Cheese, Holidays, Pork Products, Soup

Packers. Packers. Packers.

Last week, I received this question from a reader:

“It’s only 16 days and 2 hours until the Super Bowl…Super Bowl recipe time?”

Normally, I like to respond to reader questions in the Answers section, but I’ll take this question up front this year. Why? Because my Packers are in the Super Bowl! I don’t like to brag, but Wisconsin women are likely both to profess interest in the game and to possess serious knowledge of the sport, so don’t act so surprised.

I’m not going to present you with recipes for fussy tenderloin canapés or sushi. This Superbowl could not be more steeped in tradition – Packers and Steelers? Green Bay and Pittsburgh? Titletown, USA and the Steel City? It calls for traditional foods. Start off with warming cups of beer cheddar soup, a Wisconsin classic, using two of my home state’s best-known products. Move on to fiery crispy sriracha wings – and don’t be put off by the multiple steps. You’re just brining the wings first to keep them moist before coating in a light batter and frying, and if you want to skip the brining you can. Finish off with bratwurst-flavored meatball sliders, which admittedly have a stupid but descriptive name, and provide the flavor of bratwurst in a cute little meatball sandwich.

Enjoy the game! Go Pack go!

Beer cheddar soup

It may surprise you to learn this, but the Wisconsin lowbrow classic, beer cheese soup, relies on sound food science principles for its smooth texture. When you place a crouton and grated cheese on top of onion soup and melt it, the cheese becomes stringy, but when you whisk that same cheese into a béchamel sauce and then add a slightly acidic liquid – like beer – before heating the soup, it becomes smooth. Why is that?

Cheeses that are neither extremely moist nor very crumbly tend to become stringy when melted because the casein (a type of dairy protein) strands become linked to each other by calcium ions in the presence of heat. Starch – as in flour or cornstarch – coats the casein strands and interferes with their ability to link with the calcium ions. In addition, the acid in beer or wine (or lemon juice or vinegar) interferes with the action of calcium, preventing it from connecting to the casein, a key reason why fondue is so smooth. Finally, large quantities of liquid keep the particles far apart, reducing their tendency to link. The tendency to stringiness is far less pronounced in crumblier cheese, so select an aged, crumbly Cheddar (which also packs better flavor). How will you know if your cheese is prone to stringiness? Try to break off a piece. If it breaks easily into a crumbly chunk, you have a crumbly cheese. If it is rubbery and flexible, it’s string-town.

one medium onion, small dice
one small leek, white and light green only, washed well and diced
one carrot, peeled and small dice
one stalk celery, peeled and small dice

4 tbsp Wondra or flour
7 tbsp butter, divided
3 c milk
1 tsp dry mustard
1 1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
a few dashes of hot sauce
1 large bay leaf
4-5 sprigs thyme, tied together
1 c chicken or vegetable stock, or water
1 bottle of beer, preferably not light beer
1/2 lb extra sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
optional: popped popcorn to garnish

Place a stockpot or dutch oven over medium heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp butter. When the butter melts and begins to foam, add the carrots and lower the heat slightly, stirring. Cook until tender and then add the remainder of the vegetables. Continue to cook until the onion is translucent and the other vegetables are tender. Add the remaining butter to the pot and heat until it begins to foam.

Add the Wondra or flour to the pot and stir with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring, for several minutes so the flour loses its raw taste. The mixture will be like a paste around the vegetables- it will not be liquid. Add the milk slowly, stirring constantly as it comes to a simmer. It will thicken as it simmers. Do not let the mixture boil, or it will become less thick.

Add the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, hot sauce, thyme, and bay leaf, and then add the beer and stock, and continue to stir to keep the mixture smooth. Once it comes to a simmer, keep the mixture at a simmer for about five minutes.

Whisk in the cheese, keeping the mixture at a simmer, until the cheese all is incorporated and the soup is smooth. If the mixture is too thick, feel free to thin out with a little more beer. Serve in small bowls or cups and garnish with popcorn.

Beer cheddar soup.

Crispy sriracha wings

Before we get started, I know someone’s going to ask, and the answer is no – you can’t bake these wings, at least not once they’re battered. If you want to bake the wings, dispense with the battering step, but I tell you – they’re not an everyday food, so you probably shouldn’t sweat eating a couple of them fried as nature intended.

The secret to crispy chicken is to fry at the right temperature, and to use cornstarch in the batter. Yes, cornstarch. If you’ve ever had Korean fried chicken, you know how crisp that fried chicken can get. This batter is half cornstarch and half all-purpose flour, because cornstarch on its own fries up too hard – obnoxiously hard. If you can find it, substitute potato starch (potato flour) for the all-purpose flour.

Use a frying thermometer and don’t overcrowd the frying vessel. If the oil temperature dips below about 330F/165C, your food will absorb oil and will become greasy. Fry in batches, and hold the fried wings on a rack set over a sheet pan.

2 lbs chicken wings, trimmed and divided into two pieces each, or purchase “buffalo wing” cut

Brine:
1 quarts plus 2 c ice water
2 c water
1/2 c salt
1/4 c sugar or 2 tbsp honey
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds

Batter:
1 c each all-purpose flour or potato starch, cornstarch, and filtered water
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp hot (not smoked) paprika

1 gallon oil (I recommend grapeseed or canola)

Sauce:

1 tbsp water
3 tbsp sriracha hot sauce, more or less, depending on taste
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp celery salt

Cheese dip:

1/4 lb cow’s milk blue cheese, such as Maytag or Point Reyes
1 c sour cream
1 c mayonnaise, either prepared or from this mayonnaise recipe
1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
salt and ground black pepper

celery sticks to serve

If you are pressed for time, you can dispense with the brine. Lightly salt the chicken wings before battering. Otherwise, combine all the brine ingredients except the 1 quarts + 2 c ice water in a small saucepot and bring to a simmer. Cool down with a handful of ice cubes and add to the remaining ice water in a very large stockpot or hotel pan. Add the chicken wings. Brine for about 2 hours.

Combine the cheese dip ingredients except the blue cheese, incorporating until smooth. Add the crumbled blue cheese and stir just to mix. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Pour the oil into a large vessel leaving at least 6″ of space at the top (preferably more, especially if the vessel is deep). Bring the oil to 350F/176C. Meanwhile, combine the batter ingredients in a large, wide bowl. If the batter seems too thick and somewhat paste-like, add a tbsp or so more water to loosen it up. Drain the wings and spread out on a rack lined with a paper towel to dry on both sides. Discard the towel (or towels – you may need a few to pat dry).

Prepare the butter sauce: Place all the sauce ingredients except the butter in a pan and bring just to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add the chunks of butter and swirl the pan until the butter melts and emulsifies. If necessary, turn the heat back on the lowest setting while swirling to warm just enough to continue to melt the butter.

Add the wings to the batter and toss to coat evenly. Add wings one at a time to oil, using a wooden spoon to keep them separate as they first enter to keep them from fusing.

Cook until golden brown and cooked through, about 4-6 minutes. Drain on a rack and repeat until you have cooked all the wings. Cool the wings slightly before tossing in the sauce – pour the sauce into a bowl and toss the cooked wings in the sauce. Depending on volume you’re preparing, send out some wings about 1/3 of the way through tossed in sauce and served with cheese dip and celery sticks.

Sriracha wings, Maytag blue cheese dip.

Bratball sliders

I don’t usually go in for stupid food names, but this one happens to be merely descriptive. In case you want to make something more substantial and less snacklike, you can turn these into bratburgers by forming patties instead of balls, and frying them as you would burgers. Just be sure to cook them all the way through – being pork, you can’t cook them to rare or medium rare.

I’m providing two methods – a ridiculously easy method, and a more time consuming one. Use the ground meats for the easy method, but buy from a responsible source such as a butcher whom you know grinds his/her own meat. To make things really, really easy, dispense with my spices altogether and pick up the Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning from Penzeys – a company which, by the way, is based in my very own home town, Brookfield, Wisconsin. In Packerland. If that doesn’t say something about destiny, I don’t know what does.

1.5 lbs ground pork or pork shoulder
1/2 lb ground veal or veal breast [note: if you can’t find ground veal, you can use all pork in this sandwich]

one medium onion, diced [note: omit if you are using the pre-made Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning]
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c panko

EITHER:
1 3/4 tsp Morton’s kosher or 1 1/4 tsp Diamond kosher salt
1 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp celery seed
– OR –
2 tbsp Penzeys Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning

about 18-24 soft potato dinner rolls or 8 burger buns
whole grain mustard or spicy brown mustard
pickled red onion

Easy way: combine all the seasonings with the eggs and panko. Remember that the seasoning already contains salt. Pour evenly on the ground meats. Combine quickly, tossing rather than mashing, until evenly distributed. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning or salt and add more as necessary.

More difficult way: Obviously, you will be grinding the meat. Combine all the seasonings. Cut the pork and veal into about 3/4″ cubes and toss with the seasonings and diced onion. Spread the cubed meats and onion evenly on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.

Once the meat is firm but not solid frozen, grind the mixture using the coarse die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Pass it through again if you like a fine texture. Note – if you want to stuff these into casings at this point, consult my earlier post on sausages for instructions. You should add 1/4 tsp Prague Powder #1 (pink salt) to the seasoning mixture if you’re stuffing it. Combine the panko and egg and spread evenly over the ground product and combine quickly, tossing rather than mashing, until evenly distributed. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning and add more salt, nutmeg, white pepper, mustard, etc as necessary.

For sliders, form lightly into balls about 1 1/2″ in diameter. For bratburgers, form lightly into patties. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, film with oil. Fry the meatballs or burgers on one side until browned, and flip with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook through completely. Don’t overcook them, though – they need to be moist.

Serve with spicy brown mustard or grain mustard, and pickled red onion, on dinner rolls or burger buns. Many Upper Midwesterners consider ketchup an abomination with brats, but I won’t judge.

Bratballs on dinner rolls. Mustard, pickled onion.

Imp ‘n’ Arn

I’ve never been to Pittsburgh – not to stay, anyway. I’ve connected through its fine airport several times and have passed through its southern suburbs on the way to Ohio on I-70. But I don’t know anything about Pittsburgh, other than its location, its association with several fine universities, and its close relationship to the steel industry. Recently, NPR ran a great story about Pittsburgh’s transformation from industrial city to tech center, and how this diversification has buffeted the city against the recession to some degree. Give it a listen – it’s a surprising story, if you used to think Pittsburgh = Rust Belt.

I do know one more thing about Pittsburgh, though. One of my brother’s college roommates, a great guy named Steve, was from Pittsburgh and from time to time, when my brother returned home on winter breaks from Cornell, he would occasionally refer to “Imp ‘n’ Arns,” usually with a Pittsburgher accent, especially if he and Steve were on the phone. It’s a shot and a beer, basically, so if you don’t have the Pittsburgh-specific raw materials, just have whatever.

12 ounces of Iron City beer
1 1/2 ounces of Imperial whiskey

Do the shot. Chase with the beer.

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Confectionery, Fruit, preserving, Q&A

Buddha’s hand.

A reader wants to know what to do with those crazy yellow fruits with the gnarled fingers. On the mystery of Buddha’s hand, the four original citrus fruits of antiquity, and rescuing candied citron from its Day-Glo fruitcake past, on the Buddha’s Hand page.

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Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Hamtasmagoria revisited.

Last year, I bought a giant ham at Whole Foods after a quest for pork shank turned into something much, much bigger. We ate that fourteen pound beast many different ways – roasted, of course, but then recycled into a quick ragù, sliced for a brothy noodle soup, as enchiladas with pickled onion and chipotles, and in other modes not chronicled here.

Recently, I found myself standing in front of the meat counter at the 14th & P Whole Foods picking up a well-marbled prime rib roast when the butcher asked me if I wanted anything else. While he’d been wrapping the beef in brown paper, my eye had wandered to a giant ham over to the left, on the pork end of the case. I’ll hand it to Whole Foods – occasionally, mostly at the holidays, they get a fairly impressive pork display going. They were showing off perfectly tied crown rib roasts as well, which you never see anymore, and are straight out of the Mad Men era of entertaining. The ham probably would’ve caught my eye under any circumstances, but this was a particularly beautiful specimen because – unlike any other pork I’ve ever seen at Whole Foods – it retained a thick layer of creamy white fat AND the skin. The skin! I have complained bitterly about the propensity of Whole Foods to go trimming-crazy when it comes to pork – they slice away every last remnant of fat from the surface, leaving none of what makes pork so delicious and rich. And you never see the skin at Whole Foods. I gestured toward the giant ham.

The butcher’s eyes lit up. You could tell that he was tired of dealing with a clientele accustomed to cryovac’ed pork tenderloin and boneless chicken breasts. He actually put it on a square of butcher’s paper and hurried it around the counter so I could have a closer look. The skin was creamy, not blotchy, and the fat was bright. The meat was dusky pink, virtually the color of prosciutto. He had two hams as it turned out – the giant, longish-legged specimen that looked like a whole country ham before the curing, and a stubbier, more oblong ham that was about the shape of a hard-boiled egg sliced the long way. I hesitated, weighing the virtues. The meat on the oblong ham looked slightly nicer and the fat and skin encased the ham completely. The giant ham, with its leggy, clublike aspect, would have been great for curing, but it probably wouldn’t fit in my drying box, and the skin and fat had been trimmed away on one side. “My husband’s going to kill me,” I told the butcher as I considered. “I told him I was going to try to clear out some space in the refrigerator but I just keep buying product.”

“It takes a special lady to bring home this kind of meat,” he said.

HAM.

In the end, I chose the oblong ham for its superior meat and greater supply of skin and fat. My husband was pleased, recalling the feast from last year.

Cooking is a learning process always. Every day in the kitchen is an opportunity for improvement and a chance to use what worked before, and reconsider what didn’t. Last year, I roasted the ham at 325F, and it was good, although the interior closer to the bone wasn’t as tender as it should have been. We ate the exterior of the ham and I returned the rest to the oven for a later roasting. I imagine that, had I contined to roast the entire beast in one shot, it would have been somewhat dry. This time, I considered the cut of meat somewhat more carefully. The ham is a tough, well-exercised cut with a lot of connective tissue, much like the shoulder or the butt. Picture the pig as you would a human on all fours – the shoulder/butt end is the deltoids and rhomboids; the ham is the glutes and biceps femoralis. Big muscles, long fibers. And the particular ham I bought was sheathed thickly in fat and skin, like the belly. So I treated it as I would treat those cuts.

Because of its thick skin and ample fat, I elected to cure and air-dry it as I have done with pork belly. I scored the skin through the fat, and rubbed a mixture of salt and sugar into the deep cuts. Uncovered, the ham rested in the refrigerator for a couple of days, the better to dehydrate the fat and skin. Each day, I dried the liquid that the salt leached from the fat with a paper towel. After a few days, I roasted the meat on a rack – first in a blisteringly hot oven to melt the fat and crisp the skin, and then in a very low oven to break down the collagen. The meat rested for nearly an hour out of the oven.

The result, after seven hours, was extraordinary. I intended to slice through the ham perpendicular to the bone, but the moment the knife penetrated the crisp skin, the meat fell apart, cleaving into moist chunks. Two days later, cold from the refrigerator, the long-fibered chunks of pinkish meat were tender and unctuous.

Fresh ham

Whole fresh ham isn’t all that easy to come by, but is worth seeking. Your best bet is a butcher – not the butcher’s department in the supermarket, unless yours takes special orders. Italian meat markets are the most likely to carry the whole fresh ham.

One more thing, in the interest of full disclosure. Years of breeding to produce “the other white meat” and assiduous packaging have led many to believe that pork smells more or less like chicken breast. Well, it doesn’t. Especially not whole ham. Remember that discussion we had a few weeks ago about barnyardiness, and the compound responsible for that quality? If you buy a whole ham, be prepared to visit the barnyard, especially when you first bring home the ham. To mitigate the aroma, I recommend rinsing the ham when you first remove the packaging, and then drying it well before scoring the skin and applying the salt cure. Don’t worry – it won’t stink up the refrigerator. In fact, as it dries, you won’t smell it at all. Once you roast the meat, the smell will emerge during the initial hot phase – use rosemary to avoid problems, as its own pungency masks the skatole surprisingly well.

1 9 lb fresh ham
leaves from 8-10 branches thyme, minced
1/4 c kosher salt
2 tbsp sugar
8 cloves garlic confit, smashed to a paste
Several branches rosemary

Combine the salt and sugar.

Score the skin on the ham in a diamond pattern in 1″ intervals, being careful not to cut through to the meat. Use an extremely sharp knife and lead with the tip of the knife, or the heel, and be very careful. Rub the salt and sugar mixture in the cuts and on the surface of the meat and skin. Place in the smallest pan that leaves all the skin exposed (a 1/4 steam tray is good) and refrigerate, uncovered, for two to three days. Every day, dry the liquid that accumulates in the cuts with a paper towel.

Oven 450F/230C.

Remove the ham from refrigeration and rub the surface of the meat only with garlic confit paste and place the thyme branches on the garlic-rubbed ham (the paste will help the thyme adhere). Set on a v-rack in a roasting pan. Dry the cuts in the fat thoroughly with a paper towel. Place the ham in the oven. Place the rosemary branches on a sheet of foil and place on the floor of the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the ham 180 degrees. After 15 more minutes, turn the heat down to 185F/85C. Remove the ham from the oven and prick the fat with a fork wherever exposed to promote melting during the final roasting. Lay additional thyme branches on the surface of the skin and return to the oven.

Roast approximately 50 minutes per pound or until the meat is 165F/74C near the bone. For a 9 pound ham, it probably will take about seven hours. Remove and rest before slicing for about 45-60 minutes.

Before the knife.

Under the knife.

Bonus: Lard

Roasting a giant ham with a jacket of fat will yield quite a bit of pork fat. This ham, for example, provided approximately a quart. Don’t throw it out! Because of its rich texture and clean, neutral taste, it makes great biscuits, pie crust, and is great for frying pretty much anything. In addition, it may surprise you to learn that pork fat is not primarily saturated fat. Although pork fat is approximately 40% saturated fat, the remainder is unsaturated fat, primarily monounsaturated fat. Because pork fat is low in polyunsaturated fat, it does not turn rancid quickly and has a relatively high smoke point of about 370F/177C.

To clarify the the fat, pour it off from the roasting pan and let it solidify. You should have two layers – one of solid fat, and another of meat jelly. Scrape off the jelly and reserve it for another use (it’s basically concentrated meat juices and is great for stock or bouillon).

Melt the remaining fat over low heat and then strain it through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a sealable container. Label and date the lid with permanent marker. The fat will keep for up to a year in the freezer or several months under refrigeration.

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