Fermented Black Garlic

It has been a busy summer, with tons of visitors, a full apartment, and a jam-packed schedule. But at long last, one night last week I had my place to myself. Chops was still working, and I decided to cook something weird just for myself.

I found fermented black garlic at the co-op, and my curiosity was piqued as I began to research how it was used. It’s typically found in Asian cuisine, but is also said to be rich in anti-oxidants and is sometimes touted as a health food, which is surprising because as I peeled back the bulbs, it didn’t really look like something I should be eating:

Peeled Black Garlic

1. Resorting to Risotto
I found a recipe that, interestingly enough, uses black garlic in risotto. Here’s the link:


I wish I had thought to use sake in place of the white wine in the recipe to continue bring together an Italian-Asian melange.

Having never made risotto before, I had always thought the creamy consistency of the rice was the result of oodles and oodles of cream and butter, but was surprised that the vast majority of the liquid in the recipe is chicken broth, and that the creamy consistency of the risotto is a characteristic of the Arborio rice. Arborio rice has a higher starch content than most traditional rices grains. When cooked, this starch is released, helping to create the creamy consistency that makes risotto so wonderful.

2. Black Cloves
When it came time to add the cloves of black garlic to the risotto, I was surprised after completely peeling them to find that their consistently was soft, and that the fragrance of garlic seemed to be amplified, and it wafted unwaveringly into my nose. It wasn’t an over-powering smell, but definitely stronger than I was expecting.

Fermented black garlic peeled and laying on a cutting board

The cloves themselves stuck to my knife as I attempted to dice them, and although the comparison is unappetizing, I began to feel like a witch chopping up leeches for her brew.

Once the risotto was ready, I spooned a helping into a bowl, topped it with mushrooms, and garnished with steamed kale I had made on the side. I sprinkled a few drops of black truffle oil over the dish to help enhance the earthy, delicately sweet notes of both the fermented black garlic and the mushrooms.

Mushroom and black garlic risotto

3. The Verdict
After the hustle and bustle of the last few weeks, I sat down to dinner in the quiet, sunny evening hours of summer in Seattle. A breeze blew through the open windows in my living room and kitchen, giving some relief to the heat of the stove top range. I poured myself a glass of chardonnay and sat on my couch enjoying the silence, my meal, and a night to myself.

Chicken Backs

When I found chicken backs hanging out in the meat department of the co-op I got really excited for two reasons:
1. They were super inexpensive.
2. I imagined they could be made into something fancy and exotic, like baby chicken back ribs or something.

I picked up a pack of two and went home to research.

As it turns out, chicken backs aren’t really used as a meat staple on their own, for the simple fact that there’s not much meat on them. However, while all their bones may make them too dainty to be a main course, all that marrow has its advantages when it comes to making stock for soup. To tell the truth, I was slightly disappointed when I resigned myself to making chicken soup. But I know that if I was going to be making chicken soup, I didn’t want to make just any chicken soup. I set out to make pho ga.

I am almost always DTP (Down To Pho). I probably make Chops eat at the Vietnamese place a few blocks from my apartment once or twice a month, on top of the several other times I go there when he’s not around. There’s something about a steaming bowl of rich broth, rice noodles, tender meat, mixed with the aroma of spicy peppers and herbs that seems incredibly healing, homey and settling. It makes my body and mind feel incredibly at ease, which is a lot to say about a bowl of soup.

1. Baby Got (Chicken) Back
I found a pretty basic but authentic pho recipe here: http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2007/06/chicken_pho_noo.html
It turned out that I needed a lot more than the two-pack of chicken backs I had picked up on my first round to the store. I went back, purchased the other ingredients, and returned with four more backs. After I had rinsed and trimmed away the excess fat, I finally got a good look at what I was working with. While I was hoping the pho would turn out well, right from the beginning I had to admit, chicken backs are ugly:Chicken Backs

While following the recipe, I felt a little strange charring the onions and garlic directly on my stove’s electric burner, but nothing burned down, and the char added a sweet/smokey element to the broth that I hadn’t been expecting.

Charred onions/gingerAnother thing pho recipes mentioned that had never come up when I made chicken soup before, was the emphasis on the clarity of the broth. This recipe asks us to par-boil the chicken backs and extra chicken to rid them of “impurities.” Curious as to what these impurities were (bacteria? viruses? dirt? chemicals?), I took to the internet. It turns out that they’re not harmful, just proteins that cloud the broth and can form a frothy scum on the surface. That said, after all was said and done, the broth was definitely more appetizing in appearance than any stock I had ever  made.

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Onions

Once the chicken had been parboiled and rinsed, the stock’s other ingredients (peeled onion and ginger, cloves, coriander seeds, cilantro, and rock sugar) were added to the pot. The one ingredient that made me raise an eyebrow was the rock sugar. They didn’t carry it at the co-op, so I went to the Viet-Wah in the International District and found a bag. From what I understand, yellow rock sugar is made much the same way as rock candy, only with less refined sugar. It’s also said to be less sweet and slightly more healthy than refined sugar, but I couldn’t find an in-depth article explaining exactly why it’s healthier, so that could just be slanderous internet-talk.

This sugar really rocks.

I was grateful that I had started this project a little later in the afternoon, because at this point, the stock had to simmer for 11 1/2 hours. I went to bed with the pot gently bubbling throughout the night.

2. Packing a Bowl
The next day, after the stock had been strained and cooled, I had Chops over for dinner. As the broth reheated on the stove, I assembled the bowls. I rinsed and boiled the noodles, then added slices of chicken, topped them with a tower of bean sprouts, and then poured on several spoonfulls of clear, steaming broth. Limes, serrano peppers, thai basil, cilantro, and sriracha were served on the side. (It was at this point that I found myself wishing that I had roasted the chicken that I was slicing and including in the bowls. As it was, the superstar of this pho was really the stock, which, considering I was focusing on the chicken backs, is probably a good thing.)

Pho Ga!
3. The Verdict

We were both quiet for a really long time as we ate. It had been a long couple of days, we were both tired, and this was the first big home cooked meal either of us had all weekend. We slurped and sipped and chewed. When we finally stopped it was to say, “Oh my gosh, there are so many noodles!” It was like they were reproducing in the bowl, there was absolutely no end to them. I was full and happy, and like a toddler bored with her food, I began playing with them.

“Oodles of noodles! Oodles of noodles!” I cried, threatening to dump some of my noodles into Chops’s bowl.
“No!” said Chops.
I picked a stray noodle up off the table, and placed it on Chops’s head, “Now you have a noodle on your noodle!”
He gave me a poker face.
“Get it? A noodle on your nooooodle?” I prodded.
He didn’t budge.
“So then. I’ll, uh, just be taking that off now,” I said, removing the noodle from his hair and wadding it up in a paper napkin.

It was then he launched his sneak attack. He wrested and tickled me down to the floor until I succumbed to a fit of giggles and threatened to barf up all of my noodles if he didn’t stop. He agreed to a truce, and we wound up curled up on my sofa– warm, sated, dozing, and completely at ease.

Fonzy Melon

I found the coolest melon of all time at the co-op this weekend– the Fonzy Melon!

Fonzy Melon! Ayyy!I’m not sure where the Fonzy Melon got it’s name (the Happy Days character is technically Fonzie), but after looking into it, I found that this melon is a variety of Canary melon, which is a winter melon that not so surprisingly gets its name from its bright yellow rind.

1. Peeling

These Seattle spring days have been warm, sunny, and jam packed full of fun, so a melon was the perfect pick for a cool, easy, evening snack. When I cut the melon in half, I was surprised that it was very similar in color and texture to a pear.

Fonzy HalvesI continued by seeding the melon and slicing it into eighths. The rind was very thin, but I took a few test bites, and in the areas where I hadn’t peeled away enough of the meat with the rind, it was disappointingly crunchy and chewy.

2. Wrap and Drizzle

I didn’t follow a recipe this week. My mom makes an hors-d’oeuvre with cantaloupe where she wraps it in prosciutto and drizzles it with a little bit of olive oil and adds a sprinkling of salt. I used it as my game plan for this melon.

Prosciutto wrapped fonzy melon

 3. The Verdict

I carried the plate of prosciutto-wrapped Fonzy Melon out to the back yard.

“What kind of melon is it again?” Chops asked, following me.
“A Fonzy Melon.”
“So it’s a melon you throw against a jukebox to get it to play?”
“Yep,” I smiled.
We took a seat. The sun had dipped below the roof line, but the air was still warm. The rhododendron in the corner dropped its blooms one by one. The once vibrant pink petals had faded and grown limp like used up pieces of bubble gum.
“A melon’s a pretty safe bet,” he said. “No one’s ever gotten killed from eating melon. I think we’re probably going to live through this one.”
“Well, there was that E. coli outbreak that was traced back to cantaloupe last year…”
“I’ll be fine. I drink too much jaeger to be taken down by E. coli,” he took a bite.
“What do you think?”
“It tastes like cantaloupe.”
“So it’s good?”
“Yeah, but not really weird.”
“Not weird, but good.”

For better or worse, the rest of the night our conversation was punctuated with Fonzie-like Italian-American exclamations:
Chops walked into any room I was in: “Ayyy!”
I dropped a piece of melon in the grass: “Oo-ooh!”
Or I would ask Chops for a glass of wine: “Come-ooon…”

Fiddle Head Ferns

I came across these pretty ladies at the Ballard Farmer’s Market this weekend:

Lady Fiddle Head Ferns on a market table

I couldn’t resist. For my first official blog post, they seemed like a pretty safe bet. Nothing terrible has ever come out of something so green and cute and curly, right? I bought half a pound for $5.00, and then began looking into fiddlehead ferns. As it turns out, these ladies have a duplicitous personality–they’re either toxic or tender. When raw, they contain a toxin that can cause terrible stomach pain, so they must be heated and prepared properly before they’re eaten.

A lot of what I read agreed with the sign on the marketeers table that said fiddleheads are great blanched and fried with bacon. I also came across an angel hair pasta and fiddlehead fern recipe. I decided to combine the two ideas, and made fettuccine carbonara guest starring fiddlehead ferns.

1: Blanching

I laid out a pretty solid rule in the first post about not killing Chops or myself. In keeping with that rule, it was important to blanch the fern tips before I did anything else with them. I trimmed off the brown parts and discarded any curls that weren’t tightly formed. (I read that the tips that aren’t tightly curled could be more likely to carry food-bourne illness. It was only one website, so it could be complete hogwash, but better to be safe than sorry, I suppose.) They frolicked around in boiling water for 4min and emerged fresh, clean, and much more tender:

Steamed Fiddlehead Ferns

2: Pasta!

I used the following recipe as the general guideline for making the fettuccini carbonara:

I added one additional step: once the bacon had been fried to my liking, I sauteed the fiddle head ferns in the rendered fat until tender.

Frying Fiddlehead Ferns

Once some of the smaller tendrils started losing their shape, I considered them done, drained away the excess grease, and served.

3: The Verdict

Fettuccini Carbonara with Fiddlehead Ferns

“Well, what do you think?” I asked Chops after his first few bites.
“I think I like it. They kind of have a little earthy taste to them. What do you think?”
“I like them. The ones that aren’t quite cooked enough have  a bitter taste to them, though.”
“I’ve definitely gotten one or two that are bitter. But the texture’s good. They’re kind of like little curled up asparaguses.”
“That makes total sense. I read they can be used as a substitute for asparagus in a lot of recipes.”
“Do they have the interactive pee smell?”
“The interactive pee smell?”
“Yeah, how asparagus makes your pee smell funny! You forget that you ate it, and then go to the bathroom and it’s like, OH YEAH! HELLLLLO ASPARAGUS! Will these do that?”
I started laughing. “You know, I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to find out.”

Sometime around 3am, I felt Chops get up out of bed. I took a quick sip of water before dozing off again. A minute or so later, he climbed back into bed and nudged me a little.
“Hmph,” I said.
“You know. I have to say, my pee did smell a little different.”

The No-Joe’s Challenge

When I moved to Seattle and started dating Chops, it wasn’t long before he convinced me to stop shopping at Trader Joe’s. “They prepackage everything,” he told me. “Despite their wholesome image, they’re not that good for the environment.” So the next week, I took the No-Joe’s Challenge. I went to fruit stands for my fruit, a farmer’s market for vegetables. I went to The Creamery in Pike Place Market for my milk and eggs, and to Bob’s Butcher Shop in Columbia City for my meat. It a lot of running around, but at the end of the day, I had gotten to spend a beautiful afternoon roaming around the city. The No-Joe’s Challenge had worked! It wasn’t long before I signed up as an owner at the Madison Market Co-op, and my apples come wrapped in plastic no more.

Part of what makes shopping at the co-op and other local markets interesting is that they aim to carry edible food items that meet the standards for all sorts of dietary restrictions. I don’t fall under any the categories of vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, Paleo, etc, but a lot of people who shop there do. A lot of times I find myself wandering around, wondering what in the world people do with all these foods. Quite frankly, it’s time to find out.

This is a blog about cooking with weird food. Each post will feature a different food item that I’ve never cooked with before. I’ll make a dish with it, make commentary on the taste, and do my best not to kill either Chops or myself in the process.

Here’s to open minds and open mouths!