Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sofrito: A Savory Recipe for Fabulous Flavor



















Sofrito is the mirepoix of Latin cooking. Daughters learn how to make this savory flavor base by spending time with family matriarchs in the kitchen and listening to their stories. During my childhood in the Bronx I learned that there wasn't a difference between a nonna and an abuela when it came to keeping recipes secret. This was especially true if the creation in question was the culinary signature of a good cook in the culture.

The Puerto Rican abuelas and Italian nonnas I knew as a child had a healthy respect for memory because that is where they kept most of their recipes. If you asked nonna for a tomato sauce recipe or abuela for a sofrito recipe the answer was the same, "a little of this and a little of that" or "my English is no so good." The language barrier always puzzled me as these women seemed to understand more than they led on. You could see it in their eyes when they listened to conversations at the dinner table; you couldn't hide anything from them.

Grandmothers who cooked regularly didn't have to write recipes down because instinct took over when they prepared their signature dishes and sauces. They read their creations as they cooked like one reads words in the pages of a book. They'd smell, taste and make adjustments with preternatural finesse. As a child I had a deep sense of curiosity about the work of their hands. The perfect balance of flavors in their food made you feel like you were floating on air as you sat at the dinner table. The more you ate the more you felt like all was right in the world, and that you were loved unconditionally. That is what eating a good home-cooked meal does and it's what motivates the busiest of people to continue doing it today.

Figuring out how to make a delicious tomato sauce is possible if you have access to a variety of Italian cookbooks and the patience for squeezing San Marzano tomatoes by hand. Finding a good recipe for sofrito is an all together different affair. I became obsessed with procuring a genuine recipe for sofrito in 2008, after I tasted Puerto Rican Sweet Plantain Lasagna. When the cook yielded her recipe, it came without handwriting. Josephine Nieves gave me a salad dressing carafe filled with her boricua sofrito and told me, "It has a bunch of culantro, a head or more of garlic, sweet red bell pepper and extra virgin olive oil. Make it and taste it. You'll know when it's right." I listened closely to my friend Josephine, beloved abuelita of Jacob.

The perfume of sofrito is sublime. Its flavor supports many dishes as it melds with meat, dairy, fish, poultry and vegetables. I used my sense of smell and taste to configure the exact proportion of ingredients used in Josephine's sofrito and created my first few batches of sofrito using culantro, an herb that can be found in neighborhoods where Puerto Rican culture thrives. Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for sofrito makes use of cilantro in place of culantro (sanctioned by Josephine) as the flavor profiles are similar and cilantro is more readily available, (culantro is stronger and earthier than cilantro and is sold in small bags at market). This sofrito recipe in this post includes annatto and oregano which add earthy qualities that cilantro lacks when compared to culantro. You can leave these two ingredients out if you prefer.

After you make Glass Petal Smoke's sofrito try it in an omelet to see how beautifully the ingredients meld together, (1 teaspoon for up to three eggs). You can also add sofrito to chicken stock (1 tablespoon for each quart of stock) and make soup using chicken, vegetables and pasta. If you use your imagination there is little that will not taste good with sofrito; including spaghetti sauce.

Sofrito
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 1 to 1 1/2 cups

Ingredients:
  • 1 bunch of cilantro (rinsed, stems removed)
  • 12 cloves of garlic (up to 15 if you love garlic)
  • 1 1/2 medium-sized red bell peppers (two are fine if you prefer)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground annatto seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano (ground distributes flavor evenly)
  • 1/2 cup and 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (fruity type)
Directions: 
  • Peel garlic cloves and slice vertically so the pieces look like small discs, (see first image in the Sofrito Flavor Cube that accompanies this post). Allow the garlic to rest for 15 minutes, as you continue prepping the sofrito ingredients. This will increase flavor and allicin content.
  • Rinse cilantro in cold water to remove residual soil. Separate leaves and discard stems (the later will make your sofrito stringy and watery, even if you use a food processor).
  • Rinse, seed and slice red bell peppers in preparation for use in a food processor.
  • Pour olive oil into a small measuring cup.
  • Measure dry spices into a small bowl.
  • Layer ingredients in a 3-4 cup food processor, with the exception of the olive oil.
  • Add olive oil to the layered herbs, vegetables and spices.
  • Alternate between the chop and grind setting on your food processor until you have a paste. The cilantro should be thoroughly macerated.
  • Store in a glass jar or freeze for future use.
Notes:
The flavor cube photo includes four ingredients used in the sofrito recipe. They are (clockwise, from top left to bottom right): garlic, annatto, red bell peppers and cilantro leaves. Design by Michelle Krell Kydd.

Cilantro is sold by the bunch in supermarkets. It is usually two hand spans wide at the top.

Annatto adds flavor and color. It has a sweet, woody and earthy profile.

Mexican oregano is more floral and less medicinal tasting than the Turkish variety. You can substitute marjoram if Mexican oregano is not available.

If you have access to culantro use 1 and 1/2 bunches in place of cilantro in this recipe, (two bunches if you amp up the garlic).

Visit The Posh Latin Cook and follow Elena Carlo as she takes you a flavorful journey regarding all types of sofrito. Es muy sabroso!

When Celia Cruz sings "Yo Le Pongo Sazón" (translation, "I use seasoning/flavor") she means it. It's no coincidence that half of the video for the song, which includes Celia's recipe for an enduring marriage, is filmed in a kitchen. Cruz and husband Pedro Knight Caraballo were married for 41 years, so it's worth taking a cue from Celia and adding a little sazón to your life using sofrito. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Using Food Grade Essential Oils in Baking



















When it comes to baking with food grade essential oils there is little in the way of guidance for the uninitiated. Food grade essential oils are highly concentrated. Though used sparingly they are capable of producing deeply nuanced effects that are as memorable as they are delicious. Food grade absolutes are also available to bakers, but these are even more concentrated than food grade essential oils. Confused? Glass Petal Smoke will clear things up so you can expand your flavor horizons in time for the holidays.

Food grade essential oils are not new to the market. Boyajian and LorAnn meet traditional flavor needs, which include nature-identical flavors. Williams Sonoma offers a curated selection of Mandy Aftel's "Chef's Essences" which include; nutmeg, basil, black pepper, ginger, and yuzu food grade essential oils. Aftel, who single-handedly started the trend in natural perfumery, was selling food grade essential oils to chefs before flavor materials were available for purchase on Aftelier.com. Once she added these flavor materials to her palette of offerings molecular gastronomists and mixologists couldn't resist using them. The effect on consumers familiar with these types of flavorants was no different.

Food grade essential oils and absolutes are highly concentrated. If they aren't properly diluted they can erode the lining of the esophagus and damage tooth enamel. Understanding how to use them in a recipe is both an exercise in flavor creation and safety. How can something safely used in dilution be problematic at full strength? Concentrated essential oils are capable of behaving as solvents—which is why perfume and flavor extracts are diluted in alcohol or food grade glycerin. Want a more tangible example? Consider orange oil cleaners sold in supermarkets and health food stores. They don't cut through grease because they are "natural"; concentrated essential oil of orange cuts through grease because solvents break things down. This is not meant to engender fear of using food grade essential oils; it is meant to inform a common sense approach to proper dosing of flavorants while instilling a healthy respect for chemistry

If you are going to add "food grade" essential oils to your recipes use them in the same dilution as store bought flavor extracts, which are dosed between one and three percent. A one percent dilution is one drop of "food grade" essential oil to 100 drops of grain alcohol. A three percent dilution is three drops of "food grade" essential oil to 100 drops of grain alcohol. Once you prepare a diluted form of the food grade essential oil you can use it in your recipe as you would any store bought extract; by the teaspoonful. Be patient with yourself and your recipes as you will be learning to add flavor in a whole new way.

Food grade essential oils can also be directly added to fats in a recipe. This method can be applied once you have a handle on working with food grade essential oils diluted in alcohol. Butter is an ideal medium for food grade essential oils as creaming butter allows for the even distribution of flavor. A good range for adding food grade essential oils to butter is 1-3 drops of food grade essential oil to recipes calling for one quarter to one cup of butter (4 tablespoons - 2 sticks). Some essential oils, like lime and bergamot, can be used with a heavier hand (4 - 8 drops) because they are more volatile, (which is why they are categorized as top notes in perfumery). Anything more than these prescribed amounts and you might wind up with pastry that tastes like air freshener.

Notice the repeated specification of "food grade" essential oils in this post? Essential oils that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA (section 582.20 of the FDA code) are not essential oils sold in health food stores for aromatherapy and scenting the skin, (even if they are labeled as "natural"). If you are going to use "food grade" essential oils check the FDA list regularly and make sure that the food grade essential oil you plan on purchasing is on the GRAS list. Organic "food grade" essential oils are highly recommended. Concentrated absolutes (stronger than essential oils) sold as essences for flavor application may contain trace amounts of hexane, a solvent used in the aroma extraction process that is a known neurotoxin. CO2 extracted absolutes (made using Supercritical carbon dioxide) are a better choice for flavor application as the extraction process allows the character of the raw material to come though in all its subtleties. Supercritical carbon dioxide is safe and kind to the environment so your purchasing choice respects the planet and palates of those who eat your pastry.

Feel like expanding your flavor horizons using food grade essential oils? Glass Petal Smoke has three cookie recipes that are perfect for the holiday season; Frankincense Shortbread, Orange Blossom Crumiri, and Bergamot Crumiri. The dough base in all of these cookie recipes can be tweaked to accommodate flavors that inspire your imagination. All you have to do is make adjustments where existing citrus zest, extracts and food grade essential oils are used. P.S. If you prefer to go gluten-free you can use the pastry base in Glass Petal Smoke's Persian Shortbread recipe and tweak for flavor.

Notes:
When you work with food grade essential oils make sure to purchase disposable plastic pipettes. Bottles with built-in droppers can get clogged and don't allow you to measure with precision. Some food grade essential oils don't come in dropper bottles so you'll need disposable pipettes. Glass droppers can be used if they are dedicated to a single flavor material only and are cleaned thoroughly after use. 

Visit Aftelier.com for exclusive Chef's Essences that aren't available on the Williams Sonoma website. 

Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils, a cookbook by Mandy Aftel and Daniel Patterson, is out of print. The book contains sweet and savory recipes that include food grade essential oils. Glass Petal Smoke recommends buying a used copy for reference as it is co-authored by a perfumer and a chef.

Painting of Laboratorio by Remedios Varo

Creating tinctures is another way to add flavor to food. Herbalists have used this type of essence creation for centuries as alcohol extracts the aromatic and medicinal aspects of tinctured material. If you've made vanilla extract you have dabbled in tincturing. Want to know more about tincturing? Stay tuned. That's a future flavor post on Glass Petal Smoke

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Taste of Tarragon: Heaven in an Herb Paste



















The aroma of tarragon is not limited to the verdant lexicon typically associated with herbs. Tarragon isn't pungent, resinous, or redolent of citrus or floral notes. Tarragon is woodsy and anise-like, with an undercurrent of vanilla; not what you would expect of the herb if you relied on sight alone.

Tarragon is wonderful in chicken, vegetable, and fruit dishes. The herb imparts a refreshing quality due to the presence of estragole, a molecule that adds a quality of freshness that works well in sweet and savory applications. Flavor caveat; tarragon sings when combined with eggs, cheese and mushrooms. Finish the omelet with a touch of mustard and Imam Bayildi has competition in the category of  "food so good you could swoon."

Tarragon is best used fresh versus dried, (this is true for most herbs, but it is especially true of tarragon which develops a dusty, minty quality when parched). Glass Petal Smoke's recipe for Tarragon Herb Paste can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or frozen and used as needed. The addition of orange peel adds a subtle finish similar to the complementary twist of lemon peel in a martini. Organic tangerine or mandarin can also be used in place of Valencia orange in this recipe as each has an underripe green quality that complements tarragon.

Tarragon Herb Paste
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 1/2 cup

Ingredients:
  • 12 medium-sized sprigs fresh tarragon (removed from stem)
  • 4 medium-sized shallots
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds (non-roasted, with nut skin attached)
  • 2 teaspoons zest from an organic orange (Valencia is best)
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (fruity type)
Directions:
  • Rinse tarragon under cool water and pat dry. Gently press your thumb and forefinger against the tarragon stem, pinching it as your fingers slide down to detach the tarragon leaves. Remove unsightly leaves.
  • Peel shallot bulbs and slice horizontally in quarter inch slices.
  • Measure slivered raw almonds.
  • Rinse and dry an organic orange. Zest the peel using a Microplane Zester. Use a measuring spoon to dole out two teaspoons of zest.
  • Measure the extra virgin olive oil.
  • Layer non-liquid ingredients in a food processor (a 3-4 cup food processor will do).
  • Add the olive oil.
  • Make a paste in the food processor, alternating between the grind and chop settings until a paste is formed and the tarragon is well incorporated.
Notes:
Tarragon Herb Paste can be added to Greek-style yogurt and used as a dip or sandwich dressing.

Tarkhun is a tarragon soda popular in Russia. Food Perestroika has a recipe for tarragon syrup which can be used to make homemade tarragon soda. Tarragon syrup is the perfect addition to the adventurous mixologist's shelf.