Random Thoughts

He’s back at it.

Facebook amigo David Logue has posed some interesting questions to his friends. Wheat or potatoes? Nina Simone or Ray Charles? As I wrote here, Logue crafted tournaments of music and foods and posed daily matchups to his friends, winnowing the preferences in each case down to an ultimate selection. The Beatles vs. Zeppelin. Tomatoes vs. garlic. The comments these head-to-head battles provoked were as interesting as the matches themselves.

And so Logue visits the life of the mind with a new poll, this one about happiness. “Music and food were a gas, but now it’s time for something terrible and honest. In the new poll, you will be able to choose between two of Life’s pleasures based on the conceit that you can never again experience the one that you do not choose.”

So far, music has whomped movies and pets trounced video games. The question of the day: memories or dreams? I chose memories. What cook – what food person – wouldn’t?

I’ll be interviewing Logue about the Happiness Poll, but in the meantime, what about you? Memories or dreams? Do you reminisce about that great short rib at Craft, the yakitori and cold Sapporo from the stand next to that train station in Tokyo, the corn on the cob and scoop of peach ice cream with your family every Fourth of July? Or do you dream about dinner at Noma?

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Pasta, Vegetables

Just beet it.

I don’t recall ever eating beets as a kid. This may have been a chicken-egg situation – like most kids I was driven to eat the familiar, so perhaps my mom decided to play the odds and stay away from beets. As an adult I don’t know why I ever would have objected. Beetroot is mild and sweet, and the leaves delicate, more so than spinach.

Beets and spinach are part of the same plant family, Amaranthaceae. If the word amaranth brings to mind houseplants with ruffly, vivid, pink-red and green leaves, that’s because they’re part of the same family. Quinoa, a nutritional superstar, is not a grain, like many believe, but the seed of another member of the family. Beetroot, spinach, quinoa, and chard used to be separately classified from other amaranths, in a family called Chenopodiaceae, or, literally, “goosefeet,” named for their fleshy, ribbed leaves. Indeed, beet greens are not only edible but delicious. Swiss chard (or silverbeet) is a variant of beet specifically cultivated for its mild greens, but if you buy fresh beets with the tops attached, you can enjoy both the root and the leaves.

The famously vivid color of beets and chard stems is due to pigments collectively called betalains. The betacyanins lend red to purple hues; betaxanthins show off bright yellow, gold, and orange. As anyone who’s ever prepared beets knows, these pigments can end up all over the kitchen, your hands, and your clothes – beet cells are unstable and prone to leakage when cut, heated, or exposed to air. Add red beets to any dish and you can expect it to emerge brilliantly pink or purple.

Roasted beet salad with walnuts and Maytag blue

Golden beets – colored by betaxanthins – are no less vivid than their deep red counterparts. They do tend to taste milder and somewhat less “dirty” because of lower levels of geosmin, the compound that lends the earthy, dirty flavor to beets.

Golden beetroot.

I used golden beets for this salad (to avoid problems with the ravioli later), but the typical red beet works perfectly. You can obtain spectacular results using Chioggia beets, an heirloom variety that, when sliced across the equator, displays a many-ringed bullseye.

In my opinion, the best way to prepare cooked beets is to roast them whole, in a foil package, at about 400F/205C, for about 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the beet. Drizzle the beet with a little oil before roasting. The steam from the beets softens the peel – once the beet is cooked through, the peel is easy to remove with a paring knife.

4 beets, scrubbed well, greens removed and reserved
2 ounces Maytag Blue or other blue cheese, cut into very small wedges or crumbled
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) shelled walnuts, broken
2 c arugula, washed and spun dry
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil plus extra for roasting
Salt and pepper

Oven 400F/205C.

Drizzle the beets with a little oil before roasting. Place in aluminum foil and fold the foil over, sealing the sides to form a loose envelope. It is not necessary to form a perfect package. Roast for about 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the beet. At the last five to ten minutes of roasting, place the walnuts on a sheet pan and roast on a separate rack until golden. Remove from the oven.

Once the beets are tender to the center, remove from the oven and cool the beets. Remove with a paring knife or peel with your fingers (a paring knife may yield cleaner results and spare you the stained fingers).

Cut each beet into eighths and toss lightly with about 1 tbsp of the sherry vinegar. Arrange the wedges on individual plates, or on one large platter, along with the Maytag Blue and toasted walnuts. In a bowl, place the remaining tablespoon of sherry vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a little black pepper. Slowly drizzle the oil into the vinegar to form an emulsion. Dress the arugula and add it to the plates.

Finish with sea salt and pepper.

Golden beet, Maytag blue, walnut, arugula.

Beet green ravioli

I always roll out pasta sheets by hand using a French pin (just a really long, tapered rolling pin). I enjoy the exertion and find that it is possible to achieve a thinner dough by hand-rolling than by using a machine. That said, there’s no shame in using the pasta roller.

Using a pastry wheel to cut the filled pasta sheets into square ravioli results in less scrap dough than using a round biscuit cutter, as I have. The choice is a matter of aesthetics (although square ravioli tend to have a higher ratio of pasta to filling). Don’t worry, the scraps don’t go to waste. I cut them with a knife into small, rough shapes (about 1/2″) called malfatti – literally, badly formed – dry them, cook like regular pasta, and sauce with butter and cheese.

I really recommend using golden beets if you’re going to prepare this dish as part of an all-beet meal. Having developed this dish originally using red beets, I can tell you that the resulting pasta filling assumes an unsettling pink hue, much like Pepto-Bismol. If you aren’t preparing an all-beet meal, substitute Swiss chard for the beet greens.

Beet green, ricotta, pine nut, lemon.

Reserved beet greens from 4 beets or one bunch swiss chard, separated into leaves and stems, and washed very well
1/2 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c ricotta cheese
1 egg white (from pasta below)
2 lemons, zested and juiced
large pinch grated nutmeg
olive oil
salt and black pepper
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
flat leaf parsley, washed and dried

2 c/250g/scant 9 ounces “00” flour or King Arthur Italian-style flour; otherwise all-purpose is fine, plus extra for dusting
2 whole large eggs plus one egg yolk
1/4 c water

First make the filling. Stack the chard leaves several at a time, roll tightly, and slice as thinly as possible (chiffonade). Dice the stems about 1/4″ or smaller if you can.

Place a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 1 tbsp olive oil. Add the onions and sauté until lightly golden; add the garlic and sauté a minute more until just fragrant. Do not brown. Add the leaves and stems and saute until tender and wilted. Remove from heat and season with lemon juice to taste (a little less than 1 lemon, not much more), salt and pepper, nutmeg, and zest of one lemon. Stir together the ricotta and the egg white. When the beet green or chard sauté is cool, stir in the ricotta. You can make a test quenelle and cook in the microwave to taste for seasoning – adjust by adding more acid, lemon zest, salt, or pepper.

Place the flour in a mound on a large wooden board and form a well in the center. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks and add to the well. Using a fork with your dominant hand, stir the eggs while using your other hand to push flour from the pile into the well. Don’t work too fast or the well will break and you’ll find egg everywhere. If the dough is too tough and solid, add a little water.

Once all the flour is incorporated, dust the board with flour and knead the dough until smooth, with the texture of baby skin. If it’s sticky, add more flour to the dough (always keep the board dusted); if it’s too tough to knead, add a little water. Divide the dough into fourths using a sharp knife or bench scraper and cover three of the quarters with a kitchen towel.

Pasta dough.

If you’re using a pasta machine, roll out the sheets. Otherwise, dust the board with flour and roll out the piece of pasta dough using a French pin. Roll from the center out, until you have a uniform sheet about 1/6″ thick. Then continue to roll from the center out to form a thinner and thinner sheet. Once the sheet becomes quite thin focus on making it uniform. It should be thin enough to be translucent and virtually see-through.

Rolled out pasta sheet.

Add the filling, in 2-3 tsp amounts, at intervals depending on the size of the ravioli you intend to make on one half of the sheet. If you cut into squares using a rolling pastry wheel, you will have less waste. You also can stamp using a round cutter (like a biscuit cutter). Fold over the sheet and seal around the filling. Stamp or cut the dough. Once cut, use your fingers to seal again around the edges to ensure they do not leak during cooking. Place on a clean kitchen towel until ready to cook. Repeat with the pasta sheets until finished.

Stamped out ravioli.

Set a pot of salted water to simmer. Add the ravioli and simmer until they float. Unlike dry pasta, which must cook at a rolling boil or it will turn gummy, this fresh ravioli should not boil or it will disintegrate. Drain.

As the ravioli are cooking, place a small skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the butter. When it turns golden brown and foamy, add the juice of one lemon and remove from heat. Season with salt. Plate the ravioli (or use one large platter for family-style) and pour the lemon brown butter over all. Garnish with lemon zest, sea salt, parsley, and pine nuts.

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Latin, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Quick Meals

Recycling is good, the cross-border edition.

So let’s say you made the pork shoulder and the grits the other night, and now you’ve got leftovers. Some people love leftovers, just as they are. But for a lot of people – more, in my experience – leftovers = been there/done that = wasted food. And the pork and grits are too good to go to waste. In these cases, it’s always good to recycle.

We don’t have tamales often at home. Normally, tamales begin with a corn-based dough, called masa. To prepare masa, corn is soaked in a solution of ash (generally potash [K2CO3] dissolved in water], or limewater (calcium carbonate [CaCO3] dissolved in water); the alkaline solution makes available niacin, a B vitamin that is not available in unprocessed corn. This process, called nixtamalization, is ancient, and probably made possible the reliance of Mesoamerican people on a corn-based diet.

Conventionally, to make tamales, one combines nixtamalized cornmeal (masa de harina) with water to hydrate, and then with lard to add unctuousness and flavor, and baking powder for lightness. The masa is spread inside a banana leaf or corn husk (or occasionally a chard leaf), enclosing a savory or sweet filling. The leaf is wrapped to enclose the filling, the tamales are stacked in a steamer, and steamed until firm. It’s not difficult, but I don’t make tamales or tortillas often enough to use up the biggish bags of masa de harina from the Latin market before they go stale. And you probably don’t either.

I had an idea last night, when I looked through the refrigerator and found the leftover grits. Sure, they’re not masa. For a quick evening meal, though, spreading the leftover grits inside banana leaves and enclosing some of the leftover pork might make a perfectly good imitation tamal. The grits, like all cornmeal dishes, tend to firm up on cooling, like masa; the sour orange flavors in the pork, combined with the banana leaves, would be reminiscent of the Yucatán. And the whole thing would take about twenty minutes, from wrapping to eating.

Are these authentic tamales? No. Are they quick and delicious? Yes. They’re also much lighter. To complete the tasty bastardization, serve the tamales with a little of the remaining red or green chile sauce, and follow up with an avocado and orange salad.

Pork “tamales”

Banana leaves are widely available in the freezer section of the supermarket. Check the Latin foods section – Goya provides frozen banana leaves in large, square plastic packets for just a couple of dollars. If you live in an area with a large Central American or Southeast Asian population, you may be able to find them fresh at a Latin or Asian market. Rinse well and remove the large central rib from fresh leaves – it usually has been removed in the frozen product. For maximum flavor and pliability, steam the leaves in a basket above simmering water for about 15-20 minutes before using. You can skip this step to save time.

The recipes for the grits, pork, and the red/green chile sauces all come from the “Christmas” post.

2 1/2 c leftover grits
1/2 c corn kernels, cut off the cob (optional – I was trying to use up some corn in the freezer)
1 c leftover pork shoulder in mojo, diced 1/4″
6 banana leaf sections, about 12″/30cm square or so
leftover red and/or green chile sauce

Spread a banana leaf on a cutting board. Spread out about 1/6 of the grits into a 3″ x 4″ rectangle in the middle of the leaf (the grits rectangle should be wider than it is tall). Don’t worry if the grits have become firm – they will spread easily. Sprinkle corn over, if using. Place 1/6 of the pork down the center, vertically. Carefully fold the banana leaf over so that the grits totally enclose the pork filling. Continue to fold closed so it forms a small rectangular packet and place in a small steamer basket. Repeat until you have used all the filling and leaves. Cover the basket.

Set the steamer basket over a pan of water and bring to a simmer. Steam for about eight minutes, until heated through. If you like, serve with the chile sauces.

Ersatz tamal with pork.

Avocado, orange, and onion salad

one bunch watercress, washed well and spun dry
one avocado, pitted, peeled, and sliced
one large orange, peeled and cut into supremes
about 1/2 red onion, sliced into thin rings, rinsed in cold water
2 tbsp vinegar
2 tbsp water
pinch salt
juice of one lime
salt and pepper

Combine the vinegar and water. Soak the onion rings for at least ten minutes in the vinegar water.

Meanwhile, arrange the avocado and orange on the plate. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over all the avocado. Drain the onion rings and blot dry; add to the plate. Season with salt and the remaining lime juice. Top with the watercress.

Avocado, orange, onion salad

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Beef, Chiles, Pork Products

Christmas.

Those of you who connect with me through Facebook know that I spent a few days in Santa Fe recently. My husband and I flew out West to do some skiing – initially, we planned to ski Taos, but as it turns out, Taos is further from Santa Fe than we thought. The Santa Fe Ski Basin was just up the road from our lodgings, though, and with the recent snowfall, provided great skiing.

No trip to Santa Fe would be complete without eating as many chile dishes as possible. Indeed, chiles are ubiquitous throughout New Mexico, which even boasts its own chile varieties – New Mexico chiles, a variety of Anaheim chiles, which form the basis for much of the state’s cuisine. Although New Mexican cuisine share some similarities with Mexico’s Sonoran cuisine – burritos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, huevos rancheros – when prepared in New Mexico, those dishes tend to feature New Mexico chiles. And they usually come with a ladle of chile sauce.

“Red or green?” is the question you’ll be asked when ordering many local specialties. Each sauce has its virtues – green is hot, bright, and vegetal, while red is richer and fruity. Think of the difference between a poblano and an ancho, or between a jalepeño and a chipotle. Greens usually are flame-roasted to shed the bitter, tough skins, then diced and stewed with pork, or with hominy, or pureed for sauce; reds are dried, and the dried pods ground to a powder for use in sauces, tamale masa, or stews. “Christmas” connotes the use of both red and green chile sauce.

We came back from Santa Fe with a variety of red chiles – Dixon Medium Hot (grown in Dixon, NM), Hatch Extra Hot (from Hatch, NM, where the famed Hatch chiles grow), and Native Nambé (an heirloom chile indigenous to the northern part of the state). The Dixon and Hatch are rich, sweet, and fruity – the Hatch somewhat more so – and the Nambé somewhat more earthy and spicy. To prepare dried red chiles, remove the stem, and the seeds, and grind the dried fruit to a powder in a spice grinder.

Clockwise from top: Dixon, Nambé, Hatch.

Preparing green chile here in Baltimore poses some questions of seasonality and authenticity. True New Mexico chiles are not generally available outside New Mexico, and the season for fresh green chiles is a few short months in the late summer. You can approximate the flavor, though, with widely-available Anaheim chiles, supplemented by a couple of jalepeños. Before using green chiles, blister the skins by holding the peppers (with tongs) over a gas flame; otherwise, roast them in a hot (450F/230C) oven until the skins blister and brown. Place the prepared chiles in a pan and cover them so the residual heat continues to steam the skins away from the chile flesh. Then peel them, and remove the seeds.

From left to right: Anaheim, Korean, Serrano.

Roasted and steamed, just before peeling.

Pork shoulder, green chile sauce

One of New Mexico’s archetypical dishes is green chile stew, featuring the roasted, peeled green chiles, onions, cubed pork, and seasonings. These flavors form the basis for this dish, whose influences stretch from Vermont (the four year-old extra sharp cheddar in the grits), through the South (the grits), to New Mexico (the pine nuts), and across the border into Mexico’s Yucatán province (the sour orange marinade for the pork).

Roast pork with sour orange mojo:

2 lb pork shoulder
juice of 4 sour oranges or 2 juice oranges and 2 limes
6 cloves garlic, smashed
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground achiote (annatto seed)
1 tsp salt

Green chile sauce:

1 lb Anaheim chiles, and a couple of hot green chiles like serrano or jalepeño, roasted, skinned, and seeded
1 large onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic confit
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp ground coriander
vegetable oil
2 c water or chicken stock [Note: water is good if you’re going to use the sauce for a vegetarian item; otherwise, meat stock lends more flavor]

Vermont cheddar grits:

4 c filtered water
1 tsp salt
1 c stone-ground yellow grits
2 ounces extra-sharp aged Cheddar, or similar (I used a four year-old XX sharp Cheddar from Dakin Farm in Vermont)
unsalted butter

Garniture:
Pine nuts, toasted
Flash-pickled red onion, diced 1/4″
Avocado slices
Cilantro leaves, washed and spun dry

At least three hours before cooking the pork, but as much as the night before, rub the pork shoulder with the salt. In a blender, combine the pork marinade ingredients except the salt. Place the pork in a nonreactive metal or glass bowl, pour the marinade ingredients over, and work well over the pork. Refrigerate, covered, 3 hours to overnight. Turn at least once if possible to redistribute the marinade. You also can place the whole thing in a zippered plastic bag.

Oven 400F/200C. Remove the meat from the marinade and brush off any excess; place the pork on a rack in a pan. Reserve the marinade in the refrigerator. Roast for 10 mins and then reduce the heat to 250F/120C. Roast for four hours. Remove and rest for 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the reserved marinade to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.

While the pork roasts, prepare the green chile sauce. Roast, seed, and skin the peppers if you haven’t done so already, dice, and set aside. Place a saucepot over medium heat; when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Bloom the coriander and oregano. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the garlic and onion and sweat until tender and translucent; then add the diced chile and sweat another 5 minutes. Add the stock or water and bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If using a conventional blender, remove the top from the lid and use a kitchen towel to cover the hole to allow steam to escape. Season with salt.

Prepare the grits cake. Bring 4 c of salted water to a rolling boil in a saucepot; whisk in the grits. With a wooden spoon, stir constantly for about three minutes; then cover and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Let the grits simmer and thicken for about 20 minutes, until thick and smooth. Stir in the aged Cheddar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a half sheet pan and cool. When firm, turn the cooled grits out onto a cutting board and score about 2″x3″.

To serve, set a skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. Add the squares of grits cake and fry on each side, turning after several minutes when golden and crisp. Place a streak of green chile sauce on the plate and top with a grits cake; add slices or shreds of the roast pork tossed in the reduced marinade. Garnish with toasted pine nuts, diced pickled red onion, slices of avocado, and cilantro leaves.

Pork shoulder, green chile sauce, aged cheddar grits.

Short rib, red chile sauce

This dish has no analogue in traditional New Mexican cuisine, but the New Mexican red chiles bring the new Southwest to two meat and potatoes classics – short ribs and gnocchi. Don’t skip the celery salad – it adds a bright green vegetable note and a bit of crispness.

Short rib

3 lb short rib on the bone, cut in 2″x2″ cubes
2 each carrots, celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
bay leaves
6-8 thyme branches
peppercorns
1/4 c tomato paste
1 c red wine
2 c beef stock (chicken stock is ok too, as is unsalted chicken broth from a can or box)
salt and pepper

Red chile sauce:

6 tbsp mixed ground red chiles (I used a combination of Hatch, Dixon, and Nambé)
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 cloves garlic confit
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp ground coriander
vegetable oil
2 c water or beef stock [Note: water is good if you’re going to use the sauce for a vegetarian item; otherwise, meat stock lends more flavor]

Half recipe gnochetti, sliced 1/4″ with bench scraper and prepared to the point of simmering
unsalted butter

Garniture:

Button mushrooms, sliced paper thin with benriner
Celery leaves, dressed in lemon juice and truffle oil

Prepare at least a day ahead if possible. First prepare the red chile sauce. Grind the peppers to powder if you haven’t done so already after removing the seeds and stems. Place a saucepot over medium heat; when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Bloom the coriander and oregano. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the garlic and onion and sweat until tender and translucent; then add the ground chile and sauté another 1-2 minutes. Add the stock or water and bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If using a conventional blender, remove the top from the lid and use a kitchen towel to cover the hole to allow steam to escape. Season with salt.

Oven 180F/80C or 250F/120C (read on for an explanation). Season the beef on all sides. Brown in a little oil until well browned on all sides. Set aside and remove all but 1 tbsp oil from pan.

Sweat the vegetables in a heavy sauce pot with a lid. Add tomato paste and saute a minute. Add aromatics and wine; bring wine to a simmer, and simmer 10 minutes. Add stock and return to simmer. Return beef and any juices to the pot. Cover with the pan’s lid or with a parchment lid, and place in oven. Braise 10 hours at 180F. For a faster short rib, braise at 250F 4 hours.

Remove pan from oven; remove short rib to cutting board and, when cool enough to handle, slice from bone and any stray connective tissue. Strain braising liquid through chinois into shallow pan (or a bain-marie, if you have one) to cool quickly. If you are preparing in advance, add the braising liquid to the short ribs to cover. Cover with foil and another pan, and weight with cans (such as tomatoes). Chill overnight or at least 8 hours. If you are preparing the same day, skim as much fat as you can from the braising liquid and proceed to the reducing step right away. As pictured, the short rib hasn’t been weighted and squared off as I prepared it the same day.

Remove cold fat layer from braising liquid and remove short ribs to a cutting board. Square off the ribs (save trim for another use, like a ragù). Return braising liquid to a pan and reduce over medium heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Cut meat from bone and trim to even size. Return to the reduction to warm through.

At serving time, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Add the gnocchetti and simmer until they float. Drain. You have two options at this point. For a very tender gnocchetti, toss with butter and season with salt and pepper. Otherwise, place a skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add butter; fry the gnocchetti on both sides quickly. Season with salt and pepper. The fried gnocchi will be firmer.

To plate, place a streak of the red chile sauce on the plate and top with a square of the short rib and the gnocchetti. Garnish with the celery salad and mushrooms, and drizzle with the reduced braising liquid.

Braised short rib, red chile sauce, gnochetti.

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