Red Cabbage Sauerkraut

26 Feb

This batch of sauerkraut turned out especially good:

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I cut two heads each of savoy and red cabbage into long narrow strips, then sprinkled them generously with sea salt, let them rest, then kneaded them until juice was coming out and they were turning translucent. I added a decent amount of caraway seed and a handful of dried juniper berries, covered it with a few spare cabbage leaves, and weight them down with some ceramic weights– pushing the cabbage down into its own liquids. Then I just let it lacto-ferment in a crock on the counter for 3 or 4 weeks, tasting periodically.

The result was a moderately sour bright maroon kraut that still had some good crunch… I moved it to the fridge to slow further fermentation.

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So far it’s gone especially well with sausages and mustard, or with home-smoked brisket and fermented thai chilies on a taco…img_20170213_202350

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Fermented Green Chiles

12 Feb

My third, fourth, and fifth batches of fermented hot sauce:

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Two of them started as ways to preserve two bushes worth of green cayennes and Thai chiles (chilis? chilies?) from a back yard raised bed that got a later start in the season so didn’t turn red before the weather turned cool:

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I packed a jar full of green chiles with some mustard seed and garlic cloves in a 4% salt brine and let ferment for about a month at 60 degrees, then skimming off mold or anything floating on the surface, straining, tasting, and pureeing with some of the reserved probiotic brine to make a tangy, slightly umami hot sauce (no vinegar added). The cayenne in particular has more going on than just “hot”.

I do want to figure out a better blending / straining technique for the times I want a thin hot sauce that’s less like a chile paste.

Lacto-Fermented Hot Sauce

5 Feb

After reading an essay about Tabasco sauce, getting a Sander Katz book as a present, and taking a class at Preserved Oakland, fermented hot sauce was on my mind, and I like how my first batch (a blend of 4-6 week fermented jalapenos, Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers, garlic, and spices) turned out. In photos:

Jimmy Nardellos submerged in an 4-5% concentration sea salt brine with a few hot thai chilis, garlic cloves, black peppercorns, corianted seed, and brown mustard seed:

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Jalapenos, a few cayennes, and garlic and peppercorns submerged in brine:

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I left some peppers at room temperature for a few weeks, but also put some peppers in one of my temperature-controlled “fermentation fridges” (a mini-fridge retrofitted with a temperature controller, allowing me to hold it at 55-60F for a slow, long, 4-6 week fermentation even during warm weather). Also shown: a hard cider aging:

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Blending the various peppers and garlic and a bit of the drained now-probiotic / live cultures brine to make a fermented chili paste (or in a few cases, to strain to make a thinner hot sauce):img_3674img_3687

My understanding in more detail:

Traditionally, many cultures’ hot sauces were made through lacto-fermentation, the same general process behind sauerkraut, kimchi, half-sour pickles, and other live-cultured foods. Rather that using vinegar, this involves packing vegetables and spices in a salt brine, and letting a series of wild bacteria (most commonly from the skins of the vegetables) multiple and progressively transform the food and environment over the course of weeks to a few months.

There are good and bad bacteria (and molds and other undesirable microorganisms), so the name of the game is all about creating environments (salinity, acidity, oxygen or lack of oxygen) that favor the growth of the desired microorganisms and shut down the undesirables.

There are plenty of books about this so I won’t recap all the details here, but I’ve always found it fascinating. There’s not just one bacteria involved– one bacteria may thrive in a salty but neutral-pH environment and as it multiplies lowers the pH of the environment, making it more hospitable to a new bacteria that will then start to multiply and further lower the pH (shutting down the previous bacteria).

These intermediate modest-pH fermentation steps may produce strong, funky, and occasionally unpleasant smells that make you think it’s spoiling (mine did for about two weeks but then faded as fermentation progressed), and white cloudy yeasts and slimy fluids may also form from this complex colony of microorganisms. It takes some effort to get past a reflexive disgust– but given the right time and environment and vegetables well-submerged under the brine away from surface mold, these fermentations generally all end up dominated by lactobacillus, an especially low-pH-tolerant bacteria that defines lacto-fermentation and the particular (good-tasting) fermented vegetable tang. This web page has a more detailed step by step of the phases of fermentation and the microorganisms involved, and highlights how lactic acid bacteria are only present in small amounts on vegetables, but through this progressive environment change are favored to multiple and eventually take over.

There are a number of ingredients that also help prevent formation of mold and preserve the sauce, including traditionally spicy ingredients (garlic, hot peppers) as well as juniper berries and grape leaves– so fermenting hot peppers should be a bit easier than some other vegetables.

I took the approach of submerging peppers in a salt brine of about 4-5% (for every quart of water I used 2.5 Tbsp of a mix of coarse sea salt and a Japanese “moon salt” (also presumably a sea salt), but this is based on an estimated conversion between volume and mass— for future fermentations I used a scale to weigh out 4% salt).

I went through this roller coaster of smells, textures, and appearance on the first two batches of peppers– at 2-3 weeks they smelled fairly unpleasant, and I had to skim off some significant surface scum (mold?) on the room-temperature bottles (this seemed to be somewhat less of a problem for the ones in the 60F fridge). But after 4 weeks the smell had mellowed out, and at five weeks when I took off the weights and extracted the peppers they had a intense but pleasant kick of funky fermented tang, and made a good hot sauce when blended with the fermented jalapenos and garlic. I kept this hot sauce in the regular fridge after this to slow down any further fermentation.

 

 

Mexico City Food, Pt 2 (Pujol, Contramar, Mirotoro, El Cardenal, …)

29 Jan

During much of our late-2015 Mexico City trip I was eating tacos and street food, but we also had some really excellent sit-down restaurant meals. The ones that stand out most are:

Pujol

We knew from the beginning we’d have to come here for an extended small-bites tasting menu.

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Looking at my phone, I apparently emailed myself some notes later that evening when back in our B&B because I couldn’t stop thinking about the meal (what a dork), so I’ll just copy them in here:

  • “tortillas!!– creamy corn center– skins on either side– very soft”
  • “Great ‘new and old mole’ dish– a fresh 1-day mole and an aged 786-day. Fresh was more acidic, tart, distinct spices, chocolate. Old was more mellow, umami, less acidic, a bit oxidized, smoky.”
  • “v. good taco w/ 7 kinds of mostly wild mushrooms (rain mushroom taco) that were just being found at this point in the season– some morel-like smoky/meaty”
  • “Baby corn smoked w/ corn husks in a gourd, w/ a savory, earthy sauce– a chile mayonnaise made with coffee and ground red ants”
  • “chicken w/ crispy skin and interesting beans– good w/ tortillas”
  • “escamoles (ant larva) in a pea pod– a bit eggy, rich, nice acid balance, mellow”
  • “great dessert mix– amazing spiral churro, crispy outside, thin, cinnamon. choc/corn drink was OK. Tamarind ice cream (tart not too sweet!) w/ cilantro cream? Anyway, excellent”
  • “such a good evening. Not too fancy or stuffy-feeling, just a refined / interesting take on various aspects of Mexican cuisine and ingredients.”

Contramar

This was A+ seafood, in a bustling, social, cheerful dining room where there were many large groups, with people showing up to join friends at dinner mid-way through a meal and ordering rounds of small and large plates.

The highlight was a whole red snapper ‘Contramar style’– grilled and split open, half covered with an amazing parsley butter, and half with a red sauce I don’t remember the details of. Accompanied with tortillas, picked onions and peppers, escabeche, and a great jalapeno sauce.

The ceviche was also excellent.

This was about twice as much food as we could eat– we should have invited our other two friends who were in town. But getting the snapper with parsley butter was definitely worth it.

 

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Ojo de Agua was a great low-key pit stop when feeling dehydrated, overheated, or tired from walking the city– there are several locations around the city including on a little park in Hipodromo and they serve revitalizing agua frescas including an amazing coconut milk (they also sell coconut water, but the coconut milk was especially creamy, rich, and rehydrating) and some decent breakfast chilaquiles with avocado.

Just nearby, the cafe Maque served a great breakfast– I loved the chilaquiles divorcados (half and half green chile verde and red salsas — probably my favorite of the trip) and the fresh biscuit with cheese and honey.

I had a great crispy, tender lamb and a hibiscus-mezcal sorbet at Merotoro.

Finally, at El Cardenal we had a good poblano mole chicken breast (though next time I visit I want to explore mole more broadly– a friend recommended Fonda Mi Lupita for mole and I never made it there). El Cardenal was especially notable for excellent tortillas (perhaps freshly-nixtamalized corn?)

Tacos, Tlacoyos, and other street food of Mexico City

22 Jan

In late 2015 I took a week-long vacation to Mexico City, and spent much of that time eating tacos, tlacoyos, and other food around the city (whether in restaurants or at street stalls).

I’d done some initial reading on others’ experiences with the tacos of Mexico city (e.g. Serious Eats 2014, Thrillist 2015, The Mija Chronicles) which gave me a list to start from, and I also spent a day just biking around the city looking for street food carts and taquerias. I can’t claim any deep Mexico City or Mexican culinary expertise as a one-week tourist with very poor Spanish, but I had a great experience and jotted down a lot of notes, for future trips or friends. A year later (when feeling under the weather at home one evening) I’m finally transcribing a few.

A quick summary of my favorites:

  • El Vilsito must-east al pastor tacos (evening/night only, Avenida Universidad in Narvarte)
  • El Jarocho tacos guisados (stew) on Tapachula at Manzanillo in Roma
  • A blue corn tlacoyo pop-up street stand I found on Av. Álvaro Obregón just West of Jalapa
  • Pop-up stall La Esquina del Chilaquil (or the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas) selling a “chilaquiles sandwich” (time it right– a line forms before 11AM and they will sell out)
  • Tacos Gus for more unusual tacos guisados (huitlacoche, chile relleno, etc) in Condesa / Hipódromo
  • El Califa bistec tacos and nopales (afternoon/evening, Condesa / Hipódromo)

THE VERY BEST

El Vilsito (neighborhood: Narvarte)

A++, best al pastor I’ve ever had (it’s not even close), beating my distant memory of the transformative first-amazing-al-pastor in Mexico a decade ago.

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Such crispy-edged, delicious pork. A nice piece of pineapple. A thin red salsa that covers it with a bit of heat and keeps it moist. M$14/taco (about US$1).

El Vilsito is only open in the evenings (and open until late)– they’re located in what by day appears to be a large auto garage / repair shop. It took a taxi to get here as it was a bit out of the way, on a strip that seemed mostly dark / closed other than it, but even at 11:30pm there were about 50 people milling about, ordering tacos from the three men working the spits, and more people arriving every minute by car, bus, foot– very bustling.

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Blue corn tlacoyo street stall (unknown name, Roma neighborhood)

I’d read a travel diary that included eating excellent made-to-order blue corn tortillas at a street stall in this area, but I couldn’t find any photos or a name or map, so I biked back and forth over a 5-block grid looking for something that matched the description.

At the intersection of Av. Álvaro Obregón and Jalapa I saw a stand that looked promising, with a woman scooping balls of blue corn masa out of a bowl into a tortilla press… (specifically, here, on Av. Álvaro Obregón just West of the intersection, in front of a sign that said “Salon Mercurio”)

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IMG_4823.JPGI give this a strong A grade. They were making a few different things based on blue corn including tlacoyos, but I had trouble understanding the options so pointed and got something like a quesadilla with “chicharrones” (in this case meaning pork sausage and chunks of potato) that was delicious– the toasted blue corn really stood out (the cheese was overkill– next time I’d skip it).

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This was a busy but social stand, with people dropping by, ordering food and eating standing up, all while laughing, chatting, making jokes with each other. A number of people bought one to eat on the spot and then another 2-4 to go for friends or coworkers.

Taqueria El Jarocho (Roma neighborhood, on Tapachula at Manzanillo)

I gave this an A+ in my taco notebook (doesn’t everyone have a ‘taco notebook’?). They primarily serve tacos guisados (filled with stews), with enough filling that they give you  a second tortilla on top of it.

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I got three of them for M$36 each, but they were big– I could have easily only ordered one or two. The sausage and egg taco was good, but the other two were the stars of the show.

The chuleta y papa special was amazing– hearty chunks of slightly chili-spiced pork with chunks of potato. So good.

And the Mole Verde was an A+, with chunks of tender pork starting to come apart into fibers, potatoes, and a savory green sauce (with I think tomatillos, some ground nuts or seeds, and some flavorful but not very hot chiles).

The salsas were also excellent– the red was tomato-based and not very hot, but the green was a perfect instance of a bright green, very fresh/uncooked-tasting hot salsa– I wonder if it was as simple as pureed fresh jalapenos, onions, and a little oil?

VERY GOOD

Still some of the best tacos or street food I’ve eaten.

La Esquina del Chilaquil (“the corner of chilaquiles”, Condesa / Hipódromo)

This pop-up stand (when I visited, located on the South corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas) sells a remarkable chilaquiles sandwich.

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But wait, you ask, aren’t chilaquiles already tortillas fried in sauce? They put that in a roll?

Even better– it starts with a soft roll with a crusty outside. Then they line it with a chicken breast pounded very thin, breaded, fried, and folded into a U, fill that with chilaquiles (very soft, tender chips soaked in either red or green sauce), and top it with cheese.

The chicken acts as a barrier between the sauce and the roll, keeping the bread from getting soggy and making this a very portable lunch. All for M$30. I preferred the red version but both were good.

Even before they arrive and set up a stall (around 11AM?) people start lining up down the block in anticipation since it can sell out. We got there just as they were arriving and waited about 40 minutes in line.

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El Califa (neighborhood: Condesa / Hipódromo, on Alfonso Reyes)

The bistec taco I ordered wasn’t messing around– just a thin, well salted, delicious piece of steak on a tortilla. It didn’t even need any toppings.

I ordered nopales (cactus paddles) and avocado to go with it not realizing I was ordering a plate of each…

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Tacos Gus (Condesa / Hipódromo)

Tacos Gus had a long bar of more unusual guisados (stews) for tacos, including chile relleno poblano (a chile stuffed with cheese, topped with guacamole and cheese) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) that was very savory and musky. I’ve give these both an ‘A’.

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GOOD

Tacos La Cazuelas (La Juárez neighborhood)

This was at the intersection of Havre and Londres, roughly here— there were two taco stands adjacent to each other,  but the one I ate at was closest to the corner with Londres.

At 4pm they were almost out of meat, so I got the chorizo, which was excellent– not too fatty, just a nice smoky red sausage.

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El Tizoncito Tamaulipas (neighborhood: Condesa / Hipódromo)

There are multiple El Tizincito locations within a few blocks of each other, but this specific one was recommended by our B&B host as the best of them. Looking back at my scribbled map and the geotag on some photos I took, I’m pretty sure it’s the one here, on the corner of Tamaulipas and Campeche, with a blue awning, (on the same side of the street and just 1 block west of El Kaliman).

I had a late night snack, with a good al pastor and a michelada (which came with ice, but I took the risk). Overall I’d say good tacos with a good salsa array. I spent M$120 total on dinner including the michelada.

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El Kaliman (neighborhood: Condesa / Hipódromo)

This is on Campeche at Ensenada, about here, with an orange awning and orange chairs. It was decent– I’d give it a B+ on the pastor (I didn’t think the beef adobado was as good). A nice casual inexpensive place for al pastor… and you can get any of their beers as a michelada.

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Another unknown-name pop-up street food stand on Av Moliere at Avenida Homero in Polanco (roughly here):

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There seemed to be a line of regulars waiting for them to set up, so we stopped and got a fried tortilla filled with pork and topped with cheese and a hot fresh green salsa. It was a decent midday snack.

NOT RECOMMENDED

El Farolito (Roma neighborhood on Alfonso Reyes)

At 2:30 pm no customers were inside, and employees were sitting idle, while a nearby taqueria was busy– this seemed like a bad sign so I skipped it.

Tacos Alvero Obrega (Roma)– I had a bad, flavorless al pastor taco and the stand felt dirty (and they weren’t wrapping everything in plastic bags the way they did at most stands).

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Overall, this was a great trip for tacos and street food…

Still to be posted: Mexico City Food Pt 2 (I wrote up notes a year ago but still need to dig up a few photos for it).

Savory cornmeal pancakes from flint corn, backyard greens

15 Jan

For a savory brunch, we made cornmeal pancakes from some beautiful Floriani red flint corn my sister grew and ground:

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I took a ‘Johnnycakes’ approach, which is more like a thin griddled cornbread or polenta, with no baking powder or flour. The general recipe (made 12 hearty pancakes, for 4 adults + 2 kids with toppings):

  • Mix 2 cups of cornmeal, 2 cups boiling water, and 1 tsp salt, stir and cover for 10 minutes, to let the hot water soften the cornmeal
  • Stir in  between 1/2 and 3/4 cup milk, gradually, stopping when it’s a very thick but spreadable batter (when I did this a few months ago and added too much milk, the batter was too runny and I ended up making thin crisp corn wafers).
    • [update] When I made these again from fresh-ground fine blue cornmeal a few months later, I ended up using about twice as much milk to make this closer to a thick pancake batter
  • Mix in 1.5 Tbsp olive oil
  • Cook in an oiled skillet on medium (or medium-low) heat, flipping when golden brown. I found it took about 4 minutes per side.

I made test pancakes with and without egg in the batter, and the one with egg and a bit more liquid made a thinner, smoother, more traditional-looking pancake (on the right)– but while both were delicious we preferred the texture of the eggless, thicker version on the left:

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We served them with a buffet of savory toppings– black-and-white orca beans, cheddar cheese, scrambled eggs, avocado, and a collection of beautiful greens from the back yard ‘winter garden’ (which in Oakland has been just hugging the edge of frost at night)– mizuna, broccoli greens, kale, arugula, daikon greens, and some oregano and thyme, sautéed with caramelized red onions and garlic. The daikon greens have been a surprisingly good addition to many sautés– they give off a puff of mustardy spice when you first start to cook them but then mellow out.

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This quick cell phone photo of a plate doesn’t make it look especially appealing, but this was a delicious (and relatively simple) combination I’d make again:

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Paletas (lime-mezcal-chili and toasted coconut)

7 Jan

Reflecting recently how much I like a good paleta (Mexican popsicles, often made with fresh fruit and a little sweetener), I picked up a few molds and a book for inspiration.

And then for a New Year’s Eve party I made two flavors: toasted coconut and lime-mezcal-chili. The latter used limes, cayenne peppers, and limequats from our back yard (the limequat is the edible kumquat-sized citrus sliced thin and frozen into the paleta below, mostly for appearance):

 

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These were easy and successful…

Lime-mezcal-chili paleta (makes about 10 regular-size):

  • Infused lime-chili syrup (bring the following to a simmer for 5 minutes and then cool and strain):
    • 2 cups water
    • zest of three medium limes
    • One small 2″ long green cayenne pepper from the garden, including seeds
    • 3/4 cups brown sugar (I was out of white sugar, but would use it next time to keep the color lighter)
  • 3/4 cup lime juice
  • One thin-sliced limequat for every two paletas
  • a pinch of red chili flake (chinese chili) per paleta

I loved the way these turned out– with our Bearss limes the result is quite tart (which is good), and there’s just a hint of pepper heat. The mezcal adds some smokiness and a bit of liquor flavor while still being little enough alcohol that the paleta freezes (I estimate this works out to about 1/6th of a beer’s worth of alcohol per popsicle, so it’s not going to get anyone tipsy).

The red chili flake did tend to all settle to the bottom or float to the top, so if I did this again I might infuse it into the syrup and then strain it out, or try freezing the paletas for an hour to a slushy form and then mixing in the chili flakes, on the theory they’d stay more distributed.

Toasted coconut paleta (makes about 12 regular size):

(I based this on the ‘quick coconut paleta’ recipe in the book above)

  • One can (14oz) coconut milk
  • One can (14oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup finely shredded coconut, toasted in a 300F oven for just 2-3 minutes until golden brown

These were pretty good– they had an amazingly creamy texture, and I like the toasted coconut. They were sweeter than I  like, so if I did it again I’d put in significantly less sugar (maybe half as much condensed milk, and more coconut milk) and buy or make coarser shredded coconut (and use less of it) for some more variation in texture.