
1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1/2 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon cracked white peppercorns
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 to 6 juicy tinned anchovy fillets, chopped
12 green cardamom pods, crushed
12 to 15 chiles de árbol, stemmed, then chopped (all the seeds, too)
6 smashed, peeled garlic clove
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise pod

Yep, empty out the spice drawer. Stir it all around in the pan and bring it to a full simmer over medium-high heat. Then knock the heat down to low and simmer for about 10 minutes.

And yes, anchovies. Worcestershire sauce is probably modeled on garum, an ancient Roman condiment made from the juice of salted, often fermented anchovies. If you've never had garum--look for it from suppliers online--then you've never really had a truly great grilled artichoke. Just sayin'.

While the cauldron's going, melt 1 cup (200 grams) white granulated sugar in a large nonstick skillet set over medium heat. Pour in the sugar, leave it be for a bit, then stir it with a heat-safe spatula. Continue cooking until it's pretty dark, not black, but definitely beyond amber. More flavor, more flavor.

Crank the heat up under the cauldron, bring it to a full boil, and slowly pour in the hot sugar syrup. It'll foam and roil. Beware.

Stir until the sugar dissolves in the saucepan, then reduce the heat a bit and simmer for 5 minutes, until slightly thickened. Pour the contents of the pan into a big glass jar (got mine at a big-box store), seal closed, and set it in the fridge to ripen for 3 to 4 weeks. Then strain it through a fine-mesh sieve (to catch even the ginger threads) and into smaller glass bottles or jars; seal these closed and store them in the fridge for up to 4 months. Bring a little as a house gift for your next dinner party. You'll be invited back. Soon. And often.

- Mark Scarborough and Bruce Weinstein

So, am I getting rid of my gallon jug? No way. This stuff is way to good to waste on jerky for camping. To quote Sirius Black: Why don't you run along and play with your chemistry set?

 * I didn't have tinned anchovies as I buy them packed in salt. No diss on the can, I just have never found a way to store the unused portion. Salt-packed avoids that that, and has the added benefit of creating anchovy salt - a seasoning on its own. I had Tamarind pulp as opposed to concentrate. I may never go back. The pulp is extra work.

** These are just random thoughts on variations as I jotted down while preparing this. ( ) was added after tasting:

Salted anchovies? Anchovy salt? Straight fish sauce? (benefit?)
Tamarind pulp? (too much work)
Boutique molasses? (fun)
Citrus in place of some vinegar? (Maybe)
Asafoetida?  (maybe I just like saying it)
Other chillies? (worth pondering for other flavor profiles, but not for heat alone).
Longer aging. (yeah, If I can wait)
Toast spices. (must try just to know)

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -