Category Archives: Comfort Food

Wicked and Wonderful: I would serve these crispy cereal treats to company

Ok, people, STAND BACK, perhaps even avert your eyes. If you have a weakness for any kind of sweets, then actually, you had just better STAY AWAY: click that mouse and go somewhere else. But, whatever you do, DON’T read this little post.

I read a tremendous number of blogs. I read perhaps a hundred or more posts each week. It is my hobby. Oh yes, I am also somewhat food obsessed and I love to read anything about food. Most of all, I learn tons as I read these articles (although I remember only a fraction of it). When you are my age, keeping the brain set to “on” is very important.

Among the blogs I read, like so many other foodie folks, Smitten Kitchen keeps me coming back, again and again. I feel like I know Deb Perelman: we have much in common though she is half my age (I’m sure of it) has a small child (mine – step children, at that, are late and mid-teen) and she lives in New York (I am just a wannabe New Yorker – 261 days and counting). Deb knows desserts and every time I follow her lead, I am lavishly rewarded.

I don’t make too many desserts because I have an obese person inside of me who is always fighting to get out. Skipping dessert is one way I have of not letting her win the battle. Also, neither my wonderful, loving, adorable, angelic and doting step-daughter nor Bob are much into sweets. One exception comes in the form of Rice Krispy treats. Anyone can make these, right? Wrong.

The first time I made these (what I believe are cloyingly sweet) goodies for them I was completely humiliated. I made the most grievous error a cook can make, or so I was told. I USED MARSHMALLOW CREME instead of actual marshmallows. I confess, I don’t really love this confection so I really didn’t think the back-of-the-box recipe was sacrosanct. I spied the creme on the shelf and I thought it would distribute through the cereal more readily. I matched the quantity called for in the recipe by weight and bought the stuff. Bad, bad step-mother!!! I was shamed by my traditionalist family and I vowed never to make these things again.

But then a couple of weeks ago I found a post that Deb had written about a new twist on the old RC Treats. She convinced me that I should try again. Double the butter Deb advised, and instead of just melting it and mixing in the marshmallows, brown the butter first! The brown butter, as we know, gets a really special nutty flavor. You have to take care to get the milk solids to just the right doneness, as indicated by color. Stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan as the butter cooks will do the trick and will help keep the particles from sticking to your pan. Go for a good pecan shade of brown. You must be very careful because brown butter can turn to burnt butter very quickly. But, if you continually stir and resist the temptation to speed the process by turning up the heat too high, you will get it right.

But wait, there is one more twist on the B-O-B recipe. At the very end, add sea salt (or kosher salt) as you stir the sticky liquid in with the cereal. Brilliant! Deb says to use a 1/4 tsp of salt but, being a renegade, I used my salt grinder and did not actually measure. I like the combination of salt and sweet though I was careful to use a very light hand. Measure if you must, but I really think that Deb’s quarter teaspoon is not enough – you decide and, please, let me know what you think. Do your best to distribute the salt well throughout the mixture as you are combining the ingredients. A second person to help at this juncture will make the difference.

These things are totally seductive and truly wicked. The brown butter flavor comes right through and the lovely pecan colored particles give these otherwise generic appearing treats a nice touch of color. It is, however, the classic combination of sweet and salt added to that buttery nuttiness which makes them absolutely superlative. Best of all, this recipe conquers the cloying sweetness of the unaltered back-of-the-box dessert and elevates them to a much higher plane. I have visions of these new RCT’s appearing on the petit fours plates of fine restaurants everywhere. Well, maybe that is too much to imagine but I certainly will serve them to company.

Deb’s original post can be found here.

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking

Flowers for Foodies: You are what you eat?

When last we met, I made a promise about squash blossoms. These are lovely things and when I see them on restaurant menus, I am always captivated. Generally speaking, I really like the idea of eating flowers. This may be silly but I do. A flower is a thing of beauty and I happen to like the idea of eating things of beauty. Especially if it is true that you are what you eat.

You probably won’t find squash blossoms in an ordinary grocery store. If you do, I would not advise buying them unless you are going to pulverize them into soup. They could not possibly be fresh enough for stuffing. I found mine at one of my favorite local farmers’ markets. Squash blossoms are extremely perishable and difficult to keep. It is best to prepare and serve them on the same day they are picked, especially if you are going to stuff them. Mine had been picked the morning I purchased them and even still a couple were so badly bruised that I  had to toss them in the compost bucket! Don’t you just hate that?

You can see in the photo how beautiful they are. They have these delicate green veins – look closely. Mine were female as they had small squash attached which I removed for another time. The flowers tend to be about 4 inches in diameter and about three inches long. This leaves them with plenty of space to put some filling.

Apparently, squash blossoms open up early in the morning. One article I read encouraged picking them at that time so they would remain open and be easier to stuff. I had no problem gently coaxing mine open to get them ready for filling. I carefully washed them out. In one, I found a little bug. Unlike flowers, I am not interested in eating bugs. I also removed the stamens. Why? Because several recipes suggested that this part tastes bitter. It was easy to do. I just stuck the tip of a small kitchen shears inside and carefully clipped it away.

Most of the recipes I found called for stuffing the flowers, coating them in some way and then frying them quickly. Some called for a simple dusting with corn starch or flour and others suggested using a batter. I decided to use the same  basic batter I use when making Mexican style chile rellenos only with different seasonings.

 Here is the mis en place for the batter: a separated egg and a little bit of  flour (mixed with some onion powder, salt and pepper).

I also decided to use a fairly mild filling because the blossoms are hardly about flavor. With a lightly seasoned batter fried just so, this dish is so much more about mouthfeel than anything else. My meal consisted of polenta with guanciale and sous vide duck breast with a cherry gastrique in addition to the squash blossom rellenos. This dinner was a wonderful study of contrast in texture and taste: crispy and subtle vegetables set off against the meaty poultry with its pungent, fruity sauce and the creamy, bacony polenta.

To make the filling I used fresh ricotta flavored with preserved lemon, fresh mint, thyme, just a touch of basil, and some salt. I plucked the herbs from my garden – some of the few things I can grow in spite of my cursed black thumbs.

I finely minced the herbs in the small bowl fitted to my immersion blender (still my favorite kitchen implement), added the other ingredients and gave it a couple of pulses.

I ended up with a lovely emulsion though I wish it would not have thinned out so much. Next time I might add some flour or walnuts to bind it a bit.

To make the batter, I whipped the egg white until it was stiff but not dry, folded in the yolk which I had stirred well and then sprinkled on the seasoned flour. The flour was then lightly folded into the egg mixture, keeping the batter plenty light and fluffy.

Earlier, when I opened and cleaned out the blossoms, I set them on some plastic so by the time I was ready to prepare them for frying, they were pretty dry. As I filled each blossom with the cheese mixture, I brought the petals together and gently pinched them between my fingers just enough to keep them closed while I slathered them with the batter.

The batter more or less “glued” the petals together so the filling did not come out during frying – at least most of the time. I fried them up in very hot, but not smoking, canola oil. Canola works well because of its total neutrality. The frying went very fast – it took maybe a minute or two to get one side a nice golden brown. I flipped them over with a spatula, rather than a pair of tongs, to avoid having them break open and spill the filling. They came out looking really good.

I lost a little filling from one, but it was still  fine for serving.

Our dinner was lovely and romantic. We had great fun taking bites of the three dishes and experiencing the different flavors and textures. 

A couple of notes: Sour pie cherries have about a 3-4 week season here. I picked 25 pounds this year and canned them all. I made the gastrique from some juice that was unused after I had canned all the fruit. It was mildly sweet and intensely cherry flavored. After reducing the juice to 1/4 of its original volume, I amended it with some 18 year old balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon or so of honey. The polenta was actually left over from a meal we had earlier in the week. While it was in the fridge, the guanciale permeated the cooked polenta in a wonderful way. It tasted even better the second time around! The duck breast was cooked in the same manner described in my earlier post here.

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Duck, Farmers Market, kitchen tools, Sous Vide

Pork Belly Divine

Every once in a while I am able to get my hands on a whole pork belly from my local pig farmer, without having purchased the whole animal. This may seem like a simple matter, but it is not. Our local restaurant chefs and artisanal (local/retail) charcutiers always get first dibs. The short supply for us ordinary folks is also due to the fact that pork belly has become one of those “it” foods I have talked about before (here). The stuff is being roasted, braised, and sautéed. I’ve even seen it make an appearance  breaded and deep fried. On many of the more modern or experimental restaurant menus, said pork belly is showing up increasingly more often and it is being used in a greater variety of ways: it’s not just your mother’s bacon anymore. 

In the summertime, when the tomatoes are at their best, we can go through a whole mess of bacon here. So, for my family, it takes a lot of fortitude to resist curing every last drop of fresh pork belly I am able to get my hands on. A fresh whole belly weighs about 17-20 pounds with the skin on. When all is said and done, you will probably yield about 65-70% of that weight as  home cured, smoked bacon – maybe 12 pounds in all. Bacon is easy to make, too – have a look here.

This time, with this belly, I was ready to try making something other than bacon with at least a portion of the slab. By the time I recieved word from Colby Jones (Farrar Out Farms) that he had a whole fresh belly for me, I had chosen my strategy. I sliced off two (approximately) 1 1/2 pound chunks of meat and took off the skin with my great big chef’s knife. (I reserved and froze the skin. Eventually I will smoke it and use as seasoning for greens and other vegetables.) I made a brine using 6% salt and 3% superfine sugar. The superfine sugar dissolves very well in tepid water, as does the salt. Adding a touch of pink salt to the brine helped to maintain the pink color of the pork. To the brine I added two bay leaves, some fresh thyme, several whole garlic cloves, and some peppercorns. I made the brine directly in a jumbo zip lock bag and put the hunks of belly in the brine. This was left in the fridge for a day.

Once it was ready to be cooked, I took one chunk of the brined meat, dried it off and put it in a vacuum packing bag. I added a good half of a cup of local honey to the bag – enough to coat the meat, once the vacuum was applied. Now this is somewhat difficult to do with the Food Saver machine I have, since it is not the greatest with liquids. But there is a good trick that I use to make it work. Use a bag that is large enough so that the meat and the liquid hangs about a foot or so over the edge of your counter after it is inserted into the mouth of the machine. This means that your bag will need to be about 18-20 inches long. With the help of gravity, the Food Saver will pull out the air and seal up the bag without sucking out the liquid or creating a faulty closure.

The belly went into the Sous Vide Supreme water oven which was set at 79C/175F. I left it in the bath for 14 hours. When the time came, I took it out of the water oven and quick chilled it to stop the cooking. This is done with a large bowl filled with half ice and half water. Once the meat cooled down, I removed it from the bag, dried it off with paper towels, wrapped it tightly in plastic and popped it in the fridge. I reserved the sweet honey flavored pork juices for a sauce.

The next day I took the belly out and brought it up to room temperature.

Just before it was time to sear and serve my fatty and hopefully delicious treat, I cut the belly into two inch cubes.

Searing was no job for my good old Iwatani torch, however. Instead, I placed the meat into a very hot skillet. As each side of a cube of pork crisped and released, I turned it until all sides were very well caramelized. This took less than a minute per side and by the time all sides were crispy, the inside was nice and warm.

I was able to make a wonderful sauce out of the juice that I had reserved from the bag. I took some apple juice (pure, organic and unsweetened) and reduced it by 50%. I added a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, some cloves and the stuff from the bag that was already highly concentrated with porky, honey flavor. Before thickening the mixture with a little cornstarch, I strained the liquid. My meal was now ready for plating. As sides, I served whipped parsnips and glazed sous vide carrots.

This dish is a real keeper. I would happily serve this to guests. Because of the use of a relatively high temperature in the SVS, the fatty part of the belly was rendered well enough to leave just the right balance of both meat and fat. The pan searing process gave the chunks of belly exactly the right crispness and a perfect texture. The unctiousness of each bite was beautifully counter-balanced by the  mildly sweet and sour, apple flavored sauce. No doubt, this is an incredibly rich and calorie filled meal that can’t be consumed too often without dire consequences to the waistline. However, as a special treat…well all I can say is “everything in moderation.” Actually, my husband’s enthusiastic “wow” said it all.

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Filed under Charcuterie, Comfort Food, Cooking, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Pork, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

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

Of Food Fads and Fashion

 
This is only part of the collection

Shoes, glorious shoes!

Many foods, spices, ingredients and even particular dishes, are kinda like shoes (very close to the top of my list of favorite things, after food). Once it becomes fashionable, a style tends to hang out for a while and then, no matter how big it became, eventually it grows less important or even fades out completely.  However, with shoes and other things sartorial, trends don’t come on very gradually. Shoe and clothing styles get stuffed down our fashion conscious throats in one season. I am sure there is some invisible panel of fashion nazis who decide that starting next season, patent leather with studs is going to be in. If we don’t fall in line, at least somewhat, others look at us and label us as “old school” or, even worse, just old! 

Thankfully, I don’t think it works this way with food.  Culinary trends and specific foods sneak into our consciousness and down our gullet more slowly and quietly. One might see an ingredient or a particular dish show up once or twice over a period of time, especially if you travel and eat in urban environments. Then bit by bit they seem to mushroom out in the culinary landscape. I don’t know who decides or why, but when a food fashion finally takes hold, just like square toes or pointy, we regularly find ourselves eating in step with the trend.   

I like to refer to these ingredients and dishes as “it” foods. Some people might call them “food fads.” I don’t want to belittle them this way. Even though, in the most non-belittling way, I have to admit they seem to permeate our consciousness in a very faddish manner. Then again, once the meal is over, nobody cares about what you did or didn’t eat – we are not seen as out of step with the fashion, just because we don’t want to eat a particular food or ingredient. We are far more tolerant when it comes to what we eat than regarding what we wear.     

I think, more important, is the fact that we can learn something about what is going on in our society by focusing on these foods. Take the example of one “it” food that I love to moan about: the molten chocolate cake.      

Chocolate Lava Cake photo by Glane34 Wikimedia Chocolate Lava Cake Glane23 Wikimedia      

This dish got a complete hold on menus in the US sometime in the (I’m guessing here) early/mid 90’s. It is, IMHO, a perfect representation of the excesses of that decade: too much chocolate, too much sweet, too much gooey, gloppy goop, often made even gloppier and sweeter with someone’s idea of gourmet ice cream (which often turns out to be uninspired, or in other cases and very telling, the best part of the dish). For years and years we have been subjected to this over-rated, often badly executed and now totally unexciting dessert.  There is nothing new to be done with it, no new flavors, shapes, garnishes, or brands that can salvage the thing, it is just done.      

Sometimes, whole groups of foods are “it” foods. Within the fast few years, comfort foods have started to regain importance. Showing up on the menus of better restaurants, a lot of pub food, whether or not reinvented as haute (i.e. gastropub food) is typical comfort food. Not only is comfort food chef and eater friendly, it brings to mind our fondest childhood memories. Our mom’s fixed comfort food – even if they made it badly and even if we didn’t call it by that name, we loved to eat it. Tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf, chicken with rice, beef stew: kids of all generations become utterly nostalgic when thinking of the one that became the signature dish of their household. Formerly limited to the diner, these foods are now being offered as menu staples as well as daily specials in restaurants of all levels. The trend is in full swing and comfort food is “it!”      

At least for now, you won’t find me moaning about this trend one bit. I think that our society needs some comfort NOW. After all that has gone on with our political system, with the turmoil and constant discomfort of our economy, with the rising tide against all that we worked for in the 60’s and 70’s, our society needs some mothering!      

Next up: Chicken Pot Pie with help from the Sous Vide Supreme      

 

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Food Trends, Social Commentary