Pork Products, Spain

Museum piece.

It seems a long time ago, but just six weeks ago, my husband and I were in Madrid after our annual trip to France. Learning of our plans to visit Madrid, a friend asked, and I quote, “why the hell would you go to Madrid when you can go to Barcelona?” And it’s true – Madrid and Barcelona are as different as Washington and Miami. Whereas Barcelona transcends both ancient and modern times (visit both the Barri Gòtic and the Eixample and you’ll see what I mean), Madrid, which first came into its own in the 16th century when the Spanish capital moved there from Toledo, maintains a baroque and Neoclassical feel that anchors the city in Spain’s imperial past. Similar distinctions exist between the cuisines of the two cities. Not that you can’t find a good asador in Barcelona or suitably avant-garde bistronomia in Madrid, but the geography and history of both cities have set them on different culinary paths. If we’re going to overgeneralize, Barcelona is fish and rice and adventurous modern gastronomy; Madrid is meat and beans and a conservative, classic style. And that makes sense: it’s in the middle of the country, not far from the shore, nestled beside Spain’s finest pork-producing regions, Castile y León and Extremadura. Speaking of pork, the first time I visited Madrid, in 1993, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of the Museo del Jamón, which is exactly what the name suggests – a shop dedicated to Spain’s finest pork product, jamón. A museum dedicated to ham? Why was I not informed?

Museo del Jamón, as I discovered, occupies that gray area between food store and restaurant. It’s pretty touristy, lowbrow, and mostly located near attractions like the Prado or the Puerta del Sol. I don’t care about that – the ham is delicious and the beer is cold, and even after eighteen years, I’ve never escaped a visit to Madrid without a visit to el museo. Anyway, my husband had never been to Madrid and, after my incessant chatter about ibérico pigs and all that, suggested it for lunch on the way to a Teotihuacan exhibit at the Fundación la Caixa. We made for the plato combinado, an inexpensive but filling lunch offering, and, for good measure, a ración of jamón ibérico de bellota. While we ate, the place filled up with locals, almost all men, in for a quick afternoon beer and bocadillo.

Plato combinado: jamón, huevos, patatas fritas, croquetas de jamón, ensalada. Note the ración of bellota.

Spanish cured ham comes in several forms, in order of quality. First, there’s jamón serrano, your basic dry cured ham. The term “serrano” doesn’t mean anything special in this context – it just connotes a conventional dry-cured ham from the hind legs of the white Landrace pig. Jamón serrano reminds me of conventional prosciutto. Then there’s jamón ibérico, which connotes only dry-cured hams made from the black pata negra pig, fed at least partly on acorns. Although most ibérico comes from farm-raised pigs, fattened on acorns only at the end, the fabled ibérico de bellota comes from pata negra that are allowed to forage among the acorn forests of Extremadura. It tastes like nuts, fatty and sweet, and has a dense, meaty quality rather than the saltier taste and flimsy texture of serrano. Behold the difference:

Side by side: jamón ibérico de bellota vs jamón de serrano.

I was lucky enough to try some fresh cuts of the ibérico de bellota pig earlier this summer at the Fancy Food Show. They were as sweet and rich as the cured ham. Recently, I picked up some of the bellota cheeks, belly, and a shoulder cut, so keep your eye out for future postings. Jamón is far easier to come by, though, so pick up some ibérico de bellota and enjoy with a glass of chilled sherry. Or try making your own plato combinado sometime. It’s easy – french fries, sliced jamón, fried egg, and croquetas.

Croquetas de jamón

I make these croquetas with jamón serrano. I suppose you could make them with ibérico, or if you were filthy rich and kind of nuts, ibérico de bellota, but the fact is that a fried bite like this croqueta isn’t suitable for the bellota – the rich béchamel swamps the delicate, sweet flavor of the acorn-fed pork and its delicious fat. Save the bellota for eating raw, sliced paper-thin, so you really can enjoy it.

I use gelatin in my croquetas so I can use less flour – the result is a lighter croqueta whose filling melts more in the mouth rather than a heavy, pasty item. It is important to chill the filling thoroughly before breading and frying. If you don’t, the filling will be fairly wet and hard to bread. In addition, I call for using stock: in Madrid, the filling often includes the broth of the classic meat-and-chickpea stew called cocido madrileño. You probably don’t have that to hand, but any good meat stock is fine.

You can scoop them using a tiny ice cream scoop or a spoon (the scoop releases the filling without dirtying your hands). If you like, leave them round (as in this recipe). If you prefer the traditional oblong shape, roll them slightly to flatten once you’ve coated them in flour during the dredging process. I’ve depicted the oblong shapes in the eggplant recipe below.

6 tbsp (3 oz) unsalted butter
6 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/2 c ham or pork stock, or any other meat stock
3 sheets gelatin
4 oz jamón serrano, minced
salt
grapeseed or vegetable oil
standard breading station: flour, beaten egg with a little water, breadcrumbs or panko

Start a day in advance: it seems fussy, but it guarantees that your filling will set up. You need to let it set for at least 4 hours.

Make a moderately thick béchamel sauce: place a saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When the butter melts and begins to bubble, add the flour, whisking well, and reduce the heat. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, for about 6 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Don’t allow the roux to color.

Add the milk slowly, whisking. Increase the heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Lower the heat and barely simmer for about 6 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 115F.

Bloom the gelatin in cool water and squeeze out the excess water. Whisk into the still-hot béchamel and incorporate well. Add the minced ham and distribute. Season to taste. Pour into a shallow pan, like a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until solid.

Set up a standard breading station of one pan of flour, another with beaten egg (thinned slightly with water), and another of breadcrumbs or panko. Pour about 1/3″ oil in a sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Scoop the filling using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tbsp) and bread. When the oil reaches 350F/177C, fry the croquetas. Drain on paper over a rack. Serve hot.

Homage to the plato combinado: note the serrano, pale cousin to the bellota

Croquetas de berejenas “Parmigiana”

Let’s try something different for a change. Eggplant parmigiana is classically made by frying slices of breaded eggplant, and then baking the fried eggplant with mozzarella cheese, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a light tomato sauce. It’s usually pretty heavy and greasy – other than an incredible version my husband makes that skips the breading and frying step – and I can’t say I usually love it. So how about an croqueta with the flavors of eggplant parm?

Salt the eggplant to remove bitterness (I usually skip this step in favor of microwaving, but that won’t work so well for this recipe). Then roast the eggplant and purée as part of the filling. Breaded and fried, and served alongside a light marinara sauce, these are so much better than the dish that inspired them.

4 tbsp (2 oz) unsalted butter
4 tbsp plus 1 tsp all-purpose flour
1 c whole milk
4 sheets gelatin
3 oz fresh mozzarella, diced or torn into the smallest possible bits
1 1/2 c eggplant purée (below)
salt
grapeseed or vegetable oil
standard breading station: flour plus grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (2:1), beaten egg with a little water, breadcrumbs or panko
minced parsley
Tomato sauce

Eggplant purée:

two medium eggplants or five baby eggplants
olive oil
lemon juice
salt
a little milk if necessary

Oven 400F/204C.

Halve the eggplant lengthwise, score, and season with salt. After about 30 minutes, pat dry, rinse, and pat dry again.

Place on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, and roast cut side-down until tender. Pierce the skins with a fork. Scoop the flesh from the skins and purée with a squeeze of lemon in a blender. If necessary, add a little milk to help it purée. For a really smooth texture, pass through a tamis. Set aside.

Make a stiff béchamel sauce: place a saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When the butter melts and begins to bubble, add the flour, whisking well, and reduce the heat. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, for about 6 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Don’t allow the roux to color.

Add the milk slowly, whisking. Increase the heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Lower the heat and just barely simmer for about 6 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 115F/46C.

Bloom the gelatin in cool water and squeeze out the excess water. Whisk into the still-hot béchamel and incorporate well. Add the eggplant purée and incorporate well. The mixture should cool substantially. Add the mozzarella cheese and distribute. Pour into a shallow pan, like a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until solid.

Set up a standard breading station of one pan of flour 2:1 with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, another with beaten egg (thinned slightly with water), and another of breadcrumbs or panko. Pour about 1/3″ oil in a sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Scoop the filling using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tbsp) and bread. When the oil reaches 350F/177C, fry the croquetas. Drain on paper over a rack. Serve hot, garnished with minced parsley, additional grated cheese, and the tomato sauce on the side.

Eggplant parmigiana croquetas, tomato sauce

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Chicken, Mushrooms, Potatoes, Random Thoughts

Autodidact.

Here’s a major peeve. The other day, I came across a piece on the internet (where else?) that explained the difference between a chef and a cook as follows:

“[T]echnically speaking, a chef is someone who necessarily obtains a professional degree and prepares food in a professional setting. A cook, on the other hand, may not be professionally trained and may or may not be working in a professional setting.”

It’s a good thing that the site includes a disclaimer that “The information is ‘AS IS, ‘WITH ALL FAULTS,'” because its definition of “chef” is a total load. Although the term “chef” has come to designate those who cook in a professional setting – whether or not they actually lead a kitchen brigade – formal culinary training culminating in a professional degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a chef. Thomas Keller never attended culinary school, nor did Ferran Adrià. Or Charlie Trotter, or Heston Blumenthal, or Pierre Gagnaire. Neither did most of the French chefs who trained in the apprentice system in France, like Jacques Pépin or André Soltner. Not that culinary school isn’t valuable – professional cooking involves a great deal of rigor and knowledge, and a formal educational setting makes for consistency and high standards. But it’s not true that culinary school is necessary to professional success. The alternative description for these chefs – as “self-taught” – isn’t any better, though. How do we learn to cook, if not in culinary school? We learn the same way – by eating other peoples’ food, by cooking alongside and trading knowledge with other cooks, by reading about food, by our own mistakes and successes in the kitchen. Bottom line: both formally trained and “self-taught” chefs learn to cook mostly by daily experience.

Last week, cleaning out a corner of our basement, I found a notebook containing my recipes from the early- to mid-1990s. If you’re learning to cook – professionally or for the home, formally or not – I strongly recommend keeping a journal of your recipes. If nothing else, it’s a great retrospective on your culinary life at a certain time. Looking through my own notes was pretty enjoyable, if in an embarrassing kind of way. My first efforts at cooking that didn’t involve a pack of ramen noodles or jarred spaghetti sauce were simultaneously grandiose and elementary, like wrapping chicken breasts and Gruyère in puff pastry. Sometimes they worked out, sometimes they didn’t. The chicken and cheese, uh, wellington was a crapshoot – sometimes the Pepperidge Farms puff pastry burst a seam and a mixture of melted cheese and the chicken juices gushed out onto the baking sheet. Other times, the puff pastry browned up, crisp and flaky, but the chicken within was pink and cool. When things turned out, it was like a pretty nice chicken hand pie. It wasn’t until I learned to pre-cook the chicken and cut a couple of slits in the pastry, though, that I could turn out that dish reliably.

Just before I went off to law school in 1990, two things happened: I got my hands on a copy of Pierre Franey’s New York Times Sixty Minute Gourmet, and discovered cooking wine. Like a certain type of amateur cook, I thought I could just read a cookbook as one would a novel, and then wing a dish based on what I’d read, “making it my own.” It’s arrogant and stupid, since there’s a reason Pierre Franey, and not yours truly, was tapped to write those recipes back in the day. Hint: he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t. Once I set aside my ego and started cooking the recipes as specified, things improved dramatically. Anyway, here’s a dish from the early hubris-filled days, when I thought I could come up with awesome recipes out of thin air. I changed a few things to comport with proper cooking technique, but otherwise left it unchanged.

Chicken with mushrooms and potatoes

This dish had several inspirations. First, I was really into mushrooms. One summer during college, I visited China with my family. I was a picky eater, and China is no place to be picky. One afternoon, at a luncheon with Communist Party types, I realized that I was going to starve if I didn’t try something, and reached out for the braised bok choy and mushrooms in a light brown sauce. I wound up eating most of the communal plate, so there you go.

Second, I read the Pierre Franey cookbook practically every night and admired a couple of recipes – one a roast game hen with potatoes and mushrooms (bonne femme) and another a chicken fricassée. (By “admired” I mean “appreciated the idea of” – I hadn’t really cooked or eaten either dish at that point, but I thought the descriptions sounded great.) I didn’t like heavy cream, and I wasn’t sure where to get little hens, so I tried to employ a fricassée technique with bone-in chicken breast, but with a flour-thickened sauce instead of cream.

I made three changes to the original recipe. The original recipe called for cooking a skin-on chicken breast en blanquette – without browning – because Franey’s fricassée recipe really is a blanquette. The thing is, the blanquette doesn’t work for skin-on chicken, because the skin becomes rubbery after stewing. So either brown the chicken breast, or brown it well before proceeding.

Initially the dish also called for sprinkling the flour over the bubbling liquid after the chicken had cooked nearly through, to thicken the sauce just before serving. Sometimes that sort of worked and sometimes it really didn’t. Well, if you know anything about gelation of starch, you know why I was totally wrong – adding starch to a hot liquid causes it to clump together as it immediately forms a sticky gel. And another thing: the raw flour taste never really cooks out unless you toast the flour first, or fry it in oil as in a roux. That’s why, when making velouté sauce or gravy, we whisk flour into hot fat before adding any liquid. I changed that part of the recipe. These days I rarely make flour-thickened sauces other than béchamel, but that’s neither here nor there.

I also substituted regular dry white wine for the original cooking wine, which is an abomination. Anyway, welcome to Amateur Night circa 1990. Take a trip back in time, and enjoy!

two chicken breasts – bone in and skin on
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all purpose flour
one small onion, small dice
2 c chicken stock
1/2 c dry white wine
one large russet potato, scrubbed and diced 3/4″
half pound cremini mushrooms
vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Season the chicken on both sides. Place a sauté pan over high heat and, when hot, add enough oil to film the pan. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown well. Turn the chicken over, reduce the heat, and cook en blanquette – don’t let it color. Remove to a plate.

Add the butter to the pan. When the butter bubbles, add the onions and sweat. Add the flour to the pan and whisk, incorporating thoroughly. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook the mixture for about five minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Add the wine and whisk well to incorporate thoroughly. Bring to a simmer. Add the chicken stock slowly, whisking; bring back to a simmer and continue to cook for about 5 minutes.

Half-assed velouté

Return the chicken to the pan, skin side-up. Surround with the potatoes. Cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms, stir into the sauce, and cover the pan again. Cook another 5-6 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the pan. Season the chicken and the potato-mushroom mixture with salt and pepper and serve with the chicken.

Amateur night circa 1990.

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