Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cooking Old and New School in Corozal

While I've been sharing some pictures and recipes of food I've been making on Facebook, it dawned on me that I haven't done a food-focused blog post in quite some last October. What can I say? Hopefully this post will begin to update everyone on my kitchen adventures.

Let's start with going old in making tortillas. I was fortunate enough to participate in a cooking lesson with a Belizean lady by the name of Estella. She's Colleen and Bruce's friend, and it became quickly apparent when we started talking that cooking is her major love.

Estella has been making her own tortillas since she was about 12-years old. As a result, it should come as no surprise that she doesn't measure any of the ingredients. To make things a bit easier for me and Bruce (okay, mostly for me), we did some rough measurements. And it should also not come as any surprise to those of you who read our blog to know I was writing down every step Estella led us through. What follows is her method of making tortillas, but there are probably as many variations as there are people who make these.

You'll need about 2 1/2 cups of flour, 2 Tablespoons baking powder, 1/2 Tablespoon salt, 1/4 cup lard, and 3/4 cup of water.

Combine all the ingredients, adding more water or flour to form a rough ball of dough.

Just like working with any dough, the ratio of water to flour will depend on what kind of flour you use, the temperature, the humidity, the mood of the dough gods. Adjust, adapt, and get into that baking state-of-mind.

Knead the dough until smooth and elastic.

According to Estella, you need to use your hand to push the dough and it's okay if it starts to tear. Why? Because once the dough is pushed out, you roll it back up on itself, roll the seam on the board a few times, then push it out again. All of this pushing and rolling helps to incorporate the lard and work with the gluten in the flour.

Next you want to form a small, loaf-shaped log...

...then pinch off golf ball-sized pieces. Coat your hands with a tiny bit of lard and roll the pieces until smooth. Place on a sheet tray or whatever pan you have handy and let them "sleep" (proof) for about half an hour.

Once the dough balls are finished sleeping, it's time to cook them. Let me introduce you to my new kitchen gadget:

This, my friends, is a comal [koh-MAHL]. It's made of lightweight metal (for quick heating) and they come in all different sizes. This particular one is about 7 inches, but I have another that is about 11 inches in diameter.

Put the comal on the flame to get it hot. Now this is another one of those areas where you will probably need to experiment a bit. You want the comal to be hot, but not so hot it will sear the tortillas.

While the comal is heating up, you can start to press out your first tortilla. Estella recommended using a plate with a diameter slightly smaller than the comal. I took a gander in my cupboard and found the perfect plate to use...

...LASSIE! The flat, bottom part was the perfect size. Just as a quick aside, I've had this plate since, gosh, I was about three years old, I think. If I remember correctly, there was a matching bowl, but that got lost somewhere along the line. And of all the things for me to bring to Belize, I wasn't coming without this. Yet another testament to my weirdness.

Anyway, you want to lightly coat the bottom of the plate with some vegetable oil, place one of your dough balls on the plate, and press into a flat circle.

By this time, your comal should be up to temp, so pick up that piece of flattened out dough by the edges and put it on the comal. If it loses it's shape a bit, don't worry. This is's rustic...they will still taste great. And with enough practice, you can make the pick up and placement to the comal in one fluid motion.

While the tortilla is cooking, you can start to press out your next tortilla on the plate. Remember to oil the plate before pressing the dough out. Also remember to keep an eye on the tortilla on the comal. When you see the edge just raise a bit from the comal's surface, give it a flip.

I write "give it a flip" but I have to tell you that Estella used her fingers to flip the first one or two she showed us how to make. Me? Ehhh, not so much. I use a spatula to raise an edge, then flip it over. If anyone runs the risk of burning fingers, it's me.

When the tortilla is done, take it off the comal and place it on a dish towel and use the remaining towel to cover and keep warm.

Repeat the plate oiling, pressing dough, place on comal, flip step, place on stack under dish towel until all tortillas are done.

I wish you could taste these. 

They're a bit fluffier than the kind you get in the stores here and have more flavor. After I made a batch on my own, I decided to play around a bit with the recipe.

For one batch, I decided to forgo using lard and used duck fat instead. Yep, duck fat. It gave a lovely, slightly smoky flavor to the tortillas. I plan to make a batch using bacon fat and expect a similar smoky taste profile.

In another experiment, I made a batch of sweet tortillas by adding some sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla extract. These turned out great! Not too sweet, just enough to make a great snack. At some point, I want to play around with these sweet babies as a base for some kind of dessert; maybe a riff on a Napoleon.

The bottom line is that you can take this recipe in so many directions and it's pretty straightforward to do. Chances are you won't go back to store bought tortillas anytime soon.

New School Cooking Fun

I have been fascinated by the world of molecular gastronomy (a.k.a. modernist cooking) ever since I started reading about chefs like Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Ferran AdriĆ  and a host of others who introduced their restaurant patrons to a new way of experiencing food using ingredients not normally found in kitchens. 

Just what kinds of ingredients are we talking about? Well, stuff like Agar Agar, Xanthan Gum, Lecithin powder, Iota and Kappa Carrageenan, sodium alginate, tapioca maltodextrin, calcium lactate, to name just a few. Hardly being a science whiz, this kind of stuff was enough to make my head explode.

So I decided I needed a guide to help me out. Enter Modernist Cooking Made Easy. This book is the perfect introduction to the ingredients and techniques. The other big benefit is that, for the most part, the recipes in the book don't require any high-end kitchen gadgets. If you have a food scale that measures in grams, an immersion blender, and a few other basic bits, you can be on your way.

However, the ingredients themselves were another story. As the whole concept of modernist cooking is still relatively new, it can be difficult to source ingredients if living in a developed country, such as the US or Canada. But I live in Corozal, Belize, where it's not uncommon for stores to run out of things like butter or ricotta cheese. Clearly sourcing things locally like Agar Agar or Iota Carrageenan was probably not in the realm of possibility. 

But all was not lost, because a few months ago we were putting together an Amazon order to have shipped here. So I added a few of the more basic ingredients to the shipping list and Voila, I could start the first steps in my cooking journey.

The first thing I tried were cranberry juice gels. 

These were made by combining cranberry juice and a few grams of Agar Agar. Once they set up -- and it happens pretty fast -- you can cut the gel into whatever shapes you like. 

But let's talk about the taste. You see these small gels on a plate, pop one in your mouth, and go...Ohhhhh! It tastes exactly like cranberry juice, just not in the form that you're used to. I served these on the side of an omelet and some fried potatoes. The nice burst of tartness really worked well. But I could easily see them being part of a fruit plate. And here's a cool bit of info: the gels will remain a gel as long as they stay below 176F degrees. It may be one of the few things here in Belize that won't melt!

My second foray into modernist cooking was making balsamic pearls.

These were lots of fun to make. First I placed some olive oil into a tall(ish) container and put it into the freezer for about 30 minutes. Then I got started on the balsamic. Similar to the cranberry gels, I combined vinegar and some Agar with an immersion blender, brought the mix to a simmer, then poured it into a small squeeze bottle.

Then you squeeze some of the balsamic into the cold oil and pearls are formed. I would suggest using a squeeze bottle with a fairly small opening to better control the size of the pearls. I can't tell you how many times I said to myself, "This is soooo cool!" Then again, I'm easily amused.

After creating a bunch, which settled to the bottom of the oil, I scooped them out and rinsed them off in a bowl of water. 

These lovely bits can be used straight away or be refrigerated, covered, for several days. How can they be used? Well, wherever you might normally sprinkle balsamic in its liquid state, use these...on top of a steak, salad, on top of some slices of tomatoes and mozzarella. You get the idea. They provide a wonderful, unexpected POP of flavor, without overwhelming the dish they are being used on. Next I want to try using this technique with sherry vinegar. Sprinkled over some fish? Oh my...

In the coming weeks, I plan on making a roasted garlic olive oil spread, apple cider syrup, and definitely some bacon powder. Will post here and on Facebook with the results.

In the meantime, stay tuned for another food post where we will take a quick tour of some of the meals that have appeared on the Wright table in the last few months. Duck confit anyone?