Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Recipe: Seriously Good Braised Duck

This is a wonderful recipe for braised duck, aromatic, with no foul, gamey taste that you sometimes get from regular hawker market duck rice and just the right texture between succulent and firm. It can be used as a family dish, or to pair with Teochew porridge or yam rice. It’s so good because my Auntie Charlotte has spent years perfecting the exact ingredients and braising process, so all credit goes to her for her generousity in sharing.

This recipe and the process is not for vegetarians, as this is an Asian animal-with-all-its-bits type recipe, so please close the browser now if you’re the sort that can’t stand seeing idle phasianine heads and feet. Most of the work in the process is actually the thorough cleaning of the duck, which as a meat, naturally has a lot of gristle and fat. In fact, as I was watching it, I thought to myself that, the way the duck was manipulated, prodded and explored in its cavities, all chefs could really be experts in S&M behavoir (sorry, just finished the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and it was an inevitable conclusion).

You need to procure a duck, prefably one that is heavier than 2.6kg. This is easily available from wet markets in Singapore and please don’t bother using a frozen duck. To clean the duck, rub the inside of the duck with half a cup of coarse salt, paying special attention to the area across the sternum. Then boil a kettle of hot water and pour this down and into the open neck cavity and also the other way, into and through the backside of the duck.

Wipe dry and then set about to separate the skin of the duck from the meat. As you can see from the picture, you need to literally peel in between the skin and flesh, all the way through the duck and into the wings, so that it's as if the duck is merely wearing a sweater of skin. Be concientious as this makes all the difference to the marinating.

When you are done, push and trap the liquid marinade between the skin and meat, tuck the wings back, rub the outside of the duck with marinade and leave overnight. When first rubbed with the marinade, the duck will look lightly coloured and speckled with five-spice, by the next morning, it should be much darker in colour. You can also add some of the stewing ingredients into the cavity of the duck overnight and seal with foil.

Marinade Ingredients:

1) ½ Tsp levelled, salt
2) 4 Chinese Tablespoons of light soy sauce
3) 1 Chinese Tablespoon of oyster sauce
4) 3-4 Chinese Tablespoons of dark sauce
5) 1 Tsp spice powder

Stewing Ingredients:

1) 5-10 slices Lengkua (blue ginger)
2) 1 ½ pieces of star anise
3) 3 pieces cloves
4) 6-10 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
5) 6 shallots
6) 1 stick of cinnamon
7) 2 pieces cardomon seeds

To cook the duck, heat a suitable-sized wok and caramelize ¼ cup of white sugar by lightly and evenly dusting the sugar onto the pan. It is best to use a wok, as the curved surface helps to hold the duck in place. If you can’t, I think it would make not too much of a difference if you used a Le Cruset or a large braising pot, as long as you ensure that the liquid does not dry out or burn at the base.

Gripping the duck by the neck, swirl the duck around on the hot, carmelized surface so that the skin is caramelized and takes on the dark, smooth colour. Roll the duck over to seal in all areas with the caramel, remember to do both sides. Tuck the remaining braising ingredients inside the duck and pin up the cavity with toothpicks, then place the duck, breast-side up, in the wok. Scatter the remaining ingredients over the duck and the marinade liquid, top up the wok with water, until half the duck is covered.

Start with a large flame, then when the liquid is boiling, reduce to a small simmer and cook for 40 minutes, then turn the duck over and cook for another 35 minutes. Remove the duck to cool, freeze the gravy to remove the fats (my family is persnickerty this way). The total cooking time will be about 70 minutes but this does depend on the size of your duck and the flame. You can test the doneness by moving the drumstick slightly, it is still stiff, the duck is not cooked through yet. I’m sure there is an easier way to monitor this process with a meat thermometer but I haven’t experimented to that level yet.

To serve the gravy for the duck, soak and squeeze Chinese wolfberries (you’ll be horrified how much colouring water comes out of them!) and cook them in the gravy for 5-10 minutes till plump. You can thicken the gravy with potato starch or cornflour just before the meal, if you like (I usually skip the starch). We use Heston Blumenthal’s method to make tamago eggs to go with the duck, heat all the eggs in cold water till it comes to the boil. Then remove from heat and wait 10 minutes. Cool eggs immediately if you don’t want a greyish rim around the yolks. After they are peeled, soak the eggs back in the gravy to darken the skin.

Cook salted vegetable, peanuts, beancurd (tau pok), whatever you like really, in separate batches of gravy, to preserve the clarity of their taste. Plate and serve, prefably fresh and hot on the same day you braised the duck, as it goes hard and cold very quickly when stored overnight.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review: Esquina Tapas Bar

Esquina had been around a good many months before I’d heard of it and for awhile, I avoided the place because I’m not a fan of tapas, particularly cold tapas. What a mistake! While it advertises itself as a modern tapas bar, the food is much more in the style of small plates, inspired by Spanish cuisine. The restaurant is helmed by Jason Atherton, a protégé of Gordon Ramsey, but I have never seen him at the restaurant, it is usually headed by striking but moody executive chef Andrew Welsh.

There is a deceptively curated menu, with many choices in the starters, entrees and seafoods sections. Over the times that I’ve been there, there have been numerous changes to the menu of select items but some of the signature items like the heirloom tomatoes and salt and pepper squid remain the same.

The bar itself is tiny, about 18 seats along a narrow counter and a few single high tables. The atmosphere is hot and languishing, in a rather cool, evocative way. Just stepping in, I could see that this place was going to do well. It had that indescribable joie de vivre of places that ooze confidence, consistent style and ‘done-ness’, the kind of places that people enjoy to see and be seen at. The décor was simple and yet deliberate, the bar stools are uncomfortable steel bike seats, welded in beautifully heavy, industrial plate and bolts. The bar was set with simple paper placemat menus and water was free; they hardly push you to buy any drinks (but in the evenings, the drinks flow freely and the bar is stacked three-deep with a 45 minute wait). This is food at its finest but not by any stretch of the imagination, a fine-dining establishment.

On the first visit, I ordered the tuna tartar and the salt and pepper squid as two of the starters. The tartar was fresh but not extraordinary, the squid was one of the best I’ve had, tart, crisp, juicy and bursting with the flavour of the lime and crushed, dehydrated black beans. Over subsequent visits, I also had the heirloom tomatoes, which I really enjoyed. On one occasion, they were the multi-coloured hue of those expensive tri-coloured tomatoes, all green with watermelon stripes and yellow and dark kumatos, those were amazing. The second time, they were regular albeit premium juicy tomatoes and still good, drizzled with a simple white wine vinegar, olive oil and served cold.

The other starters I’ve had are the Scallop and radish cerviche, a soothing mix of briney freshness and translucent radish and a salad of warm romaine lettuce, anchovies and hard cheese, wilted through with balsamic vinegar.

For the mains, I’ve tried the bone marrow which was delicious and their two specialties, which are the crispy pork belly and wagyu beef sliders. My opinion was that they were good, but not out of this world, the crispy pork belly didn’t have much on the Asian version and it wasn’t large, the sliders were juicy but tasted blander than I would have expected for wagyu. In terms of prettiness and delicacy or unexpectedness of tastes, they definitely lost out to their entrée cousins. Another restaurant specialty is the slow cooked egg, this is a bit like the 2 minute, soft-boiled egg, on one of the visits, it was served with toast and black bean paste and brie, on another, it was served atop crispy potato bravas and a rich tomato cassoulet-type stew.

The dessert menu is very short, usually just five items but they are quite good, my favourite is the warmed pistachio cake with raspberry and ice cream and the other two that I tried were the chocolate mousse with chocolate soil and the caramelized pineapple with sorbet, to my mind, the latter was a little too simple and insubstantial and I feel the dessert menu could be much, much improved and is probably the weakest part of the meal.

The prices are not hefty, about $8-12 for a starter and $20-24 for a main but these are really small plates so I don’t know that the men wouldn’t find it on the pricey side; I also find the food a little salty. I appreciate that they don’t charge for water and concentrate purely on honest food, cooking and ingredients. It really is a place for people serious about taste and serious about eating, so it will win over even the more particularly critics. The restaurant has a no-reservations policy but lunch seats are much easier than dinner, if you turn up at 11.45-12noon.

16 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore
Tel: +65 6222 1616

Monday, August 13, 2012

Recipe: Old-fashioned Cherry Pie

Here we are at the height of Olympic fever and I felt like eating something super-all-american, like Cherry Pie. You know, with a proper lattice and everything, maybe even a Sour Cherry Pie. The prunus avium is the sweet, black cherry, while the prunus cerasus is the sour cherry, which is shaken off its stem early and immediately plunged into water. The sour cherry is less sweet, firmer and is one of the superfoods, that is, aboriginal science has it that they have medicinal properties to cure tummy aches, sore throats, relieve pain and you know, improve your golf handicap.

I digress, I had just picked up a cherry pie from an eatery and it was good (with apple pieces and a sugared crust) but not sublime, so I perused some 20 recipes to come up with something better, and again, it makes you wonder how much time you would have spent on sub-par recipes if the internet didn’t exist.

One of my largest concerns was that the filing would be too wet (this tends to happen with even berry pies), as such, I felt that ideally, the recipe would involve cooking the cherries first, to extract and thicken the liquid, instead of having this process happen in the oven, which would wet the dough. However, very few recipes, as you can see from below, actually called for cooking the cherries.

Smitten Kitchen: Stir together the 4 cups/2.5 pounds unpitted cherries, 4 tbsp cornstarch, 2/3 – ¾ cup sugar, 1/8th tsp salt, half a lemon and ¼ tsp almond extract gently together in a large bowl. Spoon filling into pie crust, discarding the majority of the liquid that has pooled in the bowl. Dot the filling with the 1 tbsp bits of cold butter. Bake for 25 min at 400F, then reduce temperature to 350F and bake for 25-30min more.

Epicurious: Stir together 5 cups/2 pounds unpitted cherries, 3 tbsp cornstarch, 1 cup sugar, ¼ tsp salt, 3 tsp lemon juice, ½ tsp vanilla essence, 2 tbsp unsalted butter cute into ½ inch cubes. Bake at 425F for 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375F and bake for 1 hour longer.

Baking = Love: Stir together 4x425g cans of pitted cherries, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 tbsp tapioca starch, zest of 1 lemon, ½ lemon juice, ½ tsp almond extract and let sit for 15 minutes. Dot with 20grams of butter in small pieces. Bake at 200oC for 25 minutes, then reduce the oven to 180oC and bake for another 25-30 minutes till golden.

There really wasn't a whole lot of difference between the recipes. The Epicurious recipe will have more liquid from the cherries but then it’s baked somewhat longer. I was most inclined to go with Baking = Love because of her lovely photos, which were posted on the day of my cherry pie craving (what a coincidence, she was watching the Olympics too!)- hers seemed to have the kind of thicker texture that I was after and was a combination of Smitten Kitchen and The Pioneer Woman’s recipes- not hugely different except that the filling sat for 15 minutes which might help to leach out some moisture.

The second concern that I had was that the filling would not be dark almost blackish red that I was after, as some of the blog pictures showed a more vicious or slightly pale filling. I suspect this has to do with the thickening agent used ie. whether it was cornstarch or tapioca flour (as it turned out, it was more about the kind of cherries used).

The remaining recipes all suggested cooking the filling, which appealed to me and Colleen’s Best Pie recipe suggested cooking the liquid before adding the cherries, that and the large amount of cornstarch might have contributed to her somewhat paler filling.

Colleen’s Best Pie recipe: 2 14oz cans of pie cherries, 1.5 cups sugar, 4 tbsp+2 tsp cornstarch, pinch of salt, 1.2 tsp almond extract, 2 tsp butter. Cook one cup of drained cherry liquid in a heavy saucepan with corn starch, salt and half of the sugar, boil until thickened. Stir in the butter, almond extract and the other half of sugar, then gently fold in drained cherries. Bake 45 min at 375F.

Miz Helen’s Kitchen: 4 cups tart cherries, 1 cup sugar, ½ cup brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp allspice, 4 tbsp cornstach, 1 tsp vanilla extract. Heat cherries over medium heat till they lose quite a bit of juice, add sugar and seasonings, mix well. Bring to boil and add cornstarch mixed with ¼ cup water. Bake at 375F for 15 min and then 350F for 45 min.

When it comes to crust, I usually use Dorie Greenspan’s All Purpose Crust Dough or Miette’s shortcrust pie dough, so I wasn’t overly concerned. An additional plus is that Greenspan’s pie dough uses ground almonds or hazlenuts, which would allow me to skip the almond essence in the filling itself. The variables in pie dough are usually a combination of a few factors, the use of shortening, the use of cold water and acid like lime juice or vinegar, the mixing process, the resting time and the baking time.

Most of the pie dough recipes will advocate the use of shortening, which I know, I know makes crispier pies but I cannot bring myself to put these hydrogenated, literally, plasticated fats into my food! I use shortening to prevent fondant from sticking to my hands and to moisturize, it smells awful and is truly elastic in nature. I just can’t fathom using it, no matter how superior the taste of the crust. As such, I had to experiment with several different crust recipes, replacing the shortening with butter. Also, and coming back to my first concern, very few of the recipes called for a blind baking of the bottom crust, which I suspected would help with the wetness of the bottem filling layer.

Baking = Love: 360g vegetable shortening, 475g plain flour, 1 large egg lightly beaten, 5 tbsp ice cold water, 1 tbsp white vinegar, 1 tsp salt, pulse in food processor and chill in freezer for 15-25 min.

Coleen’s Best Pie: This is essentially a rubbing-in mixture which Coleen claims can be baked without resting. Mix 1 ¾ cups shortening with 4 cups all-purpose flour, mix 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1 egg, 1 tsp vanilla and ½ cup ice cold water together, until well mixed, then add it to the flour mixture.

In the end, I made one portion of Baking = Love's crust recipe (including the vinegar) and one portion of Dorie Greenspan's All Purpose Pie Crust recipe. I replaced an equal measure of flour with 50 grams of ground pistachios and 30 grams of ground almonds. It may have been the nuts or our humid climate but both doughs were incredibly soft. I added an extra 3/4 cup of flour to the Baking = Love recipe and left the Dorie Greenspan dough alone but in the end, I wound up rolling both the portions together and using the combination to line both pies, which I did bake blind.

In retrospect, first, I didn't need to worry about the soft dough but it should bake directly from the fridge, to the oven. Also, it is typical for the dough to melt in the oven and then reform in a buttery crusty pie dough. If you are uncomfortable with such a soft dough, you can add flour as I did but it does toughen the dough. For me, this was not a problem, I liked that the dough could hold it's shape a bit better and add some crunch to the pie. When you bake your pie lattice, remember to brush it with egg yolk and dust it with granulated sugar for that finished touch!

The last problem, as pertains to Singapore, is where to get sour cherries and whether to use all sour cherries, or some sweet and some sour. Unfortunately, unlike in the US you can’t get fresh sour cherries. You can get them at Phoon Huat for $10/kg, however, if you have issues with the quality of Phoon Huat’s fruit, you can get them at the German Marketplace along Bukit Timah or Tierney’s at Serene Center. You can also buy them for $18/1kg at Delicia’s online gourmet delivery, the only issue is that these are small red sour cherries, which to be honest, don’t look like the ones I saw in the blogs.

In the end, I used a mixture of half black, fresh, sweet cherries (be careful when you de-pit or halve them if you are uncertain, I found three cherry pits in my pie despite my best attempts) and half frozen sour red morello cherries. I strained out the juice from the frozen cherries and cooked that with the fresh cherries. I then added 1 cup sugar, ½ cup brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 4 tbsp cornstach, 1 tsp vanilla extract and stirred till thickened, then adding the rest of the cherries (as per Miz Helen's recipe). I found that this combination produced a pie that had a slightly sour but still mostly sweet and it also simmered into a thick black, rather than red, filling, as I was after. This pie is best eaten warmed and with vanilla ice cream- easy as pie!