Friday, July 8, 2011

NYPL: What's On The Menu?

I think it is safe to say that my niche is turning out to be foodnerdery.  Which is why I am ashamed that I missed the New York Public Library's initial announcement about the friggin' awesome What's On The Menu? project.  What's on the Menu? is a crowdsourcing project chartered to take their incredible menu collection and transcribe it.   Before you think that no one would contribute to this, allow me to say that you are a cynical jerkward, aaaaannnnd... as of July 8th, 2011, there are over 430,000 menu items transcribed.
Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851-1930

The NYPL menu collection has about 40,000 menus dating back to the turn of the century.  Approximately 25% of the menu collection is available online, but only searchable by high level meta data about the restaurant, not the menu data itself.  The first stage of the project is to take the menus that are already available digitally and have folks like you and me input what's on each menu.

I started playing with it recently and the interface is pretty slick.  Within a couple of seconds I found myself contributing to the effort by clicking on menus and transcribing dishes.  It has enough smarts to provide the right kind of inputs for whatever menu or menu item you are transcribing.
What On The Menu? Transcription UI
While I could go on and on about the tech side, what I think is really going to be awesome is how people will use the database.  They plan on keeping it open and offer API and/or data export capability, so if you are a food historian trying to grok the rise and fall of various food trends, you'll only be a couple clicks away.  Wait, you are a notable chef with a restaurant built around time and place themed menus?  Pretty sure your New York, 1897 just got easier.

My question to my readers are: If you had access to a crazy huge menu database that chronicles some portion of how we ate over the past 150 years, what would you use it for?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Sous Vide Vacuum Conundrum

SousVide Supreme Zip Pouches/Bags - quart size
SVS Zip Pouch
My posts on SousVide Supreme Chamber Vacuum and on the Combi Oven nicely lead up to the subject of the value of the vacuum, and its role in low temperature cooking.  For most home cooks exploring low temperature cooking, there are two primary reasons why you use vacuum sealed bags: heat transfer and eliminating buoyancy.  Even though sous vide literally means under vacuum, you don't need to vacuum seal to achieve most of the desired affects of low temperature cooking.  The truth is, you can use a ziplock bag, manually remove the air out of the bag, and pretty much achieve both of these goals.

FoodSaver V2240 Advanced Design Vacuum Food Sealer
FoodSaver Clamp Vacuum 2240

That being said, using a vacuum sealer is considerably more convenient.  Especially if you are cooking products that tend to float or you are going to be using like 50 bags.  Most consumers are familiar with the food saver style vacuum sealer.  The foodsaver is an example of an external clamp vacuum sealer.  These sealers suction the air out of a bag and then heat-seal.  If your bag contains liquids, then you are likely to remove some liquid as well, which can affect the quality of the seal and also make a huge mess.  There are ways to mitigate this, including freezing the liquids and double bagging, but they have their own challenges.

VacMaster VP210C Dry Piston Pump Chamber Machine, Metallic
VacMaster VP210C Chamber Vac

Chamber vacuums operate by placing your bag into the vacuum and putting the open end under a sealing bar.  The vacuum sealer then removes all of the air from the entire chamber, including the bag.  Since the air pressure stays equal both inside of the bag and outside (in the chamber), the liquid doesn't get sucked out of the bag.

At this point, you are probably wondering why someone would spend 700$ on a chamber vacuum when 130$ buys you an external clamp vacuum sealer.  The truth is, there aren't that many cases where a chamber vacuum is essential for low temperature cooking techniques.  Apart from the ability to vacuum liquids you can also control the strength of the vacuum.  The vacuum strength can be used to influence the texture of the product.  The chamber vacuum is not just useful for sous vide, as it is also handy for other techniques, including: compression, rapid marination and infusion of liquids.  While clamp vacuum sealers can sorta do some of those techniques, there are limitations, including lack of control and degrees of effectiveness.

Handy vacuum charts
The distinction between vacuum sealer versus non-vacuum sealer is most important for commercial and professional kitchens, where the use of a vacuum may require an HACCP plan to minimize the risk of botulism or other food borne illnesses.  This basically means that restaurants wanting to utilize modern low temperature cooking will have to take on a bunch of extra overhead, including additional process and inspections if a vacuum sealer is used.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"Loaded" "Risotto"

When your dish has a word or phrase in quotes, you are probably being a heretic.  This act can be forgivable when performed artfully.  When the name of your dish has more quotes that words, you are being sacrilegious.  Fortunately for me, I don't work in a kitchen, and like ten people read my blog.

For those ten that do, I bring you a special treat.  An actual recipe.  Not just a recipe but a photo of some food I actually made.  I usually veer away from this being a cooking blog because I don't think all that highly of myself as a cook or as a photographer.  And really, who needs another dipshit on the internet writing recipes.

But hey, it's 4th of july.  And I was inspired by someone on twitter who twoted:

 Demian Repucci 
'Baked Potato Bar' risotto:) The 6min.  method. Awesome. 

I thought this was clever and figured I could embiggen the cleverness by subbing out rice for potato.   I used my fingers' mortal enemy, the mandoline, to thinly slice the potatoes. Then I cut the slices down into rice-ish sized pieces of potato.  I think potatoes release starch better than traditional risotto rices and also has a shorter cooking time.

And, really, what's more American than the loaded baked potato.  Simple carbs?  Lots of fat?  Minimal use of nutritional vegetables?

Happy Independence day, 'Merica.

"Loaded" "Risotto" 
"Loaded" "Risotto" - Recipe  

2 Scallions, white and green parts separated and sliced
1-2 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped
Bacon (Or baco bits to keep it veg)
1/2 Russett Potato, cut into rice sized pieces
1.5 TBS Olive Oil
1 TBS Butter
1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar, Shredded
3/4 cup Brocoli Florets
  1. Roast the brocoli in the oven.  I used 350ºF for ~20 minutes.
  2. Heat chicken stock or water in a separate small saucepan.  
  3. Combine butter and olive oil in skillet over medium heat.
  4. When butter and olive oil come up to temp, add white parts of scallion along with garlic and bacon.  Let this cook until the garlic is starting to brown. 
  5. Add potatoes and stir quickly but gently.  They will absorb the fat pretty quickly.
  6. Add a ladelful of stock/water to the pan and continue to stir slowly, letting the liquid reduce and the starches release from the potato.  
  7. WHILE POTATO < ALMOST_DONE THEN GOTO 6. (Approximately 15 minutes for me)
  8. When the potato is almost done, should be cooked but not mushy, add the brocoli and the cheddar cheese.  
  9. Adjust seasoning (salt and pepper) and garnish with cheese, green parts of scallion and more bacon/baco bits.
I think there are a lot of variations to try here.  Some that I am going to incorporate in future revs:
  • Add sour cream at the end
  • Make a cheddar cheese and scallion broth
  • Beer to deglaze
  • Serve in a potato skin
  • Use yellow cheddar to improve color
  • Remove skins to improve color

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