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.
Two winters ago, I wrote a series of blog posts all featuring ground venison, since I’d been given 6 pounds of it from my dad. According to my first post in the series, my plan was to write a different recipe for each of the 6 packages, but somehow I fell off after three. I can’t recall what I did with the other 3 pounds, but I’m guessing it’s pretty likely there was at least one batch of chili in there.
Chili is probably the most common dish made with ground venison- I suspect some people turn to it because the powerful seasonings can mask the venison’s taste, but that hasn’t been a problem for us since my dad’s deer always taste great with no “off” or gamey flavors. We just make it because it’s easy and we tend to have most of the ingredients on hand. However, I never really considered my usual chili (which consists primarily of chopping onions and garlic and opening a bunch of cans) to be worthy of writing down a recipe.
Folks, this batch is a different story. I did rely on a couple canned ingredients, and this is still squarely in the camp of weeknight fare (even with the experimentation factor and my own slow-pokiness, it only took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but the flavors are richer, deeper and, dare I say, more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill chili. Marvin may have to make good on his mention of taking up hunting himself in order to keep us stocked with sufficient quantities of venison, because rather than quell my cravings, this just made me hungry for more. Continue reading
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.
Have you noticed it’s been a bit heavy on the meat posts over here lately? I have some non-meat-centric recipes up my sleeve, but am trying to be timely for St. Patrick’s Day and the Charcutepalooza deadline (which I’ve already blown by 2 days). This month’s challenge was brining; specifically, corning (is that really a verb?) our own beef. (I told my friend Fred on the phone the other night what I was up to, to which he replied, “I like to hear a lady say she’s corning her own beef”. Yes, Fred can make innuendo out of just about anything. What would that even mean? Never mind…)
This was probably one of the easiest challenges- not that I know what the others will be yet, but as far as curing and charcuterie goes, this was a snap- make up a simple brine (salt, pink salt, spices and water), brine the meat for 5 days, and then simmer with more spices until cooked. No humidity or temperatures to monitor; in fact the biggest challenge was probably finding room in the fridge for the container of meat and brine.
I bought a brisket from Gratiot Central Market that was almost 8 pounds, the smallest they had. The recipe called for a 5-lb brisket, so I cut off the round (the thicker end) and stuck it in the freezer; I’ll probably do some kind of braise with it later. I made my own pickling spice according to the recipe in Charcuterie, which now has me wanting to pickle anything and everything just because I have a whole jar of it and it’s awfully pretty and intoxicating (photo shows coriander, peppercorns & mustard seed I toasted). But if you really want easy-breezy, it’s fine to use a pre-mixed pickling spice.
For our first corned beef meal, I made this braised cabbage instead of boiled. I just feel like it’s a little dressier, or maybe it’s just my comfort zone since I don’t make many boiled dinners. I used the corned beef cooking liquid instead of chicken broth for the braising liquid and it was fabuloso. The meal got big thumbs up from Marvin, who called the corned beef “sprightly” from the coriander and praised the cabbage’s sweetness. He was still carrying on about it the next day, saying it was the best corned beef he’s ever had. So there you have it- homemade really does make a difference!
Once we got down to about a pound of corned beef left, I decided to make a batch of corned beef and cabbage soup, loosely based on one at a restaurant where I used to work. Now, I know there are probably a thousand recipes out there for this soup, and I make no claims to any sort of originality or authenticity with this, but for you other Charcutepaloozers out there, this is a solid recipe and a good way to use up leftover stock and meat. It incorporates the highly flavorful cooking liquid from simmering the beef (waste not, want not!) and is ridiculously easy to throw together.
In other (sort of related) news: My latest SimmerD column is out; it’s a profile of P.J.’s Lager House in Corktown and you can read it here.
Corned Beef & Cabbage Soup
1 lb corned beef, cut into whatever you determine to be appropriate bite-sized pieces
1 lb green cabbage, shredded on a mandoline or thinly sliced
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
2 medium yellow onions, cut to your preference (I like vertical slices but you can also dice them)
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup sauerkraut with its juice
1 large russet potato, peeled and shredded (optional, see notes)
6 cups broth from cooking your corned beef (if very salty, use 4 cups broth + 2 cups water or whatever ratio tastes balanced)
Notes: If you didn’t cook your own corned beef, you could try making this with deli corned beef- for the cooking liquid, use beef broth, and put a tablespoon of pickling spice in a tea strainer or cloth spice bag to cook with the soup. I didn’t use a potato since I’m off the white starch for the moment, but I probably would have otherwise. I didn’t miss it though. Your call.
Directions: Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot. Sauté the onions and carrots until the onions are softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Raise the heat slightly and add the cabbage. Continue to sauté until the cabbage is wilted and softened, about 15 minutes, adding more oil if needed so nothing sticks.
Add the tomatoes, broth, meat and potato, if using. Simmer until cabbage and carrots are cooked to your liking. Stir in the sauerkraut and taste to check the balance of flavors, adding more salt, water (if too salty), sauerkraut juice etc. as needed. Serve with hunks of pumpernickel or rye bread and butter.
“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.