Monday, February 22, 2010

Niku-jaga (PTC-DS)

It's not actually called "niku-jaga" in the index of Personal Trainer: Cooking. Instead they refer to it as "Braised Beef and Vegetables" -- perhaps to convince an American audience that it's familiar and not frightening. Nonetheless, the notes refer to this as niku-jaga, the homestyle Japanese beef-and-potato stew.

The main difference between this and Western-style stews is the use of Japanese ingredients in the braising liquid -- particularly dashi broth. And it's one of the areas where PTC surprisingly disappoints.

Ingredients: Beef and potatoes, of course -- with more potatoes than we'd see in a Western-style stew. (It must be remembered that the Japanese, by and large, aren't big on eating meat.) Onions and green peas, also not out of the ordinary for a stew.

Dashi broth, though -- this is where I got surprised. PTC will tell you how to make beef/chicken stock for its French recipes, which is a good idea and definitely good to know. It does not, however, tell you how to make homemade dashi stock. It tells you that it's made from bonito flakes and seaweed, and that it's easy to make -- but that's it. No recipe whatsoever.

There is, of course, a workaround. I happen to have an authoritative recipe for dashi -- from Shizuo Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. This recipe gave me the excuse to try it out, with some pantry items I got from the last time I went to Edgewater, New Jersey, to visit the Mitsuwa Marketplace. In 20 minutes I had a litre of dashi, a little heavier in flavour than what the book recommended but still usable for this PTC recipe.

Techniques: I did get another surprise, but this one was somewhat better: the directions explained how to make a drop lid.

Traditionally, this would have been made of wood, and if you ever watch a Kurosawa samurai movie when they cook with a pot, you'll see that the lids are made of wood. That's because they're designed to float on top of the ingredients, rather than just sealing up the pot; this helps concentrate the cooking liquid's penetration power, apparently. PTC recognizes that not every American household is going to hop onto the Internet to buy a drop lid, so it shows you how to make one out of aluminum foil.

The other steps involved are fairly straightforward: cook the onions and potatoes together, then brown the beef in the same pot, put the onions and potatoes back, pour in the dashi, season with sugar, mirin (which is much easier to get these days) and soy sauce, cook with the drop lid for a short period, then serve.

Results: I think maybe next time I won't use as much sugar as the recipe specifies, but the dashi does add a semi-smoky flavour to this stew. I think I might also add some cornstarch as a thickener, because it is a touch more watery than I normally prefer for a stew.

I'm tempted to give PTC a fail on this one, mainly for not telling the user how to make the required dashi, but the dish tasted well enough that I'm willing to let this particular faux-pas slide.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spaghetti and Meatballs (WCJO-DS)

Let me just say, right now, that this recipe is a cheat. Yes, it's very easy to do and yes, it also appears in one of Jamie's books and yes, it's a good recipe for teaching kids how to cook, but it's still a cheat. And when you look at the ingredients, you'll see why.

Ingredients: Canned tomatoes, check. (At this time of year, they've got more flavour than fresh tomatoes anyway.) Basil, check. Onion, check. (The recipe calls for red onions, but I substituted a white, which works fine.) Garlic, check. Italian sausages ...

Whoa there. I thought we were doing meatballs, what's going on here?

Techniques: Oh. I see. You snip off one end of the sausage, squeeze out some of the meat, and that becomes the meatball.

And that's why it's a cheat. It's not your meatball that you're preparing here; it's the butcher's meatball that you're proposing to serve. In essence, this falls into the same class as using those frozen, pre-packaged meatballs at the supermarket; yes, technically it's still home cooking, but you don't have as much personally invested in the dish.

Another point: rather than getting browned in a frypan, the recipe calls for the sausage meat to be simmered in the sauce. Which might explain a peculiarity of this particular recipe.

You see, it calls for adding a cup and a half of water to the stewing tomatoes. I don't know about you, but that strikes me as resulting in a very watery sauce, which may be how the British like their spaghetti, but personally I like something a bit thicker.

So instead of water, I used red wine: a cheap Italian sangiovese. The result was something a little (actually, a lot) darker than my usual pasta sauce attempts, but it might still be appetizing.

Results: Well, the butcher's meatballs turned out pretty well, good texture to the bite. The rest of the sauce was still a lot thinner than I would have preferred; I think that next time, I'll add another can of tomatoes instead of the water.

Wait a moment. I've still got a lot of recipes in both WCJO and PTC to get through; what makes me think there's going to be a next time?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Coq au Vin (PTC-DS)

There are, I'm sure, a ton of French chefs who would take a look at Personal Trainer : Cooking's recipe for the classic Coq au Vin, and blow a gasket. "Where are the lardons?" they might cry. "Are they so stupid not to tell the cook which wine to use? Where is the stewpot? How can you make anything good with this one?!"

Mind you, they'd probably say the same thing about Julia Child's recipe for coq au vin. Although she uses lardons, she omits the long marinade time that the classic recipe seems to want, and that PTC to its credit includes. And the results actually work pretty well.

Ingredients: The recipe called for whole chicken legs, which is good because that happens to be the best part of the chicken for stewing. I opted for thighs, with bones and skin on.

Although PTC doesn't get specific about the type of red wine to use, I opted for a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region of France, from Bouchard Pere et Fils. 12 bucks Canadian a bottle, which is pretty good for French wine. (It's pretty drinkable too.)

PTC includes the classic mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot, along with garlic, bay leaf and thyme for the marinade, flour, butter (for cooking the chicken), broth (they recommend veal, I used a vegetable broth because I had it on hand), and of course salt and pepper.

My personal addition: the lardons those strawman French chefs would have been protesting about. I cut up a couple of slices of side bacon into matchsticks for that.

Techniques: I must say, the idea of a marinade strikes me as a pretty good one; a way to break down the proteins in the chicken meat. For the amount I made, it took half a bottle of the Pinot Noir, before the marinating bowl was full.

When it came to cooking the chicken, I used my 14" skillet to melt the butter and fry the bacon bits, then coated the patted-dry chicken pieces in flour. (PTC recommends using a deep dish for the coating step, which is actually known as dredging; I wound up using a couple of Ziploc freezer bags to do a shake-the-pieces job.)

Once again, I came across PTC's penchant for overestimating the amount of liquid used for stewing. But I've gotten used to this by now; my best bit of advice is, add what you think is right.

Results: Very nice. The thing about stews is that they're pretty much impossible to overcook; the thigh meat was tender without being stringy, and the resulting gravy didn't have the bitterness I normally associated with the wine-cooking process.

I don't think I'd recommend this one for the kids (the wine, you know), but I'd rank this one as one of PTC's better efforts. Not authentic? Pah. Give the cook confidence by making this a few times, and then they'll be ready to tackle authentic.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

British Lamb Stew (PTC - DS)

I'm planning on a trip to London, England in a couple of weeks, so I figured I should try my hand on English cooking -- or rather, Tsuji Academy's interpretation of English cooking. Personal Trainer: Cooking has ten recipes listed under Great Britain, which is slightly startling (since English cooking isn't exactly all that well known), but intriguing. This British lamb stew turns out to be one of the easiest recipes in PTC.

Ingredients: How easy? Lamb leg meat, potatoes, onions, stock and seasonings. That's it, that's all. I used red-skinned boiling potatoes, a sweet onion, tetra-packed low-sodium beef broth and organic vegetable broth.

Techniques: Once again I wish PTC would be a bit more forward about its teaching techniques. The recipe requires you to cut up the lamb into chunks, then put them in a pot of water, bring to a boil -- and then turn the burner off, transfer the meat into a bowl of cold water for "washing," then pat dry on paper towels. I recognize the technique as parboiling, and I will say that it works rather well for getting rid of a lot of the scum that usually rises whenever I boil meat while making soup.

The other odd idea is that the recipe calls for the potatoes to be sliced into rounds, rather than cubed. I half suspect that Japanese potatoes must be about the size of golf balls; once again, proportions are going to have to be carefully double-checked by the cook during the preparation phase.

The actual cooking is easy-peasy: everything except what's reserved as a garnish into a pot for a couple of hours.

Results: This is one of the nicest things about lamb: it creates a very sophisticated flavour no matter what you do to it. It all worked incredibly well, with the moderate seasoning.

If you were using PTC to teach a kid how to cook, clearly this is one of the first recipes they should try. Simple chopping and boiling / simmering, simple ingredients, profound flavour for the steps you take.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shepherd's Pie (WCJO - DS)

I suppose any baked meat dish with a mashed potato topping can be called a shepherd's pie, or "cottage pie" as the case may be. Having spent a great deal more time on Personal Trainer: Cooking than I'd anticipated, I figured it was time to give this one from What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver a proper tryout.

Unlike a lot of other recipes for shepherd's pie that I've seen, this one relies more on stewed and shredded meat than ground or minced. I guess that goes to Jamie's preferences for "rustic" or crude-looking dishes.

Ingredients: And right away, I ran into some trouble. The WCJO recipe calls for small amounts of pork, beef brisket and duck legs. At the supermarket where I shopped, duck legs weren't available, and the beef and pork were packed in amounts more suitable for a Scout troop. On a weekend camping trip. Where more friends were invited. In other words, too much for a single person. (If ever people wonder why more single people don't cook for themselves . . . )

What this meant was, instead of pork, beef brisket and duck legs, I wound up using bone-in stewing lamb, veal cubes, and chicken drumsticks. The supermarket did have smoked turkey legs, which I considered, but then I had a look at the ingredients on the package, and changed my mind. The drumsticks might be from battery hens, but at least they were chemical free.

The other vegetables were simple enough: carrot, celery, potatoes and parsnips. It was the last one, used as a mash along with the potatoes, that I elected to try out.

Techniques: The recipe called for open stewing of the meats, along with the carrot, onion and celery, in a combination of red wine and beef broth, in a 350-degree oven for about three hours. Giving it some thought, I figured I'd try another method for stewing: a slow cooker. Which meant frying the ingredients first, then deglazing the skillet.

Eight hours later I transferred the meats to one of my Corningware pyroceramic baking dishes, taking care to remove as many of the bones as I could. The vegetables went as well, but not so much the remainder of the cooking liquid. The potatoes and parsnips were boiled and mashed with butter and S&P, spread on top of the dish and dotted over with rosemary sprigs, and then I put the lot into the oven.

One thing I have to add about WCJO: I really missed the interactivity that was available in PTC. The audio, especially, was sorely missed: all you have are paragraphs that flash up. And once you complete the dish, you don't really get much by way of congratulation. It's something JO should think about, next time he tries putting his name on a cooking game.

Results: Not bad at all. The lamb and the veal were nice and tender, the chicken picked up quite a bit of flavour and the potato/parsnip topping got a nice crispy surface.

Leftovers the next day were interesting. I'd saved the stewing broth in a jar; after a day in the fridge it had turned gelatinous, which I hadn't expected. Put the gelled broth in a microwaveable dish along with some of the leftover pie, and the nuked results were quite satisfactory as a quick dinner.

Well, if I had to make a potluck contribution, this dish is definitely an option for me. I'd call this a pass: better than PTC's chili dish, but not quite on the level of that mulligatawny soup.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Salade Nicoise (PTC - DS)

I am informed, via one of Julia Child's DVDs, that Nice used to be a part of Italy until the 19th century, which is why the dish Salade Nicoise resembles an Italian antipasto plate.

I can well understand, then, why Salade Nicoise would be included in Personal Trainer: Cooking. There has always been great emphasis put on the presentation of a dish, in Japanese cuisine; it goes to the same esthetic that we see in the art of ikebana, and why Japanese mothers take such great care with the preparation of bento lunches. And a great deal of Salade Nicoise's appeal happens to be in its eventual presentation.

Ingredients: There's not all that much deviation between the ingredients listed in PTC and those listed in Mrs. Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking: green beans, boiled potatoes, boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, tuna, olives, capers, and a dressing made with Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar. The only real difference is that PTC uses green bell pepper, which is absent from Mrs. Child's version.

This time out, however, I decided I'd rely on my own interpretation of portions. One of the reasons why I don't eat salad at home very often is that, most of the recipes I have for salad make enough for five or six people -- which goes bad after a few days. So this time out, I elected to try to shrink the proportions down to something suitable for 1 or 2 folks. PTC has no allowances for this (they bring it down to three people, minimum), so I made a few guesses.

Techniques: This is nowhere near as complex as PTC's recipe for Boeuf Bourgignon, but I can understand why Salade Nicoise isn't made all that often: boiling beans, potatoes and eggs can be quite time-consuming. Which is why I opted for a boiling shortcut.

I have a Chef's Choice electric hotpot. Works just like an electric kettle, only it has a very wide opening on the top, which means I can actually use it to cook stuff. I elected to boil the egg and the potato at the same time: slip both in, switch on, let it automatically switch off once it boils, fish the egg out after 10 minutes and the potato out after 20.

In retrospect, I probably should have left the egg in for 2 to 5 minutes longer. After 10 minutes the yolk had barely set, which is fine if you're eating a hard-cooked egg straight out but doesn't work as well if you're using boiled egg as an ingredient: the egg tends to fall apart when you apply the pressure of a knife to it. The potato, on the other hand, turned out all right.

The other part that actually involved what I'd consider "cooking" was the making of the dressing: combining Dijon mustard with vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. PTC uses both plain and extra-virgin olive oil; I substitute corn oil for the regular one and it seemed to work out all right.

One thing I did notice with this recipe: while PTC will tell you how to do a technique, it won't necessarily tell you a term if it doesn't think you need to know. For example, it told me to boil the cut green beans briefly before chilling them in ice water. That particular technique is called blanching, and yet PTC doesn't mention it at all. (I can sort of understand why; the intended audience of inexperienced cooks wouldn't necessarily want to know such a cooking term if it got in the way of their trying to cook.)

Everything else was simply flower-arranging; since it was just me, I didn't care all that much, but if I do a potluck I'm pretty sure I'll do it much differently.

Results: If I were a teenager making this for the first time, I'd call it a success. I'm a middle-aged man, though -- and yet I'd still call it a success. It's very hard to screw up a salad; the only way to do that is to use stale or past-due ingredients. I'd call this one a keeper.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Boeuf Bourgignon (PTC - DS)

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. (Yes, I know. I wouldn't've thought Meryl Streep and Amy Adams would have gotten me interested in French cuisine, but there you go.)

As it happens, it's a fortuitous purchase, because now I have something to compare Personal Trainer: Cooking's French recipes with. And so we'll begin with Julia Child's recommended beginner recipe: boeuf bourgignon, or beef stewed in red wine.

Ingredients: I found I only had to make one substitution: the recipe called for veal broth, but I opted for beef broth instead. (There's a sub-module in PTC for actually making veal broth, but I felt that since it does say beef broth is an adequate substitute, why not go for it and save myself some hassle?)

As for everything else, it's a bit surprising but PTC's ingredient lists matches Mrs. Child's ingredient list almost to the letter. PTC also has an additional element that Mrs. Child's doesn't: a bouquet garni. It's fortunate that PTC explains how one is done up, because that's a term I don't think the game's intended audience could be expected to know.

Techniques: I have to admit, this is so far the most complex recipe that PTC has thrown at me. The first phase involves marinading the beef in red wine and a mirepoix of carrot, onion, celery, garlic and bouquet garni for a minimum of 5 hours. Which meant for the first time, I used PTC's save function: you can pause in the middle of the recipe, turn the DS off, and when you turn the game back on again there's a new icon you tap that lets you resume where you left off.

It's worth pointing out that Mrs. Child's recipe doesn't call for a half-day marinade. That's because her technique calls for a true stewing, i.e. cooking meat over low heat for 2 to 3 hours. PTC is more of a braise, which means high heat in an oven for slightly under 1 hour.

This was also the first time I actually learned something from PTC, in this case how to peel baby or pearl onions (it involves a warm-water soak for five minutes, trim and peel.) The learning of techniques, I found, was quite easy this time out.

A note about plating: the European method (as advocated by Mrs. Child) involves serving directly from the stewpot. PTC, on the other hand, is quite conscious of its original Japanese clientele: the meat and vegetables are placed in separate bowls, and the sauce is then poured over each. That's a very Japanese method of serving stewed dishes.

Results: Well, this is the first time I tried doing a Bourgignon, and I have to say, allowing for the water content (I probably should have given the sauce more time to reduce) it tasted pretty good. The meat was chewy but not tough, thanks to the marinade, and there was no alcoholic harshness from the wine.

I suspect that if I were to make Mrs. Child's bourgignon, the PTC recipe would come in second in comparison, but for now I'll give the Tsuji Academy a pass on this one.