This morning’s kitchen science experiment was making hazelnut caviar. More specifically, caviar using hazelnut syrup (sugar free, of course). It involves using sodium alginate and calcium chloride, but I will save the details for later.
For now, let me tease you with a photo:
Why, you might ask, is the caviar green? The short story is that we weren’t sure the process was working because our hazelnut syrup, water, and sodium alginate mixture was almost the same color as the aqueous calcium chloride bath, so we wanted to add some color to make the process more visible. Green food coloring was the closest food color at hand.
Suffice to say that the above pictured caviar and pearls release a rich sweet hazelnut flavor when you chew them.
I came up with two marinades that produced a rather tasty set of jerky, and wanted to share them here.
Both of the marinades below cover 2-3 lbs of lean beef (I used a top round), sliced relatively thin. To give you an idea of what thin means to me in this context, the average slice of beef was about 1/8″ thick, 3″ long, and about 1″ high.
I found that with our dehydrator, it was sufficient to dry the jerky for 3-4 hours at 155°F.
Directions that came with the food dehydrator suggested using paper towels to blot any fat left on the jerky after dehydration to cut down on the chance that the fat would turn rancid after a few days, and then storing the jerky in the refrigerator after it had cooled down. They also suggested using sodium nitrate (saltpeter) to preserve the jerky longer, but we didn’t have any available, and the jerky was great without it.
Here are the two recipes I came up with.
Sweet Chipotle Beef Jerky Marinade
2 canned chipotle peppers with a bit of the sauce from the can (1-2 Tbsp)
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 cup Splenda Brown Sugar Blend (or regular brown sugar if you wish)
1 Tbsp Chili Powder
1/2 cup water
1 tsp salt
Place all of the above ingredients in a blender and puree. Then cover sliced beef with contents of blender and let marinade for 3-6 hours (or even overnight) before dehydrating.
Hot & Sweet Indonesian Beef Jerky Marinade
1 cup ketjap manis (soy sauce with molasses and sugar)
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp sambal oelek (an Indonesian-style chili paste)
1/4 cup water
(optional if you want it sweeter) 1/2 cup Splenda Brown Sugar Blend (or regular brown sugar if you wish)
Place all of the above ingredients in a bowl, mix with a spoon or fork until all ingredients are well mixed and distributed. Then cover sliced beef with contents of bowl and let marinade for 3-6 hours (or even overnight) before dehydrating.
This may not seem like a big deal to many of you, but here on the island of Bonaire we live in near desert conditions. Not much grows here naturally other than hardy, thorny plants. Anything else requires a lot a of water, which in turn is expensive since all of our potable water comes from desalinated ocean water.
So when my family showed up with a fresh pepper sampler (along with a few dried peppers), I was thrilled, since they have to be imported, and usually aren’t too fresh by the time they arrive in our markets on Bonaire.
Pictured above are jalapeño peppers, banana peppers, Serrano peppers, Habañero peppers, Poblano (what we were told, but they don’t look like Poblanos to me), and dried Ancho chili peppers.
One of the interesting things I learned about pepper varieties today is that Ancho chili peppers are dried Poblano peppers. They also go by the name “Pasilla” (incorrectly).
There’s a video about dried chili peppers here, which explains that the narrower the pepper and the more seeds, the hotter (spicier) it is. That did not prove to be the case for the narrow banana peppers above, which were flavorful but not at all spicy.
I thought the discussion of pu-erh tea I had initiated earlier this week had closed, but this afternoon, as I opened my birthday presents I discovered that my very thoughtful daughter had bought me several tea related things while she was exploring China with National Geographic Student Expeditions last month.
In addition to a beautiful porcelain tea set and a mystery loose leaf tea she really liked, Krystyana also gave me a hunk of pu-erh tea that she had found in Yangshao. However, unlike the pu-erh cake I picked up in Hong Kong, the pu-erh from Krystyana’s trip was in the shape of a bowl – round and hollow.
I had never seen pu-erh shaped in this way before.
The aroma of the dried leaves was a touch more earthy that the cake I have, and the flavor of the brewed tea a little stronger than the older leaf pu-erh I purchased in Hong Kong. A very pleasant tea indeed!
This time around, should someone be willing to translate the text on the wrapper, I’ve included a shot of it in its entirety.
As those of you who read this blog regularly know, I live on a small Caribbean island called Bonaire. Bonaire is located about 50 miles north of Venezuela, and is part of the Dutch Kingdom. Those of you not familiar with the island might assume it’s a lush tropical island – in fact, far from it. Bonaire is arid and dry, vaguely reminiscent of the Arizona desert in its general look and feel, vegetation included.
That means that not much grows on Bonaire, at least not that can be exported. Adding to that that Bonaire is a tiny little island (110 square miles or so) with a small population (15,000 people), and no stop lights, there’s not much capacity here for export of much of anything. Except salt, that is.
Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately held companies, owns the southern part of Bonaire, and uses it as a solar salt farm. They have giant man-made ponds, which they fill with sea water, seal off, and then over a period of months, let the sun and warm climate evaporate the water, leaving only minerals behind.
The minerals left behind are primarily salt and gypsum, with the salt left on the top. As the salt concentration increases, the water color in the salt pans changes to a pink/purple, and can be quite vivid in the right light.
As you can see from the above image (one of my digital paintings using only natural colors), the mounds of salt that the salt company harvests look like little white mountains. At the peak of the salt harvesting season these may get to be 60-80 feet tall, I believe.
Bonaire’s salt is sent to the U.S. for processing, and typically used for chemical production, water softening, pool treatment, and sometimes even for deicing.
So why am I writing about industrial salt usage in a foodie blog? Well, I am starting to get more heavily into brining the meats I want to cook and grill, and brining necessarily involves salt. Lots of salt. And on Bonaire, buying salt at a supermarket in the quantities needed for brining can get quite expensive.
This is where Cargill’s solar salt works come in. It’s not widely known, but if you visit their offices here, they will sell you salt in 25kg bags (about 55 pounds), and cheap too – only about NAFl. 10 to 15 per bag (depending on grade). That works out to around $5.60 to $8.40 a bag. Not a bad deal at all. There are four grades available: fine, medium (similar to a Kosher salt in texture), coarse, and large. Large is the more expensive one because it involves a bit more manual sorting, with salt crystals averaging about an inch in width and height. While we have a bag of the large to use in some art projects for our gallery, for culinary purposes we prefer the medium grain.
There is one drawback, of sorts, to buying salt from the salt company here, and that is that they don’t have the equipment necessary to clean the salt so it can be certified to be pure of any biological elements (dead crustaceans, plankton, sea weed, bird droppings, etc.). Hence the “Not Intended for Human Consumption” printed on the bag as seen above.
However, the salt is rinsed and filtered before being put into the large salt mounds, and when bags of salt for local use are made, it’s from salt that’s inside the mounds as opposed to the exterior (which will tend to be a bit dusty). For what it’s worth, the sea salt you get from the salt company is widely used as is in local restaurants and tastes great. That’s good enough for me. After all, we eat fish from the local waters, happily, so why not the salt as well?
So, when I brought home the salt last week, the next question arose – how the heck do you manage a 25kg bag of salt? Especially in a humid and hot environment where it’s likely to get all clumpy?
The solution was to divide and conquer. We cleaned the outside of the bag, open it up, and then started bagging it in vacuum sealer bags – 1kg of salt per bag. The U.S. Post Office digital scale was a great way to ensure our bag weights were spot on (give or take 20 grams or so).
Vacuum sealing removed most of the air and thus most of the moisture, and 1kg bags are much more manageable than a 25kg bag.
The next step will take place in a week or so when my new Cuisinart rotisserie arrives and I start brining buckets of whole chickens.
My first introduction to aged Pu-erh Tea was at The Fat Duck restaurant in England a couple of years ago, when I finished my meal off with a nicely brewed chunk off of a 50-year old Pu-erh tea cake (the tea is usually packaged up in compressed cakes of aged tea leaves). It was heavenly.
I’ve since tried to find pu-erh tea cakes during my travels, but only found pu-erh in loose form, of questionable origin, and usually quite bitter and earthy. I will normally brew that stuff with chrysanthemum blossoms for a more pleasant blend – the blossoms sweeten the tea and overcome the earthiness of the low-grade pu-erh.
However on our recent trip to Hong Kong we found a couple of tea shops offering vintage pu-erh cakes, so I plunked down 800 Hong Kong dollars (just over US$100) for a cake I was told was 17 years old.
As I don’t read Chinese, I don’t know for sure if my pu-erh patty is from 1993, but the first bit of it I brewed was wonderful – it had a full, warm, rich flavor without a hint of must, and better yet, the tea is good for multiple brews (I did four on the small chunk I extracted from the cake), and each was as good as the second. I say that because the tea store owners I bought the pu-erh cake from suggested (mostly with sign language) that you quickly rinse the tea leaves with hot water and discard the water (the first brew), and then you can consume the subsequent brews.
If any of you read Chinese, I would love a translation of the front and the back of the pu-erh packaging shown above. I’m curious if I got a good deal or got taken as a Gweilo.
Update – August 16, 2010: I have just added the photo below to this blog entry per Kay’s offer in the comments on this post to have her sister-in-law translate. I didn’t realize how much text was under the folded wrapper. It does say 2001, so perhaps that’s the year of manufacture? We’ll find out soon!
While we normally don’t eat large quantities of bananas because of the high starch and sugar content, we occasionally make exceptions for finger bananas, so on an impulse last week, when I encountered bunches of them at a local market, I bought one bunch (about 20 bananas). Initially they were still a bit green, but as the week progressed they continued to ripen, and we were just not eating them fast enough.
Faced with the prospect of possibly having to throw them out, I remembered that some years ago I bought a dehydrator with the intent of making beef jerky. Intent and reality never collided, and the device sat in our storage room collecting dust. Until now, as I realized this would be a perfect way to save the bananas from premature extinction.
It was a match made in heaven.
What a dehydrator does is blow warm (or hot) air down over trays of food. The warm air evaporates or dehydrates the moisture from the food, effective drying it out. Very simple process. The particular dehydrator I had was made by Open Country, targeted primarily at folks who hike around a lot and want to carry food with them that weighs less than normal (considering I probably bought this at a outdoor sporting store, it makes sense).
After carefully reading the manual, I sliced up all the bananas, placed them on the dehydrator’s trays, set the dehydrator’s temperature to 135°F (the temperature suggested for fruit) and let the device do its thing for the next 8 hours, after which we had dehydrated banana slices.
The dehydrator, as part of the process of forcing moisture out of food, ends up shrinking the food item being dehydrated, which in turn concentrates the flavor. So, the dehydrated banana slices were sweeter and more flavorful than regular moist bananas.
I felt inspired now, having realized how stupidly easy it was to use the dehydrator. So, next I got some lean roast beef (raw), sliced it in quarter inch thick strips against the grain, and then marinated it for half a day in a mixture of ketjap manis, sambal oelek, garlic, vinegar, and water.
I then dehydrated the beef for eight hours at 155°F (recommended for meat), and voila! Beef jerky! After it cooled, we found the beef jerky to be a bit drier than desired. Next time I think we’ll try for 6 hours and see if that makes it a bit moister. But it tasted great, and there was no question that it was fresh beef jerky.
My next effort was to make low-carb chips using daikon radish and eggplant slices, using the dehydrator to eliminate most of moisture so I could more easily fry the slices in my fryer. That worked moderately well, but the four hours they spent in the dehydrator were again a touch too long. What was interesting was that the daikon radish also got bitter after being flash fried, but was incredibly “radishy” tasting out of the dehydrator.
Yesterday we found fresh strawberries at our local market (not a common occurrence here on Bonaire – we’re usually stuck with frozen berries), as well as fresh blueberries (an even rarer happening), so we sliced up one box of strawberries, put them on the dehydrator trays, and dried them out. Krystyana added a handful of blueberries to one of the trays too.
Again, four hours was too long for the strawberry slices – they were completely dry, but powerfully flavored. I plan to take advantage of that dryness to make a potent and flavorful strawberry powder in my blender. The powder can then be used in cooking, as an additive to yogurt or cream, or anything else a strawberry-loving heart desires.
The blueberries were in for 13 hours, and were still overly moist and kind of bland – no doubt due to the fact the skins have not been punctured to assist the escape moisture. I don’t think we’ll try whole berries again. Cutting them in half might have been better.
The kids devoured the original batch of beef jerky, so last night we worked together to marinate two batches of beef – one in a chipotle, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic, and vinegar marinade, and the other in a lemon grass, cumin, soy, brown sugar, and fish sauce marinade. They went in the dehydrator this morning, and four hours later the thinnest slices were ready, and all the meat was properly dried (not overly so) after six hours. Both were delicious.
The kids are already talking about what flavors of jerky they want to make next. And in the process both have been learning about better knife use as well as selecting appropriate cuts of beef (for jerky it should be quite lean).
The manual for the dehydrator also suggests that you can dehydrate sauces like spaghetti sauce for later hydration, or something like apple sauce in order to make a fruit leather that can be rolled up in wax paper and eaten later as a snack. We might try something like that soon.
If you don’t have a dedicated dehydrator, you may be able to simulate the results using a convection oven which can be run at lower temperatures.