Monday, December 28, 2009

More thoughts on recipe reading and writing . . .

In my recipes, and many I read, advice on seasoning isn’t mentioned. I always assume the cook is seasoning as (s)he goes, and then tests for seasoning before eating.
Many recipes are written this way.
Some recipes call for specific amounts of salts, but I find it seldom works out. Not only because the recipe doesn’t call for enough, but because salt level is such a matter of circumstance, preference and/or medical necessity.
Just remember, no matter where you find the recipe, or how great your ingredients, if you don’t season them well, the flavors won’t reach their full potential.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

How do I make a simple lobster pasta sauce?

This is a tricky one, the ingredients themselves are not that hard to come by. However, finding quality indgredients for it is key and can be very tricky. So keep that in mind. Overcooked lobster and bland stock will not make a good lobster sauce. {You can also prepare them yourself—That’s gonna be the topic of the next newsletter}

Simple Lobster Sauce

1 Leek, Julienned (nix the dark green part and that closest to the root)

½ cup Lobster stock

1 tbsp Tomato paste

1 tbsp Cognac

Meat from one lobster, roughly chopped.

1 tbsp Butter

3 tbsps Herbs (Basil, tarragon, thyme, chervil, parsley or any combination of these)

½ lb. Fresh Pasta, (I’m using fettuccine here, but papardelle or fresh spaghetti would work great as well)

1. Over medium heat, sauté the leeks until slightly sweated out.

2. Add the lobster stock, tomato paste and cognac. Reduce this mix until it comes together, You want it thick enough to stick to your noodles.

3. Add the lobster, stirring quickly until it is just warmed through. You REALLY don’t want it to get tough or stringy.

4. Toss in the *cooked* pasta with the butter and herbs (and maybe a squirt of extra virgen olive oil) Taste for salt and Enjoy.

Note there is no liquid running off onto the plate, all of the flavor is stuck to the pasta. Also, special thanks to my neighbors for being desperate enough to leave their basil plant with me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Plea for the Tomato Tube

Just a quick note, NEVER buy tomato paste in a can please.
It doesn't make any sense at all. It is impossible to keep once you open the can.
It dries out so easily, it gets funky, AND its a strong acid hanging out in an aluminum can. (not a good thing)
Worst of all, you never use the whole can. Recipes always call for just a teaspoon or two.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest a very significant percentage of tomato paste in a can ends up the the garbage due to this fact.
Please get yourself the tomato paste in a tube.
You use as much as you need, put the cap back on and throw it in the fridge.
Simple as that.
It will lasts at least a couple of months.
You'll never have to throw away tomato paste again!

Friday, December 11, 2009

How do I keep my pork chops from drying out? . . . part do

Ok, You found the right pork chop.
Now we're going to cook it.
This is the easy part.

There is really no recipe here, just technique so I'm going to walk you through it.
What you'll need:
- A decent chop
- A heavy bottomed skillet (preferably cast iron or black steal)
- Salt and Pepper
- Some vegetable oil (canola, corn, peanut, grape seed, etc. )
- A pat of butter

Set out your meat ten to fifteen minutes before cooking. This goes for all meat. It lets it come closer to room temperature which allows for more even cooking. If you go straight from the fridge to the pan you wind up heating the outside of the meat, while the inside stays cool.

If the loin of your chop is encased in connective tissue, score the outside. This stops the pork chop from curling up when it hits the heat, preventing it from being in contact with the pan and browning.

These incisions are little deep, you just have to sever the white part on the outside.

Heat your pan well over medium high heat. Put in enough oil to finely coat the pan. Drop in your chop, it should sizzle and pop but not stick. Exactly how hot it gets and how long it cooks is up to you. In other words I think chop take take slower browning with lower heat (still in the medium high range though) while a thin chop would require a smokin' hot pan to brown it before it overcooks.
My chop here is between 1 and 1 1/2 iches thick.
Once in the pan I let the heat slowly penetrate. I would say this cut seared for around 4-5 minutes per side, but the time is kind of irrelevant as long as it is equal per side. All I'm really looking for is nice browning, and a pat of butter half way through the sear will really help accomplish that.
Why all the focus on browning? . . . Would you rather eat a teaspoon of sugar or a teaspoon of caramel? Well, essentially you're turning the sugars that exist in the meat (sugar more refers to the molocule than actual sweetness) in to caramel. So browning=flavor development!

A little butter will really contribute to good browing.

Check out the browning . . . freaking yummy.

Because of the thickness of my chops, they needed three minutes in a 350 degree oven to cook it through. Do this on a separate pan, rather than just sticking the skillet in the oven. If my chop were any thinner it would just be done in the pan.
How do you test for doneness? This is tricky and will definitely require some trial and error. There are numerous gimmicks, with poking and sticking, but my thermometer reads around 142-ish
Now wrap it in tin foil and let it rest. With every meat this is imperative. Browning and baking are extreme heats, this causes the proteins in the "tense up" and they need time to relax. If you were to go cutting into the pork, you'd probably see a raw center sandwiched by two overcooked strips. Resting also allows the heat and the juices to redistribute.

Now you just have to eat the thing!

This is how I love my pork, especially the slice on the right. It's a beautiful medium. and super tasty.

Disclaimer: As with everything you do in life, there is a risk involved with choosing to consume raw and undercooked foods.
If you're not comfortable with it or just don't want to, that's fine.

Special thanks to Ross for the kickin' branding iron, expect to see more branded ingredients.
And for the super die hard fans, email me and we'll schedule a meeting.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Do you have any ieas for holiday gifts that are easy to make?

You may remember my entry about finding a great olive oil on sale for very cheap a few weeks back. Well I may have gotten a little over zealous . . . and bought way too much; more than I could ever consume. but necessity is the mother of invention.
So I'm gonna put together an Olive Oil Salt Scrub that doubles as a delicious seasoning for meat and fish.
It's super simple, and something you can make large batches of for passing out at parties or at the office.

Citrus rosemary salt scrub rub

1 cup Coarse Sea Salt
1/2cup Fine Sea Salt
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Zest of one each: lemon, lime & orange
Large sprig of rosemary, Leaves removed,

1. In a flat bottomed bowl muddle the citrus and rosemary with a few tablespoons of the kosher salt. The salt acts as an abrasive to release the essential oils. (this should smell amazing)
2. Simply add the remaining ingredients and mix it well.

As for the applications, as a scrub the olive oil contains polyphenols (antioxidants) that in addition to being good for you internally, do wonders for firming and tightening the skin. The sea salts act as a great exfoliator, and as the salt dissolves your skin absorbs the minerals. It also fights off some surface bacteria without any harsh chemicals.
But the fun doesn't stop there.
It's also delicious! A little bit on a piece of grilled fish is outstanding, it also compliments pork very well.

A little tip:
I like to put the scrub rub in mason jars, for a better display I lay a sprig in on its side and then pack the mixture on top.

This will keep better in the fridge.
I hope it goes without saying but I'm sayin' it anyways. . . while you can always take a little bit out of the fridge for the shower, you CANNOT leave it in the shower and then use it on food.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How do I keep my pork chop from drying out? part one

This is maybe one of my most asked questions. And I have a lot to say about it, so much so that I set out to write this entry and it quickly became too long. So, for now, it's a two part series.

Pork is something of a paradox across our beautiful country . . . .and the world I guess. Pigs are something many countries take pride in putting on a plate, holding it close and touting their indigenous preparations as the best in the world. French have their sausages, hams and various terrines and charcuteries. Italians have prosciutto, salami, and numerous other cures and Chinese have roast pork, with that signature red hue. Puerto Rico-Pernil, Poland-kielbasa, I could go on and on and on.
America is no exception. We have serious bar-b-q, a uniquely national staple and one of my favorite ways to utilize a pig. . . . parts of the pig that is. While almost every nation consumes some form of chop, there really isn't a country just known for their preparation of them.

A crazy pork crown, the entire loin: you can see where the chops come from.
The world over, there's a luminous cloud of mystery hovering over the pork chop, deterring traumatized cooks who've fretted over the frying pan, sweating the illusive window where pork is still moist but not pink.
But why do people have so much trouble preparing a good pork chop? . . . A few factors stand out.

The first is because it's kind of hard to buy a good pork chop (in the States anyways). At conventional supermarkets, chops are generally to be avoided. They have little to no fat content, a result of "The other white meat" campaign spurred by the fat craze of the 80's. A pork chop should have decent fat content including marbling throughout the loin. Not only giving it more porky flavor, but also lending to its juiciness . . . or the sensation of juiciness.
When you take a bite of something, a few thing determine juiciness:
- the actual water content, which disappears pretty quickly with chewing
- the fat content, which makes your mouth water as you chew, giving the sensation of juiciness.

Marbling in the loin is key!

Imagine a bite of grilled chicken breast. Even if it is perfectly moist going in, it may seem dry by the time you've chewed it up for swallowing. Not so, however, if its doused in a fatty sauce, say a butter sauce or aioli. In pork, regardless of the condiment, a little marbling goes a very long way to make it seem juicy.

Another trouble with conventional pork is the term "added water". Avoid it like the plague, it's one of the more infuriating tactics of meat factory farms. Yes, they have a longer shelf life, but they might just shorten yours. This "added water" which can make up as much as 11% of the weight of said chop, is composed of water, but also sweeteners (dried glucose) poly-phosphates, (to retain the water) preservatives and other "natural" flavors.
What's more, when you drop this pork in a skillet to brown, you will get puddles of white gunk forming instead of a nice brown crust.
So skip this if you ever see it.

The Second is the people's fear of pink pork.
It's a learned thing, almost a survival trait. Something like with wild mushrooms, we hear not to dabble with pinkish pork a few times in different contexts and something in our brains click "Never consume pink pork!!"

But why?
Can you get sick from eating pink pork? Sure you can, just like any other undercooked food: runny egg yolks, a medium rare burger, oysters and sushi etc. etc. but pork is not any more risky.

Trichinosis is the parasite that originated the fear of pink pork, it's a nasty worm that occurs when carnivorous animals (including ourselves) eat raw or undercooked meat of a carnivorous animal.  Trichinosis was an issue when pigs were fed raw meat scraps from - this has been out of practice for over a decade.  The instances of trichinosis are so low as to be almost negligible, and the ones that do occur are seldom associated with pigs (omnivores), but rather carnivores such as bear and cougar.
Also, the parasite trichinosis dies at 137 degrees, but the governments conservative suggestion is for 165 degrees . . . . tested not with a thermometer, but by hitting your chop on the wall . . . if the wall cracks or breaks, it's done.
This also goes back to making sure your pork is good meat from a reliable source.

Start to change the way you think about pork and it will change the way you appreciate it.

Move on to part two of this series

Disclaimer: As with everything you do in life, there is a risk involved with choosing to consume raw and undercooked foods.
If you're not comfortable with it or just don't want to, that's fine.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Another Idea

I turned 30 this past Wednesday!
That's right, the big three zero.
While I don't have much of a sweet tooth, I do indulge in a slice of carrot cake at least once a year.
This year we decided to make a substitution. Rather than raw grated carrots, beets went in.

The resulting batter was a beautiful pinkish red color. The cake itself didn't quite retain the color, but it was outstanding.

It was slathered with a maple cream cheese icing.

We be hammin'

I tried an interesting twist on one of my favorites this year - a baked ham.

Its almost like a simple braise. So simple it has two ingredients: ham & rootbeer.

The ham was a small one from Niman Ranch, a company whose product I love. and the root beer has to be Virgil's. It's a cut above most out there. It's lightly carbonated, sweetened (but not too much) with cane sugar. What really makes it great is it's huge complexity resulting from spices and roots. Unlike almost all commercially available root beers , it's actually brewed.

I poured two bottles in a pan , plopped in the ham, covered it and baked the thing @ 300 degrees for around four hours, flipping it every 45 min. or so.

It turned out pretty ok. The ham wasn't the cut I was hoping for, it was leaner than I expected, so it didn't soften up as much as I wanted. However, the resulting glaze was out of this world. The cooking time left it the perfect consistency and I finished it by whisking in a dollop of Dijon and a sprinkle of Chinese five spice. The specifics need tweaking, but the potential for greatness is certainly there.

The resulting sauce was definitely something to remember. It's so dark
it looks burnt, but the concentrated Virgil's was amazing with the ham.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gravy 101

Somehow the notion of gravy has this weird aura surrounding it, but I don’t really know why.
I think it deals partly with the fact that a lot of people who aren’t normally in the kitchen are taking on holiday meals. Gravy seems to be how most of those-new-to-the-stove commiserate.
“It was lumpy” . . . “It was bland.” . . . We didn’t have nearly enough!” . . . etc. etc.
Recipes hit it from all different angles, starting from different points, using various techniques and assuring different “fool-proof” methods.
And while the majority of them work in their context, you don’t walk away with much info on how to derive a gravy from various situations.
Maybe this will help:

You start with your flavorful liquid – giblet jus or chicken stock . . . and you add a roux . . . and that’s it.

First the liquid: Whatever it is, you just have to isolate it so that you can measure it. I would say it should be a dynamic, not just a wine or a juice, but a but a developed combination of flavors (a stock of sorts). I usually figure on a quarter cup a person, which is very generous, but I still manage to run low anyhow.

Next the roux: They say equal parts flour and butter . . . well yes, but that’s by mass and not volume. In other words, you have to weigh it, not measure it. Because flour can vary so much in mass to volume ratio.
But for those of you that don’t’ have an electronic scale.
It’s pretty much 1 tbsp of butter to 1 tbsp+1 tsp flour. You warm this duo up in a small pan and cook for about a minute, essentially toasting the flour slightly. Make a healthy portion of this to have on the side.

Now, you bring the liquid (whatever it is) to a boil and you stir the roux in. Roughly one cup of liquid to two tablespoons of roux. This method should prevent lumps and bumps, but if it doesn't you can puree the gravy in a blender and/or pass it through a fine sieve.
roux should look thinly sandy in texture.

The roux’s thickening characteristics don’t take effect until the liquid boils and the individual starches explode, like tiny popcorn. So when you add roux, give it a minute before you judge whether or not you need more.

Now the tricky part.
You have to assess it and adjust a little bit at a time.
Do you like the thickness?  If it is too loose, add more roux and boil. If it is too think, add more liquid.
If it is flat tasting?There can be two issues here. 1. The flavor is there, but it's not accented by enough salt . . . in which case you add salt.  2. There simply isn't great meaty flavor there, in which case I sneak a bullion cube into the gravy.  

Add a drop of acid (lemon, vinegar {maybe balsamic})  Unless you started with some tangy white wine, your gravy will benefit from a touch of acid.  It brightens the flavors. 

Think about sweetness? Sometimes a touch of honey, maple syrup or brown sugaris a great addition. 

Gravy should easily coat a spoon. I love mine with a lot of freshly ground black pepper.

Monday, November 23, 2009

If it aint broke . . . .

As a cook I'm always trying new twists and interesting takes on things, and I had to check my self-criticism in regard to the way I make sweet potatoes. I love them, and they're very nutritious. and every year I prepare them in one of two ways both with chipotles, and always as an extra dish I can put out without any work.
I had been racking my brains trying to think of a new way to include sweet potatoes. . . . until an annual eater at my thanksgiving feast checked in to make sure I would be making my chipotle sweet potatoes.
And all the pressure just went away. As a cook I'm always striving to strike a balance between keeping it interesting without getting wacky and giving the people comfort food to remember.
It's a fine line.
Here are my two super easy sweet potato recipes:

The first is to melt one tablespoon of butter and one teaspoon of salt, with two tablespoons of adobo (the sauce the chipotles are in). Cut the sweet potatoes into about 2 inch cross sections.
Lay down a little of the chipotle butter, set the sweet potatoes, and some more butter on top.
Roast in the oven (375ish) for about 25 min. or until they are "fork tender"
This takes very little time, even for large numbers of people.

They get beautifully browned.

The second is a mash.

4 Sweet potatoes
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps Adobo suace
1 Chipotle pepper, chopped

1. Rub the sweet potatoes with oil and salt and roast in the oven (375ish) for around 40 minutes or until "fork tender". (They're delicious just like this by the way, plain and simple)
2. Allow to cool slightly, peel off the skin and crush with butter, adobo sauce and one chopped chipotle.

Some browning where the sweet potato is in contact with the pan is fine.

These reheat beautifully.
For me they'll go down in history as one of my favorite midnight snacks.

On the importance of stock: battling water in a world of flavor

The emphasis on stocks in the culinary world used to baffle me a little, but as I’ve matured, my love for a good stock as surpassed just about everything else. I don’t necessarily mean “stock” in the classical sense, so much as any flavorful liquid derived from ingredients. (though that is pretty much exactly what stock is)

In the building flavor, water is the enemy. It dilutes, muffles, and puts a general damper on the good taste the cook is trying create. For this reason I strongly advise against just adding water to a dish in order in increase moisture. One should always hold out for a more flavorful liquid: wine, beer, coconut milk, apple cider. . . or a really good stock.

Great stock is really what sets apart the best soups and saucy preparations. It sets the foundation on which to build depth of flavor. Something you can’t achieve from a can, box, or little cube of msg. (each of which you can find in my kitchen, I’m not an elitist, just an idealist)

This recipe will yield a healthy two quarts of stock, a nine dollar value at the store for around six to seven dollars. Of course the flavor blows the store bought stock right out of the water . . . flavorless drab water.

And yes- it takes a little more effort. But done right, stock is the gift that keeps on giving. First of all it helps you extract great flavor from things you wouldn’t otherwise eat (shells, bones, herb stems, veg. scraps) capitalizing further on maximum value. And while I’m not a fan of the stockpot-is-my-trashcan mentality, stock is a great way use older ingredients on the edge of edible.

AND after I make this chicken stock, I go back and pick the meat off the wings for chicken salad.

Roasted Chicken Stock

Ingredient amounts are rough, reasonable variations will still make a good stock.
3 lbs chicken wings (any bird bones or carcass will do)
3 medium onions, skinned and roughly chopped
3 large carrots, rinsed and roughly chopped
5 large celery stalks, rinsed and roughly chopped
5 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 bay leaves

- 2 cups of wine (I even try to cut back a little on my water use when making stock)
- herbs: thyme, rosemary, sages, parsley, etc etc. in fact about the only herb I wouldn’t put in is lavender. We’re making stock, not soap.

Just don’t add anything from the cabbage family, (broccoli, Brussels, radish, turnip) as they release sulfur in a long cooking process, not something you want in your stock.

For more extensive list of stock do’s and don’ts go here.

1. Preheat your oven to 375 degees. In a baking sheet, spread out your wings and roast for 40 minutes, or the they are nicely browned.

They should get beautifully tanned like this, it makes for great character in the stock.
2. Scrape your roasted goods into an eight quart stock pot and add the remaining wings and your veggies. → This step really only applies if you’re using wings; because callogen cooks out of the wings when roasted, adding a few raw at the end really adds some body to the stock.
Optional: warm you baking sheet over a low burner. Once hot, use a cup of white wine to deglaze. Scraping up and dissolving all the yummy caramelized bits. Add this liquid and bits to the stockpot. This is optional because it can be tricky to manage a lot of hot liquid in such a shallow vessel.
3. Using COLD water, cover your stock fixins by about two inches and set over a low flame. Allow to come to a simmer (just a few bubbles constantly surfacing).
4. Over the next four hours, occasionally take the time to skim the scum of the top.
5. Through a fine sieve strain out the liquid and allow to cool.

Today's addition:
I had this king oyster in my fridge for a while. It didn't have any foreseeable uses coming up, so I thought he might be good for the stock, but I browned him well before adding him in:

Thin slices of mushroom browned well can add huge flavor.

Further crazy ideas: Because I’m nuts, I like to freeze my stocks in ice cube trays. It’s the perfect portion size when pulling together meals for 2-6 people. Just drop in a cube or two of stock and you’re good to go.

Once cold, the finished product should be jelly-like, implying good body and viscosity.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Perfect Pie Crust

Pie crust: that mystic endeavor that all of our grandmothers seem to have down pat, but is somehow lost on the next few generations. People tip toe around the process, avoiding the risk at all cost, resorting to frozen ready-made crusts, or worse yet, skipping out on pie completely- all for fear of the crust.

In making pie crusts, recipes (and cooking shows) advise to proceed with caution, and for those of you who have taken the leap, you probably know why. Pie crust gone wrong is not a pleasant thing to eat, something along the lines of hardtack.

It doesn’t have a lot ingredients or steps, but it does have a fair amount of room for error.

I did a ton of research, and I uncovered a million little tricks, most of which proved completely superfluous. A few of them however, really make a difference.

These tweaks shorten the margin of error a smidgen. For instance the cornmeal adds a kind of faint almost imperceptible crunch, adding significantly to a sensation of flakiness, but despite my tweaks, there’s still fair amount of trial and error required. Keep in mind its important to keep ALL of your ingredients cold, as it limits how the fat is incorporated into the dry ingredients (imperative to flakiness)

And don't let a failed attempt get you down, when you master the pie crust, you can do anything.

So prepare yourself, here we go:

1 ½ cups All purpose Flour

½ cup Fine ground corn meal

½ cup Whole Wheat Flour

1 tbsp Sugar

1 tsp Salt

½ lb. Butter, unsalted (2 sticks), cut into ¼ tbsp pieces and tossed in flour

5 tbsps Ice water (+ more as needed)

Optional: 1 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese

1. Pulsing in a food processor, mix the dry ingredients well. Stick the whole bowl for the food processor in the fridge.

2. Once chilled, put the bowl back on its base. Separate the prepared butter in half, add it to the processor and, again in pulses, buzz until almost completely incorporated. It should look a little sandy.

3. Now separate the remaining butter in half again. Pulse in the first half until slightly incorporated (pea sized pieces), then pulse in the remaining butter until barely incorporated at all.

4. This is the important step, don’t add too much moisture! Also this is where you’d add the grated cheddar it you're going to.

Transfer this mixture to a bowl, using a plain tablespoon sprinkle about three spoons of water (the spoons for measuring tend to drop big splashes of water, you don’t want that) using your hand lightly toss the dough. Add the remaining water and toss lightly but thoroughly. Squeeze a portion of the mix in your hand, if it clumps together, your pie crust is ready.

{Alton Brown actually uses a spritzer in this step, I love this concept as it perfectly and evenly distributes the least amount of moisture needed)

5. Separate the mix into halves and pack them into fat discs. Wrap the dough balls individually in plastic and stick them in the fridge for at least an hour. (this resting time allows the moisture to distribute evenly)

Thaw them out before rolling.

Your perfect pie crust is ready to go.

***If you're really into this, you should watch this 2 part video.

Alton Brown breaks the whole idea of crust down and discusses options. By far the best resource I found in my search.

For those of you that don't get the news letter, the final destination for this crust (with the cheddar) was a chicken pot pie.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A dinner to remember . . . . I wish I could!

I seldom just sit down and recount what I made at a specific dinner, I guess I think it seems a little self-promoting, but for some reason I'm making an exception this time.
A friend of mine procured some high-brow Italian wines. Here's the catch, they had already been opened, so we had to drink them asap.
I was charged with the responsibility of whipping up some solid wine food.
So here's what I came up with.

To start:
Apple and fennel salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano and soft boiled farm eggs

Exactly what it says, with lemon juice and olive oil

Nantucket bay scallops with preserved lemon, pickled onion and Celtic rock salt

Those scallops are wild caught, they are so delicious.

For the main course:
Seared tuna belly with crispy sage over cabbage braised in beet juice.

The tuna belly at the lobster place is always calling out to me. This was great dish.

Roasted Squab with potato and carrot confit

I kinda overcooked the breasts, but they were still delicious.

Braised pork belly with celery root puree.

The squab and pork belly I scored at Dickson's meat. They have a really good product.

The wines were exceptional and the company was good. At least what I can remember of it. The four of us killed almost seven bottles of wine, and I'm still paying the price.
Still, nights like those are my favorites.
You never know when you're going to make a memory, or forget one.

Good food with good people . . . a little wine doesn't hurt either. . . until the next day anyways.
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