Tuesday, November 25, 2014

caramel alchemy

Partner-in-life has been on a too-long ice cream jag, which would be all right except for all the sugar carbs  that tempt me to share the jag, and two more reasons, #1 that he has eschewed Ben and Jerry’s creaminess (and priciness) for Second-Best-Local-Ice-Cream. SBLIC, which used to be really good, is now, due to a family quarrel regarding quantity vs quality, not as good as it used to be: It tastes icy instead of creamy.

P-i-L HAD brought home one of those B&J pints with a core of caramel down the middle of it. That was dicey in that it was TOO good. Next he bought the SBLIC Sweet Cream flavor, which sounds so good but was still icy, and a little jar of brand name (SureFine? Smuckers?) caramel which sported as first ingredient high fructose corn syrup. That was Reason #2. I put that little jar on the porch. I said, “You take that right back, we don’t eat that kind of Stuff in this house.” Dotter was home, knowing (as did he) that I was right. But. Caramel! “What do you think that caramel core in B&J’s was made of?” he whined. I hate to think.

Well, actually, I did think and so I looked it up. Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Core Ice Cream has about 23+/- ingredients but, though it does list corn syrup, it is apparently not high fructose corn syrup.

Twenty-three ingredients! Ice cream is best when you have three ingredients. In June those would be Cream, Sugar, and Strawberries. In July substitute blueberries for the strawberries. Caramel should have 2 or 3 ingredients: sugar, cream, and maybe butter. Added together that’s 4 ingredients, most of it sugar.

So one night, right after the marvelous shrimp dinner that I wrote about 2 weeks ago, that he and she had cleaned up after, with SBLIC Sweet Cream looming, almost without thinking I plunked the black cast iron skillet on the burner and turned it up to medium-high heat and, when it was getting there, poured a cup of white cane sugar into it, then shook it a bit, and turned the heat down a bit and stood looking at it, as did dotter.

“What...?” she said. “Just sugar...?” she said, as the edges of it browned and sank and ate at the interior, and a couple of hot spots in the center began to spread.
“Yep,” I said, “caramel.” A gasp. “I didn’t know it was such alchemy,” she said.

Alchemy, yes: When you think what different substances ice cream and caramel are, both made with almost the same ingredients.

I modulated the heat, picked up the skillet to that end, put it back down, turned the sugar with a silicone spatula, and when all was melted, white turned to amber and that turning dark reddish brown, watching witchfully, as soon as it “was just past the point when it starts to smoke,” (David Lebovitz) I turned the heat off and added heavy cream that I’d warmed in its own container in a bowl of hot water, Thomases again, and stirred carefully as it rose whoosh up the sides of the pan (silicone gloves are handy) stirring with that silicone spatula. I turned the heat back on low and when all was incorporated I turned the heat off again and added a couple lumps of salted butter and swirled them in. It was gorgeous. 

Ice cream sundaes were made with that Second-Best-Local-Ice-Cream’s Sweet Cream flavor topped with fresh, pillowy red raspberries and then that Surprise Caramel Sauce that astonished me as well as them, because it disappeared over the berries and ice cream only to be re-discovered in the process of spooning it up where it had formed its soft, round, buttery mouthfuls deep in the ice cream and berries.

Chemistry. Ain’t it grand?

Post Script: This is privileged stuff, having the sugar, the pan, the stove, to cook. How many people don’t. I can’t imagine. But I know it happens and so I give my money to people who can help those who haven’t even the basics, Vermont Foodbank. Please give to them this holiday season and every other season. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Shrimp with a Snap

Let’s just say that flaccid shrimp are not my cup of seafood!

I found the following instruction in a recipe posted by a popular cooking show: 

"Immediately drop in the shrimp (to a moderately hot pan) and stir for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the shrimp are turning pink and are barely firm. Turn the shrimp into a serving bowl..."
Did you say UGH as loudly as I did?

A friend told me of his dear friend who habitually brought rather limp shrimp to events, so that one time when he forgot to cook them at all no one noticed. Flaccidity in shrimp is not your friend; as a matter of fact i can't think of an instance when it is a good thing. If you have anything in your home that the word flaccid could apply to it is probably a good idea to get rid of it.

But that wasn't the only thing that was wrong with that recipe. It called for the shrimp to be brined in a mixture made of water, 1/2 cup sea salt, 1/3 cup cane sugar, and 1/3 cup medium-hot chile powder! Soak for twenty minutes and then dump all that chili powder and sea salt out? I don't think so.

Sometimes we glom onto old advice that does not benefit us. For instance it is certainly possible to handle pastry dough too little and it is probably done quite often simply because everyone is paranoid about "handling it too much," advice that benefits only the makers of store-bought pie crust. After all, the stuff has got to hold together. 

Ditto about cooking shrimp and lobster for a short time "so as not to make it tough". Well, I'd rather have it tough than flaccid. But most of all I'd like it firm and with a bit of snap when you bite into it. A juicy snap.

A few weeks ago my daughter was flying out the next day to drive a u-haul back here from North Carolina with her significant other and all their belongings. That night called for a special meal for her to remember and come back to and that's why I picked up her favorite, shrimp, that had been imported from an Ecuadorian shrimp farm by Green Mountain Fresh down on State Street.

I'd been talking to Ingrid Wisell there about the advantages of farmed shrimp versus wild shrimp when owner, John Schramm, walked out and said he'd stack up his farmed E-Z Peel shrimp against wild-caught any old day. So I ordered 1.5 pounds of E-Z Peel. 

It's cheaper than wild-caught –  about $12 a pound that day as against just about $17 for the wild-caught –  and Ingrid had told me that most of its food is swept over it in the wild ocean, and that food is supplemented with appropriate other wild food. "It is definitely not fed chicken feed," she said, rather offended, but dispelling my greatest fear.
To prepare that shrimp I set my oven to 450° and placed a heavy cast iron griddle in it and as it heated I peeled the shrimp. E-Z Peel means the shells have been cut up the back, which makes them perhaps E-Zier, but not really E-Z, to peel. As I peeled them I lined them up on a flat, rimless pan so they would be easier to slide onto the hot griddle when it was time. 

I have an old oven so by the time it had come up to temp I had prepared the shrimp and thin-sliced the last green tomato from the garden and fried it in some lard (rendered by Pine Woods Farm in West Pawlet) in a heavy cast-iron frying pan. 

I removed that flaming hot griddle from the oven ever-so-carefully, drizzled it with just a bit of olive oil to prevent the shrimp from sticking, then slid the shrimp onto it and placed it back into the oven for about 2 minutes. Back out they came to be doused with half a stick of melted butter and 2 or 3 cloves of finely chopped garlic. Back in for another 2 minutes, and when they came out this time I sprinkled them with the juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon, some coarse sea salt, and covered them with a bit of parchment paper and let them sit and sizzle and drink up the flavorings for a few minutes. 

They were served atop polenta made from a bit of masa harina that I'd cooked down for a long time until it was positively gluey, then thinned with Thomas’ heavy cream and grated cheddar. Slices of that wonderful green tomato went on the very top, juices were drizzled and chopped fresh parsley was strewn over everything.

It was exquisite, the shrimp snapped with flavor and texture, and the meal did its job – Daughter showed up safely, right on time a few days later and again lives in Rutland. 

Good shrimp'll do it every time!