Sunday, July 22, 2012

Carrot Green Pesto Pork Chop w Kale, Carrot and Grilled Corn

I remember when I first decided that I wanted to learn how to cook.  Looking back on it, I had pretty much always been subconsciously interested in food.  I was (am) a total freak about eating certain things - for example, I have to eat Kit Kats by biting off the chocolate on the sides of the wafer bar thing first, then bite off each layer of the wafer one at a time.  I think that at the time when I decided that was how Kit Kats had to be eaten, I was displaying kind of my own weird little kid passion for food.  Fast forward a few years to the summer after my freshman year of college.  Most of my friends were going back to their various homes for the summer, but I decided to stay nearby and work full time.  I got a small studio apartment for what seemed like an exorbitant price of $385/month.  Needless to say, I miss Pittsburgh rent prices.  I was vegetarian and looking for ways to cook for myself that didn't involve Yves deli slices or veggie corn dogs.  I did cook for myself but mostly it was just using TVP and Bragg's amino acids, so pretty much everything tasted like soy sauce.  I wasn't so much interested in having a big recipe book or a ton of cookbooks and having to rely on them for everything, I was far more interested in learning what was needed to cook from scratch.  It wasn't until I met my wife that I began really getting into the practice of cooking.  As someone who cooks for fun, it's hard to find the time needed to really feel comfortable when faced with a grocery store and no idea what to cook, but after about 10 years of active pursuit with lots of trial and error, I feel like occasionally I actually come up with something decent.

This weekend i went to the Union Square farmers market with no particular ideas in mind, I just wanted to come away with some cool stuff to cook with.  I ended up getting some really great stuff - these amazing purple carrots with their greens, some red Russian kale (which I had never seen before), fresh onions, pork chops, and fresh picked ears of corn.  I did a little research on what to do with carrot greens - I didn't want to just throw them out if I could help it - and I saw some other blogs with people doing carrot green pesto.  I decided to base the whole dish around that, with some basic sauteed greens and a carrot and corn salad.

Carrot Green Pesto Pork Chop w Kale, Carrot and Grilled Corn 

1 bunch carrots, with greens
1 bunch kale
1 small onion
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 garlic clove
¼ c pine nuts
¼ c shredded Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese
2 pork chops
2 ears corn
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 shallot

For the pesto:

Carrot green stems can be incredibly fibrous and difficult to chew, so we are just going to use the fronds.  Pick the fronds from the greens and wash.  Bring a pot of water to boil and blanch the greens for 1-2 minutes.  Drain and press excess water out of the greens.  Add to food processor with pine nuts, salt, and cheese.  Start processing and add a steady stream of olive oil until the pesto starts to come together.  Season to taste with more salt and olive oil.  Set aside.

For Carrot and Grilled Corn Salad

Peel your carrots and slice them thinly into little coins.  Grill the corn until starting to brown on all sides, or if you don't have the means or don't feel like it, just boil the ears for approximately 10 minutes.  Heat a small skillet on low and add the butter.  Saute the carrots until heated through and softened somewhat but not mushy. Cut the kernels off the corn and add to a mixing bowl.  Add the carrots.  Mince the shallot and add to the bowl.  Season with salt and pepper, add 2 tbsp of olive oil and the sherry vinegar and stir well.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the Kale:

This one is easy.  Chop the kale into ½ inch strips.  Dice the small onion.  Heat up a saute pan and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.  Add red pepper flakes.  Saute the onion until softened, 3-4 minutes.  Add the kale and saute until wilted, 5-6 minutes.  

For the Pork Chop:

Salt.  Pepper.  Grill.  Or panfry in cast iron, that works too.

For Plating:

Place a bed of kale in the middle of the plate, place your pork chop on top of that.  Top the pork chop with some pesto - maybe 1½ tbsp or so.  Spoon the corn and carrot salad around the edges.  I am not very good when it comes to presentation, but I thought this came out looking really nice.

If I had to make a criticism, I would say that this dish was really crunchy.  Like, the kale is crunch, the carrots are crunchy, the corn is kind of crunchy poppy.  The taste was great all around, the flavors went really well together, but I would have to say that my jaw did get a little tired at the end of this, as weird as that sounds.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

My wife and I spent 3 years in North Carolina - the longest that we have been any one place since moving away from Pittsburgh nearly 10 years ago.  Of all of the places that we have lived, I feel that North Carolina had the strongest sense of local cuisine.  The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area was by easily the most diverse area of North Carolina that we experienced, but despite a massive influx of people from other parts of the country, the area maintained strong awareness of its roots, and that was inflected on most of the food options around.  Even higher end restaurants still couldn't stray from North Carolina mainstays like pimento cheese and hushpuppies.  Without a doubt, one of the things that left the biggest impact on me was the barbecue.  

Usually cooked whole hog, Eastern NC barbecue is hickory smoked for long periods of time and dressed with an extremely simple, extremely vinegary sauce.  Barbecue is traditionally served finely chopped, which has a very different texture than normal pulled pork or ribs or other types of pork bbq.  Because it traditionally is a whole side of a hog, the chop has a great mix of fat and meat and is insanely good.  It can be served on its own with sides like fried okra, baked beans, black eyed peas or collards.  It can also be served on sandwiches with regular hamburger buns, cole slaw, and pickle slices.  My wife and I miss our favorite barbecue restaurant, called The Pit, with basically weekly regularity, so when we were invited to a 4th of July party this year, I had my heart set from the beginning on some serious fucking barbecue.  I stuck to just using a pork shoulder, as I don't have the means to cook a whole hog, nor do I know even a fraction of the people that it takes to have a true pig pickin, but I think that the shoulder was a worthy substitute.

This turned into a bit of a debacle for me, because my smoker died only 4 hours into smoking the shoulder.  The meat was still at a temp of 140º - nowhere near the 200º that it needs to be - and I noticed that it was dropping instead of rising.  I checked the heating element and realized that it was 100% not on.  Which meant that my pork had been sitting there for probably like an hour without any heat on it.  I was in full panic mode.  I ended up finishing the shoulder in a dutch oven in my regular oven.  At first I was really upset, but it ended up being a great coincidence, because the pot ended up collecting a great mix of pork juice and melted fat that helped to season the shredded barbecue.

North Carolina Barbecue

1 8-9 lb pork shoulder (bone in / skin on)
¼ c ground black pepper
¼ c kosher salt

This is probably the shortest recipe I've ever posted.  It is literally just a seasoned pork shoulder.  The smoke and the sauce do all of the heavy lifting.  This keeps the flavors really simple and straightforward.  Rub the salt and pepper on all sides of the shoulder, especially the exposed meat.  Season up to 12 hours in advance and let it work its magic.  Also, if you can, leave the shoulder out (covered) to come to close to room temperature.  It will make the cooking time more effective.

You can smoke the shoulder a couple of different ways.  As I mentioned in the intro, I used the soon-to-be-dead electric smoker.  You could also do this on charcoal with indirect heat.  Either way, you want to soak your wood chips and get the heat up to about 250º in your cooking method.  Smoke the shoulder until it hits the internal temp of 200º.

This is where things went wrong for smoker ate shit and I had to finish my shoulder in the oven.  I have to say though, this was a great accident for me.  I got my shoulder finished in time, and I got this great mix of fat and pork juice that I wouldn't have had otherwise.  It made things just that much better.  In order to finish the shoulder before the 4th of July party, I had to put the heat at 300º for the oven, but I don't think that it had much effect on the shoulder.

Notice the skin split after most of the fat had rendered out... mmmm
When your shoulder is ready, allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes before shredding.  Unfortunately I cannot vouch for the "authentic" way to chop barbecue, but I suppose that it goes something like this:

- Pull off the large chunks of pork from the bone
- Shred each section with 2 forks - hold the chunk with one hand and using the tines of the fork, shred into small bits
- using a knife, chop the shreds into small pieces.  In my photos, I intentionally left them large because I wasn't sure if the texture would weird out people, so I erred more on the side of traditional pulled pork.

Collect all of the meat in a large mixing bowl, season with salt and pepper and some of the pork juice (should you happen to have any).  Season lightly with the barbecue sauce.  You want it to have tang, but barbecue is always served with sauce at the table so everyone can season to their individual tastes.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

1 c apple cider vinegar
1/4 c brown sugar
1 tbsp dried red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper

Heat up the vinegar in a sauce pan, stir in the rest of the ingredients.  Stir until sugar and salt are dissolved and then allow to cool to room temperature.  I store mine in an old Scott's barbecue sauce bottle because it so perfectly dispenses the sauce.