Every year on my birthday, I buy myself a gift, often kitchen-centric. This year, after resisting for quite some time, I bought an Instant Pot Ultra. Monica was a bit dismissive at first, thinking it’s just another toy, and said as much. After we’d used it a few times – enough to experience what it’s really capable of – she said, and I quote, ‘Why did it take you so long to buy one of these?’
Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.If you cook and you honestly don’t know what an Instant Pot is, then I’d kinda have to believe that you’re living in a cave and singing your fingers over an open fire. Instant Pot is a brand name for a Canadian designed version of an electric, programmable pressure cooker. That said, comparing this to your gramma’s old 500 pound aluminum behemoth is like equating an AMC Pacer to a BMW. Yes, these things claim to do a bunch of things well, and with most consumer goods of that ilk, it really isn’t the case – But with the IP, I’m here to tell you it’s all true.
Instant Pot was formed in 2009 by a bunch of Canadian tech nerds who cooked – That synthesis lead them to brainstorm a cooking device that would genuinely do things well, but faster than many common alternative methods. They state their ultimate aim as, ‘to enable busy families and professionals to prepare quality food in less time, promoting better eating and reducing the consumption of fast food.’ I’llgo so far as to say they’ve achieved that, in spades.
There are several iterations, of course. The Ultra model we have claims a raft of functions, with settings for Soup/Broth, Meat/Stew, Bean/Chili, Cake, Egg, Slow Cook, Sauté/Searing, Rice, Multigrain, Porridge, Steam, Sterilize, Yogurt, Warm, and Pressure Cooker – It’ll even do a pretty damn good job of sous vide. Then there’s what IP refers to as the ‘Ultra’ program, which in essence just gives you a very wide margin of adjustability for most parameters of the various functions mentioned above. In other words, instead of being stuck with the maker’s idea of perfect for cooking beans, you can go in and tweak the settings to your needs, and for the record, this is, for my mind, actually important. Say you cook a lot of beans – You’ll quickly learn that they do not all do well with one cooking time – so being able to adjust that makes the machine very good instead of just OK at that task. For those that really don’t care for the extra bells and whistles, there are simpler models with less of that kind of thing aboard.
At the heart of these things is, of course, a microprocessor, so yeah – in essence, it’s computer controlled. With multiple sensors monitoring temperature, pressure, cooking time, and food volume, the IP takes a lot of the guesswork out of cooking, and has so far performed flawlessly for us – Take those beans again – From precooking, to sautéing ingredients for the final dish, to cooking all that thereafter, everything can be done seamlessly, in one pot.
And as we’ve known for a long time, pressure cooking – the heart of these things – seriously cuts down on cooking time for dishes that traditionally take quite a while. A primary impetus for my purchase was the fact that almost every posting member of the Vietnamese cooking group I belong to has one, uses it regularly, and swears by it. Even for something as sacred as broth for Pho, these folks go almost universally with an IP, and swear that you can’t tell the difference in the finished dish, vis a vis traditional low and slow methods.
Pressure cooking also does great things for flavor, because all that you add is sealed in, and relatively little escapes. Add the ability to slow cook, or do fairly tightly temperature controlled souls vide, let alone all the specialty settings, and you’ve got a seriously powerful kitchen tool.
These things come in a range of sizes and versions, and the Ultra, as lux as it may sound, isn’t the top of the heap. They range from 3 to 8 quarts, and $45 to $200, as of a quick check today. If you cook a bunch, and you appreciate what these things can do, you really can’t go wrong with picking one up – The scary part is how many people own, and use, more than one IP – I’m not there, and frankly, I’m cool with that.
Now, final caveat – No, I didn’t get an IP for free, or less, or any other version of paid BS endorsement. I bought mine, fair and square, for market price, just as you’ll do. We don’t do the endorsement thing here – Never have, never will, OK? OK.
Alert blog follower Hannah sent this note from southwestern Oregon – ‘I read about you guys changing up stuff you made earlier, for subsequent meals – The last one was an Instagram of tacos where you did “a complete 180° on the seasoning” but you didn’t explain how or what you did. The same thing happened with the Chinese barbecued pork you converted to Italian, but you didn’t tell how to do that either. We’re not all wizards, so you need to explain this better!’
Hannah, with my sincere apologies, you are absolutely correct. Allow me to rectify that – And if it seems like Hannah’s reading me the riot act, she’s got a right to – I didn’t explain any of that stuff. Now, in my defense, these were both follow up images and short descriptives, secondary to a post, that as she mentioned, were on other social media sites – FB, Instagram, Twitter and the like. I though of them as throw away stuff, home food porn, but no longer – Hannah is 100% right – If I’m gonna crow about our mad skills, I gotta share the goods.
Before we talk about conversion, we gotta back up a few steps. If you’re making a French dish, what should the core seasonings be? What if it’s Italian, Spanish, Indian, North African, Mexican, South American, Caribbean, and so on? There are so many regional variations in all those examples that this kind of thing can be a bit hard to pin down – In northern France, you might find thyme, sage, and coriander, while in the south, it’s likely to be something more Provençal – marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender, maybe. Same thing in every place I mentioned, frankly. With the very welcome spread of cookbooks and recipes focusing more on regional cuisines than some perceived national pastiche, us home cooks are blessed with many more options than even a decade ago. All that can make things a bit tougher to convert to something wholly different, but frankly, we don’t need to do that to succeed at the game.
So what is the trick to turning those ribs into tacos? Not as much as you’d think – Hell, you could probably do not a damn thing, call it fusion, and be on your merry way… But seriously, the trick, such as it is, is simply knowing what the major and minor seasoning notes are for the thing you’re working with, and building up or down from there – I say up or down purposefully, because if you want something Chinese to taste reasonable Italian, the task at hand may be to add, but it could also involve subtraction. Let’s use those two examples Hannah cited to dig into this thing.
In both instances we’re talking about proteins. This comes up as a thing we tweak fairly often because of how we cook and plan meals – A big ol’ batch of poultry, pork, or beef is oft what we cook early in the week, and then make a buncha meals thereafter, (and we covered this pretty well in our Meal Planning post btw). First step in swinging the seasoning profile of a protein in another direction is having a pretty good grasp of what’s powering it currently. If you made it, that’s easy enough, but what about a leftover from somewhere else, or taking a step farther out – tasting something and thinking, ‘I could do this at home, and I’d like to’ – How do you parse that? Far and away, the easiest way to suss it out is to ask the Chef – Chances are good they’ll tell you, and then you’re off to the races.
But what about sleuthing things out for yourself, how does that work? There’s no cut and dried formula for doing this that I can think of offhand, other than to state the obvious – The more herbs, spices and other seasoning constituents you own and use with some frequency, the better you’ll be at identifying them in the wild – Consider it a delicious form of behavioral conditioning. Again, not everybody has the same palate, but nonetheless, practice makes perfect, so build a great pantry and familiarize yourself with as much as you can – Getting curious about world cuisine is the way to discover new tastes and combinations.
OK, so Hannah’s Bane – starting with the ribs to tacos. The ribs were a first run experiment by M from something she’d found and tweaked to her liking – Ribs done in the slow cooker, with a nontraditional twist on the marinade and sauce. She did, for two racks of ribs,
For the Rib Marinade
1/2 Cup Water
1/3 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, minced
6 Cloves fresh Garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons Yellow Mustard
2 Tablespoons coarse Sea Salt
2 teaspoons Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper
For the Glaze
1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 Cup Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Arrowroot
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake
Pinch of Sea Salt
They were killer by the way – Try this on nice fresh baby backs and then thank M later. We had a slew of these things, and after 3 days of ribs, ribs, and ribs, we were kinda tired of that, so I decided to strip all the meat off the remainder and turn it into taco fodder. Now, looking at that ingredients list, you can see right off that I took poetic license with the line Hannah quoted, “a complete 180° on the seasoning,” ‘cause yeah – in a word, Eben? Bullshit. That’s already pretty damn close to a bunch of Mexican regional seasoning blends you’ve got on there. What I did was to throw diced chiles and more onion in a sauté pan, sweat them, then added chicken stock, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes to the mix, and let that simmer until everything was heated through and married – Boom, taco ribs. Get the picture? No, they won’t taste at all like they did as whole ribs, and yeah, now they are reasonably more Mexican in taste profile.
Now, how about that Chinese barbecued Pork to Italian thing, then? This one admittedly took a bit more work to pull off effectively, but nothing earthshaking, and again – I made the original dish, so I knew exactly what was in there, right? The pork was my latest swing at Char Siu, derived from a Grace Young recipe in Breath of a Wok. I’ve not posted this previously, so here’s first look for y’all, (and John Joyce? This one’s for you, Buddy!)
For each Pound of Pork Shoulder
2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce (I recommend Pearl River)
2 Tablespoons Tamari
2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce
2 Tablespoons Pixian Doubanjiang Chile Bean Sauce
2 Tablespoons Shao Hsing Rice Wine
2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
2 teaspoons Sesame Oil
1/2 teaspoon Ground Grains of Paradise
The Pork marinates in this mix for 48 hours, then is seared over an initially hot grill, basted with the remaining sauce and finished on a medium grill until internal temp runs 145°, then rested. If you use charcoal, a two zone grill set up will do this to perfection.
This stuff was fork tender and incredibly tasty, but again, after so many meals, I just needed to switch things up, and so I decided to make tomato based pasta sauce with the remainder. Granted, there are some potent Chinese regional tastes involved in that pork, but again, it’s not as discordant as it may seem at first glance. Central and northern Italian tomato pasta sauces can and do have some of those warm, earthy, and spicy notes, albeit not the same ones.
I gave the pork a quick rinse and ground it with the attachment on my Kitchenaid mixer, (you don’t need to do that, a simple rinse and mince would do just fine). As you can see from the plated image, the marinade, even after 48 hours, doesn’t get all that deep into the pork, so doing what you can to expose a bunch of the unseasoned meat gives solid ground for new flavors – The old stuff becomes interesting background that you can’t quite put your finger on, rather than a very forward Chinese.
Next comes the Italian rebranding – A big stew pot over medium heat, with a generous slug of olive oil gets soffritto – the classic Italian aromatic base mix of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic. Add stock, tomatoes, the pork, bay leaf, oregano, rosemary, lemon thyme, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper, and basil to finish, and wham, you’ve got a complex, earthy pasta sauce that tastes like you put far more work into it than you did – Never a bad thing.
Now, who caught the trick I used in these examples? Somebody, anybody, Bueller? There was one ya know – A small but potent anchor to all such conversions – It’s the aromatic bases. For the switch to tacos, it was onion and chile. For the Italian, soffritto – See that? Fortunately for you, we wrote a very nice piece on aromatic bases that you can use as a launching pad for further exploration. It really is a key – When you take those deep, fundamental roots of a flavor profile and set them as your new solid base, switching gears becomes a simple matter of preference thereafter.
Now, resources – A thing I’ve mentioned here several times and online a lot – Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s magnum opus, The Flavor Bible. This is a reference work with some serious horsepower – Whole menus can be worked up from the stuff therein, and should be – For my mind, with that book, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you’ve got a very solid basic research library to design a world cuisine of your own from.
Now – One final note – This concept is not mine, and it’s not new. In fact, it’s very old, and it stems from common sense, first and foremost. In French, it’s called Garde Manger, and it loosely translates as ‘Keeper of the Food.’ This is way cooler than you can imagine if you really dig cooking. The first fine dining restaurant I worked in, back in the mid ‘70’s, was French, (and that cuisine is where the term comes from and from where, arguably, the art reached its pinnacle). The second was in Sun Valley, Idaho – Another kitchen run by French Chefs. In those places, the Chef de Garde Manger was the best there was – Old guys with a wealth of experience, tremendous patience, and endless inventiveness. Garde manger is still around, albeit not as prominent, or as likely to display that level of experience. It’s always the cold dish station – Salads, hors d’œuvres (horse doovers as my Sis and I like to quip…), appetizers, canapés, pâtés, terrines, and such. Although it’s less prevalent now, the key role of that Chef was transforming leftovers into something new, something appealing, something that would sell – And it was magical, indeed – That spirit is sparked within me every time I do something like we discussed today. If any of this strikes your fancy, then I’ll recommend another great resource – Frederick Sonnenschmidt and John Nicolas’, The Art of Garde Manger – It’s the real deal, and a delightful read. Dig in.
My friend Kevin Rosinbum, a seriously talented photographer, cook, and renaissance guy, turned me on to this page at Traditional Oven – Initially, I was impressed with the versatility of the yeast conversions they had cookin’ there – Then I started poking around on the myriad of other stuff on that right hand column, and my impressed became a seriously wowed.
Here’s a wow – Turns out Salvador Dali wanted to cook for a living, not paint. Way back in ’73, the iconic artist published Le Diners de Gala, a lavishly illustrated tome dedicated to the astounding meals he and his wife Gala produced for some epic parties, (as if a party thrown by Dali would be anything less). It’s not a surprise that we’d not heard of this gem before – There are reportedly 400 or less copies of the book still extant.
Now, all of that is about to change for the better – Taschen is about to republish this epic volume, filled with recipes, pictures, illustrations, and the ramblings of the maestro himself. Among the calorie laden cornucopia of truly bizarre dishes, there may be some real gems. And in any case, it’s guaranteed not to be boring.
If you spend any time here, you know we’re all about supporting local and other great, small businesses. Whenever possible, we prefer sourcing with folks who advocate fair trade practices, meaning, of course, that those who do the work get paid fairly for it by us end-consumers.
My friend Denise Atwood and her Hubby Ric Conner have worked long and tirelessly to support and promote such business in Nepal. Enter Ganesh Himal Trading, the labor of love they started way back in 1984, still going stronger than ever.
Take a few minutes to head over to their website and poke around – You’ll note that very cool fair trade aprons are the leading product on the landing page – each and every one of you would look very fashion forward in one of those.
If I told you that a French scientist working in the early twentieth century was responsible for the understanding of how a whole bunch of things you like to eat get the way they do when we cook them, would you be surprised? Louis Camille Maillard, (May-yard), was his name, and his work resonates throughout the kitchens of the world to this very day. What Maillard did was to explain why many foods turn brown, and why we like it when they do – La Réaction de Maillard.
For a guy who did such seminal work in the science of food, very little seems to be know about the man. He was born in 1878, in Pont-à-Mousson, a little town on the river Moselle, between Metz and Nancy, about 200 miles due east of Paris. Pont-à- Mousson was a village of roughly 8,000 souls in Maillard’s day. Since the late sixteenth century, there had been a Jesuit university there, with studies in theology, law, medicine, and the arts. The area was predominantly German speaking, and part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1766, when France claimed it and King Louie the Beloved moved the university to Nancy.
The town remained a center for the arts, sporting a bustling papier mâché factory. Located on a strategically important river crossing, Mousson was torn by war throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For such a tiny place, it sports more than its share of celebrity. In addition to Maillard, a saint, (Guarinus of Sitten), a Queen (Margaret of Anjou), a General (Geraud Duroc), and the inventor of the modern bicycle, (Pierre Lallement), all hailed from there.
Louie’s father was a medical doctor, his mother, a housewife. While there were professional bakers in the extended family, (who all hailed from the Lorraine region), nothing in the sparse information available regarding Maillard’s upbringing points to food. He began university studies at the tender age of 16, and excelled in mathematics and chemistry. He married in 1909 and divorced four years later, without producing any progeny. He never remarried; he was clearly bound to his work. I’ve never found anything to indicate if Maillard cooked, was particularly fond of eating, or ever realized that his work would so deeply affect food science. Look at the few photographs taken of him throughout his life, and you see a guy who looks like he ate because he had to, (although he did have a fabulous mustache).
His work was predominantly medical and physiological in nature. He studied the metabolism of urea and kidney function, and this research was fruitful toward better understanding and treatment of kidney diseases. In 1912, pursuant to this line of research, he began studying the reaction between amino acids and sugars. This work lead to his discovery of certain reactions, and was quantified as the Maillard reaction was named after him. He received a variety of scientific accolades, including the French Academy of Medicine award in 1914.
Maillard’s seminal work toward the discovery of the reaction that bears his name was focused on kidney function, specifically, the reasons why and how us humans pee in a variety of shades of yellow. He was curious about processes that would lead relatively clear substances to change color and produce CO2 when heated. His gut told him this would be important knowledge toward a better understanding of diabetes. Nothing he found initially would necessarily have lead him to a realization that his work would have bearing on food science for decades to come. After discovering his namesake reaction, he went on to other work, sometimes making rather sudden and pronounced changes in area and venue of study. One of these jumps occurred post WWI, when he left France altogether and began studying pharmacology. For all practical purposes, he gave up the life of research he’d been pursuing for a couple of decades. Maillard died in Paris in 1934, at the age of 56.
How does Maillard’s discovery segue to food? In more ways than you might imagine. Everything from the browning of meat to toasted bread, and much more – biscuits, frittes, roux, pretzels and crackers, dried and condensed milk, crusty bread, maple syrup, roasted coffee, dull de leche, and barley malted for beer or booze all speak to the human appetite largely because of the Maillard’s Reaction. Some of these specifically address color, but the lions share are tied to our senses of smell and taste.
And what of that science? Browning of food happens, in big picture form, one of two ways – one is enzymatic and the other, well, isn’t. The non-enzymatic branch narrows into three shoots, one of which is the Maillard Reaction. This occurs when a compound known as a carbonyl, (a functional group composed of a carbon atom double bonded to an oxygen atom, like for instance, sugar), reacts with an amino acid, peptide (AKA two or more linked amino acids), or a protein. The reaction process is rather complex, but in essence, heat is the catalyst that causes changes in those constituents, leading to browning and associated flavor and smells. Relatively high heat in cooking terms is usually required, although the reaction can occur at lower temperatures when concentrations of amino acids and sugars are high.
While browning tells us that many foods are cooked to a satisfactory level, it’s the smell of seared steak, freshly baked bread, roasting peanuts, or a dumpling being pan fried that really illustrates the power of Maillard’s discovery. Over the millennia that humans have cooked food, the process has gone from arcane knowledge to quite common, and yet the why behind the process remained hidden until the early 20th century – pretty fascinating, if you ask me.
Yet it was the desire to better understand physiological processes within the human body that drove Maillard’s discovery, and his reaction does indeed occur within us. Studies have shown correlation between the reaction and degenerative eye diseases, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and neuro-degenerative disorders.
I’m probably just being a romantic, but for some reason, I get a visual of Maillard, sitting at a little table is his lab, absently munching on a chunk of baguette, pondering his research, without realizing that his answer was literally in the palm of his hand, all along.
Well, let’s see…It’s been a hell of a year. I lost some dear friends, and my Mom. There were serious medical issues, including my getting hit square on the head with a 32 pound box of soup that fell off the top shelf of a walk in freezer; I’ve been challenged and frustrated by my State’s ‘advocate’ for my case ever since.
On the other hand, my muse, touchstone, partner, one true love and best friend, Monica Atwater has been with me through it all. We live in an incredibly beautiful place, where we’re blessedly happy to be.
We were blessed to share some fine times and cooked some great meals with my Sis, Ann Lovejoy. My nephew, Ian Atwater, and his lovely mate, Bre Soliz, have shared a bunch of requests that lead to some of the best posts here. We got to cook for and with our kids, Case Sowa, James Skar, Joe Skar, and daughter in law Miranda Skar, as well as with nephews Peter and Andrew Lovejoy, his wife Kate Lovejoy.
The annual trip to Minnesota, to hang with Grant Goltz, Christy Hohman, Joe Sustaire, Ron Miles, Dennis Leahy and so many more was highlighted by a truly incredibly wealth of local, organic produce.
And here on the blog, well – readership and followers exploded in 2015. We’ll be looking to build on that solid foundation here in the new year.
So, truth be told, while I might be tempted to bitch and moan and complain, I am and have been so blessed, and I am very deeply thankful for that.