… with ice creamy ice cream

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Chocolate & Salted Caramel Ice Creams

If you know me, you know there are few things I like more than ice cream. I have a saying that, “there’s always room for ice cream.” And it’s pretty much true. Over the last 10 years of so, I’ve owned a couple of different ice cream makers — an old school wooden bucket model with a motor on top, requiring constant supervision and rock salt and ice that could make a gallon; and a newer, simpler Krups cannister model that requires only a little bit of planning and makes a generous quart. Since getting the new fangled machine (and reluctantly donating the old one to Goodwill on a recent move,) I’ve been honing my recipes. The past few years have almost exclusively been dedicated to chocolate with a few variations.

I opt to go with the simplest and fewest ingredients as necessary. My habit had been to buy a quart of half and half, and end up using only 3 c. of it, and then figure out what to do with the extra cup. Recently, I had the revelation that I could just buy another pint for not much more and make 2 batches, resulting in a freezer that is almost constantly stocked with homemade ice cream. I tend to make a chocolate, and then go with some sort of wild card. In summer, when herbs, particularly mint, are abundant, I like to make a vanilla and fresh mint that would change the way you think about vanilla. This time around, though, my wild card was revisiting a Gourmet magazine recipe for Salted Caramel Ice Cream, one I made last summer that was real good. And this time around, it’s easily one of the best non-chocolate ice creams I’ve made.

I have found the trick to getting a great ice cream is attaining a smooth, creamy texture. And the trick to that is achieving the shortest freezing time possible. My method involves stashing your mixture in the freezer for 1-3 hours until it’s real good and cold, and then freezing in the ice maker, trying to target the 15-25 minute range for freezing time in the ice cream maker. For those that have never made ice cream in an ice cream maker, the machine should tell you when your ice cream is frozen. The motor will whir to a halt, go in reverse, or turn off completely when the texture has reached the optimal level. It’ll be obvious. Just read your manual.

Another technique I’ve been working on in regards to texture is to approximate something closer to gelato. A little lighter, a little less fat, but still creamy and delicious. In addition, in keeping with my simplicity tenet, I’m trying to keep the number of ingredients down. So, I’ve mostly eliminated eggs or egg yolks from my recipes. Likewise, I’ve eliminated the need to combine milk and cream in varying amounts. I just buy half-and-half and call it done. But how can I still get a great creamy texture? The secret ingredient is corn starch. I typically use 1-2 tablespoons, though have used more when appropriate (like when using something like fruit puree that might make the mixture thinner.) When mixing this into your boiling milk, the result is pudding-like, that is to say, smooth, thick and creamy.

A few more secrets —

  • When making chocolate ice cream, use some good high-end eating bars. They’re cheaper than baking bars, and already have sugar in them. You can experiment with different ones to find the ones you like best (my favorites are Dagoba New Moon, Green and Blacks 70%, and Endangered Species.) And stick with dark, high cacao content bars, usually around 70-75%. And use your microwave to melt it. Much easier and quicker than a double boiler.
  • For subtly flavored ice creams or sorbets (i.e. not chocolate or coffee) use vanilla sugar. If you’ve used a vanilla bean for ice cream or anything else, wash it off, let it dry, and then just stick it in a container or bag of granulated sugar. The result is an aromatic delight. Just keep feeding this container more vanilla beans and sugar, and you have a never-ending supply.
  • Alcohol can keep your ice cream from freezing solid. I often have an issue with my ice cream freezing pretty solidly. Alcohol doesn’t freeze, so it should keep your ice cream from freezing solid. Add it to your mixture before freezing. Around a couple of tablespoons should do the trick, but I’m still trying to hone in on the right amount, myself. Obviously use something that compliments your ice cream. Rum, Amaretto, or Kahlua are good choices. I’ve lately been using cherry-infused vodka I made over the summer.

Without much further ado, I give you my tried-and-true chocolate recipe and the salted caramel recipe. I’ve been working on the chocolate one for a couple of years and think this is just about as good as I can get. There is plenty of room for variations like when choosing chocolate bars, pick some flavored ones; add some other extracts like mint; or better still infuse your milk with fresh mint or other herbs; puree some fruit and strain out the seeds; add some instant coffee or espresso powder.

Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice Creamy Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice Creamy Chocolate Ice Cream

  • 6-7 oz. of good quality chocolate bars (I suggest Dagoba or Green & Black’s)
  • 3 c. half and half
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tbsp. complimentary- or neutral-flavored alcohol
  • pinch of salt
  1. Break apart your chocolate bars into a microwaveable bowl and melt in the microwave. Work in 30 second intervals. You don’t have to melt it completely, as the residual heat from the bowl, chocolate, and the half-and-half you’ll pour over it will melt it the rest of the way. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the corn starch and 1/4 c. of the half-and- half and stir still smooth. Set aside.
  3. Heat half of the half-and-half with the sugar on the stove slowly, stirring often, to the boiling point.
  4. When the half-and-half has reached the boiling point, stir in the corn starch mixture and gently boil for another 2 minutes or so, while stirring. The mixture has to boil in order for the corn starch to thicken effectively.
  5. Pour the heated half-and-half over the melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly combined. (* If you want some chips in your ice cream, don’t stir until thoroughly combined. Stir until it’s mostly combined, but leave some stray streaks of unincorporated chocolate.)
  6. Stir in the rest of the half-and-half, the vanilla extract, alcohol, and pinch of salt.
  7. Let the mixture cool on the counter and place in refrigerator overnight. Place in freezer for 1-3 hours.
  8. Freeze mixture according to your ice maker’s instructions.
Chocolate ice cream mixture ready for a chill

Chocolate ice cream mixture ready for a chill

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Salted Caramel Ice Cream

  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 3 c. half and half
  • 1/2 tsp. Maldon flaky sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp. corn starch
Caramel

Caramel

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 cup of the sugar while stirring fairly constantly
  2. Once the sugar is melted, stop stirring, and cook until it becomes amber in color
  3. Add about 1 1/4 cups of half and half to the pot and stir until the caramel is dissolved.
  4. Pour the caramel and half-and-half mixture into a bowl and add the vanilla and sea salt
  5. In a small bowl, combine the corn starch and 1/4 c. of the half-and- half and stir still smooth. Set aside.
  6. In the same pot, bring about another 1 1/4 cups of the half and half and the rest of the sugar to a boil. When the half-and-half has reached the boiling point, stir in the corn starch mixture and gently boil for another 2 minutes or so, while stirring. The mixture has to boil in order for the corn starch to thicken effectively.
  7. Salted Caramel ice cream mixture ready for overnight chill

    Salted Caramel ice cream mixture ready for overnight chill

  8. Pour the half-and-half and corn starch mixture into the bowl with the caramel mixture.
  9. Pour in the remaining half-and-half and stir to combine.
  10. Let the mixture cool on the counter and place in refrigerator overnight. Place in freezer for 1-3 hours.
  11. Freeze mixture according to your ice maker’s instructions.
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… with smoked brisket and smoked trout

When life gives you lemons, make smoked trout, or something like that. With a forecast of just-a-chance-of-rain, I decided to risk it and plan a whole day of smoking for Sunday. Saturday, I picked up a small brisket, some trout fillets, and prepared a brine for the fish. Come morning, I’d planned on waking really early and firing up the smoker, since the brisket could take 8-12 hours.

Brisket gets a rub-down in Pork Barrel BBQ rub

Brisket gets a rub-down in Pork Barrel BBQ rub

Alas, I awoke to a light, but steady rain. Plan B, start the brisket in the oven, and wait for the rain to clear. After rubbing the brisket in my favorite rub, Alexandria-locals Pork Barrel BBQ, I wrapped it in foil and threw it in a 300° oven. Meanwhile, I set the trout fillets in the brine I made the night before according to Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie to sit for a couple of hours.

Trout fillets in their brine

Trout fillets in their brine

After a couple of hours, I figured I’d brave it and fire up the smoker even though the rain was still coming down. I followed my usual routine of dumping in some unlit charcoal and applewood into the fire ring of my Weber Bullet and starting up the chimney. When the coals in the chimney got white-hot, I dumped them on top of the unlit coals and setup the smoker. After an hour, the smoker still hadn’t come up to temperature with the wind and rain still blowing. So, continuing on with Plan B, I ended up leaving the brisket in the oven for a little over 4 hours until it hit 205°. I left it wrapped in the foil on the stove to rest. Meanwhile, I had removed the trout from the brine after a couple of hours and left them to air-dry for another 2 hours.

Mini-smoker

Mini-smoker

I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to do with the trout since the smoker was not cooperating. I was actually considering battering and frying them. Then I had the bright idea to remove the middle section of the smoker and put the fillets on a grill right over the smoldering coals. Sure enough, the temperature ended up being just right going this route. 45 minutes or so later, the fillets hit 140°, and I had two pretty tasty smoked trout fillets, pretty much just as I imagined them when I first unwrapped this smoker last Hanukah. One of these will be breakfast on a bagel for the next couple of days. The other is vacuum-sealed in the freezer, awaiting a Sunday brunch.

Brisket gets a touch up in the smoker

Brisket gets a touch up in the smoker

I reassembled the smoker just to see if the whole thing could come up to temperature, so that I might add some smoke to my already cooked brisket. Sure enough, it took just a few minutes to bring the whole thing up to the optimal smoking range. So about 5 hours later, I finally throw that brisket on. It’s time in the oven and subsequent resting produced a very moist and tender brisket, but I wanted to see if I could a add little bit of a bark on it by smoking it for a little while. Indeed, 2 hours later, the crust of the brisket crisped up quite a bit, and while the smoke flavor was not very predominant, I still ended up with a delicious, tender barbecued brisket.

Wind and rain be damned. (And wouldn’t you know it? Some 8 hours later, the rain has cleared, the sun has emerged, and I’m struggling to get the smoker temp back down!)

2 little smoked trout fillets

2 little smoked trout fillets

Smoked trout

  • 1/2 pound of trout fillets (in this case, that was 2)
  • 4 cups water
  • 56 grams kosher salt
  • 31 grams sugar
  • 2 grams pink salt (curing salt, Insta Cure #1)
  • 10 peppercorns
  1. Mix everything but the trout in a pot and bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar and salt. Let cool and put in refrigerator overnight.
  2. Clean off the trout and submerge in the brine for no more than 2 hours.
  3. Remove the trout from the brine, rinse, and let air dry in the refrigerator for another 2 hours.
  4. Hot-smoke (200-225°) the fillets until they hit an internal temperature of 140°.

Barbecued Brisket

I won’t bother providing much of a recipe, since today’s go wasn’t quite the way I would normally do it. Basically, rub that brisket down in your favorite rub, and hot-smoke it for 8-12 hours until it hits an internal temp of 205°.

… with life-changing ramen from Minca Ramen Factory

Ok. Forget everything I said last week about noodle soup. Ok, not everything. The sentiment still holds, I suppose. The places and soups I mentioned still have their merits based mostly in their convenience and comfort. But everything has kind of changed thanks to a revelatory bowl of ramen (and thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Kitchen Monkey for finding this joint) I had the other day in Alphabet City, New York, New York.

First, disregard the image that first popped in your mind when you read the word “ramen.” While I’ve had my share of revelations while enjoying a bowl of 10/$1 Top Ramen, this bears no resemblance to the college dorm-room staple. No, this is what I have to imagine is a fairly traditional Japanese ramen.

the tiny kitchen with pots of broth simmering in the background at Minca Ramen Factory

the tiny kitchen with pots of broth simmering in the background at Minca Ramen Factory

Let me try to set the scene. I’ve been in the car for 4 hours, on a drive up to New York from DC. I’m still reeling from the head cold that’s plagued me for several days now. It’s closing in on 2:30, and the only thing I’ve eaten since an early breakfast of cold spaghetti is a sack of peanut m&m’s. My fellow weary travelers and I park the car near the corner of 5th St and Avenue B and make our way to Minca Ramen Factory — a tiny hole-in-the-wall specializing in ramen. They’ve got 4 tables, a bar around the exposed kitchen, and 3-4 chefs/servers. After a first round of pork gyoza, I’m ready to approach the fairly simple menu. Pick a broth and a noodle and you’re done. I settle in on pork broth, shoyu flavor with thin noodles. Minutes later I am presented with anodyne in a bowl.

Pork gyoza

Pork gyoza

For me, the resulting bowl was on the surface pretty simple — some broth, some braised pork, some noodles, an egg, and some mushrooms. But from the moment I put spoon and chopsticks to mouth, any sense that this was a simple dish vanished. Each component of this is prepared with such care and thought, resulting in unbelievable complexity and deliciousness. When I think about each, I inevitably think, “yeah, this was the best part of it.” Then pause and think, “oh, but what about…”

Happiness is pork broth

Happiness is pork broth

The broth. Pork broth with soy sauce. The best way I can think to describe this broth is chewy. This was a substantial broth, thick and comforting and meaty tasting, but certainly still a soupy consistency. It tasted pretty clearly of pork and soy sauce. If I had only gotten a cup of this and nothing else, I probably would’ve been satisfied. At one point, I was getting towards the bottom of the bowl, and just about went face-first trying to get at the last drops of it. I have to assume this was the result of the long braising process for…

The pork. Oh lord. I guess in a pinch, I’d say this was my favorite part; but, again still debatable. On the menu it’s described as “Pork Charsu.” Some research reveals this is either belly, shoulder, or cheek (I’m guessing belly, or maybe loin, in this case) that’s slow braised in a variety of Asian flavorings. I also saw the chefs take a blow-torch to the pieces to get some char on them. To call the resulting slices (and a tip to the wise, one serving comes with just 2 slices, I’d suggest ordering extra) fall apart tender is an understatement. Upon contact with a chop stick, the slices splintered into smaller pieces that became distributed throughout the bowl, providing endless enjoyment. Again, the flavor was predominantly meaty and porky. Kind of a solid form of the broth.

Porky egg

Porky egg

And then the egg. Each bowl comes with half of a hard-boiled egg. From what I can tell, they boil and half the eggs, and then leave them to soak in soy sauce and probably some other stuff. Then submerged in the broth for as long as it was, the egg, too, was, well, porky. A couple of folks at the table ordered vegetarian, but also got the egg, so I asked if it was as porky as mine, and, alas, it was not.

Also topping the bowl were three or four varieties of fungi (“wild vegetables” reads the menu.) I would be hard-pressed to actually identify any of these, but their different flavors and textures were ideal accompaniments to the whole situation. Chewy and full of umami.

Lastly, the noodles. The menu provides a variety of choices, though with each broth selection, they recommend one or two particular choices. The options are thin, thick (not that much thicker than the thin,) wavy wheat, whole wheat, and bean. (By the way, the menu also allows you to substitute chicken for pork.) I opted for thin (one of the recommendations with the pork shoyu broth.) The noodles are just perfect. Just chewy enough. Soaking up the broth and other flavors in the bowl, but also having a distinct wheat flavor of their own. I didn’t actually see them making an noodles in the kitchen, but with the name of the place, I have to assume they are made in house.

As is often the case with me, it’s more than the food itself that factors into my enjoyment of any meal. It’s about context and circumstance, too. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure no matter what the circumstances, this bowl of ramen was one of those all-time great food experiences that I hope to recreate over and over.

… okra that’s not slimy

Let me guess — you don’t like okra, right? You think it’s slimy, don’t you? Shallow- or deep-fry 1/2″ pieces all by themselves, and you’ll wind up with a revelation. You can even toss them in a little flour or cornmeal beforehand.

Cornmeal for dredging

Cornmeal for dredging

Flash-fried okra

Flash-fried okra

And while you’ve got that scorching oil on, why not fry up your own potato chips. Uniformly slice a few potatoes (use a mandolin, if you’ve got one) and fry till light brown.

Thinly sliced potatoes for chips

Thinly sliced potatoes for chips

Light, crispy homemade potato chips

Light, crispy homemade potato chips

… with kosher dill pickles

Old school kosher dills are one of my favorite go-to snacks. They’re fresh tasting and crunchy and salty. I almost always have a big jar in the door of the fridge. This dead simple recipe was adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Having made these countless times (almost every 2 weeks for the last 4 years which I guess puts me close to consuming about 200 pounds of these,) I’ve got this recipe and technique fairly down-pat. And once you do, you can make all sorts of interesting adaptations. I think these are as good as any deli pickle I’ve had, and dead simple to make.

Pickles and salt

There aren’t a lot of ingredients to this recipe, so choose wisely. Not all cucumbers are the same. For these, and most pickles, you need pickling or kirby cucumbers. They usually look like stubby, bumby little cucumbers. Slicing or english cucumbers just won’t cut it in this recipe. The pickling cukes stay firm and crisp once brined, the others just turn mushy. I opt for small ones, about 3 inches in length. (If you can find really really small ones forgo this recipe and make cornichons instead.) My local farmers markets have these most of the summer, and my local Whole Foods usually has them year-round, as well. This recipe calls for 2 pounds, but I never bother weighing. I just picture how many are going to fit in the jar I’m going to use.
As for the salt, I use Morton’s Kosher because that’s what most of the stores around me carry. I learned that not all salts are the same after reading Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. If you’re using Diamond Crystal or some other brand, make the appropriate substitution. Bittman’s recipe called for more salt than I use, but I found the end results far too salty. Through trial and error, I arrived at the basic formula below.

Adaptations

Besides cucumbers, salt, and water, this basic recipe calls for dill and garlic as traditional flavorings, but there’s no reason not to experiment. Try some other fresh herbs like tarragon or parsley or chives for a different herbal profile. Throw in some peppercorns or red pepper flakes for some heat, or my favorite variation, jalapenos. You could add some white vinegar for a little extra sourness, though these tend to sour as they ferment, anyways. Go crazy.
Cucumbers in their brine after an overnight soak on the counter

Cucumbers in their brine after an overnight soak on the counter

Basic Recipe and Technique

  • 2# pickling cucumbers
  • 1/4 c. kosher salt
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 a bunch of fresh dill
  • water
  1. measure the salt into a large metal bowl
  2. boil about 1/2 to 1 c. of water and pour over the salt to dissolve
  3. once dissolved, throw a few ice cubes into the bowl to cool down water
  4. peel and crush the garlic cloves and toss them into the bowl
  5. wash and scrub the cucumbers
  6. slice each cucumber lengthwise and toss those into the bowl
  7. scatter your dill on top of the cucumbers
  8. pour in enough cold water to cover everything
  9. place a plate on top to make sure everything is submerged and set the bowl aside to sit out for 8-24 hours
  10. after everything has sat out put everything into a glass jar (I put in dill in first, then cucumbers and garlic, then pour the water to cover) and refrigerate
Two pounds of pickles packed in tight

Two pounds of pickles packed in tight

It’ll take a couple of days for these to reach the right level of pickle-ness, but start trying after a day. They’ll stay good for several weeks. After a month or so, they get a little mushy, but actually the texture isn’t that dissimilar from what you might buy in a jar. But, if you’re like me, these won’t stick around for that long anyways.