Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spring Rolls for the Serious Eater

And with this post we begin our first official battle for who will make rolls for the family reunion when our mom leaves the cooking to us...Big Brother or Little Brother...you decide.


Before I go on, I need to address some semantics. Some people argue that what we're making is called a "summer roll" because it's fresher than an egg roll (commonly called a spring roll) and would be something apropos for summer. Does that mean you'd want something fried in the spring? I tend to associate fried with county fair and county fair with summer. Needless to say there needs to not be an English cognate for this dish, and there needs to be some respect for where it came from, i.e. one does not call sashimi "raw fish slivers." From now on, they will be referred to as Goi Cuon (say "goi" like you're asking a question about it and say "cuon" with an upwards inflection).


Today was inaugaration day and aptly so, I decided that the old guard need meet the demands of a more modern palate. Though what Little Brother said was true regarding my never having eaten goi cuon until later in my life, I've come to enjoy their freshness very much. It may be perhaps true however, that because I did not grow up with the traditional taste of goi cuon that I could not appreciate the preservation of tradition as much as he might today. That being said, if this is a competition about being true to one's culture, he wins. My mom actually wins because she most likely helped him.

On my end...I've applied my own philosophies about cooking to the dish, combining elements of both versions of goi cuon presented by Little Brother and then taking it a bit futher.

Crunch. It's missing in his goi cuon. One can say that a crisp shrimp will suffice but it's still not satisifying enough. Jicama is crunchy so long as it's raw. And why put in poached pork if you've sapped away some of its flavor during the cooking process. Having cut down my intake of meat in the past year, I've made a conscious effort to make sure that if I'm going to eat meat, it's going to be well-thought out and play a leading role in my dish. Not only that, everything will be used. The answer?

Pork Crackling Goi Cuon.

The crackling is fairly time consuming but even at a 24 hour wait time and 45 minute bake time it's still worth it in my humble opinion. While waiting for the crackling, you can prepare all the herbs and vermicelli as directed on Little Brother's site, including the jicama. Don't fry the jicama though. I also added some pickled carrot strings made with my Benriner (carrot + vinegar + sugar +water).

I remove the skin off of a 5lb slab of pork belly (stay tuned for what I do with the rest of the belly later on) and cross hatch the skin side. I then make a seasoning salt mixture of sea salt, chinese five spice, sage, and white pepper. I rub the seasoning salt generously into both sides of of the pork skin and then let the skin rest on a bed of paper towels in a sealed container in the fridge for 24 hours. In this time, the salt has drawn out a fair amount of the water from the skin. After patting the skin dry, it's ready to be baked.

Some people follow recipes that call for frying pork skin, however in experiences past I've definitely almost burned an eyeball by dropping a moist skin into a vat of hot oil. Bubbly and life-threatening. Not only that, you end up with a curled piece of skin which is not worth anything more than eating like a Frito.

Enter the technique: Preheat an oven to 400F, prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the pork skin on the paper, skin side up. Place another parchment sheet onto the skin and lay a similar sized baking sheet onto the upper layer of parchment, sandwiching the skin. Then weigh the upper sheet down with something oven-proof--I chose to use a casserole dish filled half way with water. This will ensure that your product lays perfectly flat and can be chopped into strips. Bake for 15-20 minutes and then take out, pour out all the fat into a heat-proof bowl, flip to skin side down, weigh down again, and place back into the oven for another 15-20 minutes. Decant the fat once again and this time leave the skin open to air and do not press with the sheet. By this time, your skin should already be fairly dehydrated and maybe even slightly crisp on the sides. If not, keep pressed and render some more fat out. Bake for another 15 minutes until dry; if you're impatient you can put the skin in the middle rack and turn the broiler up. If you do this however, watch closely because the skin will burn quickly. However, you should end up with a nice bubbly, crunchy pig skin.

And remember how I said I don't like to waste things? Use some of the rendered pig grease to fry your jicama in, with some added salt and white pepper. Some of the grease should have carried some of the seasoning flavors from the crackling as well.

Roll your goi cuon just as in Little Brother's instructions and in this case, you don't even need a sauce because the crackling is flavorful enough. The exotic flavor and freshness of the herbs, moist vermicelli with the sweetness of jicama, combined with the crunch and umami of pork crackling. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Papa's Potatoes

So last week my Little Brother posted about my quirky father who definitely deserves a nod in my blog as well.

My dad has spent the better half of his life working to support his family, working from 3pm -11pm to make sure that someone could be home to take care of the kids in the day time. His work is fairly stressful and he commutes about an hour a day, each way in Los Angeles traffic. All this taken together makes for a man who snacks a lot to keep him awake during drives and eats his dinner at midnight, sleeping immediately afterwards. I spent my teenage years really embarassed to drive his car, which would always be littered with orange peels and peanut shells, but I never really expressed these sentiments either because I understood what he was going through. Nowadays I'm more concerned about his eating habits because they've led to a case of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) from eating at night. **

**By eating at night not only do you stimulate stomach acid production at an odd hour, but by sleeping afterwards you end up preventing gravity from taking its course in moving food downwards, instead letting a lot of food in your stomach slide up to the sphincter that separates your stomach from the esophagus. This pressure on the sphincter can cause it to relax and allow stomach acids into the esophagus, leading to heartburn.**

Anyhow, I try not to give him much grief about the late night eating because it was during the times that he was eating at home late at night that we caught up on time in my life that he'd missed while I was at school and while he was at work. He made me french fries...the ultimate subject of this post.


I have my dad to thank for this guilty pleasure to be found in potatoes. Few weeks would go buy where I didn't have fresh cut french fries. However, since leaving the house I've tried to be a bit healthier by avoiding frying. I've gotten more into the habit of baking and broiling potatoes, now finding an ingenious invention for making oven-baked fries.

It's a benriner, a Japanese spiral slicer. I got one for my mom, but hers is a vertical loading version [and the model on her box does not look nearly as horrible]. The horizontal model that is pictured is supposedly a better model, however the vertical model allows gravity to help keep the vegetable in line with the blade for even slicing. With the horizontal model, one has to apply steady lateral pressure into the blade. But let's take a look at the results...I started out with some Okinawan sweet potatoes for color and then some old-fashioned golden potatoes.

Note that the spirals come out as one continuous strand, which makes them extremely fun to eat...although a challenge to cook. The benriner also has blade attachments for the creation of fine strings, however my goal today was to make some baked chips.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the spirals in some olive oil and salt. Add other seasonings as you like; I added some lemon pepper to my potatoes. The Okinawan sweet potatoes I simply added salt because they're naturally somewhat sweet. Lay the spirals out onto a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake for 10-15 minutes or until they crispen to your liking. Careful with the Okinawan sweet potatoes though because they go from delicious to carcinogenic sooner than you can say "Okinawan sweet potato."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Two brothers, cooking for the love of one mom.

Food has a way of bringing families together. Except for mine.

This is my mom. She was a foodie before it was cool to be a foodie. I have memories of her trying to get me to try new foods, and me not willing to try them. I'm pretty sure this has always made her really sad inside to not be able to share her world with me. And I'm pretty sure this is why she's never liked me as much as she's liked my little brother who used to eat everything...even fermented fish paste. Blech! But I'm older now and after leaving home to travel the world and become a professional, my palate has grown from In-N-Out french fries and french toast to duck-fat pomme frites and brioche. I think she likes me more now and I ask her for advice about how to prepare various dishes all the time, but does she like me more than she does my little brother? Argh. If only she could see how much better I am now...

Anyhow this isn't a blog about my mom--that's too much a happy and inspirational story that we hear all too often. This is a much darker blog about the divisive rivalry seen amongst two brothers. Will said rivalry elevate the brothers to sharpen their knives and become better cooks? Or will their competitive natures drive them to lose sight of that simple desire to make their mom proud? This is Big Brother Cooks and I hope you'll enjoy following our competition to see whose cuisine reigns supreme, letting us know who you think is more deserving of his mother's love. In the mean time, I'll be supplementing the blog with numerous recipes and photos of what I've been eating so that my mom knows that even though I'm away from home, I'm eating healthy.

This is my little brother. He thinks he can cook better than I can, but as you can see in this picture, the flame is very much doctored. He hasn't flambe'd anything in his life and if he has flambe'd something, it means that he's somehow acquired alcohol. He's 20. I think I'm telling mom.

Congratulations on your acquisition of photoshop skills over the years, Little Brother, but this is kitchen stadium and now everyone knows that you're a cheater.

End of round one. Big Brother 1, Little Brother 0.

Thanks for reading and be sure to check out my little bro's blog at http://littlebrothercooks.blogspot.com.

~Big Brother