Monday, April 17, 2017

Blueberry Crisp

It's been a long time since anyone posted here, and I have some Halloween themed treats that in particular need to be posted.  But I just thoroughly enjoyed my Easter dessert, so I thought I'd post it!

There were lots of berries at low prices at the greengrocer's this past week, and after a quality check, I settled on taking home a few pints of blueberries.  I can't remember the last time I baked with blueberries, so I was looking forward to searching up a recipe.  I wasn't very enamored of the cakes, crumbles, and tarts, so I settled on making a blueberry crisp, very simple, following Martha Stewart's recipe. It turned out very tasty indeed!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Xan: Linden and Chris Wedding!

We had a great week in England for Linden and Chris' wedding in June!

I've been going to a lot of weddings lately, but this was a unique wedding for me. The microscopic size -- 14 of us in all -- meant that, much like Antman, we could do some amazing things that have never been physically possible at larger scales. We all spent the week at Middleton Hall and cooked our own food and went on day trips to interesting places. As every cook knows, it's three times as hard to cook for twice as many people in a foreign kitchen, and four times as hard to clean up after them. But we just about managed it, and had a great time. We pulled off some real upscale dining, at least in the sense that the numbers on our bathroom scales have moved in the general direction of up!

You will not find any pictures from the ceremony here, because this is a food blog, and because Linden asked us not to eat during the wedding ceremony. Sorry to rain on your parade, but you can't very well expect sunshine from a wedding in northern England, can you?

Even so, I will include a few pictures that could plausibly be considered food pictures from some perspective. For instance, from a puffin's perspective, a beak full of minnows is a hearty lunch:

Puffin on Farne Islands, captured in flight by holding binoculars to the lens of a camera phone.
Furthermore, it must be said that from an Icelander's perspective, the puffin itself is lunch:

We did visit Iceland on the way home, and yes, when in Rome...

And from a French perspective, the walls of Bamburgh castle are lined with escargot:

I just like this photo.

You know what, I'm just going to post my favorite photos and I'll be damned if they don't have something to do with food.

Here's a sheep -- eating!

"Sheep in Sheep's Clothing"

Here's a mushroom -- calling all hobbits!

Here's a delicious Arctic tern-over!

Photo credit: Dad.
You see how it goes. Just you try and stop me! I spent just about 30 years mastering the English language and it will damn well say what I say it says! We actually have to discuss the matter of the terns on the food blog, because if I had to pick one word in the entire English language to describe terns, it would be PECKISH!

If I had to pick a second word in the English language to describe terns, it would be graceful. If I had to pick a third, it would be misanthropic -- they hate people. But English lacks the word I'm really looking for, which is a searing hatred for all multicellular lifeforms not currently involved in the raising of their young.

Calling all peckish graceful misanthropes! Anthropos sighted! EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!
The incredible thing is that terns seem to seek out opportunities to take offense, in much the same way that squirrels seek out opportunities to make you feel guilty for turning them into roadkill. Unlike other birds, terns build their nests right along human walkways, and then they go ballistic and dive-bomb anyone who walks by*. There will be pecks, so be sure to wear a hat.

[*Actually, a better theory is that while terns hate humans, they hate other birds even more. So they nest inches from the humans because at least the seagulls won't bother them there.]

And it's not just pecks. Before we visited the Farne Islands, we were told to abandon all hope -- everyone gets pooped on. Indeed, the ranger sported a convincingly white-streaked hat. However, this hardly being my first rodeo, I immediately reassured everyone that only Dad would be pooped on. I can't say why birds always go for him, but I am pleased to say that my preregistered prediction proved 100% correct as usual. The "streak" continues!

O tern of terns, I shall name thee Peckin-Pa.

As you can see, the Farne Islands were a highlight for me. There were also some nice castles, and Grandma enjoyed a round of Skittles:

Do you really want to be the one arguing that Skittles aren't a food?

Rehearsal Dinner

The wedding week activities were fun, but at some point we really do need to get cooking. Linden asked me to handle the rehearsal dinner. This was to be the big meal of the wedding, and since I like constrained optimization problems, I gladly accepted. I needed a menu of foods that (a) scale well to 14 people, (b) are robust to an arbitrarily lousy kitchen, (c) could be cooked in a 3-hour window, and (d) satisfied an extensive list of dietary restrictions.

Empirically, it is pretty clear to me that constraints in the kitchen generally enhance creativity. But before I even got cooking, I faced a more significant constraint: the dress code was formal, yet I couldn't very well cook in a suit! I solved this problem by purchasing Genuine Chef Clothes, which are surprisingly cheap on Amazon:

Photo by Chris Day
It was a good call, too.  I got carrot soup all over myself! (Honestly, who designs an immersion blender without a splash guard? The British, that's who! Soup is done when it sticks to the walls!)

I will be wearing my chef clothes ironically at all future dinner parties.

Anyway, we started with a first course of pressure-caramelized carrot soup, forged in the fires of Mt. Doom:
Linden and Chris each got one-carrot rings in their soups.
This is an easy soup, provided you have access to the high pressures found in the heart of Mt. Doom, which, at Vongsafood, we do. Caramelization reactions ordinarily begin at upwards of 300 F, well above the boiling point of water. If you want to caramelize carrots in a skillet, you must first boil off the surface moisture before the carrots start to brown -- and even then, only on the exterior. But if you double the pressure, the boiling point rises to 250. And if you add a bit of baking soda to create an alkaline environment, the caramelization point drops to 230, below the new boiling point! The upshot of this is that you can now caramelize your carrots in a wet environment. The pressure forces baking soda inside the carrots, which end up brown on the inside. We are talking about perhaps a 50-fold increase in the concentration of delicious caramelization reaction byproducts. Then all that's left is to carefully puree the carrots, thin with carrot juice and garnish.

For the main course, we roasted a couple of chickens and some leg of lamb:

I didn't take enough pictures. But if you want my opinion, the soup and the chicken were pretty good. The lamb was probably in my bottom quartile, but that's an unfair comparison since normally there is a lot of technology involved.

I was let off the hook for dessert. Yuandi made a lemon tart, which was really good!

Parade of yellows: Lemon tart with mango sorbet
I have a theory that yellow foods are the best on average. There aren't many of them, but they really are an amazing group. Anyway, you should all be very impressed with this lemon tart. In the grand scheme of things, meat is pretty forgiving. Roast lamb will always be okay, even if the oven is off by 50 F. But baking in an unfamiliar oven? Good luck!

Hungry for more?

Here are some other yummy foods we ate over the week.

Linden's pork ragout

"Who Kippers the Kippers?"
Fish and chips

"Now you salmon, now you don't..."

Duck Egg McMuffin
Inadvertently pulled chicken tikka masala

Unnecessary Miscellany

I will never forget...

Were-rabbit sighting! Dear Linden, I'm definitely NOT implying that rabbits could ever be a food.
Chris VA with trusty pun whisk
"Cayenne, Cayenne, wherefore art thou Cayenne? A pepper by any other name would taste as spicy..."
Photo by Dad "It Was Worth a Bit of Tern Poop" McPapagrumps


Linden and Chris are married!!!



Sunday, July 24, 2016

Xan: Sous Vide Brisket!

This brisket was brined, cooked sous vide at 155 F for 48 hours, then roasted in the oven for a few hours to develop the bark. 155 F is a nice compromise -- the texture is still like typical barbecue, but noticeably juicier.

Next time I'm going down to 24 hours, which should make it even juicier. 

Barbecue is such a religion. I feel like I'm expected to have an opinion. But my only opinion is that it's a silly thing to be religious about. I'm still waiting to encounter a regional BBQ style that isn't delicious. I guess I like KC barbecue sauce the best, but that's probably just the sugar talking.

On the other hand, BBQ a great thing to be scientific about. If you're friends with science, you can get away with things like not having a smoker. Liquid smoke is legit, my friends. And there's no need for a smoke ring, because smoke rings don't contribute to taste. Actually, you can create a "smoke ring" by brining meat in curing salts for a few hours, but never in history has there been a better time to call something lipstick on a pig*. It's cosmetic!

* Sorry, I just couldn't save this one up for the next time we are cooking pulled pork.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kathleen: Weekend Baking

This weekend I was meant to go for a long ramble with a couple of my friends.  Sadly, our walk was cancelled (especially sad since the weather was quite good), and I felt it would be a waste of my weekend to use it watching TV and playing games.  So in addition to errands, mowing the lawn, cleaning, and so forth, I have done some baking.

This week the greengrocers had some very cheap blackberries on offer.  Cheap blackberries is not often something I come across, so of course I had to make a blackberry pie.  This is my first latticed blackberry pie in twenty years.  Obviously I have a bit of practice doing lattice ahead of me, but I'm immensely pleased with the results.

Yesterday was more normal cooking; I made a red curry and basic muffins.  The muffins are the same type that Mum used to make when we were children, nothing special but my favorite muffins to make.  This is the muffins, 36 hours after they came out of the oven.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Xan: Kerr Lake 2015!

We have just returned from VongsaCamping 2015 at Kerr Lake. This year's group: Mom, Dad, Kathleen, myself, Catherine, Chris VA, and also a cameo from Monica and Devin. Linden was notably absent, and yet somehow constantly present by phone, despite limited reception and significant timezone differences.

Regardless, good times were had by all. And, as this is technically a food blog, it must be said that we ate particularly well this year. Mom used to say that after a week of camping, regular food tastes amazing. However, I think this has slowly become disingenuous. The food gets better every year and at some point we just started eating better than we typically would at home.

What happened to us and when did we get so spoiled? It's hard to pinpoint a single cause, but if I had to describe the evolution of our camping menu, it would go something like this:
  1. In the beginning, we were like everyone else. Beans and franks, you know? And grill food -- burgers, I suppose, and more franks? Not sure. I'm too young to actually remember the beginning, frankly, but I think it was a very frankly time.
  2. Over the years, we picked up some great camping recipes from other campers. Chicken Chili and so forth. Things that are easy to prepare in quantity with limited tools. 
  3. However, we came to realize that it's so hard to cook anything in the wilderness that we ought to prepare as much as possible in advance. Dad would bring ribs that just needed reheating. Mom would precook onions and sausage and I would premix a dozen spices and then a Moroccan ragout involved nothing more than heating up a can of diced tomatoes together with precooked onions/sausage/spices, ready in 10 minutes.
  4. As more and more partial and complete meals were prepared in advance, planning took on a life of its own. Meals were either planned or panned. And it turns out that if you do 10 times as much planning, you can eat twice as well.
  5. From here, we continued to optimize, optimize, optimize, until we had so many great recipes that it became impossible to even cut the menu down to an amount we could eat in a week. This time, we had to have a two-dinner day to make room for it all. I even stopped catching catfish, which I'm told is an "improvement" in the menu, even though I don't necessarily agree.
What do you think, Vongsas? Is that what happened, or did I just make it all up?

I will now recap the food highlights of the trip, at least from my perspective.

Chapter 1: A cake with True Grit.
A few years ago, we discovered you can make cake in a Dutch oven over coals. Unfortunately, we had a little trouble with the orientation of our Pineapple Upside Down cake, which a certain person extracted from the oven only to drop it right into the sand. It was a very confusing experience. One minute we were looking forward to cake, the next moment we were looking down. We dusted it off as best we could, but it was certainly a cake with True Grit. It could have been much worse, actually, if it had fallen upside-down...or is that right-side-up? Whereas cats always land on their feet and toast always lands butter-side-down, Pineapple Upside Down Cake is guaranteed to land ambiguously.

In any case, this year we took no chances. We did a Texas Sheet Cake instead, which is always the right way up, and I was in charge of removing it from the pot, and there were no accidents, and it was glorious. You don't mess with Texas Sheet Cake.

Chapter 2: The Fires of Mount Doom.
Perhaps you don't know it yet, but there is really only one question you should be asking right now. You should be saying, "Xan, I get that you guys baked the cake in the Dutch oven, but what about the icing?"

You should be asking this because the answer is that we melted the icing on the fiery slopes of the goddamn Volcano we built with our bare hands. 

One tries to minimize the cursing on a family food blog, but in this case we have found that sanitizing only makes the Volcano angry. 

Specifically, what you see here is Chris wielding his trusty 40-oz bottle of 63% ethyl alcohol Germ-X hand sanitizer. The Volcano clearly does not appreciate attempts to clean up its act.

How this happened: Me and Chris are, of course, always looking for new ways to control fire. So I pitched him the idea to build a camping oven from scratch and see how good we could get it going. We quickly put together a small test oven with a few rocks and wet sand:

We were impressed with how well it worked and decided we needed Something Bigger. So we collected a bunch of rocks and dredged the lake bed for mud to act as mortar, which was baked pretty hard by the heat of the oven. Here is the oven in progress:

We found some mystery bricks and an old grate left behind by another camper. The fuel would go on the grate, and ashes would fall below like in a grill.

Some nice flat rocks would make for the roof of the oven and double as a stone cooktop.

We also added a smoking chamber which in retrospect was a mistake, as we did not actually have access to any woods that would be nice for smoking foods. It's mostly pine and sweetgum in the nutrient-poor soil around the lake.

Of course, at some point Chris decided that the chimney should be a volcano, and it was all downhill from there, in a Run-For-Your-Lives, Kill-a-Man-Jaro sort of sense.

To be perfectly honest, after hours of building this behemoth, we were not at all sure it would, you know, work when we lit it up. But as soon as we set it ablaze, smoke just shot out of the volcano.

Of course, we had to name it Mt. Doom.

One fire ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness BLIND THEM!

Anyway, you get the idea. It was pretty awesome. The next day, Chris built up the volcano even more.

Lake mud, cast into the fiery chasm whence it flame!

Sadly, I do not have any pictures of it on fire. Nevertheless, the stone cooktop got hot enough to toast our garlic bread.

Chapter 3: Chop chop! Pull pull! Pork pork!

While Chris was building out the Volcano, I was also engaged in another ambitious project: spit-roasting an 8 lb pork shoulder roast over the open fire. I wanted to make a spit from scratch. This turned out to be difficult. In fact I was fortunate to have access to a couple of particularly helpful tools.

First of all, this year finally saw the arrival of a proper felling axe. We retired our beloved hatchet, affectionately named Old Faithful by Chris, for its longstanding habit of faithfully flying off the handle in mid-swing. I will shed no tears for the departure of Old Faithful, and no fingers either.

Wielding the mighty felling axe, I was able to effortlessly hew the necessary lumber from a downed pine. I fashioned a pair of tripods to hold the spit, and used one of Dad's woodworking tools to remove bark and sharpen the spit itself:

Make no mistake -- that spear would have skewered a wild boar! But I had only purchased an NC fishing permit, not a hunting permit, and so I was forced to rely on the domesticated variety. (For now). We coated it in Memphis Dust and went right through the center.

The idea here is to have a main fire blazing off to the side, which generates embers, which are moved near the pork to cook it under moderate heat in a controlled fashion. The fire itself might contain perhaps a whole tree..

I always do like to include a whole tree in a fire like this, because you can just keep pushing it in as it combusts. This one was long dead and dried, but still quite heavy and Chris helped me to drag it over.

In the absence of a battery-operated rotisserie, draft animals, or fellow campers willing to do my bidding, I simply turned the spit every 20-30 minutes. After 7 hours on the spit, the pork looked like this:

Can you smell that? It smells GUUD!

Not done yet, though, as we were going for pulled pork.

Chapter 3.5: Lightning Strikes!

Pulled pork is an all-day affair. Unfortunately, all the day was not fair. Before the pork could finish, we were beset by a Most Epic Thunderstorm and had to resort to Backup Contingency Rain Plan #1, which was to throw the pork into the Dutch Oven, surround it with coals, cover it with foil, and wait out the storm.

Two hours and two inches of rain later, the storm finished. An hour after that, so did the pork. We pulled it, and dug in!

Pretty good, under the circumstances! And I will say that despite the fall of rain and night, we never once dropped the pork.


Of course this is but a small sampling of the Kerr Lake 2015 menu. I wish I had pictures of all the food, but it's hard when your phone is mostly off. Maybe next time we can try to put together a more comprehensive review. In any case, I hope you have enjoyed this recap of our caper, jumbled as it may be. Yeah, think about it.

An epilog, charred. From the Greek epi- meaning "upon." A log on a log is an epilog. A frog on a log is an epifrog. 

A pig on a spit on a log, to wit: epihog.