The coolest of the cold season has already past, but we are still enjoying what is, compared to the rest of the year, very pleasant weather. Of course, wintry weather leads to the craving of hearty foods: soups, stews, braises and baked goods.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve pulled out the Dutch oven several times, filled with a desire to cook.
On the menu last week was a roasted sweet potato soup. I’ve always been a bit confused at the distinction between “yams” and “sweet potatoes” in the US. The confusion is more pronounced here in Thailand as there seem to be three distinct varieties all sold under the single lable of “sweet potato”: a purple skinned variety with bright orange flesh (what I called a “yam” in the US), then two pale yellow flesh varieties, one with purple skin and another with a white skin.
Settling for the purple skin and pale yellow flesh, I rasted the potatoes directly on the oven rack for ninety minutes, until the flesh was soft and sweet. Sadly, it was also very dried out and fibrous, leading me to wonder whether these were the slim pickings of last season’s crop.
At the same time, I prepared a simple chicken stock: celery, onions, carrots and chicken wings simmered for an hour.
After straining the vegetables and wings, I peeled and chopped the sweet potatoes, adding them to the stock, pureeing with the immersion blender and then letting the soup simmer for another hour.
The mixture was enhanced with some salt, pepper, bay leaf, tumeric and cumin, lending a subtle but pleasant South Asian flavor. As is the case with almost all soups, the flavor was much enhanced after a day spent resting in the refrigerator. The ingredients just needed a chance to meld together and exchange flavors.
I served the soup garnished with homemade croutons a shaving of Parmesan cheese (although a dollop of plain yogurt would have been nice, too) accompanied with a simple salad of mixed organic greens and roasted Italian sausage.
The cooking adventures continued this week as I’ve long wanted to try a recipe for no-knead bread that appeared in the New York Times. I’ve heard of this from several sources, the idea that what makes for a really good bread isn’t so much the kneading as it is the amount of time the dough is allowed to rise.
The premise of the recipe is that you make a very wet starter dough, cover it and let it rise in a cool spot for about 18 hours. The challenge here is that we don’t have any very cool spot, although we did have relatively cool weather over the weekend.
To keep the dough from rising too fast, I actually brought the bowl into the bedroom where the air conditioner was running overnight. Tawn was a little concerned that I might let it sleep on the bed, too.
The following afternoon, I encountered difficulty following the instructions: using as little flour as possible, work the dough into a ball and then set on a floured towel and let rise again for two hours.
The dough was so wet and sticky that it was like sticking my hands in a vat of paste. I ended up using more than one and a half additional cups of flour (on top of the three cups already in the recipe) and doing some kneading to incorporate the flour into the dough, before it was dry enough for me to handle without all of it sticking to me.
So much for no-knead dough…
About a half-hour before the dought was finished rising, you place a Dutch oven on the lowest rack of your oven and pre-heat it to the highest possible temperature – about 500 F / 250 C. Then, being very careful because the Dutch oven is really, really hot, you remove it from the oven and then place the dough into it without much concern for shape or appearance.
You then put the lid back on and return it to the oven, baking covered for 30 minutes at the highest temperature. Then you remove the lid and continue baking at a slightly lower temperature for another 15-30 minutes until finished.
Removing the bread from the Dutch oven was a bit of a trick, resulting in a lot of toasted flour being scattered in the kitchen and nearly singeing my hand.
As the bread cooled on the rack, you could hear it pop and crack as small fissures in the crust expanded. I actually tried to record the sound with my digital voice recorder but the microphone wasn’t sensitive enough to capture it. Sorry!
The end result was actually pretty good. The texture was closer to those large loaves of rustic sourdough or Italian pugliese than I’ve been able to make before. The flavor was addictive, especially with some extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar! Still, there’s some work to do to improve upon the recipe. I need the dough to be dry enough to handle, or else the whole “shape into a ball” portion of the recipe just won’t work.
Also, I’d like to try a smaller circumfrence for the loaf. Maybe if I put a ceramic souffle dish inside the Dutch oven? I’ll keep experimenting. If you want to come over for some bread, let me know.
The third wintry food was braised red cabbage and pan-fried duck breasts. This is a specialty I’ve enjoyed at many restaurants, most recently at Minibar Royale on Sukhumvit Soi 23. Red cabbage is so healthy for you and when braised slowly, it becomes so sweet and plesant to eat.
Playing around with a melange of several recipes, I made mine a bit heavy on the carrots and onions, as both of those are nice when braised, too. The premise is that after sauteeing the ingredients for about ten minutes, you add spices and equal parts of red wine and stock (homemade veggie stock, in this case), cover the Dutch oven and put it in the oven for about three hours, stirring every so often.
That’s all good, but I discovered that my Dutch oven doesn’t have quite as tight-fitting a lid as it could, so the liquid absorbed/evaporated and a half-hour into the oven, the vegetables were threatening to scorch. I added more liquid and then placed a sheet of aluminum foil under the lid to better seal it. That worked pretty well, but I still had to add cooking liquid a few times.
Along the way, I seasoned and fried a pair of duck breasts. This is the first time I’ve cooked with duck at home, so I wasn’t entirely sure of how best to prepare them. Pan frying worked okay, although I didn’t get as much of a sear on the exterior as I wanted.
Afterwards, I added the duck breasts to the cabbage mixture for some exchange of flavor. This had mixed results. The duck tasted okay, although a bit under-seasoned, and was a little tough.
Maybe placing with the cabbage wasn’t such a good idea and it should have just been pan fried and put on top? I’m open to suggestions if you have any. (Maybe I should just stick to a single recipe and improvise a little less, especially my first time out?)
To accompany the meal, I prepared some polenta, chilled it in a tray then sliced and baked it. It could have used a little longer baking to develop a crispier exterior – maybe pan fry first – but topped with some sundried tomatoes and melted mozzarella it was pretty tasty.
Above, the finished product: sliced duck breast served with braised red cabbage and baked polenta with sundried tomatoes and cheese.
Whew! That’s a lot of cooking. What to prepare next?