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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chili Con Carne (PTC - DS)

I really have to admit -- this was the first time I was ever tempted to accuse Personal Trainer - Cooking of base fraud. Seriously, when you look at the ingredient list, if you know anything at all about traditional "chili con carne" you'd have a hard time wondering how this particular version deserves the name.

However . . .

We have to keep in mind that the recipes here were developed by the Tsuji Academy, whose main function in society is to teach Japanese homemakers (and other foodservice professionals) how to cook. This is, therefore, a cultural artifact -- in the same way that a McDonald's hamburger, in Tokyo, isn't going to taste the same as a McDonald's hamburger in Des Moines. This is the Japanese interpretation of a typical American dish, tamed for the palates of Japanese schoolchildren and citizens who have a rather sensitive palate. (What the Japanese consider "suicide hot," we would call "moderately spiced." Keep that in mind.)

Ingredients: Perhaps I should explain to you what this recipe doesn't have, and you can make a judgement that way. What it doesn't have: Cumin. And chili peppers, either in fresh or powdered form.

These two elements, really, are what make a Western chili, and are far more important than even the argument about "beans / no beans." Cumin provides the "backbone" of traditional Western chili, no heat in and of itself but the point on which flavours can mount. And "chili" without the actual "chili" itself?

Which is not to say that there aren't spices for this recipe. There is paprika. And here, again, PTC doesn't get too specific, because there are two types of paprika on the market now: sweet, and hot. Since this is chili after all, and since I've got it to start with, I opted for the hot one. There's also cayenne, and if I wanted to up the heat factor to Western tolerances I'd double the amount recommended for both.

What else is there? Well, there's carrot, which isn't that unusual. There's also "frankfurter sausages" (a.k.a. hot dogs), which will raise some eyebrows; however, considering that such a thing as the chili dog does exist, and considering that hot dogs are actually quite popular with Japanese children (homemakers do make fake octopi out of them), it makes a certain amount of sense. There's also white wine, which gives the impression that the Tsuji Academy essentially thinks that chili starts out as a French soup. (And they use chicken stock, as well.)

Techniques: I did learn my lesson from previous recipes, which is that you shouldn't trust the recommendations that PTC has for cooking utensils. Here, the recipe called for a skillet. Unless you've got a real big one, trust me: a Dutch oven makes better sense.

The process starts out as a mirepoix: you cook finely chopped onion, carrot and garlic until tender, then add ground beef, tomatoes (canned, with canning liquid), white wine, bay leaves and flour (for a thickener). Put in broth, add beans and sliced-up weiners, cook for at least 15 minutes, spice with cayenne, paprika, salt and pepper and serve. No particularly fanciful techniques are called for, which is the way it should be for Western chili; but this is the type of recipe where long stewing won't hurt anything.

Results: Well, I'll be honest. What I'm tasting here is a bean-and-wiener stew with ground beef. I cannot honestly call this a true chili, though I might justify the moniker by saying it's Japanese chili. You really miss the cumin and the peppers with this one. It's still edible, and I might serve it to schoolkids, but no way I take this to the International Chili Society as a potential entry.

There are better chili recipes out there; even one from a comic book. I'm afraid I'll have to call this one a fail.