Friday, February 24, 2012

The Easiest Balsamic Glaze

Many years ago, I discovered a magical product.  Trader Joe’s sold a small plastic (squeezable) bottle of something they called “balsamic glaze,” a thick and gooey and luscious nectarous substance that resembled chocolate syrup.  Once I got the hang of its various uses, I drizzled it over appetizers, salads, meats, and even desserts. 

Then the product disappeared.  (As a sidenote, I have to say I hate it when a store like Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus World Market, or Costco offers up some tantalizing new goodie only to snatch it away once you get addicted.)  I even asked Trader Joe’s employees about it.  Gone.  I was briefly devastated—and I do tend to get that way about food disappointments—but I decided that I could bounce back.  After all, my pantry always has a large bottle of a good balsamic vinegar.  Why not make my own?

These days, I see recipes for balsamic glaze everywhere.  But, honestly, it’s like being offered a recipe on how to boil water.  The process is so simple, and the end product so extraordinary, that I wondered why I ever bothered actually purchasing balsamic glaze (which probably included some not-so-great-for-you ingredients like corn syrup) rather than making my own.

Ingredient List:

Balsamic Vinegar.

Note: I would suggest a high quality vinegar which you can buy in a fairly large quantity, and that’s where places like Costco come in handy.  Their Kirkland label of balsamic vinegar is rich without being expensive, and the liter bottle makes you feel like you are not squandering too much if you have to sacrifice a 2/3 cup to make the glaze.  I would not recommend a really expensive aged balsamic vinegar.  For instance, Olivier’s 25-year Barrel-Aged Balsamic Vinegar, sold through Williams-Sonoma or directly from Olivier of Napa, is probably one of the most heavenly balsamic vinegars I have tasted.  You shouldn’t cook this down—and most people cannot afford to.

Anyway, see how streamlined that ingredient list is?  To make it a bit more challenging, I’ll suggest that it might be useful to have a non-reactive pan (to cook down the vinegar) and a small squeeze bottle (to pour the product into once it cools).  A spoon would help too.  But really, nothing else is needed.


1.  Pour about 2/3 cup of the balsamic vinegar into the saucepan and turn the heat somewhere between medium and medium high to let the liquid come to a fairly rapid simmer.  Then step back from the vinegar fumes which will waft up to meet your nose.  If it is boiling too vigorously, reduce the heat. 

2.  Stir with a spoon occasionally to check the thickness of the cooking vinegar.  When you get to a point where the spoon (or sides of the pan) can get a thin caramel colored coating, you are almost done.  Your pan should look something like the picture below.

The whole process should take about 8 minutes once it comes to the rapid simmer.  The vinegar should look a little thinner than you think a glaze (think chocolate sauce) should look, but you don’t want to overcook it.

The vinegar will thicken (and harden!) as it cools.  If you wait until it looks like actual glaze or chocolate syrup, I guarantee you that it will become like hard candy once it cools.  Here is the same glaze after it has cooled down. 

3.  Carefully pour the cooled glaze into a squeeze bottle (using a funnel helps) where it will keep (unrefrigerated) for quite some time.  That’s it.

Possible Uses for Balsamic Glaze:

  • In the picture at the top of this post, I’ve drizzled the glaze over tomatoes, along with crumbled goat cheese (feta works as well) and basil.  You can also substitute it for regular balsamic vinegar over a Caprese salad of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil. 
  • Take wedges of radicchio or halved Belgian endive, wrap prosciutto around them, and then coat lightly with olive oil.  Grill for a few minutes on all sides to wilt the radicchio and cook the prosciutto.  Squeeze on some balsamic glaze, sprinkle chiffonaded basil, and crumble some mild goat cheese.
  • Assemble a cheese platter and include some dried figs and/or dates.  Pools of balsamic glaze over and around the dried fruits make the cheese platter more special—and the acidity nicely cuts the creaminess of cheeses.  You can also dip strawberries or other fruits in the glaze.
  • Smear glaze over smoked pork chops and grill until the (pre-cooked) chops are warmed through and the glaze is nicely charred in some parts. 
  • Some restaurants also serve the glaze with garlicky crostini and sardines, making a special snack out of old-fashioned sardines. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Savory Kimchi Pancakes (with Step-by-Step Photos)

Do you remember that full bottle of kimchi I got for our Bi Bim Bop dinner just a few posts ago?  Well, that's almost all gone now with only about a cup left, and what's remaining is sour and pungent--well, more sour and more pungent than usual. Perfect!  I usually wait until this stage in the depletion and fermentation of a bottle of kimchi to make a savory Korean sidedish.

It might sound like I’m suggesting that you cook up a Tabasco-and-sauerkraut doughnut, but it’s not quite like that.  Think zucchini pancakes, but with sour and spicy notes.  You must understand though that you need to enjoy kimchi in the first place to enjoy kimchi pancakes—sort of the way blueberry pancakes probably won’t make you like blueberries more if you just don’t like those berries.  But if you like kimchi and potstickers, it’s quite possible you’ll enjoy kimchi pancakes.

No, you do not eat kimchi pancakes the way you would your breakfast pancakes.  These are eaten sometimes as a savory snack by themselves and most often as a side-dish, one of the numerous “ban-chan” that covers a Korean dinner table.  In case you are not familiar with the way Koreans eat, you want to start with the principle that food is eaten communally.  Sure, diners have their own small bowl of rice and sometimes even their individual serving of a soup or stew.  But really, you need to get comfortable with taking your portion of the main dish (meat, fish, etc.) and ban-chan from the same bowl or dish that everyone else does since Korean meals are the quintessence of dining “family style.”

So, back to “ban-chan.”  You might see any number of these, from a modest 3 or 4 in some households, to literally dozens in some restaurants.  They usually include the ubiquitous kimchi, of various kinds—cabbage, radish, cucumber, whatever—sundry other marinated vegetables, stir-fried pieces of odeng or even dried tiny fish, a salted omelet-type egg custard, etc.  Kimchi pancakes—or seafood pancakes, or mung bean pancakes, etc.—are sometimes included amongst these ban-chan.  Often they are served with a soy dipping sauce, and the soy plays off the spicy pancakes nicely. 

Like regular kimchi, these pancakes are heavily spiced, so only the daring should really attempt to make or eat these, but here’s a simple, no-frills recipe if you want to make your own with the last remnants of your bottle of kimchi.

Soy Dipping Sauce:
2 T soy sauce
1 T rice vinegar (or regular white vinegar is fine too)
½ t roasted sesame oil
½ t minced green onion
¼ t coarse (Korean) red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients for the dipping sauce.  Really, you can improvise endlessly with this.   If you don’t have sesame oil and want to use roasted sesame seeds instead, fine.  No Korean pepper flakes?  Not a problem.  Use a bit of cayenne or some crushed pepper flakes or just skip it altogether. 

Kimchi Pancakes:
1½ cup flour
1 egg
¾  c water
1-1½  cup fermented kimchi, cut into thinner slices
¼ cup liquid from the fermented kimchi
2-3 green onions julienned into slices about 2 inches long
1 t roasted sesame oil
salt and pepper
canola, corn, or vegetable oil

1.  Combine the flour, egg, and water to make a thick batter.  Lightly salt and pepper the batter.

2.  Add sliced kimchi, the kimchi liquid, julienned green onion, sesame oil, and some more salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well to make a lumpy batter—which should take on a pinkish-orangish color.

3.  Heat a shallow and wide frying pan to medium-high with about 1 T oil.  (Oil should be hot enough that the batter sizzles a bit when placed in the pan.  Otherwise, the batter will absorb too much oil and not fry properly.)  When the oil is ready, mound some batter mixture in the center and spread out almost to the edges so that the pancake is a bit thicker than 1/3 inch.  Just like with regular pancakes, watch for the edges to start drying out a bit, getting a bit darker and more cooked than the rest of the pancake.  When it’s ready (probably about 3-4 minutes), gently flip over with a wide spatula and cook the other side until the inside is cooked (probably another 2-3 minutes).  Continue cooking and re-flip if the pancake is not brown enough for your (aesthetic) taste.

4.  Remove pancake, and repeat with the next.  When the pancake is cool enough to handle, slice into wedges or into rectangles.  Place on a serving platter and serve slightly warm or room temperature with the soy dipping sauce.

If you like these, you’re soon on your way to ever more exotic kimchi dishes like kimchi soup, kimchi stew, or my husband's favorite kimchi fried rice!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Southern Fried Chicken Dinner (in Chicago)

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we love fried chicken.  (I earlier devoted a post to comparing the relative merits of Thomas Keller’s and David Chang’s fried chicken:  When the cover of our February 2012 issue of bon appetit featured a fried chicken drumstick (with the usual claim of it being the “best fried chicken ever!”), we felt we should give the traditional southern style a whirl as well.

Will thinks this was the best version of the three, and I agree with him that the single dipping in the flour and cornstarch mixture produced enough crust (more than David Chang’s no flour coating) but not too much crust (less than Thomas Keller’s double-dipping in seasoned flour).  Perhaps this is the Goldilocks version of fried chicken crusts.  On the other hand, I would still have to say that the (skinless) chicken tenders version might benefit more from Keller’s double-dipping; and there is something to be said about that soy-vinaigrette on nothing-but-pure-fried-chicken flavor of Chang’s recipe.  I reserve my judgment for now.

Some elements we found interesting with the bon appetit version:

1) Not brining but rather dry-rub seasoning the chicken parts:

Thomas Keller has you brine the chicken overnight (12-24 hours).  David Chang has you brine the chicken 1-6 hours, and then steam it before cooling and frying it.  The bon appetit recipe has you dry-rub the chicken (and letting it sit overnight) with a mixture of salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder.  We liked this dry-rub better because the seasoning permeated the chicken pieces rather than just being on the breading.  At the same time, the salt in the dry-rub helped keep the pieces moist—and briny—without actually brining for a long period.

2) Using a cast iron frying pan:

We’d heard people swear by cast-iron skillets for frying chickens.  bon appetit talks about how the cast iron retains heat better to ensure even frying.  Others have mentioned that the cast iron gets the chicken pieces almost caramelized on the bottoms, with skins a darker brown, than submerging the entire piece in hot oil.   We usually prefer deep-frying, but we tried the cast-iron for the “Skillet-Fried Chicken” recipe.  Apparently you make up for the pieces not being submerged by turning them every 1-2 minutes.  We opted for turning every 2-3 minutes not only out of sheer laziness but also because turning every 1-2 minutes seemed unnecessary. 

The cast iron does produce a darker fried chicken, but I’m not sure we thought it was necessarily more caramelized or more evenly cooked.  We have two cast irons and debated between the 12-inch, wider and shallower Le Creuset or the 10-inch, taller, and straighter-sided pan.  I’m glad we went with the taller one since the ¾ inch of oil necessary for frying might have spilled over in a shallower skillet once we put all the chicken pieces in there.  With a smaller pan for frying, we ended up having to cook in 3 batches instead of our usual 2.  The jury is still out on whether we needed to use the cast iron skillet. 

For our Southern Fried Chicken dinner pictured at the top of this post, sides included:

Sauteed rainbow chard:
Our CSA box for this week had included rainbow chard, and we had bacon drippings left over from breakfast.  Seemed like a no-brainer to me.  (We don’t actually keep bacon fat in a coffee tin a la some southern cooks, but we do have a little bowl that we keep drippings in—you know, just in case we need to sautee some greens or fry up an egg.)  I sweat onion slices in the bacon fat with some crushed red pepper flakes, then throw in the tougher stems for a few minutes, then handfuls of leafy parts of chard (or spinach or kale, or collard or mustard greens) until tender.  It is important to salt at the end, after the leaves have shrunk down so that you don't end up oversalting.

Garlic mashed potatoes:
Lots of garlic boiled along with Yukon Gold potatoes, all mashed together with salt, whipping cream, butter, and a little milk (to pretend we’re being relatively healthy).  Who needs gravy?

Waffles with honey-butter:
We made Belgian waffles for breakfast and had leftovers.  With everything else going on in the kitchen, we weren’t going to have time to make buttermilk biscuits. But we had plenty of time to toast—to heat and re-crisp—our morning’s waffles.  Fried chicken and waffles are supposed to be a good (Southern) combination anyway, so that felt just right.  Combine butter with honey to make a honey-butter for the waffles.

All in all, between the 3 fried chickens we tried recently, there is no clear winner.  I’d make them all again.  And, given my propensity for fried foods, I’m sure I will be trying ever more recipes for fried chicken…