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What is Miso?


Miso is a rich fermented soybean paste, which is sometimes also partially made from grains like rice or barley. It has a strong distinctive salty taste and is used extensively in Japanese cuisine in soups, salad dressings, sauces, marinades and glazings. Miso also features to a lesser degree in Korean and Chinese cooking. Miso is versatile, as it can be blended easily with many other ingredients like honey, garlic and alcohol to give it extra depth. Because of this, in the past decade, Miso has been gaining traction in the fast growing world of fusion cuisine. There are some nice Korean specific varieties but for our purposes we’ll deal only with the Japanese Miso, which are universally accepted as the best. Miso is often categorized by colour which coincidently follows the same spectrum of colours as honey. The main varieties of Miso are:

  1. Red Miso (Aka-miso)
    This is considered to be of the stronger tasting variety because of its longer aging period (12-30 months) and higher salt content. It is more often used in soups and baking. This variety is more popular in the colder northern part of Japan.
  2. White Miso (Shiro-miso)
    This is a milder variety containing a higher proportion of rice. It’s fermentation process takes only weeks instead of months. Because of its high carbohydrate content, it is often described as sweet or even creamy. If you were to use Miso directly without any cooking or as a dairy-product substitute, I would go with this one. It is not actually white, I would describe its colour as beige.
  3. Blended Miso (Awase-miso)
    The blends comes in many shades of yellow and brown and if you only intend to stock only one type of miso, this is the one for you. Shinshu Miso, which is golden yellow in colour, is a popular type of blended Miso with the highest market share in Japan.
  4. Soybean Miso (Mame-miso)
    This is a variety of miso made without the addition of any grains. It is dark like red miso because of its long fermentation period and but has a more intense flavour. One type of soybean miso is Hatcho Miso, which is generally held in high regard and even considered by some to be the best miso.

Miso typically comes in a transparent plastic tub which has a loosely fitting cover. It should be stored it the refrigerator once unsealed and can easily be kept for a year or two. I will usually fold a piece of cling film in four and place it over the top of the tub before closing the cover for a tighter fit.

There is also a darker Chinese version of miso. Although miso probably originated in China you should avoid Chinese miso as it is inferior. If I’m not mistaken, these are made from the by-products of fermenting soya sauce. Korean Miso on the other hand is generally ok.  

The thing to understand about Miso is that it is a flavour enhancer, and should not be used as a flavour itself, in the way you can’t add salt to water and call it salt soup. However, compared to salt you only need a fraction of the meat or vegetables to achieve the same effect. Miso is used in many of my recipes, including my Japanese Style Baked Seafood, my Spaghetti with Seafood in Miso Cream  and as a ‘secret ingredient’ of my French Onion Soup.

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Posted by on January 14, 2010 in Ingredients, Japanese

 

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What is Cuisse de Canard Confit?


There are many ways of preserving meat like smoking, air curing, salt drying but confit must be the most esoteric method I have come across. Confit is somewhat similar to the more common rilette except you don’t shred the meat. 

Well basically confit is meat that is marinated with salt and garlic for a few days and then poached under low heat in lard. It is then kept refrigerated and can last for several months. Confit is sold in cans but I’d recommend the ‘fresh’ type which is sold refridgerated in a vacuum pack as shown in the picure.  Outside of France ‘fresh’ confit is not all that common,  but you can normally find it at a French speciality store.

The most common meat used nowadays for confit is duck (the others being goose and pork) and the most common part of the duck used is the leg, including the thigh. If not referring to any particular part of the duck, its referred to as Canard de Confit and it its the leg, then its Cuisse de Canard Confit. Quaint language this French is.

So what’s so special about confit? Well because the salt and poaching in oil dessicates the duck, this gives us the perfect conditions for a crispy, and I might even say crunchy, skin. You’ll need a grill or a blow torch to effect this and coincidentally, because of the high fat content, you would want high temperatures to thin down the fat anyway.

A recipe using Cuisse de Canard Confit is my Crispy Duck Leg Confit with Wine Mustard Compote.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2010 in French, Ingredients, Poultry

 

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The Cheese Page


I have here various types of cheeses that are commonly used in cooking. You will use them in sauces, salads, as toppings, as fillings; their uses are endless. I have broken them down into 7 types of cheese: Grating, Melting, Ripened, Blue, Cream, Whey and Medium. Each type of cheese has its own unique characteristics and several specific cheeses are given for each type.

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Grating Cheeses

Parmigiano – a type of grating cheese

These are also called the hard cheeses, because they have been hardened over a long aging process. Consequently, they are less often found on the cheese board (but when served with honey and pear slices they make a delicious dessert… I digress). The grating cheeses, as the name implies, are often used in their grated form as a flavouring and thickening agent, such as in a carbonara sauce, or in risottos. They dissolve well and have a characteristic ‘sweet and nutty’ flavour.

  1. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the most common variety, and is named after the areas in Italy where it is produced, i.e. Parma and Reggio Emilia. Parmesan is the French term for this cheese but it has also become a generic name for cheeses imitating Parmigiano. These powdered fakes only vaguely resemble the real thing and contain much more salt because of their short commercial manufacturing process.
  2. Pecorino Romano is a stronger grating cheese than Parmigiano and is exclusively from sheep’s milk, pecora meaning sheep in Italian. In spite of its Romano name, it is made mostly in Sardinia nowadays. Pecorino Romano is preferred for pasta dishes with heavy sauces and in Risotto but because of its stronger smell, it is less often grated directly as a topping on pasta dishes. There are other cheeses starting with Pecorino, like Pecorino Toscano as they are also made from sheep’s milk, but they are (probably) not grating cheeses.
  3. Grana Padano is a third Italian hard cheese. It is the mildest of the three and purportedly the best-selling hard cheese in Italy. “Grana” means grainy and “Padano” refers to the Po River Valley. This cheese is good with dishes where the cheese imparts flavour but should not smother delicate tastes, such as in a carpaccio, where the taste of fresh raw meat needs to be retained.
  4. Manchego Viejo is a Spanish hard cheese similar to Pecorino Romano as it is also made from sheep’s milk. Do not confuse this with Manchego Curado which is a less aged version.

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Melting Cheeses

Gruyere – a type of melting cheese

Melting cheeses melt nicely (like ice into water), but they don’t dissolve (like sugar in coffee) as easily. When they melt, they remain chewy and don’t run. That’s why they are also called stringy cheeses. So melting cheeses are usually used in situations where the cheeses are meant to remain separate and distinct after melting, like in a panini or on nacho chips. 

  1. Gruyère, being a Swiss cheese, is surprisingly used in a lot of French recipes. It is traditionally used to top off French Onion Soup, and is sandwiched in Veal Cordon Bleu and Croque Monsieur, two other perennial French favourites. It is also an essential component of Mornay Sauce and Cheese Fondue. Gruyère has a higher fat content, which gives it a distinctive buttery flavour when it’s melted.
  2. Comté, this is a type of Gruyère, except it comes the area next to Switzerland in France. Another less popular Gruyère type French cheese is Beaufort.
  3. Amozzerella is a low moisture mozzerella, a commercial variety invented by (surprise!) the Americans, as a pizza topping. This type of ‘fake’ mozzerella is made all over the world now. Unlike the case of the fake American swiss cheese, this mozzarella is actually quite commonly used in cooking, when it come to dishes where a stringy cheese is desired, like in lasagna or fried mozzarella sticks.
  4. Raclette is another Swiss which is often eaten on its own when melted. There is in fact specialized equipment to slice and melt this cheese. It is softer than, but can generally be used as a substitute for Gruyère.
  5. Wensleydale is a mild, creamy and crumbly British cheese. It is perhaps the best cheese for making grilled cheese on toast; the British certainly think so. Everyone is familiar with Wensleydale because it is the favourite cheese of Wallance and Gromit.

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Soft Ripened Cheese

Brie – a type of ripened cheese

These cheeses are characterized by a chalky white rind and soft yellow core. They are normally eaten as part of a cheese platter, so why are they here? Because they are sometimes served as appetizers as well. One way to serve ripened cheese is fried in bread-crumbed batter and another way is baked in filo pastry. In both cases, they are usually served with cranberry jam.

  1. Brie and Camembert invariably come to mind when one thinks of French cheeses. The two are actually made pretty much the same way, from very similar ingredients and for our purposes, you can consider Brie and Camembert to be one and the same. The main difference is Brie is made in larger wheels, which leads to a less mature centre while Camembert is made in small cylinders and is therefore aged more evenly. The French insist on giving them different names because Brie originates from someplace near Paris while Camembert is from Normandy (you know how they are). The name Camembert is not protected so all foreigners only make the Camembert variety. One other minor difference is that there are double and triple cream versions of Brie.
  2. Saint Marcellin is less common variety of French ripened cheese, from the Lyon area. It has a similar texture to Brie but it’s taste is not as mild.

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Blue Cheeses

Roquefort – a type of blue cheese

Blue cheese is a general classification of soft cheeses that are spotted or veined with bluish-green mould. During the aging process, rods are inserted into the cheese and this allows the cheese to be ‘infected’ with mould spores from within. They are crumbly, and have a salty and sharp taste. The most telling characteristic of the blue cheeses however, is their pungent smell.

  1. Gorgonzola is frequently used in Italian cooking. It is more often than not found to be one of the four cheeses in quattro formaggi pasta sauces recipes. It is also sometimes served with polenta.
  2. Roquefort is a blue cheese from the south of France and is commonly used to make blue cheese salad dressing. While both Gorgonzola and Roquefort use the same mould, Roquefort is made from sheep’s milk. When making blue cheese dressing, Roquefort is the traditionally the blue cheese that is used.
  3. Blue Stilton is the other better-known blue cheese. It is the milder British version of Blue Cheese and is sometimes know as the King of Cheeses. As its milder and crumbly, it is sometimes sprinkled on top of salads.

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Soft Cream Cheeses
This class of cheese is defined by soft, spreadable, creamy cheeses. Some might say this is not really a class of cheeses but a group of cheese derivatives, but they are sure useful when it comes to cooking creamy dishes and desserts.

  1. Mascarpone is a cream cheese made from a type of sour cream. It is milky-white in color and and has the consistency of hard mousse. A versatile cooking ingredient which can be used to increase the richness of sauces, and even risotto, Mascarpone is most well known as a key component of tiramisu and other desserts.
  2. Burata is a cheese made from mozeralla and cream. It comes in a shell of regular mozerella but the insides are extremely soft, creamy and mild. Burata is usually eaten with a sweetened aged balsamic vinegar.
  3. Petit Suisse is the next most popular non-pastuerized cream cheese. It is made from cows milk and with extra cream added. Unlike Mascarpone, it is mildly salty. While this cheese is often eaten plain with jam, fruit or compote as a desert, you can also use it to make savoury dishes creamy. Petit Suisse is also used in cakes, but only in France for some reason.
  4. Philadelphia Cream Cheese is the omnipresent brand of Kraft cream cheese which has only been with us for less than 150 years. Philadelphia, which comes in the original harder block form and a softer tub version, is most commonly used as a spread on bagels, and is also the key ingredient in the non-baked cheese cake.
  5. Boursin is another commercial brand of soft cream cheese which has become popular. It differs from Philadelphia in that it is salty and crumbly, and comes in various herb or pepper flavours. They are ideal for savoury recipes requiring cream cheese.

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Whey Cheeses
These cheeses are made from the whey that is discarded after the curds are used in producing ‘normal’ cheeses. Consequently, they don’t taste like other cheeses.

  1. Ricotta is the only whey cheese I use with any regularity. It is neither salted nor ripened, giving it a very mild taste. Because it is a ‘blank canvas’, more often than not this white powdery cheese is used as part of a filling. To elaborate, ricotta is very versatile and can be made sweet or savoury, and it easily allows other flavours to be embedded into itself. It is found in cheese blintzes and cannelloni fillings for example. Ricotta is also used to make desserts for the same reason.
  2. Feta, is not really a whey cheese, but it is cured in a whey and brine solution in the manufacturing process and coincidently has the same powdery texture as ricotta. It is however very salty in comparison. Feta, when cut into small cubes becomes the defining ingredient of the Greek salad. It is also used in various Greek pies and pastries.
  3. Mozzerella. There is the real Italian mozzarella, those that come in brine. These can be made from buffalo milk (better) or cow milk. They are very soft but chewy and are best served in salads such as Insalata Caprese.

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Medium Cheeses

Edam – a type of medium cheese

This is just a generic classification of firm cheeses which don’t fall under any of the other categories. In fact the majority of cheeses belong here and I have just named a few. Also called semi-firm or semi-hard cheeses, most of them are pressed to reduce moisture. I would say that these cheeses typically appear in dishes like cheese soufflés or omelets, which don’t require cheeses with any special qualities. They are also often used in cheese sauces and cheese soups.

  1. Emmental (also called Emmentaler) is probably the most famous cheese of Switzerland. It is a firm cheese, with characteristic large holes. In cooking, it is often used in to create golden cheese crusts, or gratins. In America, a commercial type of Emmental is sold everywhere as simply “Swiss Cheese”. This is widely used in hot sandwiches where the cheese melts and should never be substituted for Emmental in cooking.
  2. Cheddar was originally from Somerset, England but has become the world’s most mass produced cheese. It ranges from off-white (natural) to dark orange (dyed) in colour. Because it comes in a large variety of sub types nothing too specific can be said cooking-wise about Cheddar, other than some version of it is normally used in many cheese soup recipes, in American macaroni and cheese and as a burger topping. Beware, many commercial cheeses use the Cheddar name, but are actually processed cheeses (yet another American ‘invention’) and often bear little resemblance to the real McCoy. Kraft singles for example are only about 50% real cheese.
  3. Gouda is the ubiquitous Dutch cheese everyone is familiar with. As it is a ‘curd washed’ cheese, it is a milder substitute to the sharper Cheddar. Beyond this, Gouda is mostly eaten by itself or used in recipes which contain the word ‘Dutch’.
  4. Edam, also from the Netherlands, is the low fat version of Gouda. It is unique in that it has very little smell. Use this if your audience has had little experience in eating cheeses.
  5. Danish Fontina, the softer and milder version of the Italian original which it has overshadowed. It can be used as a substitute for Gouda or Edam (but not Italian Fontina).The last 3 cheese are typically covered with a red or bright yellow coating of edible paraffin wax making them easily recognizable. The coloured wax forms part of the rind and prevents them from drying out. 
 
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Posted by on September 30, 2009 in French, Ingredients, Italian

 

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What are Sakura Shrimp?


SakuraKnown also as Sakura Ebi, Cherry Shrimp or Cherry Blossom Shrimp, these are tiny shrimp caught from a certain bay in Japan, the name of which eludes me at the moment. As you might gather, they are named after cherry blossoms, because of their similar colour. There are may ways to eat Sakura but if you live outside of Japan, you will have to make do with the boiled and then sun-dried variety, which is the variety which I use, and refer to.

OK, enough about the background. So what is so special about Sakura? They have a light crispy texture, and more importantly they retain (for an eternity compared to other crispy food) their crispiness even when put into liquid. This is because other crispy food is made crispy artifically by removing water through heating. If they get re-hydrated, they become decidedly uncrispy. Sakura on the other hand are naturally crunchy because they are crustaceans. This makes them the ultimate sprinkle-on-top food.

Where can you find Sakura Shrimp? At any Japanese food specialty store or Japanese supermarket. Don’t confuse Sakura Ebi with the more common Chinese shell-less dried shrimp. Those can’t be eaten without lots of cooking, and in general are unsuitable for Western cuisine. If you would like a recipe which uses Sakura Shrimp, try my Angel Hair with Sakura .

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2009 in Ingredients, Japanese, Seafood

 

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