04. April 2014 · Comments Off on Quick Tip: What We Do When We Can’t Find Superfine Salt · Categories: Cooking, Food, Ingredients, Quick Tips

Superfine salt is also known as pickling or popcorn salt, depending on whether or not it contains anti-caking agents that keep it from clumping in high humidity. Unless you pop a lot of corn, or do a lot of pickling – the fine grained salt dissolves more quickly in cold brines – you’re unlikely to have the stuff sitting about. The solution? Throw a few tablespoons of kosher salt into a clean coffee/spice grinder and give it a hearty whiz. Superfine salt in no time, and no extra trip to the store.

31. March 2014 · Comments Off on Where Once Again We Prove Pork Rules · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , , , ,

Chinese country-style pork ribsOne of the challenges of getting groceries from the co-op is that the protein selection of the week is generally beyond our control. And sometimes we end up with cuts we’ve never cooked with before, or have only used rarely. Here, it was country-cut pork ribs. Which aren’t really ribs proper, but are from the area between the loin and the shoulder blade. The ones I got were individually cut, a long thick strip which I split into two pieces each. The total weight of the package was just short of two pounds.

I’d tried making these before, and you really can’t treat them like you would spare ribs or baby backs. Honestly, the way they were packaged I thought they were St. Louis cut spare ribs, so when I opened them up, I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to make them work for my intended use. I’d decided to attempt Chinese-style pork spareribs, which are generally made with belly cuts. Lots of fat to render and keep things from getting leather-tough despite long cooking times. Which I wouldn’t necessarily have here.

What the hell. Onward! More »

29. March 2014 · Comments Off on A Tale of Hothouse Tomatoes and Hydroponic Herb · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Salsa Fresca in Blue Glass BowlWe’re not talking that kind of herb. Sorry to disappoint anyone who arrived at this article via more interesting search terms. What we’re going to look at is a quick and easy way to liven up some of those less-than-prime wintertime ingredients. Specifically, using winter hothouse tomatoes and peppers along with hydroponically-grown green herbs to bid farewell to cold weather.

Let’s face it – non-summer tomatoes are a depressing thing. Sure, they might be the right color, but they lack the flavor development that the hot July and August sun brings. We can, however, boost their lackluster performance with some other handy ingredients. Hydroponically grown herbs and greens are pretty darned good all year round, and if you’re the kind of person who can keep an indoor potted herb garden in good shape throughout the chilly months, you’re in good stead, too. To use up our firm, reddish squash-balls some cilantro will come in very handy.

I’d been staring at this pile of hothouse Roma tomatoes for a few days. The weather’d been seesawing back and forth between spring-like days and the last vestiges of an annoyingly persistent winter. I wanted some spring/summer-ish food, and figured the best way to dispose of these fruits was to throw together some salsa fresca. This stuff is dead easy. I don’t know why you’d ever buy it in a jar.

You Need:
Roma tomatoes (about a pound)
1 large jalapeno pepper
Ground cumin
Kosher salt
1 Lime
Cilantro (fresh, about a handful of leaves)
1 Green bell pepper (small)
1/2 Red onion, peeled (large)

I removed the stem end of the tomatoes and seeded them all, then chopped to about a 1/4″ dice. I placed about 1/3 of them into a glass bowl and broke them up with a potato masher for a minute or so to make a chunky puree. The rest of the tomato pieces went in after, with a liberal sprinkling of kosher salt, then mixed to combine.

Then, I removed the top of the green pepper, seeded it, and also cut into a 1/4″ dice. Same size chop with the onion. The jalapeno, I removed the stem end, cut in half, removed the seeds and ribs, and minced finely. The cilantro just got a rough chop to break down the leaves, since I didn’t want them reduced to a mush by finely mincing them and letting them sit in the wet mixture.

All the ingredients were combined in the bowl with about 1/4 tsp. of ground cumin and the juice of one large lime. Adjust the salt to taste, and it’s done. Salsa fresca is best left to sit for a few hours or even overnight before serving to let the flavors meld. And later that night, with some home-made hummus, a cold beer, and pita chips, there was a little bit of summer.

27. March 2014 · Comments Off on In Which We (Pork) Knuckle Down and Get to Cooking. · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , , , ,

Roasted Pork HocksIn Germany, it’s Schweinshaxe. To the Poles, it’s golonka. The Czechs call it kolenko. The Austrians, Stelze. Any place where pig is the primary domestic meat, you’ll find a variation of this dish. Basically, it’s unsmoked pork hock – the cut just below the ham – marinated or cooked in aromatics and roasted, frequently with a beer glaze.

This is a rustic dish, to be sure. A big hunk of meat, still on the bone, browned and glistening. It begs for serving along with other Eastern-European accompaniments: braised cabbage, potatoes or potato dumplings, spaetzle, pickled beets, coarse brown mustard, dark rye bread, sauerkraut, and so on. Put the wine glasses away, too. A Czech pilsner or German Hellesbock is the perfect beverage for this.

Some prefer to slow-roast this dish. If you can find pork hocks unsmoked with the skin still on them, that may be the way to go. The only ones I can easily get my hands on are skinless with just a little bit of fat on the outside, and slow-roasting would dry them out way too much. So, I simmer them with aromatics prior to roasting. As a side benefit, you get a good quart’s worth of flavorful pork stock at the end. One major point – make sure you get fresh pork hocks, not smoked ham hocks. Ask your butcher. Ham hocks are salty and dry-cured, and best left for soups and greens.

If you can get skin-on, then I recommend singeing them over an open flame to remove any stray hairs (it happens) and then roasting them at 300°F, basting with the alternative basting liquid at the end of the recipe until the outside is bronze and crispy, and the meat is tender and just about falling off the bone, about 2½ to 3 hours.

You will need:
2 large fresh (unsmoked) pork hocks
3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp whole peppercorns
1 tsp whole caraway seed
1 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp whole juniper berries (optional)
1 large peeled carrot, cut into 2″ chunks
1 peeled parsnip, cut into 2″ chunks
1 rib celery, cut into 2″ chunks
1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsely (or 1 tsp quality dried flakes)
2 cloves garlic, chopped

For the glaze:
1 cup dark lager (amber lager, marzen – more malty than hoppy)
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp stock from the cooked hocks
1 tsp crumbled dry sage leaf (not ground)

Place hocks and salt into a large soup pot or dutch oven. Add just enough water to cover, place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a gently rolling boil, and skim off any foam from the top of the cooking liquid. It will take about 5 minutes for the pot to stop foaming.

Add bay leaf, peppercorns, caraway seed, juniper (if using), garlic, onion, carrot, parsnip, celery, and parsley. Return to a rolling boil, then reduce heat, cover, and maintain a steady simmer. Cook for 2 to 2½ hours, until meat is almost falling off the bone. Remove from pot and heat oven to 375°F.

Whisk beer to remove most of the carbonation, add honey, and heat until honey dissolves easily. Add sage and stock from the cooking pot and mix. Season with salt to taste.

Transfer hocks to a baking dish just large enough to hold them without touching. Pour over glazing liquid and place in oven. Roast for about 40 minutes, basting frequently. Remove to a plate, tent with foil, and let stand for at least 5 minutes before serving.

If you’re roasting skin-on hocks, use this for your basting liquid. Combine peppercorns, garlic, sage, caraway, beer, honey, 1/4 cup of chicken broth/bouillon, 1 tsp dehydrated onion flakes, bay leaf, parsley and optional juniper berries and heat until honey is dissolved. Season with salt to taste. Place hocks in baking pan just big enough to hold them without touching, pour over liquid, and baste every 15-20 minutes while cooking.

Pork Stock:
Remove stock pot of cooking liquid to the sink and place it in a cold or ice-water bath, changing water and stirring until the stock has cooled. Pour into a storage container, straining out the solids with a mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Refrigerate or freeze for later use for soups, beans, or braising.

Serve with spicy brown mustard on the side. Serves 4 deboned, or two really hungry people bone-in.

05. January 2014 · Comments Off on The Bit About Chicken Noodle Soup (Thank You, Mr. Warhol) · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Warhol-Campbells-Chicken-NoodleFor a bit of a stretch, we were getting chicken in various shapes and sizes through Friends and Farms, our grocery co-op. I’d finish broiling off or baking one set of split breasts or thigh quarters and more’d show up in the following week’s pickup. So, when another whole bird arrived, I was in a bit of a quandary as to what to do with it. I’d roasted three whole chickens already over the summer. And while I like roast poultry a lot, I didn’t want to do it again.

So, I ended up parting it out into quarters – leg/thigh, breast/wing – bagging it, and freezing it for later. And later lasted quite a while. During which, more chicken dutifully appeared in our insulated bag on Saturdays. Fortunately, the new fridge has a freezer drawer that really is a deep-freeze, keeping things sub-zero or thereabouts. So, it wasn’t a couple months later that I finally hauled those rock-solid quarters out in a decision to free up some bin space.

If you’ve never made real, honest-to-goodness, home-made chicken noodle soup, you will be surprised at a) how easy it is and b) how long it takes. I promise, however, the results are more than worth it. You just need a chicken, some basic vegetables, and a couple of common herbs. And time. Definitely time. In fact, this is a recipe in two parts, and you should plan on starting the process the evening before your intended meal. The following day, assembling the finished soup takes less than an hour.

More »

30. December 2013 · Comments Off on A Brief Essay on the Bottom of the Food Chain · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

As a culture, we have learned to eat high on the the biological hog, as it were. The majority of our protein sources, if we are not of the vegan/vegetarian persuasion, come from creatures that are relatively high up the ladder as far as who eats whom. Many of our fish, even, are fish-eaters themselves requiring several pounds of other seafood to put on a pound of their own weight. Aquaculture, if done badly, can be just as polluting as factory farming. Wild-catch fish are rapidly being depleted in fisheries worldwide as demand rises.

Which leads me to ponder why we’ve largely ignored the virtues of the lower orders of the marine ecosystem. Sure, small oily fishes (which are admittedly pretty tasty in their own right) have garnered attention in trendy eateries and with those who espouse the Mediterranean diet. But I’ve always been interested in going even lower, to the bivalves and molluscs. Sure, oysters are the darlings of the filter-feeder set, eaten raw and roasted with refined sauces and fine wines at the fanciest of tables. Clams have their fans, particularly in the northeastern parts of the US.

But for pure availability and bang-for-buck, we have to talk about mussels. More »

29. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Bit About Recipes: Stuffed Mediterranean-Style Eggplant · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Stuffed Mediterranean-Style Eggplant - photo by Rob NovakThe food co-op seems to like eggplant this time of year. It keeps showing up, much like zucchini at the height of summer. This is a bit of a challenge, because to be honest it’s not a vegetable that I use a lot. Especially the big Italian aubergines. At least the little Asian ones can go into stir-fries pretty easily. The big guys… let’s just say that babaganoush, as tasty as it is, is getting old and I’m not a fan of frying it and covering it in cheese and tomato sauce.

Choices? Moussaka? Tasty, but a fair amount of work. So, I dug up a recipe a while back for stuffed eggplant and gave it a whirl. I pretty much followed it to the letter, unfortunately disengaging my thinking in the process. So, I just trusted it to be seasoned to my tastes, and to have an acceptable level of flavor.

You know what? Recipes, even mine that I post here, suck. Well, they suck if you follow them slavishly. And I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t follow them, at least not literally. The most important thing that you can do when cooking is taste the food as you prepare it. Even if it’s something as simple as an adjustment in the amount of salt, it can make a world of difference. My ingredients are not going to be gram-for-gram identical to yours. You might prefer more or less of something. And you’ll never know unless you taste the food you’re making before it hits the table. More »

18. October 2013 · Comments Off on On Sneaky Broccoli · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

Broccoli by Flickr user whologwhy, Creative Commons licenseBroccoli is not, regrettably, some people’s favorite vegetable. All the brassicas seem to divide eaters into the love ’em or hate ’em camp. Which is sad, because all of the veggies in this family are loaded with nutrition – Vitamin C, Vitamin A, antioxidants, and soluble fiber. So long as you don’t boil the snot out of ’em and dump the cooking liquid with all of its leached nutrients, cruciform vegetables are plenty good for you.

Broccoli and cauliflower especially seem to suffer from not only the curse of crucifoms in general, but also a textural shortcoming due to the fact that the edible parts are in essence immature flower heads. They have a tendency to go mealy and/or get waterlogged in cooking. Likewise, undercooked they’re fibrous and chewy, which some find unpleasant. Roasting can help with some of these shortcomings, since high-temp cooking will help develop more complex flavors and dry out some of the moisture. But you’re still left with a pretty plain-jane vegetable unless you take further steps.

A great cold-weather dish using brassicas and root vegetables is the gratin. Simply explained, it’s a baked dish characterized by a cheese and breadcrumb topping, where the main ingredient is frequently combined with a Bechamel-based sauce. Even avowed broccoli haters like a good gratin. Here’s a basic recipe that can be modified in a number of ways for variety.

Vegetable Gratin

2 lbs fresh broccoli or cauliflower heads, cut into small florets, or 2 lbs of Brussels sprouts, halved
3 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 c grated Gruyere or sharp Cheddar cheese
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
1/2 c panko-style breadcrumbs

Prep time: 15 minutes, Cook time: 30 minutes

Heat oven to 450F. Butter (or spray with non-stick spray) an 8x8x2 baking dish. Put 2 cups of water and a collapsible steamer basket into a large saucepan over high heat and bring to boil.

Chop vegetables as needed.

Place a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add 3 tbsp butter to melt. After butter is melted and foamy, whisk in flour until smooth and cook for 1-2 minutes, whisking continually, until the mixture becomes aromatic. Do not let the flour brown. Gradually whisk in the milk, then stir in the salt and nutmeg. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Whisk thoroughly, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened – about 8-10 minutes.

While sauce is thickening, put vegetables into steamer and steam until just starting to turn tender – about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately fill into baking dish. Do not overcook, or the vegetables will be mealy after baking.

When sauce is thickened, sprinkle vegetables with half the shredded cheese, then pour over the sauce.

Place a medium skillet over medium heat and add the remaining butter (or olive oil). When hot, mix in the bread crumbs and toss until just lightly browned. Remove from heat.

Top dish with remaining cheese, then breadcrumbs. Place in oven on center rack and bake for 20 minutes until browned and bubbling.

Serves 4

Variations: Thinly slice 2 lbs of waxy potatoes, layer them in the baking dish with shredded cheese in between and extend the baking time to 25-30 minutes, and you’ve got potatoes au gratin. Substitute crumbled bleu cheese for the shredded. Mix the Gruyere cheese with the bechamel instead of sprinkling it on top to make Sauce Mornay. Add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a half teaspoon of sherry vinegar to make Sauce Moutarde, which goes great with broccoli.

17. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Not-so-brief Exploration of Gumbo · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

Fresh Okra by Flickr user Jenny Hones, Creative Commons licenseSo, a while back I got a burr under my saddle to make up some gumbo. What ensued was an unsuccessful quest for file powder and a lot of messing with the Googles to find a recipe that I liked. What I ended up with was a combination of a couple different versions, so thanks to Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, and some random dude with a blog whose URL I can’t even remember.

Instead of the elusive file powder, I used okra to thicken this version. I like okra as a vegetable in general, and think that it has a place in any southern stew. Purists will argue that the gumbo without file is not the true gumbo. And some might object, reasonably so, that okra’s thickening powers tend to leave the resultant liquids a bit… ropey instead of merely thickened. Valid points, all, but I think this is a pretty serviceable preparation anyway.

You will notice that this recipe requires some commitment as far as time. There are a lot of steps. I have tried to make it as simple as possible, but gumbo is not a dish to be hurried. If you want to use peel-and-eat style shrimp and store-bought seafood stock instead of removing and cooking shrimp heads, I totally understand. But I encourage you to take the extra time. Likewise, I suggest that you used the oven method for making your brown roux instead of on the stovetop. Yes, it takes longer, but a) you don’t have to babysit it constantly, b) there’s a much lower chance of burning it since it’s a slow, controlled temperature, and c) you can go do other stuff while it’s cooking.

Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo

4 oz (by weight) all-purpose flour
4 oz (by weight) vegetable or canola oil
3 lb. 26/30 count shrimp, heads on
1 lb Andouille sausage
2 quarts water
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins preferred)
1 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 bay leaves, whole
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp kosher salt
2 cups fresh okra, cut into 1/4″ pieces
2 tbsp cayenne pepper sauce (optional)

Prep Time: 30 minutes. Cook time: 2 1/2 hours.

Heat oven to 350F.

In a large, heavy pot or cast-iron dutch oven (5-6 qt), whisk together flour and oil. Place in oven, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, whisking 3-4 times during cooking. Roux should be medium-brown when done.

Meanwhile, peel, de-head, and de-vein (if desired) shrimp, saving the heads and shells. Set aside shrimp meats in the refrigerator until needed. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a stockpot, then add shells/heads. Return to a boil, then reduce heat to a steady simmer. Cook for one hour, stirring occasionally. Strain liquid into a heat-safe container and discard shells and heads. Mix in Worcestershire sauce.

Remove roux from oven, and place over medium-high heat. Add onion, pepper, celery, and garlic and cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until onions are translucent and begin to soften. Roux will become a dark brown.

Add bay leaf, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, onion powder, black pepper, cayenne, and salt. Cook for about a minute, stirring constantly, until aromatic. Add tomatoes and stir.

Whisk shrimp stock into pot a cup or two at a time to prevent lumps, until all stock is incorporated. Add okra, stir, increase heat to high until liquid begins to bubble, then lower heat to maintain a constant simmer. Cover, and cook for another 30 minutes.

While gumbo is cooking, slice sausage into 1/4″ pieces and brown off in a large, hot skillet. Drain and set aside. Add to pot in remaining 5 minutes of cook time. Stir in hot sauce. If you’re not going to use hot sauce, I recommend adding a tablespoon of cider or white wine vinegar for acidity instead.

When half-hour simmer time is complete, add shrimp to the pot, stir, turn off the burner and let stand for 10 minutes. Let the shrimp cook solely from the heat of the liquid.

Serve over plenty of rice with hot sauce on the side. Serves 6.

14. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Few Words About the End of Summmer · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Various types of potatoes for sale, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.So, it’s officially autumn. Once again, the calendar cycles ’round to the waning part of the year. Everything leapt into life at spring time, got busy with getting busy in the summer, and now starts to settle in, slows its pace, and prepares to hunker down for its winter slumber. I like fall because it’s the metaphorical sleepy-eyed yawn before burrowing under the covers.

With the change in seasons comes a change in food. Soft, vulnerable, fleshy fruits give way to the durable. At least if you’re eating properly for our clime. I honestly prefer canned and preserved summer produce to the stuff that’s shipped in from elsewhere, chosen more for its ability to withstand a container voyage than anything approaching flavor.

I even find winter vegetables and the shift to roots, brassicas, hard squashes and cold-frame greens comforting. They’re the beginnings of roasted, braised, stewed and deeply flavored comfort foods that make the grey days of November and the long winter night bearable.

Roasting hard winter veggies is easy. Peel and cut any combination of turnips, parsnips, carrots, waxy potatoes, yams, pumpkin, or butternut/acorn squash into 1″ cubes. Chop up enough to fill a standard 9×13″ baking dish. Throw everything in a bowl and toss with olive oil, a few healthy pinches of kosher salt, and either fresh ground black pepper or – my favorite – freshly grated nutmeg. Roast in a 450°F oven until veggies are tender and slightly caramelized, about 35-45 minutes. Yes, they will stick to the dish. When you take them out of the oven, cover the baking dish with a bit of foil and let stand for about 10 minutes. The steam will both re-moisten any dried out bits and help release everything from the bottom. You will wonder why you ever boiled root vegetables. More »