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