Thursday, February 26, 2009

Making The Perfect Hamburger

Making The Perfect Hamburger

Hamburgers can be a controversial subject. Everyone has their favorite burger, and everyone thinks that theirs is the best.

This is our favorite burger, and it is the best.

A good burger starts with good, high fat beef. Recently, we've been making ours with the ground chuck Brandt Beef sells at our local farmers market. If you can't get high quality ground beef, grind your own.

We keep the meat mostly unadulterated - although we do add salt and some onion, chopped small enough that the pieces mostly disappear during cooking.

Making The Perfect Hamburger

You can see a pint of beer in the background. Now, I'm not saying that this is an essential part of the process, but then again I'm not saying it isn't...

What is certainly an essential part of the process is the cooking technique. While I love all sorts of things cooked on a barbecue, please keep my burger away from the flame. Burgers should be cooked in a large frying pan or on a griddle, where the fat they release lovingly caresses them during cooking rather than dripping uselessly away into the belly of a barbecue.

Making The Perfect Hamburger

Now for the toppings. We like to grill some onions along with the burgers (another way to make use of that nice fat in the pan). Cheese? Yes, please. I'm not ashamed to admit that I usually get American Cheese on a burger when eating out, but we can't quite bring ourselves to buy it for use at home.

These guys were topped with some home-smoked cheddar, which worked just fine indeed...

Making The Perfect Hamburger

I can take or leave lettuce on a burger, but I absolutely need tomato and pickle - as much of both as I can stack on and still keep things semi-manageable.

A great burger (cook mine medium rare, please), starts as a thing of beauty but is like a ticking time bomb - as its juices ooze out it begins to self destruct. Your challenge is to eat it before it completely falls apart - a challenge that I, for one, am always happy to accept.

Making The Perfect Hamburger

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Partial Mash Brewing and an IPA Recipe Modeled After Blind Pig

Piggish IPA

Given that a year and a half has now passed since we brewed our last batch of beer, it was clearly time to get the wort boiling again. This time, in our ongoing quest for our perfect IPA, we took a step forward into the world of partial mash brewing.

Partial mash is a technique that allows you to get some of the flexibility and control of all-grain brewing, while still allowing for a kitchen-friendly stove-top boil. Basically, you are moving part way from extract brewing to all-grain by replacing roughly half of your extract with grain.

Piggish IPA

We bought the malted barley whole at our local brewing supply store, and used their barley crusher to mill it into the form you see above.

The cracked barley gets mixed together with the specialty grains you are using and it all goes into a big mesh bag.

Piggish IPA

The next step is the mash. For our mash vessel, we used a 3 gallon beverage cooler - perfect for keeping hot water at a reasonably stable temperature for the hour or so the grain is steeping. This size cooler can handle up to 6 pounds of crushed grains in about 8.25 quarts of water. Since the cooler and grains start out unheated, we used 165 degree water, shooting for a target mash temperature of 150-153 degrees.

Piggish IPA

It's important to lower the bag of cracked grains into the cooler very slowly and prod it with a spoon to ensure that no dry patches of grain are trapped in the center.

Piggish IPA

Another great thing about the cooler is that the spigot provides an easy way to get the wort out after the mash is complete.

Piggish IPA

After you've collected the first wort, it needs to be immediately heated to 168 degrees to stop enzymatic activity and keep the sugars fermentable. This is done by pouring the wort into a pot that already contains a small amount of boiling water. You then bring the wort to a boil on the stove top just like you would do for all-extract brewing.

Piggish IPA

While the first wort is heating, more hot water gets added to the wet grains in the cooler and allowed to sit for another 5 minutes before draining off every drop of this second wort to add to the boil pot.

After all the wort comes to a boil, the timer starts for hop additions.

Piggish IPA

Remember that only half of our malt bill was grain - the remaining is extract. We prefer to use dry malt extract (DME) for both flavor and color reasons. We use the late extract addition technique - adding the DME (all of it, in this case) at the end of the boil to avoid over-caramelization.

Piggish IPA

For this beer, we were inspired by Russian River's Blind Pig IPA, and Alpine Brewing Company's clone of it, O'Brien's IPA. Both are fantastically aromatic beers in the San Diego Pale Ale style - although at around 6%abv, they are bit lower octane.

The hops we chose were based on a combination of the sparse info about Blind Pig we were able to find on the web, our personal preferences, and what we had on hand. We used Columbus, Cascade and Simcoe in the boil, and then dry hopped in secondary with all three again, plus some Centennial.

Piggish IPA

The result was easily one of the best beers we have made. It has a beautiful light-orange color, with a nice, white lacy head. Taste-wise, it is quite dry and hoppy, but with just enough malt sweetness for balance. At 6.3% abv, the alcohol content is right where we wanted it.

Doing a partial mash was not much more complicated than straight extract brewing and it made a big difference in the outcome. Add in the extra flexibility you get with regard to the grains you can use (we're thinking of adding some rye next time) and it has definitely become our brewing technique of choice. Until we go all-grain, that is...

Piggish IPA

This batch won't last long...

Update: also check out our Rye IPA version of this beer.

Piggish IPA

Total batch size = 5 gallons; Partial Mash in 3 gallon beverage cooler; ~3 gallon, 60 minute stove-top boil; very late malt extract addition; dry hopped for aroma; target abv of 6.4%.
Additional helpful procedural details can be found in "Countertop Partial Mashing" by Chris Colby in Brew Your Own magazine.


4 1/2 lb 2-Row Pale Malt
1/2 lb 40L Crystal Malt
1/2 lb Carapils/Dextrin Malt
1/2 lb Wheat Malt
4 lb, 1 oz Briess Golden Light Dry Malt Extract (DME)
2 oz Columbus Hops (12.3% AA)
2 oz Cascade Hops (6% AA)
3/4 oz Simcoe Hops (13.2% AA)
1 oz Centennial Hops (8% AA)
1 tablet Whirlfloc
White Labs WLP001 California Ale Yeast
4 oz corn sugar (for bottle priming)

Hop Schedule:

1 oz Columbus - 60 minutes boil
1/2 oz Cascade - 30 minutes boil
1 oz Cascade - 15 minutes boil
1/4 oz Columbus - 2 minutes boil
1/2 oz Simcoe - 2 minutes boil
1/4 oz Columbus - Dry Hop in Secondary Fermenter
1/2 oz Cascade - Dry Hop in Secondary Fermenter
1/4 oz Simcoe - Dry Hop in Secondary Fermenter
1 oz Centennial - Dry Hop in Secondary Fermenter

Heat 8.25 quarts water to 165 degrees for a target mash temperature of 150-153 degrees. Place the 6 pounds of crushed grain (2-Row Pale, 40L Crystal, Carapils and Wheat) into a large mesh bag. Pour the hot water into the beverage cooler, then lower the grain bag into the water very slowly, pushing and prodding with a large spoon to ensure all the grain is wet (this can take several minutes). Put the lid on the cooler and allow to rest 60 minutes.

While the grains are mashing, heat another 4-5 quarts of water to 180-185 degrees for sparging (rinsing the grains). Near the end of the 60 minutes, heat 2 quarts of water to a boil in your brew pot.

After the first mash is complete, remove the cooler lid and open the spigot to draw off about 2 quarts of wort into a large pitcher. The first draw will likely be cloudy with grain particles; pour it gently back into the cooler over the grain bag to help filter it. Draw off the remaining wort by the pitcher-full and carefully pour that wort into the boiling water in your brew pot; continue until only a trickle of wort leaves the spigot.

Pour about 4 quarts of your hot sparge water over the grain bag in the cooler. Gently lift the bag up and down to thoroughly re-wet the grains (but don't slosh). Cover and let sit about 5 minutes. Use the spigot and a pitcher to draw off all of the second wort and add it to your brew pot. You should have about 3 gallons of wort.

Bring the wort to a boil and add hops according to the schedule. At time zero, remove from heat and add the DME one pound at a time, stirring to dissolve (if needed, return to low heat for a few minutes to help dissolve the extract). Stir in 1 tablet Whirlfloc. Cover and let sit 10-15 minutes.

Move brew pot to an ice bath and cool quickly to less than 80 degrees. Transfer wort to a primary fermenter, straining most of the hops. Add water to reach the 5 gallon mark. Swirl vigorously then pitch the yeast.

Ferment in primary for 1 week, then transfer to secondary and dry hop with 1/4 oz Columbus, 1/2 oz Cascade, 1/4 oz Simcoe and 1 oz Centennial. Bottle after fermentation is complete (2 to 3 weeks in secondary).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ba Ren Szechuan Restaurant

Recently, I was invited by a friend to join her and a group of others to "go to Ba Ren to eat really, really hot, spicy szechuan food." Mike was jealous, since he'd heard interesting things about the place - sorry Mike, you only get to see the pictures along with everyone else.

The place was a little intimidating initially, since not much English is spoken. I arrived at Ba Ren a couple minutes early and asked about our reservation. I was met with a bit of a blank stare and "reservation??" - which prompted me to dash back outside and await the rest of the group. Once strength in numbers arrived we were hustled to a large table in a side area, as far away from the main dining area as possible. So apparently you can make reservations - just don't expect them to be happy about it.

To start the meal, several of us perused a display case filled with intriguing chilled meat and vegetable dishes near the door. By gesturing to the server manning the station, we managed to procure a somewhat random variety of appetizers to bring back to our table. (I have since read that a selection of cold starters is a typical beginning to a Szechuan restaurant meal.)

The plate on the left holds thin-sliced jellied Pig's Ear on top of sliced Pork Tongue in the back, and another tasty meat of some kind in the front. The other plate holds marinated cucumber spears in the back, a salad of edamame and greens on top, and a really spicy chile-crusted meat of some sort. I'm told that one of the two unidentified meats was a tripe dish called Husband and Wife (at least that's what my friend thought it was), but we're not sure which. I liked the tongue a lot, and was pleasantly surprised by the intriguing crunch of the pig's ear. We've tried using pig ears at home, with much less success (one of the few instances where Fergus Henderson, our guide in these matters, has let us down).

Everything at Ba Ren is served family style which means the bigger group you dine with, the more dishes you get to taste. Along with our two plates of appetizers, we opted for six main dishes and a vegetable for our group of ten.

First up was Sliced Boiled Fish:

The fish was in a dark red sauce with a lot of cabbage and tons of spicy, mouth-numbing whole szechuan peppercorns. Overall it was tasty and not too hot if you avoided some of the peppercorns.

Chicken with Hot Peppers:

This was deep fried chicken pieces served among piles of cut-up dried chile peppers along with the obligatory szechuan peppercorns. It looked like it was going to be very fiery, but I was told that the dried chiles aren't meant to be eaten - they just flavor the cooking oil. I found this dish to be ok, but fairly one-dimensional.

Cut Beans:

Ba Ren's menu isn't always easy to decipher when reading the English translations - "Cut Beans" anyone? It turns out that this was a very savory dish of stir-fried green beans seasoned with plenty of garlic and ginger and only a pinch of szechuan pepper.

Dry-Cooked Lamb:

The spicy, tender lamb was quite nice, especially paired with the crunchy fresh bean sprouts scattered throughout.

Ma Po Tofu:

Simply-prepared with an earthy, slightly pungent red sauce and generous cubes of soft tofu, this was really good over steamed rice. Spicy, but not over-the-top. I think I had thirds of this one.

Braised Duck with Taro:

The braised duck was one of the few dishes without a lot of heat from either chiles or Szechuan pepper. It was rich and flavorful, although a bit challenging to eat since the small chunks were bone-in. While nobody was enamored of the jelly-like taro, the duck was a winner.

As you can tell from most of the photos, my fellow diners were quite patient with me and generally allowed me to get a shot of each dish before everyone started to dig-in. Patient until we started nearing the end, that is, when everyone was enthusiastically and cheerfully eating without much pause. Thus, the meager photo of a morsel of duck on my plate above, and a lone shrimp below.

Crispy Shrimp with Hot Peppers:

These two-bite crispy fried shrimp had both sweet and salty components in the batter and were infused with the tongue-tingling flavor of Szechuan peppercorns.

The shrimp were quite addictive - if there had been anything other than a huge plate of chiles remaining on the shrimp platter I would have helped myself to another!

My friend had visited Ba Ren several times before, and on previous visits she had been served a complementary rice pudding-like dessert. After finishing our meal, one of the members of our group who spoke Mandarin asked about the dessert. The waitress responded (in Mandarin) that she hadn't planned to serve it, as many customers do not want it, but yes, she would bring it out.

To our surprise, this is what we were served:

Chicken Noodle Soup with Pea Sprouts and Sour Pickled Greens (aka Dessert Soup).

This was a really nice, comforting way to restore my spice-abused taste buds. I especially liked the vibrancy of the pickled greens. Later I learned that a clear, mild soup and pickles are traditional endings to a multi-course Szechuan meal. Who knew?

While the restaurant still intimidates me quite a bit, I definitely want to return.

Ba Ren Szechuan Restaurant
4957 Diane Ave (between Clairemont Mesa Blvd & Conrad Ave)
San Diego, CA 92117
(858) 279-2520