Sunday, March 1, 2015

Year of Marination

I've always broiled meats, fish, and poultry plain, figuring marination was too much trouble and too froufrou. But I've gotten over those reservations (for one thing, marinating proteins hugely improves the quality of my panini). In fact, 2015's been my Year of Marination. The following is Cooking 101, nothing revelatory, but here's my particular take on it. If you're not a marinater, I hope I convince you to give it a try. It's fast, easy, and is one of the best bang-for-buck moves you can do to sharply step up quality.

This works for chicken, fish, or tofu (I don't marinade mushrooms this way; I just rehydrate them in hot water then sauté with garlic, olive oil, a bit of sherry vinegar, and sometimes a bit of dill or cilantro). Choose at least a couple from each category:

Onion, garlic, scallion, fresh ginger, miso.

Soy sauce (I use Filipino calamasi/lemon soy sauce, aka toyomansi), fish sauce, maple syrup, balsamic or white vinegar, extra virgin olive oil. Or any other flavorful liquid, even just a bit of stock. But don't overdo the liquid; you want the marinade wet enough to coat easily, but you're not making soup!

Tabasco (I prefer piri-piri, the Portuguese hot sauce), cumin, black pepper, toasted sesame seeds, basil, horseradish/wasabi, lemon/lime/orange zest (and some juice, too), cilantro*....or anything else flavorful.

* - a few thoughts on cilantro: this is a great secret touch, reliably yielding professional-tasting results. If you despise cilantro, you won't like it here, but bear in mind that the flavor won't be anywhere near as penetrating as if you'd cooked it directly into the food (even if you use a ton; I usually include a big handful) because in this application, it's more of a team player and agent of je ne sais quoi. Use mostly leaves, ripping off most of the stems. And note that Trader Joe's carries this (bags of scallions, too, which I massively apply to marinades and just about everything else I's another key touch).

You'll need to apply your taste imagination in selecting harmonious components. You want some complexity, but if you go too far, you'll wind up with muddled results. Try this reliable combo: scallion, garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, Tabasco, cilantro (adjust salting later, though, due to soy sauce).

Here's the big trick: you've got to overdo it. Apply way more hot sauce than you'd ever add directly to food; enough ginger to create a ginger bomb; enough olive oil to fry a potato. Remember these items are not actually going into the food, so all flavors must be exaggerated (plus, most of this stuff is going right in the garbage later). The first few times, you'll almost surely under-season your marinades, so be prepared to step it all way up. Also: this is also why you shouldn't add salt to the marinade; it's hard to get it precise. Instead, salt food later, as you cook it.

Don't bother cutting or chopping anything nicely. Just toss it all into the food processor (I have this tiny, cheap, easy-to-clean one that works great for this purpose) and pulse until there are no large chunks. If you've spent more than five minutes on prep thus far, you're dawdling unnecessarily!

Spoon the marinade into a large zip lock bag, add meat or tofu. Seal the bag (removing most of the trapped air) and squish contents around forcefully to create an even coating (if you didn't use enough liquid, you'll have trouble distributing the coating; next time use more olive oil or soy sauce!). Leave in fridge for 45 - 90 minutes.

Note: you can prepare double the marinade quantity and preserve half to use later as a sauce, but proper marination means you don't really need sauce. My home cooking is austere and healthful, so I'm not much of a sauce guy (aside from simple deglazings). Marination ensures rich, deep flavors without the extra fat, salt, and fuss.

There's art in the transfer to broiler pan. If you dump the contents, marinade and all, into the pan, you'll wind up with an overly-wet, gurgling/boiling mess. But neither do you want to remove all coating. I grab pieces with tongs, one at a time, and give each a firm small shake (back into the bag; remember, salmonella may be present, and you don't want it on kitchen surfaces) before transferring to broiler pan. And I remove any excess liquid halfway through the cooking.

Throw out the bag, and broil a little longer/browner than you normally would. Some extra caramelization dovetails beautifully with the marinade, and, for some psychological reason, consummate tenderness isn't quite as important with marinated foods, though of course you don't want to dry anything out. I broil chicken thighs 6-7 minutes on one side then twice that on the other, which is nearly double the cooking time I apply to non-marinated (skinless) thighs.


Paul Trapani said...

Awesome primer on marination!

Interesting comment about mushrooms. For most of my life, I always followed the cooking maxim of never letting mushrooms have too much contact with water (assuming you're talking about fresh mushrooms not dried). I would always carefully wipe each with a wet paper towel. I got over it after reading that it was ok to rinse and testing it.

Then I read an article saying if you actually soaked the mushrooms and sauteed in a crowed pan (which is supposed to be another no no) they are far better. The author, a serious food hacker/mad scientist was stunned by the result. I tried and it's 100% true.

Jim Leff said...

Ack, sorry, I was talking about dried mushrooms. I'll correct/clarify now. I don't actually have much experience either way with fresh ones.....

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