Thursday, 31 January 2013

Boost the taste of your dishes by Maillard Reaction!

     As I mentioned in my last post, the French stew was cooked by the same technique that I learned in 2 other stews from my classes. Basically, you brown the meat first, then you continue baking the meat in the oven in some kind of sauce/stock. Prior to my cooking classes, I have only watched my mom making beef stews and never really made one myself.  The Chinese way of making stews is quite different: you first blanch the meat in boiling water, after you skim out the floating impurities, you add soy sauce, cooking alcohol and other spices and slowly finish cooking the meat on the stove (an easier alternative is to use a pressure cooker). "Browning the meat" was a foreign concept to me. So I did some reading, and found out that this "browning reaction" actually has a name. It's called the Maillard reaction. 
bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide
     The Maillard reaction was discovered by Louis-Camille Maillard in the early 20th century, when he was trying to heat up amino acids and sugars and the mixture turned brown.The molecules produced by amino acids and the reducing sugars absorb light and create a nice brown pigment in cooked meatHowever, the colouring of the food is not the only outcome from the reaction. What is more important is that the reaction enhances the flavours and aromas. Like in roast beef, cysteine, an amino acid in protein, reacts with ribose, a sugar in the meat. Together, they produce a sulfurous molecule, bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide, which is responsible for the distinct smell of beef! Other amino acids and sugars are involved in similar Maillard reactions in baked goods.
     As for many chemical processes, temperature needs to be carefully monitored. The Maillard reaction proceeds at a fairly high temperature of 130 ºC/265 ºF. If the meat surface is covered in water, the temperature will stop climbing when it reaches 100 ºC, at which temperature water evaporates and you can't really go any higher than that. This is why when you brown the meat, the surface needs to stay dry so that the heat will exceed 100 ºC. However, if you over heat the meat, at 180 ºC or higher, pyrolysis (a.k.a., burning) kicks in and it will burn the meat instead. I guess the Maillard reaction is one of those high-maintenance reactions that require your undivided attention. Luckily for people like me, who have short attention spans, browning happens fast and it usually takes 2-4min per side of the meat. 
     Happy browning, my carnivorous friends!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

French - Week 2: beef stew!

Week 2. 
During this week's class, Chef Klaus demonstrated 3 dishes: crêpe suzette, estouffade de boeuf (beef stew), and batonnets de carottes et navets (glazed carrots and turnips). We made our own beef stew,  as well as the glazed vegetable side dish. The glazed vegetables were fairly easy to make. You start by caramelizing sugar in the pan (dry heat, no water). Then you add the blanched vegetables to the pan, coat them with the caramelized sugar and 1 tbs of melted butter. 

For the  beef stew, our recipe calls for 1 kg of meat. But due to the small class size, we all got a bit of extra of ingredients. I got a HUMONGOUS piece of meat, which probably weighed 2 kg just by eye-balling it! The techniques used to make the stew are pretty standard for beef stews. Basically, you brown the tough meat in the pan first and then finish cooking it in the stock in  the oven. I like this recipe because the nice touch added by the olives, which made the entire dish very French. 

2 kg of beef shoulder meat, cubed
4 slices of bacon, chopped
1 big onion (the meat to onion ratio should be around 1:1)
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 package of mushrooms, sliced
1/4 can of black olives
1tbs olive oil
1.5 cups of red wine
2.5 cups of demi-glace (demi-glace is made of half beef stock and half Espagnole sauce)
some flour for dusting the meat

1. Preheat oven to 375 ºF
2. Cut the beef into cubes, dust them with flour. Make sure you remove all the chewy silver skins in the meat. 
3. Heat the olive oil in pan. Add beef cubes for browning. 
4. Set the meat aside in a casserole and drain off the excess fat. 
5. Fry up bacon in the pan until crispy. 
6. Sweat onion, garlic, mushroom and olives.
7. Add red wine and demi-glace. Remember to deglaze the bottom of the pan, so that you will keep all the flavour from the fond. 
8. Adjust seasoning with salt/pepper.
9. Pour everything into the casserole, continue cooking in the oven (covered) for another 2.5 hrs. 

 The final product was served with the glazed root vegetables made in class, stir-fried rice, and the leafy Chinese vegetable, Jie Lan. (I think its English name is Chinese Kale? Correct me if I am wrong.) 

Happy Sunday! 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

French - Week 1: steamed mussels!

After taking Culinary Art I last semester, I signed up for 2 more classes this term, French Bistro Cooking and Italian cooking. The French class is a 10-week long course. Our teacher, Chef Klaus Mueller, is surprising not French, but German-born. He is a well travelled chef who has worked in many many countries. Unlike Culinary Art I, this course seems a lot more intimidating to me. Most students taking this class are either pursing a culinary degree or a career in the field. And then there is me, whose original intention of taking this class was that I will be guaranteed to have food to pack for lunch the next day.

Week 1.
The first class was demonstration-only. Five dishes were made by Chef Klaus: chilled Vichyssoise (cold potato/leek creamy soup), Salad Niçoise (a traditional French salad with red wine/mustard dressing), Soufflé Au FromageBouillabaise avec Rouille (fish/shellfish stew), and Moulles Marinière (steamed mussels in white wine sauce). A few key points shared by the chef: salad Niçoise should be served at room temperature which makes it tastes better; soufflé needs to be served as soon as it's prepared, or the soufflé surface will collapse; don't use salmon for fish stock/stew, it's too fatty. 

My favourite dish of the night was the steamed mussels. Since I didn't get a chance to make it during class, I tried it at home the following day. Here's the recipe.

1 tbs butter
1 package (usually 2 lb) PEI mussels
half onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 springs of parsley
1.5 cups of dry white wine

1. De-beard, wash and drain the mussels. Don't soak the mussels in water.
2. In a pot, melt the butter
3. Sweat the onion, add garlic, parsley, salt/pepper to taste
4. Add white wine, simmer, reduce the volume to 2/3
5. Add mussels to the pot, and cover it up to steam. The mussels are ready as soon as their shells start to open up. It takes roughly 5-8min, depending on the heat.

It was served with sour dough bread and balsamic vinegar/olive oil.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


     Around this time last year, a friend of mine started to bring cookies, brownies and even cakes to work every week. Soon enough, we found out that those mouth-watering baked goodies were created in her baking class at George Brown College in downtown Toronto. And that was the first time that I googled George Brown College in my browser. After spending a couple hours reading through their baking and cooking course descriptions, almost immediately, I decided to take some classes there. Growing up in Beijing, baking is not really a Chinese thing. Not too many Chinese people would say that they have a sweet-tooth, especially by the North American standard. I would enjoy a nice dessert after a meal and sometimes I would bake cookies and bring them to work, but I wouldn't be bothered much if the surface of a cheesecake cracked in my springform pan. Although the baking classes seem very interesting too, Culinary Arts I became my very first cooking class that I signed up for at GBC.  

     Being a chemistry Ph.D student myself, I can easily apply my chemical knowledge into cooking. Just like setting up experiments in the lab, I gather all the starting materials (ingredients), follow the procedures (recipes), using tools (knives, pots) and heat control, to synthesize the final products (dishes). Even without too much experience, I have a decent intuition of what ingredient goes with what. I cook regularly and my dishes have received compliments at pot-luck dinners. If I was asked whether or not I can cook, I'd answer yes. But only I knew that my home-cooking menu was screaming for a upgrade. Although I could routinely make several dishes and make them really well, the old tricks did get boring when I recycled my recipes every 3 weeks or so. Expanding my cooking repertoire and learning the techniques in a systematic way are the major reasons for me to take cooking classes.
     And of course, as you may have guessed, I am passionate about FOOD! All kinds of food, Chinese, Italian, French, Thai, etc. I am not a picky eater at all and I like trying new things. While eating out, another hobby of mine (my Asianess kicks in) is to document my meals by taking close-up pictures of the food. Sometimes I write restaurant reviews here and there on Tripadvisor and Yelp. But I figured it would be nice if I can pool my food/restaurant reviews together in one place, and save them for future reference.
    Last but not least, I feel like I need a place to share my recipes. I recently found out that I am a Marven, (a term picked up from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point), meaning, I love sharing resources and information with others, like recipes, sales in the store...Having a blog might be the fastest way to share my recipes with the biggest audience and receive feedback. Remember, it's all about efficiency.

     Long story short, I love food, I love cooking, I love taking photos of food and writing reviews, and I love sharing my recipes. So here it is, my very first blog, a blog about food, cooking, culinary education, recipes, and restaurants. Thank you for stopping by and looking forward to hearing from you!

Jan. 2013