Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Random Thoughts

Civics lesson.

Hey readers! I’ve got a favor to ask. If you read my last entry, you know I prepared risotto for a Marx Foods contest involving riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice. It’s voting time – won’t you please visit the Marx Foods contest page and vote for my dish? Thanks – and thanks to those of you who’ve already voted! (ps: polls close at 4pm Eastern on Friday, June 1.)

Again: the link to the contest:

Risotto integrale, savoy cabbage, duck breast.

***Update: I’m through to the second round. Thanks for your support!***

Brassicas, Duck, Grains, Italian

An integral component.

When you hear the words “brown rice,” do you glance anxiously over your shoulder, bracing for the oncoming thud of so many Earth Shoes and the stench of patchouli? You’re not alone. I happen to like brown rice, but the sad fact is that it usually isn’t celebrated for its nutty flavor and firm texture. Instead, it’s most often touted as the more healthful alternative to white rice, appearing as a bland, steaming beige pile beside equally dull crowns of unseasoned broccoli and a broiled salmon fillet. Yawn – and that’s a shame, because brown rice can contribute flavor and texture that polished white rice can’t.

Recently, a Facebook acquaintance asked if I’d be interested in participating in a cooking challenge sponsored by Marx Foods. I contacted Marx Foods and received a kilo of organic riso integrale – unpolished short-grain rice – with instructions to cook through a “gauntlet” of dishes. This is the first, a savory risotto. (The next two, sweet risotto and cook’s choice, depend on gaining enough votes in the first round to advance. So please vote! Follow this link to vote before June 1!)

If you’ve ever wanted to work with brown rice but have been brought up short by the differences from white rice in cooking time and water content, I encourage you to try the integrale when making risotto. Ordinarily, the challenge when making risotto is stopping short of overcooking, at which point the rice becomes heavy and mushy. In addition, the cooked risotto will continue to absorb any residual liquid, changing quickly from a slightly soupy dish to a gummy, starchy lump. Using an unpolished rice still bearing its bran, however, slows the pace at which the rice absorbs liquid. Not only does this make it easier to tell when the rice is approaching the ideal texture – cooked through and not hard, but retaining a firm bite – but the fully cooked risotto will not absorb residual liquid as quickly, maintaining its soupy texture. What’s more, the open-pot cooking of risotto relieves you of any guesswork and worry about under- or overcooking associated with steaming. You simply add as much simmering liquid, bit by bit, as it takes to cook the rice.

The keys to a really flavorful risotto are to toast the rice grains well in oil before adding any liquid (a process called tostatura), to use a really flavorful stock (I happened to have plenty of duck stock at home, but any good stock will work well), and to season with salt while cooking rather than waiting until the end. That way, each grain of rice is seasoned through to its core.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast

To complement the nutty, earthy flavor of the integrale, I added savoy cabbage to the risotto near the end of cooking, and served with a simply seared duck breast, with lots of herbs on the finish to brighten the dish. The resulting dish was faintly reminiscent of that broccoli-cheddar rice we all ate as kids – savoy and broccoli both being brassicas – but in a good way, not a fake out-of-a-box way.

1 large duck breast (magret), about 500g (just over a pound)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and small dice (1/4″)
1 medium leek, white and light green only, washed well and small dice (1/4″)
1/2 medium head savoy cabbage, finely chopped
1 tbsp duck fat or unsalted butter
250g integrale rice (about 1 2/3 c)
250 ml dry white wine (a little more than 1 c)
1.4 l strong duck or chicken stock (about 6 c)
1 dried or 2 fresh bay leaves
4 stalks fresh thyme
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
about 1/2 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper

About 45 minutes before service, bring the stock to a simmer and maintain at a bare simmer. Cover if necessary to prevent evaporation.

Mise en place.

Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp duck fat or butter. Add the onion and leeks, season lightly with salt, and sweat until tender. It is not necessary to brown the vegetables.

Leeks and onion.

Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil and becoming somewhat chalky-looking, about 5 minutes (tostatura).


Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Add some salt – perhaps 1/2 tsp – and the simmering duck stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes and the rice should release starch into the stock.

Releasing starch into stock.

After about 30 minutes, while the rice is still firm but nearly tender enough to the bite, add the savoy cabbage and stir well to continue cooking, adding the remaining stock. Taste for salt at this point and season lightly if more is necessary. The rice takes about 30-35 minutes to cook and, when properly cooked should still be firm as opposed to mushy, but must not be hard in the center of each grain.

Adding savoy,

As soon as the rice is cooked, remove from the heat and stir in 4 tbsp cold butter and the Parmigiano. Beat well to coat with the butter; add 1 tbsp water if necessary to loosen. Your goal is to form an emulsion between the residual liquid in the pan and the butter, slightly thickened and stabilized by the starch (mantecatura). Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and pepper to taste.

Plate the risotto and add the sliced duck (see below). Garnish with herbs. Serves six as primi or as a component with additional vegetables or meat.

Risotto integrale, savoy, duck breast.

Duck breast

This duck breast was cooked at 140F/60C, but the duck may be cooked conventionally on the stovetop and/or finished in a warm oven.

If cooking sous vide: Vacuum pack the duck breast with 2 sprigs of thyme on the meat side. Place in a water bath with an immersion circulator set to 140F/60C for between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove and dry on paper towels.

Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin (you should encounter virtually no resistance when attempting to score the fat). Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and sear the meat side for about 15 seconds. Slice.

140F duck breast.

Searing duck breast.

If you prefer to cook conventionally: Place a skillet over high heat. Score the fatty skin. Lightly season the duck on both sides. Place fat-side down in the hot pan and allow the fat to render to the desired extent (I do like some of the fat under the crispy skin, but if you prefer to render more, just continue to render the fat). Turn over and reduce the heat. Cook until just shy of medium rare; remove to a board and rest for about 5 minutes. Slice.

*Thanks to Marx Foods for the integrale!

Brassicas, Fruit, Pork Products

The Personality Kid.

Fact: admitting to anything less than total adoration of certain foods will result in your ostracism as a “commie.” I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago after publicly declaring that bacon was overused and had become something of a cliché, not to mention a flavor crutch. And I’m probably about to learn it again by saying that, in my experience, pork chops are not always the best the pig has to offer. Next to bacon, perhaps no other part of the pork is as beloved as the chop. Indeed, pork chops and bacon are Homer Simpson’s “two favorite animals.” And in the classic Brady Bunch episode where Peter attempts to reinvent himself as a more exciting character, he Bogarts the name of that evening’s dinner: pork chops … and applesauce.

Before you refer me to the Committee on Un-American Affairs, let me just say that I’ve cooked and eaten some truly delicious pork chops, sure. Brined and smoked, wood-grilled with maple and lemon, or sliced off the bone, fried, and sandwiched within a bun with some slaw, pork chops can be terrific. The problem is that pork chops are unreliable kitchen companions. The blade and sirloin chops contain the most dark meat – usually a guarantee against drying out – but they’re hard to pan-fry because of the bones, never take a good brown crusty sear, and take better to braising. Even after braising, though, the weird bone pattern makes them a pain in the ass to eat. The rib and loin chops have the most manageable bone structure – a curved edge or T-bone, respectively – but the meat is usually very lean thanks to the “other white meat” fetish, and, if too thin, will dry out in the time it takes to get a decent sear.

Enter the ibérico pork chop. Since last fall, I’ve been working with various cuts of ibérico de bellota pork – the rich, sweet cuts of meat from black-footed pata negra pigs that forage acorns in western Spain. Wagshal’s Market provided me a pair of rib chops, which my husband regarded with enthusiasm. Out of one side of his mouth, he gritted the words “pork chops … and applesauce,” jaw firmly locked à la Peter Brady, the Personality Kid. He loves pork chops unconditionally. I knew what I had to do.

Pork chop comparison. Niman Ranch on the left (an admirable chop, but still); Iberico de bellota on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the ibérico pork chop makes up for the shortcomings of the conventional pork chop. It’s got the single bone curving along one side, which leaves you with a nice big eye of meat, and instead of being lean to the point of dryness, it’s got plenty of interior fat to keep things moist and flavorful.

“Pork chops and applesauce”

If you don’t have the ibérico pork chops, don’t worry … you can use a regular pork chop, but try to use one about 1″ thick or so to keep the meat juicy. For these purposes, select a rib chop; the blade chops (cut from near the shoulder), the loin chops (cut to include both loin and tenderloin), and the sirloin chops (cut from near the hipbone) all contain an interior bone or bones that divide the meat. Although I usually do recommend cooking meat on the bone for flavor and moisture, when pan-frying, the meat shrinks slightly, leaving only the bone in contact with the pan. With multiple interior bones, the meat never gets a really good sear. Save those kinds of chops for the broiler.

Cooking the sliced apples sous vide preserves their intense apple flavor. It is not necessary to do so. I have provided instructions for cooking both ways.

2 granny smith apples, peeled and sliced thinly
2 c apple lambic or hard cider
1 c pork stock or white veal stock
3 cloves garlic confit
about 12 oz red cabbage, thinly sliced (about 3/16″)
2 tbsp rendered pork fat or an oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed
several thyme branches
fresh bay leaf
1/4 dry white wine
2 rib chops, preferably ibérico de bellota

For the applesauce:

If cooking sous vide, seal the apples in a bag with two thyme branches and a pinch of salt. Cook in a circulating water bath set to 183F/84C for 20 minutes. If cooking conventionally, proceed to the next step.

Heat 1 1/2 c of the apple lambic in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer. Reduce by 2/3. Add the stock and garlic confit and reduce again by half. If not cooking sous vide, add the apple slices and two branches of thyme, cover, and simmer until tender.

Remove the herbs. Transfer the reduction and the cooked apples to a vitaprep/blender and process to the desired consistency (for a smooth puree, you may need to add more water or stock).

For the cabbage:

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp of the pork fat or oil. Add the cabbage, bay leaf, and a couple of sprigs of thyme and sauté until just wilted. Add the white wine and toss; the cabbage should turn a bright magenta due to the wine’s acidity. Once the wine has evaporated, add 1/2 c apple lambic; reduce heat and continue to cook until completely tender. Season with salt.

For the pork chops:

Season well with salt on both sides. Place a skillet over high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the pork chops, searing on the fat edge first to render, and then on one side. Add the thyme branches to the rendered fat and baste. Turn over when golden on the bottom; reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, basting with the thyme oil, until about medium on the inside. Rest for five minutes before service.

Serve with the apple sauce and red cabbage; garnish with additional thyme and chives if you have them.

Pork chops, lambic-braised red cabbage, chunky applesauce.

*Thanks again to Wagshal’s Market and Iberico USA for the pork chops featured in this dish.

Italian, Pasta, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

No bones about it.

A surprising percentage of the public apparently is afraid of bones, skin, fat, and any other part of the meat that betrays its living origins. I’ve encountered people who refuse to eat chicken on the bone, fish on the bone, shrimp with the shells, not to mention the heads. It’s a shame, because any cut of meat that includes the bone gets a flavor bonus, as well as a nice textural boost from the collagen in the bone and in the meat near the bone.

Strangely, one very popular exception to the boneless chicken ranch approach to meat eating is the pork spare rib. Maybe it’s because the rib is pretty user-friendly even though the bone figures prominently, or perhaps it’s on account of that – the bone serves as a built-in utensil, and the meat pretty much falls away without any resistance, so you don’t have to get as up close and personal as with a chicken leg or a whole fish. I’ve been racking (ha) my brains trying to remember the first time I tasted a barbecued rib, and I can’t remember when that was, so I must have been pretty small. I do remember my parents making them from time to time, and I also remember that, in the battle of the bottled barbecue sauces that raged during the Seventies, my family joined the side of Open Pit, original flavor. (My husband, I have learned, came from a family of Kraft loyalists. It’s like we’re from two different worlds here.)

The Seventies were a very sensory time – any of you old enough to remember will recall the decade’s fetish for shag rugs and chenille, Peter Max, and smelly things like fruit-scented markers, novelty shampoos, and scratch and sniff. I was crazy about all those things, sometimes to my detriment. In second grade, I became obsessed with the smell of strawberry shampoo and took to combing it into my hair every morning before school – after washing – to intensify the scent, a practice that came to an abrupt halt a few days in when my mother, appalled at how sticky and matted my hair had become, discovered that the stickiness turned to foam when washed and smelled exactly like strawberry shampoo. The next year – at the bicentennial – I became enamoured of two wall calendars, one featuring glow-in-the-dark Disney characters, and the other sporting a different thematic scratch and sniff food for each month (chili for February, pumpkin pie for November … you get the idea). When the food calendar lost its olfactory punch, I sought to make my own scratch and sniff book. My mother had given me this great cookbook of international dishes for kids called Many Hands Cooking, and I thought that dabbing a little Open Pit on every illustration of a tomato would be a great way to DIY. Witness, for example, the crimes I committed against the picture accompanying “Padstools:”

DIY scratch and sniff fail - note the stained tomatoes.

To anticipate your question, the Open Pit-impregnation method of producing scratch and sniff doesn’t work. The tomato illustrations smelled like Open Pit for about an hour, until they dried. Eventually, I found more suitable ways to express my feelings about barbecue sauce. When I started cooking, for example, one of the first dishes I learned to make was slow-roasted spareribs. Of course, back then my conception of the rib was limited to its most commonplace form – rubbed in a salt-ish spice blend and basted in Open Pit – but it felt like real cooking nonetheless.

These days, I find my favorite way to prepare and eat pork ribs is not roasted or barbecued, but braised. For some reason, although beef ribs conventionally are braised or subjected to other moist-heat cooking, pork ribs most often are given the dry heat treatment. But braising takes advantage of the bone, which provides great flavor and gelatin to the braising liquid. As you know, I’ve been working with the ibérico de bellota pork from Ibérico USA, and hate to waste any part of this rich, sweet pig. So to make full use of the bone, I like to braise the whole rack of ribs, and turn the braising liquid into a sauce.

Iberico ribs.

One of the best and simplest ways to prepare this cut of ibérico pork, not to mention conventional pork ribs, is to braise in a tomato- and stock-based sauce (tomato on its own I feel is a little too thick). When finished, remove the meat and blend the cooking medium down into a nice tomato sugo – the sweet flavor of the meat seeps into the sugo during the long cooking.

Braised Ibérico rib, tomato sugo, penne

There’s no need to be particularly precise about cooking times when it comes to this braise, and it can be cooked, chilled down, and stored for later. Whether cooking or reheating, just remember not to bring up the temperature too much; it shouldn’t boil at any time. Boiling causes the muscles to tighten up too much and will make the meat fibrous and dry-stringy. Keeping the temperature to around 180F/82C will ensure moisture and tenderness.

2 racks, about 8 ribs each, of costillas de ibérico – if you don’t have these, use pork spareribs
one medium onion, peeled and small dice
1 small leek, white only, washed well and thinly sliced (reserve green for another use)
2 medium carrots, peeled and small dice
2 stalks celery, peeled and small dice
1 c dry white wine
1 28 ounce can tomatoes, broken up by hand
6 cloves garlic confit
2 c chicken stock
bay leaf
6 branches thyme
1 lb dried penne rigate
Salt and pepper
Piment d’espelette

Remove the membrane from the underside of the rib racks (if you don’t, the membrane shrinks, and pulls the ribs into too much of a c-shape; also, you don’t want to serve the membrane). Season generously with salt on both sides.

Place a saute pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add just enough oil to film. Place the racks meat side down in the oil and brown well (if you are using ibérico, a considerable amount of fat may render); turn over and brown a minute more. Remove and set aside; spoon off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp of the fat. To the pan add the onions and sweat until translucent; add the carrot and celery and continue to sweat until all the vegetables just lose their bite.

Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the tomatoes and garlic confit and bring to a simmer, breaking up. Add the stock and herbs and bring to a simmer again. Return the ribs to the pan – meat side down is best to ensure they are fully submerged.


Reduce heat and cover. Keep just below a simmer until ribs are tender, about 2 hours. Alternatively, place in a 180F/82oven for about 4 hours. If necessary, cook longer; the ribs should offer no resistance to a knife tip.

Remove the ribs and separate the meat from the bones. Discard the bones. Transfer the tomato and vegetable braising liquid to a vitaprep or use an immersion blender to blend down into a sauce. The sauce need not be especially smooth. Season with salt, espelette, and pepper to taste. Return the ribs to the pot with the sugo and hold.

Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with the sugo; plate and top with the rib meat.

Ibérico ribs, tomato sugo, penne.

Special thanks again to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta for this dish.