Smoked Out, Spiced Up

I made a routine trip over to The Spice House a few weeks ago to stock up on a few items that were running frighteningly low (seriously, what would I do if I ran out of cumin? green cardamom pods?). Fortunately, I’d ditched outta work a little early that day, otherwise I would have been caught in the midst of one of Chicago’s final festivals of the summer had I waited and ventured over to Old Town on the weekend.

I love that place, and when explaining to those who are less, say, discriminating in their spice-buying, why I get my spices from there, and there only, I vacillate between a few equally valid reasons.

1) I like to keep my spices fresh, and as a result I buy in small quantities. No, I don’t put dates on the bottom of my spice jars, and I don’t throw every single bottle out and start over every 6 months, as other spice nazis do. Hell no, I’m not throwing out saffron – I don’t care how old it is! But since I can buy in small quantities (typically 1 oz at a time), I do, and this way I’m replacing many of them every 6 months anyway, or even less.

2) I swear I save money, even if I spend $10-20 bucks on spices each trip. I can’t help it that I am tempted by the cute container of smoked sea salt and the enticing aroma of Tahitian vanilla bean. But seriously – the spice jars at Whole Foods are ~4 bucks a pop, and the weekly grocery bills are already unruly. Maybe that’s just WF, but either way, I’m convinced it has to be cheaper to buy from bulk bins since I’m not throwing out money for the exact same glass jar I already have at home. Just sayin’.

3) The folks there are so dang nice. My blogger buddies, Alice & Jared, even got to hang out there one afternoon – so you can read an in-depth account of their trip here! I had a rather detailed convo with one of the “spiciers” (yes, using this word as a noun instead of an adjective here..) while she was bagging all my goods the other day: she was curious about the star anise I was buying, commenting on how pretty it is and asking, “what do you do with it?”.

Ahem. Well, aside from steeping it in beverages (hello, Thai iced tea) and other dishes, sorta like you would a cinnamon stick, and baking, the list goes on and on. But my focus this time, and my need for a refill, was because I was smokin’ with it. Yep, smokin’. I think she peed her pants when I said that. Okay, maybe not, but she did wrinkle her nose quite a bit.

I’d found a very intriguing recipe in a recent Food & Wine magazine from an interview with a chef in North Carolina, Andrea Reusing of Lantern, a place that’s now on my list of to-do’s over a future NC visit. Turns out, her husband co-founded Merge Records (Arcade Fire, aka one of my favorite three bands of this year, anyone?). NC-based and friends of Arcade Fire aside, I loved the idea of smoking with tea and spices – loved it. And while many of you (myself included) don’t have a home smoker, you can rig it up with no problem, as I did with a wok, a cooling rack, and tin foil.

The result, after a day in a soy-based, spiced brine (you know I heart brines!), a quick smoke over the stovetop, and some more time in the oven, is an extremely moist, mahogany-colored piece of chicken that tastes like you’ve stepped right into a house of spices and a chicken coop in paradise simultaneously. The outer skin crunches against your teeth, and the juices run carelessly into your mouth and down your chin. And while I didn’t bother too much with the accompanying sauce, I’m sure the sweet tang is a nice partner to this anise-loving chicken, if you can stop eating it long enough to spoon a little onto the next bite, that is.

Tea & Spice-Smoked Roasted Chicken
Adapted from Food & Wine via Lantern Restaurant, September 2010; serves 4

time commitment: 20 minutes the night before + 24 hours brining time + 1.75 hours the night you intend to eat it (pssttt – it’s worth it!).

printable version

chicken brine
2 quarts water
6 garlic cloves, smashed
5 dried red chiles
4 star anise pods
3 T honey
one 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
zest of 1 small orange or tangerine, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
one 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 c soy sauce (gluten-free, if needed)
1 small yellow onion, quartered
1 T sugar
1 whole chicken, wing tips removed

smoking mixture
1/2 c jasmine rice
1/4 c plus 2 T sugar
1/4 c plus 2 T loose black tea
6 star anise pods, broken into pieces
4 dried red chiles, broken into pieces
vegetable oil, for rubbing
1 t Sichuan peppercorns, crushed

scallion-ginger sauce
4 scallions, white and pale green parts only, minced 
2 T finely grated fresh ginger 
2 T canola oil

special stuff: roasting pan or wok & a large pot or Dutch oven

brine the chicken
in a large pot (a Dutch oven large enough to hold the chicken), combine the water, garlic, chiles, star anise, honey, ginger, orange zest, cinnamon, soy sauce, onion and sugar. Simmer over moderate heat for 10 minutes. Let cool.

place chicken in pot of brine and turn the chicken to coat it completely with brine. Turn the chicken breast side down and place lid on pot. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

prepare the smoking mixture
preheat the oven to 375 F. In a bowl, combine the rice, sugar, tea, star anise and chiles. Line a wok or small roasting pan with a double layer of foil. Scatter the tea mixture on the foil and set a rack in the wok/pan. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry. Transfer the chicken to the rack, breast side up; be sure it doesn’t touch the side of the pan. Tent heavy-duty foil over the chicken and seal all around the edge of the pan. Seal overlapping pieces of foil with tape.

set the roasting pan/wok over high heat and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to moderately low and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for 3 minutes. Uncover the chicken and let rest for 10 minutes.

transfer the chicken to a rimmed baking sheet, breast side up. Rub the chicken with canola oil, sprinkle with the Sichuan peppercorns and season lightly with salt. Roast in the upper third of the oven for 35 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 425 F and continue to roast for about 35 minutes longer, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the inner thigh registers 165. Transfer the chicken to a carving board and let rest for 10 minutes.

make the scallion-ginger sauce
In a bowl, combine the scallions, ginger and oil and season with salt. Carve the chicken and serve with the sauce.

Dessert of Champions

This is an ending to all endings. This is a dessert that’s gonna make you go ‘ooh la la’. This is a dessert that makes you happy for spring and the arrival of those summer days sandwiched in between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Also, you can now wear white shoes. But if you’re a rebel like me, you may have already broken out those white strappy numbers (or flip flops).

Need to make use of bread in your freezer? Make this bread pudding. Or maybe this one, which has alcohol in it. And caramel.

Tired of cereal for breakfast? Have leftover bread pudding. With or without the ice cream. Probably don’t put an egg on top though; this is one breakfast recipe where that might not work so well….

Basically, this is good for just about everything in life.

Come to think of it, ice cream alone solves all of life’s worries. Did the hot sun get you all sweaty and stinky? Eat ice cream – you’ll forget you smell. Did you get in an argument with your spouse? Ice cream makes that seem so unimportant. Did you wake up with a hangover? Yup, ice cream probably makes that go away too. But don’t eat it too fast, because brain freeze is nothing lovely either.

Of course, it helps if that ice cream involves cardamom and vanilla bean. With a side of bread pudding.

On the other hand, a spoonful of caramel powder is probably quicker and easier to make, which is pretty much awesome if all you have at home is a canister of sugar. When all else fails you in this world, you still have sugar. And as long as you have a food processor, you can spin that sugar into pure magic.

And if you can’t quite decide what you need in life, you can make all three – which is exactly what I did. I feel much better about things as a result, and you would too.

Rhubarb-Ginger Cardamom Bread Pudding w/ Cardamom-Vanilla Ice Cream & Salted Caramel Powder

printable version (all 4 components)

Rhubarb, Ginger, & Cardamom Bread Pudding
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2010; serves 10-12

printable version (bread pudding only)

1 c seedless raspberry preserves
1/2 c water
1/3 c chopped crystallized ginger
1 T finely grated orange peel
2 1/2 lbs rhubarb (preferably bright red), ends trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch-wide pieces

3/4 c sugar
3 large eggs
2 c 2% milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
cooking spray
1 loaf cardamom-spiced bread (recipe below) or storebought  brioche or challah
(1/2 t ground cardamom, if you don’t make the spice bread)

Whisk preserves and 1/2 c water in heavy large skillet over medium heat until preserves dissolve (if using seeded preserves, strain seeds out and toss seeds; add rest back into skillet). Sprinkle ginger and orange peel over. Scatter rhubarb evenly in skillet. Bring mixture to simmer over medium heat, occasionally stirring very gently, until rhubarb is slightly tender but still intact, about 10 minutes. Pour mixture into large sieve set over large saucepan. Let drain 15 minutes. Cover each separately and chill. Can be made at least 1 day in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk sugar and eggs in medium bowl. Place milk in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Gradually add hot milk mixture to egg mixture, whisking custard to blend, but doing this slowly so as not to scramble eggs (add ground cardamom here if using).

While heating milk (above), place bread cubes on a sheet pan and toast for about 7 minutes. However, if you have “old” bread that’s somewhat dry/stale, skip this step.

Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish. Arrange enough bread cubes in dish to cover bottom (will have some gaps). Spoon half of rhubarb evenly over. Repeat with bread and rhubarb. Pour custard over. Place baking dish in roasting pan. Add enough hot water to pan to come halfway up sides of dish.

Bake pudding until just set in center, about 50 minutes. Remove from oven. Let stand in water bath 30 minutes; remove. Meanwhile, boil reserved syrup until reduced to 1 cup, about 10 minutes. Keep warm.

Brush top of pudding with some rhubarb syrup. Spoon warm pudding into bowls; top with syrup and ice cream (or whipped cream, or nothing).

Cardamom Spice Bread
Adapted from Saveur Issue #128; makes 2 loaves

printable version

1 1/3 c warm milk
2/3 c sugar
4 t g cardamom
2 1/4-oz. packages active dry yeast
3 eggs, lightly beaten
5-5 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t kosher salt
5 T unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes, room temp
1 T cream or milk
1 egg yolk

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, combine milk, sugar, 3 t cardamom, and yeast; stir together and let sit until foamy, 10 minutes. Add eggs; mix to combine. Add flour (may not need full amount; add until dough forms) and salt. Replace paddle with hook attachment; knead dough on medium speed for 2 minutes. While kneading, slowly add butter in batches, mixing until incorporated before adding next batch, 3–4 minutes; continue kneading for 4 minutes more after last of butter is added.

Transfer dough to a bowl oiled or sprayed with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down dough; cover again with plastic wrap and let sit until fully risen, 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 F. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into 2 equal pieces. Set 1 piece aside and divide other piece into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion between your palms and work surface to create a 16″ rope. Braid ropes together to form a loaf, following the instructions below. Transfer loaf to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Repeat with second dough piece. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let sit until slightly puffed up, about 20 minutes. (For fancier braids, search You Tube.)

Whisk together remaining cardamom, cream/milk, and egg yolk in a small bowl; brush over loaves. Bake, one loaf at a time, until golden brown, 20–25 minutes. Transfer to a rack; let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Cardamom-Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Adapted from The Spice House; serves 6-8

printable version (ice cream only)

prep time: 1-2 days before serving

1 c half & half
1 c organic 2% milk
1/2 vanilla bean
5 green cardamom pods, crushed slightly
4 egg yolks
3/4 c sugar
1/8 t g cardamom

pour half/half and milk into medium-sized heavy saucepan. scrape seeds from vanilla bean, and toss into milk with cardamom and vanilla bean pod. slowly bring to a boil, remove from heat, and cover to steep for about 20 minutes.

slowly heat milk mixture up, just to a boil. meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and sugar together until light yellow. when milk is just boiling, remove from heat and slowly add milk, whisking simultaneously, into the yolk/sugar mixture. whisk constantly until all milk is incorporated (you can slowly add milk, then whisk if you’re less coordinated; but work quickly!), then pour mixture back into saucepan. over low heat, stir almost constantly until it thickens (forms a custard). the mixture will coat the back of a spoon at this point, and this means you are ready to go!

pour mixture back into bowl from egg yolk mixture, add ground cardamom, and place that bowl over an ice water bath to cool custard quickly. for best results, chill overnight to develop flavor. once ready, freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions (usually 15-20 minutes). freeze overnight.

Salted Caramel Powder
makes at least 1 cup

printable version (caramel powder only)

2 c sugar
Maldon sea salt

Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. In a large heavy skillet, heat sugar over medium heat. Swirl sugar, but try not to stir. Once sugar melts, it will slowly caramelize. If clumps form, stir to melt sugar. Remove from heat once caramel is light gold.

Pour hot mixture, carefully, onto sheet pan. Move around to make a thin sheet. Let hot caramel cool and harden, about 30 minutes.

Once caramel is cooled, remove from sheet pan and break into small chunks. Add chunks into a (dry!!) food processor and blend until a powder forms. Place in a dry container and refrigerate. Stores for 1 month, if it lasts that long!