Monday, May 16, 2016

Sugar Smoking -- A Technique from Hong Kong/Kowloon

My mom is at the age where she really doesn't want to cook much any more.  I don't blame her -- she has spent a lot of her life cooking and I think she has earned a break.  Of course this means she doesn't want many of her cookbooks, so I took the opportunity to abscond with, um, ask her politely for one book that has intrigued me for a while.  It is titled How the World Cooks Chicken, by H. J. Muessen.  Published in 1980, her book no longer had the dust jacket, so I found an image of it on the web:
ISBN 978-0812861952
The chapters are divided up into regions of the world, like "The Pacific", "The Orient", "Asia", "Africa", and so on.  Many of the recipes look intriguing, although the ones from Africa would be a challenge for me since I am not fond of spicy food.  Nearly every recipe in that chapter is spicy!

The recipe that caught my attention was on page 40, from the Hong Kong/Kowloon area.  Mr. Muessen says,
The Chinese use hickory, walnut, or other woods in smoking their meats just as we do, but another method, which gives an entirely different taste, is sugar smoking.  This is best done in an outdoor covered barbecue, but it can be done in your oven, although one should have the exhaust fan on throughout.
Sugar-Smoked Duck (or Chicken)

1 4-pound duck (or 3 pound chicken)
1 quart water
1 onion, quartered
10 peppercorns
1/2 cup brown sugar

Bird and first cooking ingredients
6 tablespoons peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon anise seed powder
1 clove garlic, minced
6 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sherry

Marinade and smoking ingredients
Place the bird in the water in a large kettle and bring to the boil.  Reduce heat, skim off the scum, then add the onion, salt, and peppercorns.  Cover, and cook slowly (duck 1 1/2 hours, chicken 1 hour).  Now cut the bird into individual servings or into 16 pieces if you wish.  (See page 35.)

Mix together the marinade ingredients and stir to blend thoroughly.  Pour the marinade over the chicken pieces in a large bowl, turning to coat each piece.  Let stand, covered, for 1 hour.

When the meat is ready, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line the bottom of a large, ovenproof pot with foil and place a small rack inside.  Add 1/2 of the sugar.  Place the meat on the rack and cover the kettle with foil, then place a lid on tightly, forming a seal. Put the kettle in the oven for 10 minutes, and allow the sugar to burn and thus smoke.

Now remove the kettle and reline the pan if necessary, and add the remaining sugar.  Reline the top of the kettle, and return to the oven to smoke for another 10 minutes.  The meat should turn a rich mahogany color, and the sugar-smoke taste will have permeated the meat.  Brush lightly with a little peanut oil and serve.  Serves 4 - 6.

My Notes

I used a chicken and let the bird slowly cook for about 1 hour, 30 minutes over the lowest heat my stove top could give.

It came out of the liquid (which was later turned into lentil soup!) and into a bowl where it cooled to the point where I could handle it.  I cut it into twelve pieces total and that seemed just fine.  Then the pieces went into a flat-bottom dish.

For the marinade I used freshly ground star anise seeds, canola oil, sweet cream sherry, fresh garlic, and low sodium soy sauce.  I poured it over the meat, then turned the pieces over and started the timer.  After 30 minutes I turned the pieces over again to marinate for another 30 minutes.

Once the hour marinating time was up, I drained off the marinade and put the meat into the refrigerator.

My neighbor had kindly agreed to get his barbecue hot for my grand experiment.  He used lump charcoal and heated the barbecue to 375 degrees F.

In the meantime I formed two trays out of foil, putting in about 1/4 cup (unpacked) of brown sugar into the bottom of each one.

We smoked the meat this way:  I put the chicken on the grills, he pushed the grills apart to expose the coals, and I put the foil tray directly on the coals.  Then he slid the grills together, closed the lid, and vented the top just a little bit.

First smoking, preturning.
It took a few minutes for the smoke to start showing but then it did and we opened the lid when the smoke levels dropped.  At that point he turned the meat over, slid apart the grills, and took out the first foil tray.  I put in the second tray and he got the lid closed again.

First smoking, some turned.
First smoking, nearly all turned
In both cases it took less than 10 minutes for the smoke to start up and then die down.  It made both of us think of teriyaki chicken.

While the second smoking was going on, we looked at the first tray.  The sugar had completely carbonized and was nearly odorless and tasteless.  Yes, we tasted it and found no flavor but there was a texture that made me think I was eating dirt.  Ugh!  I don't recommend it.

Do not eat this at home.  Or anywhere else!
The final result was a beautiful mahogany color.  The chicken smelled so good we could hardly wait to taste it.  I served it with hot bread and a simple green salad.

Beautiful in looks and in taste.
The Verdict

Let's put it this way:  I tentatively nibbled the first piece (I was worried it would have a burnt flavor) and then enthusiastically devoured it.  And a few more pieces.  Oh yes, I remembered to eat the salad and bread, too!

The flavor was amazing.  I couldn't say exactly what part was the sugar smoking and what part was the marinade but the overall taste combination was excellent.  I had hints of the anise, some lovely bitter from the soy and sherry, and a rich umami in every bite.  The meat was moist, even the breast meat which I usually dislike because it tends to be dry.

I would do it again and my taste testers agreed they would enjoy it again, too.  After the meat is cooked and marinated, it was very easy and quick to get it smoked.

As I was wolfing it down enjoying my meal, it occurred to me that this marinating and smoking combination might be good to use on salmon.  I wouldn't cook it first but just marinate it and smoke it, being careful to not let it overcook.

Success!  Oh my yes, success.  Excellent and flavorful and a great, fun, and intriguing food to serve at a party.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How to Pickle Mushrooms

I was enjoying the book Dining with William Shakespeare by Madge Lorwin, which I wrote about in a previous post, "My Salmon is Soused..." when I came across (on page 18) a recipe called "How to Pickle Mushrooms."  

The original recipe was cited as from William Rabisha's The whole Body of Cookery Dissected.

Actually the full title of the book is The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected, Taught and Fully Manifested, Methodically, Artificially, and According to the Best Tradition of the English, French, Italian, Dutch, &c., Or, A Sympathy of All Varieties in Natural Compounds in that Mysterie, which amuses me to no end.  I think today we would use the word "artfully" instead of "artificially".  

You can download a PDF of this book consisting of scanned images at

Image taken from the Library of Congress Rare Books Collection
This is the 1673 edition.  The first edition arrived in 1661 and four more editions were published over the next 20 years.  You can purchase facsimile print copies, mostly of the 1682 edition.  Once I had downloaded the Library of Congress file of the 1673 version, I found the recipe on page 2 of Book I, right after "How to Pickle Cowcumbers."

Mr. Rabisha presents himself as a person who was raised right and was trained in the art of cooking. He was a master cook in England and in foreign places to ambassadors and nobles alike.  He wished to share his "small endeavors" with the public in hopes of assisting the young "Practitioners" of the art.

What I really love is the poem "In Commendation of the Author" (first stanza):

Cooks burn your Books, and vail your empty brains; 
Put off your feigned Aprons, view the strains
Of this new piece, whose Author doth display
The bravest dish, and shew the nearest way
T' inform the lowest Cook how he may dress,
And make the meanest meat the highest mess;
To please the Fancy of the daintiest Dame,
And sute her palate that she may praise the same.
Give him return of worth, (besides due wages)
And recommend his book to future ages.
Let it be know Rabisha here hath hit,
The fairest passage that hath dared it.
     But read his Book, and judge his Pains,
     His is the labour, yours the gains.

This poem goes on for two pages, describing the contents of the different parts (books) and the high quality of the recipes.

So let us take advantage of William Rabisha's labours and see what gains we get.

How to Pickle Mushrooms

Original version:

Take a bushell of Mushrooms, blanch them over the crown, barm them beneath; if they are new, they look red as a Cherry; if old, black; this being done, through them into a pan of boyling water, then take them forth and let them drain; when they are cold, put them up into your Pot or Glass, puth thereto Cloves, Mace, Ginger, Nutmeggs, whole Pepper; Then take white wine, a little Vinegar, with a little quantity of salt, so pour the Liquour into your Mushrooms, and stope them close for your use all the year.

Ms. Lorwin's "working version":

1/2 pound fresh young mushrooms, about 1 inch in diameter
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns
2 cloves
1 large piece of whole mace
1 thin slice fresh ginger
1/2 nutmeg, broken up
3/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon vinegar

Wash the mushrooms under cool running water.  Slice off the stems to within 1/2 inch of the caps.  Put the water, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and the mushrooms into a saucepan and bring to a rapid boil.  Drain the mushrooms immediately and put them into a half-pint, screw-top jar with the spices and the rest of the salt.  Pour the wine and the vinegar over them--if there is not enough liquid to cover the mushrooms, add more wine vinegar.

Cover the jar with a piece of plastic before screwing on the top--otherwise the vinegar will corrode the metal.  Turn the jar upside down several times to distribute the seasonings.  Store in a cool place (but do not refrigerate) for three or four days before using.

My Notes

I couldn't get all small mushrooms but instead halved or quartered the ones I could get.

I used cubebs instead of peppercorns because I could.  I don't have whole mace so I used 1/4 teaspoon of ground mace.  Instead of fresh ginger I used one large slice (halved) of candied ginger.  I used a dry Chardonnay and apple cider vinegar.

The spices
I called it a "rapid boil" when the water was foaming around the mushrooms.

It truly seemed like the mushrooms wouldn't fit in a half pint jar, so I cleaned and microwave-sterilized a pint jar.  This was too big and I hoped the extra air in the jar wouldn't make difference in the flavor.

It didn't seem like the amount of liquid called for was enough so I added some more cider vinegar.  It might have been too much because the mushrooms started floating above the bottom of the jar.

It filled more than half of the jar
Overall the preparation was very easy and I would be willing to do it again and in greater quantities. Assuming it tastes good!

The finished jar was labeled and placed in a storage cupboard for a few days.

The Verdict

We waited four days to taste the mushrooms.  All three of us enjoyed it.  I didn't put in too much cider vinegar after all, although I think it would still taste fine without as much.  If I do this again, I think I will just barely blanch the mushrooms -- they were cooked more than I thought they would be.

Overall, the taste was slightly sour from the vinegar, a little sweet (from the wine?  from the candied ginger?), and the spices were present and interesting but not particularly dominant.  Just right, I would say.


Ms. Lorwin notes that
Pickled mushrooms were used as "salad" appetizers both when mushrooms were in season and during the cold months to add some zest to usually heavy meals.
Sounds good to me!

I would like to close with the final few lines of the "In Commendation of the Author" poem:

Therefore brave Book, into the world be gone,
Thou vindicates thy Author; fearing none
That ever was, or is, or e're shall be,
Able to find the parallel to thee.