Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Brains for Brunch on New Raleigh

I worked with a local online independent site called New Raleigh to make the Christmas bacon article, and now the article has gone up on their site.  Check it out:


If you're coming from New Raleigh:  thanks for checking this blog out!  Have a look around and please subscribe or keep checking back!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's a Brains for Brunch Christmas Bacon Spectacular!!

Making fresh bacon is one of my favorite things to do around Christmas.  I accidentally started a new tradition a few years ago when I decided that I wanted to try making bacon at home.  I got a single belly from a local farm and cured and smoked it.  I sliced it thick (as it should be!) and wrapped it up for family and a couple of friends and gave it out for Christmas.  It was an absolute hit and everyone loved it  - I mean really, how could they not?  Everyone loves bacon, right?  This will be my third year of continuing the tradition, and nowadays I am curing 10-15 pounds of bacon per Christmas.  It's a lot of bacon, my refrigerator is fully occupied for a week because of it, but I like to err on the healthy portion size and I like to keep a fair amount for us as well.  

Bacon is such a big trend right now.  You can find bacon band-aids, bacon flavored salt, chocolate with bacon bits, and even bacon ice cream.  For better or worse, there are entire blogs dedicated to wrapping various things in bacon, complete with crappy cell phone pictures.  It is most commonly made with pork belly, which is usually lumped into the category of offal, generally referring to organs and internal bits of animals, but it's certainly one of the most accessible offal products when standing next to things like kidneys, tripe, brains, or tongue.  Pork belly can be roasted and glazed for decadent main course, or salted and cured with various herbs and spices like so many global cultures do, resulting in such edible wonders as bacon, pancetta, lardons, the roasted pork in a bowl of Japanese ramen (miso ramen please), or bases for any number of chinese and korean dishes.  Fortunately, bacon is one of the easiest cured meats that you can make at home.  It's safe, it requires no air drying, and it's incredibly easy as long as you plan ahead.  You don't even need a smoker if you don't have access to one.  

For the past couple of years, I have been getting bellies from Sandra Garner at Rainbow Meadow Farms.  Rainbow Meadow breeds Berkshire heritage breed pigs and every product that I have ever gotten from them has been fantastic.  I started the bacon-making process by calling Sandra and placing an order for roughly 13 pounds of pork belly.  She told me that she would set aside a couple of good ones for me and we made arrangements for me to pick them up from her booth inside the heated building at the Raleigh State Farmer's Market on a Saturday morning.  She brought me two amazing bellies, one sized at about 5.5 pounds and the other behemoth weighting in at over 8 pounds and over 2 inches thick.  I brought them home and let them thoroughly defrost before beginning the cure.

The Cure:
This is a simple cure from the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman, you can dress it up with anything that you want - most people would do maple or brown sugar for a sweeter bacon.  You could also do cracked pepper or some other savory herb combination like thyme and rosemary.

1 lb kosher salt
1 c sugar
2 oz (10 teaspoons) pink salt

Pink salt is the only foreign ingredient in that list, and it seems to be quite a point of contention in the culinary world.  Pink salt is sodium nitrite mixed with salt.  Sodium nitrite, although very chemicaly sounding, is a naturally derived product, found in things such as spinach, kale, and lettuce, but it is sometimes extracted used as a food additive.  It prevents botulism, so it is used in cured meats and sausages as a precautionary safety measure, and it also gives the meat the standard rosy red hue that you expect when you see store-bought bacon, for instance.  The pink tint in the salt is a color additive used to prevent confusion with normal salt, as consuming high levels of sodium nitrite can be toxic to humans (isn't consuming a lot of anything toxic to humans?).  I have made bacon with and without pink salt, and I don't think there is much of a difference.  If you are a stickler for additives, leave it out, and just be sure to pay attention to safety such as keeping your meat cold at all times and evenly salting the meat during the curing process.  If you want to buy pink salt, there are lots of websites that sell sausage making supplies, and they should all carry pink salt (usually called something like Cure #1 or something, just remember nitrite and not nitrite + nitrate, which is used in air cured sausages).

The dredging process
Mix up your ingredients and spread them out in a baking sheet.  Dredge the bellies in the cure on all sides and shake off the excess.  Put the bellies into large plastic zip bags and seal them.  Make sure they are sealed well, the salt has a habit of sticking in the grooves for the zip bag seals.  Place them in the fridge, and let them rest for upwards of a week.  Flip them every other day to evenly distribute the curing liquid that will collect in the bag.  The time that they spend in the fridge will vary on the size and thickness of the bellies, but you can tell when they are done by poking them.  If they are firm in the center, then they are done.  I generally find that poking the fat is more telling than poking the meat itself.  The fat hardening is much more obvious to the touch, in my opinion.  If they stay in the fridge too long, they will become overly salty, but you have a wide window that you can pull them out and everything will be just fine.

When they are finished curing, take them out of the bags and rinse them thoroughly.  Pat them dry and prepare for the next step - cooking!

The beast arises

I used a smoker for this, but you could also use your oven set to 200º, or if you're feeling brave, use indirect heat on a grill.  Preheat the smoker to 200º and soak your wood chips in water.  I used normal hickory chips for this.  In past years, I have tried to get crazy and use fancy wood chips, but really what I found is that this bacon doesn't need to be dressed up.  People don't necessarily want fancy bacon, they just want really really good bacon, and this home made bacon will blow away anything that you find at the store.  Smoke the bellies until the internal temperature reaches 150º.  It will take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to reach that temperature, after an hour just start checking every once in a while.  It will also develop a deep brown color.  If you are just doing this in the oven, follow all the same steps, but obviously don't use wood chips.  You won't have the smoky flavor, and the lack of smoke might not give the deep brown color, but you will have cured bacon that will still be amazing, closer resembling French lardons that you find on Lyonnaise salads or in boeuf bourguignon.  

When it reaches 150º, pull it from your oven or smoker and let it cool down.  Refrigerate it for a few hours prior to slicing so that the fat hardens up and is easier to slice.  If it doesn't cool enough, it will have a tendency to tear when you slice it.

To slice, lay the belly out flat on a cutting board and trim the edges.  They may be very salty, but they are still great for freezing and using in various things like greens, sauces, or soups (or snacking while they're still hot...).  Once the bacon is sliced in thick slices, maybe about 1/8" or 1/4" thick, you are done and ready to fry them up or freeze them for later use.  Fry them until crispy on the outside, and chewy on the inside.  It won't be crispy throughout because the slices are so thick, and that is part of the joy of this bacon.

13 lbs and one Neurosis record later...
Package it however you like, the bacon will keep frozen for quite a long time.  I love these little Foodsaver bags that allow for a small handheld vacuum to suck all the air out.  They prevent freezer burn and they look nice too.  I get to pretend like I'm some kind of professional, and aesthetics are important, right?

Finally, I package everything up in some brown postal paper and put my mark on the bag.  I had a dream one time that I got a tattoo of the Black Flag bars, but I got bacon strips instead of the black bars.  When I woke up, I knew I had to make that happen somehow.  I haven't gotten the real tattoo yet, although I think about it probably once a day.  In the meantime, I made some sweet stickers to put on my real bacon.  

Bacon... stuck in my head!!
 Making bacon for Christmas will continue to be one of my favorite holiday traditions, it doesn't require a lot of time and it's really easy.  I hope this post shows how food can be a great gift that comes from the heart, and hopefully these types of small things help us get back to what the holidays are really about - family, friends, and eating!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Momofuku Pork Buns

I really love cooking for friends and family.  I love cooking for others and I don't get the chance to do it as often as I would like.  Today was one of those opportunities.  We had our friends James and Rachel over to watch the Saints / Ravens game.  They are true Saints fans (obviously we would never let Ravens fans in our house), and I wanted to make something small that would be good to eat mid-afternoon and would give me a chance to try something new and outside of my comfort zone.  I've been looking for a reason to make Momofuku's famous pork buns since getting the cookbook, so I jumped on this opportunity.

Before I get into the recipe, I want to mention how I love this cookbook.  We received our copy as part of a prix fixe meal at Lantern, in Chapel Hill.  As part of a promotional tour for the cookbook, David Chang had arranged for Lantern to cook Momofuku dishes that are in the cookbook.  There were 2 seatings - one was hosted by David Chang himself, and diners at the other seating (our seating) received a free copy of the cookbook that was signed and personalized by David Chang because he couldn't be present.  I only mention this because we made David Chang write "Go Steelers!" on the inside cover, and we were both really psyched about it.  The cookbook is informative and presents a new style of cooking that was/is very foreign to me.  It was refreshing to get away from the American and Euro-centric recipes and cookbooks that I still default to most of the time.  Chang's style of writing is also very casual, and as a result, really accessible by everyone.  There are good stories about the various Momofuku restaurants and the recipes illustrate techniques in an understandable way that I have found to be very applicable to every day situations in the kitchen.  To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Chang's restaurants.  Noodle is solid but not mind blowing.  I have been to Ssam once and was actually pretty let down by the experience.  To be fair, I have not been to Chang's flagship, Ko, or recently opened Ma Peche, but my opinion is that there are other places that I would much prefer going to while in NYC.  I absolutely recommend the cookbook though.

I picked up a nice pork belly from a local farm called Rainbow Meadows Farms.  I will be writing more about Rainbow Meadows in a near-future post, so I'll leave it at this:  they have some of the most amazing Berkshire pork bellies that I have seen, and I love supporting their business.

Momofuku's Pork Buns:
(for the belly)
3-4 lb pork belly
1/4 c kosher salt
1/4 c sugar

(for the buns)
1 tbsp + 1 tsp active dry yeast
1½ c water, at room temperature
4¼ c bread flour
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp nonfat dry milk powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
Rounded ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1/3 c rendered pork fat or vegetable shortening (I opted for shortening because of the timing of how I made everything)

(for toppings)
Thinly sliced scallions
2 or 3 pickling cucumbers
Hoisin sauce
Sriracha hot sauce

Roasted Pork Belly:

Start by doing a short cure on the pork belly - mix the salt and sugar together and then distribute evenly on the pork belly.  Shake off the excess, cover, and leave it to rest in an ovenproof dish for 6-24 hours.  I cured mine overnight, about 12 hours total.  It came out tasting well salted but not overly so.  

When it is cured, preheat the oven to 450º.  Drain the liquid from the dish and place the belly fat-side up in the oven.  Roast for 1 hour, basting the belly half way through with rendered fat in the dish.  Roast until it is a nice brown color.  Turn the heat down to 250º and continue cooking for about another hour.  The belly will be done when it feels, in the words of the cookbook, like a down pillow responding to a firm poke.  Take the dish out of the oven and let the belly rest on the cutting board.  This can be done ahead of time and refrigerated, and if you want nice, clean slices, you will probably have to refrigerate it to cool it so that it is firm enough to not fall apart to slicing.  Slice it into slices about 1/2" thick.

That Hansel, so hot right now.
The Buns:
Chang suggests that there is no shame in buying premade buns, but what's the fun in that?  I don't have a lot of experience with yeasted breads, so this was a good chance for me to get all uncomfortable and partially freak out about whether these were actually going to turn out or not.  In the end, I was pretty happy with them.  The texture was good, size was good, but they didn't stay nice and folded like Momofuku's do.  I had to slice most of them down the middle to create a pocket to hold everything.

Start by combining yeast and water in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.  Add flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and fat.  Mix on the setting just above stir for about 10 minutes.  The cookbook says that it should form a neat, not too tacky ball on the hook.  Mine did no such thing, so I had to incrementally add some more flour to get it to bind tighter.  Eventually it came together.  Lightly oil a mixing bowl and place the dough in the mixing bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and place in a warmish place for at least 1 hour 15 minutes, until doubled in size.  Pound the dough down.  Because I made the dough the night before, I let it sit for about 5 hours, pounded it down, and then put it in the fridge overnight before proceeding.

Divide the dough in half, and then divide each half into 5 pieces.  Roll the pieces into logs, then cut logs into 5 pieces.  They should be about the size of a ping pong ball.  Cover all 50 balls with plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.  

This is where things went a little astray for me.  You are supposed to end up with 50 buns, but some of the pieces that I tried to form into buns were just way too small.  For most of the smaller ones, I combined two or so dough balls to make one bigger one that was more indicative of the size that I wanted.  Flatten the ball in the palm of your hand and stretch it out to be a 4" long oval.  You can use a rolling pin for this if you'd like, but I did it all by hand.  Take a chopstick and coat it in some fat (shortening or pork fat or whatever) and place it in the middle of the bun.  Fold the bun in half and pull the chopstick out.  I skipped this step and folded them by hand without any fat between the folds.  It resulted in me having to cut the buns to put the fillings in, so i'd advocate going through the trouble.  Leave these folded pieces covered for 30-45 minutes so that they rise a little bit.

Set up a steamer.  If you are cool enough to have a big bamboo steamer, then you are set.  I am not that cool, so I had to rig this ghetto steamer up.  I bought a little foil roasting pan, cut the corners and folded them down to flatten it, then punched holes all through it to allow steam to come in.  Then I filled the saucier pan with water, put the makeshift rack on top, and covered it with an inverted mixing bowl.  It worked great, aside from the fact that I had to replace the water multiple times, so keep an eye on that.  Steam the buns for about 10 minutes and then remove them.  They can be used immediately or frozen and saved for later.  The cookbook swears that they will stay fresh for months in the freezer.  One can only hope, because this recipe kicks out anywhere from 40-50 of these guys.

I pity da foo who doesn't like my steamer!
Quick Pickles:
Ok these are the easiest part of the whole thing.  Slice a pickling cucumber thin, like 1/8", and toss with about 1 tsp salt and some sugar.  Let them sit for about 10 minutes.  Done!

 To compile your little buns, start with an opened bun, spread about 1 tbsp of hoisin sauce on the inside of the bun.  Place a few pickle slices on the hoisin, and a nice chunk of pork belly on that.  Top with some thinly sliced scallions and maybe a few drops of Sriracha, if you're into the spicy thing, and then enjoy!

These were fun, if a little time consuming, and I'm really glad that I found an opportunity to make them.  They were a hit, but it's easy to knock out a couple popular dishes when you have pork belly as your secret weapon.  I can't wait to make them again sometime soon!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bouchon's French Onion Soup

It has finally gotten cold here (well, cold for the South anyway), which has always been my favorite time to cook because it usually means comfort food, long slow braises, and dark beer to go along with all of that.  For a while now, I've been looking for a reason to make my own beef stock.  I make chicken stock relatively often because it's so readily available - I generally buy whole chickens when I make chicken, so it's easy to store leftover bones and make stock once every other month or so.  Beef stock, however, requires some planning.  I don't generally run out and buy beef on on the bone, so the weather has done me a favor in giving me an excuse to make stock, because really - what better use is there to show off a good beef stock than French Onion Soup?  It basically has 4 ingredients - bread, cheese, beef stock, and onions.  That simplicity makes the quality of the stock incredibly important, which I learned the hard way when I last made this recipe.  I bought premade beef stock from the store - I forget which brand now - but it had a very strange, almost sweet, wine-like, flavor to it.  It ended up being a real detriment to the dish because it came through in every bite.  This time I went all out and made my own stock, and it was absolutely worth it.

Before I really got into the dish, I was thinking about how I might word it out in this entry.  I figured that I would write something cliche like "this is a great casual dish to have on the stove all day on a Sunday."  The fact is that this soup is kind of a pain in the ass to make.  The stock is easy and fits the bill of start early, walk away, come back when it's done.  The soup, however, requires steady attention.  It's certainly not hard, but there are points where forgetting about it for even 15 minutes could lead to trouble.  It's worth it though, it took me to a land of puppy dogs and rainbows, and of course it will taste even better tonight after the stock and the onions have had a night to cozy up next to each other.

The Stock:
5 lb bony beef parts
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 stalks celery
2 peeled carrots
1 large or 2 medium onions (amount you use should double the celery & carrots)
½ head garlic, cut in half
2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs parsley

Regarding the beef parts - you want a good mix of bones and meat.  Bones give the stock body and richness, but the beef flavor itself comes mostly from the meat.  I have seen a lot of recipes suggest "meaty necks."  I'm sure they're great if you can find them, but I had to resort to using shanks.  The guy at the meat counter was super willing to help me by cutting a couple fresh shanks that were mostly bone to counter the ones in the case that were mostly meat.  At first I thought it was going to be overkill to use shanks but I have to say I am really glad that I used them.  The stock had great flavor and I had a small epiphany after straining the stock.  I found myself standing at my sink with like 5.5 lbs of beef shank thinking "am I seriously going to throw this out?"  Generally every stock recipe says to discard all of the solids, but I decided to take a bold step and try the shank before throwing it out. It turned out to be really pretty good, maybe a little bland but nice and tender after 6 hours of essentially braising in its own diluted juices, so I reserved the usable meat for another use.  I am sure that I can make something pretty awesome with it by seasoning aggressively.  Hurray for shanks!

Start by preheating the oven to 400º.  Coat the shanks in tomato paste with your hands and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet.  Try to leave space between them so that they roast instead of steam.  You want them to brown well.  Roast until the top side is brown and then flip and roast again.  Total cooking time should be around 45 minutes.  

When they are done, place the shanks in a big stock pot and cover with cold water.  Deglaze the baking sheet with water as well, scraping up all the brown bits stuck to the pan, then add that liquid to the stock pot.  Set on the stove and bring the liquid up to around 180º.  If the stock gets to the boiling point of 212º, the fat will emulsify into the liquid and give you a greasy stock.  180º is hot enough to extract all of the flavors but it also keeps the fat seperate from the water and allows you to skim easily.  I use a candy thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature, just because it gives me an instant reading.  If it's too hot and it starts to simmer vigorously, drop the heat on the range and add a few ice cubes to the stock. 

Keep the stock on the stove for at least 5 hours before adding the vegetables.  To prep the vegetables, cut them evenly, toss with about 1 tbsp canola oil, and then roast them in the oven for about 45 minutes, mixing often, until they are browned and caramelized evenly.  Add those vegetables to the stock as well as the peppercorns, herbs, and garlic head.  Adding the vegetables at the end gives the stock a fresher taste.  If you added them at the beginning, the flavors would be become muddied over the course of 6 hours.  You want the vegetables to bring brightness to the party.  

Final stage of stock making - you can see the thermometer there to help me out a bit.
Bring the stock back up to 180º after adding the vegetables and let it go for about an hour.  That makes for a total cooking time of at least 6 hours, although you can leave the bones on longer before adding vegetables if you want.  When it's done, strain it through a chinois.  At this point, I picked out the shanks and reserved the meat and bones from them. The meat is for us, the bones were a delectable treat for my #1 kitchen helper canine, Pickle.  Discard the solids from the chinois and then line it with a double layer of cheesecloth.  Pass the strained stock back through the chinois to strain all of the little bits.  You should be left with a nice stock.

The Soup:
(slight variation on a recipe by Thomas Keller, from Bouchon cookbook)
8 lb onions
4 tbsp butter
8 oz Emmentaler or Comte cheese
1 baguette
1.5 tbsp flour
5 sprigs thyme
2 tbsp peppercorns
1 bay leaf
champagne or white wine vinegar

Start by cutting the onions.  Your eyes will hate you after this, so you had better warn them in advance.  Cut the ends off of the onion and then cut in half from pole to pole.  Remove the outer papery layer then look at the inside of the onion.  Pull out the flat interior layers (probably just the first couple) with your fingers or use a knife to pry them out.  Lay the onion flat in front of you.  The general rule here is "always cut with the grain."  You can see the little green ribs on the outside of the onion, you want to cut in the same direction as those. Start slicing from the outside to the center of the core, with the grain, making slices that are about ¼" thick.  Cut slices until you reach the middle, then rotate the onion so that the side you just cut is now flat on the cutting board, then cut the rest.  Basically that step just prevents you from the awkwardness of having to twist your wrist the other way once you reach the middle of the onion.

Repeat that process for all 8 lbs.  You should have enough to fill the stock pot that you are going to use.  Doing some nerdy math here... I used my 5.2 quart dutch oven to make this.  5.2 quarts = 20.8 cups of onions (filled to the brim), which yielded about 2 cups after cooking.  That's a reduction of about 91%.  I guess you could use that ratio if you wanted to adjust the recipe to make more or less.  

Melt the butter over medium heat in a stock pot or dutch oven.  When it is hot, add the onions and about 1 tbsp salt.  Stir well and let the onions reduce. Stir relatively often, about every 15 minutes or so.  The onions will release a lot of liquid and begin simmering in their own juices.  Turn the heat down to med-low when the liquid starts reducing and then keep an eye on the onions.  As they reduce more and more, they will be more succeptible to burning.  Towards the end, the onions will need to be stirred every 5-10 minutes.  Be sure to turn the heat down - you want them to slowly caramelize, not high heat saute.  The total cooking time of the onions will be 4 hours or more.  

Finished onions

During that time, make a cheesecloth satchet with the herbs and peppercorns in it.  Just lay a piece of cheesecloth down, place the herbs in the middle, wrap it up and tie it with butcher's twine.  When they are done, add the flour and cook for about 2 minutes.  Add the finished beef stock and scrape up all of the onion brown bits around the pot.  Add the satchet and bring to a simmer.  Allow the soup to simmer for an hour, until reduced by about 10%.  If you taste it and it is not as flavorful as you would like, let it further reduce.  I got excited and I knew that this was going to be pretty awesome when I tasted it and it was really good even without any seasoning.  It only gets better from there.  When it's done, season to taste with salt and maybe a tsp of vinegar to balance it out.  

THE JAM... actually, the soup
The Croutons:
Slice the baguette into ½" slices.  Brush with olive oil and sprinkle salt on one side.  Broil on both sides until brown but not burnt.  Set aside

The Plating:
Ladle as much soup as you would like into a bowl.  We actually have some french onion crocks, but we were like screw that, we want A LOT OF SOUP.  So we broke out the gusto bowls.  Place the croutons on top but don't press them into the soup.  Slice the cheese and cover the top of the soup with the cheese so that it drapes slightly over the edges.  Shred more cheese and add it to the top.  Broil until the cheese is browned and bubbly.  

We served ours with a makeshift Lyonnaise salad because it is so very French.  It was a very nice comforting meal on a cold wet December night, despite about 11 hours of cooking time for the whole thing!

Served with a pseudo-Lyonnaise salad

Monday, November 29, 2010

An Unexpected South Carolina Thanksgiving Weekend - Crab-Stuffed Speckled Trout with Lentils, Cider-Glazed Shallots, and Apple Arugula Salad

I entered this Thanksgiving not sure what to expect - it was the first time in the past couple of years that I wasn't cooking dinner, which I was admittedly a little sad about, but it meant that I could just sit back and enjoy the holiday instead of rushing around the kitchen all day.  I enjoy both perspectives of Thanksgiving, so this was definitely a nice change of pace.  Our plan was to go to Hilton Head Island, SC, and spend Thanksgiving with some of wifey's relatives.  During dinner, while manning an impromptu deep frying of a turkey (which turned out pretty awesome in its own right), I was offered to join some guys on a fishing trip in the inlets around the lowcountry.  I have never been fishing before, and the offer was really too good to pass up:  go fishing for a few hours with an avid local fisherman named Graham who would take us to his favorite spots to fish for Redfish (or Red Drum).  We woke at dawn on Saturday morning and headed out to meet Graham at a marina on Lemon Island.

Lemon Island marina at dawn
Graham already had the boat in the water when we got there, so we immediately headed out to try to catch the Redfish during low tide when they would be feeding.  I was really impressed with Graham's method of fishing.  We would motor to a specific spot where he suspected the Redfish would be gathering.  He would then turn off the engine and use a long push pole to push us from spot to spot to refrain from scaring the fish away.  He would stand on a platform above the engine of the boat and look for perturbances in the water and then push us towards those spots, while we casted in the directions that he told us to.  

Graham navigating

It took me a little while to get the hang of casting, but it turned out to be actually pretty fun - it's a game within a game to try to land where you are aiming.  It's much more challenging than it seems.  We had some factors going against us during the trip - it was much windier than expected, up to 20 knots, and it had rained the night before.  The combination of those two made the water quite murky, which Graham said was affecting the fishing because the Redfish feed by sight.  We couldn't see them and they couldn't see the bait that we had out there, which made it pretty difficult to fish - especially when you are like me and you can't consistently cast exactly where you are trying to.  We went to several spots and ended up not catching any Redfish in the end.  I did, however, snag a nice Speckled Trout in the process.  At first, I didn't even know that I had caught anything - it was not uncommon for the hooks to get caught on oyster rakes, requiring a few hard tugs to get the hook to release.  I initially thought I had just caught the hook on these rakes, but the rake never let go.  I felt the tug on the hook as if it is was fighting back and realized that I had caught something.  I reeled it in and it turned out to be a 16" Speckled Trout.  I was really excited to have caught something, but compared to the 27" Redfish that we were shooting for, it was a small catch.  It proved to be the only catch of the day, which I believe was somewhat of a letdown for the other guys, but for me it was perfect because I knew exactly what I planned on doing with it...

The various spots that we fished at during the morning
We decided to call it a day around noon and headed back to land.  As we parted ways, Graham mentioned a few different ways of how to clean the fish (another thing that I had never done before), and I began immediately worrying about ruining the fish before I even got to the cooking stage.  Cleaning was actually much easier than I thought, and after freezing the little guy overnight to prepare for the drive home, I began thinking in my head about what I was going to do with him.

Cleaned and ready for whatever's next...
While living in Chicago, I had the pleasure of getting to know several people in the amazing Chicago culinary scene.  I keep in touch with my good friend Mike, who is currently at Lula Cafe.  He will often send me text messages of amazing looking things that Lula is putting out and when I bother him enough, sometimes he will hook me up with cryptic recipes that my untrained mind tries to decipher.  It's a rare look into a professional kitchen and it's really exciting for me to see how things work.  I had the opportunity to stage for just one day with Mike while he was sous chef at C-House in Chicago, and I learned more in that one day than I have in years of cooking on my own.  About a month ago, he passed along a recipe for a stuffed Rainbow Trout that was on the menu at Lula, and I couldn't wait for the opportunity to try it out.  Catching my Speckled Trout was such a perfect opportunity that I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to make.

Crab-Stuffed Speckled Trout with Lentils, Cider-Glazed Shallots, and Apple Arugula Salad
courtesy of Mike Simmons / Lula Cafe

1 whole Speckled Trout, fins removed and scaled
2 gala apples
4 yukon gold potatoes
1 sprig rosemary
8 oz backfin crab meat
1.5 tbsp prepared horseradish
2 tbsp champagne vinegear
6 pearl onions (substitute small shallots)
8 oz hard apple cider
1 sprig sage
a shitload of butter
1 c lentils (puy if possible, but I used green)
2 carrots
1 onion
2 stalks celery
1 bay leaf
3/4 c sour cream
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
5 cloves garlic confit
2 c arugula
1 meyer lemon
1/4 c garlic oil from confit

This recipe has several components so I will go through them one at a time, in the order that I prepared them.

Cider Glazed Shallots:

Melt 2 tbsp butter in a skillet on medium heat.  Once melted, add the shallots and sage and saute for about 2 minutes.  Add hard cider and bring to simmer.  Turn heat down to slight simmer and braise shallots until liquid has reduced to a glaze, about 30 minutes.  The onions should be very soft.  Once glazed, remove from the glaze and set aside.


Place lentils in a sauce pan with 1 celery stalk, 1/2 of a carrot, 1/2 of the onion, and a bay leaf.  Cover with enough water to allow 3-4 inches between lentils and water surface.  I didn't measure this - but I would say it was probably about 3 or 4 cups of water.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are soft but still have a solid consistency.  They should retain their form.  When they are done, pull out the mirepoix pieces and bay leaf, and then place a container under the strainer.  You want to strain the cooking liquid from the lentils.  Put the lentils in a bowl and add about 1/2 c of the cooking liquid back to them and season to taste with salt.

Finish the lentils by making a brunoise of the leftover carrot, celery, onion, and apple.  Sweat in butter until the vegetables are just tender and mix them with the lentils.

Brunoised vegetables and all the other mise en place ready for plating.  Don't mind the mess, I was working at a feverish pace at this point.

Crab and potato filling:
Start by pickling the crab.  If the horseradish isn't already of a grated consistency, chop it up until it is pasty and then place it in a bowl with the crab meat.  Add the vinegar and mix to combine.  Let the crab sit for about 30 minutes.  While it is pickling, peel the potatoes and apples and dice them evenly.  Toss them with melted butter and a broken up sprig of rosemary and roast in a 350º oven for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.  When they are done, pull them from the oven and smash them.  Mix them with the pickled crab mixture and set aside.

Sour Cream:
Take the sour cream and mash in the garlic.  Add sherry vinegar and mix well.  Pass the whole thing through a fine mesh strainer to mash and incorporate the garlic into a smooth consistency.  Set aside.

Arugula and Apple Salad:
Create a vinaigrette with the lemon juice and garlic oil.  Season well with salt and pepper.  Julienne half of an apple and toss the apple and arugula with the vinagrette

So this was interesting.  I already mentioned that I had no idea how to clean a fish.  I also had little to no idea how to scale the fish and prep it for stuffing.  I have had a little experience with scaling, mostly of the annoying variety, when I buy fish from Whole Foods and it's not properly scaled and I have to clean it up myself.  I used the back of a paring knife to brush off the scales in running water and then removed all of the fins with kitchen shears.  Unfortunately, the fish wouldn't fit in a pan without removing the head, so I had to do that as well.  I would have preferred to keep it on, but c'est la vie.

I filled the cavity of the fish with the potato and crab mixture and then seasoned the fish well.  Using a large cast iron skillet, I melted about half a stick of butter and heated it to medium high.  Carefully set the fish in the pan, being sure to keep the filling intact.  Pan fry on each side for about 6 minutes, until the skin is brown and crispy.  Continually baste as it fries.  If you use Speckled Trout like I did, you may have to finish it in the oven to get it cooked all the way through.  I just did it in the pan and it was still rare in parts.

Plate by laying down the lentils on the plate.  Place a couple of dollops of sour cream in front of them and lay the shallots on top of that.  Lay the fish on top of the lentils and the salad on top of the fish.  This plate was shared by my wife and I, it was a little messy to eat because the fish was so big but it looked really nice.  If you use rainbow trout, you should have one plate per person.

I remember reading about Native Americans in middle school and being really into Last of the Mohicans when it came out.  I thought people who lived off the land were completely unfuckwithable and I wanted to be like them.  As I got older, I fell into lifestyles that still loosely tied into the mindset of self sustainability and it has stuck with me throughout my life.  I got heavily involved in the DIY punk and metal scenes and became vegetarian, initially as somewhat of a challenge to myself during a very difficult summer in my life, and later on (as I became more educated on the matter) because I agreed with the ethical aspect of boycotting factory farms.  I always believed in the food chain though, and I came to realize that it is possible to support ethical farming and be an omnivore.  Americans are generally very out of touch with where their food comes from, and this is something that I want to change about myself.  I want to know where my food comes from and accept the responsibility of knowing that sometimes I am eating something that was alive recently.  This experience was my first real opportunity to go from the source of a food all the way to the table, and I am very grateful for that.  I remember at one point reading about how Native Americans always thanked their food and showed it the utmost respect, as one animal would help an entire tribe for weeks.  For some reason, as I was fishing and as I was preparing this meal, I kept thinking about that, and I hope that in the end I showed this little Speckled Trout the respect that it deserves.  I think that I did.

In closing, I would like to leave you with a South Carolina parting thought...

I will not.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reinventing a Classic - Tomato Braised Brisket with Pickled Root Vegetables and Mashed Potatoes

I had a lot of fun with this week's project, and the concept is something that I hope to continue consciously pursuing.  My wife has a collection of recipes from her youth that she loves to have every once in a while.  Usually I am instructed to stay close to the original, and usually it follows a rule equivalent to "don't fuck with my mom's spaghetti sauce".  This is very difficult for me to adhere to, because I am constantly meddling and trying to see what happens when I change things up.  What's the fun in following a piece of paper to the T and not getting a chance to try something new?  So, that brings us to Grandma's (hereafter referred to as G-ma) brisket.  The story behind the recipe is that when my wife's Grandma was first married, she got this recipe from a Jewish neighbor in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.  It has persisted over the years and is delicious in its own right.  We have made it before, but I thought that I could take the recipe as inspiration and really turn it into something great.  I don't have the full thing, but here is the old recipe (roughly):

G-ma's Brisket (Original):
1 can tomato soup
1 can water (tomato soup can)
1 green bell pepper (diced)
1 medium onion (diced)
1 carrot (diced)
3 lb brisket

Start by sauteeing the vegetables until translucent, transfer to a baking dish.  Salt/pepper and sear the brisket on all sides, transfer to baking dish, cover with liquid ingredients.  Cover baking dish and bake at 300 degrees for a few hours.  Serve with mashed potatoes.

It's total comfort food, and I really love comfort food, but I felt that there were a couple of things that could be improved to really make the dish fantastic.

1) Get rid of the green pepper.  It doesn't lend much flavor, and after a long braise it gets somewhat bitter.
2) Braising liquid could have more flavor.  My first thoughts were to just replace the water with chicken or beef stock, but I decided to go further than that with my recipe.
3) Find a way to develop more flavor and texture.  The sauce ends up being kind of one-note.  Could use some brighter flavors to match the rich sauce, and it could use some texture.

There are also things that I knew I needed to preserve:

1) Tomatoes.  No wine should be used.  It's not a pot roast, tomato needs to be the dominant flavor.
2) Basic techniques. Sauteeing aromatics / create braising liquid / long braise should be maintained to help stay true to the original.

So now I've set the rules and guidelines for myself.  Where could I go with this?  I remember watching Top Chef a couple of seasons when fellow beardo Kevin did a long braise where he actually braised the sauce with marrow bones - creating kind of a stock and sauce at the same time.  I was really intrigued by that and have been looking for an opportunity to try it out myself for quite a while now.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop more flavors for my sauce.  As far as the texture and giving the dish more than one note, I thought some pickled root vegetables would be a great candidate for that.  I put some hot pepper in the pickle to give them just a touch of heat.  It's not really that similar to the green pepper but it's in the spirit of it, right?  They're both capsicums.  Whatever.

Pickled Root Vegetables
1 bunch baby turnips
1 carrot
1/2 bulb fennel
1 pepper - Thai chile or serrano (or maybe jalepeno if you're feeling less spicy)
Fennel fronds
2 c water
1 c white vinegar
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp salt

Brunoise vegetables into large-ish 1/2" cubes and place in 1 qt heat-proof container (mason jar ideally).  Heat water, vinegar, honey, and salt in saucepan until starting to simmer, turn off heat.  Pour hot liquid over vegetables and let cool to room temperature.  Heating the liquid will partially cook the root vegetables, making them less crunchy but still providing bite.  When the liquid has cooled, refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

mid pickle

Tomato Braised Brisket
3-4 lb brisket, excess fat removed
2 beef marrow bones
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
14 oz chicken stock
2 carrots, diced
1 large onion
1 head garlic, peeled and slightly crushed

Start by roasting the marrow bones in the oven at 400 degrees until browned.

Salt and pepper the brisket on all sides.  Slice the onions lengthwise, with the grain, to get long strips.  While the bones are roasting, heat some oil in an ovenproof dutch oven at med-hi heat.  Sear the brisket on all sides and set aside.  Turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, carrot, and garlic.  Saute until vegetables are caramelized, 20 minutes or so.

Not quite caramelized but getting there...

Remove the bones from the oven and turn the heat down to 350 degrees.  Add chicken stock and scrape the bottom of the pot to deglaze all the tasty bits.  Add the tomatoes and bones to the pot and bring the sauce to a simmer, skimming froth as the sauce heats up.  Let sauce reduce by about 1/4.  Place brisket fat side up on top of bones, cover, and place in oven. Bake for roughly 4 hours, checking every hour, flip once halfway through.

When brisket is done, remove to a cutting board and let it rest for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, we are going to remove the fat from the sauce.  Seperate the solids from the sauce by passing the sauce through a chinois.  Let the container with the sauce sit for a few minutes to allow the fat to seperate from the sauce.  The fat will sit on top of the sauce.  Try to spoon off as much of the fat as possible.  At this point, you have an option of what to do next.  You could return the solids and the sauce to the pan and let them all comingle, you could also discard the solids to leave a thinner sauce, or you could combine them and then blend the whole mess together to get a smoother thicker sauce.  I decided to leave the solids as-is because I wanted the onion strips (trying to stay true to the original recipe).  At this point you can also begin cutting the brisket.  G-ma's brisket is sliced, so I tried to slice it.  Even with my sharpest knife, this shit wants to shred like Reign in Blood era Kerry King, so I ended up only getting about half of the brisket to stay together in slices.  The rest was shredded.

Allegory for Kerry King pre-tattoos and shaved head.  Maybe it's more GWAR than anything with those bones in the background.  Distinct lack of stage blood though...

 Return the brisket to the pot with the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mashed Potatoes:
This is a straightforward mashed potatoes recipe, do yours however you like (everyone has a mashed potato recipe memorized, right?).  I used a stand mixer here because I wanted to them to have an ultra smooth consistency.
5-6 yukon gold potatoes
3/4 c cream
4 tbsp butter
Salt / Pepper

Dice potatoes and boil in salted water until soft, drain and add to stand mixer bowl.  Add cream, butter, salt, pepper and whip until smooth and awesome.

Plate by spooning some mashed potatoes onto plate / bowl and creating a little well in the middle of the potatoes.  Spoon brisket and sauce over the well.  Drain a spoonful of vegetables and add a little olive oil to them.  Place on top of the brisket with a fennel frond for prettiness and get down to business.

Appetite for destruction

In the end, my wife approved (most importantly), and I think that I stayed true to the spirit of the original recipe.  I was really happy with this dish and I can't wait to crush another plate of it tonight.  Second most importantly, we found a way to keep the best dog in the world pacified for more than 20 minutes.  If nothing else, this recipe will become a regular because it keeps Pickle occupied and gives us a break!

nom nom nom

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Whole Mess of Collards

Having a good greens recipe was one of the things that I tried to master early in my mild obsession with Southern cooking (which I first mentioned in my shrimp and grits post).   I ran through several experiments while living in Chicago, as inspired by a restaurant called Feed that had roasted chicken and various southern fixins, and eventually found a great way to make greens.  Moving to North Carolina gave me a chance to try to real thing and see how my greens stacked up, and I was honestly a little surprised to find that my greens are better than any restaurant greens that I have had to date.  I tell this to friends who are born and raised in the South, and generally I get laughed at.  I'm fine with that, because my goal is to show them all how good Yankees can make greens.. one bowl at a time.

The occasion for making this batch of greens is directly tied to a friendly test between myself and my neighbor, Mike.  Mike has an amazing garden in his back yard, during the summer you can see stalks of corn rising high above his already tall fence.  He grows a myriad of vegetables in a relatively small area, and it's really an inspirational testament to urban gardening.  Towards the end of last week, I walked over in order to ask if I could borrow a couple of tools.  While we were heading to his shed to get them, I saw that he was growing collards for the winter season and I commented on how much I liked them.  He was a little surprised to hear about a kid from Pittsburgh who was a collard afficionado, so I then mentioned that I felt like my collards were better than any collards that I have had in the South.  Of course, a statement like that can't come without backing it, so Mike said to me that he'd give me a bunch of collards in exchange for some of my Yank greens.  The deal was on.  He let me know that he was going to wait until the first frost of the year, which sweetens the collards and makes them ready for harvest.  The day after the first frost, Mike delivered to me a stack of greens that probably weighed in at 2 lb.  I would make them and then he would be the judge of whether they stacked up to good ole boy greens or not.

Mike's winter lot
Collard Greens
2 lb collard greens (they don't have to be collards... mustard, kale, chard, dandelion all work well too.  My absolute favorite is half collards half mustards)
6oz bacon
1 large-ish onion, diced
32oz chicken stock
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
apple cider vinegar to taste (probably 1/3 c or so)
salt to taste

Start by prepping the greens. Wash them first, then lay them out flat.  I cut the tough rib out of the middle just because I don't like to cook the greens for hours.  If they don't cook forever, the rib won't soften up, so I just remove it.

Lay it out flat

Remove the rib

After the rib is removed, tear the collards up into manageable pieces.  I'd call a manageable piece 2"x2" or so.  They will wilt and be bite sized.  I tear them with my fingers because of some hippie shit that I heard somewhere.  I don't know if it actually does anything, but I heard somewhere that cutting greens (this goes for everything -salad greens, cooking greens, etc) ruptures the cells and can cause the greens to not hold their shape.  Tearing them tears them along cell walls, keeping everything intact and leading to better texture.  I don't know if that's true or not and I don't own Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking to check for myself, but it makes sense to me and it looks nice and organic, so I do it.  Besides, it's more fun to tear them apart than just cut them.

Now that the greens are prepped, start by sauteeing your bacon in a big dutch oven or stock pot.  Render the bacon until it begins to get crispy and then remove to a paper towel to drain.  Leave all of that bacon fat in the pan and add your red pepper flakes and onions (this is Southern cooking:  live it, love it).  The red pepper flakes can be added to your preference - you can leave them out or add a lot to make them spicy.  I like it somewhere in the middle - let's call it piquant.  Saute the onions until they are translucent  but not colored.  Start adding the greens.  You will have to add them in batches.  The basic process works as follows:  add handfuls of greens, toss in onion/bacon fat, cover and let wilt, uncover and stir, repeat process.  Do that until all of the greens are added and mostly wilted.

Add chicken stock to the greens until they are mostly submerged.  One of the things I love about this recipe is how scalable it is.  The general rule of thumb is that you want to get the greens mostly submerged, so whether you're making 1 lb or 7.39 lb of greens, just follow that rule and you're set.  Add the bacon back to the pot, stir, and cover.  Simmer the greens for about 30 minutes over med-low heat.

While they're simmering, let's talk theory.  Apparently traditional Southern greens are made with smoked ham hocks.  I tried making greens with a ham hock once but I wasn't too happy with them.  The bacon fat is really what makes this recipe great - it lends both smoky flavor and a richness to the broth that was missing when I used the ham hock.  I haven't tried a combination of the two yet, but now that I think about it, I really should.  The gelatin from the ham hock combined with the bacon might make the broth extra rich.  Then again, 30 minutes might not be enough time for the gelatin to really break down in the ham hock (it has to get to 135 degrees for the connective tissue to break down - by the time it really gets going, the greens might be overcooked).  I wonder what would happen if I made a stock by simmering the ham hock in chicken broth for a while, then used that as the cooking stock for the greens...  I think I will have to try that next time.

After the 30 minutes, uncover and taste your greens.  They should not be mushy, they should still have a bite to them.  When they are finished, add a generous amount of salt and begin adding the vinegar.  The combination of the flavored cooking liquid and the vinegar makes these so addictive - I serve my greens in bowls almost like a soup because I absolutely love the broth that results from them.  Add vinegar until the broth has a tart taste to it.  I do it slowly and I don't measure the vinegar, just add, stir, taste.  Repeat as necessary.

Ready to go
After the greens were done, I filled up a container to deliver to Mike.  Tonight I will bring them over and get the final verdict, and I will report back with the results.

Served with roasted chicken and fall vegetables.