Saturday, September 27, 2008

Can I Cook Or What?

CornucopiaIronic that it takes a tropical storm to usher in Autumn, but here we are: rainy, damp, foggy, cold. Perfect weather for comfort food.
Should my truly misanthropic behavior ever become a criminal offense, I request as my last meal pork tenderloin. There is no meat, fish or foul as enticing to me as a perfectly roasted piece of pork. Keep your prime rib, coq au vin, lobster Thermidor; me and my house shall have the other white meat.
I bought a beautiful piece of pork from my butcher just a day earlier and now had an excuse to roast it. I'll usually brine a tenderloin overnight with bay leaves, peppercorns, bourbon, water and lots of salt, but was impatient to get my roast in the oven, so decided on a glazed crust instead. You can find dozens of recipes for glazes and rubs in cook books and on the Internet. But one of my goals as a food blogger is to nudge my readers toward exercising their own artistic muscle by experimenting and creating a cooking style all their own.

Pork takes to almost any herb or spice. The challenge is to find combinations that appeal to your tastes and wed compatibly. Here's a short list of ingredients that compliment a roast tenderloin:
  • Fresh or dried fruit and preserves
  • Mustards
  • Sugars
  • Curry
  • Cinnamon
  • All spice
  • Garlic
  • Rosemary

I checked the cupboards for glaze fixings and chose the  "less is more" path. I dug out olive oil, honey, Dijon mustard, red pepper flake and fresh garlic. Honey and chilies go together in a most Yin & Yang sort of way. Think of jalapeño jellies and you'll get the idea. The mustard and garlic add acidic complexity and the oil is my binder and meat tenderizer.

This is an easy glaze, a paste really, that you slather on to the pork roast and then blast in a hot oven for a few minutes to form a crust.

1 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs honey
1 Tbs mustard
2 cloves garlic, finely crushed
½ tsp red pepper flake
Salt & pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl to form a thick paste. You can adjust the viscosity with more or less oil. With your tenderloin in a shallow baking dish, fat side up, spread the honey mustard glaze all over the meat. Place in a 450º pre-heated oven and set a timer for 10 minutes. Once the timer sounds, reduce the heat to 250º and continue to slow roast the tenderloin an additional 20-25 minutes per pound. The initial blast of heat seals the crust and helps to keep moisture in the meat as it continues to cook.

Spread glaze onto pork tenderloin
After reducing the temperature on the pork, it was time to think about a side dish. I guess I could have gone the lazy route and just wrapped shredded pork in a tortilla, splashed some hot sauce on it and called it a game, but this was gonna be my first comfort meal of the season, so shortcuts - while tempting - were out of the question. But that left the issue of what to prepare. I had some beautiful green and yellow squash from the farmers market. Kinda banal though. Egg noodles? Rice? Boring! A starch, though, seemed to offer the most possibilities. As my eyes skimmed over dried cranberries, it came to me. Couscous with red onion, cranberries and slivered almonds.
Tyler Florence had done a similar couscous as a side dish on one of his shows. I tried it a few days later, and afterwards gave Tyler a lot more credit for his acting skills. His recipe fell flat, but he sure looked like he was enjoying it on that particular episode. I figured I could do better. I liked the idea of a hot onion and a sweet component. I substituted dried cranberries for whatever it was Tyler had used, knowing they could make red onions sing in a dish. The toasted almonds added a crunchy quality, and while I was at it, how 'bout some garlic, just because I could.

So, while the pork was roasting, I toasted about ¼ cup raw, slivered almonds in a dry pan, gave a small red onion a very rough chop, and added another ¼ cup of dried cranberries to my trusty food processor. Once the almonds were toasted they went into the food processor along with the onion and a couple of cloves of garlic. I gave the dry compote a few short pulses. I didn't want a puree, but something with some texture that would add interest to plain couscous. After pulsing, I transferred the mixture to a skillet with 2 Tbs of olive oil and sautéed over low heat.
Cranberry and onion compote
Once my tenderloin registered an internal temperature of 150º (about 50 minutes into the roasting), I removed it from the oven and set it, tented with aluminum foil, on a cutting board to rest for 15 minutes. As it rest, I brought 1 cup vegetable stock, ½ tsp salt and 2 Tbs of butter to boil in a large sauce pan. Once the liquid was boiling, I removed the pan from the heat and stirred in 1 cup couscous and my cranberry onion mixture, covered the pan and let the ingredients set for 5 minutes.
The results speak for themselves. The pork was perfectly done. Juicy and just barely pink inside with a sweet, spicy caramelized crust. The couscous was the ideal foil with the tangy cranberry heightening the sweet heat of the onion. An '06 Storrs Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir sent me over the edge. A distinctive over-ripe plumy nose with hints of bicycle inner tube (I don't know why I always pick that up with good Pinots!). One is reminded of the beach tar that used to bubble up along the sands of Huntington. If tar were to percolate beneath a picnic blanket where peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwiches were lying in the sun, that would be the nose of this wine. Supple, velvety mouth-feel, and, again, ripe plums but with what tasted like precisely 2 drops of walnut oil added just before serving. There was just enough alcohol for that classic subtle finish that one expects from a good Pinot.
Roasted pork tenderloinCranberry & Red onion couscous
I don't know about you, but cooking is my religion and the kitchen my sanctuary. The desire to nurture is satisfied in feeding people. I experience an almost catholic ritualism in it. Every once in a great while, I'll prepare something so supremely satisfying that it brings me one step closer to the divine. On this gray soggy night, I took another stride.
Bon appetit - Blog O. Food

Monday, September 15, 2008

Peppers and Sausage

"Hey, what's with the food around here?... A kid comes up to me in a white jacket, gives me a Ritz cracker, and uh, chopped liver, he says, 'Canapés.' I said, uh, 'can of peas my ass, that's a Ritz cracker and chopped liver!'... Bring out the peppers and sausage!" - Pentangeli, The Godfather II
Jalapeño chiliesRed onionsHabañero chilies
Caramelized onions and peppersGrilled Italian sausage
Peppers and Sausage
And that's all she wrote - Blog O. Food

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pesto 101

The basil plantOrganic garlic and basil are abundant at the local farmers market. Tomato plants are still churning out beautifully colored fruit. Peppers are running amok and onions hog the lion's share of every vendor's tabletop. All proving one thing: the god of late summer is most assuredly Italian.

Which brings us to today's lesson: pesto. My friend Google offered up some 845,000 odd pages on pesto's storied past. It's worth the trouble of reading a couple-hundred thousand of them. It's an inspiring chronicle and has ignited the spark of my true calling, Food Alchemist. I won't bore you with the 700-year history, but will tell you pesto was perfected in the Leguria region of Italy.
Authentic pesto is prepared in a wide marble mortar with a large wooden pestle. Tender, young basil leaves are crushed with garlic to form a paste. There are some very specific hints about wrist action in this initial step, but YouTube has yet to post a video demonstration. Pine nuts are then ground into the paste, and olive oil added to form a sauce. Finally, cheese is stirred in to thicken and bind all the ingredients together.
I now must have Ligurian pesto before I die, or spend a purgatorial existence in limbo wondering "what if, what if!" Unfortunately, I don't own a horse trough marble mortar and a Billy club wooden pestle, but here's how we roll in the Boogie Down.
Pesto ingredientsI hope you're not looking for measurements on this one. I simply don't have them. I just do what feels right and make adjustments at the end. I can tell you one thing: practice makes perfect. As a peace offering to you, my loyal readers, here is a list of ingredients:
  • Fresh basil
  • Pignoli
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Whole garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil
Making pesto is easy; it's the prep work that'll kill ya. I start by thoroughly washing the basil. The last thing you want is grit in your pesto so be very conscientious with this step. I soak my basil in a cold water bath for several minutes, changing the water a couple of times. Finally, the plants get a lengthy rinse before I set them aside in a colander to drain. As if that weren't fastidious enough, I pat the leaves dry with paper towels before mixing with my other ingredients.
Washed basilGrated Parmesan cheeseToasted pignoli
While the basil leaves are drying, prep the cheese and pine nuts. I've been using fresh, whole Parmigiano Reggiano cheese since I started making my own pesto, but traditionalist use a ratio of Grana Padano (unpasteurized cow's milk cheese), and Pecorino (sheep's milk cheese). Break up a wedge of Parmesan into manageable chucks and place in a food processor. After my two-burner stovetop grill/griddle, the food processor is my favorite tool in the kitchen. It makes grating hard cheeses a cinch and allows real control over how fine a grate you want. The machine will come in handy later in the process too.
Toast the pignoli in a dry skillet, tossing frequently. I've warned you previously, do not take your eyes off pine nuts while they're over a fire. They want to burn, and popcorn notwithstanding, scorched pignoli will ruin everything it meets. Once they've developed a color that you like, remove from the heat and set aside.
Now you're ready to make pesto. Place basil leaves (separated from the stems) into the bowl of your food processor. Add a handful of pine nuts and a couple of heaping tablespoons of grated cheese. Toss in whole garlic cloves deprived of their paper skins. Put the top on the food processor and while pulsing the blade, very slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl using the small opening in the top of the lid. A thick but not solid consistency makes for a pleasing sauce. You certainly don't want anything runny or oily. Repeat the process until all the basil , pignoli and garlic have been very finely chopped and you have a smooth textured sauce.
Preparing the pestoFresh pesto sauce
Pesto and pasta go together like peas and carrots, Laurel and Hardy, chocolate and peanut butter. Select a pasta with some texture to it like fusilli (corkscrew) or farfalle (bow-tie). Did you know farfalla actually translates to "butterfly" and not "bow-tie" in Italian? A textured noodle allows the pesto to stick to the pasta.
You can dollop pesto onto caprese and bruschetta in the place of basil leaves. Those fruits and nuts out in California use pesto as a substitute for tomato sauce on pizza. The same folks who brought you the pineapple and Canadian bacon pizza, but I'm just sayin'.
Stow pesto away in the freezer by sealing in an airtight container. Just make sure there is a layer of olive oil on top first. It acts as a sealant and preservative until you're ready to use your sauce. Never nuke your pesto or heat it up on its own. The ingredients separate and you end up with a real mess on your hands. Allow the pesto to come up to room temperature before use.
The taste of fresh pesto will remind you of rolling around in hay fields, or bring to mind the minty, herbal bite in a mojito without that lighter fluid lockjaw one experiences from the cheap rum. Homemade pesto has an arresting freshness that you just can't find in processed sauces, so gather up your herbs and cheeses and get going.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Friday, September 12, 2008

Plan B

I am a creature of happy accidents. Fate has never had any interest in my plans, big or small, but has always imposed a somewhat more adventurous scheme. This past weekend was no exception.
I had intentions of photographing (and buying) late summer's bounty at the Union Square Farmer's Market and posting beautiful shots of heirloom tomatoes, red onions, artisan breads, purple basil and autumn greens. The blog was gonna write itself. Hell, all I had to do was hold the camera steady. A no-brainer, one would think. Trouble was, it was Sunday and there was no market that day. That small fact somehow never penetrated my euphoria as I was planning my strategy. Call me distracted, but after Saturday's deluge I was just grateful for some sunshine.
But back to happy accidents. What could have been a disappointing morning was saved by my buddy, let's call him El Diablo, and his fur trapper's knowledge of Manhattan. After meeting me at Grand Central and hopping a subway to Union Square where our date with destiny awaited, El Diablo promised Technicolor tomatoes and more just a few blocks away. In the process he turned a simple blog entry into an informed and totally awesome walking tour of the east Village.
Plump Dumpling storefrontWe walked south on Broadway and then east on 11th in the direction of Thompson Square Park. At 11th and 2nd Avenue, E.D. claimed that we just had to stop for a snack: Plump Dumpling. This place is no wider than the hallway in my apartment building. When you enter, you're practically on top of the cook and his wok. There's literally just enough space to stand and order, then you better move out of the way for the next guy.

Plump Dumpling is a favorite with NYU students and the hippies - young & old - who call the east Village home. Plump Dumpling does offer a full menu, but you go there for their little doughy pockets of goodness: fried or steamed, in a broth or standing alone. You can choose from meat, vegetable, chicken, seafood, or shrimp. The intriguing choice of "meat" was a tease. Beef? Pork? Something, shall we say, more exotic? I was just getting up my nerve when I noticed that "meat" was cheaper than both chicken and vegetable. In this instance I decided bargain hunting would be imprudent.
We settled on pan-fried chicken dumplings. They came 8 to an order for $4.25; a real bargain. We stood on the sidewalk just outside the entryway dipping our dumplings in sauce trying to outdo one another with hyperbole. They were superior dumplings.
We completed the last few blocks to Thompson Square and meandered through the park before confronting the stalls along Avenue A. We stopped to watch the dogs and owners in the dog run, a generous space with pools and deep, coarse sand for the pooches, and lots of benches for the bi-peds. Thompson Square Park is famous for a riot that went on there in 1988 when local officials tried to remove the vagrants who congregated in the park and squatted in the surrounding vacant buildings. Police officers were particularly zealous that day, brutally beating protesters, bystanders and even reporters. Lots of archived footage of the protest can be found on the web. Here's an excerpt from gothamist on a punk rock concert commemorating the protest last month.
The 20th Anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park riots was celebrated over the weekend with two days of punk rock, pot smoking, rabble rousing and slam dancing. According to Neither More Nor Less, they “slammed with a physical intensity that TSP has not seen in many years. Someone threw $1000 in dollar bills to the crowd and this crowd of celebrants burned the dollar bills. The celebrants also burned a flag; being polyester it mostly melted in flaming gobs.”
Today, drunks, young professionals, skaters and tree huggers share the park and mostly get along fine.
Andrew's Honey stallAndrew's Honey beehive
There were plenty of stalls with beautiful, open-pollinated tomatoes, a dozen types of peppers from green to chocolate, chilies of every size and heat, late corn, and early squash. The fishmonger was there right next to the cheese lady. At the very end of the row was Andrew's Honey stall. Andrew himself was selling a beautiful amber-colored clover honey and a molasses-brown buckwheat variety. Both were amazingly rich and light at the same time. Andrew and his assistant were singing the praises of bee pollen to fight local allergies and promote a healthy immune system. It was hard not to walk away with an armload, but we were on foot. We stopped at every stall, admiring the produce and trying to get the vendors to open up to us a little bit. I sampled a delicious white peach at one stall but the seller was so taciturn that I quickly walked away noticing his dirty look when I bought peaches one stall down. I could have gorged myself sick on these peaches. How does one describe a peach flavor? I've developed a vocabulary for characterizing wine, but fruit? Sweet, juicy, and just firm enough not to disintegrate in one's hand. There's something too, about the skin of a ripe peach which adds complexity to the sweetness of the meat. I know what it is. These peaches aren't picked hard and green. They've been allowed the time to develop their natural sugars and peachy distinctiveness. There is a meatiness to them as well. I bought a half-dozen, and they're already gone.
Heirloom tomatoesHusk cherriesGolden tomatotes
After one more turn through the park while finishing our peaches, we decided to head along St Mark's Place in the hopes of coming across something or someone interesting. Not two blocks away El Diablo announced our next port of call, Crif Dogs.
Crif Dogs storefrontA stoner's oasis, Crif Dogs will actually deliver a "wake and bake" special right to your door. Crif deep-fries his dogs and must have taken a puff or two himself before coming up with his one-of-a-kind bill of fare. (I don't know if there really is a Crif, but the idea lends itself to a flowing narrative.) Interpreting the menu, one quickly surmises that the hotdog is basically treated like a hamburger here. I went for the Tsunami because, who ever heard of teriyaki and pineapple on a hotdog? E.D. settled on the Chihuahua: a bacon wrapped delight with avocado and sour cream. Each cost $4.50. The judges ruled and it was four enthusiastic thumbs up for deep-frying and unconventional toppings. By now, it was beer-thirty. St Mark's Ale House was jammed with the Sunday football crowd, but luckily, McSorley's was just around the corner.
McSorley'sMcSorley's bar
McSorley's Old Ale House is famous, and thoroughly New York in every possible way. It is NYC's oldest continuously operated saloon. Abe Lincoln patronized McSorley's. Women were not allowed in for its first 115 years, and even then it took the Supreme Court to open up the doors for them. There's sawdust on the floor and not a square inch of empty space on the walls. The whole place is a living museum. Their Happy Hour is legendary. With two beers apiece, El Diablo and I marveled at our good fortune. But in the end it wasn't Fate that provided us with such an excellent day, it was our own good devices and a willingness to accept what our town had to offer.
Cheers - Blog O. Food