Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Baby's Got Sauce

Braise - To cook by browning in fat, then simmering in a small quantity of liquid in a covered container
Well that was clinical, and not at all indicative of the loving process used to take a tough cut of meat and turn it into a succulent, flavor-infused masterpiece. But it's succinct. The Devil, they say though, is in the details. With a little care, forethought and some time, you can take that inexpensive cut of meat and serve a dish to be proud of.
Take pork, for example. It is my favorite meat, but is often times so lean now, that it can be very difficult not to over-cook or dry out just about any way you prepare it. Braising is an ideal solution. I think that's why I serve a lot of pork on the weekends when I can take my time, prep early then sit back at let a low flame do all the work.
You've all seen my baked apple disaster now. Here is what preceded it.
Seasoned pork loin in Dutch ovenEarly Sunday morning (after my coffee, of course), I took a pork loin I had thawed over night, seasoned it with chili salt and fresh ground pepper and then seared on all sides in a hot Dutch oven with about 3 tablespoons of good olive oil.
Pork loin browned in olive oilIt took about 15 minutes to brown the entire cut of meat. After searing, I removed the pork and poured off all but 1 Tbsp of the oil.
Onions browing in Dutch ovenLowering the heat under the pot, I cooked 1 sliced onion until it just started to brown and then added 4 cloves of chopped garlic and cooked another 1 minute. I scorched 1½ Tbsp of tomato paste in the pot and then deglazed the fond with white wine.
Pork loin returned to tomato sauceI returned the pork to the Dutch oven and brought the liquid to a boil. Lowering the heat to low, I covered the pot and set a timer for 4 hours. Occasionally I would jostle the pork loin making sure it wasn't sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Mushrooms browning in butter & oilAt the 4-hour mark, I sautéed some button mushrooms in a little oil and butter until most of the moisture was cooked out of them. You don't want to disturb the mushrooms too much while they're browning, just give a periodic toss. The browned mushrooms and a 6oz can of sliced black olives went into the Dutch oven with the pork and the rich sauce.
Braised pork loin with mushrooms & black olivesAbout 40 minutes later, I steamed some brown rice in vegetable stock with 2 Tbsp of butter and a splash of soy sauce. While the rice was steaming, I cracked the Dutch oven lid ajar so that some of the liquid could evaporate from the sauce.
The pork separated effortlessly without the need of slicing. But it is was the sauce everyone remarked upon. The rich tomato paste was softened by the wine. The olives and mushrooms added earthy tones and texture. Finally the collagens and natural gelatin in the broken-down connective tissue enriched the body of the sauce, and everything was absorbed into the meat. My buddy Matt O'Food, a purveyor of fine sauces, would kill for what I was able to do with that braised pork loin. He'll be surprised to learn I still have a trick or two up my sleeve.
Vino? How about an old vine Zinfandel from the Central Coast, a Montepulciano, or even a super Tuscan for that matter? Something hearty, chewy, fruit forward and velvety in the mouth.
This meal basically prepared itself. I seasoned some meat, sliced an onion and some mushrooms, stirred a pot occasionally, and massacred a dessert. Plan ahead, and you'll wow 'em at the next Sunday supper too!
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pinche Taqueria

Zócalo detail - José Cuervo posterBefore going corporate and becoming a traitor to my kind, I coached collegiate rowing for many years. This past September I was asked to fill in for a friend who was going out of town for a week. It was blast to get behind a megaphone again and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. By way of saying thanks, my buddy Andrew wanted to take me out to dinner. I thought to myself, "Hey, I have a food blog, and this guy wants to take me to dinner. Let's kill two birds with one stone." Needless to say, I had a few suggestions at my fingertips.

I have been searching out authentic Mexican food since arriving in New York some nine years ago. It's been a hit-or-miss affair. I am a stranger in a strange land here, and am accustomed to something completely different from our neighbors to the south. But the NY Times had just raved about several Mexican restaurants in its Under $25 section of the Dining pages so I thought I'd see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Zócalo's chips & salsa Andrew and I met up at Grand Central Station where we had some time to kill before his assistant Leo showed. Where I come from, "time to kill" is code for beers.

Usually, I'll blow right through Grand Central leaving the eateries to the tourists and commuters, but there is a Mexican restaurant on the lower level, Zócalo, that has several Mexican beers and awesome chips and salsa. They make their own corn tortillas and fry them up regularly for chips. Their salsa is smoky from the roasted peppers and has a nice kick to it. So Andrew and I threw back a couple before meeting up with Leo downtown.
I mentioned the NY Times Under $25 section earlier, and I simply couldn't believe my eyes when they reviewed a fish taco, and actually liked it. I didn't think anyone east of Riverside, CA knew what a fish taco was. After several repulsed looks when I tried to describe the concept, I gave up trying. So when the paper of record graced their pages with a mention, well that's all I needed to know.
Exterior - Pinche Taqueria, Lafayette Street Interior - Pinche Taqueria, Lafayette Street
Pinche Taqueria has two locations in Manhattan: 227 Mott Street (at Prince); and 333 Lafayette (at Bleecker). They are the offspring of an original in Tijuana, Mexico. We met Leo at the Lafayette location. Here was a taqueria the likes of which I'd grown up with in Orange County. No frills, barely space to order and sit, and a straight-forward menu of tacos, burritos and side dishes. I'll bet I could have predicted what was on the menu and been off by maybe one or two dishes tops.
Frida kept us company First things first: beers. There's a selection of 4 or 5 Mexican cervezas, but midway through ordering, we were sadly informed that the Lafayette location did not as yet have its liquor license. BYOB was encouraged though, so off to Han's Bodega on Broadway. Han wasn't actually there, but the man behind the counter identified himself as Ha. Close enough. Six Pacifico beers under an arm and back to Pinche.

We sat at a tiny table in the back and caught up on all the gossip. Leo had just finished up a fifth-year Masters program and had a job lined up. Andrew was getting ready to enter grad school. There was talk of meeting up over the holidays or maybe in Italy later in summer. Nobody was really keeping notes. Two beers in, it was time to order. I had given this some thought and my two companions gladly allowed me free reign.
Tacos de pescado, carnitas y carne asadaI'd come there for the fish tacos but surely any blogger worth his salt is gonna try more than one dish, and so it was with me. Pescado (that's fish, you gringo) would be our starter, followed by carnitas, or braised pork; and finally, carne asada, grilled steak. One of each for our party of three.

The fish, a mahi-mahi, is very lightly battered and the sweet buttery flavor of the flesh comes right through. Just like back home, it's topped with shredded cabbage and crema, or Mexican sour cream and a dollop of vinegary tomatillo sauce. Tangy and delicious.

Carnitas, or braised pork, has to be slow-cooked for hours, otherwise you get a stringy, dry meat. This was neither. There was a beautiful caramelization on the outside and the chunks were moist and tender throughout. These tacos came with raw onion, cilantro and guacamole on top. The guacamole tasted fresh and salty and wonderful. Raw onion, cilantro and avocado are the Mexican equivalent of the classic French mirepoix. Trust me.

Well, I was already sold, and we hadn't even gotten to the carne asada yet. Grilled steak, perfectly seasoned, not charred, and again: onion, cilantro and guacamole. There was a lull in the conversation. People were attentive to signals originating at the palate and racing towards the brain. We had three serious Pinche Taqueria converts on our hands.

This is as close as I have come to home so far in my Mexican food search. Again, the NY Times has gotten there ahead me, but I've always considered them Lewis & Clark to my Thomas Jefferson anyway. So forge on ahead my brethren; I'm right behind you!

Pinche Taqueria chef de cuisine
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Abort! Abort! Abort!

An unexpected surpirseMacintosh are not baking applesCollapsed Macintosh apple.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Even the best chefs have horror stories to share, I guess. This one, I'm sure, will be a favorite around the table at the local pub: "Remember when B.O.F. ruined dessert!" These were supposed be baked apples stuffed with cranberries, raisins, and pine nuts. I was gonna serve them after a braised pork tenderloin with onions, mushrooms and brown rice. Instead, people stood over the baking sheet picking at molten sugar and roasted apple skins.
Stupid McIntosh apples. I hate dessert anyway.
Laugh it up fat boy - Blog O. Food

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Secretary of Food

I have hesitated to add a political bent to my food musings, only insomuch as I am singularly uninformed and easily persuaded. But I've been reading as much liberal propaganda as I can get my beet-stained hands on, and will have more to say in the near future.
However, Mr. Kristof articulates much of what I have suspected of our industrialized farming lobby and the negative impact on real farmers, and an unsuspecting public. If you truly believe politicians and lobbyists have your best interests at heart, well then yes, Virginia, Santa Claus will most definitely be bringing you that pony this year.
Get informed. Get involved. Demand change.
Blog O. Food

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Take Comfort In Me

Rainy Day in Central ParkIt's dark now; dark when I awaken, and dark when I finish work for the day. My internal clock falls back an hour in its own way. I nest. I conserve my energy. I forego the television and rely on my books. I turn down invitations. I don't stray too far from my kitchen. And on a rainy day like this one, I plot a meal that will comfort like an old pair of slippers.
For me, when I want to feel cozy and safe, it's meat and potatoes roasting in a hot oven. The heat and smells from the kitchen permeate the rest of the house. I am blanketed in the familiar as if in a fog of nostalgia and I am gladdened. Time slows down, and I become aware of every step in my preparation, but observe as if outside myself. These hands know just what to do; the knives and pans feel like old friends. There is no conscious effort on my part. Instinct and muscle memory take over. Even anticipation falls away, replaced with a certitude that all is well. For an hour or two the internal dialogue is quieted and I am at peace.
Herb roasted leg of lamb and Confetti potatoes
Browing leg of lamb
Coat a boneless leg of lamb with chopped rosemary, thyme, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Brown on all sides in a large pan with 2 Tbsp of olive oil, 10-15 minutes total.
Confetti potatoesPotatoes coated in oil, salt and pepper
While meat is browning, quarter purple, red and gold potatoes and toss with 1 Tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper.
Add potatoes to pan
Add the potatoes to the pan and transfer to a 450° pre-heated oven on the lower-middle rack. Cook approximately 20 minutes per pound, or until meat reaches an internal temperature of 135° for rare, 145° for medium.
Roasted leg of lamb with Confetti potatoesLamb and potatoes ready for serving.
Remove roasted lamb from pan allowing it to rest covered with aluminum foil for 20 minutes. Return the potatoes to the oven to crisp up if you prefer. Cut medium-sized slices and serve with potatoes and a good Cabernet Sauvignon, like Stag's Leap 2005 Artemis from the Arcadia Vineyard in the Napa Valley.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei stained glass"We kids feared many things in those days - werewolves, dentists, North Koreans, Sunday School - but they all paled in comparison with Brussels sprouts." - Dave Barry, Miami Herald Columnist
I think just about every kid hates Brussels sprouts. I don't know a lot of adults who will eat them either. It must be because we don't know how to prepare them. If we can't mercilessly boil our vegetables to death, we Americans don't know what do to with them. (There I go again, hating our freedoms.) A chef friend of mine once served Brussels sprouts sautéed with honey and lemon several years back, and I've been a fan ever since.
As you already know, I picked up about a pound of fresh Brussels sprouts from my Farmer's Market way back in October. Right around the time my Nimbus 500 (10-year old PC) decided to crap out while I procrastinated over shelling out the cash for a new machine. Though I was without blogging capabilities, I continued to shop and cook.
blanched Brussels sproutsFirst I rinsed my sprouts in cold water and then trimmed back the loose outer leaves and some of the stem. Then I lowered them in a steamer basket into boiling water and blanched them for about two minutes. Blanching softens the sprouts without robbing them of much of their nutritional value. After letting them drain and cool a bit, I cut them all in half, length-wise.
crispy pancettaI crisped up some cubed pancetta in a skillet, poured off most of the fat and then added the sprouts to the pan over high heat. I squeezed in the juice of a lemon along with a generous dollop of honey and tossed everything together.

Sautéing sproutsN.B. Once the sprouts, bacon and liquids are mixed, LEAVE THE PAN ALONE. It's tempting to stir and fuss over the pot, it gives one the sense of accomplishing something. But in this instance you want to allow the vegetables to develop a little caramelization.
I suppose one could make a meal of Brussels sprouts with pancetta alone, but it would be a sad sort of affair. Certainly not something worthy of You Gonna Finish That. No, I went with a classic French rack of lamb that my Italian butcher prepped for me. I seasoned it with rosemary, thyme, garlic, a little olive oil and lots of salt and pepper. Wrapped in cellophane, it rested in my refrigerator over night. The next day, while prepping my Brussels sprouts, I pre-heated the oven and a roasting pan to 425°. While the sprouts blanched, the lamb roasted in the oven. Twenty minutes later, as the vegetables finished caramelizing, I covered the finished lamb with foil, allowing the juices to re-distribute into the meat.
Marinated rack of lambHoney and lemon sauteed Brussels sprouts with pancettamedium-rare lamb chops
Storrs 2005 Petite Syrah Rusty Ridge old vines labelI sat down to a perfect medium-rare lamb chop and Brussels sprouts that weren't bitter or mushy, but firm, sweet and sour all at the same time. The pancetta lent saltiness and smoke. Good lamb will have a rich, almost gamey flavor. You need a wine that will stand up to the intensity of the flavors. A good Petite Syrah is always a formidable contender. Berry and spice in the nose, jammy and peppery in the mouth, it can hold its own. Storrs Winery in Santa Cruz, California bottled an '05 Rusty Ridge old vine Syrah in 2007. I somehow managed to hold on to a bottle until now. I tried convincing a couple of folks to head up to the Bronx for a glass; no one would take the bait. My old friend Augie Roche had a Portuguese saying for just such occasions: mais para mim, more for me!
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Loser Party of One

Day of the Dead maskIt's back to fending for myself here in the Bronx. That's tough after a week of kids of all ages gathered in the kitchen to offer a helping hand, or just to get a whiff of what's on the stove. Maybe I should adopt or start a supper club!

As promised - and since I'm flying solo - here is the first installation in my Loser Party of One series. We're gonna return to a theme that will become very familiar with readers over time: Mexican food. Not that it's any of your business, but I'm one-half Mexican on my mother's side. My father loved Mexican women so much, he married two, so the sights and smells of a Latin kitchen are second nature to me. Having grown up in southern California, I have a more Tex-Mex definition of what constitutes Mexican cuisine, so if I define terms contrary to what you're accustomed to, please indulge me.
Nothing is more dissatisfying than going to a lot of trouble in the kitchen only to sit down with just yourself as company, so I tend to lean toward quick fixes. Last night, it was chicken quesadillas. This is the second-easiest Mexican dish I know how to make, but it's still pretty damn good.
Chicken Quesadillas
½ lb boneless, skinless chicken pieces. I use dark meat. It's juicier.
¼ lb sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 jalapeño chilies, chopped with seeds and membranes removed
6 medium flour tortillas
Chicken marinade
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 cloves chopped fresh garlic
4 Tbsp chili powder
¼ tsp red pepper flake
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Marinating chicken Grated cheddar cheese
Whisk all marinade ingredients together in a small bowl, toss chicken thighs to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to marinate for 20 minutes. In the meantime, grate the cheddar cheese, and heat a medium-sized skillet or grill. Allow excess marinade to drain away from chicken and grill over high heat 6-8 minutes per side. Remove chicken from grill and let rest covered with aluminum foil. While chicken rests, heat tortillas through to soften. Slice rested chicken into 2-inch pieces and pile in an even layer onto one tortilla. Sprinkle chilies and grated cheese over meat and cover with another tortilla. Heat quesadillas through on both sides until cheese has melted and the outside of the tortillas have toasted. Cut quesadillas into wedges and serve with hot sauce and sour cream on the side. If you're cooking for company, you can expand the menu with Mexican rice and a simple salad of iceberg lettuce, radishes, avocado, crumbled queso fresco, and an oil and vinegar dressing.
Grilling chickenAssembling the quesadilla ingredientsWarming the 2nd side of the quesadilla
Chicken quesadilla
This is just one variation on a very common Mexican snack. You can substitute grilled beef, carnitas, grilled shrimp, or just frijoles and cheese if you like. And with what does one wash down a quesadilla? Why, a frosty cold cerveza, naturally!
Cheers - Blog O. Food

Thursday, December 4, 2008

And Thanks Were Given

Norman Rockwell - Freedom From Want Boy, you buy a new computer and you think all your problems are all solved, but oh no, they're just beginning, my friends. But here we are back in front of the keyboard and monitor, ready to resume.

Where did we leave off? Oh yeah, Brussels sprouts. I did indeed sauté them with pancetta, honey and lemon, and the rack of lamb was perfection, and I'll get to that another time, but we've had a major holiday in the interim, and around this house all the stops were pulled. Ina, Jamie, Tyler, Alton, Emeril all covered the main event, but here's what they glossed over: Leftovers! Turkey meat and cranberry relish thickly layered onto slices of white bread lathered in mayo. Stuffing and gravy spilling over toast or re-heated mashed potatoes. Baked frittatas with leftover roasted root vegetables. Do you really need to ask why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday?
Friday night saw us attempting to make room in the over-stuffed fridge by whittling down some of the turkey. And what better comfort food after a day of "Bolt" and cutthroat games of Russian Bank? Pot Pie naturally, and everything from scratch. So, roll up your sleeves and prepare to re-live Thanksgiving weekend one more time.
Biscuit Crust Turkey Pot Pie
For Filling
8 cups chicken stock
6 carrots, peeled and sliced ¼-inch thick
1½ lbs red potatoes, cut into medium cube
4 celery ribs, sliced ½-inch thick
5 cups cubed cooked turkey
12 Tbsp (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
2 medium onions, chopped
12 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ tsp grated fresh nutmeg
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For Biscuit Crust
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 Tbsp cold unsalted butter cut into cubes
4 Tbsp chilled shortening cut into cubes
¾ cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 large eggs
¾ cup buttermilk
2 large egg yolks lightly beaten into 2 Tbsp milk for egg wash
Make the filling
Chopped vegetablesVegetables simmeringSoftening onions
Bring stock to the boil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add carrots, potatoes & celery and simmer, uncovered, until tender 10-15 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove vegetables from stock, reserving liquid for the sauce. Melt butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until softened, 6-8 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes to make a roux. Add reserved cooking broth in a slow stream, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes while continuing to whisk. Stir in nutmeg, thyme, salt & pepper to taste. Add turkey and vegetables to the Dutch oven and gently stir to combine.
Making a roux Building the sauceCombining vegetables and meat
Make the biscuits
Cutting in the shorteningCutting out biscuit roundsFinished biscuits
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut in butter and shortening with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Fold in cheese. Break eggs into liquid measuring cup and add just enough well-shaken buttermilk to total 1 cup and beat with a fork. Add to flour mixture, stirring just enough to form a loose dough. Gather dough into ball and roll out on a lightly floured surface to ½ inch thickness. With a floured cutter, cut out as many rounds as possible. Gather scraps and re-roll dough to cut out more rounds in the same manner. Arrange rounds on top of filling to form a crust, then brush with egg wash and poke all over with a fork. Bake in a pre-heated 450° oven 15-25 minutes or until biscuits are puffed and golden brown.
Arrange the biscuit rounds on top of fillingBrush an egg wash over biscuitsBiscuit Crust Turkey Pot Pie
This is comfort food every thrifty grandmother (and father) will recognize immediately. It sticks to the ribs, stretches your food budget, and allows you one more triptophan-induced nap. It also happens to be freaking delicious. You'll want to make extra biscuits. Ours were put to work sopping up sauce. I don't think even one bowl needed rinsing before going into the dishwasher after this meal.
Thanks for taking the time, and Happy Thanksgiving, again - Blog O Food