A couple weekends ago, the soup swap was brought back to life after a one-year hiatus. What were we thinking, skipping a year? I do not know. My only excuse is that we moved last January and at the time, I probably didn’t think the house was “ready” to have people over. I can’t say that it’s that much more ready now- we still have a long way to go and the list of home improvement projects is long- but fortunately I’ve forced myself to get over it and lower my standards; otherwise, I’d never have any guests!
It’s a well-known fact that a little pork can enhance just about any soup, and we found it amusing that everyone’s soups, without specifically planning it that way, had pork in them. Michelle’s was the meatiest, a pork and tomatillo stew with big chunks of tender, falling-apart meat. Kate brought a delicious split pea with bacon, perked up with the addition of fresh rosemary. Molly made a hearty chickpea and sausage soup with some Hungarian sausage she’d been gifted from a neighbor, and Sarah made a fantastic wonton soup with homemade, pork-filled dumplings.
Everywhere I turn- on Facebook and Twitter and even *gasp* real-life conversations (remember those?)- people are, to put it gently, lamenting spring’s tardy appearance this year. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to ditch the scarf and gloves, and temps in the 60s would feel balmy right about now, but I try not to dwell on that which I cannot change. Instead, I’m trying to transition as best I can, by cooking foods which satisfy both the craving for something warm and hearty, and the desperate longing for something green.
When I prepared my prosciutto leg in January, I had a fair amount of meat (and bone; see above) left over from the trimmings. I took some out of the freezer a couple weeks ago to make a Oaxacan pork stew. I’m sure the very word “stew” conjures rib-sticking, squarely winter food, but bear with me. The dish incorporates plenty of green things like tomatillos and squash and an herb purée that gives it a lively perk and, when stirred in, turns the color from olive-drab to a brilliant emerald. The stew’s heat (both temperature and spice-wise) will fend off these last bouts of winter chill, while the vegetables and herbs will prime your palate for green things to come.
I served this one night to my friend Amanda, wh0 has visited Oaxaca with her Mexican beau, and she said it was very similar to something she had tried there. I wouldn’t expect anything less of a Rick Bayless recipe- this one comes from his book Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. The only change I made was to use zucchini in place of the chayote because the market was out of it that day, but I think it’s a fine (if less authentic) substitution. I also used frozen green beans because I prefer them over the somewhat large, tough specimens that are found in stores this time of year.
If you still think that stew is too much of a winter dish, I would humbly remind you that in Mexico it is MUCH warmer than it is in most parts of North America, and they eat stews like this all the time! I won’t preach to you about not being deterred by the long ingredients list or prep time; this is unapologetically a recipe for those who may actually enjoy spending an afternoon in the kitchen. Might as well, since it’s still too cold to go outdoors.
2 lbs boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1 lb pork bones, cut into 2-inch pieces
2/3 cup dried navy beans
4 garlic cloves, whole and unpeeled
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 medium white onion, diced
1 lb medium tomatillos. husked and rinsed
fresh green chiles to taste- about 2 jalapeños or 3 serranos
½ tsp cumin, preferably toasted and freshly ground
½ tsp black pepper, preferably fresh ground
pinch of ground cloves
1 ½ Tbx lard or vegetable oil
2 medium (1 lb total) chayotes, peeled, seeded and cut into ¾-inch chunks, or substitute 1 lb zucchini (do not peel)
1 ½ cups (about 6 oz) tender young green beans, trimmed and cut in half, or substitute frozen if no good fresh beans are available
2/3 cup fresh masa, or generous ½ cup masa harina mixed with 6 Tbs hot water
about 2 tsp salt
4 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley, plus additional for garnish
2 small sprigs epazote (or 5-6 sprigs of cilantro if unavailable)
2 leaves hoja santa (or 1 cup roughly chopped fennel fronds)
Place the meat and bones in a large Dutch oven or cazuela and cover with 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil, skimming the gray foam that rises to the surface. When no more foam surfaces, add the beans, minced garlic and onion. Partially cover and cook at a gentle simmer until the beans are cooked and the meat is tender, 1 ½- 2 hours. Add any water as needed during cooking to keep the beans and meat covered.
Meanwhile, roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until soft and blackened on one side, about 3-5 minutes; turn them over and blacken the other side. Transfer tomatillos along with any juices to a blender or food processor. Heat a cast iron skillet or heavy griddle over medium heat. Roast the chiles and unpeeled garlic in the dry skillet, turning frequently, until soft and blackened in spots. (Note: I found it helpful to keep the garlic on the outer edge of the pan to avoid burning.) Peel the garlic and roughly chop it with the chiles. Add to blender along with the cumin, cloves and pepper, and purée until smooth.
When the meat and beans are tender, pour them into a colander set over a large bowl or stockpot. Remove the bones, picking them clean of any remaining meat and adding it back to the colander. Set colander aside. Skim the fat from the top of the broth. Wash and dry your Dutch oven or cazuela, set over medium heat, and add the lard or oil. When hot, add the tomatillo purée- it should sizzle sharply (test a drop first). Stir constantly for about 5 minutes to thicken. Add 4 cups of the pork broth, partially cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the chayote or zucchini and green beans and cook 5 minutes longer.
In a small bowl, whisk 2/3 cup broth with the masa mixture, mixing well to remove lumps, then whisk into the stew base until thickened. Return the meat and beans to the stew pot. Season with salt to taste, usually about 2 teaspoons. Let the stew simmer gently while you prepare the herb mixture.
Purée the herbs with 1/3 cup broth in a blender until smooth. (If you are short of broth, you can use water.) Stir the puréed herbs into the stew. Add broth or water as needed to achieve a medium-thick consistency. Ladle into wide soup bowls, garnish with additional parsley, and serve immediately with warm corn tortillas. If not eating all of the stew immediately, stir a spoonful of herb mixture into each individual serving rather than the whole pot, reserving the remaining mixture to add to the stew when reheating it.
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.
When my band plays live shows, it’s common for us to play certain songs faster than the tempo we record or rehearse them in. There’s an energy to a live performance that incites you to do everything louder, faster, harder. For some of the songs that are already up-tempo, the live versions are sometimes performed at breakneck speeds that make you feel as if you’re on a runaway train that could careen off the tracks at any moment. It’s nerve-wracking to think it could all fall apart, but exhilarating at the same time when you finish the song, looking around at your bandmates like “Did we really just pull that off?”.
This is the feeling that sums up my September- a frantic, energetic, delirious blur. It bums me out that I’ve gone the entire month so far- over three weeks- without posting here, even though I had the first week of the month off (the pork loin shown above was cooked up north over Labor Day weekend, the last couple leisure days I’ve had). Rest assured, I haven’t been neglecting this space out of laziness or lack of interest. I’ve become involved in a few different new projects that are kicking into high gear and keeping nearly every free moment occupied, so I do feel a bit neurotic. But like that song that just manages not to self-implode, I’ve been holding it all together by the skin of my teeth and feeling, for the most part, immensely satisfied.
A month ago, I convinced my job to let me cut my work week to 32 hours so that I could have some extra time for entrepreneurial pursuits. I was a little nervous about the reduction in pay, but I knew it was something I had to do and was ready to take a bit of a risk. Since then, I have started making products for a small business with a friend (more on this soon!) and have written my first freelance article for Model D (out 9/28). I’ve also been working on getting this blog redesigned and moved over to a new domain, which I hope to have done in October in time for its 2-year anniversary.
Meanwhile, my cooking has fallen a bit to the wayside. I’ve largely been subsisting off salads, bread, cheese, and very simply cooked vegetables from the farmers’ market- nothing to write home about, but nourishing to the soul as well as the body. As summer grinds to a halt, I’m spending massive amounts of free time processing various fruits and vegetables, something I haven’t done on a large scale before. I hope to get my blogging mojo back soon, but for the moment my other projects are demanding just about all of my attention. I hope you’ll bear with me as I transition into these new and exciting ventures!
Grilled Pork Loin with Garlic & Rosemary
I haven’t really made anything requiring a recipe in the last month, but I did make the grilled pork loin pictured above with my favorite sous-chef, my brother Jesse, on Labor Day weekend up north.
Take a pork loin and cut it for a roulade (or have the butcher do this if you don’t know how). Generously season the meat on both sides with salt and pepper. Lay flat. Make a paste out of generous amounts of garlic and rosemary with a little olive oil; smear this liberally on one side of the meat. Roll it up and secure with butcher’s twine. Grill over high heat until it begins to color and brown, then transfer to indirect heat and grill, covered, until internal temperature is 145°. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes tented with foil; slice and serve. We served this with a “sauce” made of fresh Michigan peaches peeled and macerated with a small amount of sugar, and the grilled sweet corn pictured in the new masthead.
“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.