Kitchen Improv: Microwave Magic

If there's one thing Shiftwork Bites taught me, it's how to improvise. From poaching eggs in a coffee maker to the space management required to cook in 25 square feet, I learned how to make do with what limited resources I had, both in terms of space and equipment. I try to incorporate those lessons into my cooking on a regular basis, finding ways to do things that might not be immediately obvious. In this (highly sporadic) series, I'll explore some of these make-do techniques and how you can employ them at home.

It's been awhile since I've done one of these. I've not given up on finding alternative uses for my kitchen equipment, or hacking my way through technique; it's just that I've been returning to simpler preparations.Turns out my kids prefer pot roast to smoked potatoes, most of the time. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and pretty much the point of good cooking is finding ways to make what's interesting to you enjoyable to those whom you are feeding.That's where microwaved pepperoni comes in.

Microwaved Salumi Crisps: A few years ago, I started playing around with frico. I was turning every cheese I could find into crispy wafers and eating them like cheesy candy. Then I wondered If I could make meat frico. I froze a hunk of soppressata, grated it on a microplane and fried it in a pan. It worked okay. One night while "cooking" at work, I settled on an easier, better way to get crispy wafers of cured meat: the microwave.

The low-moisture environment and high-heat cooking method encourages the fat to render from thin slices of cured meat, dehydrating them and frying them at the same time. The result is a crispy, deeply flavored "chip" of meat. I've found that whole-muscle salumi like coppa works very well in this preparation, giving the resulting crisp a nice contrast of textures between the heftier crunch of the meat and the airier crisp of the dehydrated fat. Basically any cured meat product will work, though.

Most recently, I tried it with pepperoni, which resulted in supremely crunchy wafers with just a bit of curl. They came out quite spicy, with a hint of smoke. Great bar snacks (or homework snacks; the kids kept stealing them from the plate as they came out of the microwave).

The method is simple. Line a microwave-safe plate with paper towels, lay the meat on top and microwave on high for bursts of 30 seconds. You'll see the fat render, then begin to sizzle on top of the meat. If you see wisps of smoke, stop cooking for a few minutes. You may want to flip them halfway through (cooking time is between 40 and 60 seconds, depending on what you're working with in terms of both meat and microwave), especially with something like pepperoni, which tends to cup as it crisps, pooling the fat. Drain on paper towels, adding seasoning if you like. These also substitute nicely anywhere you'd add bacon or, as in this case, Canadian bacon.

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Microwaved Flavored Salt This one was basically just a flight of fancy. I can't even remember what inspired the idea, but I like the way it turned out. Simply combine a flavorful liquid with kosher or other large-crystal salt in equal proportions in a microwave-safe dish and heat until the liquid evaporates. I went with medium power for a more controlled evaporation, giving more time for the flavor to infuse into the salt. Make sure you stir halfway through, or you risk burning any particulates in the liquid. This small dish of Angostura Salt took about two minutes, including stirring every 30 seconds.

The flavor is mild, with cloves and a subtle smokiness coming through most clearly. You can achieve similar results by leaving the combination out on the counter to evaporate, but that will take a couple of days. I tried it. For those of us without patience or forethought, microwave is the way to go. I plan on using the bitter salt to rim cocktail glasses, season meat and vegetables before serving, and to add a pop to sweets. My wife made homemade oatmeal cream pies for me on Valentine's Day, and the Ango Salt added a nice dimension when sprinkled on top.

Rib eye "Cracklins" My wife has a peculiar set of preferences when it comes to steak. She prefers her meat practically blue, and likes a good bit of interior marbling. When it comes to the fat that often rings a rib eye, though, she gets a bit squeamish. Once or twice, I trimmed her steak before cooking. I didn't like it. I prefer to cook the meat intact, then trim the fat from the outside before serving.

Recently this left me with a moderate pile of trimmings, as the kids requested the same treatment. I couldn't stand to see all that flavor go to waste, so I threw the fatty bits in the microwave to see what would happen. Topped with a paper towel to prevent splattering, they crisped up into lovely little charry and meaty nuggets. They reminded me quite a bit of chicharrones, and were delicious sprinkled with a bit of salt. I got only one bite, though, as the kids rushed the plate. My wife asked after them an hour later, and was displeased to find she'd only gotten a taste. In the future, I plan on playing around with format (long, thin strips, mince, chunks) to see what variations in texture I can produce.

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Microwave Marmalade Candy I'd seen it on Twitter first, via avid experimentalist @ourcookquest, though the process wasn't documented. The first go-round reminded me of the crispy citrus tuiles I made via low-oven dehydration. It was a picture of a lacy bit of "pomelo marmalade candy" that really got me thinking. "Jean Dough" confirmed that it was a microwave process, using the scrapings from the bottom of the pan left after making a batch of pomelo marmalade. I tried to shortcut it, using a jar of decent apricot jam.

A bit of jam went in a bowl and into the microwave on high for one minute, and I stopped to stir every time it looked ready to escape its container. The bowl steamed and sputtered, liquid sugar foaming up and threatening to climb out. It looked an awful lot like making caramel (new idea: repeat this process, adding chilled butter at this stage for apricot caramel sauce). I could have used a candy thermometer to see if I'd hit hard-crack, or even a cold-water test. I did neither. Remember, this is improv.

That first run produced something not unlike a fruit leather -- tacky, chewy, and brightly flavored. Delicious, but not what I was after. I tried again, simply increasing total cook time. At about the two-and-a-half minute mark, a cold-water test (improv can benefit from a bit of loose science) confirmed what I knew by the darkening color (an indication that the water had been removed, allowing the temperature of the remaining sugar to exceed the boiling-point of 212 Fahrenheit and approach those required for caramelization) and the reduced sputtering. I'd hit hard-crack.

I poured the candy out on a silicone sheet, waited for it to cool, and pried it free. Where I'd spread it thin, it was lacy and crisp, moving into crunchier territory in the thicker spots. I preferred the lacy bits. The flavor of apricot remained, paired by a slightly smoky hint of bitterness (perhaps I could have pulled it a bit sooner) reminiscent of the not-quite-burnt flavor of Vietnamese caramel sauce, Nước Màu. It was subtle, with a layered and evolving flavor.

I can see taking the Vietanamese route, arresting the cooking with some water and turning the whole thing back into a savory/sweet syrup for cooking and cocktails. I bet it would make a great baste for grilled meats, and I can't wait to make an Old Fashioned with it.

Really, the whole point of the exercise was to force myself to think a bit about what's around me. A microwave can be an incredibly powerful tool, not just a re-heater of cold coffee. It's certainly got me looking around the kitchen again, on the hunt for the next chance to improvise.

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