This month's Charcutepalooza challenge was one of the easiest yet, but I put it off until the last minute. I was intimidated by the large, old-timey meat grinder that I had borrowed, but the grinding process was so much easier and more rewarding than I imagined. You toss in the cubes of meat, turn the crank, and within minutes you have fresh, homemade sausage. I kept the meat very cold, but I didn't bother with the whole metal bowl and ice thing. I don't even hve a metal bowl. And I didn't die after eating my sausage, so I think everything is fine.
I chose to make Mexican chorizo for this challenge. The only appropriate cut Richardson Farms had available was "pork stew meat." It seemed a little too lean to me, so I lobbed off a piece of pork belly that I had stashed away for bacon or pancetta making purposes. I tossed all of the chunks of meat with chili powder, cayenne pepper, hot smoked paprika, fresh garlic, cumin, cinnamon, a little ginger, black pepper, and fresh marjoram and serrano peppers from the garden.
Chorizo always makes an excellent taco filling. I love preparing it using the traditional Mexican method of adding shredded potato and a little onion to the sausage to make it go further. Then I brown everything up nicely in the skillet. My favorite accompaniment is a salad of grilled nopales cactus with poblano peppers, white onion, cilantro and lime.
Cactus Salad (Nopaliches)
4 nopales paddles, stripped of thorns and sliced into strips
2 poblano peppers, roasted and sliced into strips
1 white onion, sliced into thin rings
½ cup cilantro, minced
juice of 3 limes
Bring a pot of salted water to boil, and toss in the onion. After 5 minutes, add the nopales and cook 5 minutes longer. Turn off the heat, and drain the water from the vegetables. Place the blanched onion and nopales in a bowl and add the roasted poblano pepper strips along with the cilantro. Add the lime juice, salt to taste, and toss the vegetables to coat them evenly. Serve the nopaliches wrapped in warmed corn tortillas. Mexican cream, queso fresco, hot sauce, and chorizo also make a nice addition.
I despise bottled salad dressing. I grew up during the era of fat free Italian salad dressing, and I can remember the taste clearly: powdered onion/garlic flavor, combined with a sickly sweet undertone of sugar or corn syrup, dehyrated vegetable flakes, some preservatives and additives, all held together with soybean or canola oil. No wonder many people don't care for salad.
Salad dressing has become like mayonnaise, meaning that it is one of those food products that people don't make from scratch anymore. It doesn't even occur to people that you can make it because the food industry long ago convinced us that it is just too much bother. But homemade salad dressing can be as easy as mixing some oil and vinegar (or citrus juice or some other acid) in a tupperware container, and giving it a good shake to emulsify.
Adding a finely diced (or even coarsely chopped if you're lazy) shallot to the vinegar will take the salad to another level. I throw the shallot pieces into the container and cover them with the vinegar or citrus juice. After adding a generous pinch of salt, it is best to let the mixture emotionally sit in order to lightly pickle the shallot, mellowing out that oniony bite. Finally, mix the shallot and acid mixture with 3 or 4 times as much oil, grind some fresh pepper into it, place the lid on the container, and shake it to emulsify.
This dressing happened to be walnut oil and sherry vinegar, but you can make a delicious dressing with simpler ingredients like olive oil and lemon juice. It will be free of unnecessary additives muddling the flavor, and it will taste brighter and more pure than anything you can buy at the store.
Of course I've heard of Dorie Greenspan. Her name makes me think of Paris, baking, and World Peace Cookies. I've perused her blog and listened to her guest appearances on The Splendid Table. I always thought of her as a baker, but her newest cookbook, Around My French Table, proves that she is an accomplished cook as well. After 30 years of living and travelling in France she accumulated a vast collection of recipes from friends, and she also concocted many of her own while living in Paris, inspired by the quality ingredients available in markets and shops. It seems like the book Greenspan has waited her whole life to write.
The comparisons to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking are expected, but Greenspan's book is quite different. Instead of emphasizing classical technique, it showcases modern French home-cooking, combining recipes for the obligatory seared duck breasts and onion soup as well as Lamb Tagine, Vietnamese Chicken Soup, and other recipes influenced by France's colonial legacy that home cooks have now incorporated into their regular kitchen repertoire.
This is a hefty cookbook, complete with stunning photos of many of the recipes, beckoning you to cook them. Around My French Table is the kind of book where you can flip to the index and look up an ingredient if you need to use up something in your fridge. It is packed with simple, vegetable-heavy recipes that are just a little different and more exciting. For Easter, her asparagus with onion and bacon was outstanding, especially with my homemade smoked pancetta/bacon.
So for the last few months I had been getting carried away, making labor-intensive and meat-heavy meals. I don't bother to chronicle them because by the time the food is ready, I'm too tired and hungry to photograph anything. Beef rendang and homemade chicken satay are delicious, but they also take about three hours to make. Dorie Greenspan's beautiful book is reminding me that a simple aspragus soup, well-prepapred lentils, or a goat cheese tartine and salad can make a super-satisfying meal in under an hour. Her recipes highligh fresh, pure ingredients, which is really the core of French home cooking.
The most satisfying kind of cooking, for me, is to empy my fridge of scraps and transform them into something special. Recently sunchokes were calling out to me at the store, and I bought them on a whim. After almost two years of working at farmers' markets and hanging with the sustainable foodie crowd, I had never tried them before.
The first thing I did was fry some of my homemade pancetta, as that's how most of my cooking has been starting these days. I sliced it into lardons, rendered lots of delicious fat, and set most of the crispy bits aside. I browned some onion that had been wasting away in the fridge, along with two cloves of thinly sliced garlic and the sliced sunchokes. I also tossed in some rosemary from a plant I managed to kill during my spring plant buying frenzy. Yes, I killed rosemary; I thought it was indestructible.
I poured my homemade freestyled chicken stock over the vegetables. I also threw in a few stems and leaves of some bedraggled parsley to the simmering brew to add some fresh, vegetal flavor. I brought everything to a boil and simmed it for about 20 minutes. To finish it off, I poured in a little milk that needed to be used to make the soup a little creamy. Sunchokes reminded me of super nutty water chestnuts, and the salty pancetta really brought out this flavor. The result: a satisfying meal that used a new ingredient, highlighted my homemade pancetta, and also cleared the fridge.
Making tasso ham was the easiest Charcutepalooza challenge yet, but it has also been one of the most difficult items to use. It has been sitting, wrapped up tightly, in the meat drawer for over a week. I lived in New Orleans for eight years, so I don't know why I've had any problems using it.
One afternoon I quickly cured some pork shoulder from Richardson Farms. Then I rinsed off the meat and coated it in a Cajun spice mixture. Then we smoked the ham for about 90 minutes until it reached the proper internal temperature. It looked beautiful when it was done!
I've consulted my John Besh's and Donald Link's cookbooks for inspiration. Shockingly, neither chef includes a recipe that uses it. We are big collard fans in this household, so Link's greens recipe piqued my interest. I'm going to try that recipe, subbing a little tasso ham in addition to my homemade bacon. I'll let you know how it goes.
All of these green spring vegetables popping up made me want to make some mayonnaise, the perfect companion to artichokes or asparagus.
Even though Mark Bittman makes me roll my eyes sometimes, I enjoy his "minimalist" approach to making mayonnaise. He tosses an egg, some mustard, and vinegar or lemon juice in a food processor. He flips the switch, and then slowly pours in some oil to emulsify the sauce. No annoying whisking or separting the yolk to make you run screaming back into the arms of a jar of Hellmans. You can experiment with adding flavors like garlic, roasted red peppers, or chipotles. My favorite is tarragon with a little lemon zest, the best dip in the world for steamed artichoke leaves.
Finally took the pancetta down from its hanging spot and sliced into it. I was terrified I hadn't rolled it tight enough, and that the inside would be a nightmare-scape of mold infestation, but it looks more beautiful than I ever imagined!
But now what to make with it? I can only eat so much bucatini all'amatriciana. Suggestions please!
Here in Austin, I've noticed that some customers go to the grocery store and get all excited about cold, water-logged Boar's Head pastrami. It pains my soul. I wonder if they don't know what it's like to go to Katz's Deli in New York City and order a pastrami reuben. The old guy behind the counter heaves a huge pastrami out of the steamer and hand carves off a pile of thin slices for your sandwich, wielding a massive knife. If you tip him he'll give you a couple of extra slices on the side to sample. The beef is sweet, salty, and melt-in-your-mouth-tender. You also sense some garlic, mustard , and smoke while the coating of coriander and black peppercorns adds another layer of flavor.
When I left New York for Austin, I feared I'd never have access to legit pastrami again. So when I read about the Charcutepalooza brine challenge for March, I betrayed my Irish heritage and went for the pastrami challenge instead of the corned beef. Pastrami is essentially corned beef anyways, but there are more herbs and spices in the brine. Most importantly, it is traditionally cold smoked and then steamed instead of boiled.
Making pastrami is no small task; it took a 5 pound brisket from Richardson Farms, 3 days of brining, and 4 hours of smoking. I made big plans to brine the beef before work. Upon reading Ruhlman's recipe from Charcuterie more closely that morning, I realized it called for some emotionally prepared pickling spice made ahead of time. In a rush, I improvised and threw in pinches of whole spices called for in the recipe, maybe throwing in a little extra of my favorites like mustard seeds and black peppercorns. I submerged the brisket in the brine, and placed the pot in the fridge.
Ruhlman's recipe explained that the final step was to smoke the brisket as long as possible until the center reached 150 degrees. My inexperienced smoking partner and I were afraid we'd overcook the meat with our make-shift smoker grill set up, but we actually managed to keep the fire low and smoke the meat for 4 hours until it reached the correct temperature.
The result was everything I dreamed it would be! A beautiful pastrami that was delightfully smokier than anything I've had before, and the coriander peppercorn crust was pleasantly crisp and crunchy. Right out of the grill/smoker the meat was a little too salty, and I vowed to make a weaker brine next time. Over the past few days, however, the saltiness has become less pronounced, and I wonder if it's all part of the pastrami-making process since it's a preserved meat product afterall.
So I'm thrilled to know I can make a suitable substitute for Katz's Deli pastrami whenever I get the craving, and it's a fun activity too. Now I'm sort of inspired to try making the other New York foods I miss: bagels, Polish dumplings, and Shanghai soup dumplings. We'll see.
The first time I ate a whole fish was in Spain. I was fulfilling stereotypes that Europeans have of American female college students by refusing to eat meat (fast forward seven years later, and I'm making pancetta- who would have thought?). I spent time getting "immersed" in the Spanish language, living in the apartment of a young woman in Leon. She wasn't freaked out by eating habits, and she made me delicious pork-free meals, which can be quite a tall order in Spain.
One evening she plopped down an entire cooked fish in front of me for dinner. Apparently it was trout season, and they had just been caught in the river. By the look on my face, she could tell I had never eaten a whole fish before. She showed me how to slice through the flesh at the base of the head and near the tail and easily remove the fillets from the spine. It ended up being some of the best fish I've ever had in my life. The flesh was rich, moist, and flavorful. Almost like salmon without even a hint of fishiness.
Now I always prefer to cook fish whole. It's harder to overcook and dry out whole fish because the skin and the bones keep all of the juices and flavors sealed into the meat. It's also easier to select a fresh fish if it's left whole. Many people are scared to cook fish, relying on professionals in restaurants to make it for them, but baking or grilling a whole fish is one of the simplest and fastest meals to make. After lots of trial and error, here are my best tips for purchasing fish:
1. Stick to locally caught fish if possible. I've had some outstanding snappers in New Orleans, but I've never tracked down a great one in New York where I stuck mainly to porgies and sea bass. Astoundingly, branzino is all trendy in New York right now, but I don't understand why since its essentially a Mediterranean sea bass. No sea bass shipped in from Greece is going to taste better than something freshly caught in Montauk. Fish deteriorates rapidly while being transported long distances. Of course, this is just a guideline. I've purchased some fantastic fresh sardines from Portugal, and Whole Foods consistently carries high quality rainbow trout farm raised in Idaho.
2. Look into its eye. Most people seem to know that the fish's eye should be clear, not cloudy.
3. Check the gills. This is my favorite tip. In seafood or ethnic markets, the fishmonger will often happily let you peel back the gills and examine them. Freshly caught fish will have deep red, almost purple gills.
4. Poke the fish. In legit seafood markets, the fishmongers will also let you poke the fish to see if the flesh bounces back. It is a bad sign if your finger leaves an indentation; it means the fish is mushy and not fresh. I obnoxiously complained once in a cooking class about a certain upscale food market preventing customers from touching the fish, and my classmate cried out, "but they don't want people contaminating it!" I think it should always be ok to touch it unless some customers intend to eat it raw.
5. Examine the skin. Fresh fish is usually shiny, not dull.
6. Smell the fish. This is another common tip, but I find it tricky. It's true that fresh fish doesn't smell "fishy" at all, but even in the cleanest seafood store, there is usually a strong enough fish stench to prevent you from really smelling what you're buying. Sometimes I've brought things home, and then realized that I'd made a big mistake after opening the package.
Fish fillets are something different altogether, and I usually steer clear of them because they are more difficult to judge for quality and freshness. If I need a fillet, I prefer to fillet a whole fish at home. I have a sneaking suspicion that many markets turn their whole fish into fillets as a method of pushing product when it's past its prime. That said, I have had some success buying fish fillets by using common sense like sticking to locally caught fish when buying fresh and buying flash frozen fillets of things like wild Alaskan salmon. I also make sure that the flesh looks dense, and that it's still translucent and not opaque. After that, buying good fillets can be a bit of a game of chance, and that's why I almost always stick to whole fish.