Monthly Archives: April 2010

Spring peas: the stuff my dreams are made of?

I have been dreaming of fresh peas (of the “shelling” or “English” variety) for more than a month now. I had started seeing restaurant menus featuring “spring” peas and this, I am sure, is what got me going. I put out an APB to my friends in the local slow food community. (We kinda look out for each other.) But nobody had any leads. I began showing up at our earliest farmers’ market, opened beginning every Wednesday starting on April 7th, right at the moment the vendors started selling – scouring the place for a cache of peas. Alas, none were to be had.

After more than three weeks of purposefully pounding the pavement for peas, I was ready to give up. I just figured that all fresh peas in our world went to the restaurants and none of us peons were going to get any. I imagined trench coat cloaked vegetable purveyors furtively knocking on the back doors of the fanciest of eating establishments, quickly exchanging cash for peas. I envisioned a whole pea mafia to whom bribes were paid early on in the season to ensure that these rare jewels were safely delivered to these parlors of payola.

Adding insult to injury, one of the web sites I like to visit, Food52, announced a contest asking people to enter their best spring pea recipes into the weekly competition. I wrote in and suggested that spring peas were impossible to come by and they announced that frozen peas could used as a sub for the real fresh thing. Ah ha…an admission that there was a pea cartel!

Then, lo and behold, last Saturday I was standing in the middle of the produce department at my favorite local Whole Foods store when I turned to my husband and (I think in my normal tone of voice) said “I am just going to give up the search for fresh peas.” At that moment a miracle happened! A woman working the lettuce row turned to me and said “we have some fresh peas right there” pointing to a small stock of clear polystyrene boxes filled with the heretofore illusive vegetables. I say miracle because there was neither sign nor any other sort of indication of the existence of said peas and under no other circumstances would I have found them!

Feeling guilty about buying 5 out of the 10 little boxes they had hidden there amongst the more common vegetables(I should have bought them all), I skulked out of the produce section with what I hoped would be my fill of the beautiful green pearls. Now that I realized my dream, I had to make some choices: what would be the best way to enjoy these sweet green things?

Looking over my booty, I decided that I had enough for two meals worth of peas for the three of us (me, my husband and my wonderful, kind, sweet, darling, agreable, darling adolescent, step-monsterdaughter). I also knew that one meal had to feature just plain salted and buttered peas. So, that night I shelled about one cup of the fresh, succulent things and immediately before we sat down to our meal I tossed those little pretties into a small pan of boiling salted water. I left them there for not more than 100 seconds, knowing that fresh peas need very little heat to soften them up just the right amount. After draining off the boiling water I placed them in a little bowl with about a tablespoon of butter and a little bit of salt, stirred. At the table, I counted out the peas on the three dinner plates (ok, ok, that’s a lie but I would have liked to have done this because the damn things are so effing rare). Each of us savored every pea that went down our gullet, believe you me! The green giant has nothing on fresh peas – even when served perfectly plain and well-under cooked.

The second go around was far less banal and no less delicious. Real, fresh, spring pea soup is NOTHING like Pea Soup Andersen’s, especially when subtly seasoned with preserved lemon and white truffle salt. Now I am not saying that Andersen’s is bad, its just that it is nothing special. It is made of those dried split peas that make a soup which is a grey-green, starchy, heavy, and, worst of all, ordinary. But Spring pea soup…that is another thing.

After shelling out the rest of the peas, I had two cups to work with. This was just enough for a fine bowl of soup for each of us. I put the peas in a pot of boiling, salted water and set my timer for exactly 2 minutes. Then, I poured the peas into the colander and hit them with some nice cold water to cool them down quickly. There is nothing worse than overcooked peas – especially the rare, fresh ones. I placed the peas in the tall beaker that came with my immersion blender (remember my deserted island tool?) and added about a half of a cup of whole milk. I also added a couple of sprigs of fresh mint tops and a piece of rinsed and chopped preserved lemon peel. I ripped those peas to a puree with the blender and added more milk to get it to the consistency of mashed potatoes.  This mixuture was blended long enough to get the puree to be velvety smooth. You could get a beautiful aroma off of the lemon and mint. I placed the puree back in a sauce pot, over a medium heat and thinned it (ladle, by ladle) with some of my nice rich hen stock. I brought the soup up to a nice warm temperature – but not so hot that you couldn’t spoon it right on your palate. This soup actually could have been consumed at room temperature. Just before serving, I finished and enriched the soup with about 3 tablespoons of mascarpone.

I am going to dream about that soup until the next time I find some fresh spring peas!

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Fanatic Fiddles with Fire; Lamb roast gets torched.

My mother-in-law (Libby) loves lamb. However, she also thinks that it is only for a special occasion. Thus, she only eats lamb at a restaurant…unless I cook it for her. I, on the other hand, eat lamb when ever the mood strikes. This is good for my mother-in-law! I was raised on the stuff (steak or Chinese food was what we ate on a special occasion). As a kid we ate lamb burgers, lamb chops and roast leg of lamb. My mom’s meatloaf even had lamb in it. From the left-over leg, we had lamb sandwiches. I don’t think I ever at lamb at a restaurant until I got a little older and went through a fancy French (aka a we-sauce-it-all)  restaurant phase when Carré D’agneau came into my lexicon.
 
So, when I seasoned up the last of the shoulder roasts I had in my freezer and sent it swimming in the Sous Vide Supreme, I gave Libby a call. Because of its size and somewhat tough nature, the roast was going to be in the water oven (at 57.5C/135.5F) for at least 36 hours. When it came time to take it out, if I didn’t serve it immediately, I knew I could hold it in the fridge for a couple of days after that as long as I quick chilled it down in an ice water bath before storing it. (See this if you have any questions about that.)  I stored it in the the bag I had cooked it in, with all the spicy juices infused with the garlic, herbs, and pepper I had put into the bag with the meat. There was about 1 1/2 cups of jus in the bag at the end with which I planned to make a sauce.  But I got distracted by spring. 

 

The season arrived here in the midwest like it has not done in several years and with it came plethora of articles containing recipes about cooking lamb. Springtime is, you see, the time when lambs are born, not to mention Easter, a traditional holiday for eating lamb (why not try rabbit…ok, ok, just a bad taste joke).  By the way, the spring lamb is not really ready for Easter, at least here, because our lambs are not harvested until May. Anyway I digress: I had seen one article in which people were mercilessly diss-ing that good old fashioned mint jelly (which is actually apple jelly flavored with mint) that we used to eat with lamb as kids. That stuff is really pretty disgusting. So I decided to try something suggested by one of these writers.

As instructed in the recipe, I took a whole mess of fresh mint from my garden, chopped it up with my favorite tool (the immersion blender) using the little chopper attachment. In the end, I had about a cup of chopped mint. I boiled a half of a cup of apple cider vinegar and a quarter cup of water with a half cup of brown sugar, making sure that the sugar was well dissolved. I set the liquid aside and when it was a bit cooled, I added the chopped mint. Voila! This was described by the writer of the recipe as a traditional English “mint sauce” and touted as being a much tastier accompanyment for roast lamb.

Meanwhile, back at the lamb, I heated the roast back up in the SVS about an hour before my mother-in-law was expected to arrive. This was more than enough time to get the roast heated back up to the 57.5C temp at which I had cooked it. And here is something beautiful about sous vide cooking: by heating the meat no higher than the temp at which it was first prepared, the meat does not become more well done!

Think about it. It is impossible for anything in the water bath to get heated higher than the temperature of the water it is cooked in. Even more important is the fact that heat transfer in water is far, far faster than it is in air (like in your oven). On the re-heat, by allowing the meat to spend only as much time as was needed to bring it up to temperature, the meat is not further cooked! If you re-heat something in a conventional oven, in order to get to a desirable eating temperature internally in a reasonable amount of time, it must cook more on the outside.

Just before I was ready to serve this dinner, I took the roast from the SVS, removed it from the bag and patted it dry with some paper towels. 

   

I took out my Iwatani Pro kitchen torch and worked that baby over thoroughly with the fire.

The effect of this was to put a yummy crust on the outside of the roast and also to heat up the outside just a little bit more.  Here is the roast after I torched it but before it was sliced completely. Look at that fabulous crust!

The roast was tender and moist and sliced with ease. It sliced up beautifully and looked so pretty on the platter. 

 

I served it with some lovely pasta from the farmer’s market which I sauced with a little mascarpone and butter. The pasta was flavored with pepper and lemon so it didn’t need much. I tossed together some organic greens with a very light vinagrette and let the lamb do all the talking.

Dinner is served

It was fabulously tender, juicy and so flavorful that it really did not need any sauce at all. This was a good thing because, in all honesty, I just hated that traditional mint sauce. I took one taste of that stuff – way, way, way too sweet (much sweeter than any nasty mint jelly, in fact) – and shoved it off to the side. It might have been nice to have a sauce made from the jus but actually, I was the only one to notice. Bob and Libby ate their meal with relish and my mother-in-law continued to rave about how she loves lamb.

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Filed under Cooking, kitchen tools, Lamb, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

Fanatic freed from phobias at famous food facility (i.e. The Culinary Institute of America)

Night view of the front of Roth Hall (June 2008)

I am a cook – NOT a baker or pâtissier. So why then, you may ask, did I go to the venerable    Culinary Institute of America for a 4 day intensive course on baking and why am I going to be returning at the end of April for a 5 day boot camp training in pastry making

Four or five years ago, in one of those awful airplane magazines which normally have a bunch of dumb articles on famous people I don’t care about, I read an article on culinary study vacations that ordinary people can take. One of the destinations described was the Culinary Institute of America where, the article told me, I could take a boot camp program for serious cooks – amateur or not. I tucked that little nugget of info in the back of my brain and decided that some day I would try to do this. After a couple of years of dreaming, I finally decided that life wasn’t waiting for me and, in June of 2008, I took my first trip to the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. There I spent a week taking their 5 day Advanced Culinary Boot Camp. The experience changed my life.

If you have read the about me page on this blog, you might recall that I have been cooking all my life so it is not like I didn’t feel at home in a kitchen. But, wow, did I learn some things. I am not talking about things like how to make a particular sauce, a specific gratin or special preparation for a precise kind of fish. Sure we did these kinds of things but, truly, I can’t remember a single dish I made during those 5 days (I have them all neatly annotated in a binder for future reference – if I ever think to need them). I am talking about learning about how to execute particular techniques correctly and otherwise how to be in a kitchen with confidence. At the CIA I learned a great deal about how to handle food (protein, most notably): what to look for, how to feel, see and smell the food and how to go about turning it into something delicious and desirable. I learned how to slice up a primal cut of meat, filet a fish, turn a whole chicken into a big boneless mass of fun-to-stuff protein. I learned how to make a forcemeat, stuff and tie a roast and make a whole loin into a pile of steaks.   

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Above all, I learned to have no fear. Once back home in my own kitchen, I found I was comfortable firing the pan when I want to deglaze it, flipping the sauteuse when I need to move the contents around and using just as many pots, dishes and tools as I need or want to use. Alas, as it turned out, at the CIA I had learned how to let go of my cooking inhibitions! 

So it occurred to me that perhaps if I went to an intensive class on baking and pastry, I might pick up some similar skills in the bake shop. In fact, I rarely bake or make pastry at all, except around winter holiday time. I had never really though about why I  am not much of a baker or a pastry maker (other than to avoid letting the fat person within get out). It is certainly not because I don’t enjoy these pursuits. However, I’m not much one for eating sweets. I much prefer to get my big calories fried, thank you. Also, my mom didn’t bake much. I only remember one sweet that she made without a recipe. Dessert in our household was an amazingly rare event reserved for holidays and usually brought by others.

But I do adore bread and things made with yeast. (A taste I acquired after moving to the Bay Area where bread is a religion.) When fresh fruit is in season, I like to make a pie or a cobbler. For dinner guests, I feel obliged to offer some kind of dessert and for myself, I enjoy a little morsel of something sweet now and again, here and there. But really, unlike my desire to cook, I rarely have a yen to go to the kitchen to bake as a matter of recreation.   

The bread thing on the other hand, that is different. I just love the stuff. I love it fresh and yeasty and crusty and, sometimes, oh my, I love it with stuff in or on it. (How about cinnamon, spices, olives, cherries, chocolate chunks, raisins, dried fruit, etc., etc. (Mmmm, I am making myself hungry.) But alas, I have always suffered from a fear of yeast. It always seemed so fussy, so needing of exactitude. When I cook, it is all about a little of this and a little of that. But bread? Bread requires precision, doesn’t it?    

Two out of four days of my recent CIA adventure were spent on the subject of bread. It turns out, that it is not all that persnickity. Sure it has to be scaled out and mixed together in the right order. And yes, you have to be careful not to over do your mixing and your kneading, lest you make it tough. Nevertheless, with the help of modern machinery (my handy-dandy stand mixer) it is really pretty easy to pull off a success. And, best of all, I can add all that good fun stuff to it! No more fear of yeast have I!

As an added bonus, I learned how to make incredible cookies which, at my whim, I can alter and adjust to suit my creative needs. I learned the right way to do a number of things I otherwise thought I knew how to do and I learned a number of “tricks” for giving my baked goods and bread a beautiful and professional finished look.   So I will be off again to the CIA on April 25 to begin a full week of pastry making. I know now that croissants and other Viennoiserie are destined to become part of my kitchen repertoire and I will leave the CIA reasonably proficient in buttercreme and ganache. I will always be much more of a cook than a baker or a pâtissier but I am fairly certain that when I am done, all cake phobias will be banished from my consciousness.       

If you want to read a fun book about the CIA, I would suggest you get Michael Ruhlman’s  The Making of a Chef. I read this book after I first returned from The Culinary and it was all soooooo real to me. It is a good quick read full of many laughs and much joy. Michael talks a little about how The Culinary transformed his life at Wasabimon this week.

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Filed under Baking, Bread, Cake, Cooking, Culinary School, Education, Pastry Making, Pie

Pulled Pork Preeminent

One of the justifications I used to talk myself into buying the Sous Vide Supreme was that it would replace my crock pot. Now those who know me are aware that it is my intention, in just a little more than two years (781 days, but who’s counting), to move to New York City. So this rationale is no matter of little importance. I am going to have to fit a s#%tload of rooms worth of all my important stuff into a shoe box apartment in order to become happily ensconced in the Big Apple. Thus, until such time arrives, I have come up with a rule to live by: anything new which is brought into the house must give rise to the throwing or giving away of something of equal or greater volume. The crock pot, while being shorter than the SVS, definitely has a bigger footprint, i.e. takes up more space in a closet or cabinet.

I have one friend who has an SVS and when he heard this, he said “nooooo, the SVS will not replace the crock pot.” I took that as a challenge. Actually, my friend should have asked me just what I do with the crock pot. All I do with the crock pot is (1) make soup, and (2) make pulled pork. Try though I might, I have never found anything else to do with this appliance that can’t, just as well, be done on top of the stove.

“Slow cooker” you say? Oh no, that is just not so. The darn thing simmers the bejeebers out of everything. I can braise just fine in the oven and I can cook soup on the top of the range, thank you very much. But for pulled pork…well I bought the SVS and so it was time to put up or shut up.

Lets just say that something magical happens to a fatty chunk of pork shoulder or boston butt when it goes into the crock pot for 6 or 8 hours. Even my darling, adolescent, loving, sweet, wonderful, adorable brat of a  step-daughter asks for this dish regularly. Rubbed with a beautiful spice mix I have developed (mild chili powder, cumin, smoked paprika, ground mustard seed, granulated garlic & onion, ground coriander seed, and salt) this relatively cheap cut of meat becomes an intensely flavorful pile of porky deliciousness that my family adores. Most often, we stuff it into fresh tortillas with refried beans, spanish style rice, sauteed veggies and other favorite condiments. I call it our “make your own fajitas” meal.

So I had to prove to myself that pulled pork would make the grade coming out of the SVS. For this experiment, I just happened to have a beautiful chunk of Red Wattle in my freezer, perfect for the main ingredient in our fajita fest. I thawed that chubby chunk-o-piggy out and rubbed my spice mix all over the surface of the roast with abandon before bagging it up with my Food Saver. Many sous vide recipes talk about how you have to use a little restraint with spices when cooking by this method but I have found this applies to only a limited range of items. This includes some herbs, especially bay and rosemary, and garlic (which I am, alas, unable to eat much of anyway). I was not worried about overdoing my pork rub. I set the water oven on 60C (140F) and put the sealed up meat in to cook for 48 hours!

 

The results were, if I may say, award winning. Better than out of the crock pot, by far, the pork was tender, exceptionally moist, just the right doneness and orgasmically flavorful. There was not a trace of dryness as is often the case with the slow cooker. The meat pulled away from the fat very easily so that in the end we were left with a much more low calorie version of our old crock pot standard. The spice rub gave the meat a wonderful, smokey, complex flavor that was exactly what we had come to love. One interesting thing is that we poured a couple of cups of spicy meat juice out of the cooking pouch. I froze this wonderful liquid figuring that it will make a delicious sauce for a chop or tenderloin in the future.

Say bye bye, crock pot!

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Filed under Cooking, Pork, Shoulder, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

Fantastic Flavor from Fermented Fruit

For me, many things culinary are an experiment. I often order food I have never tasted before when I see it on a menu and I regularly cook things I have never previously prepared. (Most often, without really using a specific recipe.) I like to try cooking with exotic and unknown ingredients. So, it was no big deal that when I put up a couple of jars of preserved lemons I really had no idea what I was doing! (If you want to know how I made them, have a look here.) Nevermind that I had never cooked with preserved lemons before. Nevermind that I had only eaten a couple of dishes containing them on a few occasions. Nevermind that I didn’t really know anyone else who had cooked with them (outside of the few restaurants where I had experienced them). And, nevermind that I had never tasted them “naked” in order to really know exactly what they are! I just knew they were going to be fun to play with.

I had to wait a month for the fermentation process to work its magic on my lemons but OMG was it worth the wait. During that month, I did my research and read plenty of recipes calling for preserved lemons. I learned quite a bit about how to prepare the lemons for use. Some people utilize the resultant juice and pulp, as well as the rind. Many, if not all, separate the rind from the pulp. Most just use the rind – shredded, chopped or minced. All recipes instruct the cook to rinse the lemons lightly before chopping, etc., to get rid of some of the saltiness and “goop” (though mine don’t seem so salty). Quantities called for vary – from heavy to light – depending on how “lemony” one wants their end result to be. Many, many of the recipes I found were of a Moroccan or North African origin or at least heavily influenced by the cuisine of those areas. Preserved lemons seem especially favored in various tagines (a kind of stew that is cooked in a special kind of vessel) though I have mostly had them as part of a broth or sauce in restaurants.

Once the lemons were ready, I couldn’t wait to cook with them.  I wasn’t going to let a little thing like having no idea about what I was doing stop me, was I? Now I don’t have a tagine vessel and frankly, these stews don’t really float my cooking boat so I decided to go in the direction of the broth. With all this sous vide stuff going on in my kitchen, sometimes as my friend Josh has been known to say, I just have to walk over to the stove and turn on the burner! A tasty broth with seafood, fish or crustaceans can be truly easy and satisfying to concoct and it takes no time at all – right there on top of the stove.

I went to the freezer and pulled out some wonderful giant prawns I like to keep around. I tossed those babies (previously portioned out and sealed up with my Food Saver). I put about ten to a package and then when I want to use them all I do is toss the package into a bowl of tepid water for about 15-20 minutes to thaw them. Then they get shelled and made ready for what I am cooking, which takes all of about 5 minutes. Often times, I use the shells as a basis for a sauce but I did not do that this time. Once peeled and cleaned, I set the shrimp aside on a paper towel.

I also took out a pint of rich chicken stock (made from the stewing hens I buy from Farrar Out Farms): this is an important staple in my kitchen. I thawed that stock quickly in the microwave (no, not in the plastic it was frozen in). The stock went to the stove in an uncovered, 4 quart stock pot, over a medium heat.

Meanwhile, I opened a can of San Marzano tomatoes (these are found at my local italian grocery store) scooped out about a pint of these and dumped them into a colander set in a bowl to drain the liquid. The reason for doing this is so that I can pick over the tomatoes to remove the core and any little bits of left over skin. Using my favorite kitchen tool, the immersion blender, I pureed the tomatoes with the liquid. and then strained it through my handy, dandy chinoise into the sauce pot with the stock. The mush that is left over in the chinoise has some pulp and lots of seeds. The resultant liquid is rich and velvety smooth.

To the pot I added a ton of finely chopped, preserved lemon rind and the pulp from the lemons that I had picked over and pushed through a medium sieve (leaving the seeds and membrane behind). Then I let my fingers do the walking through my spice cabinet where I found and added 1/4 tsp cayenne, 1/8 tsp white pepper, 1 heaping tbs of special indian curry powder (use the curry you like), and a tbs of fresh yellow mustard powder. I didn’t add any salt because I wanted to wait to taste the soup after the lemon had cooked into it for a while. With preserved lemons, you have to be careful about salt, especially when you are using the lemon juice from the jar that you did your preserving in. I hit this mixture with the immersion blender again, just to smooth out the lemon and to mix the spices in thoroughly.

Next, I brought the liquid just barely to a boil while stirring and let it simmer for about ten minutes to marry the spices to the broth. Amazingly, there was no froth or foam to worry about – the broth stayed a wonderful velvety texture because of all the straining and blending. I had previously done. When I tasted it, I found that I did not need to add more salt. 

Just before I was ready to serve up my creation, I tossed the waiting shrimp into the soup, turned up the fire a bit and stirred until they were no longer translucent – this took all of about two or three minutes. I had chopped up some fresh cilantro for a garnish and was ready to dish up our meal in my favorite wide lipped bowls. Dinner was a lemony, spicy, amazingly flavorful shrimp stew. With some buttered up, toasted ciabatta to soak up the sauce, Bob and I were completely satisfied. This dish is definitely good enough for company. As a matter of fact, if it was served to me in a restaurant I would return to order it again! I am certain it will work well with a variety of fish or seafood.

 

Here is a little thing to take note of if you are on a diet: this was a completely healthy, low-calorie meal. The only fat was from the butter I put on the bread (about a tablespoon for 4 nice chunks of ciabatta) and that which naturally occurs in the shrimp. If I were not perpetually on a diet, I would have added some cold chunks of butter to the sauce just before serving to thicken and enrich the soup but, in truth, I did not miss it at all. If you are one of those naturally thin people who never has to worry, I would encourage you to go ahead and add the butter.

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Filed under Cooking, Food Trends, Preserving

This little piggy was eaten…

Ok, if you have not yet figured it out, I LOVE pork. What’s not to love? There is nothing dull about a good piece of pork, even if it is served sans sauce. Perfectly simple, mildly seasoned, high quality pig requires little if any fanfare, so long as it is properly cooked (and not overcooked, of course).  Sure, it is nice when encrusted, enrobed, ensauced or enstuffed (I made that up) but, my point is if it is good meat in the first place, it can stand on its own four trotters.

Thus, when I looked in my freezer and found a beautiful package of inch thick Red Wattle pig loin chops, I decided to keep it very basic. After I thawed these gorgeous ladies, I placed them in a brine of 7% kosher salt and 3% sugar. In the brining solution I placed a bay leaf and a couple of allspice berries. (If you had x-ray vision you could see these under the chops.) I covered the dish and placed the meat in the fridge for a couple of hours. The point of the brine is to cause a chemical reaction in the meat that aids in the retention of the natural juices in the muscle. If you do it right, it is not at all salty and protein that is brined stays very, very moist.

 Once that time had passed, I took the chops and dried them off real well with paper towels. Then, into the sous vide bag they went. Not wanting the chops to be lonely, I added about a teaspoon of bacon grease per chop. Yum, yum, yum, I love pig fat with my pig!

I heated the SVS up to 59C (138.2F) and sent those beauties swimming for 45 minutes. In the meantime, my husband cooked up a mess of what we call “home fries.” These are diced, par-cooked waxy potatoes that are fried up in a little lard with some onions and herbs. Home fries are pretty much his specialty (i.e. the only thing he knows how to cook) and he makes them as good as any I have ever eaten.

I tossed together some watercress and arugula with a tiny bit of olive oil and apple cider vinegar to add some tang to the plate. I also put a bowl of chunky organic apple sauce on the table cause where I come from, a pork chop without apple sauce is just plain wrong.

When I took the chops out of the bag I torched the surface to give them that pretty look and to crisp up the fat. I probably should have trimmed the fat better before they went into the brine. I am still learning and fat and sous vide – it does not cook the same way in there because the low temperature cannot get it to render or crisp up. I also could have been a little more aggressive with the torch but I am new to this trick – next time!

It was a fabulous albeit very simple meal but I really didn’t want it to be different. The meat was slightly pink throughout the entire chop. Only the outside edge had that white port color as the result of the torching it took. This Red Wattle pork is more naturally flavorful than any other I have ever had. Not gamey or at all strange tasting as some pork can be. Rather it is intensely “porky” and delicious.

The brining process causes the meat to become even more tender than it already is and it also helps the natural juices to stay in the protein. The sous vide, slow and low cooking process prevents any part of the pork from becoming overcooked. All of this translates to exceptionally moist, evenly cooked, dense meat that is tender and incredibly flavorful. Given that it is so perfect in these ways, I just was not in the mood to go saucing it up or adding any other flavors to distract from the rich porky taste it already had.

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Filed under Cooking, Pork, Sous Vide, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme

The Finest Food From Fat

I know people who don’t like chocolate, I know people who don’t like cake. I know people who don’t like tomatoes and I know people who don’t like steak. (Sounding a bit like Dr. Seuss here, I am!) These are things I cannot imagine disliking. Amazingly, I have met more than one of each. But I have never met anyone (vegetarians don’t count) who doesn’t like bacon. I am certain no matter what that if a carnivore exists who doesn’t like bacon, they are a unicorn.

So bacon lovers, here’s the deal: if you have never eaten homemade bacon, do whatever you must to get some. It being homemade, you can’t buy it. That does not mean that you can’t buy incredibly great bacon but the bacon that is homemade defies description.You can’t imagine what you are missing.

Happily, it is fairly easy to make, there are just a couple of little tricks.

Trick one: you are going to have to get some “pink salt,” otherwise known as Instacure #1 or tinted curing mixture. (In Europe, they use saltpeter which is potassium nitrate.) Pink salt is a mix of plain salt (93.75%) with nitrate (6.25%). The reaction of nitrate with certain bacterias in meat, produce nitrite. Nitrate can be toxic if ingested in a large quantity. On the other hand, it is the nitrite that kills the bad bacteria and otherwise helps to transform the meat into the desired end product also contributing to the desired rosy color of the meats in which it is used. By mixing the nitrate with a ton of plain salt , it is diluted substantially so that you would have to eat an awful lot of just plain salt to get to a meaningful level of toxicity.  Assuming you are not a complete dufus and you follow the simple instructions for combining your pink salt with your other ingredients which go into your bacon curing mixture (kosher salt, sugar, and herbs and/or spices of your liking), you really have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Nitrate and nitrite got a really bad rap in the 80’s and ever since then some people have been avoiding the stuff. It was believed that in large enough quantities, the chemicals might cause cancer. But according to Harold McGee, the guru of food chemistry, if you don’t eat a huge bunch of food with these chemicals in it, you really don’t need to be concerned.  The amount that you are going to use for your bacon really is miniscule especially compared to the size of the risk you are significantly minimizing with its use. That risk, the one you are minimizing, is botulism and you don’t want it (unless, in the form of Botox, you have it injected in the right places by your qualified medical professional). But you do want homemade bacon, so just get over your concern about the pink salt. Everything in moderation.

Trick two: You have to obtain some pork belly. The higher quality you get, the better. Get thee to your sustainable, local farmer and order some. How do you find your farmer? There are plenty of ways, but one is to go to www.slowfoodusa.org and follow the links through to your local chapter’s web site. There you should find a list of farmers’ markets and possibly even some links to specific purveyors of good pork in your area. Of course, you can just do an internet search and you should come up with other resources as well – here is a great site to check. You can even order some over the internet from various gourmet purveyors. (For example, Food52 has a New York resource through its online store.) Here in the St. Louis area we have Prairie Grass Farm, Farrar Out Farm, Greenwood Farms and Hinkebein Hills, among others. If you can Red Wattle Belly or other heritage breed type pig meat, this is even better.

Trick three: If, like me, you prefer your bacon smoked, you have to find a place and a way to do this. A barbeque grill will work – just know that you have to keep stoking the smoke for a couple of hours until the bacon gets up to temperature. You will want to heat up the grill, get some wood chips smouldering with the coals or heat source being only beneath the wood or otherwise indirect, and put that cured belly on the grill. If you want, you can buy a cheap smoking gizmo to set in your grill at most hardware stores and this time of year you can even buy the smoking wood there. Choose the flavor of wood chips that most please you. I prefer a mix of applewood and hickory. Hickory is very strong and applewood is sweet. If you have a line of any other fruit woods, go for it! Soak some of the wood in very hot water for at least an hour before you put it over the fire. Add back some dry chips to get the smoke going and go to town. Leave the meat on the covered grill until the belly reaches an internal temperature of 150F.

Once the belly has been refrigerated and is thoroughly cold, it becomes easy to slice. Hand sliced bacon is rustic and likely to be thicker than the store bought stuff. But, if you are like me and you put tons of sugar in your cure, the thick cooked bacon will have a fantastic chewiness to it. OMG TDF! It will keep in your fridge for a good long time – up to a couple of weeks if you keep your fridge nice and cold (I keep mine at 34-36F). Mostly what I do, however, is slice it and package it up in serving sized freezer packages.

Basic bacon cure (per Michael Ruhlman):

  • 1 pound (450 grams) of kosher salt
  • 1/2 pound (225 grams) sugar (use superfine sugar if possible)
  • 2 oz (50 grams) pink salt

It is really important to use a scale for these ingredients and it is best if you can do it in grams, for greatest accuracy. Salts and sugars vary in volume substantially. If they were smushed in the course of getting to your pantry, the crystals are broken, etc., etc. You get it, right?

Mix these ingredients together very well so that the pink salt is thoroughly distributed throughout. This will take care of about 5 pounds of pork belly. Now is the creative part: figure out what you want to season your bacon with. I use a palm full of juniper berries and a teaspoon of so of black pepper corns which I crack with a rolling-pin. I also toss in a sprig or 4 of thyme per chunk of bacon. After I have thoroughly coated the meat in the basic cure and sprinkled on the seasonings, I top it off with a generous sprinkling of brown sugar on top. Other possibilities include pouring a mess of maple (instead of brown) sugar on top, leaving out the sugar completely and using lots of herbs or tons of cracked pepper. I have even heard of people using Jack Daniels (yuck).

All this gets put into ziplock bags (one piece of meat per bag), closed up and put in the fridge for about a week. Each day I turn the bags to redistribute what will become a liquid in the bag.

 

Now I’m going to tell you this: there are many different ways of doing this and I myself have tried it a number of those ways. For me, this is the easiest, most effective and thus my favorite. I have never gotten bacon that was too salty this way. Nonetheless, I invite experimentation!

Because of the high sugar content of my bacon, when it cooks it caramelizes beautifully giving the finished product a texture that can’t be matched. The sugars come to the surface and out into the bacon grease so you have to be a little careful with your heat – fry the bacon a little more slowly than you might the store-bought stuff. Another thing is that homemade bacon does not have a lot of water in it. It will render more evenly and quickly as a result. But, the most striking thing is that it tastes so much more heavenly. Can’t you just smell it?

 

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Pork, Preserving, Uncategorized