Saturday, February 27, 2016

Turtle (Red-Eared Slider) Soup

In a prior post I blogged about making peacock and vegetable pie. When I was at the Exotic Meat Market warehouse in Grand Terrace to pick up the peacock, I learned that they had some red-eared slider turtle meat available and I had to get it. I've only tasted snapping turtle (turtle soup and grilled turtle) and wanted to try some other variety.
Red-eared slider turtles. Picture from here
I picked up a package that include four pairs of back legs and a package that included quite a few front legs. 
Four sets of back legs that include the pelvis.
Many front legs that were not connected. 
I read that turtle could taste kind of swampy and I wanted to take every precaution to remove any objectionable taste. I've also had turtle that was very tough and wanted to break it down to make it as tender as possible. The use of a combined brine and marinade can help with both of those concerns. By immersing meat in brine, the brine that has a higher concentration of salt than the moisture in the meat is absorbed into the meat by osmosis and any flavoring in the brine is carried into the meat. The osmosis also removes much of the blood in the meat and reduces the gamey taste. The salt denatures (alters) the chemical structure of the proteins in the meat causing them to unwind and form a matrix that traps the water and allows the flavoring agents to permeate the meat. Marinade uses acidity to break down the texture of the meat and make it more tender. Acid, like citrus or apple cider vinegar, can give a mushy exterior to meat which is perfectly acceptable when you are dealing with wild game.  

For my brine/marinade mix, I used 1 tablespoon of salt for each cup of water, adding enough of the mix to fully cover the meat. Then I squeezed the juice from two Meyer lemons into the brine and added a fair amount of apple cider vinegar, probably five or six tablespoons. Finally, I crushed about 8 juniper berries into the brine and also added some crushed ginger. I added the turtle meat, sealed it in Tupperware and put it in the refrigerator overnight. 
Turtle legs in the brine/marinade. The black specks are pieces of juniper berry and the yellowish/white specks are lemon seeds. 
The next morning I poured out the brine/marinade and thoroughly washed the turtle meat and patted it dry. The meat turned a gray color because much of the blood was removed. 
The turtle legs are now gray because much of the blood has been removed. Using kitchen shears, I cut off the claws.
I wanted my soup to be thick with vegetables. So I cut up two red peppers, 2 poblano peppers, 6 Anaheim chiles, 1 large onion and 1 bulb of fennel and fried it quite slowly in a frying pan in olive oil and some wagyu beef fat and a little bit of wagyu beef. I sprinkled it liberally with cayenne pepper, sage and sweet basil and added, added four large tablespoons of chopped garlic and a quarter package of frozen sweet white corn near the end. Then I added the mixture to a crock pot, along with the turtle legs, 32 ounces of chicken stock and 14.5 ounces of chicken broth. I also added two heaping spoonfuls of vegan chicken bouillon, then cooked the mixture on low for six hours. 
Turtle soup mixture in crock pot. 
I couldn't have hoped for it to turn out any better. The vegetables were nice and plentiful and the broth was flavorful. Best of all, the turtle was very tender and moist and came right off the bones. It had no gamey taste at all. 
My first sample of soup to see how the turtle turned out. I hold a front leg. The meat came right off the bone.
A bowl of the soup full of vegetables.
One of the meatier back legs.
Left over bones from a bowl of the soup. Note the bare bones - evidence that the meat came right off. 
The combination of brine/marinade followed by crock pot cooking has given me the desire to try snapping turtle again, a larger and  meatier turtle. I believe that this same process will help transform that meat into a more pleasant product. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Buffalo Filet - Sous Vide

Judy gave me some buffalo (bison) filets as a gift and I've been experimenting on how best to cook them. I've come up with a method now that I'm real happy with and will probably use that method in the future on buffalo or any other filet I cook. 

First, brush the filet in vegetable oil and season it with salt and pepper. 
Buffalo filets seasoned and ready to brown. These were used at a meal with multiple guests. 
Second, get a frying pan very hot and melt better and vegetable oil in the pan. Then insert the filet and cook it on each side and on the edges until it is browned on the outside. 
Brown the filet in butter and oil at a hot temperature.
Third, let it cool, then vacuum seal it in the sous vide with extra butter. 
Vacuum sealed with butter and ready for the sous vide.
Fourth, cook it in the sous vide for 2 1/2 hours at 55 degrees Centigrade. If you like it a tad more well done, do it at 56 degrees Centigrade. We tried variations for 1 1/4 hours and 2 1/4 hours and 55 degrees and 56 degrees and liked the longer cooking time and the lower sous vide temperature. 
A very moist, tasty filet.
Serve it immediately after pulling it out of the sous vide bag. Doing it this way means that you can prepare it ahead of time for company and have some leeway if someone is a little late (longer time in the sous vide will not result in over-cooking the meat, it only impacts the texture of the meat). The meat will be cooked perfectly 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

California Sea Lion

There are six species of sea lion: Steller's, Australian, South American, New Zealand, Galapagos and California (another, the Japanese sea lion, went extinct in the 1950s). Sea lions have external ear flaps, which distinguish them from true seals which are earless. Sea lions are also characterized by long fore-flippers, the ability to walk on all fours and short, thick hair. 
The California sea lion is found along the coast of North America from southeastern Alaska (from about Icy Bay - just south of where the western Yukon border is) down to about Acapulco, Mexico. The breeding range is much smaller, from the top of northern California south to about Mazatlan, including the Gulf of California. They breed from May to August and in non-breeding season the males migrate to the northern ends of the range to feed and the females stay nearer the breeding grounds. 
Sea lions basking on rocks in Yaquina Bay, Oregon.
Basking on docks and swimming. It seemed like the males had most of the choice dock spots and the females swam around in the water. 
Swimming females
Males are substantially longer and heavier than females, around 7.9 feet long compared to 5.9 feet, and 770 pounds compared to 220 pounds. Males also have manes and thicker necks, chests and shoulders and a protruding crest that gives them a domed forehead. 
Large male California sea lions. 
Female sea lions. Note the outer ear flaps.
They eat squid and fish and sometimes clams and they are eaten by killer whales and sharks, particularly great white sharks. 
A swimming female.
A sleeping male. Note what appear to be battle marks.
A barking male.
While we were in Newport, Oregon in January, in Yaquina Bay, we found a huge number of California sea lions on the docks and on the nearby breakwaters, with extremely loud barking and grunting. We could hear them from several miles away. 

Seals on a breakwater with Yaquina Bay Bridge in background. 
I have always associated the California sea lion with the female. It seems like that is what is always in zoos and what I have typically seen on rare occasions in Mexico and California. In Oregon, males seemed to predominate which is consistent with them being outside of the breeding range during non-breeding season. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Peacock and Vegetable Pie

NPR's Planet Money recently had a podcast, "We Cooked a Peacock", where they made a peacock pie following a Dutch recipe from a cookbook published in 1612. The podcast opens with a phone call from David Kestenbaum, one of the Planet Money team, to Exotic Meat Market where he asks the owner, Anshu Pathak, if he has whole peacocks for sale. Anshu, in his very colorful way, responded that he did, head, legs and tail included. The rest of the podcast details the Planet Money team's cooking adventure. 
A 1618 painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Senses of Hearing, Touch and Taste. Note just left of center the peacock pie to the left of the woman in the red dress. 
An enlargement of the peacock pie from the same painting. Note the actual head and tail of the peacock sticking out of the pie. 
I live in Southern California, not too far from Grand Terrace where the Exotic Meat Market warehouse is located. I have been buying different kinds of meat from Anshu for years and have gotten to know him. So I emailed Anshu and told him I would like to cook a peacock pie on President's Day and invited him and his wife over to our house to eat it, along with some other of my friends. Anshu accepted. I've eaten peacock once before, roasted, and it was great. 
A 1627 painting by Peter Claesz, Still Life Peacock Pie. This peacock pie is even more elaborate, having not only the head and tail, but the wings sticking out of the pie and a rose in the peacock's beak. 
In the interim, I started to look at what I would need to cook a peacock pie.  The 1612 recipe used by Planet Money provided that a peacock, of course, would be used. The peacock is the more colorful male of the peafowl, the drab female is called a peahen. The Indian peafowl, which is blue, originates from India and Sri Lanka. The green peafowl, which is green, originates from Myanmar, Indochina and Java. So not only did the peacock have an exotic looking tail and head, it had an exotic origin, a wonderful showpiece for those enjoying the fruits of the terminus of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam. 
An Indian (blue) peacock.
A green peacock.
The recipe provides that the peacock insides be sprinkled with: (a) pepper; (b) cloves; (c) nutmeg; (d) cinnamon;  and (e) salt. Aside from the salt, these ingredients were were almost as exotic as the bird. Black pepper, or the peppercorn, is the dried out fruit of the pepper plant, which is native to south India. Cloves, the flower buds of a tree, are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia and the Dutch East India Company, which tried to control the spice trade in the 17th century, tried unsuccessfully to monopolize the trade in cloves. Nutmeg is the seed of a tree that is also indigenous to the Maluku Islands, also known as the Moluccas, or Spice Islands and the Dutch East India Company did have a monopoly in the nutmeg trade of the 17th century. Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of several types of tree. There were four types of cinnamon at the time, one from Arabia and Ethiopia, one from Sri Lanka, one from northern India and one from China. The Portuguese had the monopoly on cinnamon from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) at the time the Dutch recipe  was developed, but the Dutch East India Company dislodged the Portuguese from their monopoly in 1638 and expelled the Portuguese by 1658. 

The 1612 Dutch recipe then called for added lard and panicles of sweet fennel, to be added to the peacock cavity, to make it tender. Fennel is a flowering plant indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean. Though not as far afield as the other ingredients, fennel was probably an exotic ingredient as well. The legs of the peacock were then chopped off and the breast and thighs stuffed with cloves. The bird was then placed on a pastry bottom covered with thin slices of lard, then slices of lard were placed over the peacock and then even more spices before the top layer of pastry was added. The head of the peacock stuck out, wrapped in paper to protect it from the heat. However, the recipe noted that the head of the peacock could be cut off and put on the pie after it was baked, the most common method as of 1612. 
NPR's Planet Money peacock pie. 
Planet Money elected to cook their peacock with the legs attached and the resultant pie was very uneven. And of course there was no way to delicately cut into the pie because it was full of bones. 

Then I found a 1757 recipe for "peacock pye" at a blog known as Researching Food History. This was from an English cookbook called The Art of Cookery by John Thacker. Thacker recommended cutting of the head of the peacock, putting a stick up the neck to the head, then drying it in an oven. He also recommended cutting off the legs, keeping them, and keeping some of the short feathers of the tail. The peacock was trussed up, as for boiling, the breast bone broken down, then seasoned with pepper and salt. Put a piece of butter in the cavity, roast it about half through, then let it cool. The recipe then called for making a raised pie crust form, placing the half roasted bird in, the cavity filed with ten hard-boiled egg yolks, then six sweet-breads (brains) blanched and diced and laid around the bird filling up the pie crust so that it was even at the top. Over the top, put thin slices of larded bacon, then butter, then close the pie with pie crust on top with a funnel in the middle to let out steam. 
Peacock pie from here
Example of a raised pie painted by Peter Claesz in 1637, from here
There were several things I liked about this recipe. It gave guidance for how to deal with the head, the peacock was partially cooked before going in to the pie, reducing the likelihood of rare peacock, and I liked the idea of other ingredients being added to bulk it up, in this case egg yolks and sweet breads, making it more like an early version of an English meat and potato pie. It would make the pie even, unlike the undulating top of the Planet Money pie. 

Then I found that the Researching Food History blog also had a recipe for boning a turkey from an 1862 book titled Mrs. Somerville's Cookery and Domestic Economy, respectfully dedicated to the Ladies of Scotland.  This was intriguing to me because a boned peacock in a pie would make it so it could be cut and eaten like a traditional pie. To bone the turkey, you singe it, draw the sinews from the legs, cut off the head and neck and leave four or five inches of skin on the neck. Then it goes into detail about preparing it in such a way that it can be sewn up in a way to make it take its original form again. 

The more I thought about peacock pie, the more I thought about the meat and potato pie, an English staple I ate quite a few times when I lived in England. Vegetable ingredients along-side the de-boned peacock would allow the pie to be filled evenly and cut and eaten more easily. The final piece of my recipe puzzle came together as I watched a Gordon Ramsay video on cooking slow-roasted pork belly. I'd been thinking about using pork belly as the lard layer next to the pastry. Ramsay used fennel and liberal amounts of fennel seed and star anise to season the pork belly. I decided to focus on fennel as one of the vegetables, which was also in the 1612 recipe, and fennel seed and star anise as spices. 

On the Friday before President's Day I showed up at the Exotic Meat Market warehouse in Grand Terrace to pick up a peacock. Anshu was not there, but one of his employees was. He picked out a 6.5 pound peacock for me. The only problem was that it did not include the head or any tail feathers which I'd hoped to insert in the pie. The employee improvised and found the head of a Muscovy duck they had - at least it would help create some semblance of what the traditional peacock pie would like like. 
Head of a Muscovy duck.
It occurred to me that Anshu might have some of the fat trimmings from the wagyu beef he has butchered - that would be even better than pork belly as the lard layer to put next to the bottom and top crusts of the pie. The employee provided me with several packages of wagyu beef lard.  

Monday morning, after defrosting the peacock, I brushed canola oil over the entire carcass and rubbed in pepper and salt. 
6.5 pound peacock, oiled and rubbed with salt and pepper.
I wanted to half-cook the peacock, as called for in the 1757 recipe, and then de-bone it. I put the carcass on a cooking rack and put it in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, covered in tin foil. Then I pulled off the foil and roasted it for another 30 minutes without the foil. 

The peacock after roasting for 50 minutes. The peacock has a very distinctive yellow fat. 
While the peacock was roasting, I put together the vegetable component of the pie. I cut up one bulb of fennel, one large onion, cut small potatoes into thin slices and sauteed them in a pan with olive oil and liberal sprinklings of fennel seed and star anise. I also headed several large heaping spoonfuls of crushed garlic. As it was about cooked to where I wanted it to be, I added in frozen sweet white corn kernels and frozen peas, and let the ingredients cook together long enough for the peas and corn to mix well with the other ingredients. Then I set those ingredients aside in the refrigerator.
Vegetable mix: fennel, onion, potato corn and peas with fennel seed and star anise.
The boning of the peacock was quite a chore. As I boned I cut the meat into bite-sized pieces with kitchen shears to aid the end product as being one that would cut like a pie. I separated the meat into two piles, one pile with more cooked pieces and one pile with pieces that were more raw. 

I've never made pastry before, so Judy did it for me. The ingredients are pretty simple, water, flower and vegetable shortening. The tricky part was rolling it into a square and inserting it into a pan for the bottom crust. 
Rolled out pie crust.
Fitting the pie crust into the pan.
Once the pastry was put into the pan I layered in the ingredients: first, a layer of wagyu lard, second, a layer of the more cooked peacock pieces; third, a layer of the vegetables; fourth, a layer of the lesser cooked peacock pieces; and fifth, another layer of wagyu lard. 
The first layer of wagyu lard.
The second layer of more cooked peacock pieces.
The third layer of vegetables.
The fourth layer of lesser cooked peacock pieces.
Judy rolled out some more dough and skillfully put the pastry layer over the top, then scalloped the edges with her fingers. It looked great. She then put some slits in the top, somewhat in the shape of a peacock's tail feathers, to allow steam to escape. 
The pie, which was very heavy, was put in the oven at 375 degrees for about 1 3/4 hours. My biggest fear was that it would be under-cooked, so I let it go longer than I should have. It came out a beautiful golden color and retained its shape. The Muscovy duck head which was put in the oven for 40 minutes covered in a napkin, with chopsticks inserted in the neck to hold it up, was inserted in the pie. 
The peacock pie out of the oven. Taking a cue from one of the recipes, a melted an entire cube of butter and poured it over the top when it was finished. 
The peacock pie with the inserted Muscovy duck head. 
Judy set a wonderful table with a cheap tablecloth we got in Egypt with Egyptian geese on it, appropriate for this occasion. 
The peacock pie turned out well. The pastry was flaky and flavorful. The vegetables mixed well with the peacock and the peacock had nice flavor. The only negative was that some of the more roasted bits of peacock were a little over-cooked and chewy. Overall, I was very happy with it and I was surprised at how much the pastry really added to the dish. Usually with pie, I'm all about the filling. With the peacock pie, I was actually seeking for bits of pastry with each bite. 
The peacock pie cut into sections and the first piece removed.
Peacock pie at the front of the plate with a nice bison filet and roll at the back. 
Anshu asked for a second helping of the peacock pie, and specifically asked for more pastry with it. It was obvious he liked the pastry as well. It was a wonderful excuse to get together with friends and enjoy an unusual dinner. I would highly recommend anyone else with similar interests to give it a try.