It seems as though charcuterie has officially reached an apotheosis- the food world has been incessantly abuzz of late about all things cured, smoked, salted and brined (to the chagrin of some and the delight of others). Although several adventurous food bloggers like Matt Wright and Hank Shaw have been dabbling in meat curing for some time now, things recently reached a fever pitch in the blogging world and on Twitter with the advent of Charcutepalooza, a challenge in which a different type of curing technique is explored each month.
I missed the first challenge, duck prosciutto, but was told that I could “make it up” at a later date (as I write this, the duck is hanging in my basement pantry). The second challenge was something that my friend Kim has been making for a while now, home-cured bacon. I decided to go for it, so I hit up the Bucu family’s stand at Eastern Market and had this gentleman hack me off a 5-lb piece of pork belly.
The cure was simple- just salt, pepper, aromatics and pink (curing) salt, rubbed on the belly and left to work its magic for a week. The belly was then rinsed, patted dry and put in a 200° oven until it reached an internal temp of 150°. This stage was the only “problem” I had with the recipe- it stated to cook for 90 minutes or a temp of 150°, and it took me over 2 hours to reach that temperature, unless my thermometer is really off. But I figured it was better to err on the side of overcooking than undercooking.
As Charcuterie guru Michael Ruhlman suggested in his blog post on bacon, I went ahead and fried up a small piece as soon as it was done (well, after I removed the skin… I’m a pretty die-hard meat lover, but seeing nipples on my bacon was a little freaky). It was saltier than commercial bacon, but I figured that might have been due to it being an end piece.
In the past couple weeks, we have eaten the bacon on its own and incorporated it into several dishes such as Cuban-style black beans and this venison & porcini ragú. Since it’s not smoked, it’s a great stand-in for pancetta. I also made the French bistro classic frisée aux lardons, a salad composed of bitter frisée (a green in the endive family) tossed with vinaigrette, fried cubes of unsmoked bacon (lardons), and topped with a poached egg. There are versions that don’t use the egg, but to my mind it’s the best part, and really makes it a meal. The store Marvin went to didn’t have frisée so we had to use curly endive (possibly the same plant but more mature?), but it was a suitable stand-in. The salad with a glass of Beaujolais and a nibble of Roquefort was a pretty perfect Sunday afternoon lunch.
Frisée aux Lardons
serves two; recipe can be multiplied to serve more
2 small heads of frisée, washed, cored and torn into pieces
3 Tbs sherry vinegar or good quality red wine vinegar
about 3 oz. unsmoked slab bacon, cut into ½-inch batons
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1-2 Tbs olive oil as needed
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
optional if you have on hand: 1 Tbs minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chervil or chives
Notes: This salad is great with homemade croutons if you’re so inclined. Add them when you toss the salad so they absorb a bit of the dressing. Also, oil & vinegar amounts are a starting point and will vary according to your volume of salad and how lightly or heavily dressed you like things. Please adjust as needed! Last but not least, although I encourage you all to cure your own bacon now that I know how easy it is, you can substitute cut-up strips of regular bacon and have a less traditional but still delicious salad.
Wash and spin-dry the frisée and place in a bowl large enough to toss. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and briefly blanch the lardons; drain. Heat a small skillet and fry the lardons over medium heat until they begin to brown and render some of their fat. Add the shallot and cook until softened. Stir in the vinegar and deglaze any brown bits from the skillet. Remove from heat. Whisk in olive oil to taste until the dressing tastes balanced (this will depend how much fat was rendered from the lardons). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Fill a medium-sized pan halfway with water and bring to a bare simmer. While waiting for the water, toss the salad with the dressing. Taste and tweak as needed with additional oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Distribute onto two plates or shallow bowls. (A note here for people like myself with ADD tendencies: poached eggs wait for no one, so make sure to have the table, drinks etc. ready when you put the eggs in.) Poach the eggs for four minutes, until the whites are set but the yolks remain runny. Retrieve the eggs with a slotted spoon, gently shaking off as much water as possible. Place an egg on each salad and garnish with the herbs, if using. Serve immediately.
I’m sitting in the guest room where Robespierre and Farrow are sequestered, trying to milk the last moments with them before we give them up this week to their new “parents” (due to Marvin’s severe allergies). The house– my new home– is filled with the aroma of chicken roasting on a bed of shallots, herbs and garlic, courtesy of Marvin, who decided to take a turn in the kitchen tonight. Although we signed the paperwork over a month ago, the moving process has been slow, and I was still at the old house this weekend trying to take care of odds and ends and consolidate things to one side in the basement. As of this weekend I’ll have tenants in both flats, and even though I’ve been sleeping here for a couple weeks, that somehow seems to make it official.
Surprisingly, I have been managing to cook a fair amount since the move, I just haven’t had time to photograph or blog about it. We’ve had venison and pork meatballs with pasta sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, a chicken in mustard sauce with goat cheese and leek-stuffed apples, and these Provençale-style mussels that I actually did photograph because it was a paying gig for a recipe column I’ve been writing.
That day we also had our first dinner guest, our friend Jon, who had been helping Marvin move that day. I love all the “firsts” that come not just with moving, but with moving in together- our first night in the new house, first meal cooked on the new stove, first guests, etc. One first that I am particularly eagerly anticipating is the first fire in the fireplace (right now, there are boxes piled in front of it, but I hope to rectify that this weekend). Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I have never shacked up with a significant other, so I was a little anxious about the adjustment, but it seems to be going fairly smoothly so far. (One night at dinner when we did get into a bit of a spat, he gave me a hug afterward and said something like “It’s OK, it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t have some growing pains”. That’s why I love this man!)
As soon as things are more settled, I really hope to get back into my blogging routine. Going from posting a few times a week to only once or twice a month is seriously bumming me out! Part of it is due to time taken up with some paid writing gigs I’ve gotten lately, which is a good thing, but I miss writing here just for me (and the few of you who visit). But instead of dwelling on that, can we talk about mussels? I can’t believe I’ve never posted about mussels before, seeing as how they’re one of my favorite quick-but-fancy meals (fancy in terms of being a bit more exotic than my usual weeknight fare, not in terms of difficulty).
This recipe will be old hat for experienced mussel-makers, but I’m hoping to convert a few of you who may have the mistaken assumption that mussels are tricky to make. Au contraire, mon frère- if you can mince shallots and open a bottle of wine, you’re more than halfway there. This article on CHOW is the best one I found to describe the selection, cleaning and storage of mussels for the uninitiated. Personally, I just buy them the day I’m going to use them; the store I buy from (Holiday Market) sells them already cleaned and debearded, so all I have to do is check for any open ones (if they close when you tap them, they’re still alive and you can safely use them). Add a green salad and some bread to soak up the juices and you have a pretty freaking fantastic meal in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect if you’re busy doing other things like, say, unpacking 30 boxes of cookbooks…
Moules à la Provençale (Mussels with Tomatoes and Garlic)
The following recipe makes enough for two main-dish portions or four appetizer portions. If you want to double the recipe, double the quantity of mussels but only increase the other ingredients by half.
2 lbs. mussels
2-3 large shallots, roughly chopped (about 2/3 c.)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (about 2 tbs.)
1 bay leaf
4 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 c. dry white wine (I used an inexpensive Vinho Verde, but a Sauvignon Blanc would also work well)
A couple of glugs of olive oil (about 2 tbs.)
Pinch of salt, as needed
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, lidded skillet (alternatively, a Dutch oven or stock pot may be used). Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they just begin to soften. Add the wine and bay leaf and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Taste the mixture for salt, adding a pinch or two if needed (may not be necessary if your tomatoes are salted).
When the mixture begins to simmer again, add the cleaned mussels and cover the pan or pot with a lid. You will want to have the rest of your meal ready to go, because the mussels are best eaten as soon as they are cooked. Steam the mussels for about 4 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally (especially important if your pot is deeper than it is wide and the mussels are stacked on top of each other). Do not overcook or the mussels will become tough.
Spoon the mussels into shallow bowls with some of the cooking liquid and vegetables, then garnish with the reserved parsley. Any mussels that have not opened should be avoided (usually there are only a couple per batch). Serve immediately with crusty bread, a salad and the leftover wine you used for cooking.
…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!
It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries. Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin. In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing. Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.
So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale! Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get. They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.
Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection. She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen. In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her. But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.
I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half. Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong? I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen? Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh. This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding. However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.
The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene. As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf. The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce. Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce! I think I was more upset about it than anything.
That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left. I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so. It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them. At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body and flavor to my sauce. I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).
I’m still not sure what happened with the meat. I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled. If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know! Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.
P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley. Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!
When my friend Youn from Toulouse called me on the eve of an out of town trip asking if he and a friend could come stay for a few days, I said yes even though it was inconvenient, because in my mind I want to be That Kind Of Person- the kind who has an open door policy for weary travelers, who can handle surprise visitors with aplomb, and (most importantly), someone who always has food and drink on hand to whip up an impromptu meal or refreshment for said visitors.
Mind you, this is what I strive for- the reality is somewhat different! Unlike Marvin, who grew up in a household where people were constantly dropping by, we rarely if ever had unannounced visitors. So although I wholeheartedly embrace the concept, I have to make a concerted effort to be prepared for this eventuality; it’s not something that comes naturally to me with my more Germanic upbringing.
As it happened, I had purposely NOT gone shopping that week in an effort to use things up before my trip, and the way things worked out, I had no opportunity to go to the store before picking up my guests. Luckily, Marvin came to the rescue in more ways than one- spending some time with them while I was at work, and taking them to the grocery store so that they could make dinner (Youn’s idea). We invited a couple more friends and Youn made traditional Breton buckwheat crêpes (although he has lived in Toulouse for over 20 years, Youn originally hails from Brittany). My apologies for the somewhat haphazard photos, we were enjoying ourselves and I didn’t feel like stopping to bust out a tripod! The two decent-looking pics are from breakfast the next day, when the light was much better.
Those of you who read this blog regularly may recall that, coincidentally, I just posted about buckwheat crêpes (galettes) a few weeks ago. Curiously, the recipe I was using called for apple cider vinegar in the batter, saying it was authentically Breton, but Youn had never heard of it. Just goes to show that “authentic” is a word that you should take with a grain of salt in the cooking world! He doesn’t even use a recipe, just does everything by feel, but he did give me some measurements so that I could share a recipe. Another interesting thing is that all the recipes I’ve seen call for half buckwheat and half white flour, but he uses all buckwheat which is a bit healthier. I actually preferred the texture and will be making them this way from now on. Last but not least, he uses beer in the crêpe batter instead of the usual milk, making the recipe friendly for the lactose-intolerant. For the vegetarians, there are infinite possibilities for veggie fillings (ratatouille comes to mind).
I like to use up leftovers for crêpe fillings, but obviously there were none, so we made the classic complète- ham, cheese and egg. The egg is fried right on top of the crêpe. Add a little grated cheese and some torn-up pieces of ham and you have a meal. Amanda, who up until this point had claimed a dislike of runny yolk, was converted by the oeuf miroir, so called because the yolk is shiny like a mirror. In addition to the buckwheat crêpes, Youn also made dessert crêpes with finely-diced apple in the batter, which we spread with confiture de cidre (cider jam) and sprinkled with powdered sugar (check out this post for a dessert crêpe recipe). We cooked up more crêpes the next morning for breakfast… miam miam! Next time I hope I’ll be able to spoil my guests instead of the other way around, but I was certainly grateful for the help and the opportunity to get crêpe lessons from a seasoned pro.
Crêpes Complètes à la Youn (Buckwheat Crêpes with Ham, Egg & Cheese)
1 lb buckwheat flour
1 cup beer (a lighter lager-style beer is best)
water- about 2 cups or as needed
1-2 Tbs neutral oil or melted butter
additional butter for spreading on crêpes (optional)
eggs- one for each crêpe you plan to make
thinly-sliced deli ham
Gruyère or Swiss-style cheese, grated
A couple notes: The directions for cooking up the crêpes may sound a bit fussy, but once you get the feel for it, crêpe-making is one of the easiest things in the world. You’ll learn by trial and error how to adjust things like the batter thickness and pan heat to get the results you want. Best of all, crêpe batter is a relatively inexpensive thing, so it’s not the end of the world to have a few failed attempts before hitting your stride. This recipe makes plenty of batter so you have room to screw up and still have enough for dinner! Also bear in mind that this “recipe” is very loose. Feel free to thin the batter with more beer instead of water, or only use 2 eggs, or whatever. Youn says that in Brittany the crêpe shops make their batter using only flour and water, so obviously it’s very flexible!
Place the flour in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and place the eggs and oil or butter in it. Gently whisk the eggs with a fork. Slowly pour the beer and 1 cup water into the well a little at a time as you stir, incorporating the flour, until the batter is fully mixed and has no lumps. (Alternately, whiz everything together in the blender.) Add more water a little at a time as needed until batter is the consistency of heavy cream. Let batter rest at least an hour.
Get your eggs, ham and cheese at the ready. Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium-high heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate. Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size) and quickly rotate the pan so it is thinly and completely covered. If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook until golden brown on the bottom- a minute or so. You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy (although Youn says a little crispiness is OK). At this point, flip it over.
As soon as you flip the crêpe, you can smear it with butter if desired, then crack an egg onto the center. With the back of a spoon or a spatula, gently spread the egg white around the crêpe so it can cook. When the egg white begins to turn opaque, add pieces of the torn-up ham and sprinkle with some shredded cheese. When the cheese has melted, fold in the sides of the crêpe towards the center so it forms a square, and serve. (With this kind of crêpe, there really isn’t a way to serve everyone at once, but from my experience making them to order creates a casual, convivial atmosphere that is fun in and of itself.)
“Why I hate cookbooks” may seem like an odd blog post title for someone who owns as many cookbooks as I do, and who regularly swoons over them. But every so often, I have one of those frustrating cooking experiences that make me almost angry at the cookbook author for whatever flaw in their recipe that caused the demise of my dinner.
The primary problem with cookbooks is obviously that they’re not interactive. Have a question or need something clarified? You’re outta luck.* Unlike blogs, where you can usually get a question on a recipe answered via the comments or an email, cookbooks are static and unyielding, leaving many home cooks up in the air and having to guess at what was intended.
Part of this has to do with the fact that many cookbooks assume a level of knowledge or background that may or may not be there. Many foodies probably scoff at cookbook authors such as Nigella Lawson, who is not a “real chef” but just a home cook like (most of) the rest of us. But that’s exactly the thing I love about Nigella’s cookbooks (and blogs like the Amateur Gourmet)- they bother to describe mishaps or trouble spots they experienced while making the dish, in hopes of sparing you the same problems. Details like “don’t worry if your dough appears clumpy” can be invaluable when making a recipe for the first time. (I try to include these types of details in the recipes I give here- it makes them longer, but I’d rather give too much info than not enough!)
Another pet peeve is cookbook authors who don’t seem to test their recipes with American ingredients, even though the U. S. is the primary market for their book sales (they should take a page from Julia Child- she specifically tested her French recipes in an American kitchen with American ingredients, to make sure they would work). I frequently encounter this problem when cooking from ethnic cookbooks whose authors live abroad. There are big differences in ingredients such as flour or even meat, and adjustments need to be made. The person executing the recipe should not be expected to know to make these modifications.
So, what prompted this bout of cookbook disaffection? Spending an entire afternoon and evening in the kitchen one Sunday, and having two different dishes not turn out as expected. The dishes attempted were pork rillettes (from Charcuterie) and a baked chicken and freekeh dish (from the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food). The rillettes, made with expensive pastured pork, turned out the consistency of chewed tuna fish. Note to self: next time, do NOT use the stand mixer as suggested in the book! Next time I’ll use a fork to gently break apart the meat. Another issue was that there was not even a ballpark indication of how much liquid to add, and I think I added too much, which also contributed to the “wet tuna” consistency.
The baked chicken dish was rescued but turned into something completely different from what was intended. I thought the instructions were a little wonky- boil the chicken for an hour, then cut it up and bake it for 30 minutes- but forged ahead, trusting the recipe. After 1 hour of simmering, however, my chicken was falling apart and unable to be cut up into pieces. What would the additional 30 minutes of baking have done anyway, besides drying out the meat?! Bizarre. (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve had an issue with a recipe from this book.) I ended up picking all of the meat from the carcass, putting it back in the broth with the freekeh, and just calling it soup. It tasted fine in the end, but what if I hadn’t been experienced enough to shift gears and transform the dish into something else?
I’ll never fully turn away from cookbooks, but right now, I’m more than a little disenchanted. My resources (both time and money-wise) are limited, and I can’t afford to devote them to recipes that can’t deliver a reliable result.
6/4/10 UPDATE: I had houseguests from France to whom I hesitantly served the rillettes, explaining that it was my first effort, etc. They both said that the rillettes were “tout à fait correct” (i.e. just fine), and judging by the quantity they consumed, I don’t think they were just being polite! They said rillettes can range from fine to coarse. I still think I’ll hand-mix them next time, but it was good to know they weren’t the failure I thought they were. I do think a few weeks in the fridge improved the flavor & texture.