Grains, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Just right.

Not long ago, a chef I know posted on Facebook about his horror of composed plates. He explained that, for his entire life, he has not been able to stand for the different components of a dish to touch each other. Meat is not to touch side dishes, and sides are not to touch each other. His revulsion evidently is not uncommon*: the internet is replete with obsessives who cannot abide the thought of carrots nudging beef. This fear, which amazingly has a name (brumotactillophobia), seems almost universal among children, perhaps accounting for the necessity of those partitioned lunch trays in grade school.

That said, pointing out to a fully self-actualized adult that his eating habits stand him in good stead with the second graders of the world wins you no friends. Sometimes it’s better just to set an unavoidably good example. For instance, one might make a dish in which every bite was perfect and complete, and so well integrated the committed brumotactillophobe would have no power to resist.

Farro porridge, smoked pork, pickled cabbage

Many laughs have been had at Brooklyn’s expense over the past few years, and justifiably so. I’m as fond as anyone of mocking the borough’s Warby Parkerization, a process so thorough I no longer associate Brooklyn in any way with the opening credits to Welcome Back Kotter, with its tenements and pushcarts and working-class juvenile delinquency. And so I rolled my eyes last December at the news that an “artisanal porridge shop” had opened in Park Slope.

But as with so many things that initially appear ridiculous, there was a tug, an irresistible impulse to turn back for a second look even as you feel sheepish for doing so. I laughed at the Three Little Bears-ness of the artisanal porridge vendor, but the fact is, I looked at the menu and totally would have eaten the hell out of any of the savory porridges. Back in the early 90s, I had a barley “risotto” at Joachim Splichal’s Los Angeles restaurant Patina, and, on replicating it at home, found it far more delicious and easier to prepare well than its namesake. For one thing, whereas risotto leans heavily on the quality of the stock for its flavor, whole grains like barley, farro, and rye are hearty and earthy even prepared with water. For another, risotto’s perfection is fleeting; once attained, it vanishes almost immediately, leaving the dish gummy and soft. Porridges made from whole grains absorb liquid more slowly, and retain their bite even after being held for some time. I’ve used hulled barley, unpolished carnaroli rice, farro, rye grains, winter wheat, malted wheat … pretty much anything the beer supply store carries – to make savory porridges over the years. I’ve even made it from malted grains left over after my husband drains off the wort during beermaking. On my last trip to Copenhagen, I enjoyed a tremendous rendition featuring wheat berries, red cabbage, traditional Danish pickled cucumbers, and ham from Mikkel Marschall of Kadeau Bornholm.

Porridge is best made from things you already have lying around. For example, I don’t recommend actually going to the trouble to cure and smoke a pork shoulder specifically for this dish. It just happened that I did smoke about fifteen pounds of shoulder in the early fall, vacuum sealing slabs of the pork with its own fat and freezing it for the winter. We always have some form of cabbage in the house during the cold months. And we have a huge bin of various grains for making beer. You don’t need to buy or prepare anything special for a delicious pot of porridge. If you have brown rice or barley lying around, use that. Stir in bits of leftover mushrooms, or diced roast beef. Any foods that taste good together will be delicious combined in porridge. Make sure to include a tart element, like pickled onions or similar, so every bite is complete and perfect.

For the smoked pork shoulder:

Note: This yields far more than needed for this recipe. If you’re the kind of person who would go to the effort to cure and smoke a pork shoulder, having a surplus of smoked pork shoulder will not bother you in the least.

4 lb/1800g bone-in pork shoulder (picnic)
75g salt
50g brown sugar
5g smoked granulated garlic
5g pimentón dulce
5g onion powder
5g ground black pepper

Combine the dry ingredients. Rub the pork shoulder well on all surfaces, and in any cavities. Wrap tightly in clingfilm and cure, refrigerated, for three days, turning every 12 hours.

Set up a smoker with wood of choice (I prefer fruit woods for pork and smoked this shoulder over applewood). Smoke the unwrapped shoulder fat side up for 4 hours at 200F, rotating 180 degrees once about three hours into smoking.

Wrap the shoulder in foil and return to a 225F oven. Cook to an internal temperature of 190F. Remove from oven and rest about 45 minutes or so. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat in as large a piece as possible from the bone, being sure to extract the big nuggets within the bone hollows.

For the smoked pork stock:

This yields about 4 liters of stock.

4000g chicken stock (use water if stock unavailable and add 1000g chicken wings, necks, and backs)
smoked pork bone from shoulder, above
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 allspice berries
2 cloves
12 black peppercorns
250g each diced onion, carrot, and celery

Bring the stock (or water and chicken wings/backs/necks) the smoked pork bone, and the herbs and spices to barely a simmer (around 190F). Keep covered and hold at that temperature, skimming if needed, for about four hours. Add the mirepoix and simmer another 45 minutes. Strain.

For the compressed cabbage pickle:

about 10 leaves savoy cabbage (medium sized head)
75 ml white wine vinegar
75 ml filtered water
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar

Combine the vinegar, water, spices, salt, and sugar and bring to a simmer. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved, cool.

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Shred the cabbage about 1/8″. Bag (in 2 separate bags) with equal quantities brine. Seal and drop in a large pot of vigorously boiling water. Boil 6 minutes and chill in ice bath.

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For the farro:

250g farro
45g unsalted butter
one small onion, small dice
125g dry white wine
500g smoked pork stock from above
80g unsalted butter
175g cabbage pickle from above
275g smoked pork from above, diced
Dehydrated spinach**
Chives
Garlic chive blossoms
salt and pepper

Soak the farro for about 6-12 hours in cold water. Drain well. Set immersion circulator to 194F.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Reduce heat. Add the onion, season with salt, and sweat; add the drained farro and toss well in the butter to coat. Sauté for about 3 minutes until well toasted. Add the wine and stir, allowing the grain to absorb the wine. Season with additional salt.

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Transfer to a plastic bag. Add smoked pork stock and vacuum seal. Drop into circulator and cook for 25 minutes. If necessary, chill in ice bath until ready to serve. [The bag will contain a substantial amount of unabsorbed liquid; absorption will continue to some degree during cooling. This is normal.] If you have neither the means nor inclination to cook the grains sous vide, continue ladling in hot stock as you would for risotto, stirring constantly over low heat. Expect the cooking process to take about 45-50 minutes.

Transfer bag contents to saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until farro is soupy but liquid is thick and creamy.

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Beat in remaining 80g butter; season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in diced cabbage pickle and smoked pork. Spoon into serving bowls and garnish with dehydrated spinach, herbs, and flowers. Serve immediately.

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*YumSugar polling is obviously unscientific.
** You can dehydrate spinach leaves in the microwave or dry at 150F on silpat-lined sheet pans in a convection oven.

Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Fish, preserving, Salad, Vegetables

To Russia, with love.

There’s an expression that goes something like this: “He (or she) knows just enough to be dangerous.” When it comes to culinary expression, a little bit of information plus a lot of ignorance can turn cultural homage into caricature. Who among us has not cringed at some hamfisted effort to honor a particular cuisine? I place in this category basically anything The Olive Garden has ever produced in the name of abbondanza, myriad attempts by clueless schools to celebrate Black History Month with fried chicken and watermelon, and the time when, in law school, I cooked a perfect salmon florentine out of the Pierre Franey 60 Minute Gourmet book for a date who promptly requested soy sauce, because “that’s what goes on Chinese food.” Cue sad trombone.

Recently, our Supper Club assembled around a pre-Soviet Russian theme, inspired by Chekhov’s praise in The Siren for the classic Russian dish, kulebyaka, a giant brioche enclosing sturgeon, kasha, and mushrooms. In a turnabout of the czarist predilection for all things French, Escoffier brought the kulebyaka back to France, where its complexity and richness thrilled gastronomes. The selection of this theme made me mildly anxious. I primarily associate Russian food with the folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful, about a kind of creepy talking doll whose eyes would light up like fireflies whenever it was about to dispense profundities like “the morning is wiser than the evening” to the little girl who fed it bits of cabbage soup, black bread, and kvass. You get what you pay for, I suppose. To expose the depths of my ignorance even further, I can’t think about this story without hearing Yakov Smirnoff in my head, saying something like “…In Soviet Russia, creepy little girl doll eat YOU!” Like I said, just enough to be dangerous.

Under the circumstances, it seemed best to steer clear of anything that might resemble a mockery of Russian cuisine. Pickled vegetables are popular throughout Russia, as are hearty breads and smoked fish. Why not combine cured and lightly smoked mackerel with black bread, not as a sandwich, but as a first course? To reinforce the cold freshness of the dish, a salad of pickled apple and celery is compressed for crispness, and scattered on the mackerel with herbs, peppery radish slices, and toasted bread crumbs.

Cured mackerel, compressed celery and apple salad, black bread

This dish combines smoky, briny mackerel, with a compressed, vinegared salad, and slightly bitter toasted black bread. It’s not Russian in any traditional sense, but surely could be served at the modern Russian zakuski table.

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Cured mackerel

1 whole mackerel, about 4-5 lbs after gutting
100g sugar
50g brown sugar
120g sea salt
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tbsp coarsely ground coriander seed
120g Bakon vodka or another smoke-flavored vodka

Combine all dry ingredients well.

Fillet the mackerel. (For a treat, roast the rack and the head at 400F until the meat is just opaque. Pull it off the bone and eat with a squeeze of lemon and some salt, or some chimichurri.) Remove any pin bones with tweezers and trim off any portions discolored with bile (depicted in photo) as they will be bitter.

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Place the fillets in a container just large enough to hold both. Coat the mackerel well with the seasoning on both meat and skin side (about twice as much on the meat side as underneath), and set in the container skin side down. Drizzle the Bakon vodka over the top. Cover the container tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate 12 hours.

By this time, some liquid should have leached from the mackerel and mixed with some of the curing spice to form a light amber liquid. Flip the fillets over so the meat side is down in the liquid. Cover tightly and cure for another 3 days.

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After a total of about 3-4 days, depending on thickness of your fillets, the mackerel should be ready. Test by slicing off a thin bit. If the mackerel is satisfactorily cured, rinse lightly, pat dry, and cold-smoke using alder or oak chips and a smoking gun for about 30 minutes, over ice. Wrap tightly to store. You can hold this cold cured mackerel for about 4 days under refrigeration, but otherwise should freeze it. As the curing process removes a substantial amount of water, cured fish freezes nicely. In fact, the mackerel photo above came straight from the freezer – we ate the other one before I remembered to take a picture. Bonus: frozen mackerel slices more easily.

Compressed celery and apple salad

The purpose of the Vitamin C is to prevent the apples browning. If you intend to serve immediately after compressing, you probably don’t need it, but if you intend to hold for more than a few hours, be sure to use Vitamin C or lemon juice.

10 mg ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
30 ml filtered water
30 ml white wine vinegar
1 sprig tarragon
2-3 ribs celery
1 large Granny Smith apple

Dissolve the ascorbic acid in water. Stand 15 minutes and then combine with the wine vinegar and tarragon in a plastic bag. Vacuum on high for 90 seconds.

Peel and slice the celery, and slice the apple, into paper-thin slices using a mandoline or by hand. Bag separately and add about 1.5 tbsp vinegar solution to each bag. Seal and compress in vacuum chamber. Hold under refrigeration until ready to serve.

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Pumpernickel bread prepared according to recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Berenbaum

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Slice the bread very thinly. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the bread slices and turn to coat with butter on both sides; continue to toast until browned. Cool and break into bits or crumbs; hold for service, tightly covered.

To assemble:

Thinly slice the mackerel and pound it out as carpaccio, between sheets of clingfilm. Thinly slice a red or watermelon radish (black radish is appropriate as well).

Plate the mackerel, with the herbs, salad, radish, and toasted black bread crumbs evenly distributed, or in any other configuration you like.

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Bonus: Beetroot sorbet

This is a bonus dish. Initially, I planned to pair the mackerel and rye with a beetroot sorbet, thinking it would seem especially Russian. When I tasted it, though, it really just tasted really beet-y and sweet; even a meaty, strong fish like mackerel was tasteless beside it. Incidentally, this is why it’s a good idea to taste a dish before serving it the first time (I say this as someone who rarely follows my own advice, except when I have some doubts at the inception). The beet sorbet is far too strong for most pairings but makes a great intermezzo.

Beetroot sorbet (1 pint)

12 medium beets, about 700g
200g sugar
300 g water
100 g liquid glucose
2 leaves gelatin
1 tbsp sherry vinegar

Scrub clean and roast the beets at 400F until tender to the center, about 75 minutes. Cool and peel. You should have about 550g beets. Slice into chunks.

Heat the water, sugar, and glucose in a pan and bring to a simmer. Add the beets and simmer about 20 minutes until the beets are extremely tender. Hydrate the gelatin leaves and add to the beet mixture with the vinegar.

Puree until completely smooth in a vitaprep or blender (if you cannot achieve a velvety consistency in your blender, strain the mixture through a chinois). Chill and process in an ice cream machine. Freeze at least 4 hours to set.

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