Tomato Bacon Egg Custard…A Work in Progress

I am used to having the planning of a meal consume my brain for the better part of a day…or days. But this might be the first time I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea as clear as day. This is starting to look a lot more like how my dad ate through life, but decades earlier. It might only be a matter of time before I am actually getting out of bed and trying to concoct said vision at 3 a.m. Lucky for me, I tucked it away, fell back asleep and did not start my obsessing until the next day. And my idea went like this….

We love chawan mushi in this house. It is a silky, delicate egg custard, subtly flavored with dashi- a broth of kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermented bonito)- which gives it both an umami depth and smokey sweetness. Often there are tiny treasures inside or on top- crab, lobster or the thinnest slivers of roasted shiitake. The idea is to let the custard shine and only provide a few surprise flavors throughout.

I recently borrowed a friend’s Momofuku cookbook where David Chang had taken this broth to a whole different place by substituting smokey bacon for the fish flakes. I made a dish of his that simmers potatoes and clams in the smokey broth and found it to be a lovely twist. And this twist was central in my thinking that night at 3 a.m. I wanted an egg custard with a twist. Something summery and decadent but still dainty. While I thought of what makes that perfect balance of flavors and what might pair nicely with the smokey bacon, I settled on the tomato.

But it had to be just the bare essence of a tomato. And I thought of tomato water. Something I had tasted and read about but never made. I wondered if it would be possible to infuse the smokey bacon into the tomato water using the whole mixture as my dashi. And so was my quest.

I know it is not nearly tomato time, but once an idea is hatched it is hard to beat. So I fetched a few very ripe beautifully ugly heirloom tomatoes from the store. Once home I roughly chopped them, smashed them with a potato masher and tied them in some cheesecloth over a bowl. It would take several hours and some gentle squeezing here and there but I managed to get 2 1/2 cups of deeply flavorful, almost clear liquid out of 2 1/4 pounds tomatoes. I saved the flesh thinking I could make a quick tomato sauce, but I won’t keep you in suspense. They tasted awful- absolutely all the flavor sucked out just like that book Bunnicula I read as a kid. Don’t know it? This bunny was really a vampire and he sucked all the juice out of vegetables. I remember nothing else but it has served its purpose.

Once I had the tomato water I simmered 2 slices (about 3 ounces) of smokey bacon in the juice for about 20 minutes. I strained it and put it in the fridge to separate the fat. I saved the bacon, julienning and browning it for garnish.  Once the fat had hardened on the top of the tomato love (truly it was so flavorful I could have just swallowed the juice right then) I scraped it off and strained 1 1/2 cups into a bowl. I whisked in 4 eggs, 1 t. soy sauce a pinch of salt and 1 t. mirin. I then strained it again through a fine mesh strainer into 4 cups and steamed one for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile I picked some baby arugula leaves and chives from the garden, sliced some cherry tomatoes and eagerly awaited the custard. Sighs and alases, it had curdled a bit. Besides the wonderous flavor of a chawan mushi is the silky texture and the broth that surrounds it. I was feeling pretty glum about what I found but decided to doll it up and try it anyway. I have to say that I really liked the flavor and did not find the texture to be that disastrous, but I knew if this dish was to ever to meet its potential I would have to improve it.

Some quick research turned up a fascinating book I have not yet read called Ideas In Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work. From the excerpt I read it seems the issue could have been cooking it too hot or too long or, more likely, too much acid. Blast! It seems you can use sugar to combat the curdling effect of an acid, but I did not want to add too much as the tomatoes were very sweet on their own. I also thought of maybe using half the tomato liquid mixed with a separate bacon-steeped liquid.

This is not something I am going to tinker with every day and perhaps will even wait until end of summer when we have tomatoes coming out our ears. In the meantime I’ve written the author of said book to see if he has ideas. I still really like the concept and though Ryan thought it was too tangy/tomato-y tasting, it is a known fact he does not cherish tomatoes the way I do and I thought it was just what I was after. Until this issue is solved I will, instead, work on a recipe for turning that luscious tomato/bacon water into a completely kick ass bloody mary.

UPDATE: Alex Talbot, author of Ideas in Food, wrote me back to let me know I could add an extra egg yolk to the mixture to combat the slight curdling. So I suppose I will be back to the drawing board to give it a go.

    It Sucks When You Give Someone Lobster and They Make You Cook it and Eat It

    So, we gave my mom some giant lobster tails and a pile of frozen shallot/mirin/crab love butter to poach them in as a birthday gift. And somehow, tonight, we ended up being invited to her house to cook it….and eat it. Sweet!

    We came armed with some frozen clam broth we made a couple weeks ago in a separate seafood orgy, some mushrooms, asparagus, a bacon vinaigrette (separate story to come) and a couple bottles of wine to just say thanks for all the beers she offers us when we stop by to visit.

    We got some shallots and mushrooms simmering and I cut the shells and peeled the tails free. We warmed the shallot butter and gently poached the tail medallions while the arborio rice was beat to creamy risotto love with clam broth, water and chicken broth…finished with some parmesan (Italian fish and cheese rules be damned!!!).

    I had made a bacon vinaigrette earlier (recipe maybe tomorrow) which topped some quickly cooked asparagus.

    Decadent. Lovely. Fatty-pants goodness. I love giving presents.

      Nine Years of Marriage Deserves a Mighty Feast

      Yesterday was our anniversary. Often this means we’re headed out to a swanky restaurant. But lately (or I should say this whole year), Ryan has been crazy busy building some fabulous pieces for his clients. His dad came out for a week to help out and has already been put to work painting at the shop, putting up tile in the bathroom and fixing things around the house. So it seemed fitting that we all celebrate at home together.

      At the last meeting of WAS-SOUP, a group of mom’s who make and swap soups for their kid’s lunches but really eat most of it themselves, we also swapped some cookbooks. I made off with David Chang’s Momofuku book and was devouring it over morning coffee. I stopped short at a recipe for clams and fingerling potatoes cooked in a bacon dashi. Um, yes please. The idea of using smokey bacon instead of smokey fish flakes seemed brilliant. The potatoes would soak up the bacon love, then the clams would steam and impart their flavor to the broth which would all be served together with crisped bacon and green onions.

      I left immediately for the store. While I stood at the fish counter pondering whether a pile of clams was enough dinner, I noticed the scallops we had a couple weeks ago. They were so very very good. But then I saw crab legs. On sale. I looked slowly from one to the other. Crab is Ryan’s favorite and they are on sale. Those scallops. Man, those scallops. I had to settle on the only real option and get both. It was an anniversary after all. Still thinking about the David Chang book and an amazing meal I had had at his restaurant years ago, I grabbed a pile of brussles sprouts and mint and headed home.

      The dashi was first and really simple. Heat kombu (a seaweed) in a pot of water to simmering, turn off the heat and steep 10 minutes. Remove the kombu and add 1/2 a pound of bacon and simmer for about 30 minutes. Remove the bacon and skim the fat. You can do this easily by putting it in the fridge until it hardens, but I did not have a lot of time so I just skimmed. I then simmered the potatoes in the broth until they were tender and removed them to a bowl. I soaked the clams in cold water and scrubbed them clean and set them aside.

      The brussels get halved, browned cut side down in a cast iron then roast in a 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes or so. They are then tossed in a sauce of sugar, fish sauce, water, mint, chili/garlic (Chang uses chilis and garlic but I use sambal), cilantro and lime. He served them with puffed rice and shichimi (a spice mix) but to simplify things I skipped them this time.

      For the crab, I cut through the shells on one side and threw them in a 450 degree oven to roast. The dipping sauce I conceived was probably my favorite thing of the meal. Melt 3T butter in a pan, and add a medium diced shallot, 2 minced garlic cloves and 1/4 t red pepper flakes stirring over medium low heat until they just start to brown. Whisk in a tablespoon each of white miso and mirin and 2 to 4 tablespoons of the bacon dashi. If you were making this for another recipe you could also use plain dashi, clam juice or even chicken broth.

      Ryan came home just in time to cook the scallops which is great because he’s a master at giving them a perfect crust while keeping them perfectly cooked inside. I believe all he did was lightly dust them in flour with some pepper and cook them in the cast iron in butter….but he won’t share his secret. We threw the clams in the broth while the pan heated for the scallops and once they had opened, plated them and put the potatoes back in the broth to warm. A few potatoes went on each plate with a ladle of broth and some crisped bacon and green onions.

      The crab legs were served as is alongside the brussels, scallops and a side of sauce. We sat down to indulge, chasing it all with some crisp sake and many sighs of true pleasure. What a meal!


        Pork and Collard-Stuffed Kabocha

        I love kabocha squash. Love love love love love. It has a fabulously sweet and rich flavor and makes the creamiest soup possible. Usually I will slice it into moons, brown it in oil, then simmer briefly in a smokey, dashi broth. But this go around I decided to stuff it with the ground pork I had. And, not knowing what to do with the collard greens that had arrived in our weekly veggie basket, I threw them in too.

        I briefly marinated the ground pork with a touch of soy, some sherry, garlic and chili flakes. I then browned it in coconut oil, tossed it around with a bit of corn starch and added some broth. I added the collards and simmered until they were  tender and most of the liquid had evaporated. I think I also added a whap of peanut butter because that sounds like something I would do….though I can’t honestly say I remember. It is a great way to further thicken a sauce, though, and the flavors would be great with the coconut and chili. I stuffed the squash (which I had seeded) and popped it into the oven until the squash was tender.

        It appears as though i served it with a salad that I would guess was dressed with a simple, rice vinegar dressing. Though a tahini dressing would also be great.The collards stayed just a tad toothsome and just slightly bitter which was nicely offset by the sweetness of the squash. It did not hold together that well, but the squash was a good enough bowl.


          A Very Japanese Fourth of July

          I don’t even remember what we did on the 4th this year, but looking at the photo for that meal, I’m assuming I cooked a lot and then maybe went to bed in a salty-induced coma. I do recall that I had been embarking on making my own, home-made tofu. For the first step I had soaked the soy beans, ground them and strained them to make the soy milk. I then heated it slowly until a skin formed on the top and carefully lifted it off and onto a plate. It is like a very delicate noodle and that first night we ate several sheets of them rolled up, cut into strips and lightly dressed with a soy-based sauce. I then made more tofu skins and fried them for this meal.

          The night before I had marinated the beef short ribs (flanken) in a mixture of soy, sesame oil, brown sugar, mirin, chili paste, garlic and green onions. We grilled them on each side until they started to get grill marks. I then gnawed happily on one while grilling some pencil-thin asparagus, charring some shishito peppers and mixing up a dipping sauce for the fried tofu skins (soy, chili oil, rice vinegar, green onion). We served it all over rice with a quick pickled cucumber salad. I know it was fabulous and flanken style short ribs are one of my all time favorite things. But looking at this photo I can’t help but think next time I will have to find a way to greatly reduce the sodium in a dish like this. My fingers are feeling fat just thinking about it. Alas. Tasty times.