Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Umamique (Pronounced U - Ma - Me - Cue)

I've been planning to do another dinner for a while now.  Been working out the menu, revising it, adding new dishes, replacing others.  It's looking pretty good.  And was supposed to be my next big cooking extravaganza.  But this is not that dinner.  This is a replacement.  A substitution.  An emergency back up of sorts.  Jamie told me on a Thursday that she had invited friends over for the following Saturday ( a scant 9 days away) with promises of dinner.  That was nowhere near enough time to get all of the things I needed for my original menu.  Besides that, we were going to be gone for 4 days in the interim and had activities the Thursday and Friday nights before everyone was coming over, so I knew prep time would be limited.  Jamie suggested we just cook burgers.  Although that didn't seem too exciting, it sounded like it might have to do.  Besides, I had just read an article about how Wylie Dufresne had lost a burger contest (Burger Bloodbath 2012) with his seaweed burger.  He didn't even place.  That settled it.  Dinner would be burgers, and the burgers would be seaweed burgers.

To hear Chef Dufresne talk of the seaweed burgers, was to hear him speak lovingly of the big vicious gut punch{1} of umami they delivered.  Not only would I celebrate this magical 5th taste in the burgers, but the entire menu for the cookout would deliver a level of umaminess that I feared Northwest Wisconsin really wasn't quite prepared to handle.

So, my thoughts turned to other dishes.  Thematically, I wanted to represent the typical backyard barbecue ingredients, but ramp up the umami factor.  The problem was, I really didn't know what I meant by that.  So I took some summer cookout staples and some staples of Japanese cuisine (Because, you know, the Japanese invented umami{2}) and threw them together to see what would happen.  I'd call it Umamique.  The Umami - Barbeque.  Even though 'barbecue' is typically spelled with a 'c', 'barbeque' is also technically correct and I think the 'q' works better.  I'm making up words here, so I took a few liberties.  Where I really took liberties was in referring to this as a barbecue at all, when it is really just a cookout, and nothing was truly barbecued at any time during the event.  Grilled, yes.  Barbecued, no. 

So, summer cookout.  Burgers.  Chips.  Sweet Corn.  Watermelon.  Carrots.  Cucumber.  Green Beans{3}.  We'd already established seaweed burgers.  So what to do about the rest of the list?

Burgers:  Thanks to Chef Dufresne for this.  5 Ingredients:  Beef Short Rib, Beef Chuck Steak.  Shio Kombu.  Milk Powder.  Salt.  4 of those I can handle.  Take a guess which one I needed help with.  If you said milk powder, you'd be wrong, though it is a curious addition.  Apparently the milk proteins help the patties stick together.  Add that to your bag of tricks.  It works.  Anyway, the bogey in my culinary repertoire was Shio Kombu.  Shio kombu, as I learned, is basically preserved kombu.  Kombu as I learned is seaweed (somewhat obviously since they are seaweed burgers).  I believe that it is kelp, but I'm not really sure.  Once you have kombu, you cook it for a long time in sake, mirin, rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce until it is extremely tender.  This takes a while as kombu is described as leatherly to start with.  Anyway, I have soy sauce, sugar, and rice vinegar.  No sake on hand, but that's easy enough to get.  I also need mirin and kombu, but these should be easy enough to get at my local Asian grocery store.  They've helped me out many times in the past.    

Chips.  Chips are really just a snack.  Chef Adria always liked to start off his meals with some snacks.  So chip=snack=appetizer.  Japanese appetizer=edamame.  I thought I'd treat edamame as a chip.  Take the shelled edamame, add some olive oil, cracked peppercorn and salt and roast it in the oven.  I'd seen this basic concept on pinterest so I had a good idea that it would work and it was easy.  Check chips/snack. 

Sweet Corn.  Corn on the cob is good, but not very Japanese.  Corn also goes well in soup.  Japanese miso soup is delicious.  So the next course would be sweet corn miso soup.  I've never made miso soup before, but what better time than now to try.  I knew the basics.  Dashi.  Miso.  Other Stuff.  Sounds pretty easy.  Three basic ingredients.  Let's work backwards.  My other stuff would be fresh sweet corn, mushrooms and scallions.  I also planned to poach an egg in there, but ended up pulling that out at the last minute in deference to the growing size of the meal.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Miso.  I've been wanting to make my own miso, but no way to do that here.  No problem though, I could pick this up at the Asian market.  Dashi.  Dashi is basically a broth made from steeped seaweed (That seaweed being kombu.  Ding ding ding...I already knew I needed this for the burgers) and bonito flakes.  A little research told me the more proper term was katsuobushi which is actually the dried fermented shavings of the bonito fish.  I gave myself points for knowing bonito anyway.  Another item for the Asian grocer.      

Watermelon.  Not really umami, but a refreshing summer fruit and the CSA has been keeping us well stocked in watermelon this year.  I thought this would be a nice palate cleanser between the snack/soup starters and the main dish.  Also, I have been preparing for my Next meal and reading about kaseiki.  This would be a chance to do a plated dish with nice presentation.  A contrast to the typical western cookout, these would (in theory anyway) be small bites, somewhat intricate, and beautifully composed on the plate.  I'd do a trio of watermelon.     

Carrots, Cucumber, Green Beans:  These would be the sides.  Carrots with miso butter (aka Asian cheez whiz).  Pickled cucumber salad, sesame garlic green beans.  Nothing too complex here, but strong flavors that should hold up next to the burger.

I graciously (somewhat regretfully even though I was grateful not to add to the already substantial list of dishes) gave up dessert responsibilities and asked Jamie to cover beverages.

I also decided that rather than burgers, we'd do sliders.  Basically the same thing, but smaller so that the guests could have more than one.  Or, if they were not very good (a distinct possibility) guests wouldn't have a giant burger to try to discretely dispose of.  Mostly though, I liked the sound of Seaweed Sliders better than Seaweed Burgers.  

Menu concept complete.  On to execution.

Friday night I stopped off at the Asian grocer on my way home from work.  We were going out with friends that evening, but I wanted to get my ingredients so they'd be ready to prep on Saturday morning.  I had my list.  Miso, Kombu, Katsuobushi, Mirin.  I assumed that if these were things that I needed with my cursory understanding of the cuisine, they must be common.  Oh, if that were only true.  Miso I found, but no dice on the rest of the list.  Not only that, but they didn't even know what the other ingredients were.  That's ok, because really, neither did I (except for mirin which I knew vaguely was a sweet cooking sauce, and was especially surprised they wouldn't have on hand).  Anyway, this was not looking good. I was out of time and friends were waiting, so I left with only the miso and a growing concern that this wasn't going according to plan.

I got up early on Saturday (well same time as usual, but early for Saturday) and headed off to the farmer's market to get the necessary produce.  Then I planned to hit the other Asian grocers in town to get the 3 other ingredients.  The first one I stopped at was the largest one I knew of.  No, no and no on the ingredients (though the lady I spoke to did give me a branch full of longan fruit, which I'd never even heard of but now know is also referred to as dragon's eye because it resembles an eyeball when peeled - she also said they no longer carried mirin because no one bought it).  I stopped at 4 more Asian grocers.  Two of them didn't know what I was talking about and the other 2 were closed, one of them apparently permanently.  The other closed store specializes (from what I can tell based on a couple visits, which is not likely to be entirely accurate) in Korean ingredients.  I moved on.

Out of Asian grocers I decided to go to the supermarket on the off chance they might have something, or the more likely reality that I would need to rework the entire menu concept in the next 8 hours and maybe it would bring on some inspiration.  As I was driving though, I saw the natural food store (The Free Market).  I'd been wanting to check it out, but didn't really know where it was, until now here it was, so I stopped.  Lo and behold, 2 packages of kombu (not seaweed, but sea vegetable!) and mirin.  I bought them both.  They were more expensive than they should have been, but I bought them anyway.  It was almost time for the Korean grocer to open and I wasn't yet too far away, so I figured I'd try there for the katsuobushi.  And score again!  I was on a roll.  I headed home to start cooking.

First up Shio Kombu and Dashi.  My dashi guide said 1 piece of kombu approximately 3" x 6".  The bag I bought had 1" strips, and they looked about 6" long, so I rinsed off three pieces, threw them in a pot and commenced to heating.   Meanwhile, I rinsed the remaining 1.875 packages of kombu off and set to soaking for 30 minutes in a large pot of water.  About 10 minutes in, just as the dashi pot was about to reach a boil, I realized that my 1" strips were really 3" strips.  I'm not sure by what magic this happened, but I'll say this, Hydration is good.  So, I pulled one of the 3 strips out of the dashi pot and into the kombu pot.  No problem.  Then, as it had reached a boil, I turned off the heat and threw in two fistfulls of katsuobushi.  After brewing for 10 minutes I strained it and was left with an awesome{4} dashi stock. 

Meanwhile, the Shio Kombu was fully rehydrated.  Next up I needed to add mirin, soy, sake, vinegar, and sugar.  After some debate about whether or not to keep the water already in the pot, I poured it out and added everything straight to the kombu.  Cooked and cooked and cooked adding water, in addition to more of the other liquids.  I planned to cook until tender, but the liquid level was so low, I had to keep adding water and more of the liquids.  I think I should have left the soaking water in there, but it all worked out ok.  After, about 2 hours of simmering (more than double the expected time), I figured it was tender enough. I also tasted some of the product at this point and it was really delicious, so into the food processor it went.  After pulsing into a chunky paste, I added to the ground short rib, chuck, salt and milk powder.  I mixed together by hand and made mini slider size patties, then put them into the fridge to rest, infuse, and firm up until time to go on the grill.

With the entree basically complete, I turned my attention to the watermelon.  I had 3 watermelon 'bites' that I wanted to prepare, plus I had just received the whip that I ordered in the mail and wanted to try it out, so the Watermelon Trio became a Quartet.  I cut up the watermelon trying to get 1" seedless cubes.  I saved the best cubes and juiced the rest, pushing through a fine mesh.  When I had 2 cups of juice, I heated half on the stove to dissolve a packet of gelatin.  To this I added the scraped out innards of a vanilla bean, cooled, added the other half of the watermelon juice and set aside to chill.  Then, I tackled the remaining rind.  I cut into 1" chucks with about 2/3 white rind and 1/3 pink flesh.  Made a sweet pickling solution, added star anise, ginger and the watermelon rind and simmered for a couple minutes until the rind began to soften.  Then put that in the fridge to chill.

At this point, the prep was complete.  I only had to wait until it was almost time for the guests to begin arriving to finish off the dishes, which given the length of my prep time was about 15 minutes ago, so I was ahead of schedule! 

I began toasting the edamame.  Then I threw the dashi in a pot and began heating.  As the guests began arriving, I put out the edamame snack.  I added the red miso to the dashi (actually added some dashi to the miso to incorporate than added that back to the rest of the broth).  Then added sweet corn, mushrooms and green onions.  Once all the guests had arrived, I served the soup.  It was really quite delicious. I liked the sweetness of the corn to contrast with the earthiness of the miso-dashi broth and mushrooms.  It may have been a wee bit heavy for summer.  I think a white miso would have been a little lighter for summer, but I was using white miso later, so went with red in the soup.  I think it was the right choice.

Next up: The watermelon quartet.  I debated if this was a salad course or a palate cleanser.  Really, it's not either, but that's ok.  I don't know why no one ever does plated dishes at home dinner parties.  Wait...yes I do.  It is basically a pain in the ass.  I like the idea of a single ingredient featured in several single bite preparations on a single plate.  Unfortunately, this basically means you are producing multiple complex{5} dishes to put out a single plate of food, and on the off chance someone likes something you served, they aren't getting any more of it.  But maybe that's why I like it.  Nothing ever tastes better after the first bite anyway.{6}  Anyway I thought I'd feature watermelon, because what's more summertime than that?{7}  Four individual bites (Pictured counterclockwise starting in the lower right).  Bite 1: Watermelon with Chevre and Pickled Blueberries.  Bite 2: Pickled Watermelon Rind with Ginger and Star Anise.  Bite 3: Watermelon with Honey Balsamic Caramel and Mint.  Bite 4: Watermelon and Vanilla Bean Espuma.  Espuma is a fancy word for foam.  Thank you elBulli.  This plate made me happy, even if no one liked it.{8}

Next up Seaweed Sliders.  I think the name might have frightened some of the guests, but they trusted me enough to try it anyway.  I actually like the name.  Better than Seaweed Burger.  More alliterative.  I had no idea if these were even going to be edible when I started, and was a little shocked at the ratio of Shio Kombu (seaweed) to beef in the final product.  Nevermind that though, they grilled up just fine, and held together pretty well (Thank you milk powder).  I served the sliders with a double condiment bar.  The first being American Burger Bar featuring homemade ketchup, homemade pickles, apricot tailgate mustard (good stuff), and sliced garden tomato.  The second was Asian Condiment Bar featuring Rhubarb-Fennel Kimchi, Sliced Pork Belly, Ginger-Scallion Sauce, and Sriracha.  Notice there was no cheese.  Chef Dufresne hates hamburgers{9}, but loves cheeseburgers, especially those with homemade American cheese.  As I wasn't able to make my own cheese in the allotted time for this dinner, my sliders were served cheeseless.  I prefer to think of it as an aesthetic choice rather than necessity, but we'll let history be the judge{10}.  Anyway, the dual condiment bars seemed to confuse the guests.  Here they had a seaweed slider that may or may not even be edible and they were presented with a nearly infinite number of choices{11} on how to dress their burger.  How were they supposed to decide?  Anyway, once the burgers had been dressed we sat down to get to eating.  The burgers were pretty darned good.  I think someone might have even said it was the best burger they'd ever had{12}.  In all likelihood, I had just set the bar improbably low with the name seaweed slider that anything halfway edible was going to get raves, but let's not dwell on that.  Burger success!

I should mention the sides. Actually, I probably shouldn't mention my sides.  Garlic green beans with black sesame.  The green beans were picked past their prime and not as tender as green beans should be.  Carrots with Miso Butter.  I intended to grill these, but didn't have room with the sliders, so I tried to bake them.  They were soft outside and crunchy inside and the miso butter didn't really melt, but didn't not melt.  Not the texture I intended on either front.  But the flavor was ok.  Both made for excellent add-ins as leftovers.

The sides I should mention were from the guests, who went above and beyond the call of duty.  Evelyn brought Tri-Color Eggs, a beautiful dish featuring eggs three ways: Salt Cured Eggs (Xian Dan), 1000 Year Eggs (Pi Dan) and just regular old eggs (Dan?).    It was delicious.  As were the Korokke (Japanese Croquettes).  Jamie made a Watermelon Sangria that was also very tasty, refreshing and more potent than it seemed.  Kim provided the finale with a Lemon Curd Freezer Pie that was a fantastic finish to the meal. 

So that's it.{13}  I'm posting the menu here for your enjoyment.  And I hope to get back to my original menu plan sometime in the near future.  But I have to say that although I didn't have high hopes for a burger cookout, it worked out ok.  I got to try some new things, some of which I'll probably do again now.

{1}  I'm pretty sure he never actually used the words "big vicious gut punch," and a little more sure that if he did it wasn't in a lovingly manner.  But I don't really know for sure. 

{2}  I don't really know if the Japanese invented umami, but I also don't know that they didn't.  When I made that statement I was really just banking on the fact that you don't know either.

{3}  I'm not sure if green beans really scream cookout, but they are in season so work with me here.

{4}  I say awesome because I really had no idea what dashi stock was supposed to look, smell or taste like, but it seemed appealing in a brothy kind of way so I figured it was probably a pretty good dashi.  

{5}  I'm not saying that anything I made qualifies as complex.   

{6}  I'm not as sure about this as I sound. 

{7}  Tomatoes.  Corn on the Cob.  Peaches.  Lemonade.  Just for starters.

{8}  Everyone liked it...I think.

{9}  I'm not sure why I know this, or even if I know this, but I believe it to be true.

{10}  This doesn't even make sense.  Why would history be the judge? If anything, shouldn't it be the future.  Regardless, Yes.  I am pretentious.  I think maybe I expected this dinner would someday be written about in the history books.  It would be pretty damn hard to provide a more thorough account than this though.  Is anyone actually still reading? 

{11}  Actually 256 distinct options if I know my math, which I might not. 

{12}  I'm not lying, I really think this.

{13} Finally.

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