Aug 14 2010

Sucking Food Dry

August 14th, 2010 at 5:23 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

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.

Our rediscovered food dehydrator

Our rediscovered food dehydrator

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).

Dehydrated bananas

Dehydrated bananas

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.

Home made beef jerky

Home made beef jerky

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.

The inside of the dehydrator, filled with sliced strawberries and whole blueberries

The inside of the dehydrator, filled with sliced strawberries and whole blueberries

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.

Close-up of the berries about to be dehydrated

Close-up of the berries about to be dehydrated

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 strawberries after dehydration (close up)

The strawberries after dehydration (close up)

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.

Thai lemongrass marinated beef ready to be made into jerky

Thai lemongrass marinated beef ready to be made into jerky

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.

Nov 4 2009

Fluffy Scrambled Eggs

November 4th, 2009 at 6:23 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Even foods we consider ordinary can surprise when they are prepared differently. Surprisingly, the preparation doesn’t need to be very different to make a difference.

A perfect example is scrambled eggs. In the past, my favorite way of making scrambled eggs was simply to crack the eggs over a pan and scramble them as they cooked. The result looks colorful, and the texture varied based on the combination of yolk and albumin (the clearer part of the egg).

Linda, my wife, would scramble them in a bowl before cooking them. Some folks may add a bit of milk as well, and over at IHOP, they add a bit of pancake batter (at least that’s what the menu suggested the last time I ate at an IHOP).

But a book I have been reading on and off – Harold McGee’s most excellent “On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” (2nd edition) – suggests that chefs have known for centuries that adding a bit of acid to scrambled eggs makes them extraordinarily fluffy when cooked. In the voluminous chapter on all things “egg” in his book, McGee explains in depth the structure of proteins in egg yolks and albumin, as well as the impact that acid has on those proteins.

Even if you don’t care about the science involved, you can still benefit from McGee’s analysis. The next time you scramble up some eggs before cooking them, add a small squeeze of lemon juice or a bit of fruit juice or even vinegar – a quarter or half teaspoon will do. The amount of lemon juice or other liquid you add is so miniscule you cannot taste it, but the result will astound you – you will likely never have had eggs so fluffy.

And you will likely never go back to chewy or rubbery scrambled eggs again.

Nov 2 2009

Home Made Mayonnaise

November 2nd, 2009 at 8:07 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Julia Child was a huge fan of butter, and I wholeheartedly agree that butter is a foodie staple. However, in that same vein, I’m also a devotee of mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is an excellent condiment – just ask my Dutch friends who eat it liberally with “frites” (french fries), a habit I have now adopted as well.

Of the store bought varieties, I find Kraft and Hellman’s regular mayonnaise to be the best, while at the same time, I believe that low-fat mayonnaise is an abomination as it has the wrong flavor and consistency (and it has carbs to compensate for the reduction in fat).

However, my absolute favorite mayonnaise is home made. The only implement you need is a good blender. Personally, I’m a fan of Vita-Mix blenders.

The basic ingredients for a good home-made mayonnaise are egg yolks, salt, mustard, lemon juice, and oil. You can use olive oil, but unless I want a strongly flavored mayonnaise (tasting like olive oil), I tend to use nut oils like peanut or sunflower oil. As a general principle I stay away from corn oil and generic vegetable oils.

Place three or four egg yolks in the blender, along with a pinch of salt (sea salt preferred over iodized table salt), a teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard (although any mustard will do), and another teaspoon of lemon juice. On very low speed, blend those things together quickly (keep the lid on the blender because you will get spattering).

Once those four items have been blended together, with the blender still on, slowly dribble in the oil. Feel free to increase the blender speed a bit as you do this. As you continue dribbling in the oil, you’ll find that the mixture will start to thicken. Keep adding oil until you get the consistency you want for your mayonnaise. You don’t want to add too much oil, as the mixture will become too thick. However, if that does happen, you can stir in a little bit of water to thin out the mayonnaise.

Voila! You have mayonnaise!

But here’s the really cool thing – in the early stages, after you’ve added some oil but your mayonnaise isn’t too thick, you can also add other ingredients to flavor your mayo before aiming for the consistency you want. For example, mince up a clove or two of garlic and add it to the blender to make a garlic aoili. Or add curry powder to make a curry mayo. Or chipotle peppers to make a nice spicy Mexican chipotle mayonnaise. The possibilities are endless. In any event, after you’ve added and blended in the extra ingredients, resume with the oil dribble to get the consistency you want.

Also, if you stop adding oil, you can blend your mayonnaise for extended periods of time without impacting its texture or flavor. That’s a great way to make sure your extra ingredients are well minced and distributed by the blender.

Once you try making your own mayonnaise you’ll be hard-pressed to go back to the store-bought stuff.

One final tip and trick – that blender will be a bit greasy after you’ve extracted all the mayo you can with your spatula. A great way to clean such a blender container is to rinse it out, and then fill it half-way with warm or hot water and a bit of dish detergent, and then, with the lid on, blend away on high for a minute or so. You’ll find that your blender container, once you get all the bubbles rinsed out, is clean and no longer greasy feeling (or at least less so than before).